Dec 072016
 

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

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The Killing (Listowel)

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

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

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

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

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The Nineties (Abbeyfeale)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Risk (Limerick)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Night Train To Moscow

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

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

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

‘It’s your blanket’ she laughs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Eamonn Sheehy

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

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Dec 022016
 

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

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

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

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

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

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navigateAnd still the navigators 38’ x 38” 27.6.2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—J. Karl Bogartte

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elbogo

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

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Dec 012016
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Nicola Masciandaro

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nicola-masciandaro

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

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

Jeremy Brunger

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Jeremy Brunger

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

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Nov 082016
 

Jose de Trevi photograph_2José de Trévi

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

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

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

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

Elsa and Edouard de Trevi photoElsa and Billy 

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

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

de Trevi letter fragment_2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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1. Other people play hard to get.

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

de Trevi letter fragment_5

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

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

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

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

Deborah Baker

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

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

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

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

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

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2. Other people are liars.

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

de Trevi letter fragment_3

de Trevi letter fragment_4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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3. Other people’s lives are messy.

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

de Trevi portrait and signatureJosé de Trévi: photo and signature

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

—Mary Brindley

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mary-brindley

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

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Nov 012016
 

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

 http://wp.me/p1WuqK-kRQ

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NietzscheNietzsche ca. 1875

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

256px-full_length_negatives_of_the_shroud_of_turinFull length negatives of the Shroud of Turin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

512px-friedrichnietzscheturinNietzsche dedicatory plague in Turin

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

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

512px-santaluciaPainting of Santa Lucia, Syracuse Italy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Genese Grill

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

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

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Oct 102016
 

1 NC Post

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

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Pruitt-Igoe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Now, 40 years later

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Geometry

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

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

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

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

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

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Billy Towns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Non-manifesto

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Gary Garvin

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Notes and Credits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This graph from the Toolkit is telling:

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

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

The subprime mortgage crisis has recently been covered in the film The Big Short, which takes much of its information from Michael Lewis’s book of the same title. I have given it my best shot, using largely the same source, in “Under the rainbow: capitalism/the subprime mortgage crash,” adding my own speculation.
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Gary Garvin, recently expelled from California, now lives in Portland, Oregon, where he writes and reflects on a thirty-year career teaching English. His short stories and essays have appeared in TriQuarterly, Web ConjunctionsFourth Genre, Numéro Cinq, the minnesota reviewNew Novel ReviewConfrontationThe New ReviewThe Santa Clara ReviewThe South Carolina Review, The Berkeley Graduate, and The Crescent Review.  He is currently at work on a collection of essays and a novel. His architectural models can be found at Under Construction. A catalog of his writing can be found at Fictions.

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Oct 022016
 

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

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

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

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

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

Society of Loretto buildingsLoretto Motherhouse, Nerinx, Ky.

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

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

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

Loretto main buildingMotherhouse main building

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dolors of Mary

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

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

Loretto Memorial

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

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

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

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

Sisters of Loretto Graveyard

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

— Laura Michele Diener

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Works Consulted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Laura Michele Diener author photo

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

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Sep 022016
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ethel

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

The Knoll 480pxThe Knoll

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mrs Whitter

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

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

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

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

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

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Grandfather

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

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

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

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

The author c.1947Me, c.1947

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

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

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

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

§

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

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

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

—Elizabeth Thomas

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Elizabeth Thomasx

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

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Aug 092016
 

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

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

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

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

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Aids to Reflection (1825)

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

Adolf Hitler, in conversation (1941)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emerson_engraving_1878_cropped3Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1878 (via Wikimedia Commons)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Johann Gottlieb FichteJohann Gottlieb Fichte (via Wikimedia Commons)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

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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

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Conclusion

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

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Patrick J Keane smaller

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

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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
 

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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

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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.

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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.

What?

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.

Pause.

“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.

What?

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

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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.

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Aug 032016
 

1968Milwaukee, 1968. Milwaukee Journal photo.

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

1968

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Works Cited

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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.

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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.

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Laura Michele Diener author photo

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

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.

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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.

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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.

SigmundSamuelLibraryBuilding

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.

WallaceRoom2016

Wallace Room 2016

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Duties

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.

BookPocket

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.

Stacks3

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

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.

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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.

FloralCrimplene

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.

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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.

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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.

KingsCollegeCircle

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!

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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.

Stacks

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.

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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.”

cashews

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.

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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.

Circa70s

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

.MaryRykovSageHillJuly2015

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

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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.

Narwhal

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.

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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.

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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

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Notes:

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

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

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Jul 022016
 

anita-desai-1Anita Desai

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Self-Effacement

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.

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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

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Bibliography

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.

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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.
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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.

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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

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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

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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

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Violet

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

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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.

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Jun 122016
 

SydneyLea

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“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

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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.

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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)

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1.

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.

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2.

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.

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3.

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

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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).

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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.

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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

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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.

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