Jul 162014


The Full Monty (script by Simon Beaufoy — he won an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire in 2009; director Peter Cattaneo) tells the story of a group of unemployed Sheffield (UK) factory workers who hit upon the idea of stripping for money. There are all kinds of political and gender implications, but  you could say that one message has something to do with the emasculation of working class men in a late capitalist environment. In this case, the men go through a strange self-induced re-education process during which they begin to see how they have objectified women (as they themselves become objectified). That’s one element of the mix. On another level, the plot is extremely traditional (read mythic): the band of unlikely heroes wins the Golden Fleece against all odds (as in just about every sports movie ever made). The movie is also traditional in that, though it begins with a political statement (about the late capitalist economics of impoverishment), it doesn’t posit a political solution. The solution is somewhat magical, which is part of the reason we like such movies. (And there’s no need to criticize a movie for being no more than it is.)

The basic compositional problem of all narrative is how to create dramatic interest through the use of structure. Story alone can only take you so far. If you drew a Venn diagram of the narrative arts as used in film and fiction, a huge number would appear in the common area, especially techniques related to structural elements (plot and subplot, for example). But you also find an amazing number of rhetorical devices that cross over between the arts. What follows is my movie notes in an outline form, an outline of The Full Monty with an emphasis on structural expedients, techniques, repetitions, nested scenes, scene crunches, images, etc., that went to create a lively piece of film.

For however long it is available, you can watch the movie online here.



The film: Mildly satirical comedy with a political edge; romantic elements; team-and-training plot; ensemble structure with multiple subplots.

Basic composition principles: 1) Repetition is the heart of art. Watch for repetition of all kinds: large structural repetitions, subplots, musical motifs, thematic passages, bookends, motifs, anaphora, epanalepsis, anadiplosis, tie-backs, simple word repetitions. Distinguish also between repetitions that work to organize the whole work and those that are used to organize smaller segments only. Note also how repetitions are varied to keep them fresh. 2) Strict time control but also a temporal consciousness based on desire, backfill and tie-backs. 3) Plots are organized into clear, simple steps. 4) Each step, event, or event sequence has a simple informing desire and some dramatic interference. The interference can take many forms as well: not-answering dialogue, scene crunches or interfering scenes, suspensions, nested scenes (a version of parenthesis, or what I call in a different jargon nested globs), intercut scenes. Often the desire/interference structure can be expressed grammatically as a but-construction. 5) Gradation of characters in plot and subplots. 6) Progression d’effet (scenes and event sequences get shorter as we get closer to the climax of the movie).

1. Overture: Ironic 1950s documentary of swinging industrial Sheffield sets up the disjunct between then and now, a foreshortened history of the decline of the British steel industry, the destruction of the post-WW 2 working class, the displacement of predominately male laboring class. Closes with a literal time switch to move us to the present that hyphenates the two juxtaposed pictures of a working steel mill and Gary, Dave and the boy in the abandoned steel mill. Ends with literal time switch “25 Years Later.”

2. Announcing the problem and solution: (Broken up into segments: stealing girder, Chippendales, dropping Nathan at school next morning, job club, confrontation over custody and support payments. Segments vary from one scene to a set of connected scenes.)

a.    Stealing girder

        i.    Stealing girder 1; intention: to steal and sell girder

(1)   Nathan “stealing”/Gary “liberating” (sets of Nathan as voice of reason and morality, Gary as wilder, willing to bend the rules, even the rules of language)
(2)   10 years we worked here (backfill)
(3)   Don’t tell your mother
(4)   Scene crunch interruption by mill band
(5)   Security guard locks door (Lumper)

ii.    Stealing girder 2

(1)    Can’t we do normal things?
(2)    Nathan drops girder
(3)    That were your bloody maintenance
(4)    Nathan leaves
(5)    Gary & Dave trapped
(6)    Joke w/ pedestrian

 b.     Chippendales

i.    Walking from canal to bar

(1)    Complaining about being wet (tie-back to previous scene)
(2)    “take your kit off” is a tie-forward line
(3)    Commenting on passing woman
(4)    working men’s club taken over by women
(5)    Jean is inside (“it’s her money”) SUBPLOT
(6)    where’s your pride man
(7)    Gary says Dave has to get her out of there

        ii.    Gary in the men’s room (nested scene); aim: to get Jean out

(1)    Dave too fat to get in
(2)    Gary sends Nathan in to get jean
(3)    BUT Nathan goes to drink beer

(a)    Jean and girlfriends come to men’s room
(b)  Jean: Dave’s given up on work, me, everything (SUBPLOT)
(c)    girlfriend pees in men’s urinal standing up

(4)    Gary goes after Nathan in the bar
(5)    Gary lies to Dave about Jean in the bathroom
(6)    “Hot Stuff”

c.    Dropping Nathan at school next day; intention: to make plan to spend time with Nathan next weekend

(1)    Nathan hung over (time switch device that tells us this is the morning after the scene in the bar)
(2)    Nathan complaining about Gary’s flat
(3)    Gary suggest going to Sunday league soccer match
(4)    Nathan wants to go to Premier League match
(5)    but Gary can’t afford it, suggest a hole in the fence
(6)    Nathan disgusted

d.    Job Club; uses Gerald as the device of the third thing to enhance what is essentially a talking/thinking scene

(1)    women peeing like men comment is tie-back to men’s room scene but anchors the conversation
(2)    men…extinct-o, only in zoos, a joke
(a)    Gerald, a foreman (class consciousness of movie), interrupts
(3)    get his “kit off” (repetition from above)
(4)    IDEA dawns
(5)    10,000 quid “worth a thought”
(a)    Gerald mocks them
(b)    fight between Gerald and Gary

e.    Intensification of PROBLEM; intention: Gary wants to get his ex to drop her request for sole custody

(1)    confrontation about sole/joint custody
(2)    700 pounds in arrears
(3)    Gary on the dole
(4)    Nathan doesn’t like staying at Gary’s place
(5)    Barry, the sneering boyfriend

3. Forming the team: (Jogging with Dave and meeting Lumper, first rehearsal at mill, getting Gerald to join, tryouts at the mill during which Horse and Guy join up, scene in bedroom w/ Dave and Jean.)

a.    Comic scene crunch, Lumper joining the team

i.    Gary and Dave jogging

ii.    Gary trying to convince Dave to join

iii.    But Dave only wants to help

(1)    Dave stops to help Lumper in his stalled car
Things that repeat: garden gnomes, dance, your kit off, sun bed, walking up the wall, shoplifting and running out of the store, exercycle

(2)    dawns on us that Lumper is committing suicide SUBPLOT
(3)    Dave has beautiful not-answering conversation

Things that repeat

iv.    Dave runs up hill to have cigarette w/ Gary

(1)    Dave realizes what’s going on and runs back
(2)    saves Lumper
(3)    Lumper calls him a bastard
(4)    Dave puts Lumper back in the car

v.    Lumper, Dave and Gary discuss how to commit suicide

vi.    Gary and Dave have become Lumper’s mates (smile)

(1)    cut away to Lumper’s house and invalid mother

b.    First rehearsal

i.    Gary dancing

(1)    Cut to that night at the mill
(2)    Reasons for taking Lumper into the group: he’s got a car, a place to rehearse, he’s a musician and it’s good therapy for him! (sort of a temporal/motivational filling in line)
(3)    Hot Chocolate “You Sexy Thing”; I believe in miracles
(4)    Nathan embarrassed at Gary’s dancing, runs away

ii.    Scene between Gary and Nathan

(1)    Find Nathan in Lumper’s car
(2)    Beautiful not-answering dialogue
(3)    Establishing and reiterating motivation: I’m trying to get some brass together so as you and me can keep seeing each other
(4)    I love you, you bugger (a sort of thematic moment)

c.    Getting Gerald to join scene sequence

i.    Dancing class; first speeches tell us that they’ve decided they need to learn to dance and Nathan suggested coming to the studio

(1)    Peering through window (repeated in Gerald’s interview scene)
(2)    Gerald confronts them
(3)    he lies to his wife about them being pals from work
(4)    Gary lets on he knows he’s lying

ii.    Next morning

(1)    Nested scene begins with the boys arriving outside Gerald’s house and playing with the gnomes

(a)    Then we move inside, Gerald leaving for work
(b)    wife asks about ski vacation
(c)    Gerald almost tells her the truth (nice depiction of inner conflict)

(2)    Gerald and the boys meet outside
(3)    crucial loading line when Gerald says dancing requires “skill, timing, fitness and grace”
(4)    Gerald says he has an interview, he refuses to help

iii.    Gerald’s interview

(1)    Gerald seated before a row of men at a long table
(2)    Gary and the others interrupt his conversation with the gnomes at the window (repetition of their faces at the window, repetition of gnomes)
(3)    Gerald at the door, yelling at them

iv.    Job Club

(1)    Gerald tries to fight Gary
(2)    tells the story of his desperation and lies
(3)    Gerald’s bourgeois class consciousness comes out

v.    The boys make peace

(1)    Repetition of eyeing women, 1-10 classification
(2)    Gnomes business to make reparation
(3)    you can’t dance

d.    Tryouts at the mill; repetition of the interview structure we just saw

i.    Depressed guy who can’t get his clothes off

(1)    crucial line: this is no place for kids

ii.    Horse; old but can dance

iii.    Guy; can’t dance but is well endowed

(1)    nice little dramatic bracket when Gerald realizes he knows Guy and tries to conceal his identity
(2)    walking up the wall, Gene Kelly reference and joke

e.    Dave and Jean going to bed

Method used

i.    Black man dialogue is a tie-back to the previous scenes
ii.    Jean’s refrain: “I’m married to you, remember?”
iii.    Dave too tired to make love; “amazing how tiring it is doing nought.”

4. Training: (Flashdance video sequence in which Dave joins finally, offside trap rehearsal, Gerald’s house to practice taking clothes off, another rehearsal, the hundred pounds to book the bar problem, training in the field.)

a.    Stealing the Flashdance video scene

i.    Dave, Nathan and Gary watching Jean flirt in store (apparently she works in the store); Jean is the tie-back device here
ii.    Not enough money for video
iii.    Dave runs out the door (watch repetition of this)

b.     At the mill watching Flashdance

i.    Dave commenting on her skill as a welder
ii.    Gerald talks about her dancing
iii.    Gerald’s challenge “I can teach anyone to dance in a week, even you, mate. Well, two weeks.”

c.    Dave and Gary walking

i.    Jean wants Dave to take security guard job
ii.    Tie-back reference to guy she’s flirting with
iii.    Gary mentions “two weeks”

iv.    Dave says “it’s a thought” and thus joins the group

d.    Gerald’s house; intention: to practice taking clothes off

i.    Little motifs started up in dialogue: sunbed, plastic cling film
ii.    Scene interrupted by repossession team

e.    Rehearsal

Rule of threes

i.    Gary fixing velcro to pants
ii.    Nathan mentions that he’s been to prison

f.    New problem: Gary needs 100 pounds just to book the club (breaks down into a series of scenes)

i.    Scene with club manager who says he won’t book the club except for a 100 pounds down
ii.    Nathan and Gary go to wife who refuses and offers him a job
iii.    Nathan takes out his savings for Gary

(1)    Crucial motivating and loading scene because it’s clear Nathan is taking his father at his word and his father isn’t that sure himself. Nathan is making his father a better man. “You said so. I believe you.” “You do?”

g.    High point of training sequence; scene outdoors on hill top park, impromptu soccer game; a sense of camaraderie and joy that has been missing in their lives

5. Things go badly: (Gary ups the ante with the full monty boast, unemployment line scene, Gerald’s place for sunbed scene, Horse in phone booth, Dave and Jean-Gary dancing-Dave in shed, Gerald tells Dave his problem, dress rehearsal intercut w/ Dave working as security guard, police station intercut w/ Lumper and Guy sneaking away, Gerald goes home to find repossession in progress, Gary and Gerald meet Nathan after school, Lumper’s mother’s funeral.)

a.    Putting up posters

i.    Meet a couple of women
ii.    Gary ups the ante, says they’re going to take off all their clothes
iii.    Woman: “Hellfire, that would be worth a look.”

b.    Unemployment line

i.    Charming scene in which the men unselfconsciously begin to dance to music heard over someone’s radio, Gary smiles

c.    Gerald’s house; intention: to use the sunbed on a rainy day

i.    Gary not in scene
ii.    Really a lovely little loading and thematic scene, mostly dialogue, beginning with the girlie magazine and the word tits
iii.    Becomes a discussion of how men look at women and how women might look at these men; “They’re going to be looking at us like that.” The men here begin to reconstruct themselves as more sensitive beings.
iv.    Guy pulls out the leather thongs
v.    Time check: It’s Monday. Performance is on Friday. Dress rehearsal “tomorrow” meaning Tuesday.

d.    Series of quick parallel scenes on various plot lines dealing with self-doubt and anxiety

i.    Horse in phone booth


ii.    Little nested scenes beginning with

(1)    Dave and Jean
(2)    Gary and Nathan

(1)    sets up “you’re ahead” joke later
(2)    Gary asks if Nathan thinks he’s making an ass of himself; no answer

(3)    Dave in the shed

(a)    beautiful depiction of a man torn within himself; wrapping himself in plastic and eating a chocolate bar

iii.    Gerald telling Dave about his erection problem

e.    Dress rehearsal (Tuesday); series of intercut scenes

i.    At the mill, the boys waiting for Horse’s relatives to arrive
ii.    Dave a security guard, Gary trying to get him to come to rehearsal
iii.    Rehearsal

(1)    second wall dancing joke

iv.    Dave and Gary, second shoplifting scene

(1)    Dave “just can’t” join the group

v.    Gerald’s problem discussed

(1)    nature programs joke starts up

vi.    Rehearsal intercut with Dave at the store and cop approaching

(1)    Gerald ever so slightly flirting with Beryl
(2)    cop comes in
(3)    Guy and Lumper escape

f.    Police Station; series of intercut scenes

i.    Gary says they were robbing pipes (tie-back to opening scene)
ii.    Security tapes brought in, question about security guard

(1)    CUT TO Lumper and Guy running

iii.    “You’re ahead” joke (tie-back) to scene with Nathan (lovely moment when Gerald forgets himself and grabs the remote from the policeman, everyone is more concerned with the dancing than the impending charges (the idea here is, as in the unemployment line, that dancing is taking over their depressed souls).

(1)    intercut with scenes of Lumper and Guy sneaking into Lumper’s house, then beginning to kiss

iv. Nathan’s mother comes for him and we have a scene with a sequence of very negative language: “pornography” and “indecent exposure” (Bakhtinian battle of discourses much like in the first scene). “Look at yourself, Gary.” (Motif of “look at yourself” lines.)
v.  Against this is Gary’s discourse “We were trying to get you your money.” And Nathan’s discourse: “He is trying.”
g.  Gerald goes home to find his house being repossessed

i.    His wife can’t forgive his lying
ii.    She breaks a gnome, says she never liked them
iii.    Sunbed repetition
iv.    Ski vacation tie-back
v.    Six month repetition
vi.    Not-answering dialogue
vii.    Image repetition of exercycle

h. Gerald shows up at Gary’s apartment

i.    He’s got the job
ii.    Sunbed repetition
iii.    Summary of wife leaving him (tie-back to previous scene)

i.  Gerald and Gary go to meet Nathan after school (Wednesday?)

i.    Confronted by Nathan’s mother and the ineffable Barry
ii.    Gerald puts his arm around him
iii.    Wife looks a bit regretful

j.  Gary approaches Dave at the store

i.    “We’re all finished.”
ii.    Asks to borrow a suit for the funeral (Lumper’s mother died (two days ago, so when is this?)
iii.    They run out of the store together, third shoplifting scene

k. Funeral (SUBPLOT)

i.    Guy and Lumper lovers

6.    The turn: (Series of parallel scenes: Guy running the hill, Horse at unemployment office, Dave at breakfast, Gerald buying papers, Lumper’s orchestra, Gary and the barkeep; job club; Dave and Jean.)

a.    Parallel scenes

i.    Guy running

ii.    Horse at unemployment office

iii.    Dave seeing newspaper

iv.    Gerald buying newspapers

b.    Gary runs into manage who says they sold 200 tickets

c.    Gary arrives at job club to say “we’re on”

i.    They convince Gerald to try once time
ii.    Dave remains outside and depressed

d.    Dave and Jean

i.    “Who wants to see this dance?” “I do.”

7.    The performance: (Gary demurs because men in the audience but Nathan convinces him, all threads of movie converge in a kind of erotic ritual rejuvenation.)

a.    Dressing room

i.    Problem: Men have been allowed in club, this embarrasses Gary who suddenly can’t go on

ii.    Dave shows up with Nathan

iii.    Nathan says his mother’s outside and Barry wasn’t allowed to come

iv.    Nature shows joke repeated

v.    Men go on stage

vi.    Nathan orders Gary out “You did that.”

b.    Finale: the Full Monty

i.    Threads brought together

(1)    Beryl and Gerald flirting
(2)    Jean and Dave
(3)    Lumper’s band playing
(4)    cops show up
(5)    Gary’s ex catches his belt

ii.    Soundtrack “You give me reason to live.”

Some definitions:

Anadiplosis: “Repetition of the last word of one sentence, or line of poetry, as a means of (sometimes emphatic) liaison.” Dupriez
Epanalepsis: “Repetition at the end of a clause or sentence of the word or phrase with which it began.” Lanham
Parenthesis: “The insertion of a segment, complete in meaning, and relevant or irrelevant to the subject under discussion, into another segment whose flow it interrupts.” Dupriez
Suspension: A narrative moment when some crucial information is promised but held back till later in the action.
Tie-Back: Textual reference back to earlier material in order to remind the reader, create rhythm, and add textual density.
Anaphora: Multiple repetitions of the same grammatical construction at the beginning of successive textual elements.
But-construction: Grammatical construction using the word “but” or some cognate to create dramatic interruption, interference, or contrast at the level of a sentence.

Douglas Glover


Jul 152014

BeatrieBeatrice, Gustave Doré

Wayne HankeyWayne Hankey


I declare that to recommend Goodness and Innocence hath been my sincere Endeavour in this History. The honest Purpose you [his Patron] have been pleased to think I have attained: and to say the Truth, it is likeliest to be attained in Books of this Kind; for an Example is a Kind of Picture, in which Virtue becomes as it were an Object of Sight, and strikes us with an Idea of that Loveliness, which Plato asserts there is in her naked Charms.” —“Dedication,” The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling.

Of Sophia “There is indeed in perfect Beauty a Power which none almost can withstand.” —Tom Jones

“Sophia expecting to find no one in the Room, came hastily in, and went directly to a Glass which almost fronted her, without once looking towards the upper End of the Room, where the Statue of Jones now stood motionless.—In this Glass it was, after contemplating her own lovely Face, that she first discovered the said Statue; when instantly turning about, she perceived the Reality of the Vision”  —Tom Jones

Jones replied “’Don’t believe me upon my Word; I have a better Security, a Pledge for my Constancy, which it is impossible to see and to doubt.’ ‘What is that?’ said Sophia, a little surprised. ‘I will show you, my charming Angel,’ cried Jones, seizing her Hand, and carrying her to the Glass. ‘There, behold it there, in that lovely Figure, in that Face, that Shape, those Eyes, that Mind which shines through those Eyes: Can the Man who shall be in Possession of these be inconstant? Impossible! My Sophia….You could not doubt it, if you could see yourself with any Eyes but your own.” —Tom Jones

“We have found beauty shining most clearly through the clearest of our senses; for sight is the sharpest of the physical senses, though wisdom is not seen by it, for wisdom would arouse terrible love, if such a clear image of it were granted as would come through sight, [1] and the  same is true of the other lovely realities; but beauty alone has this privilege, and therefore it is most clearly seen and most lovely.” —Phaedrus


Having chosen to stomp with me through history in seven league boots, you will expect neither minute accuracy nor subtlety. The aim of my outrageous generalizations is to present some features of conversion as represented over about twenty-five hundred years in the pagan and Christian west in a way which may prove illumining because not expected. Rather than looking at conversion as primarily a religious phenomenon, though not leaving this out, I shall mainly present it as psychic, ontological, and secular.[2] Moreover, although these three aspects can be seen together at almost every point, in order to bring out differences, I shall stress the psychological through Plato’s dialogues, the ontological through Neoplatonic–Peripatetic systems, and the secular through 18th and early 19th century novels of Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding and Jane Austen. The elements touched on from Plato and his Late Ancient and Medieval successors will largely be determined by what is modified or suppressed by our cast of English novelists.

Our conclusion with Tom Jones would justify beginning with the Odyssey and its hero’s conversion as return home drawn by the faithful Penelope; Fielding, the Etonian, the most learned mythologically and philosophically of our novelists, looks back to that paradigm.[3] I begin rather with a foundational and secular representation, that of the Cave and the Line in Plato’s Republic. There the gods and religious practice are not mentioned, either as the goal or means of the conversion. They stand in the background, because Parmenides’ The Way of Truth belongs to that. They are certainly found as end and means in the ἀναγωγή described by Diotima in the Symposium and in the Gnothi seauton of the Alcibiades to which the Cave conversion is assimilated in the Platonic tradition. The divine and religious practice will belong to the Platonic ἀναγωγή, not only for the Middle and Neoplatonists, but also when the Abrahamic monotheisms and Platonism merge so as to determine a fundamental of the Western religious and philosophical traditions. There, most notoriously in Augustine’s account of the Trinity and in its Latin successors, even the Divine Being will convert upon Itself.[4]


From the Cave to the Divine Mirror: Conversion in the Republic, the Symposium, and the Alcibiades[5]

By way of the analogy of the Cave, the movement, of the prisoners bent down by their chains, up the Line from ignorance, non-being, and darkness to knowledge, being, light and their source, the Good, is “to turn around” (στρέφειν). A journey upwards, a conversion (ἀναγωγή or περιαγωγή) is required. This demands someone with the art of leading around (τέχνη…τῆς περιαγωγῆς), who can convert (μεταστραφήσεται). Ultimately this requires that someone who has seen the light return to the dark to help the prisoners break their chains, turn around, move upwards and out.[6] The resulting soteriology is most influentially and completely worked out philosophically by Iamblichus and Proclus. Religions, pagan, Jewish, Christian, Muslim have this idea and these images at their centre and a converting saviour or saviours (Protagoras, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed).

cavevia globalnet.co.uk

Plato's Cave.Plato’s Cave

Convergence of the Abrahamic religions and Platonism in respect to this Platonic conversion was assisted by ἐπίστρεψον in the repeated refrain “Turn us again, O Lord; show us the light of thy countenance (πρόσωπόν) and we shall be saved” of Psalm 79 in the Septuagint, translated in the Vulgate and English by convert,[7] and by the use of the same language in both works in Lamentations 5.[8] Equally, the representation of that from which we are saved encourages assimilation. We are bent down (κατεκάμφθην),[9] incurvatus in Latin, which describes for Augustine the state of the idolater divinizing material objects,[10] and, when the Prayer of Manasse added “by many chains of iron”, it is not surprising to find that quoted by Aquinas.[11] Anselm may be linking the Psalm with Boethius who certainly knew Plato’s text when he describes the fallen children of Adam as “bent over double so that they can only see down.”[12] Bonaventure is looking back to Anselm when he describes fallen blind humanity as “incurvatus in tenebris.”[13]

The Consolation of Philosophy might be called a secularized Christianity insofar as that religion is assimilated to the common Platonism of Late Antiquity and never shows itself directly. The itinerarium of the imprisoned and condemned Boethius begins with his eyes cast down to the earth “in terram defixo,” so that saving Philosophia must sit or bend down to come to him.[14] Its centre, in every sense, is the famous prayer, “O Qui Perpetua,” sung by Philosophia on the authority of Plato’s Timaeus, and summarizing its doctrine, so as to effect the conversion of human ratio beyond itself up the Line to intellectus.[15] Beatrice, “cerchiato de le fronde di Minerva” in the Commedia, effects the same for Dante.[16] Tom Jones is converted to and by Sophia, but she is best translated as “prudence”. Its conclusion in Boethius and Dante is the Plotinian simplification of vision so that reason is drawn toward the divine intuition. Central to its means is a knowledge of the nature of Fortuna, unceasing change, which is mostly gained by humans from the experience of practical life. In common with the Platonic tradition, e.g. Plotinus, Iamblichus, and Proclus, Boethius teaches that Fate or Fortune operates under, and is an instrument of, Providence which characteristically brings good out of evil.[17] The use of Fortune by Providence, and the Providential drawing of good out of evil, are essential to Tom Jones and the other secular accounts of conversion.

interviewInterview between Tom Jones and Sophia Western

Plato and Aristotle turn the Delphic Gnothi seauton into a means of conversion by a reversal of Socratic philosophical religion where it agrees with the poets as the inspired revealers of Hellenic religion. For Socrates, only God is wise and the Delphic Gnothi seauton is directed against hubristic human pretence to know. In contrast, for Plato and Aristotle, it is a command to know what we are through knowing the divine, so (to quote Aristotle who will be taken up by Plotinus in this and much else) “being human we are not to think like mortals” but rather strive to participate the divine life.

The main dialogue employed for teaching the discipline of self-knowledge was the Alcibiades Major of Plato. In it Socrates, as the faithful lover, is represented in conversation with Athens’ most fatally beautiful kouros. Read early by those being educated in the Neoplatonic schools, the Oracle’s admonition is interpreted so as to require knowledge of self through the higher namely: the soul, the true lover and guide, and, ultimately, God. Mirroring is essential to understanding both what is (as theophany) and our knowing. Once again there is an important convergence. St Paul, writing to the Corinthians about the itinerarium love travels from lower to higher kinds of knowing until it reaches the mutual divine human intuition Boethius sought, compares our present knowledge to obscure vision through a mirror.[18] Plotinus uses mirroring repeatedly and variously, so, for example, the presence of soul to bodies is spoken of “as giving images of itself, like a face seen in many mirrors.”[19] We may say that Dante meets Beatrice in and as mirror.[20] It is especially important for the representation of Sophia and Allworthy in Tom Jones, that mirroring enables transcendence and immanence simultaneously. With such a convergence of Plotinus and Paul, it is not surprising that the mirror is important to Augustine, most notably in the De Trinitate which depends on moves back and forth between the Divine Trinity and its images in the human and other creatures.[21] The Itinerarium mentis in Deum of Augustine’s disciple Bonaventure represents everything through an infinitely complex system of mirrors, and conversion up the Line is from one kind of mirroring to a higher.[22]

danteDante and Beatrice, Henry Holiday, 1884 via Wikipedia

The ultimate goals of conversion are both given in the analogy of the Line and they correspond to the two ideas of God which will develop in the Western tradition: God as the identity of thought and being, at the top of the Line, and, above it, God as the source of thought and being but beyond both. The Good transcends the Line and its vertical division between the kinds of apprehension and their objects.[23] The first will be definitively deified in Aristotle’s highest substance, the self-thinking thought. It merges with the divinity of the Abrahamic religions when the Septuagint translated the “I am that I am” in terms of einai, which, as idipsum esse, is the most proper name of God for Aquinas and Augustine. [24] The Good ἐπέκεινα (Beyond), when merged with the One Non-Being of the Parmenides dialogue, will point to Plotinus’ Father God beyond nous and, when Proclus’ Commentary on the Parmenides is added into the tradition, will point us to the ultimate of the Mystical Theology of the Areopagite, so profoundly and widely influential. Of course the goal of conversion is not mere theory in the limited sense of that, but is given in yet another dialogue, the Theaetetus “to become like God as much as possible.” (ὁμοίωσις θεῷ κατὰ τὸ δυνατόν)[25] For Jews and Christians this is put in terms of Genesis. The goal is to move from “image” to “likeness”.[26]

In Antiquity and the Middle Ages, those converted to the contemplative life, and what is beyond it, sought union with the First, or at least ecstasy by moving with the divine activities around it. In the novels of classical modern Protestantism we are treating, marriage with the First and divinely inspired enthusiasm are replaced by the union of man and wife. The monkish contemplative embodied in Fielding’s “Man of the Hill” is made ridiculous and heartless: he is inhospitable even to the man who saves his life and ignores the attempted murder of a woman who is saved by Tom.[27]

One more depiction of the goal of conversion and the way to it is required before we have the barest sketch of the elements relative to which the modern secular account is intelligible. That is the way of the love of Beauty described in the Symposium by Diotima. She sets out an anagogy to conformity with God by love’s step by step movement from physical particulars to the more universal and intelligible.[28] It is important for our destination in this paper that she begins with individual beautiful forms and, for our purposes, it makes no difference if, like Augustine, following Plotinus in the ascents of Confessions 7,9, and 10,[29] the movement is more from, than, as with Dionysius, following Iamblichus, through, the sensible images.[30] Diotima, like Richardson, Fielding, and Austen would have us “consider that the beauty of the mind is more honourable than the beauty of the outward form.” From love of the virtuous soul, the ascent will be “to see the beauty of institutions and laws.” From institutions the lover of beauty will turn upward to the sciences, until philosophy brings him to the loveliness of one science.[31] She goes on: “He who has been instructed thus far in the things of love [τὰ ἐρωτικὰ], and who has learned to see the beautiful in due order and succession, when he comes toward the end will suddenly perceive a nature of wondrous beauty… absolute, separate, simple, and everlasting, which without diminution and without increase, or any change, is imparted to the ever-growing and perishing beauties of all other things.”[32] Knowing this beauty by a power of sight raised to it, the lover will be able to bring forth true virtue and “to become the friend of God and be immortal, if humans may.”[33] Thus, the love of beauty also converts us to and makes us like God. It is of the greatest importance for both philosophy and religion that, according to Diotima, ascent to the highest beauty and good is by love, a divinity.[34]


Ontological Conversion

There is an alternative Platonic – Peripatetic tradition to the one I have exhibited in terms of the Gnothi seauton which also treats conversion as reflexivity. That tradition depends on the soul having access to its own essence in self-reflexivity and to the noetic by way of mental interiority. In the sillage of Plotinus, among Christians Augustine is its great propagator and conversion is the move inward and upward: “from exterior things to interior ones, from lower to higher.” The alternative tradition comes from the Neoplatonic understanding of thinking and being as the return of the One upon itself. Combining elements from Plato and Aristotle, it is especially worked out by Proclus, and by Christians under his influence, directly (like Dionysius) or indirectly (like Eriugena). It becomes central among Latin Christians after they have assimilated Arabic learning. The so-called Liber de causis, elements of the Corpus Areopagiticum, and, ultimately, works of Proclus, propagate this in the Latin world where it mixed well with what it received from Aristotle to produce the philosophical underpinnings of the Christian systems of Albertus Magnus, Aquinas, Bonaventure, Eckhart and Cusa, to mention a few prominent adherents.


For Proclus, all reality beneath the One – Good itself is structured by the mone [remaining], proodos [going out], epistrophe [return]. All is in the First, proceeds from it and returns, is converted, back towards its source when it achieves its proper good. Typically, Christians, like Aquinas under the influence of both Augustine’s trinitarian theology and Proclus, will import this conversion into the First itself and then structure their entire theological cosmic systems by it. I shall say something briefly about this kind of ontological conversion in Eriugena and Aquinas and conclude with enough about Dante’s Divine Comedy to provide the transition to, and contrast with, Richardson’s Pamela and Fielding’s Sophia.

After Origen, and with his De Principiis in the background, Eriugena is the greatest systematic theologian of the first Christian millennium. As Jean Trouillard put it, he “reinvented the greater part of the theses of Neoplatonism” having discovered them in the works of Patristic theologians.[35] Eriugena gave his system a Greek title, PERI PHYSEŌN, Concerning Nature (Expos. II 168a); it is a physiologia, a science of nature (Peri. IV 441c). Nature includes “what is and what is not” (Peri. I 441a) and the divine superessential nothingness, beyond all things which are and which are not, is its principle.

The division of nature gives its systematic structure. Nature is completely divided logically, and returns to itself according to the same logic: “first, into that which creates and is not created, second into that which is created and creates, third into that which is created and does not create, fourth, that which neither creates nor is created” (Peri. I 441d). These divisions produce four subjects: 1) God as creator, 2) the primary causes, 3) what is subject to generation in place and time, i.e. the labours of the Hexamaeron, including the human—the work of the sixth day—and its Fall. It, as the terminus of the procession, becomes the point of departure for the return into 4) God as end, the final object of investigation. This MONĒ, PROODOS, EPISTROPHĒ form he discerned in Dionysius.

Eriugena came to understand human nature in such a way, that it became “that in which all things are created (condita est)” (cf. Peri. IV 807a).[36] The human is the workshop of creation (Peri. II 531ab, III 733b, V 893bc); it is the medium in which God creates himself and the universe of beings out of his own nothingness precisely because, uniquely among beings, the human possesses all the forms of knowing and ignorance, including sensation. Because everything is through human perception, there are no absolute objects. As in earlier Platonic systems, the forms have become not only thoughts, but forms of apprehension in various kinds of subject; as Plotinus puts it, “all things come from contemplations and are contemplations” (Enneads III 8 [30] 7, 1-2). In Eriugena, there are, as Stephen Gersh puts it, “thinkers who turn out to be objects of thought…[and] objects of thought which turn out to be thinkers”.[37] Periphyseon is an interplay of diverse subjectivities looking at the universe from different, even opposed, points of view. Because God does not know what he is apart from human reason and sense, these perspectives are theophanies even for God in the human; divine manifestations of which God and the human are co-creators. Reality is mirroring.

A recent article by Paul Rorem indicates the elements which come together to constitute the cosmic conversion at the heart of the theology of the Greek Fathers, primary in Augustine’s Confessions, and communicated by Dionysius and Eriugena to the Victorines and Bonaventure (to give the most limited list). He writes of “Dionysian Uplifting (Anagogy) in Bonaventure’s Reductio”.[38] In Eriugena: “the Dionysian ‘anagogy and epistrophe (return) to God’ became AD DEUM REDUCTIO ET CONVERSIO.” By way of Eriugena “A whole Victorine tradition stems from this Dionysian theme … Hugh appropriates the translation of ανάγω as reducere: ‘Et hoc ideo fecit ut NOS REDUCTERET PER SENSIBILIA AD INTELLECTUALIA hoc est per visibilia ad invisibilia.’ As in Dionysius and Eriugena, the Hugonian ‘uplifting’ is specifically through or by means of the perceptible, an appreciation for the concrete means of ‘reduction’, or uplifting, that is continued in Bonaventure.“[39] We get a sense of what this conversion is in a passage from Bonaventure on the Hexaemeron: “Such is the uplifting metaphysical centre, and this is the sum total of our metaphysics: concerned with emanation, exemplarity, and consummation, that is, to be illuminated through spiritual rays and uplifted to the highest.”[40]

Aquinas ReadingAquinas Reading; Detail from Valle Romita Polyptych by Gentile da Fabriano (circa 1400) via Wikipedia

By his own account Aquinas’ Summa theologiae gives the subject its proper order, beginning in and determined by its treatment of God in Himself. The logic of the Deus in se is manifested first in the Quinque Viae to the Existence of God and its basic structure does not vary until its completion in the Sending of the Divine Persons.[41] This logic continues into the questions on creation, and thus into the Summa as a whole. There are two gatherings, breaks and transitions within the de deo, but there is a strong impulse throughout, and the structure, when reduced to its elements, is stunningly simple.

The circular motions returning upon themselves are of diverse kinds, but by far the most important are those which Aquinas deduces from the Proclean logic of simple substance.[42]  From the Liber de causis and Dionysius, he knows that simple substance has perfect self-return, a shape he has manifested, following Dionysius, in his initial questions on the divine names, beginning at Simplicity and circling around to Unity. In consequence, ipsum esse subsistens is, by the absolute necessity of its nature, knowing and willing.[43] These two operations, processions or emanations—the terms are used more or less interchangeably by Aquinas for whom emanation was a Scriptural term (Liber Sapientiae, 7.25 [44])—are internal to the divine essence. By employing the Neoplatonic notion of motionless motion, Aquinas is able to attribute the characteristics of Plotinian NOUS to Aristotle’s (and his own) God as self-thinking thought predicating life of it.[45]

Although, motionless motion is a metaphor for Aquinas, nonetheless, the divine self-diremption must be real. Thus we get “Et licet motus non sit in divinis, est tamen ibi accipere.” [ST 1.42.1 ad 3]. Accipere and its correlative dare are essential to the logic of infinite esse, as the form under which it is, or contains, the relation of opposites. Such a relation is real, the differentiation of the essence in the opposition of action and reception is not merely “rational”, that is, a creation of perspective. Thus, within the divine simplicity, the two relations of this kind must of necessity form subsistences, or hypostases, to use another word which is both Scriptural and Neoplatonic, or persons.[46] The circumincession, or περιχώρησις of the subsistences in the Divine essence is the fundamental conversion determining all the others. It makes understandable the emanation of finite beings, creation.

Creation, in a series of contrasts with the Divine in itself, is represented as the result of a productive operation, that of power. Unlike knowing and willing, perfect activities really given and received within the essence to become the Trinitarian Persons, power works outside the essence, as a procession or emanation of the Trinitarian subsistences in their essential unity. Unlike the internal operations, power is neither according to nature nor necessity. It constitutes a relation with the opposition of giving and receiving, but, in contrast to the Trinity, the terms are unequal. Thus, the relation is not mutually of the relative terms but in the recipient. So we move from the divine and creation under God’s Providence and Governance in the First Part, to the complete exitus in the Second Part produced by the human empowered as the image of God to create his own world in the pursuit of happiness. The conversio, which is the divine trinitarian life, is realized in the cosmos fallen in the human exitus, by a Chalcedonian interpretation of the hypostatic union in line with the humanism of the 12th century Renaissance. The Third Part is de Christo, qui secundum quod homo, via est nobis tendendi in Deum. In Him is the conversio to the Principle.

danteDante and Beatrice, John William Waterhouse (between 1914 and 1917)

Aquinas’ system gathers in itself all we have treated so far. Dante’s Commedia, which, like the Summa theologiae, is nothing but a complete cosmic conversion and, thus, and only thus, as with Augustine, a personal one, contains even more.

Like the author of Tom Jones, Dante is conscious of being a literary creator. In the dolce stil nuovo he created a Poetic-comic-epic[47] in which, as with Fielding and Cervantes, he gave us the “History of the World in general”. Beatrice tells her prisoner, he was so far gone she had to send him all the way to Hell to convert him. She accuses:

He set his steps upon an untrue way, pursuing those false images of good that bring no promise to fulfillment… ‘He sank so low that every instrument for his salvation now fell short except to make him see souls in perdition.’ And so I visited the threshold of the dead and, weeping, offered up my prayers to the one who has conducted him this far.[48]

Dì, dì se questo è vero: a tanta accusa/tua confession conviene esser congiunta”. (“Speak, Say whether this is true: to so grave an accusation your confession must be joined”.)[49]

Beatrice, thus, in the Adamic Paradise at the top of the Purgatorio’s mountain of repentance before Dante plunges into its two rivers, one of which derives from the Republic’s Myth of Er by way of Virgil’s Aeneid.[50]

She brings to mind the judgement there and the demands of Philosophia to the prisoner she heals and guides in the Consolation. Beatrice’s demand anticipates Sophia with the penitent Tom and the exigent lady confessors of Jane Austen.[51] Nonetheless, Beatrice and they convert very differently.

JonesTom Jones & Sophia Western, from the movie

It is not so much that their means are very different, and their understanding of the fundamentals of the act of repentance are much the same, but the end is altogether other. Beatrice comes to Dante as the one who particularly moves him by her innocence and beauty of body and soul, but, nonetheless, as also as only one agent in a long chain of mediators including Christ, the Mother of God, and saints above her in the hierarchy. Crucially, as she is moved from above, so also she leads Dante beyond herself. After his repentance is complete, with him already mitred and crowned at the end of his tutelage by Virgil, [52] she will return to her proper place in the Paradiso and he will rise with her. He will not possess her nor she him. Dorothy Sayers writes:

She was thus in fact the vehicle of the Glory—the vessel in which the divine experience was carried—she is, in the allegory, from time to time likened to, or equated with, those other “God-bearers”: the Church, and Divine Grace in the Church; the Blessed Virgin; even Christ Himself. She is the image by which Dante perceives all these, and her function in the poem is to bring him to that state in which he is able to perceive them directly; at the end of the Paradiso the image of Beatrice is—not replaced by, but—taken up into the images, successively, of the Church Triumphant, of Mary, the historic and universal God-bearer, and of God, in whom Image and Reality are one and the same.[53]

DoreDante & Beatrice, Gustave Doré

Put differently, coming to her, even to reconciliation with her and with God by her help, is not the end of the journey. There is another whole Cantina, the Paradiso, of contemplation, precisely that which Protestant England rejected when Henry VIIIth dissolved the monasteries, expelled or executed the monks and nuns, refunded the aristocracy, and helped the expansion of the bourgeoisie. Except for some Gothick moments, largely architectural, our secular novelists follow him without regret.

Heaven for them is the future state of reward, whose promise together with the threat of Hell, are used as the ultimate incentives to morality: personal, social, and political order. Heaven’s joys serve the absolutizing of morality, a stance which Nietzsche so convincingly exposed as atheism that their successors recognised themselves in his descriptions and gave up Christian religion and morality both. Heaven is distant and without content; its God hidden. We never enter a substantial spiritual realm or reach out to it. Features of their own society left over from the revolutions in Church and state are forgotten. Not even Jane Austen, buried in Winchester Cathedral, sends us a rumour of scores of Men and Boys choirs in Cathedral, Royal and Collegiate chapels continuing medieval offices. Despite their frightening descriptions of the miseries of most of them, the ultimate present felicity is marriage. Incredible!


Conversion in Protestant Secular Romance: Beatrice converts to Protestantism and Marries Dante: Samuel Richardson’s Pamela or Virtue Rewarded (1740)

Tom Jones’ Sophia (1749), the beauty of eternal Wisdom heavenly and incarnate, comes after Richardson’s Pamela (November 1740) and before Austen’s Fanny Price of Mansfield Park (1814). Both of the latter reiterate the kenotic Christ[54] as well as the irresistibly attractive loveliness of Person or Virtue which all share. As such they are the ends of conversion and the means of that, or of damnation. Here, and in the romances of 18th and early 19th century England I shall treat, the ultimate felicity consists in marriage to these descendants, in lineages conscious or unconscious, of Dante’s Beatrice and Plato’s form of Beauty. Flesh and blood marriage to what is heavenly either as the blessed, inspiring, but never possessed, intercessor or as transcendent deity is their “secularization”, as I use this term in this paper, but it means more than this. As we move from Richardson to Fielding and, at the extreme, to Austen, the forms of religion: prayers, sermons, liturgies, theological debates, either disappear or become more and more external to the conversion, or at least to its representation. The operation of Providence is by way of social and psychological forces and religion is hidden, being manifest in these but not alongside them.

Pamela is a fifteen year old universally loved, and irresistibly beautiful, servant in a wealthy and extensive aristocratic household. On the death of her mistress, who added education to her personal beauty, Pamela became the object of first the lust and, then, converted by her, the love of the son and heir. He confesses repeatedly after the conversion that he made what we, and Richardson, understand as the Platonic move from, and by way of, the love of “the Charms of her Person” to “the Graces of her Mind”. After attempting to make her his mistress, and outraged by the impudence of resistance from a minor servant, abducting and imprisoning her, and coming more than once to the physical edge of rape, when he meets with unbreakable, absolutely consistent, and endlessly ingenious resistance, Squire B. transgresses the social boundaries, subdues his pride, and marries her.

PamelaA plate from the 1742 deluxe edition of Richardson’s Pamela, or, Virtue Rewarded showing Mr. B intercepting Pamela’s first letter home to her mother. Original engraving by Hubert Gravelot. via Wikipedia

Presented as a series of letters, mostly from Pamela to her aged, poor and pious parents from their equally pious daughter, determined to preserve what she calls her “honesty”, the novel is full both of the naive and importunate prayers of one dependent on God’s grace in the terrible exigencies of preserving her virtue against cozening, kidnapping, deceit, and violence, and of the constant self-humiliation and self-blame of the believer. By a deception which belongs to the ceaselessly repeated Augustinian biographical pattern of good brought out of evil, determinative in Pamela, Fielding’s Tom Jones and Amelia, and all the novels of Jane Austen manifesting the government of Providence, Squire B. reads the letters. They enflame his determination to possess their author, not just because her resistance increases her desirability, but also, because, among other reasons, he sees that Pamela’s dutiful prayers for him as her master continue during much of his abuse of her. That a fundamental good will and a love even for him her enemy, and, indeed, her wishing him the ultimate good rules her, is what in the final analysis converts Squire B. The terrible moment for her—terrible because she recognises that she is falling in love with him despite his dreadful abuse and that he might use this to seduce her—and simultaneously the converting moment for him is when she realises that she could not bear to be his accuser on Judgment Day.[55] Her love overcomes his evil.

An important character is an unbeneficed young cleric, Williams, entirely dependent on Squire B., who nonetheless courageously attempts to rescue her—though he is more than balanced by established clergy who oppose any resistance to “the powers that be”. Religion is so much present in its own dress, so to speak, that we even go through the moments of the marriage liturgy of our heroine. The novel was recommended and cited from the pulpits of England. As just suggested by my report of Pamela’s Christlike love of her enemy through which the servant converts the master, the turnings where Pamela acts as alter Christus are crucial. I must say a word about those which occur at the crux of Squire B’s conversion.[56]

In the final and most serious attempted rape Pamela is held down in cruciform shape on her bed by her master on one side and her jailor on the other. Imprisoned at his remote country estate, she is utterly in the power of “Lucifer in the Shape of my Master”.[57] “Wicked Man! said I; wicked, abominable Woman!”[58] In the hands of the wicked, as Jesus is described in the gospel Passion narrative,[59] Pamela cries out to God for death or deliverance. “With Struggling, Fright, Terror” she faints into a fit so deathlike that Squire B. mistakes it for the reality. She is resurrected by his ministrations. His pity aroused, he asks for her forgiveness. Her giving this is his turning. Pamela’s relief brings her to bless God in the words of St Paul, “who, by disabling me in my Faculties, enabled me to preserve my Innocence; and when all my Strength would have signified nothing, magnified himself in my Weakness!”[60]Out of the episode Squire B. is brought to confess: “I could curse my Weakness and my Folly, which makes me that I love you beyond all your Sex, and cannot live without you. But if I am Master of myself, and my own Resolution, I will not attempt to force you to anything again.” Nor does he. Pamela’s advice sought by him as to how he might keep his resolution consists in his sending her back to her parents because she had come to “love Poverty.”[61]

Pamela“Pamela swooning after having discovered Mr B in the closet. He (frighted) endeavouring to recover her. Mrs Jervis wringing her hands, and screaming.” From a series of twelve illustrations to Pamela, by Samuel Richardson (1745, 2nd edition). via http://teainateacup.wordpress.com


Tom Jones’ Platonic Sophia: the Learned Henry Fielding supplies the Romantic Philosophy

There is no love of Poverty in Fielding’s Tom Jones, his sense of the ridiculous is too acute to endure the piety of Pamela for hundreds of pages, and his determination to be true to nature prevents snow white characters. Indeed, Fielding is explicit that theologically, morally, dramatically, and essential to his new genre, the heroic figures in Tom Jones  must have flaws, their characters must be mixed.[62] Nonetheless, the most learned of our romancers, Fielding, depicts his paradigmatic heroine though the notion of the naked vision of a Platonic form. We are told that one might almost say “Her Body thought”; “Her Mind was every way equal to her Person; nay the latter borrowed some Charms from the former”.[63] Indeed, her virtue of mind so shines through her beauty that Tom, her true lover, is converted, not from lust for her, but to complete fidelity; his lust is for others.[64] His rival Blifil moves in the opposite way. As his aversion to Sophia increased, so did his lust. Aversion “served rather to heighten the Pleasure he proposed in rifling her Charms, as it added Triumph to Lust.”[65] Thus, Sophia too is subjected to schemes for rape made by the aristocrat cousin, Lady Bellaston, to whom she has fled for refuge, and by her father, proposing that his chosen mate for her, Blifil, use force.

On the road, Sophia is so “distracted between Hope and Fear, her Duty and Love to her Father, her Hatred to Blifil, her Compassion and … her Love for Jones…that her Mind was in that confused State which may be truly said to make us ignorant of what we do, or whither we go, or rather indeed indifferent as to the Consequence of either.”[66] In London, at the mansion of Bellaston, who is maintaining Tom as her amour, carefully keeping the true lovers apart, Sophia encounters Tom by accident. She first views herself and him through a mirror. In their conversation Sophia asks: “Can every Thing noble and every Thing base, be lodged together in the same Bosom?”[67] Nonetheless, when Tom formally proposes Marriage, she accepts. Almost immediately after, they are discovered by Lady Bellaston and an intercourse between Tom, Bellaston, and herself ensues during which all three conceal truths known or suspected by the others. Sophia self-consciously enters the mirror world of appearances and reluctantly teaches herself the “Practice of Deceit”.[68] So totally is Wisdom made earthly. The union of the heavenly pattern with the flawed earthly is the heart of the understanding of which Fielding aims to persuade us. Writing of “Platonic Affection which is absolutely detached from the flesh”, he reports: “I cannot pretend to say, I have ever seen an instance of it.”[69]

Fielding’s relation to Richardson’s Pamela is ambiguous. Praise from the pulpit was matched by criticisms so serious that Richardson revised the text several times. Some were distressed by its sexual explicitness and thought it encouraged licence, some correctly saw its depiction of the violent misuse of power by an aristocrat, the compliance of the authorities, civil and ecclesiastical, and his marriage to a house maid to be destructive of respect for the social order. Fielding instead savagely and profitably sent up its moralistic pedantry in An Apology for the Life of Mrs Shamela Andrews (April 1741), a parody or “burlesque”, which appeared less than six months after it. In The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews and of his Friend Mr. Abraham Adams which came out less than a year later (February 1742), he adopts a more positive form, the comic prose epic. This he regards as his proper genre, “I am, in reality, the Founder of a new Province of Writing”,[70] “Prosai-comi-epic”[71]. Despite the contrast with Dante’s Poetic-comic-epic, Fielding and our other authors are probably too Enlightened to have known much of Dante. William Blake, a contemporary of Jane Austen was reviving Dante but he too was then unknown. In any case Fielding sets out to perfect his new province in Tom Jones. Certainly elements of the burlesque remain, but Fielding distinguishes the comic and satirical from it. Joseph Andrews both borrows much from and satirizes Pamela.

Joseph andrewsJoseph Andrews and Lady Booby, from the movie

Fielding explicitly places Joseph Andrews against Pamela as the demonstration that a male can also be virtuous. Indeed, although “Andrews” is borrowed from Richardson’s novel, “Joseph”, the Biblical figure, who, at great cost and greater risk, preserved his chastity against Potiphar’s wife, is borrowed from Genesis and from a sermon of the great Latitudinarian divine Isaac Barrow.[72] At Cambridge, Regius Professor of Greek, then Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, then Master of Trinity, this Platonist we may call Fielding’s theologian. Abraham, as the counterpoint of Joseph’s “virtue and integrity”, from the same sermon by Barrow, has the charity and beneficence of Parson Abraham Adams of his earlier and shorter “Prosai-comi-epic”. This characterizes Tom Jones, whose universally beneficent good nature makes him repeatedly and habitually charitable according to Squire Allworthy’s definition: “giving what even our own Necessities cannot well spare”.[73]Unfortunately in Tom it goes with “a blameworthy Want of Caution, and Diffidence to the Veracity of others, in which he was highly worthy of Censure.”[74] His extraordinary natural beauty, like his too trusting nature, match the same qualities in Sophia. Tom is described as an “Angel”,[75] as “Adonis”, and even as uniting that delicate beauty with Heraclean masculinity.[76] Given his lack of chastity, this is as much a destructive snare for him as an attraction for others.

It is his active, spontaneous and habitual charity which brings him the friends who save him from the hanging for which it had been the “universal Opinion of all Mr. Allworthy’s Family” he was born.[77] We may say, then, that the problematic of the plot of Fielding’s later prose epic comedy is set already in the first: the conversion of Tom to the chastity of Joseph[78] through the joint influence of the paradigmatic Sophia and Allworthy. Both of them are as great Patterns of Wisdom as of Goodness.[79] Allworthy also is heavenly: “Heaven only can know him, can know that Benevolence which it copied from itself, and sent upon Earth as its own Pattern.”[80] But though, like Sophia, he is irresistible,[81] Allworthy is also fallible and is frequently deceived,[82] and when Tom’s reconciling full confession is made to him, it is in response to his own admission of, and repentance for, his blameworthy faults.[83]

Be that as it may, the earlier of Fielding’s two comic epics of the road, depicts the resistance of Joseph Andrews, the brother of Pamela, to the sexual depredations of Squire Booby’s aunt, Potiphar’s wife updated. Nonetheless, the telos of Joseph Andrews is the reward of its heroes’ virtue by marriage to the beautiful, caste, and innocent Fanny to whom he has been faithful, and Lady Booby is sentenced to infinite boredom and degradation in the debauched high life of London, Fielding’s Hell. From both his satire of Pamela, and his mocking exploitative mirroring, Fielding took over positively, or by critical opposition, still more elements into Tom Jones: an uncompromising exposure of hypocrisy, especially sexual, the preservation of social rank and a strictness about the rights and limits of paternal authority,[84] elements of the converting heroine, marriage as telos and felicity, the Parson Abraham Adams, and the imitation of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, whose Sancho Panza, under the form of Partidge, and very much else, appear in Fielding’s masterpiece.

In the sillage of what he called Cervantes’ “History of the World in general”[85] Fielding tells us that The History of Tom Jones is a “great creation of our own” in form and content.[86] The critic is warned “not too hastily to condemn any of the Incidents in this our History, as impertinent and foreign to our main Design, because thou dost not immediately conceive in what Manner such Incident may conduce to that Design.” Martin Battestin rightly adduces Cudworth’s The True Intellectual System of the Universe (1678) with its comparison between a poem and the universe taken from Plotinus.[87] Fielding goes on from this to justify his characterization according to types and, later, will designate Experience of all social classes, along with Genius, Humanity, and Learning as necessary to his comic prose epics because they need knowledge of “the Manners of Mankind.”[88] The plenitude of Fielding’s Great Chain of Being is more than social. It reaches around the globe and up and down the hierarchy from the divine to “Insects and Vegetables”.[89] Sophia is Tom’s “goddess”[90], with a “heavenly Temper…[and] divine Goodness”,[91] he ascribes to her “all that we believe of Heaven”.[92] In the final chapter of the work, she is described as sitting among the other brides “Like a Queen receiving homage, or rather like a superior Being receiving Adoration from all around her”, and she helps conclude the work by a rain of graces procured by her “Mediation” or “Instance”.[93]

SophiaSophia Western (Susannah York), from the movie

However, lest we mistake her either for Dante’s Beatrice or Richardson’s Pamela, at the point when, owing to her “very deep sense of Religion”, she contemplates, with “an agreeable Tickling”, the thought of making herself “a Martyr to filial Love and Duty” by marrying the hated Blifil, Fielding remains faithful to his principles. He will stray neither from his Latitudinarian theology to a predestination of pure characters, nor from the plenitude of his comic epic with all sorts and conditions and their flaws as well as its own.[94] As to the former:

Sophia was charmed with the Contemplation of so heroic an Action, and began to compliment herself with much premature Flattery, when Cupid …like Punchinello in a Puppet-shew, kicked all out before him. In Truth (for we scorn to deceive our Reader, or to vindicate the Character of our Heroine, by ascribing her Actions to supernatural Impulse), the Thoughts of her beloved Jones and some Hopes… in which he was very particularly concerned, immediately destroyed all which filial Love, Piety and Pride, had, with their joint Endeavours, been labouring to bring about.[95]

Sophia Western2 wikipedia“Adorned with all the charms in which Nature can array her, bedecked with beauty, youth, sprightliness, innocence, modesty and tenderness, breathing sweetness from her rosy lips and darting brightness from her sparkling eyes, the lovely Sophia comes!”

Time does not permit us to follow the whole process of Tom’s conversion.  The comic journey begins when Sophia’s love and hopes, her hatred of Blifil, and the terrifying prospect of being forcibly married to someone whose passions for her are a mixture of greed, hatred, and lust induces her to flee her father and seek refuge with Lady Bellaston in London. Along the way, on discovering the path Tom was taking, she sets out to pursue him.[96] Tom, in disgrace with Allworthy and in flight from Sophia’s father, finds, in the discovery of her pocket book she lost on her journey, the excuse he desires to follow her there. On the journey, and in London, where he becomes the kept man of Bellaston (“nor do I pretend to the Gift of Chastity”),[97] the two sides of his personality,[98] his “naturally violent animal Spirits”,[99] and his universal beneficence,[100] have the space and opportunity to develop their opposition. He ends up in prison likely to be hanged for murder. There he is cast off by Sophia who has learned of his services to Bellaston and is deceived into thinking Tom has proposed marriage to his mistress. Worst of all Tom becomes convinced that he missed meeting Sophia when they were on the road together because he was “a-Bed” with his own mother![101] On hearing this Tom repents, crying out:

Fortune will never have done with me, till she hath driven me to Distraction. But why do I blame Fortune? I am myself the Cause of all my Misery. All the dreadful Mischiefs which have befallen me, are the Consequences only of my own Folly and Vice.”…He then fell into the most violent and frantic Agonies of Grief and Despair.[102]

Later, when released and welcomed by Allworthy, at this point known to be his uncle, Tom will make a full confession in due form with all the proper moments of sorting out what his sins were, taking responsibility, discerning the roots of each fault, and expressing his contrition with a promise of amendment of life.[103]

After the exclamation just recorded, the omniscient author assures us that it is not Fortune but the same governance ruling his comedy and the universe which has brought Tom to this complete mortification: “Instances of this Kind we may frequently observe in Life, where the greatest Events are produced by a nice Train of little Circumstances.”[104] The nice train of circumstances is already moving things in the other direction. Tom’s charity and basic goodness have won him friends who are well at work to clear him of the false charges and to release him from his mistaken notion of being incestuous. Fielding gives the operative law: “The Good or Evil we confer in others, very often…recoils on ourselves.”[105]

CaptureSophia Western (Susannah York) and Tom Jones (Albert Finney) in the movie

Providence exposes as rascals those who betrayed him and Sophia, according to the repeated dictum of Squire Allworthy: “Good Heavens, by what wonderful Means is the blackest and deepest Villany sometimes discovered.”[106] Tom changes places with Blifil, as nephew and heir, who turns “Methodist”.[107] Mrs Honour, Sophia’s maid who went over to Bellaston is known to be “Honour Blackmore”,[108] and traitorously ready to testify whatever Bellaston pleased.[109] Black George, who betrayed Tom’s charity is seen to have “a most remarkable Beard, the largest and blackest”, his robbery is uncovered and he disappears into oblivion, where Mrs Honour has already preceded him. [110]

Tom and Sophia marry on Christmas Eve[111] and move into her father’s mansion given up for them. They are neighbours to “Paradise Hall”, Allworthy’s noble “Gothick” house. To which they will succeed. There Allworthy has taken in Mr. Abraham Adams, who Sophia declares “shall have the Tuition of her Children.’[112] Tom’s tendency to Vice is corrected by “continual Conversation with” Allworthy “and by his Union with the lovely and virtuous Sophia.” We are assured that “He hath also, by Reflexion on his past Follies, acquired a Discretion and Prudence very uncommon in one of his lively parts.”[113]


Conversion in Jane Austen’s Novels: Secularization Completed and the Beginnings of a Critique[114]

Mary Crawford: “‘A clergyman is nothing’.” Edmund: “‘The nothing of conversation has its gradations, I hope, as well as the never. A clergyman cannot be high in state or fashion. He must not head mobs, or set the ton in dress. But I cannot call that situation nothing which has the charge of all that is of the first importance to mankind individually or collectively considered, temporally and eternally, which has the guardianship of religion and morals, and consequently of the manners which result from their influence. No one here can call the office nothing….[I]t is not in fine preaching only that a good clergyman will be useful in his parish and neighbourhood, where the parish and neighbourhood are of a size capable of knowing his private character, and observing his general conduct…And with regard to their influencing public manners, Miss Crawford must not misunderstand me, or suppose I mean to call them the arbiters of good breeding, the regulators of refinement and courtesy, the masters of the ceremonies of life. The manners I speak of might rather be called conduct, perhaps the result of good principles; the effect, in short, of those doctrines which it is their duty to teach and recommend; and it will, I believe, be everywhere found, that as the clergy are, or are not what they ought to be, so are the rest of the nation.’ ‘Certainly,’ said Fanny, with gentle earnestness” (Mansfield Park).

In contrast to the readers of Richardson’s Pamela or of Smollett’s The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771), or of Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (1742), Shamela (1741), Tom Jones (1749) and Amelia (1751), those who are blessed enough to read through all six of Jane Austen’s novels will be spared ever attending a liturgy or hearing a prayer (as in Pamela) or repetitions of the words and doctrines of the Book of Common Prayer (as in Tom Jones[115]). They will never listen to a sermon[116] and only very very rarely witness one being read.[117] Reading a sermon will convert no one (as in Amelia), and in none of Austen’s novels will a clergyman function as a saving hero (as Williams, Adams and Harrison do, or attempt to do, in Pamela, Joseph Andrews, Amelia respectively). Importantly for my thesis, a discourse compared to preaching is that of a female character heartening a man and reflecting that she is in need of her own advice.[118] There are no lengthy theological debates to be read (as in Joseph Andrews, Tom Jones). The villains are neither Methodists nor on the way to becoming one (as in Joseph Andrews, Tom Jones). No references to Latitudinarian Divines are required to understand substantial debates about nature and grace, predestination and freewill, philosophy and revelation, and the nature of charity (as in Joseph Andrews, Tom Jones, Amelia).

The clergy are present in abundance and their characters vary from the ridiculous, gluttonous[119], greedy and manipulative (Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park, Emma (1816)) to the husbands of three of her six principal heroines, but two of these are rather weak, shy, and passive partners of their impoverished brides (Edmund and Edward in Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility (1811) respectively). These beneficed husbands are pluralist servants of the social hierarchy provided with livings by their friends or families.[120] The authoress daughter of a clergyman makes none of hers heroic resisters of powerful evil doers in the manner of Mr Williams, Mr Adams and Dr Harrison.

Yet we are not witnessing the loss of conversion in the Christian Platonist tradition but rather such a complete passage into the processes of social and individual life, i.e. secularization, that religious forms need not be represented along side them. Jane Austen is a modern Sophocles in his difference from Euripides and Aeschylus. Indeed, there is a sense in which her novels are the deepest treatments of conversion in the genre. Two other differences from her predecessors in her representation of conversion, as well as an important difference of style and domain are notable.


I begin with the last. Jane Austen’s romances are in the tradition of and dependent upon those we have treated, but the contrast to all of them and especially to Tom Jones is striking. In opposition to Pamela, The Adventures of Humphry Clinker, Joseph Andrews, Shamela, and Tom Jones, there are neither speeches in dialect nor the amusingly misspelled letters of servants. In fact, we never enter the world of the servants at all and we have none of Fielding’s learning: no Latin tags, neither references to Plato and the Stoics nor to modern rationalist philosophers, no Horace or Ovid, not even Homer. We have nothing of Fielding’s “great creation” and the determination to exhibit the plenitude of the social chain of being. Indeed, although Darcy in Pride and Prejudice must come to recognize that people in trade can have the virtues associated with the gentry, and Sir Walter Elliot and Lady Russell (Persuasion(1818)) must be educated to some respect for naval captains and admirals, Austen generally keeps people within their different social spheres: Emma sins in trying to raise a bastard daughter into the respectable gentry—which, after all is said and done, is the boundary Tom Jones transgresses. The rascals in Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion (Wickham and Mrs Clay, respectively) are the son and the daughter of stewards of the estates, who, from too easy mixing with their betters, acquired ambitions and expectations beyond their places.[121] Certainly there is nothing approaching Pamela’s leap from the servant’s hall to becoming Lady Booby which so scandalised Richardson’s readers and provoked the imitations and mockeries of Fielding and Smollett. Instead of a great chain of social being, depicted in all its ridiculous contrasts and tyrannies so as to be enjoyed and transgressed, Jane Austen’s world, except for the navy, is almost entirely the small one of the country gentry and those with pretensions for it, or falling out of it. She seems not to have liked the titled aristocracy any more than her predecessor authors did, and the town, as for them, is the picture and reality of hell and damnation. Her power, and none had it in greater measure, was for the close ironic observation, and epigrammatical description, of the psyches which constitute it and of their inner and social movements. Heaven and Hell in a handful of dust. In exchange for the smallness of her world, we are admitted to sometimes terrible intimacies of the spirit unopened by her predecessors.

As to the two differences of her heroines, first, Jane Austen’s are not exemplars of the irresistible beauty which animates the conversion of the lovers of Pamela and Sophia. Second, although Austen has heroines whose virtue is perfect from the beginning and fix the stable centre around and towards which conversion takes place (thus, Elinor in Sense and Sensibility and Fanny in Mansfield Park), she is just as likely, and more interestingly I judge, to have heroes and heroines who undergo conversion which is mutual. Thus, outstandingly, Elizabeth and Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Mr Knightly in Emma, and Anne and Frederick in Persuasion. Darcy, Knightly, and Anne[122] are the stable fixed centres of true judgment[123], as Brandon, Marianne’s true lover, is in Sense and Sensibility. Because I think these two characteristics of her heroines taken together may help expose what is most intensely Christian in her depictions, I elaborate them slightly.

The union of beauty, goodness, and wisdom in Dante’s Beatrice, Pamela, Joseph Andrews, and Tom Jones has disappeared. Jane Austen has no ugly heroines but they may, at some points in their lives in her stories, be judged “plain” (thus, Anne, Fanny, and Catherine in Persuasion, Mansfield Park, and Northanger Abbey, although all three will come to be regarded as attractively beautiful or at least “pretty” (Catherine)[124]). Even more telling is that her great beauties, male and female,  have faults or worse. Thus, Jane in Pride and Prejudice is endlessly charitable through refusing to discriminate,[125] and Marianne in Sense and Sensibility[126] has a self-destructive and selfish romantic sensibility; significantly, they are both the favourites of their mothers. Willoughby, who will nearly destroy Marianne and does destroy others, has “manly beauty and more than common gracefulness.”[127] Wickham, the villain of Pride and Prejudice, is judged more handsome than the hero Darcy,[128] has an “appearance greatly in his favour; he had all the great part of beauty, a fine countenance, a good figure, and very pleasing address.” [129] Worse, the more he lies the more handsome he seems. Darcy, though a “fine, tall person,” with “handsome features, noble mien” has disgustingly proud manners.[130] Mary Crawford, close to being a female villain, is “remarkably pretty” and she, and her even more destructive brother, are “of very prepossessing appearance”.[131]


What attracts in Anne, Fanny, Elinor, and Catherine is virtue which makes them standards of judgement when others err or are incapable of action, even if, in the case of Catherine, this is only an incorruptible and naïvely trusting innocence. They are stable poles of judgement rather than of physical beauty.[132] Further, and most tellingly, in the cases of Anne and Fanny, because of humiliations suffered early and at length[133], or, in the case of Elinor, of a self-effacement and self-conquest in the service of her family, especially of Marianne, and of her own integrity, their virtue comes from suffering, from mortification.[134] Emma and Marianne are indulged and indulge themselves. [135] They are converted towards the virtues of their husbands to be.[136]

Besides the following of Christ in the self-effacement and acceptance of humiliation of Fanny, Anne and Elinor, the most striking imitatio Christi in the novels appears in the self-humiliation of the noble Darcy. Having rejected Darcy’s proposal of marriage, Elizabeth is humbled and grieved when having repented her judgments she desires him when “a gulf impassable” had opened  between them.[137] Uniting with her would join Darcy to Wickham, a villain who had injured both families and defamed him wherever possible. “Rational expectation” of his returning to her “could not survive such a blow as this.”[138] Being mortal he must triumph in having escaped what he once proposed. However, very soon after these miserable reflections and repentances, Elizabeth discovers Darcy’s “exertion of goodness too great to be probable”, he has beaten back his pride and bridged the impassable gulf to make reparation for his own faults and for love of her. He has treated with those he most despised to save her undeserving sister and her family from disgrace. Thus, she and her family were “under obligations to a person who could never receive a return”.[139] This gratitude moves her to further repentance. And there is more reason for Elizabeth to be astonished at his grace.

Darcy’s aristocratic aunt comes to warn Elizabeth her that marriage to her “will be a disgrace”. Connection to her sister and “the son of his late father’s steward” would “pollute” the family “shades”.[140] However, the intervention of the aunt, which Elizabeth supposes “would address him on his weakest side,”[141] turns out to encourage him to renew his suit. She thanks him for “that generous compassion which induced you to take so much trouble, and bear so many mortifications,” he does the unthinkable and proposes again and Elizabeth accepts.[142] So great the condescension, so marvellous the love.

This brings us to the second difference of Jane Austen’s conversions, seen most notably, skilfully, and delightfully in Pride and Prejudice. There we do not have Elinor’s sense and Marianne’s sensibility in separate individuals, but rather Elizabeth and Darcy both are filled with pride and prejudice, tho’ differently, and must both come to self-knowledge, repentance, mortification, and conversion separately and through their interchange. A mutual conversion toward the complementary virtue of the beloved also occurs in Persuasion.[143] With Anne, Elinor, and Fanny, in respect to the sufferings and mortifications imposed on them but accepted and purposefully employed for spiritual deepening, and with Emma and Elizabeth in respect to the repentant self-knowledge their own vices require, we are admitted to their inner spiritual life in a way not found in our other novelists. Austen does not give us the sermons and theological debates of her male predecessors in this tradition, but she works out the same questions of grace and works, predestination and freedom in the questions of the relative roles of character and condition, education and breeding, principles and effort which her predecessors treated in the discourses she omits as well as in their stories. Generally, it seems to me that she judges within the same Latitudinarian “Broad Church” mentality that was theirs. She demands, and allows, much in the way of self-exertion and self-conquest, perhaps seen most movingly in what Elinor hopes for in Marianne, but certainly also in Anne (Persuasion)[144]

Within the predestination which the social order sets, Austen’s theology strikes me as standard anti-Papist and anti-Enthusiast rational English Pelagian 18th century Protestantism. But, there is something more, something from an earlier period. Those who are as completely formed by the Book of Common Prayer as she was, especially in the forms she used (basically 1662), which were not replaced in Canada before they had been thoroughly fixed in my psyche, will recognise the source of the need her converted or converting characters have for suffering for sin, for condemning self-knowledge, either imposed from without or self-inflicted, for mortification (after all, dying with and in the saviour). They are “miserable sinners” the burdens of whose sins are “grievous” and “intolerable”. Their confessions are lengthy, laborious, and as theologically exact as those in Dante’s Purgatorio.[145]


During the time of the novels we are considering, the clergy were expected to be able to guide the sinner, especially on his or her deathbed, through the moments of an eternally consequential confession. Dr Harrison in Amelia is seen doing this. Jane Austen probably learned them from her own practice of Prayer Book piety, and we see them undertaken as necessary to the conversion of her characters, enabling reconciliation and the union of marriage. Usually they will require a public aspect when what has been worked out inwardly is told to the beloved, whether or not he or she was the direct object of the sinful acts. The beloved, is, as Elizabeth King (and Bennet) assert “the keeper of her best self”,[146] but this qualification, not its identity in the beloved, is the essential for the one hearing the confession, as we see in the series of confessions made to Elinor in Sense and Sensibility.

Notable examples will be found in the long repentance of Emma and the mutual confession with Mr Knightly[147], the multi year penance and long confession of Captain Wentworth in Persuasion, which becomes more complete in stages, requires two self-accusations of pride,[148] and is matched, not by one from Anne, but by her correct refusal to repent for that which he supposed to be her sin.[149] Even the naïve Catherine of Northanger Abbey, whose sin, of no more than undo suspicion, comes from an overly vivid imagination formed in the reading of the popular horror romances, must undergo conversion and its attendant repentance in due form.[150]Confession is not cheap; nor is guilt to be generally diffused.

From the point of view of the plot, Elizabeth’s repentance is the longest because it takes place in stages.[151] Marianne’s confession is to Elinor, whose conduct has now become her standard, and Marianne expresses such remorse at her “imprudence towards myself and want of kindness to others” that she wonders she has been spared “to have time for atonement to my God, and to you all.”[152] The chapter just next but one earlier had been devoted to Elinor’s hearing of the confession of the errant occasion of the Marianne’s sins, Willoughby, which involves such exchanges as “Thank Heaven! It did torture me. I was miserable” (on his part) and “You have proved your heart less wicked, much less wicked. But I hardly know—the misery you have inflicted—I hardly know what could have made it worse” (on hers).[153] Nor have we done with confession: there are still those of Mrs Dashwood[154] and Edward for Elinor to hear![155]

The essential elements are the acceptance of responsibility: I did this, I am to blame, self-knowledge (under what false notion or passion was I working to do this), acknowledgement of the evil consequences; contrition (the humiliation and mortification which may often result in a depression and despair from which the sinner is lifted by the forgiveness of the beloved).

God is a mystery too high to be spoken of in her romances[156] but all things move towards the conversion of those destined for the felicity of which she writes, matrimony. When rightly taken in hand, a situation very rare in these romances, it is a communion of spirits which is heavenly felicity come to earth—or the earth raised to heaven. The alternative often wished on the wicked, and frequently witnessed in Austen’s novels, is a living hell of mutual punishment.[157] Perhaps it is imagined most satisfactorily in the mutual recriminations of Maria Bertram exiled for adultery and her Aunt Norris. Maria had been married for her beauty by a dunce and she took him for his money. Her follies were nurtured by her Aunt, the persecutor of Fanny, who is made her keeper so that they can bedevil one another.[158] Under the endings in perfect felicity of Jane Austen’s novels there are many more makings-do and perhaps yet more living hells.[159]

The decoupling of beauty and goodness and the depiction of marriages which, though not ideal, work in their own way, and may even be chosen in full consciousness of their imperfection, suggests that the ever perceptive and shockingly ironic Austen may be exposing the limit of marriage as the secularized ideal of conversion.

CaptureEdward Ferrars (Hugh Grant) and Elinor Dashwood (Emma Thompson), from the 1995 movie



Soul is a subsistent cosmic reality in the Platonic tradition, until, in its Christian continuation, the human replaces its mediating role. In consequence, psychological conversion is also ontological. We have only considered Christian versions of Proclean system and in them the mediating role of the human, and thus humanization, reaches an extreme never known in Hellenism. Sir Richard Southern’s judgment, when extended backward in time to Eriugena and strengthened beyond his sense of what is intelligible, remains correct: “Thomas Aquinas died in 1274 and, it is probably true that man has never appeared so important a being in so well-ordered and intelligible a universe as in his works. Man was important because he was the link between the created universe and divine intelligence. He alone in the world of nature could understand nature. He alone could use and perfect nature in accordance with the will of God and thus achieve his full nobility.”[160] The secularization and humanization of the human and cosmic telos and the means to it goes much further when we move from the culmination of conversion as contemplative or ecstatic union with the Divine Good, True, and Beautiful to felicity as marriage of the Protestant gentry. It is evident that such an incredible representation of matrimony must depend on its filling in for the transcendent divine goal of the ancient and medieval quest. Moreover, by the accounts of those who most enchantingly depict this humanized telos and process of conversion, its heaven is very sparsely populated and the massa damnata is the multitude which no man can number.

It seems clear the honourable estate of matrimony has not been able to bear the weight placed upon it. The fact that, in the Northern European Christian world and its offshoots, it is now mostly an on and off affair for those who attempt it at all is in part owed to the impossible expectations it bears. The best corrective would be a restoration of the contemplative goods alongside it, but in our society distraction is sought above all else. So we seem to be left with neither contemplation nor union in the flesh. Must, and can, we go further back? Will there be a renaissance by a conversio ad fontes, Parmenides and Plato? Or is the spiral now ever downwards?

— Wayne J. Hankey


Wayne Hankey was born and raised in rural Nova Scotia where he received his primary and secondary education. He studied Classics, philosophy, and theology at King’s College & Dalhousie University (Bachelor of Arts, 1965, with First Class Honours and the University Medal in Philosophy and Valedictorian), Trinity College & the University of Toronto (Master of Arts in Philosophy, 1969, First Class) and Oxford University (D. Phil. Theology, 1982). At Dalhousie from 2002 he chaired the Academic Development Committee as it reshaped Dalhousie University’s teaching of Religion into the new Programme in Religious Studies within the Department of Classics where he is Carnegie Professor and Chair. He is the author of more than 10 monographs and edited volumes, more than 100 scholarly articles, chapters and reviews, and a mass of addresses, sermons and journalistic pieces. Many of these are collected on his website at http://www.dal.ca/faculty/arts/classics/faculty-staff/wayne-hankey-publications.html. In the last year he delivered guest lectures at St Thomas University Fredericton, Smith College, Princeton University and McGill University.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. ᾗ φρόνησις οὐχ ὁρᾶται δεινοὺς γὰρ ἂν παρεῖχεν ἔρωτας, εἴ τι τοιοῦτον ἑαυτῆς ἐναργὲς εἴδωλον παρείχετο εἰς ὄψιν ἰόν
  2. Thus it owes nothing to the Conversion of A.D. Nock (Oxford University Press, 1933) which is almost exclusively, despite a chapter on conversion to philosophy, about conversions between religions and to them. It has much in common, however, with the even more learned classic of Gerhart B. Ladner, The Idea of Reform: Its Impact on Christian Thought and Action in the Age of the Fathers (1959), for example, the use of convertere by Augustine.
  3. Henry Fielding, The History of Tom Jones. A Foundling, IV,xiii: she is “the great pattern of matrimonial love and constancy”. I use Fredson Bowers text with Martin Battenstin’s notes (2 vol., Wesleyan Edition 1975) as reprinted in a single volume, The Modern Library 1994.
  4. See my “Theoria versus Poesis:  Neoplatonism and Trinitarian Difference in Aquinas, John Milbank, Jean-Luc Marion and John Zizioulas” Modern Theology, 15:4 (1999): 387-415 at 406 on Aquinas: “[T]he divine knowing, as source, is Father; as the essence known, thus, as object, it is Son. ‘The Son understands not by producing a word but as being a word which comes forth from another.’ Father and Son are thus opposed as well as united.  The opposition engendered must be overcome.  The connexio duorum is the Spirit who receives his being from both as love. As Aquinas says, ‘If you leave out the Spirit, it is not possible to understand the unitas connexionis inter Patrem et Filium.’ Aquinas is explicit that this whole trinitarian process is an exitus and reditus.  It is the basis of that other going out and return which is creation.”
  5. Guest Lecture sponsored by CREOR, McGill Centre for Research on Religion / Centre de research sur la religion in partnership with ‘Early Modern Conversions’ Tuesday, 18 February
  6. Plato Republic VI,509d-VII,521b. At 515c ὁπότε τις λυθείη καὶ ἀναγκάζοιτο ἐξαίφνης ἀνίστασθαί τε καὶ περιάγειν τὸν αὐχένα καὶ βαδίζειν καὶ πρὸς τὸ φῶς ἀναβλέπειν; 517a ὅτι οὐκ ἄξιον οὐδὲ πειρᾶσθαι ἄνω ἰέναι; καὶ τὸν ἐπιχειροῦντα λύειν τε καὶ ἀνάγειν; 517d τὸ δὲ τοῦ πυρὸς ἐν αὐτῇ φῶς τῇ τοῦ ἡλίου δυνάμει: τὴν δὲ ἄνω ἀνάβασιν καὶ θέαν τῶν ἄνω τὴν εἰς τὸν νοητὸν τόπον τῆς ψυχῆς ἄνοδον τιθεὶς; 518c οἷον εἰ ὄμμα μὴ δυνατὸν ἦν ἄλλως ἢ σὺν ὅλῳ τῷ σώματι στρέφειν πρὸς τὸ φανὸν ἐκ τοῦ σκοτώδους, οὕτω σὺν ὅλῃ τῇ ψυχῇ ἐκ τοῦ γιγνομένου περιακτέον εἶναι, ἕως ἂν εἰς τὸ ὂν καὶ τοῦ ὄντος τὸ φανότατον δυνατὴ γένηται ἀνασχέσθαι θεωμένη; 518d τούτου τοίνυν, ἦν δ᾽ ἐγώ, αὐτοῦ τέχνη ἂν εἴη, τῆς περιαγωγῆς, τίνα τρόπον ὡς ῥᾷστά τε καὶ ἀνυσιμώτατα μεταστραφήσεται, οὐ τοῦ ἐμποιῆσαι αὐτῷ τὸ ὁρᾶν, ἀλλ᾽ ὡς ἔχοντι μὲν αὐτό, οὐκ ὀρθῶς δὲ τετραμμένῳ οὐδὲ βλέποντι οἷ ἔδει, τοῦτο διαμηχανήσασθαι.
  7. Septuagint Psalm 79,4: ὁ θεός, ἐπίστρεψον ἡμᾶς καὶ ἐπίφανον τὸ πρόσωπόν σου, καὶ σωθησόμεθα.
  8. Septuagint Lamentations 5,21: ἐπίστρεψον ἡμᾶς, κύριε, πρὸς σέ, καὶ ἐπιστραφησόμεθα· καὶ ἀνακαίνισον ἡμέρας ἡμῶν καθὼς ἔμπροσθεν. Vulgate: converte nos Domine ad te et convertemur innova dies nostros sicut a principio.
  9. Septuagint Psalm 37,7: ἐταλαιπώρησα καὶ κατεκάμφθην ἕως τέλους,
  10. Augustine, Sermon 223A.
  11. In Super Psalmos Davidis Expositio 37.3 and 37.4. His Bible placed it at the end of 2 Chronicles. It was not in the Vulgate. It is now given as the Prayer of Manasse: 10: “Incurvatus sum multo vinculo ferri”. LXX,10 “κατακαμπτόμενος πολλῷ δεσμῷ σιδήρου”.
  12. Anselm Proslogion cap. 1: incurvatus non possum nisi deorsum aspicere.
  13. Bonaventure, Itinerarium, 1,7: “Secundum enim primam naturae institutionem creatus fuit homo habilis ad contemplationis quietem, et ideo posuit eum Deus in paradiso deliciarum. Sed avertens se a vero lumine ad commutabile bonum, incurvatus est ipse per culpam  propriam, et totum genus suum per originale peccatum, quod dupliciter infecit humanam naturam, scilicet ignorantia mentem et concupiscentia carnem; ita quod excaecatus homo et incurvatus in tenebris sedet et caeli lumen non videt…”
  14. Boethius Consolatio IP1.13 and IIIP2.1: Tum defixo paululum uisu et uelut in augustam suae mentis sedem receptasic coepit. The ascent from the Cave and a return are placed at the very end of Book III: IIIM12,53-58: quicumque in superum diem mentem ducere quaeritis; nam qui Tartareum in specus uictus lumina flexerit, quicquid praecipuum trahit perdit dum uidet inferos
  15. Boethius Consolatio IIIM9.
  16. She stands between truth and his intellect: Purgatorio 6,38: ”lume fia tra ‘l vero e lo ‘ntelletto.” Her appearance crowned with the Athena’s olive leaves is at 30,68.
  17. See my “God’s Care for Human Individuals: What Neoplatonism gives to a Christian Doctrine of Providence”, Quaestiones Disputatae 2: 1 & 2 (Spring –Fall 2011): 4–36 and “Providence and Hierarchy in Thomas Aquinas and the Neoplatonic Tradition,” for The Question of Nobility. Aspects of Medieval and Renaissance Conceptualization of Man, ed. by Andrea A. Robiglio, Studies on the Interaction of Art, Thought and Power 8, Leiden-New York, Brill, 2014, in press.
  18. I Corinthians 13.12-13: βλέπομεν γὰρ ἄρτι δι’ ἐσόπτρου ἐν αἰνίγματι, τότε δὲ πρόσωπον πρὸς πρόσωπον· ἄρτι γινώσκω ἐκ μέρους, τότε δὲ ἐπιγνώσομαι καθὼς καὶ ἐπεγνώσθην.
  19. Ennead 1.1.8: εἴδωλα δὲ αὐτῆς διδοῦσα, ὥσπερ πρόσωπον ἐν πολλοῖς κατόπτροις.
  20. The movement to the masque and its mirrors begins, when Virgil departed, Beatrice speaks and names herself. Dante looks down and sees himself mirrored in water (the first mirrors of the world of forms for the ascending prisoner of the Cave), but in this presence such self-knowledge is too much to bear. 30,76: Li occhi mi cadder giù nel chiaro fonte; ma veggendomi in esso, i trassi a l’erba, tanta vergogna mi gravò la fronte.
  21. Augustine De Trinitate X,2, XIV,5, XV,3 provide examples.
  22. Bonaventure Itinerarium I,5: in quantum contingit videre Deum in unoquoque praedictorum modorum ut per speculum et ut in speculo.
  23.  Republic VI,509b: οὐκ οὐσίας ὄντος τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ, ἀλλ᾽ ἔτι ἐπέκεινα τῆς οὐσίας πρεσβείᾳ καὶ δυνάμει ὑπερέχοντος.
  24. Exodus 3,14: καὶ εἶπεν ὁ θεὸς πρὸς Μωυσῆν ᾿Εγώ εἰμι ὁ ὤν·
  25.  Theaetetus, 176a–b: Socrates. Evils, Theodorus, can never pass away; for there must always remain something which is antagonistic to good. Having no place among the gods in heaven, of necessity they hover around the mortal nature, and this earthly sphere. Wherefore we ought to fly away from earth to heaven as quickly as we can; and to fly away is to become like God, as far as this is possible; and to become like him, is to become holy, just, and wise.
  26. Philo, De Opif. 70-71, And again, being raised up on wings,… it is borne upwards to the higher firmament, and to the revolutions of the heavenly bodies. And also being itself involved in the revolutions of the planets and fixed stars according to the perfect laws of music, and being led on by love [eros], which is the guide of wisdom, it proceeds onwards till, having surmounted all essence intelligible by the external senses, it comes to aspire to such as is perceptible only by the intellect: and perceiving in that, the original models and ideas of those things intelligible by the external senses which it saw here full of surpassing beauty, it becomes seized with a sort of sober intoxication like the zealots engaged in the Corybantian festivals, and yields to enthusiasm, becoming filled with another desire, and a more excellent longing, by which it is conducted onwards to the very summit of such things as are perceptible only to the intellect, (see Plato, Phaedrus, 245ff) till it appears to be reaching the great King himself. And while it is eagerly longing to behold him pure and unmingled, rays of divine light are poured forth upon it like a torrent, so as to bewilder the eyes of its intelligence [dianoia] by their splendour. But as it is not every image that resembles its archetypal model, since many are unlike, Moses has shown this by adding to the words “after his image,” the expression, “in his likeness,” to prove that it means an accurate impression, having a clear and evident resemblance in form.” Following him, Clement, Strom. 2.22, 131, 6 and Origen De princ.3.6, 1.
  27. Fielding, Tom Jones, VIII,10-IX,2.
  28. Plato, Symposium 210b.
  29. See my “Recurrens in te unum: Neoplatonic Form and Content in Augustine’s Confessions,” Augustine and Philosophy, ed. Phillip Cary, John Doody, and Kim Paffernroth, Augustine in Conversation: Tradition and Innovation, (Lanham/ Boulder/ New York/ Toronto/ Plymouth, UK: Lexington Books / Rowman & Littlefield, 2010), 127–144.
  30. Margaret Anne Doody, The True Story of the Novel (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1996), 445-6, representing Diotima’s love as of the from variety, gives us the debate on the subject in Sterne’s Tristram Shandy(1759-1767)  and what that displays of a very considerable knowledge of Neoplatonism in the literary world during the time Fielding was also writing.
  31. Plato, Symposium 210d: ἐπιστήμην μίαν τοιαύτην.
  32. Plato, Symposium 210e-211b: ὃς γὰρ ἂν μέχρι ἐνταῦθα πρὸς τὰ ἐρωτικὰ παιδαγωγηθῇ, θεώμενος ἐφεξῆς τε καὶ ὀρθῶς τὰ καλά, πρὸς τέλος ἤδη ἰὼν τῶν ἐρωτικῶν ἐξαίφνης κατόψεταί τι θαυμαστὸν τὴν φύσιν καλόν,… αὐτὸ καθ᾽ αὑτὸ μεθ᾽ αὑτοῦ μονοειδὲς ἀεὶ ὄν, τὰ δὲ ἄλλα πάντα καλὰ ἐκείνου μετέχοντα τρόπον τινὰ τοιοῦτον, οἷον γιγνομένων τε τῶν ἄλλων καὶ ἀπολλυμένων μηδὲν ἐκεῖνο μήτε τι πλέον μήτε ἔλαττον γίγνεσθαι μηδὲ πάσχειν μηδέν
  33. Plato, Symposium 212a: τεκόντι δὲ ἀρετὴν ἀληθῆ καὶ θρεψαμένῳ ὑπάρχει θεοφιλεῖ γενέσθαι, καὶ εἴπέρ τῳ ἄλλῳ ἀνθρώπων ἀθανάτῳ καὶ ἐκείνῳ;
  34. Plato, Symposium 212b: Socrates: ὅτι τούτου τοῦ κτήματος τῇ ἀνθρωπείᾳ φύσει συνεργὸν ἀμείνω Ἔρωτος οὐκ ἄν τις ῥᾳδίως λάβοι. διὸ δὴ ἔγωγέ φημι χρῆναι πάντα ἄνδρα τὸν ἔρωτα τιμᾶν, καὶ αὐτὸς τιμῶ τὰ ἐρωτικὰ καὶ διαφερόντως ἀσκῶ, καὶ τοῖς ἄλλοις παρακελεύομαι, καὶ νῦν τε καὶ ἀεὶ ἐγκωμιάζω τὴν δύναμιν καὶ ἀνδρείαν τοῦ Ἔρωτος καθ᾽ ὅσον οἷός τ᾽ εἰμί. “towards this acquisition the best helper that our human nature can hope to find is Love. Wherefore I tell you now that every man should honor Love, as I myself do honor all the erotica with especial devotion, and exhort all other men to do the same; both now and always do I glorify Love’s power and valor” (Fowler, modified).
  35. For references see my “John Scottus Eriugena,” (with Lloyd Gerson), Cambridge History of Late Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy, edited Lloyd Gerson (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2010), vol. II, 829–840, or, better, the online version from which Gerson produced his edition: http://www.dal.ca/content/dam/dalhousie/pdf/fass/Classics/Hankey/John%20Scotus%20Eriugena.pdf
  36. M. Zier, “The Growth of an Idea,” in H. Westra, From Athens to Chartres.  Neoplatonism and Medieval Thought.  Studies in Honour of Édouard Jeauneau (Leiden, 1992), 71–83 at 80.
  37. Stephen Gersh, “Eriugena’s Fourfold Contemplation: Idealism and Arithmetic,” in S. Gersh and D. Moran, Eriugena, Berkeley and the Idealist Tradition (Notre Dame, Ind., 2006), 151–67 at 156.
  38. Paul Rorem, “Dionysian Uplifting (Anagogy) in Bonaventure’s Reductio”, Franciscan Studies 70 (2012): 183-188.
  39. Ibid.: 186-7
  40. Ibid.: 188 quoting Bonaventure, The Collations on the Six Days
  41. See my God in Himself, 141 & 142: “Thomas uses the causes to structure his writing only twice in the first forty-five questions of the Summa theologiae; in both cases he uses the same order. He places matter and form between the moving and final causes. Proper motion, as distinguished from activity generally, belongs to the material. When seen in relation to the divine causality, it involves a going out from simple immaterial being to matter which is raised to formal perfection as the good, or end, it lacks. In causing, God as the principle of all procession, i.e. the Father, knows the form by which he acts in [and as] the Son and loves the Son and himself as end in the Spirit. Thus understood, the order Thomas uses, in distinction from his sources in Aristotle, has a reason. The source of motion is the obvious beginning, just as its opposed cause, the final, is appropriate end….He says, glossing Aristotle, who also mentions their opposition, ‘motion begins from efficient cause and ends at final cause’ [In Meta. I.IV, 70]. ‘Prima autem et manifestior via est, quae sumitur ex parte motus.’ The moving cause is an obvious point from which to start the ways to God within a theology which also begins from him. Those ways ended: ‘Ergo est aliquid intelligens, a quo omnes res naturales ordinantur a finem, et hoc dicimus Deum’. But ‘intelligere et velle’ are motions as ‘actus perfecti’ and as such display the ‘rediens ad essentiam suam’. This return is perfect in the divine being. Its exitus and reditus become fully manifest in the processions of persons founded in God’s activities of knowledge and love; these in turn make intelligible the procession and return of creatures.”
  42. On which see K. Corrigan, “L’Auto-réflexivité et l’expérience humaine dans l’Ennéade V, 3 [49], et autres traités: de Plotin à Thomas d’Aquin,” Études sur Plotin, éd. M. Fattal (Paris – Montreal: L’Harmattan, 2000): 149–172 and my “Between and Beyond Augustine and Descartes: More than a Source of the Self,” Augustinian Studies 32:1 (2001): 65–88 at 84–85.
  43. For the beginning of an analysis of the connection between physical circling and knowing as reflection, see Stephen Menn, “Self-Motion and Reflection: Hermias and Proclus on the Harmony of Plato and Aristotle on the Soul,” in James Wilberding and Christoph Horn (eds.), Neoplatonism and the Philosophy of Nature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 44–67; at 65–67 Menn treats Aquinas whom he finds to be the first person using reflexio or reflectio “as something like a technical term.”
  44. See W.J. Hankey, “Ab uno simplici non est nisi unum: The Place of Natural and Necessary Emanation in Aquinas’ Doctrine of Creation,” in Divine Creation in Ancient, Medieval, and Early Modern Thought: Essays Presented to the Rev’d Dr Robert D. Crouse, edited by Michael Treschow, Willemien Otten and Walter Hannam, Studies in Intellectual History (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 309–333 at 310. As a result emanation is used a term for the proodos more by Latin Christian theologians than by pagan Platonists.
  45. My interpretation here is fully within the later medieval Thomist tradition, especially as taken up along the Rhine in the sillage of Albertus Magnus and worked out in dialogue with the texts of Thomas by Eckhart, see Evan King, “’Bonum non est in Deo’: on the Indistinction of the One and the Exclusion of the Good in Meister Eckhart,” M.A. thesis Dalhousie University (2012), 80–101. I am deeply grateful to Evan for the interest he has taken in this paper and his help with it. My thanks is equally owed, and very willingly given, to the members of my seminar for 2012-13 who worked through Questions 1 to 45 of the Summa theologiae with me. Their work confirmed Thomas’ judgment that the order of the Summa is the ordo disciplinae.
  46. See Hebrews 1.3.
  47. I am adapting “Prosai-comi-epic” of Fielding.
  48. Purgatorio, XXX, 139-141: “e volse i passi suoi per via non vera, imagini di ben seguendo false, Tanto giù cadde, che tutti argomenti a la salute sua eran già corti, fuor che mostrarli le perdute genti. er questo visitai l’uscio d’i morti e a colui che l’ha qua sù condotto, li prieghi miei, piangendo, furon porti.”
  49. Purgatorio XXXI,5-7.
  50.  Republic, X,621a: εἰς τὸ τῆς Λήθηςτὸν Ἀμέλητα ποταμόν; Aeneid VI,713-15: “Animae, quibus altera fato corpora debentur, Lethaei ad fluminis undam securos latices et longa oblivia potant.
  51. Henry Fielding, Tom Jones, XVIII,12: “Both sat with their eyes cast downwards on the ground, and for some minutes continued in perfect silence. Mr Jones during this interval attempted once or twice to speak, but was absolutely incapable, muttering only, or rather sighing out, some broken words; when Sophia at length, partly out of pity to him, and partly to turn the discourse from the subject which she knew well enough he was endeavouring to open, said— “Sure, sir, you are the most fortunate man in the world in this discovery.” “And can you really, madam, think me so fortunate,” said Jones, sighing, “while I have incurred your displeasure?”—”Nay, sir,” says she, “as to that you best know whether you have deserved it.” “Indeed, madam,” answered he, “you yourself are as well apprized of all my demerits. Mrs Miller hath acquainted you with the whole truth. Tom: “O! my Sophia, am I never to hope for forgiveness?”—”I think, Mr Jones,” said she, “I may almost depend on your own justice, and leave it to yourself to pass sentence on your own conduct.”—”Alas! madam,” answered he, “it is mercy, and not justice, which I implore at your hands. Justice I know must condemn me…”
  52. Purgatorio XXVII, Virgil: “libero, dritto e sano è tuo arbitrio,e fallo fora non fare a suo senno:  per ch’io te sovra te corono e mitrio
  53. Dante, The Divine Comedy I: Hell, trans. Dorothy L. Sayers (Penguin, 1949), 67-68. For another and fuller description of Beatrice in terms of the Masque and the Eucharistic Host, see Dante, The Divine Comedy II: Purgatory, trans. Dorothy L. Sayers (Penguin, 1955), 311-12.
  54. Philippians 2.8.
  55. Richardson, Pamela, Oxford World’s Classics 2001, pp. 214-216.
  56. For another see Pamela, p. 435: “May I, Sir, said I, beg all your Anger on myself, and to be reconciled to your good Sister?”
  57. Pamela, p. 209.
  58. Pamela, p. 203.
  59. E.g. Mark 14.41.
  60. Pamela, p. 205. 2 Corinthians 12.9.
  61. Pamela, p. 216.
  62. Tom Jones, X,ii,XI,ii, XII,viii.
  63. Tom Jones, IV,ii.
  64. Sophia is attracted to Tom before he has any particular “Design” on her Tom Jones, IV,vii. She manifests her attraction first. This disturbs him. Tom Jones, V,ii: “He extremely liked her Person, no less admired her accomplishments, and tenderly loved her Goodness. In Reality, as he had never once entertained any thought of possessing her, nor had ever given the least voluntary Indulgence to his Inclinations, he had a much stronger Passion for her than he himself was acquainted with. His Heart now brought forth the full Secret, at the same Time that it assured him the adorable Object returned his Affection.”
  65. Tom Jones, VII,vi and see XVI,vi.
  66. Tom Jones, X,ix.
  67. Tom Jones, XIII,xi.
  68. Tom Jones, XIII,xii. This is not the first time Wisdom deceives; at VI,iii she ignores Tom and pays special attention to Blifil in order to hide the true state of her affections, and at XI,viii, and elsewhere, she leaves Tom out of her account of her reasons for fleeing her father. However, XIII,xii is the first time she is represented as seriously remorseful.
  69. Tom Jones, XVI,v.
  70. Tom Jones, II,i.
  71. Tom Jones, V,i.
  72. See Martin C. Battestin, The Moral Basis of Fielding’s Art: A Study of Joseph Andrews (Middleton, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1959).
  73. Tom Jones, II,vi.
  74. Tom Jones, VIII,vii.
  75. Tom Jones, IX,ii.
  76. Tom Jones, VIII,iv; Tom Jones, XV,vii, Tom Jones, IX,v: “a most masculine Person and Mein; which latter had as much in them of the Heracles, as the former [his face] had of Adonis.” And XVIII,xii.
  77. Tom Jones, III,ii. Parson Thwackum was firm in this conviction Tom Jones, V,ii. He is represented as a Calvinist predestinarian simultaneously sure of Tom’s “State of Reprobacy” and exercising his “Duty, however, to exhort you to…Repentance, tho’ I too well know all Exhortations will be vain and fruitless.” The wicked Captain Blifil is given the same kinds of doctrines, but, in him they are ascribed to Methodism (I,x) which his “Rascal” son will adopt. The two are united for Fielding in the evangelist George Whitefield (see Battestin’s note at I,x). Parson Abraham Adams of Joseph Andrews, and of the conclusion of Tom Jones, is the determined enemy of both the movement and the doctrines. For Fielding’s Tom Jones as set up to oppose this logic and its opposite, see XII,viii.
  78. Allworthy to Tom, Tom Jones, V,vii: “I am convinced, my Child, that you have much Goodness, Generosity and Honor in your Temper; if you will add Prudence and Religion to these, you must be happy: For the three former Qualities, I admit, make you worthy of Happiness, but they are the latter only which will put you in Possession of it.”
  79. So Allworthy is described at Tom Jones, VI,iv. Allworthy is the man to pull Tom together. He “was naturally a Man of Spirit, and his present Gravity arose from true Wisdom and Philosophy, not from any original Phlegm in his Disposition: For he had possessed much fire in his Youth, and had married a beautiful woman for Love.” VI.iv.
  80. Tom Jones, VIII,ii.
  81. Tom Jones, XVIII,ix: Western complains you “make me always do just as you please”.
  82. E.g. most importantly at Tom Jones, VI,xi.
  83. Tom Jones, XVIII,x.
  84. Although Sophia resists and flees the wrong exercise of he father’s authority, and is supported against it by Allworthy, Squire Western is permitted to do what he must as her father at the critical point when he saves her from imminent rape, Tom Jones, XV,v. In the end she does marry the man he wishes for her (though his mind has been changed), his bloody minded opposition to Tom is allowed to be forgiven because “I took thee for another Person” (XVIII,x), and Sophia (very willingly we suppose) yields to him on the date of the wedding (XVIII,xii).
  85. Joseph Andrews, III.i.
  86. Tom Jones, X,i.
  87. Ibid.
  88. Tom Jones, XIII,i.
  89. Tom Jones, XV,i.
  90. Tom Jones, IV,xiv.
  91. Tom Jones, V,vi
  92. Tom Jones, VIII,ii.
  93. Tom Jones, XVIII,xiii.
  94. Tom Jones, XI,i
  95. Tom Jones VII,ix.
  96. Tom Jones, X,ix.
  97. Tom Jones, XIV,iv.
  98. Tom Jones, III,v: “a thoughtless, giddy Youth”.
  99. Tom Jones, V,ix.
  100. Tom Jones, XV,viii where Terence’s most famous dictum is applied to him. And we have Tom on himself: “tho’ I have been a very wild young fellow, still in my most serious Moments, and at the Bottom, I am really a Christian.” Tom Jones, VII,xiii. His are the “Faults of Wildness and of Youth” XVII,ii
  101. Tom Jones, XVIII,ii.
  102. Ibid.
  103. Tom Jones, XVIII,x.
  104. Tom Jones, XVIII,ii.
  105. Tom Jones, XIV,vii.
  106. Tom Jones, XVIII,vii & XVIII,viii.
  107. Tom Jones, XVIII,xiii.
  108. Tom Jones, XV,x.
  109. Tom Jones, XVI,viii, XVIII,xi, and XVII, viii.
  110. Tom Jones, XII,xii and XVIII,xiii.
  111. See note to Tom Jones, VIII,ix.
  112. Tom Jones, XVIII,xiii.
  113. Tom Jones, XVIII,xiii.
  114. My treatment of Jane Austen’s novels has been encouraged and assisted by Paul Epstein, “‘Is Sex Necessary’: Friendship and Marriage in Jane Austen’s Emma’,” and Susan Harris’ response to Dr Epstein’s paper in Christian Friendship. Papers delivered at the Twenty-Fifth Annual Atlantic Theological Conference, June 26th to 29th, 2005, edited Susan Harris (Charlottetown: St Peter Publications, 2005), 173-192 and 193-199.
  115. Tom Jones, I,xii gives us the Book of Common Prayer on Matrimony and at V,ii the same on the Visitation of the Sick.
  116. Mansfield Park, ix, Mary and Edward disputing about whether a clergyman is nothing are agreed that sermons are pretty much ineffectual, what is needed is “a clergyman constantly resident” as “well-wisher and friend.”
  117. Except, very briefly, when the ridiculous Mr Collins attempts to read to Mrs Bennett and her daughters in Pride and Prejudice,[New York: Pantheon Books, nd]xiv and is rudely interrupted and thus silenced by Lydia, and when Lady Bertram cries herself to sleep after having heard “an affecting sermon” read to her, Mansfield Park, xlvii
  118. Persuasion, xi,101: “When the evening was over, Anne could not but be amused at the idea of her coming to Lyme to preach patience and resignation to a young man whom she had never seen before; nor could she help fearing, on more serious reflection, that, like many other great moralists and preachers, she had been eloquent on a point in which her own conduct would ill bear examination.” I owe this point to Elizabeth King.
  119. Dr Grant, after becoming a Prebendary of Westminster Abbey, “brought on apoplexy and death by three great institutionary dinners in one week.” Mansfield Park, xlviii
  120. Especially clear in Sense and Sensibility, [New York: Pantheon Books, nd]xxxixand Mansfield Park, xlviii: “the acquisition of Mansfield living”. Edward we are assured showed his contentment with his small living by “the ready discharge of his duties in every particular” (Sense and Sensibility, xxxix)—the wonder is that it should need remarking upon. Henry Tilney of Northanger Abbey(1818) [New York: Pantheon Books, nd] is strong and has defied his father, the tyrannical General, to his face to be faithful to Catherine, xxx, p. 232. He employs a curate to do the ordinary pastoral work while he enjoys the parsonage and the greater part of the income of the living (Chapters xxvi & xxviii,205). Tongue firmly in cheek, Mr Bennet advises the sycophantic and ambitious Mr Collins to shift from Lady Catherine to her nephew: “he has more to give” Pride and Prejudice, lx,380. In Pride and Prejudice, pastoral charges are treated as sources of income and the right to appoint to them (present them) is a commercial matter. See also Sense and Sensibility, xli where Elinor’s brother cannot believe that the living is really being given rather than sold. Neither Sir Walter Elliot nor his second daughter regard a curate as a gentleman, Persuasion, [New York: Pantheon Books, nd] iii,22. Jane Austen has nothing of Fielding’s zeal both to better the lot of the poorer clergy—many of his worse off characters are the children of clergy who ridiculously regard themselves as gentry on that account (e.g. Black George’s wife and Honour Blackmore), and to inspire a spirit of independence vis-à-vis their patrons.
  121. At Pride and Prejudice, lvi: Lady Catherine de Bourgh: “…is the son of his late father’s stewart, to be his brother? Heaven and Earth—of what are you thinking? Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?” However, Darcy does transgress this boundary in marrying Elizabeth.
  122. Persuasion, xxii, p. 226: (Anne speaks) “I am not yet so much changed”, xxiii, 244: “the resolution of a collected mind”, xxiii, 245: (Wentworth speaks) “You could never alter.” In fact, she has changed, but by the time of the action of the novel her sufferings and self-exertions have given her the habit Frederick admires. It shows itself above all when she alone knows how to act, and does it from the spontaneity of virtue, when Louisa jumps and falls. In contrast Frederick Wentworth and the other men are helpless. Persuasion, xii, pp. 109-110: “’Is there no one to help me? were the first words which burst from Captain Wentworth, in a tone of despair, and as if all his own strength were gone. ‘Go to him, go to him,’ cried Anne, ‘for heaven’s sake go to him. I can support her myself…’ Anne, attending with all the strength, and zeal, and thought, which instinct supplied…tried to quiet Mary, to animate Charles, to assuage the feelings of Captain Wentworth. Both seemed to look to her for direction.” I am grateful to Elizabeth King for reminding me of the change in Anne.
  123. Pride and Prejudice, vi where Darcy has already formed the right judgment of Elizabeth that will motive him, despite himself, his family and friends, and her family: Elizabeth was “becoming an object of interest”; “no sooner had he made it clear to himself and his friends that she had hardly a good feature in her face, than he began to find it rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes…he was forced to acknowledge her figure to be light and pleasing”. He is compelled to repent his first hasty judgment. By chapter x “Darcy had never been so bewitched by any woman as he was by her.” In contrast, Liz’s aunt Gardiner must warn her about becoming further attached to the rascal Wickham (xxv) and in Chapter xxvi she confesses that he “must always be her model of the amiable and pleasing”. Liz is rescued by his forsaking her for someone with money. It is not until her visit to Pemberley (xliii) and its consequences that Elizabeth begins to understand Darcy and her love for him. Throughout it all, once fixed, Darcy is able to say “My affections and wishes are unchanged” (lviii). And Elizabeth declares to Wickham: “In essentials, I believe, he is very much as he ever was.” (xli).
  124. Northanger Abbey, ii. Henry Tilney “had a pleasing countenance, a very intelligent and lively eye, and, if not quite handsome, was very near it.” (iii).
  125. Elizabeth on Jane, Pride and Prejudice, iv:”Oh! you are a great deal too apt, you know, to like people in general. You never see a fault in anybody. All the world are good and agreeable in your eyes.” At xxvi Jane reveals how this is self-serving: “But I will endeavour to banish every painful thought, and think only of what will make me happy…” In contrast Elizabeth comes to be ashamed of her too quick and too harsh judgments, especially of Darcy.
  126. Marianne is described in Sense and Sensibility at the beginning of Chapter x. Elinor is in her shadow for appearance: “her face was so lovely” as to make her more than a “beautiful girl”; “her complexion was uncommonly brilliant”, etc.
  127. Sense and Sensibility, ix. In contrast Marianne says of Edward “his figure is not striking—it has none of the grace which I should expect in the man who could seriously attach my sister.” (iii).
  128. Pride and Prejudice, xliv: “‘To be sure Lizzy,’ said her aunt, ‘he is not so handsome as Wickham; or rather, he has not Wickham’s countenance, for his features are perfectly good.’”
  129. Pride and Prejudice, xv. At xvi: “Elizabeth honoured him for such feelings, and thought him handsomer than ever as he expressed them.”…She thought: “A young man, too, like you, whose very countenance may vouch for your being amiable” When wrongly believing him as opposed to Darcy, Elizabeth gives as a reason: “Besides, there was truth in his looks.”(xvii). Again, at xxxvi: “As to his real character, had information been in her power, she had never felt a wish of inquiring. His countenance, voice, and manner had established him at once in the possession of every virtue.”
  130. Pride and Prejudice, iii: “Mr. Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien, and the report which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance, of his having ten thousand a year. The gentlemen pronounced him to be a fine figure of a man, the ladies declared he was much handsomer than Mr. Bingley, and he was looked at with great admiration for about half the evening, till his manners gave a disgust which turned the tide of his popularity; for he was discovered to be proud; to be above his company, and above being pleased; and not all his large estate in Derbyshire could then save him from having a most forbidding, disagreeable countenance, and being unworthy to be compared with his friend.”
  131. Mansfield Park, iv.
  132. Thus, of Fanny, from her rejected suitor, Henry Crawford, who by losing her damns himself and those he implicates: “Your judgment is my rule of right.” Mansfield Park, xlii. Her judgment and perseverance in it prove to be truer and stronger than that both of Edmund, the right principled clergyman she marries, who gave her guidance when she was younger, and of Sir Thomas Bertram, the admirable but erring pater familias. Naïve Catherine of Northanger Abbey is nonetheless of sure and unmovable judgment “my opinion of your bother never did alter”, xviii, and xxvii, “an innate principle of general integrity”.
  133. “[T]he advantages of early hardship and discipline and the conscious of being born to struggle and endure” belonging to Fanny come to be appreciated. Mansfield Park, xlviii. Persuasion i.4: “Anne…was nobody with either father or sister”.
  134. Of Eleanor Tilney, who is rescued from her tyrannical father by “the most charming young man in the world”, then persuades the tyrant to let Catherine and Henry marry, we are told “I know no one more entitled by unpretending merit, or better prepared by habitual suffering to receive and enjoy felicity.” Northanger Abbey, xxxi.
  135. What ruins is displayed for example in Elinor’s reflection on Willoughby’s confession in Sense and Sensibility, xliv: “the irreparable injury which too early an independence and its consequent habits of idleness, dissipation and luxury, had made in the mind…The world had made him extravagant and vain…” Female versions abound, most notoriously Lydia of Pride and Prejudice indulged by her mother and ignored by her father. Maria of Mansfield Park is ruined in the same way and to much the same effect by an indulgent Aunt and an aloof father. Also in Mansfield Park, xlvii, Mary Crawford, who together with her brother had independence too early, and the example of a morally “vicious” uncle to substitute for lost parents, is found by Edward, who had once been completely in love with her, to be in “total ignorance” of right feelings about good and evil. “Hers are faults of principle…of blunted delicacy and of a corrupted vitiated mind”. More ridiculous than harmful are the faults of Mr Collins: Pride and Prejudice xv: “Mr Collins was not a sensible man, and the deficiency of Nature had been but little assisted by education and society…[including] the consequential feelings of early and unexpected prosperity.”
  136. Emma was nearly led astray by the troublemaking, if not vicious, Frank Churchill: “He was a very good-looking young man—height, air, address. All were unexceptionable, and his countenance had a great deal of the spirit and liveliness of his father’s—he looked quick and sensible.” Emma, [New York: Pantheon Books, nd] xxxiii.
  137. Pride and Prejudice, l: “there seemed a gulf impassable between them. Had Lydia’s marriage been concluded on the most honourable terms, it was not to be supposed that Mr. Darcy would connect himself with a family where, to every other objection, would now be added an alliance and relationship of the nearest kind with a man whom he so justly scorned.”
  138. Ibid.
  139. Pride and Prejudice, lii: “It was painful, exceedingly painful, to know that they were under obligations to a person who could never receive a return. They owed the restoration of Lydia, her character, every thing, to him. Oh! how heartily did she grieve over every ungracious sensation she had ever encouraged, every saucy speech she had ever directed towards him. For herself she was humbled; but she was proud of him. Proud that in a cause of compassion and honour, he had been able to get the better of himself.”
  140. Pride and Prejudice, lvi.
  141. Pride and Prejudice, lvii.
  142. Pride and Prejudice, lviii.
  143. While the once too submissive daughter of a gentleman snob must learn something of the freedom of the self-made naval man, Frederick Wentworth confesses his need to learn submission at the end of the novel, delightfully combining irony and truth: “I have been used to the gratification of believing myself to earn every blessing that I enjoyed. I have valued myself on honourable toils and just rewards. Like other great men under reverses,” he added with a smile, “I must endeavour to subdue my mind to my fortune. I must learn to brook being happier than I deserve.” Persuasion, xxiii,249.
  144. Persuasion, ix,80: Anne “arranged” her feelings. “She was ashamed of herself, quite ashamed of being so nervous, so overcome by such a trifle; but so it was, and it required a long application of solitude and reflexion to recover her.” xix,177: “She hoped to be wise and reasonable in time; but alas! alas! she must confess to herself that she was not wise yet.”
  145. This from Elizabeth King commenting on a draft of my paper richly adds to it. “What you point out about the heroines’ (as well as some other peripheral characters’) confessions is so true. They are the most convicting element of her novels, without a doubt, and the reader cannot but be changed and moved toward conversion herself through the privilege of both witnessing the public act and, far beyond that, the interior self-examination and terribly piercing repentance that it involves. In every novel it is the moment when you most love the confessing character (I think here especially of Emma.) I am convinced of what you say about both the pattern their confessions follow, and their ultimate and necessary orientation toward the Beloved. I think what I appreciate most about what you have written is your point about the precisionof the confession. That really is at the heart of it—it is absolutely necessary that the exact nature of the fault be recognized—its outward manifestation, the passions that underlie it, the precise limits of the wrong. And also exactly how that fault relates to the Beloved; because he is the keeper of her best self which she is yet to come into, he must know all.”
  146. Pride and Prejudice, lx. My good qualities are under your protection, and you are to exaggerate them as much as possible.”
  147. Emma, xlvii,gives the beginning in a revelation by Harriet: “Her own conduct, as well as her own heart, was before her in the same few minutes. She saw it all with a clearness which had never blessed her before. How improperly had she been acting by Harriet!”; by xlvii, 421 she is wretched and mortified and undertakes self-examination: “To understand, thoroughly understand her own heart, was the first endeavour.” As a result of “the first series of reflexions”, she comes to acknowledge her fault: “With insufferable vanity had she… ” (421). This continues ”Alas! was not all that her own doing too.”(423) The repentance she undertook alone turns to confession to Mr Knightly, the beloved, in which she takes care not to wrongly accuse another, Emma, xlix: ”Let me swell out the causes ever so ingeniously, they all centre in this last—my vanity was flattered.” She undertakes to repair the damage of her sin, and, at xlix, 440: ”She felt for Harriet with pain and with contrition….” Later, in liii, there is a mutual assessment of faults between herself and Mr Knightly.
  148. Persuasion, xxiii, 249: “There may have been one person more my enemy than that lady: My own self….I was proud, too proud to ask again….Six years of separation and suffering might have been spared.”
  149. Persuasion, xxiii,248: “I have been thinking over the past, and trying impartially to judge of the right and the wrong, I mean with regard to myself; and I must believe that I was right, much as I suffered from it, that I was perfectly right….” Anne was not always of exactly this mind. In Chapter iv,28 we are told she might have been eloquent “against that over-anxious caution which would seem to insult exertion and distrust Providence! She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older: the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning.”
  150. Northanger Abbey, xxv: “The visions of romance were over. Catherine was completely awakened….She hated herself more than she could express….[I]t had been all a voluntary, self-created delusion”. However, the tone of this novel requires a counterbalancing lightness: “Her mind made up on these several points, and her resolution formed, of always judging and acting in future with the greatest good sense, she had nothing to do but forgive herself and be happier than ever; and the lenient hand of time did much for her by insensible gradations in the course of another day.”
  151. It begins once she has forced herself to reread a letter from Darcy and examine against her prejudice its veracity. Pride and Prejudice, xxxvi: “She grew absolutely ashamed of herself.…[S]he had been blind, prejudiced, absurd. ‘How despicably have I acted!’ she cried: ‘I, who have prided myself on my discernment!…How humiliating is this discovery! Yet how just a humiliation!…Till this moment I never knew myself’…[H]er sense of shame was severe.”She continues the self-examination in xl where it goes with accusing herself to Jane. She begins to make reparation for her bad treatment of Darcy with Wickham in xli. On the process goes until completed in the mutual confessions of the engaged couple in Chapter lx.
  152. Sense and Sensibility, xlvi.
  153. Sense and Sensibility, xliv.
  154. Sense and Sensibility, xlvii.
  155. Sense and Sensibility, xlix: “His heart was now open to Elinor—all its weaknesses, all its errors confessed…”
  156. Though in Sense and Sensibility, xlvi, Marianne breaks this rule.
  157. Thus Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility, xliv whose continued longing for Marianne and criticism of his wife Elinor the strict judge in the Confessional must suppress: “That is not right, Mr Willoughby. Remember that you are married. Relate only what in your conscience you think necessary for me to hear”.
  158. Mansfield Park, xlviii “their tempers became their mutual punishment”.
  159. The marriages of Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram (Mansfield Park), and, in Pride and Prejudice,the senior Bennets, by both of which only one daughter in the end is irretrievably damaged, and above all of Charlotte and Mr Collins must raise the question as to whether Jane Austen’s irony does not extend to her own idealization of marriage. See this from David Curry: “Austen, like Dante, understands the way in which incurvatus se can be turned around (and not down). The penitents on the cornice of the Proud are turned down—bent double—to contemplate the exemplars of humility and self-awareness, particularly Mary. For Austen, even the little ones or the foolish ones, (as in Mozart’s the Magic Flute, too,) such as Wickham and Lydia, are part of something greater than their own folly and are sustained by the institutional expression of that greater principle, all their folly and limitations notwithstanding.”
  160. R. Southern, Medieval Humanism and Other Studies (Oxford: 1970), 90.
Jul 142014

photo(7)Michael Bryson & friend


There was the matter of the orgasm. Years later he suddenly remembered. She hadn’t been the first, but she was the first on a regular basis. She wanted him, and he wanted her, and they did it almost every day. He was thirty-one and his sexual self-esteem had crashed harder than the Leafs in the playoffs. Woody Allen had called masturbation “sex with someone you love,” and Barry had long lost any shame associated with being alone. Then he met Sherry, and she would unzip him almost before he’d closed the door to her apartment. She would fondle his penis when they went to the movies. One time he was watching the news and she told him to relax. Unzip. Ping. She went down on him as Peter Mansbridge went out of focus. But she almost never came.

That was a long time ago now. Thirteen years ago. He was with Sherry two years, and their second Christmas together he knew she was angling for a proposition. Knew it very late. He thinks now the thought crystallized on Christmas Eve at her sister’s house. Sherry had made mashed potatoes and fretted over them. She had told him how the dinner would go. Everyone was making a different dish. A certain standard had to be upheld. The potatoes had to be creamy without being milky, spiced with a hint of garlic but not rot full. The food would be served, places taken, minor words of religiously neutral thankfulness spoken. Dig in. Dished out. That’s nice, oh, that’s nice, oh, that’s nice. And that’s exactly how it happened.

You learn something in every relationship, and what he learned from Sherry is that two years isn’t long enough to get to know anybody, but then again maybe they were just at that age when they were still changing. They were in their thirties and unmarried, childless, living out an extended youth. He knew she wanted four children. He’d said he was okay with that. He’d thought about marrying her, but he wasn’t going to propose over Christmas, and he wasn’t going to do it at New Year’s either. Then he suddenly caught the hint that she was expecting it. Who had given her that idea? Certainly not him. Her mother, probably, or her sister, or some girlfriend. Some girly conspiracy had indicted him in a test case. They were watching. He would fail.

Getting through Christmas, having fun, sharing laughs about the silly family stuff, these were his tests. In the first week of January, would they still be friends? Could he imagine himself with these people, her people, twenty years hence? Would they show any interest in him? Any empathy? Any common cause? Sherry had already warned him repeatedly about her father. Mid-way through dinner he would go off. “Just duck,” she said. “Let him blow it off.” And he did, J. Edgar Hoover style. Barry was good at nodding. Listening, noncommittal. Something similar had happened at Thanksgiving. This was 2001. The American’s hadn’t yet attacked Afghanistan. The towers were still smoking. “It’s terrible how they treat women,” Sherry’s mother had said. She was prepared to go to war for that.

He remembered walking home through the park after that October dinner, Sherry raging at her parents’ stupidity. She had a Master’s degree in Public Administration. They weren’t interested in her opinion on any subject. She worked for a major polling firm as a senior manager. Her title was Vice President. In her spare time, she painted. She wanted to paint more. She was tired of statistics and politics, but she knew she was good at statistics and politics, and it paid the bills. Barry was the antithesis of her parents. He encouraged her art. He affirmed her social analysis. He got hard for her every night, but he couldn’t make her come. Sometimes she came close. She would squeeze tight and the friction on the head of his penis would make him explode.

He didn’t propose, and she got mad at him, and on New Year’s Eve she didn’t want to touch him. “I want to be alone,” she said, so he went back to his place. Two days later she called him. “I want to see you.” They were all over each other in the hallway. Her roommate was away. They went into the roommate’s bedroom, and she came, the best ever. “Why can’t we do that every time?” He didn’t know. He hadn’t done anything different. When he thinks of her now, he remembers her easy smile and her soft tongue, the struggle of her personality to find peace in the world. She was tall and beautiful. Sweet and large-breasted. Smart and confused. Talented and lost.

Weeks turned into months, the new year progressed, her unhappiness worsened. “So quit your job if you want to,” he said. “Let’s move in together.” It wasn’t marriage, but it was something. He still needed to know they could be happy together, not just compatible. She quit her job and became more unhappy. Barry became more concerned and suggested that she see her doctor. “I think you’re depressed,” he said. He went to work and came home and she said she hadn’t done anything all day except watch TV. “Don’t tell my parents, okay?” She hadn’t told them she’d quit her job or that they were moving in together. They practically lived together anyway, just he still had his place, which he was giving up. He’d given notice.

Then one morning she woke up with a dead zone look in her eyes. “I don’t feel well,” she said, “and we didn’t even have sex last night.” Barry said, “Yes, we did.” He straightened up and touched her face. Whatever this was, it wasn’t depression. This was a separation from reality. He told her to lay down and went to fetch a glass of water. What else? What to do? Buy time. She sipped the water and laughed. “I feel strange,” she said. “Strange how?” he asked. She said, “Just strange.” He considered calling his mother. No, this was his to deal with. He couldn’t leave her like this. Something had to be done. “Do you want me to take you to the hospital?” he asked. “Do you want me to call your sister?” Sherry indicated she wasn’t sure, then she was. “Sister. Call my sister.”

Her sister came, and by then Sherry’s confusion had multiplied. She asked the same questions every ten minutes, not remembering she’d asked them before. The sister decided to take her to her shrink, the one Sherry had ridiculed for the weak marriage counseling the sister and brother-in-law had sleep walked through. “She told them they don’t have any issues! They just need to talk more!” Well, that day she spent an hour with Sherry and then told everyone that they needed to back off. Everyone was putting too much pressure on Sherry, and she needed to be able to make her own decisions in her own time. Then she sent Sherry home with Barry, but this time they went to his place.

He tried to feed her, but she wasn’t interested in eating, and a day later they hopped in a cab back to the shrink because Sherry felt crazy sick again. Then they went back to her place, and she called her parents. “I need to go home with them,” she said. “I need them to look after me.” Okay, he’d said, but he should have taken her to the hospital. Fuck your parents, he should have said. You’re coming with me. But he wasn’t that kind of a person, not then. He wasn’t that kind of a hero. A month later, though, he knew what he should have done, but then maybe she wouldn’t have let him. When her parents finally did take her to the hospital, it didn’t take the doctors long. Her brain was ringed with lesions. Her sister told him Sherry had a brain of a 70-year-old. Multiple Sclerosis, significantly progressed.

When he visited her in the hospital, she was happy. What she had had a name! She wasn’t going crazy! Holy shit! When he visited her in the hospital, her father was sitting in her room and he wouldn’t leave. They made small talk until he got the hint. She had an IV on a poll, and she took him on a stroll around the ward. The woman across the hall was a couple of years older. She had a six-year-old and a husband, and she came to the hospital about once a year for treatment. Steroids. To calm the inflammation. It was a quick, brutal and effective intervention, best administered as soon as possible. Barry thought about that month-long wait and knew he would never forgive himself.

They went into a room full of exercise equipment and closed the door behind them. He leaned in for a kiss and put his hand under her shirt. “I missed you,” he said. “I missed you, too,” she said. They wandered back into the corridor and around a corner where they came to a dead end and encountered a man with half a face. “Oh,” she said, “I thought this went somewhere.” She looked at the half-face man and asked, “How are you?” He smiled at her and went back into his room. Barry loved her then, more than at any moment before or since, her uncomplicated compassion on magnificent display.

He was concealing on that visit the encounter he’d had with her father shortly after her parents had spirited her away a month earlier. “If I find out you’ve given her drugs,” her father had confronted him, “I’ll fucking kill you.” “I haven’t given her anything.” “We’ll see.” It was unbelievable! Him! A drug pusher! Of all people, no, no, never! And what a crime noir fantasy anyway. A ludicrous cliché. But Sherry had warned him, hadn’t she? Those were her parents, ludicrous clichés. Her father a hardened GM executive, her mother a neurotic housewife turned late-life real estate agent. They had separate bedrooms and would never divorce, Sherry had told him. Her father couldn’t get it up.

“How do you know this?”

“My mother told me.”

He went to visit his own doctor, who advised him to break off the relationship and prescribed him anti-anxiety pills to help him sleep. Oh, what crazy stress. He started smoking. He stopped eating. He had to move out of his apartment because he’d given notice. There was no way he was going to move into her apartment, so he had to scramble to find a new place. One weekend he came home from work on Friday and went to bed at 6:00 pm. He got up the next day at noon, then went back to bed at 6:00 pm. Then did that again on Sunday. No, he thought now. I was never going to marry into that family.

He didn’t follow his doctors orders immediately. He tried to stay friends with Sherry, who moved back in with her parents after leaving the hospital. He spoke to her on the phone and she was getting bored. She wanted to get away. He suggested he book a hotel and take her away for a night. Dinner and dancing. He picked her up, and she was in a foul mood. “I don’t want to talk about it.” They drove in silence. He tried to make small talk. Finally she said, “My father said something that made me mad at him. I don’t want to tell you what.” Barry said, “Okay.” By this point, he didn’t want to talk about it either. He just wanted to forget about it, forget about her father, forget about everything that had happened and try to pretend that they were together like they had been before. They had had good times. They had been happy. Was that all they were going to get? Was there more?

The dinner was okay, the hotel room standard. They were tentative with each other as they undressed, washed, brushed, slipped between the sheets. He reached for her, but she was unresponsive. She rolled towards him and kissed him, but she was cold.

He said, “I know what he said.”


“Your father.”

“What did he say.”

“He said, ‘Barry only wants sex.'”

She nodded. “How did you know?”

“I can’t believe it,” Barry said. “I can’t believe he actually said that. Like we were teenagers. Like you weren’t thirty-one. Like we need his permission.”

“I didn’t want to tell you,” she said. But you did, he didn’t say.

And then they had sex, but it was dry and uncomfortable, and very, very bad.

A month later, she visited his apartment for the last time, and they fucked every which way, but she didn’t come, and then she said, “We probably shouldn’t see each other any more,” and he said, “You’re probably right.” A week later, she called him, she wanted to see him, and he said he would see her, but he had to say this first. “I’m not going to sleep with you. That’s over.” So they got together and talked, and she said she guessed she would never have children, but he said she shouldn’t think like that. “You would be a great mom,” he said, and she cried, and he kept smoking nine months after that. Four years later, he met Jessie and her two kids and proposed inside six months. Three years after the wedding, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Twenty-one months later, she was dead.

—Michael Bryson


Michael Bryson tweets @buzithecat. He is interested in how things fall apart and what’s left after that. In 1999, he founded the online literary journal, The Danforth Review, http://www.danforthreview.com/, which has just published its 51st issue of new short fiction. He blogs at http://www.michaelbryson.com/ and posts the odd book review at The Underground Book Club, http://thenewcanlit.blogspot.com/.


Jul 132014

CaptureEmil Nolde, Masks (still life III), 1911. Nolde was a member of Die Brücke, a group of German “wild” Expressionists.


Because they couldn’t help but find what they were looking for, it might not be too far-fetched to imagine that the Modernists, when they opened up the passage into other realms and encountered the artifacts and spiritualities of the people they designated as primitive, were actually encountering nothing but their own subconscious minds — seen through the protective veil of the other. —Genese Grill


Imagine if you can the young European or American Modernists of 1918, just free of a violent and dreadful war waged by what they perceived as the forces and interests of their parents’ generation, but fought by their peers; the young Modernists, still reeling from their near escape from the close and darkly chaperoned drawing rooms of propriety, good taste, and claustrophobically monitored social morality, encountering a band of gypsies trundling along a London street with wagon, tambourines, loosened hair; or an exhibition of African masks and an anthropological explanation of magic and ritual; or the art of a schizophrenic, the art of children. They are aware of the new findings of psychology, and even sexology; but they have been schooled on positivism and the great God of Reason; they are about to pull back the curtains and open the windows to look outside of their sheltered worlds—but also to look inside, underneath, to peer into the dark abyss of their subconscious minds. They will find, that after centuries of good behavior and composure it may be easier, initially, to face their demons by looking through the mind, through the mask, of the exotic other. While their visions of their chosen “others” may often reveal their own socially-constructed judgments and assumptions about the varied peoples they simultaneously celebrated and condescended to, here I am not interested in correcting or revising Modernist ideas about these cultures, but rather with delineating a few central points of contact where innovations in twentieth century art and literature seem directly related to the era’s fascination with what it defined— for better or for worse— as primitive.

These areas, all of which are linked in some way to the development of abstraction and symbolism and an emphasis on Form in Modernist aesthetics, may be briefly mapped as follows:

1. The idea of the primitive provided modernists with a model of making art wherein the Form, Gestalt, or shape of the abstracted image was thought to effect the physical nature of reality —thus abstraction and symbolism are related to what Freud in his Totem and Taboo called “the omnipotence of thought”.[1] Picasso summed this idea up after viewing the African masks in the Trocadero in Paris in 1907 (the same year he painted “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”), exclaiming: “Men had made these masks and other objects for a sacred purpose, a magic purpose. I realized that this was what painting was all about. Painting isn’t an aesthetic operation; it’s a form of magic designed as a mediation between this strange hostile world and us, a way of seizing power by giving form to our terrors as well as our desires”.[2] Even if most people did not believe literally that art changed the physical nature of the world, respectable science (Ernst Mach and the Empiricists/ extreme Positivists) and cutting-edge philosophy (Wittgenstein) themselves offered enough conflicting and confusing analyses about the nature of reality and the individual’s role in perceiving and constructing it to reasonably justify a species of such belief.

Desktop6Picasso’s Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon (1907) and Pende sickness masks

2. Primitivism provided a model of creation whereby the ineffable, the emotional and subjective — rather than the literal, didactic, or rationally comprehensible—was the subject, goal, and essential experience of both art making and art perceiving. Primitivism joined forces with the new subjective science of psychology to deflect energy towards the inner and away from the outer as part of a Post WWI culture involved in a general resistance and rebellion against civilization (and its discontents) — against the rationalism, propriety, scientific positivism, and materialistic progress ideal which had sent countless soldiers home from the front maimed and haunted by nightmares. Insofar as the fascination with the so-called “primitive” was a critique of civilized rationality, it was also connected with the study of the minds and artworks of the insane and of children— and, by association, the study of the psychology of women (as the irrational, the hysterical, the mystical other within).

3. Primitivism seemed to provide evidence for universal  archetypes — this last is rather complex, because the early twentieth century struggled with tensions between the individual and his or her loss of self in communal mass consciousness. Primitivism, furthermore, can be both progressive and reactionary, both internationalist and nationalist. The Nazis celebrated nationalistic folk primitivism, propagandizing for the values of simplicity, Germanic homeliness, and country life, against modernization, metropolis, and the mixing of races, but decried the “primitivist” tendencies of modernist art—distortion, ugliness, crudity, sexuality— which borrowed its techniques and subject matter from the art of non-Germanic peoples. Moreover, while individualism (as materialist isolation or as nationalism) may have been seen as anathema to the new collectivist visions of socialisms, communisms, archetypal psychology, or an internationalist art movement; the devastating effects of early 20th century mass hysteria, crowd violence, and blind obedience were also seriously problematic. While I will not explore the political dimensions of this last connection directly, they are, I believe, an important part of the atmosphere of the times, and most essentially demonstrate the complicated relationship between the drive for irrational mass ecstasy and the beneficial uses of individual critical rationality.

In terms of Art, the question of universality is central to abstraction and symbolism, as the Modernist often seems to assume that powerful abstract shapes or symbols, unintelligible sound poems, or irrational dream-images are connected to a subconscious arousal of some ancient primal truth, accessible across cultures and times, provided the artist or viewer free herself from the artificial trappings of civilization, science, and rationality.

To reiterate: three contact points between Modernism and Primitivism—all relating in some way to symbolism and abstraction — may be characterized as: 1. The concept that Form could magically effect reality; 2. The attempt to express the unutterable, subjective experience of emotion, and 3. The Search for a primal universal language.


When speaking of Modernism and the Avant-garde, we are talking about a wide range of twentieth century European and American notions about contemporary consciousness, many of which —despite their connections to sophisticated, modern sciences like anthropology, psychology, sense perception, or physics —were engaged in re-mapping and, to a great extent, transgressing the traditional 19th century trappings of civilized society. In 1872, Friedrich Nietzsche had already undermined the edifice of civilized rationality in his Birth of Tragedy, introducing a new reading of Ancient Greece which would counter the prevailing picture of individuated order, balance, and harmony synthesized by the 18th century Art historian Winckelmann’s formula, “Noble Simplicity and Quiet Grandeur”. While Nietzsche’s theory of ancient Greek culture (an early form of primitivism) exposed the wild churning of the unconscious drives and the energy of dis-individuated drunken dancing, it also pointed to the terrifying desires lurking beneath even the most civilized Victorian exterior. This was an exposure which Sigmund Freud was quick to continue, pulling the proper masks away from the carefully composed psyches of his bourgeois patients, uncovering incest, death wishes, and other previously unmentionable perversions. This social and psychological unmasking becomes part and parcel of Modernism and its more radical sister—the Avant-garde—, as Art grew into another means to rip away facades; to disturb; to not only disorient the senses, but to scandalize the stolid satisfaction of the progress philistine. Art was to encourage its readers and its viewers to look at their own and their society’s demons, and to enjoin them (in the words of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo”): “You must change your life”.

Modernism was a movement which concerned itself primarily with the subjective nature of reality, and thus with the creation of a non-linear discourse based more in symbol and metaphor than in narrative or sequential logic. Modernism, in its many manifestations — vorticicism, imagism, expressionism, surrealism, cubism, fauvism, stream-of-consciousness or the pre-logical, with dreams and other subconscious emanations, was — either as cause or effect of these tendencies, a movement engaged in vivifying a tired, possibly discredited language and artistic vocabulary through experimentation with forms and content. Frank Kermode, in his essay, Modernism, Postmodernism, and Explanation, characterizes Modernism and its avant-garde as movements characterized by a celebration of the illogical which eschewed explanation and its logical strategies in favor of the inexplicit. According to this theory, the modernists saw in the primitive, “a model of that which is not discursive, explanatory, that which baffles us by its isolation, its manifest inexplicitness, its apparent indifference to our concerns, its masks —in short, by its possession of an indistinct power that seems alien but that calls on us—with an urgency[…]to interpret it in such a way that we may discover the significance that we sense it must have, namely, the unutterable contained in it, which it does not attempt to utter”(365).[3]

FreudFreud in his study; look carefully and you can see the African mask in front of the book case.

Freud’s 1913 Totem and Taboo—acultural product half-way between Victorian scientific positivism and Modernism’s celebration of the subjective irrational —interpreted what he deemed explanations for the savage’s incest dread, his totemism, and his obsessive compulsive behavior, utilizing these to create a system of logical speculation whereby his contemporary neurotic patients could be analyzed. While the Modernist would abandon Freud’s need to justify his fascinations as a somewhat rational system, Freud’s comparisons were important reflections of the Modernist project, suggesting that modern man was not only interested in the primitive, in African masks, and Oceanic figurines, as he would be in the scribble scrabble of his underdeveloped younger sibling, but also as manifest exterior images of what Kermode calls modern man’s own “internal foreign territory” (Kermode 365).

Perhaps the most important thing to remember about Modernism and its surprising interest in “Primitivisms” is that art had, by the turn of the last century, slightly different purposes than it had formerly professed—but these purposes had always been at least one side of art’s aims. If the history of Art can be distilled down to a battle between the Platonic Ideal of Harmonious Goodness and Aristotle’s theory of tragedy, Modernism took a distinct turn towards the Aristotelian model, requiring of Art that it be psychologically cathartic, emotional and transformative, which often meant that it would depict disturbing subject matter by way of discordant and ugly form. Despite varying degrees of emotional expressiveness or attention to aesthetic questions, pre-twentieth century audiences, theorists and critics had more often veered towards the Platonic concept of Art as a means to teaching morals; this was done mainly through mimesis — that is, representations of external physical reality— and by telling stories, usually ones wherein virtue was rewarded and evil punished. For the many critics who did not ascribe to the Aristotelian conception of Tragedy, Art was expected to be beautiful—in the sense of harmonious, whole, pleasing, and peaceful to look at—it was not to be anything but soothing, uplifting, or heroic. Within this stream of thinking, there were two goals as well, defined in the classical age by Horace as “to instruct and to delight”. The Romantics had only gone so far in breaking down these categories, by exploring sentiment, melancholy, and passion; and 19th century Naturalism, while engaged in depicting the more sordid sides of life, such as dirty feet, alcoholism, and prostitution — despite its possibly radical shift in subject matter and class consciousness — was still concerned with teaching morality, and still depicted narratives or tableaux vivantes in more or less traditional realistic styles.

In contrast, Modernism focused mainly on Form — and away from content or easily decipherable messages — in an attempt to express the internal experience of the individual, an experience made up of shifting psychological states which could often only be depicted by dissonance and ugliness.   The modernist artist was faced with the challenge of how to communicate these internal states, these private languages, in such a way that they would be meaningful to someone who wasn’t inside his or her own head. The development of abstraction, as an emphasis on non-mimetic form which expressed the inner image of the individual’s emotions in a way that didactic, linear representation or narrative could not, is linked to this new purpose of art. In their search for a means to depict such pre-logical consciousness, the Modernist turned, naturally, to the primitive, because its artifacts, despite the fact that one could not presume to understand them in any logical way, were —or so the Modernist party line went —moving.

Of course all great art has always contained the formal elements which the modernist artist explicitly aimed to foreground; considerations such as composition, rhythm, the spaces between words and shapes, the sound of words, the mysteries of syntactic impact, the effect of dramatic placement, suspense, Aristotle’s “reversal” and “recognition”. The difference in Modernism was that these formal elements were now no longer simply tools to better convey a message, but became, rather, the essential material and even subject matter of the work of art. Gestalt— born of a new psychology that studied the powerful effect of shapes and arrangements — was considered the best means to express the shapeless unutterable stirrings of the psyche.

troyHeinrich Schliemann’s wife wearing what he called the “Jewels of Helen” excavated in what he thought was Homer’s Troy. (Photograph taken ca. 1874.) via Wikipedia

Although it would be nearly impossible to ascertain just what elements in history, culture, invention, or creation made the shift into Modernism possible, Hugh Kenner, in his The Pound Era,[4] mentions two earthshaking discoveries in the field of Archaeology/Anthropology, which he links to the development of Modernism: the discovery of cave paintings in the South of France in the 1890’s and the discovery of the artifacts of Troy. “Since about 1870,” he writes, “men had held in their hands the actual objects Homer’s sounding words name. A pin, a cup, which you can handle like a safety pin tends to resist being archaized. Another [cause] which may one day seem the seminal force in modern art history, was the spreading news that painted animals of great size and indisputable vigor of line could be seen on the walls of caves which no one had entered for 25,000 years…By 1895,” he continues, “….a wholly new kind of visual experience confronted whoever cared. The shock of that new experience caused much change, we cannot say how much; we may take it as an emblem for the change that followed it” (29). Further, he tells us, the discovery and gradual decipherment of fragments of the Greek poetess Sappho’s verses, from 1896–1909, provided the Modernists with a powerful model of concision, spareness of words, and fragmentary beauty; since the papyrii were miserably crumbled, all that existed were phrases and, in some instances, single words–and these small gems were wondered over for decades by translators, scholars and Modernist poets who imitated the unintentional unintelligibility of the poetess of Lesbos. Kenner also points to advances in the field of etymology, to extensive scholarship in Sanskrit, Anglo Saxon, Provencal, Arabic, Chinese by Modernist poets and scholars, to Skeats’ Etymological Dictionary, famously poured over by James Joyce. Ezra Pound’s Cantos, he tells us, contain archaic words, “borrowing from the Greek, Latin, Chinese, Italian, French, Provencal, Spanish, Arabic, and Egyptian Hieroglyphic language; this list is not complete. And as for The Waste Land…; and as for Ulysses…; and one shrinks from a linguistic inventory for Finnegans Wake, where even Swahili components have been identified. The province of these works, as never before in history, is the entire human race speaking, and in time as well as space…” (95). There was, Kenner continues, an attempt to return old words to usages that were thought to contain more force and latent magic than modern watered-down words. Eliot studied Sanskrit circa 1910; Kenner explains: “It was with the example of a scholarship committed in this way to finding the immemorial energies of language that he perceived how the most individual parts of a poet’s work ‘may be those in which dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.’ And also how in language used with the right attention ‘a network of tentacular roots’ may reach ‘down to the deepest terrors and desires’” (Kenner quoting Eliot in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” and “Ben Johnson,”110).

CaptureEuropean and native dressed in Kwakiutl costume. via Wikipedia

So what did the Modernists mean when they spoke of “Primitive”?   And where were they receiving their impressions and examples? The word “primitive” was used rather indiscriminately to refer to the art of European, Russian, and American folk culture, Anglo-Saxon poetry, Medieval Christian artifacts, as well as more exotic art works, crafts, and ritual objects from cultures such as Africa, Oceania, or Australian Aboriginal regions. The indigenous examples were found, naturally, close to home, in still extant country crafts and peasant lifestyles. While an interest in national folk culture was thriving in the Romantic era, it mixed, in Modernism, with international enthusiasms for the art and craft of the “other,” fueled by colonialist and anthropological activity. There were, of course, the now scandalous displays, wherein “exotic peoples were presented in virtual zoological exhibitions or tableaux vivantes.” Since 1851, London’s International Exposition had included representations of “colored peoples”; in Paris, from 1875 to 1889, Expositions Internationales included “native villages”.[5] The St. Louis’ World fair, where a young T.S. Eliot and his family visited, featured “a comprehensive anthropological exhibition, constituting a congress of races, and exhibiting particularly the barbarous peoples of the world, as nearly as possible in their native environments” (Bush 25). “Groups of pygmies from Africa, ‘Patagonian Giants’ from Argentina, Ainu Aborigines from Japan, and Kwakiutl Indians from Vancouver Islands, as well as groups of Native Americans gathered around prominent Indian Chiefs including Geronimo, Chief Joseph, and Quanah Parker”(26). Ethnographic museums, filled with artifacts and dioramas of primitive life, were frequent throughout Europe in the 19th century, but the Modernist rediscovery of these objects moved them from out of the realm of anthropology into the realm of High Art and the Art Museum, arranging influential exhibits, such as a 1914 “African Negro Art” show in New York City. African masks from the Ivory Coast, Gabon, the Congo, featuring stiff frontal poses, closed form, abstraction, and direct carving were the most common influence on Parisian artist circles before 1918; in Germany around 1909, Expressionists were influenced by Oceanic tribal sculpture and relief carvings of the Palau Islands of Micronesia, characterized by decorative motifs and surface patterns. The German Expressionist groups Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter took inspiration for their wood cuts and paintings from these carved beams, copying mythological scenes, exaggerated genitals, and formal simplifications. They decorated their homes and studios with 6th century Indian paintings, Javanese shadow puppets, and wall hangings.

PalauFrom the Caroline Islands, Belau (Palau), 19th-early 20th century via Wikipedia

Another important feature of the Primitivism craze was a tendency to raise craft and applied art to a higher level. Kandinsky copied the clothes and costumes of peasantry; he and his consort Gabrielle Munter “filled rooms with folk crafts executed in native styles, including Russian ceramics, lubok prints, and Bavarian glass paintings [and] decorated the furniture and staircase in a folk art style”}}6}}[[6]]Colin Rhodes, Primitivism and Modern Art, Thames and Hudson, 1994, 31.[[6]]. The London Bloomsbury group, too, especially Duncan Grant and Virginia Woolf’s sister, Vanessa Bell, were involved , through Roger Fry’s Omega Workshops, in creating designs “based on the assumption of the moral superiority of peasant handicrafts”. Bohemians all over European and American cities cultivated the Primitive style in dress and home design, influenced by Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe and other dance costumes and theatre designs, by the advent of the Gypsies into European cities, by African, Indian, and Oceanic Art seen in art exhibits and reproductions, and by a desire to follow their Modernist precursor Charles Baudelaire “anywhere, anywhere out of this world”.

CaptureDuncan Bell West Wind fabric.

bitThe Tub, Duncan Grant, circa 1913. Painted after seeing Picasso’s Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon.

ballettBallet Russe, 1912

This search for the exotic led to a celebration of the outsider as subject matter in art, and of course to a mixing between high and low culture within the demi monde cafés, salons, and art happenings of the avant-garde metropolises: gypsies, circus people, criminals, prostitutes, variety performers, models, adventurers, mingled with bourgeois wannabe’s and tourists, aristocratic art collectors, and slumming members of accepted society.

Despite Modernism’s affiliations with the metropolis, Nature was often synonymous with the primitive, “embracing,” writes art historian Colin Rhodes, “a complex set of ideas, ranging from visions of the primordial landscape to the part of the human mind that was untouched by the learning process that one underwent in the civilized west…women and children were closer to nature, and therefore more primitive than men…modern primitivists raised them up as an ideal to which all, whether male or female, should aspire…” (67). Rural artists’ communities cultivated the fashion of “going away,” which often featured nudism and other back-to-nature concepts such as vegetarianism, spreading the idea that a revitalization of culture could spring from a period of regression and more direct modes of living (32). The German Expressionist Ludwig Kirchner’s favorite poet was Walt Whitman, whose 1855 Leaves of Grass had presaged a return to natural innocence while simultaneously breaking down traditional poetic forms.

CaptureMarc Chagall, I and the Village, 1911. Chagall was part of the Neo-Primitivist Donkey’s Tail Group. via Wikipedia

Alexander Shevchenko (1880-1978), a member of the Russian Avant-Garde, combined interest in the culture of the peasantry with French Cubism. In a 1913 manifesto for the “Neo-Primitivism” of the Donkey’s Tail Group Exhibition, he wrote of the turn away from Naturalistic painting as a response to the disappearance of physical nature and the dominance of the factory town: light, he writes, “is created by the electric suns of the night … nature does not exist without cleared, sanded, or asphalted roads, without water mains… without telephone or tramway”. “We are,” he continues, “endeavoring to find new paths for our art, but we do not reject the old forms altogether, and of those we acknowledge, above all primitive art, magical tales of the ancient Orient [by which he means Russia]. The simple and innocent beauty of the lubok [Russian Icon painting], the austerity of primitive art, the mechanical precision of construction, the stylistic nobility and beautiful colors gathered together by the creative hand of the master artist”.[7]

Primitivism, then, was also a protective measure necessitated by the horrors of industrialization and mechanization, which threatened to de-soul man. The Bloomsburian Clive Bell, theorist of Modern art, wrote: “If Expressionism behaves in an ungainly, violent manner, its excuse lies in the prevailing conditions it finds. These really are the conditions of a crude and primitive humanity… As primitive man, driven by fear of nature, sought refuge within himself, so we too have to adopt flight from a ‘civilization’ which is out to devour our souls”[8]. The Primitivist critique—similar to Montaigne’s suggestions in his 1580 essay “On Cannibals” — often asserted that modern civilization, its supposed rationality and propriety, harbored horrors equal to those of the savage jungles of Africa. Some of these horrors were to be discovered in the minds of the insane, or even the minimally neurotic or hysterical.

wolfli-angel-lgBy Adolph Wõlfli (1864-1930), one of the “insane artists” in the Prinzhorn Collection.

An interest in the art of the insane, which was—to the admiring Modernist artists— uninhibited, raw, honest, unadulterated by social indoctrination, was cultivated by Hans Prinzhorn’s Collection of the Art of the Insane and his 1922 book, Artistry of the Mentally Ill. Modernists noted, according to Rhodes, the “obsessive primitive mark-making of drawings by schizophrenics (55) and theorized about the creative force of madness. An article in a 1921 Berlin Weekly by Wilhelm Weygandt equated Klee, Kandinsky, Schwitters, Kokoschka, Cezanne, and van Gogh with the lunatics of the Prinzhorn collection; Paul Schultze-Naumberg, in his1928 book Kunst und Rasse (Art and Race) juxtaposed portraits by Expressionist painters with photos of the deformed, the mentally ill, and lepers. A 1933 Exhibit juxtaposed children’s art, modern art, and art of the insane, and the Nazi Degenerate Art exhibit of 1937 famously placed the distorted, disturbing, and abstracted art of Modernism and the Avant Garde side by side with more heroic and classical pieces, attempting to demonstrate the dangers of the primitive influence.

bitFacing pages from Paul Schultze-Naumberg’s Kunst und Rasse (1928)

Critiques of primitivism, however, did not come solely from reactionary circles: in his essay “Ornament and Crime,” Adolf Loos, one of the founders of Viennese Modernist architecture and design, railed against what he saw as a superfluous, meaningless, and childish decorative urge in his fellows, comparing those who indulged in primitive-inspired ornament to children and tattooed savages, prophesying that in the future, sophisticated, modern people would eschew the practice of ornamenting sparse, clean, and crisp open spaces—on skin, paintings, or building facades—with occult or meaningless decorations.

Clive Bell, ignoring such aspersions, analyzed Modernist art with the assumption that everyone found primitive art “mysterious” and “majestic,” explaining that “in primitive art you will find no accurate representation; you will find only significant form.” Looking, he writes, at “Sumerian sculpture…pre-dynastic Egyptian art…archaic Greek… the Wei T’ang masterpieces…early Japanese works…primitive Byzantine art of the 6th century…or…that mysterious and majestic art that flourished in Central and South America… in every case we observe these common characteristics — absence of representation, absence of technical swagger, sublimely impressive form” (114).


This theory of “significant form”—a theoretical basis for both Symbolism and Abstraction—has its roots in the study of Anthropology, which preceded and accompanied the advent of Modernism. Sir James Frazer, who published his 13 volume The Golden Bough between 1890 and 1914, laid the groundwork for an influential comparative religious theory of metaphoric mysticism which, despite any failings as hard science or even rigorous anthropology, permeated Modernist art and psychology for decades to come. For those who have not dipped into this fascinating repository of details and data, the work examines the fertility cycle of ancient mystery religions and its recurrent variations and manifestations in subsequent primitive cultures. His images, filtered through Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, famously provided an inspiration for T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land. Freud’s anthropological speculations, his idea of the parricidal urge, owe much to Frazer, and it is hard to imagine the development of a popular theory of symbolic magic without Frazer’s work. In short, Frazer tells of a Divine King of the Wood, whose aging, debilitated body is the cause of an unfertile Nature (the waste land). In order to restore fertility, the king must be killed or replaced by a perfect youth, as spring follows winter. The new king enters the sacred grove and plucks the golden bough—a vegetative manifestation of the powers of fertility—and all is put in order again. Aside from the important fact that Frazer’s work was widely read, thus introducing people to examples and illustrations from comparative anthropology and religion, extant primitive tribes, ancient mystery religions, and early medieval cults, this work is important because of its emphasis on the belief in the real-world effect of symbolic action—translated by Modernist artists into a belief in the possible physical effects of their works of art, raising the stakes of formal variation to a higher level.

Freud, taking his cue from Frazer, breaks up the development of consciousness into three categories: animism, religion, and science. Animism, related to what he calls, “Omnipotence of thought”, is, in the neurotic and the “savage,” a belief that thoughts can alter physical reality : “Only in one field,” he writes, in Totem and Taboo, “has the omnipotence of thought been retained in our own civilization, namely in art” (117). He mentions, further, a theorist named Reinach, whose1909 book, L’Art et la Magie (Art and Magic), posits “that the primitive artists who have left us the scratched or painted animal pictures in the caves of France did not want to ‘arouse’ pleasure, but to ‘conjure things’” (118). If animism supposes that man’s thoughts and actions (including art) create reality, then religion supposes that gods, through the intercession and prayer of mankind, effect and create reality. Science, finally—according to Freud—is a way of looking at the world wherein man is small and helpless in the face of absurd and amoral forces. It is, in this context, easy to see why modern man would be drawn back towards a more existential model wherein he might have some power over his environment and future.

ChauvetHorses from the Chauvet Cave

horsesFranz Marc Der Turm der blauen Pferde, 1912/1913. Marc was a founding member of Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) mentioned above.

Another central anthropological text, Lucian Lévy-Bruhl’s How Natives Think, published as Les fonctions mentales dans les sociétés inférieures (1910), took issue with Frazer’s evolutionary comparison, positing that the natives’ thought process was not inferior or under-developed, but a wholly other way of thinking, which he called “mystical participation,” a process whereby a representation of an object or person, or a piece of an object or a person’s hair or fingernail, was thought to contain the full force or mana of the so-called original. This conception, related to Western Christian practices of Eucharist or the prohibition of idol worship, was re-introduced and re-packaged for European and American audiences as something exotic and pre-logical, and helped thereby to lay the foundations for a primitivist aesthetic theory of symbolic significance.

The fact that such mystical conceptions already existed in our culture was blithely overlooked by even the anthropologists, who — avoiding the idea that Western cultural history might be in any way irrational—presented these notions as beyond the pale of our comprehension. Lévy-Bruhl writes: “It is the direct result of active belief in the mystic properties of things, properties connected with their shape, and which can be controlled through this, but which would be beyond the power of man to regulate, if there were the slightest change in form. The most apparently trifling innovation may lead to danger, liberate hostile forces, and finally bring about the ruin of its instigator and all dependents upon him”[9]. Such innovations, then, were to be avoided in the realms of art, craft, building, clothing, or rituals, if a society wished to maintain its status quo; in the case of our Modernist revolutionaries, on the other hand, alterations of traditional Form would be seen as a means to change the world, or, at least, the way in which we see it. William Butler Yeats— who, to his credit did make connections to forms of Western mysticism and the secret irrational and occult in his own culture —writes, in a 1900 essay on Symbolism: “…I am certainly never sure, when I hear of some war, or of some religious excitement, or of some new manufacture, or of anything else that fills the ear of the world, that it has not all happened because of something that a boy piped in Thessaly”.[10]


Whether artists actually believed, like the composer Alexander Scriabin — who avoided finishing a composition for fear that its completion would impel the universe to explode —that their work would physically transform the world, the rhetoric of symbolic effectiveness permeated artistic discourse, and abstraction was seen, by many, as a means to contain and to conjure. Since, moreover, an abstract image or symbol—however crudely depicted —might contain the spirit of a person or idea just as well as —or even better than—an exact representation, realistic mimesis came to be seen as more of a hindrance to direct mystical participation than a help. In his 1914 programmatic book Art, Clive Bell wrote: “The representative element in a work of art may or may not be harmful; always it is irrelevant…Art transports us from the world of man’s activity to a world of aesthetic exaltation. For a moment we are shut off from human interests; our anticipations and memories are arrested; we are lifted above the stream of life…”( 115). Wilhelm Worringer, whose 1906 Abstraction and Empathy was reprinted for over 40 years and provided another important theoretical basis for the link between Primitivism and Modernism, combatted what he called the “European-classical prejudice of our customary historical conception and valuation of art”.[11] The urge to abstraction,” he continued, “stands at the beginning of every art” and is a result of “an immense spiritual dread of space”(70). Abstraction for early man—and, he suggests, for the Modernist —provided a comfort in a world of confusion. He continues: “…the possibility of taking the individual thing of the external world out of its arbitrariness and seeming fortuitousness, of externalizing by the approximation to abstract forms, and, in this manner, finding a point of tranquility and a refuge from appearances,…to wrest the object of the external world out of its natural context, i.e., of everything that is arbitrary…”(71). And, finally, Worringer, quoting Arthur Schopenhauer, tells us that modern man is, indeed, in the same place as Primitive man had been: “Having slipped down from the pride of knowledge, man is now just as lost and helpless vis-à-vis the world picture as primitive man, once he has recognized that this ‘visible world in which we are is the work of Maya, brought forth by magic, a transitory and in itself unsubstantial semblance, comparable to the optical illusion and the dream, of which it is equally false and equally true to say that it is, as that it is not’” (71). Worringer differentiates between societies of abstraction and (post-Renaissance) societies of expression, which, for the Modernists, according to Kermode, can be distilled into the formula: “Bad art is dependent on external explanation, external reference, on trying to utter what is unutterable[…] Thus,” Kermode continues, “there grew up a new veneration for art that leaves out, and so has a chance of containing the unutterable —art under a new aspect, indistinct, calling one back to rough ground, demanding that one look, and see what is not palpably there: connections, interrelations, gaps signifying the unuttered” (366). “One thing Modernism taught us,” Kermode writes, “was just this: that writing can be taught to take account of what it cannot explicitly express” (359). Not only could writing or visual art be taught to take account of the ineffable; it was also theorized that the success of a work of art, even if it did refer to specific things, ideas, or people, was not dependent upon the viewer or reader sharing the particular references or private language of the artist. According to Kenner, the Romantics had found that mysterious correspondences in poems from earlier eras —mysterious because the 18th century reader no longer shared the cultural referents of a 16th century writer —had an “effect” —“too subtle for the intellect”. The Modernists took this a step further and “were,” he writes, “aiming at [these effects] by a deliberate process” (130). “‘Genuine poetry’, wrote Eliot in 1929, ‘can communicate before it is understood’” (123). And Pound, taking this yet farther, theorized that poetry could be understood by a reader “who,” writes Kenner, “could not fill the ellipses back in, who literally, therefore, didn’t know what the words meant”(133) “[W]ords, he continues, are “set free, liberated in magnificent but sober nonsense, which however beaten upon will not disclose meaning” (135).

The Primitive, therefore, which the Modernist could not translate logically into meaning, not sharing in any significant way a cultural referent or history, is the perfect model for something unintelligible which still seems to speak to us. While much is lost going over the precarious bridge of non-linear, subjective expression, we arrive, nevertheless, somewhere very different than we would have had our images and words been instantly translatable into quantifiable meaning. Perhaps, as many Modernists believed, we would arrive in a place that all humans might recognize: outside of civilization, history, logical language, and individual cultural experience, and share, for a moment, some unutterable knowledge. The contact with the art of the other, whether fully understood or boldly appropriated, allowed entrance into what they conceived of as entirely new worlds. But the silent hauntings of indecipherable symbols and abstractions have entered and blown our minds to the extent that we no longer even know what was ours and what was theirs. Modern day multiculturalism seems like a forced but weak trickle of water in comparison with the frenzied rush accompanying these early contacts. Because they couldn’t help but find what they were looking for, it might not be too far-fetched to imagine that the Modernists, when they opened up the passage into other realms and encountered the artifacts and spiritualities of the people they designated as primitive, were actually encountering nothing but their own subconscious minds — seen through the protective veil of the other. This uncertain journey into the pre-logical or aesthetic realms, amid fresh images and formal surprises, came to define the experience of art in the 20th century, an art whose aim was not to “please and instruct,” but to challenge the viewer or reader to change his or her life. How far we have come today, in an art world informed by concept and message (instruction without the pleasing?), and often derisive or neglectful of the powers of formal arrangement or aesthetic experience, is material for another essay altogether.

—Genese Grill


G photo for BBF

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

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Freud, Sigmund. Totem and Taboo: Resemblances between the Psychic Lives of Savages and Neurotics. Translated by A. A. Brill. London: Routledge, 1919,149.
  2. Mallen, Enrique. “Stealing Beauty.” Guardian Unlimited: On-line Picasso Project. Web, 2006.
  3. Kermode, Frank. “Modernism, Postmodernism, and Explanation.” In Prehistories of the Future: The Primitivist Project and the Culture of Modernism, edited by Elazar Barkan. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1995, 357-374.
  4. Kenner, Hugh. The Pound Era. Berkeley: U of California P, 1973.
  5. Ronald Bush. “The Presence of the Past: Ethnographic Thinking/Literary Politics,” in Prehistories of the Future: The Primitivist Project and the Culture of Modernism, ed. Elazar Barkan and Ronald Bush, Stanford U P, 1995, 23-41.
  6. Art in Theory, 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, edited by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2009.
  7. Bell, Clive. Art. New York: Capricorn Books, 1958.
  8. Lévy-Bruhl. How Natives Think, trans. Lillian Ada Clare. G. Allen & Unwin, 1926, 42.
  9. Yeats, “The Symbolism of Poetry,” The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats, Vol. IV, Early Essays, 116.
  10. Worringer, William. “From Abstraction and Empathy.” In Art in Theory, 1900–2000, edited by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2009.
Jul 132014

 CaptureSakutarō Hagiwara (1886-1942)

Hagiwara’s poems are urbane, bereft of the naturalism and flora which had so typified Japanese poetry over the centuries, and full of human emotion. What is subtle or implied in earlier or contemporary Japanese poets, through imagery or cadence or tone, is made overt in The Iceland. Hagiwara is at times contemplative, it’s true, but he is more often screaming in frustration, and he is not shy about telling you his reasons. —Patrick O’Reilly


The Iceland
Sakutarō Hagiwara
Translated by Hiroaki Sato
New Directions, Paperback
ISBN 9780811221603


Ezra Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” was as self-referential as anything written in the 20th century; Yeats was prone to naming the men and women he had known among Dublin’s “grey 18th century houses”; The prose works of HD are almost completely in the realm of roman à clef. Nonetheless, T.S. Eliot writes “The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality,” and Modernism gains a reputation for impersonality. Perhaps impersonality was an ideal, a better idea in theory than in practice; perhaps the personal lives of the Modernist poets remained too integral to their conception of the world to be completely divorced from their art; perhaps a certain amount of leeway is afforded to canonical names.

At any rate, such ideals of impersonality seem not to have reached Japan, where a simultaneous and comparable Modernist movement sought to break away from centuries of Japanese formal tradition through the use of free verse and colloquial diction. Among these Japanese Modernists, who appeared alongside several recent translations of western literature and philosophy, a standout was Sakutarō Hagiwara. No poet, east or west, used his personal life so frankly as Hagiwara did in his 1934 book The Iceland (Hyōtō), newly translated by Hiroaki Sato as part of New Directions’ Poetry Pamphlet series.

It is impossible to separate The Iceland from the context in which it was written. Sato begins his preface with the story: in 1929, five years before the publication of The Iceland, Hagiwara was abandoned by his wife; for whatever reason, he chose to leave the literary centre of Tokyo and return, two young daughters in tow, to his hometown of Maebashi, a small city in Gumman province. To the self-consciously cosmopolitan Hagiwara, Maebashi was an artistically barren backwater, “a shore of despair”. Hagiwara only alludes to the story with the epigraph to the poem “Returning to My Hometown,” where he states blandly “The winter of the fourth year of Shōwa, I separated from my wife and went back to my hometown with my two children.”

Nowhere else does Hagiwara show such restraint: the poems which follow present a complete picture of frustration, humiliation, and bitterness.

The opening poem, “A Drifter’s Song,” is a monologue of admonishment directed at the speaker himself. The speaker (and we might dare to say Hagiwara himself, for the poems are so obviously self-referential, and this poem in particular so alike in imagery and diction to Hagiwara’s preface) is full of melodrama, describing himself “chasing an everlasting nostalgia… more forlorn than Satan,” and accusing himself in a lengthy series of parallel statements:

Never once believing in anything
in what you believed you knew fury.
Never once knowing denial of lust
what you lusted for you indicted…
You’ve never once loved anyone
and no one in turn would have ever loved you.

Constantly inverting his lines, Hagiwara creates a literary mirror, a literal reflection of the speaker’s own angst. The parallel structure culminates with the final lines “but there shouldn’t be any hometown anywhere./ There shouldn’t be any hometown for you!” That closing exclamation only adds to the over-exaggerated emotionality of the poem, but once familiar with Hagiwara’s personal struggles, the reader cannot miss the double meaning: for the returning poet, the traditional connotations of home as a haven and a place of comfort now clash with the idea of home as a place of exile.

“A Drifter’s Song” is both an accusation and a plea, condemnation and self-pity for one who feels no great affection for society, but also feels he does to deserve to be banished from it. Hagiwara takes the idea of pitiable inhumanity even further in poems like “The Nogizaka Club,” “The Tiger,” and “In the Zoo,” where the speaker likens himself to animals, and especially “barn beasts,” a casually brief phrase which reappears throughout the book. In “The Nogizaka Club,” the speaker contrasts his present life with his past, the last year when he “lived on the fifth floor of an apartment building/ in the western-style room.” Now, he states “I’m starved as a barn beast,” and returning to the already familiar pattern declares,  “I haven’t lost anything / and also have lost everything.” In the punk-like“Kill Me! Kill Me!,” the masochistic speaker insists he is “an ugly beast… a barn beast, a slave…I want you to raise your hand with a whip and kill me.”

Throughout the book, Hagiwara’s speaker suffers a too-great empathy with animals, certain he is becoming one himself. This empathy reaches its height with “In the Zoo,” in which every line contains some word which connotes loneliness or suffering or desolation. It begins

Pressed by loneliness as if scorched
I come alone and walk through the trees in the garden
dead leaves all fallen on the ground
ferocious beasts are melancholy asleep in their cages.

Inevitably, he compares his heart to a cage – a facile metaphor which could only work because of the great lengths Hagiwara has gone to turn his speaker into an animal – and announces “A hundred times I’ve gnashed my fangs/ bit into that which I lust after/ battled lonely vengeances!” Having tempered  his human-animal hybridism with a sense of de-socialized confinement, Hagiwara limits the mobility of his speaker even further. The speaker identifies with most animals, especially beasts of burden, but is deprived comparison with birds, universal symbols of freedom, lamenting as the poem ends “but ah still like a bird / I shan’t fly through the boundless desolation.”

The bird, the cage, the sense of confinement all reappear in “The Stand of Trees Behind the Prison,” the penultimate poem in the book and spiritual sequel to “In The Zoo.” Again the speaker is walking, this time watching prisoners. In a sudden moment the perspective changes. For the first time the observer becomes the observed as the prisoners “look at [the speaker] hatefully and walk past.” It is the final moment of the speaker’s humanity and of course he declares “I’d rip and discard my torn clothes/ and sorrow like a beast.” The speaker’s humanity removed totally, he is left a naked animal figure shivering in the cold, fierce wind.

The continuous animal imagery, and the frequent use of parallel structures like those in “A Drifter’s Song” are just examples of the way the poems gesture towards a more formal structure. Sometimes these forms are traditional Japanese (in his preface, seemingly against Japanese Modernist convention, Hagiwara champions haiku and tanka as the future of Japanese poetry), other times they seem eerily western, as in “Fire,” which has the length, address, and characteristic broadening strophe of a sonnet. For the most part, though, these structures appear (in translation) to be entirely original to Hagiwara.

The Iceland does not necessarily contain poems with many forms, but instead may be a single form spreading like kudzu across many poems. Hagiwara frequently relies on repetition, and achieves a variety of effects: the same repetition which gives “Kill Me! Kill Me!” an urgent, insistent energy is also used to create a sense of slow contemplation in the concluding poem,“My Longing Ever More Intense Than Yesterday.” The repetition even crosses poems: the final line of “A Crow of Nihility” also serves as the title and opening line to the poem which follows it, “What I Do Not Have Is Everything,” creating a relationship between the two most stylistically and tonally dissimilar poems in the entire book. The former is a brief flash of a poem which takes advantage of the recurring animal imagery to offer one of the book’s best images; the latter is The latter works as a collage of previously used images and phrases from throughout the book: beggars, animals, stolen pennies. Coming near the end of the collection, the summation prepares the reader for “My Longing Ever More Intense Than Yesterday,” which concludes the book.

All this repetition – the fixation on certain images or phrases – certainly conveys a sense of frustration, of confusion, of walking and walking but not getting anywhere. It also gives the impression of a tonal limitation, a shortage of vocabulary. Any translation, be it better or worse than the original source text, is necessarily different from the original. The Iceland, in essence, is twice-translated, written originally by Hagiwara in kanbun-cho style, the literal translation of Chinese texts, using “as many Chinese words and phrases as is feasible” (Sato, 8). This, and probably not Sato’s translation, accounts for the directness, bluntness of the poems in The Iceland, but it remains a very literal work. I take the philosophy that something is always lost in translation, and that something might be vital to The Iceland, might lift it above distraction and directness and cliche.

Hagiwara works openly with literary diction for the first time in The Iceland, and this might well deepen the sense of retreat, of abandonment, of a rejection from and of the artistic metropolis. In translation this particular advantage is lost, especially since Hagiwara did not expand his efforts to incorporating traditional natural imagery. As it is, The poems lack “the little more that makes the difference,” the nuance that elevates a work from good to great. Even in colloquial poetry, this interplay most often comes from the interplay of the words themselves. This is impossible to reproduce precisely in a second language; no doubt the full effect of the form is lost. The poem “Late Autumn,” for example, is specifically noted as “for recitation.” In English, and perhaps very literal English, it is hard to see just what differentiates this poem from the others, and what would make it more satisfying to read aloud. One must go to Sato’s notes to see that it was written in a 7-5 syllable pattern, the traditional form for Japanese popular poetry.

A confession: I do not speak Japanese. I have had to consider The Iceland twice over, as a text and as a translation. I have no doubt Sato’s translation is skillful, even expert, and I am thankful for it. In his preface, Sato mentions the pains he has taken to maintain Hagiwara’s idiosyncratic punctuation as closely as possible (there is evidence of this in the way certain sentences seem to run together, not separated by punctuation or even, sometimes, by line breaks), and to explain where Hagiwara’s own wordplay is sometimes so awkward Hagiwara himself deemed it necessary to annotate it in the original publication (i.e. the kobito – koibito-o pun of “At the Subway”). It may be because of the translation that The Iceland‘s most surprising, inventive moments appear in the form of similes and metaphors: “melancholy as a clock” (15), “wide and vague as an elephant” (34), “roar like a weathervane” (36), connections which are not immediately clear in English, but nevertheless evoke the sensation of reaching for an ideal and failing.

The Iceland struggles to transcend the skillful weaving and repetition it accomplishes. The criticism that Modern Japanese lyric style was too literal, too similar to prose was one levelled even by Hagiwara’s traditionalist contemporaries.[1] The traditionalists were vexed by Hagiwara’s total departure from more traditional Japanese forms, failing to acknowledge the more adventurous forms attempted in The Iceland, but the accusation that the poetry is overly direct is no less accurate today.

Even among his less-traditional contemporaries, poets like Miki Rofū or Kitahara Hokushū, Hagiwara’s style is distinctly modern, a definite departure. Aside from the aforementioned literalness, and the imperceptible distance between Hagiwara and his speaker, Hagiwara’s poems are urbane, bereft of the naturalism and flora which had so typified Japanese poetry over the centuries, preferring instead to describe buildings, battleships, railways. They continue, however, to be full of human emotion. What is subtle or implied in earlier or contemporary Japanese poets, through imagery or cadence or tone, is blatant in The Iceland. Hagiwara is at times contemplative, it’s true, but he is more often screaming in frustration, and he is never afraid to say why.

—Patrick O’Reilly




Patrick O’Reilly was raised in Renews, Newfoundland and Labrador, the son of a mechanic and a shop’s clerk. He is studying English with a Concentration in Creative Writing at St. Thomas University, Fredericton, New Brunswick, and expects to begin work on his MA this coming fall. Twice he has won the Robert Clayton Casto Prize for Poetry, the judges describing his poetry as “appealingly direct and unadorned.”




Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. The Penguin Book of Japanese Verse. Geoffrey Bownas and Anthony Thwaite. 1970, London: Penguin Books. p.lxxi.
Jul 122014

pre and beach 7 11 092

Though Genealogy of the First Person is not a translation, it takes shape out of an engagement with the Book of Genesis. The principal “source-text” for the project is the 3rd century BCE the Septuagint, though three other texts provide guidance and source(s): Hieronymos’ Latin Vulgate (late 4th c. CE), Martin Luther’s Bibel (16th c. CE), and, to a lesser extent, Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig’s Die fünf Bücher der Weisung (20th c. CE). The work is meant, ultimately, to be an extension of my work on the first two chapters of Genesis, which are titled archaeology: genesis 1 and of Beauty and Sorrow genesis 2; archaeology can be heard here.

Genealogy of the First Person is a work in progress but is fully blocked out in the following way.  Each ‘book’—adopting the term used to designate parts in ancient works, to link it and conjure the removal/distance of ancient sources, which are present in Genealogy— works on, through, and, hopefully, as each of the four cases of Greek grammar: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative. These cases act as a means of articulating the heterogeneity of the ego, here meant in a broader and super-Freudian sense as the entire entity of consciousness (including ‘unconscious’ elements).

Within each “Book” a tripartite schema unfolds, drawn from ancient (Plato) and modern (Freud) images of the complex self.  “Book A, Nominative: Ishmaël” is arranged around three figures whose names begin with the letter ‘I’, or iota in the Greek of the Septuagint:  Ishmaël, Isaak, Israël.  It seems to me that the self inherits much from each of these figures:

—from Ishmaël, the cast-out-ed-ness and alienation, the sense of temporariness and the threat of replacement and the correlative drive to create and create and create; the thrust into existence

(read: going-forth/away from; ex- ist- ence = departure; a strange and compelling way, by the way, for Medieval theology [Aquinus] to think God, pure departure, isn’t it? Departure from what? I am tirelessly fascinated by the Genesis cosmogony and the aureola of darkness and water into [and out of?] which the god sets to work);

I try to echo Melville in the opening, turning the ‘call’ of Ishmaël towards the self, a reflexive gesture of the word towards a self; the undertone in this vein is meant as: survivor, self-identified, sole witness (and so suspect);

—from Isaak, the sacrificial; the peril of self as self-assertion; the risk into which that thrust thrusts; and the latent promise, both already fulfilled in one’s very being as ex-ist-ence and in the destiny resident in the ego as potency, power, generative dynamism;

—from Isaiah the ego inherits its prophetic power, where the logos has gathered into its fullness, scoped the range of temporality and spoken through and across the three zones, linking itself to the tripartite scheme of time (before, –, after).

This latter section presents the most challenges for me to conceive because of the interplay of self-as-logos with future, with modality (subjunctive and optative moods), and, most fraught, with future perfect (which is not used in ancient Greek and, I think, not conceived, at least not in the epochal stages of the language).

Books B-D are similarly organized, i..e., by three names that help me think the self in terms of the case (genitive, dative, accusative). Some sections will take place as more recognizably poetic segments, others may work as essay-like works. The whole thing is hybrid because it works on consciousness, a kind of hybrid or monstrum itself, and certainly complex and evidently threefold, at least in the tradition.

This figure—breaking into a desert, cast out of the shelter of the father, feeling deep fidelity to the mother, wild in a wilderness, hunter, fighter—finds its crater, an original feeling of segregation, of isolation and removal from all else that I take to be a first impression of consciousness/self; different. Hopefully his call sounds like an opening towards consciousness/self, a departure and a way.

—d m spitzer



Book A:  Nominative part one:  Ishmaël (from Genealogy of the First Person)


i.       ishmaël        I call my own name against the desolation.  Wilderness is my home.  The one g-d listens.  He bends himself from on high and strains in the direction of the one who calls.  I call my own name into the wilderness and my call is a cry from the wilderness into the dust.  The one g-d, bending and straining, remains within the shelter of infinite silence.

Inside the cry, rending the dark wilderness, my voice uncloses itself as a lament.  It is the legend of myself.  Night has settled over the wilderness and the one g-d strains to hear the song of Ishmaël.


I watched my father fall to the ground and cover his face before the one g-d, and he was changed and the one g-d renamed him.  His shelter was torn.  I peered through the tear and, behold, I saw the one g-d, a silver flame, hovering over the prostrate figure of a man cloaked in fire.

To hear the speech of fire I had to cover my eyes.  As I drew from my forehead the woolen cloth and wound it about my face a voice alighted on my mind and everything was shining silver with no form.

My father was speaking a tongue of golden flame:


Ishmaël lives as opposition before you, against you in all his life.
Yea, let Ishmaël live.


And then the divine fire of silver filled every syllable of my father’s words and of my thought:


Ishmaël has been heard and seen.
All opposition is gathered into the one g-d and it is blessed.
Let it multiply itself through him and upbuild itself beyond measure—
twelve tribes arise from him, collected into one mighty nation.


As if remembering something distant, the first words of the one g-d returned to my memory out of the hidden-ness of their sudden fire:


A new genesis begins out of Sara and Abraham.  Call it Isaak.  Through
everything set down upon the teeming earth an aeon will be stretched;
from his name and his voice and his seed—which is also the seed of
Abraham—will spread a new moment of creation.


What other thoughts were spoken the flame in my burning mind devoured.  I opened my eyes and all fire had extinguished and through the small hole in the tabernacle’s fabric I saw my father’s figure restored out of the embers of divine speech.

I fled.

Darkness pursued me.  I did not know if the night fell sharp and dark as obsidian from the hand of the one g-d or if a dense gloom covered only me, but the darkness was profound and complete.  I fell to my knees and my voice spilled black as ink onto the night’s dark pages.


I was born of bondage.  Servitude winds itself around my wrists and throat.  A black serpent, a chain of collied iron, a cord of another’s will and desire.


Concubine was placed over my mother.  A cage.  A grave.  Servitude drew her into the master’s tent and thrust her down by his side.  She was hollowed for him until his seed had filled her.  Into her eyes the master’s wife poured scorn and then fury grew in her own face when the scorn flashed between them, seeming to come from my mother’s face.  To the wife, my mother was nothing but a walking tomb.

The father and his wife drove her away to the wilderness.  It was the water beneath the desert that carried off her anguish into the one g-d, whose mind is a shadow over swift and ancient waters.

The master told Sarai, the wife, This girl belongs to you, she is in your hands.  Do as you like.  Wickedness flew from the wife into the girl and she ran from that wrath which consumed the wife’s face.

At a desert spring on the pass to S’our a messenger of the lord, the one g-d, found the girl.  And the lord’s angel spoke:


Hagar, slave of Sarai, do you know the origin and destination of your path?


The slave-girl spoke to g-d’s angel and her words were touched with sparks like light on the desert spring:


The woman’s face blazes wickedness and bruises my own face
and I fly from her wrath.


From the mouth of the messenger the one g-d’s command blared, a silver trumpet in the desert air:


Turn back to the face of scorn and bow your neck before her hands.


And the messenger of the one g-d was transformed before her and, behold, he was a silver flame and the destiny of slave and child smoldered into human speech:


a          son—             call him           Ishmaël
………………………………………………….the one g-d has heard
………………………………….”’…………….a cry from the threshing floor
………………………………….”’…………….of humility

Ishmaël—one who is heard by the holy fire
scalded and burns his whole life
a wild fire on brittle grasslands.

His arms against all others
the arms of all against him.

He will dwell face to face with a band of hunters
a tent village of great abundance
in the heart of the vast wilderness.


And my mother cried out and the name of the one Master whose speech is fire of pure silver was a conflagration over the desert spring and at once and for an eternal moment the whole desert burned in flames of gold reaching for heaven.  My mother’s words, a tongue of fire:


Thou one g-d—         thine face unspeakable fire
…………………….. ……..mine face of earth and dust

                                                  gathered by thine greatness into a single gaze.

                                                  There I am nothing     but thou.


The legend of my own birth came with me out of darkness into the world of light.  My own legend and I roared out of the desert from the deep spring, a great, dark storm into the destiny that went before us.  A host of twelve legions beneath a standard of black, an emblem of a tree of gold, its twelve branches touched with silver flame.  My own legend, my destiny—a fire in the wilderness.

—d m spitzer


After undertaking graduate studies in liberal arts, philosophy, and classics (each at different institutions), D. M. Spitzer completed a Master of Fine Arts in writing (poetry) at Vermont College of Fine Arts.  He is currently working on a number of poetic projects:  eurydike relapse, a performance-poetry event that will incorporate choreography, large-scale mask/puppetry, and transfigurations of poems by Rilke, Goethe, and Ovid; a hybrid literary work tentatively titled Genealogy of the First Person; and another performance-poetry piece that transfigures the ancient philosophical poem of Parmenides.  In addition, Mr. Spitzer is developing an essay that explores the use of hyphenation in the work of the late American poet Gustaf Sobin.  Some of his work can be heard at exaudes.wordpress.com.  Mr. Spitzer lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and their three children.


Jul 102014

Robert Graves, Poet and Novelist…and Playwright…and Scholar

Some writers who gain fame as novelists continue to write poetry “on the side,” not unlike the little smear of cream cheese offered up with a bagel. Some writers quite sensibly refuse to be labeled; they write whatever they please, whenever they please….And some writers who are truly talented poets get shanghaied by the success of their fiction and never regain the courage or the emotional space to re-establish themselves as poets. The categories are many.


“I am a failed poet. Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can’t and then tries the short story which is the most demanding form after poetry. And failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.” So said a fine novelist you might have heard of: William Faulkner. He knew a thing or two about writing, but his sense that every writer longs to be a poet can’t possibly be true, not if MFA programs around the country are any indication. The fiction track students hoot and holler at poets and mock them at every turn. The poetry track students do the same right back. At one reading, the poets might emote earnestly while the fiction writers snore; at another, the fiction writers read on and on and on while the poets pass around derisive notes in the form of double dactyls. Looking down on the proceedings, the gods would never guess there were prose writers lusting after poetry’s compression, nor poets longing to try out a novel’s expansive narrative thrust.

That said, there are a surprising number of novelists who started out as poets. Thomas Hardy wrote poetry throughout his life and considered himself a poet despite the fact that he published no poetry until he was 58 years old, having gained fame with his novels – Far from the Madding Crowd, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and Jude the Obscure – long before that. After the publication of his first collection of poems, he did not write another novel. James Joyce first published poetry; some might even make a case for sections of Ulysses and all of Finnegan’s Wake reading more like poetry than prose. D.H. Lawrence was a poet before he turned to fiction. Vladimir Nabokov published four books of poetry before ever attempting a novel. John Updike’s first book was a collection of poems, as was one of his last, published posthumously. In between, he published six other volumes of poetry, a fact which surprises quite a few of those MFA students mentioned earlier.

The list of poet-novelists is a long one and includes Rudyard Kipling, Robert Graves, Muriel Spark, Randall Jarrell, Czeslaw Milosz, Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, Anne Michaels, Fred Chapelle, Russell Banks….I’m sure you can think of more. Some writers who gain fame as novelists continue to write poetry “on the side,” not unlike the little smear of cream cheese offered up with a bagel. Some writers quite sensibly refuse to be labeled; they write whatever they please, whenever they please. Some continue to think of themselves as poets first, novelists second, no matter what the sales figures or their publishers tell them. Some are definitely better fiction writers than they are poets and admit it, but continue to write poems; some are in denial and their publishers don’t want to antagonize them by saying, “Enough” – those poems get published despite their poetic failures. And some writers who are truly talented poets get shanghaied by the success of their fiction and never regain the courage or the emotional space to re-establish themselves as poets. The categories are many.

Both Robert Graves and James Dickey fall into the troubling category of poets whose reputations rest on a single novel that the wider public embraced – Deliverance for Dickey, I, Claudius for Graves. These men considered themselves primarily poets, but today few people read their poetry. It’s not just time and changing taste that accounts for that.  Maybe Hollywood contributed to the switch – it’s hard to fault Sir Derek Jacobi for delivering Graves’s Roman emperor to us in a way that burned him into our consciousness forever. Ditto the talent of director John Boorman when taking four men on a fictional hunting trip down a river in Dickey’s northern Georgia.

James Dickey at his desk…

There’s no doubt at all that James Dickey deserves to be remembered as a poet. After a late start with his writing (he worked for an advertising agency until he was thirty-seven), he produced five books of poetry in just five years (1960 to 1965), won a Guggenheim Fellowship, won the National Book Award and was named Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress (equivalent to today’s Poet Laureate.) But his reputation now seems to rest on dueling banjos, Georgian hillbillies, and a down-on-all-fours-pig-squealing rape scene in his novel-turned-film, Deliverance. The novel was a bestseller and the film brought national attention to Dickey (who made a cameo appearance in it as a Southern sheriff.) His adapted screenplay of the story even brought him a Golden Globe. But Dickey’s accomplishments as a poet suffered for it (he never again had a collection of poems that was a critical success, despite more than twenty volumes of poetry in the three post-Deliverance decades before his death.) The New Georgia Encyclopedia says “His misbehavior at public events, his disorderly personal life, and his self-destructive alcoholism only enhanced his public image as a masculine, burly poet and man of American letters,” but it’s more likely that Dickey’s wonderful work as a poet will get dusty on academic library shelves, and Burt Reynolds will take home the honors for masculinity.

…and on the set of Deliverance with Burt Reynolds

Dickey’s style involves a precise ear for the rhythm of the words – his poems might not adhere to rules of form, and there is no formalized rhyme in the poem that follows, but Dickey definitely constructed it with a spoken cadence in mind. Reading it aloud, you hear the often eight- or nine-syllabled lines distinctly, you hear their three strong beats carried through to the final line. As the poet and Orange-Prize-winning novelist Helen Dunmore said, “Maybe it’s because the first things I wrote were poems – and very likely the last things will be poems too – that I’m convinced work has to grow into its own rhythm, inside the head.” Dickey, too, as a poet first and last, hears the rhythm of words. His sometimes violent imagery (in his poetry as well as in his novels) made many people squirm – it engaged “nature,” but not Mary Oliver-style, not as a source of inspiration and self-awareness; rather, Dickey’s nature (both poetic and – from what I can tell – personal) was primitive, full of blunt force, and sometimes theatrical. He once said, “I want a fever, in poetry: a fever, and tranquility.” The fever more often than not trumped the tranquility, but I think he managed to capture both in my favorite Dickey poem, “In the Tree House at Night.”

In The Tree House at Night

And now the green household is dark.
The half-moon completely is shining
On the earth-lighted tops of the trees.
To be dead, a house must be still.
The floor and the walls wave me slowly;
I am deep in them over my head.
The needles and pine cones about me

Are full of small birds at their roundest,
Their fist without mercy gripping
Hard down through the tree to the roots
To sing back at light when they feel it.
We lie here like angels in bodies,
My brothers and I, one dead,
The other asleep from much living,

In mid-air huddled beside me.
Dark climbed to us here as we climbed
Up the nails I have hammered all day
Through the sprained, comic rungs of the ladder
Of broom handles, crate slats, and laths
Foot by foot up the trunk to the branches
Where we came out at last over lakes

Of leaves, of fields disencumbered of earth
That move with the moves of the spirit.
Each nail that sustains us I set here;
Each nail in the house is now steadied
By my dead brother’s huge, freckled hand.
Through the years, he has pointed his hammer
Up into these limbs, and told us

That we must ascend, and all lie here.
Step after step he has brought me,
Embracing the trunk as his body,
Shaking its limbs with my heartbeat,
Till the pine cones danced without wind
And fell from the branches like apples.
In the arm-slender forks of our dwelling

I breathe my live brother’s light hair.
The blanket around us becomes
As solid as stone, and it sways.
With all my heart, I close
The blue, timeless eye of my mind.
Wind springs, as my dead brother smiles
And touches the tree at the root;

A shudder of joy runs up
The trunk; the needles tingle;
One bird uncontrollably cries.
The wind changes round, and I stir
Within another’s life. Whose life?
Who is dead? Whose presence is living?
When may I fall strangely to earth,

Who am nailed to this branch by a spirit?
Can two bodies make up a third?
To sing, must I feel the world’s light?
My green, graceful bones fill the air
With sleeping birds. Alone, alone
And with them I move gently.
I move at the heart of the world.

As for Robert Graves, how sad it will be if his poetry fades into the background and the light only shines on his fiction.  Yes, he wrote plays, he wrote literary criticism, he was a consummate scholar, he wrote I, Claudius, but he was also a poet’s poet, with a command of so many formal poetic devices that reading his poems is akin to alchemy – base metal into gold.

robert graves 1A young Robert Graves

The best example of his thoughts on the nature of poetry is found in his poem, “Flying Crooked.”   Substitute “poet” for “butterfly” and you’ve got a perfect description of what a poet does.

Flying Crooked

The butterfly, a cabbage-white,
(His honest idiocy of flight)
Will never now, it is too late,
Master the art of flying straight,
Yet has- who knows so well as I?-
A just sense of how not to fly:
He lurches here and here by guess
And God and hope and hopelessness.
Even the acrobatic swift
Has not his flying-crooked gift.

I hope you will go back, read the poetry of Dickey and Graves, read the poetry of  Atwood, Carver, Hardy, Nabokov, Ondaatje or any of the others I mentioned. There is something addictive about flying crooked, that’s for sure. And the plain truth is that few writers with a knack for it ever stop.

—Julie Larios

Author Photo

Julie Larios has had poems chosen twice for inclusion in the Best American Poetry series. She is the winner of an Academy of American Poets Prize and a Pushcart Prize, and has published four collections of poetry for children.


Jul 102014


With a background in the sciences, it’s no great surprise that I am drawn to writing with its roots in such disciplines, and with further interest in the therapeutic nature of words, why wouldn’t I be a big fan of the Hippocrates Society for Poetry and Medicine? Based in the UK, the society provides a forum for people worldwide interested in the connections between poetry and medicine. It hosts an annual medical symposium and runs the Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine. It pleased me no end then when Paula Cunningham (a dentist) placed twice in recent years in the NHS (National Health Service) category – winning the award in 2011 (A Chief Radiographer Remembers) and taking third prize this year (A History of Snow) both of which are published below. I met Paula years ago at the Eastern Washington University Summer Workshop in Dublin. I remember her reading upstairs in Bewley’s Oriental Café on Grafton Street (with its façade inspired by Tutankhamen’s Tomb and its magnificent stained-glass windows by renowned Irish artist Harry Clarke). A café made famous by Joyce in Dubliners and by other literary patrons such as Samuel Beckett, Patrick Kavanagh and Sean O’Casey. Paula read a poem that night. It may or may not have been titled “Hats”, but it was filled with hats and filled (like the great café itself) with an historic array of Irish literary figures – on that night as I recall amongst the many hats she wore, she wore her “Brendan Behan hat” and her “Paula Meehan hat”, but that night it was obvious to all that there was only one hat that fit and that was her “Paula Cunningham hat”.

Many of the poems here have, as she herself put it, “bodily/medical under/overtones” – an unintentional, but welcomed, tip of the hat in my direction. Her first full collection was published this year (currently shortlisted for 2014 Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry Prize) and is, naturally, entitled Heimlich’s Manoeuvre.

—Gerard Beirne




Pierre Curie, who was wont to carry radium
in his breast pocket, the red brand
on his chest which would never heal,

his femurs already aglow, and the dray horse
on the narrow Paris street beside Pont Neuf
that robbed the white-hot lesions of their prize.

He dreams the powder Marie kept at her bedside,
its pretty scintillation as she slept; her own death
from leukaemia, the damage accruing slowly like a debt,

the compound interest in the body’s bank.
He imagines her fingertips scraping each page
her notebooks, her letters, her cookbooks yes,

that seventy years from her death are housed in lead,
how researchers at the Bibliotheque Nationale
are required to sign a disclaimer.

He’s surer of DNA, its ladder and its snakes,
how everything unravels and decays. He presses
the bright red button again, again.



It was wild sudden.
Her daddy phoned me to work.
She was that hot he just had a sheet over her.
I felt the heat before I lifted the sheet and seen the rash.

You’d never forget that rash.
People say to me ‘How would you know?’
and I just say ‘You’d know if you seen it.’

The wee spots and these big blotches like birthmarks –
everywhere only her face.
Her wee lady and all.
I phoned and they said do the glass test.

I pressed really hard
and her bawling, but it didn’t change
so we brung her up.
There was this old man in the queue

very wheezy, he said to the girl
‘I want them to see this child
before they see me.’
And within two minutes we’re in the ambulance.

She was bouncing up and down on the trolley,
you wouldn’t believe it. Like something
out of the Exorcist. The doctor come
and he told us prepare for the worst.
She’s a bit of hearing loss, that’s all,
in big rooms, like, but she’s grand.
They say it’ll all come right, the ear adjusts.
Her daddy brung her in snow in a shoebox –

she’d never seen it before.
They’d pushed her cot right up to the window,
the flakes sweeping past like confetti,
a bit of a rose in her cheeks, and her all eyes.

The cars in the car park were buried in minutes,
it was one snowy evening, the whole
of the country froze. She’d been in four weeks
and I mind she was eating an orange –

a mandarin one of the nurses had peeled.
That’s when I knew she really was on the mend.
They said if we’d even been five minutes later.
I think of that old man yet.

Cunningham-Heimlichs-manoeuvre (1)



I’m small enough to fit
into a teacup. You underestimate
me; this flesh means nothing

and mostly I keep
to myself. I love bone,
its occasional braille,

but mainly I cherish its smooth darkness.
I thrive on disturbance, I know
about waves, the way molecules

bounce and knock – slow,
fast. I abhor
vacuums. My centre is

all coil and deep canal.
Though I live for sound
and music is everything –


– imbalance is the biggest part
of movement. Because of me
the deaf stand up and dance.



At the Winter Park ski-holiday reunion
who swans in only Stevie
whose legs don’t take him far –
he’d been tinkering under a car
when the bomb went off.

Answer: the skin.
It’s Trivia night
and we’re in with a chance.
All the other tables are offering liver.
What is the largest organ in the body?

In Winter Park we’re triple-
wrapped in thermals
but he’s shirtless:
a sophisticated instrument
of thermo-regulation.

Homoeostasis: the body
as a furnace;
the sweat-glands
and erector pili muscles
co-operate to keep the body cool.

The hypothalmus
is conductor of the body’s
secret business;
but skin grafts don’t have glands
and scars are bald.

Anyway Stevie has walked
the twenty yards from his special car
and he’s wrecked
and his stumps are sore
and we get tore in to the drink

and we all get legless
and everyone in the Welly Bar
(we’re only here for the ramps
and we’ve jumped the queue)
is legless and Stevie has taken his off,

all smooth American tan
with the socks and the cool shoes on,
and we laugh out loud
at the pretty woman
on stilts who almost

jumps out of her skin
and the plastered people
who swear
they’re seeing things
and we know they are.[1]



…the furthest distances I’ve travelled
have been those between people – Leontia Flynn

1. Father
(at the Forty-foot Gentlemen’s Bathing Place)

Seven thirty a.m.
and I love that men
are different
when wet.

We’re sea-changed,
leagues of seals,
rasping, clapping,
rapturing the air.

I’m glad the water’s cold.
And though my father
taught me everything

I know about salt water,
for fifty weeks per annum
he remained arms’ length inland.

2. Farther

Not necessarily needing to know
I launch into these buoyant
introductions: ‘Hey Dad, it’s Paula,
your favourite daughter your

beautiful blow-in from Belfast,’
my mother priming him well
in advance, so that I’m a little
deflated but hardly surprised

when he risks ‘Are you married
to one of my sons?’ ‘Father’
I breeze ‘Bishop Hegarty’d

never agree.’ And his smile as he
fathoms the quip soon sinks, repeating
how terribly terribly sorry he is.

3. Further

Close to the close of your life, you wash up
in a strange house with a woman old enough
to be your mother insisting she is your wife.
Despite your rebuttals she’s wedded to her lies.

You try the doors, her ladyship has them locked.
You spot your father’s shooting-stick,
you’ve really got to fly, you say, and put
a window in. Next thing you la- la- la-

land in some class of hotel where the women
are very much younger with lovely hands;
the exits here, you swiftly establish, are shut

with a hush-hush code. You’ve stashed the stick
and smash a panel in. They belt you in a comfy chair,
to anchor you, they say, and call you ‘pet’.

4. Faster

I don’t think I ever married, did I? This
at the buzz-locked doors as I’m heading, the same day
he’s quizzed me how long this interment (sic) will last.
You did Dad, the Star of the County you claimed.

He grins. And I’ve more to report. Go on.
She bore you six children. Away. It’s true.
Would you like me to introduce you to one?
I would. God. That would be great.

Well Father. We shake.
It’s a pleasure to meet you.
He beams.

When I leave I am borne
on the keen conviction
he liked me.

5. Falter

Our father one ankle in Heaven
trouser-leg rolled to the knee –
your time not come – the other one
stuck as it is and swollen.

There is yet time in this dry hotel;
as your wide straddle falters the tide recedes
til your greeting’s a watery smile you float
for the flickering hosts of the faces you meet,

above whose static you tune to the sirens –
song with your name on –
well within reach;

though embracing’s beyond us
I’d sing to deliver you
home for the last how long.[2]


—Paula Cunningham

Paula author photo

Paula Cunningham was born in Omagh and lives in Belfast where she works as a dentist. Her chapbook A Dog called Chance was a winner in The Poetry Business Competition in 1999 and was published by Smith Doorstop. She has also written drama and short fiction and has held awards from the Arts Council of NI. Her poems have been widely published and anthologised.

Her first full poetry collection Heimlich’s Manoeuvre was published by Smith|Doorstop in 2013. It was shortlisted for the Fenton Aldeburgh Best First Collection Prize, and is currently shortlisted for the 2014 Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry Prize for First Full Collection. Individual poems in the collection have also won awards. Paula is now working towards her next collection.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Winter Park Colorado is the US National Ski Centre for the Disabled.
  2. An earlier version of this poem won 3rd prize in The Ballymaloe Poetry Competition 2012 and was published in The Moth.
Jul 092014

Robert GalRóbert Gál photo by Karel Cudlín

Herewith a selection of aphorisms from the Slovak writer Róbert Gál. Provocative, terse and paradoxical. They are thought crystallized in balanced contrasts, one of our favourite forms on Numéro Cinq (see earlier examples from Steven Heighton and Yahia Lababidi). Naked thought.  Gál writes: “The obvious blinds.” and “To give life meaning means to make something of it deliberately — and thereby go against it.” Think about them; they unfold and refold like intricate origami birds.



Awareness held back by experience baulks at discovery. ‘Expect nothing’ is the watchword of the condition in which to endure means to weather the onslaught of evolution. What else — unless we are contemplating suicide — can ‘die young’ mean?


The obvious blinds.


To give life meaning means to make something of it deliberately — and thereby go against it.




Bear life like offspring.


Memory — not the attribute, but the disposition — is the basic difference between one who thinks and one who is ‘having fun’.


Affinity confines.


Tragic facts do not exist.


The ideal is what is ideal about something that is not itself ideal.


The creativity of the Devil, or God’s loyalty to what He has created?


Aptitude for an action depends on the aptness of the act.


We neither enter the past nor exit the future.


Love with experimental elements is not love. An experiment with amorous elements is not an experiment.


Having no content, they seek form, and that makes them insatiable.


Borne down by the weight of wings.


When can we assert that this or that boomerang will still come back, and when do boomerangs merely come back?


Playing with fire is dangerous for the fire.


Going round in circles induces the sense of a circle even where there isn’t one.


Which comes first? The fall or the abyss?


Róbert Gál , Translated from the Slovak by David Short


Róbert Gál was born in 1968 in Bratislava, Slovakia. He now lives in Prague, after having resided in numerous cities around the world, including New York and Jerusalem. He is the author of several books of aphorisms and philosophical fragments, one of which, Signs & Symptoms, is available in English translation.


Jul 072014


When describing the period in which he researched and wrote God’s Middle Finger, Richard Grant says, “I was in a reckless frame of mind.” If this recklessness put him in danger, it also imbued the pages of his book with a knocking pulse. Here in the prologue, the reader encounters Grant running for his life deep in the Sierra Madre mountain range of Northern Mexico; he is far from the help of friends, law enforcement, or a sympathetic guide. Later, Grant will consider the history of the Sierra Madre, the effects of the Drug War, and the radical hospitality of strangers, but this excerpt introduces us to what is perhaps his principal companion on this journey: the allure of the sublime in all its exhilaration and brutality.

—Dan Holmes




So this is what it feels like to be hunted through the woods at night. My spine is pressed up against the bark of a pine tree. My heart hammers against my ribcage with astonishing force. Here they come again. Here comes the big dented old Chevy pick-up with its engine roaring and its high beam lights swinging through the darkness and the trees. The men in the truck are drunk and they have rifles and now there are other men on foot looking for me with flashlights.

Why? I have done nothing to them. I pose no threat. Nor do the men imagine that I pose a threat. They are hunting me because I’m a stranger in their territory and the nearest law is three hours’ away over a potholed and bandit-infested road and because they are the type of men who pride themselves on their willingness to kill.

“We are the real killers here,” the tall one growled at me in a gruff mountain Spanish, back when I was desperately trying to make friends with them. “Further north they grow more drugs but here we are hundred percent killers.” He had a silver scorpion affixed to his white straw cowboy hat and the first moment I saw him I knew I was in bad trouble.

The lights are swinging closer now and I press back into the corrrugated bark of the tree. I turn my face to the side, afraid that it might reflect the light. My breath comes short and fast and it makes no sound. The lights swing away and I take off running again. Deeper into the forest and the darkness, with the wide eyes and edgy floating gait of a frightened deer.

I come to a creek with a high undercut bank and I wedge myself into a shallow cave under its lip. The earth is damp and cold. It feels like a good place to hide. Then I realize that I can’t see them coming from here and I can’t hear anything except the water rushing through the creek. I have neutralized my two key senses. They could be twenty feet away. What if the men with flashlights are following my tracks? The ground I ran across was bare and dusty with a scant covering of pine needles and the men in these mountains grow up hunting game and tracking stray livestock.

I unwedge myself from the cave and step from one pale silver rock to the next across the creek. My eyes are well adjusted to the starlight from all the watching and waiting and I fear the rise of the moon. Like all hunted creatures, I want darkness and deeper cover.

 On the other side of the creek I start climbing a steep slope covered with dry crunching leaf litter and find a thicket of oak saplings with a large boulder in front of it. I work my way into the thicket, concerned about rattlesnakes and scorpions, and hunch down behind the boulder. My breathing slows and lengthens. My heart no longer feels like it’s going to smash its way through my ribcage and bounce off through the forest.

These mountains have already taught me more than I ever wanted to know about fear. It comes in many forms and normally has an element of numbness and panic but not this time. I feel focused and alert, clear-headed ,and agile, with a deep black dread in my core. I stand up and peek over the boulder. The lights are still strafing the darkness. The fuckers are still out there. How can they be so drunk and yet so persistent? Ah yes, the cocaine. Instead of snorting it like gentlemen, they poured out little white mounds of it on the palms of their hands, threw it down their throats and chased it back with more beer.

“You say you’re alone and unarmed,” said the short fat one. “Aren’t you afraid someone will kill you?”

“Why would anyone want to kill me?”

The tall one smiled and said, “To please the trigger finger.”

The short fat one smiled and said, “Someone could kill you and throw your body down a ravine and no-one would ever know.”

I should have grabbed that warm fleece-lined corduroy shirt when I bolted away from them into the forest. I can keep running and hiding all night but we’re high up in the mountains, at 8,000 feet or so, and I’m already shivering in jeans and a T-shirt and by dawn the temperature will be close to freezing. If I had matches or a lighter, I would walk a long way from here and light a fire. If I had a shirt with sleeves, I would stuff it with dead oak leaves and pine needles for insulation. If I had half a goddamn brain, I wouldn’t be here in the first place.

And now another problem: what sounds like a large wild animal is walking through the dry leaf litter towards me. Its footfall is too stealthy, graceful and purposeful to be a cow or a donkey or a goat. A coyote perhaps? It sounds bigger. A mountain lion? The men said these mountains were full of them. They also said there were onzas — a kind of mutant mountain lion or lion-jaguar cross which has never been photographed and never furnished a verifiable pelt to a scientist. I don’t believe in the existence of onzas  and yet now I see one in my mind’s eye. The brindled elongated torso. The tufted elbows. The low skulking gait.

Whatever it is, this creature needs to know that I’m here and willing to fight. The human voice would be the most effective warning. Wild animals are extremely wary of people here, because the custom of the mountains is to shoot all wild animals on sight. But I daren’t make a human sound. I’m afraid human ears might pick it up. So I make a low snarling growl and the animal stops. I growl again and the footsteps veer away.

Deprived of language, hunted through the woods like an animal — what in the whoremothering bastard name of Jesus am I doing here? That’s the way people talk around here: grubworm sons of their disgraced mothers, filthy offspring of the grand raped whore. What in the goat-fornication was I thinking?

Those people up there will look at you like a great big pork chop. They’ll want to render your fat and eat your meat…

You can’t say I wasn’t warned. From the early planning stages of this long twisted journey, I have been bombarded and deluged with warnings. They came in such quantity that I stopped listening to them. I started trusting to luck and I was luckier than I deserve to make it as far as this thicket.

If you go up there alone, you become prey…

As I shiver through the long cold hours on the wrong side of midnight,  growling to keep the wild animals away, waiting for the men to give up and go home so I can get back to my truck and leave these mountains forever, one quiet husky voice keeps echoing in my head.

—Richard Grant

Richard Grant is a freelance British travel writer based in Mississippi. He was born in Malaysia, lived in Kuwait as a boy and then moved to London. He went to school in Hammersmith and received a history degree from University College, London. He is the author of American Nomads, God’s Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre, and Crazy River.

Jul 062014


I discovered the work of British writer Richard Grant after moving to Tucson, Arizona, in 2008. His second book, God’s Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre had just been released and was a word-of-mouth hit in Tucson, where parts of the book are based and where Grant himself then lived. Detailing his ill-advised travels through the mountains of Northern Mexico (culminating in his being hunted through a forest by rifle-toting “hillbillies”), the book helped contextualize my own somewhat tamer foray into Southwestern living.

I’ve since read his other works with equal relish, from American Nomads, his debut study on nomadic subcultures of the American West, to 2011’s Crazy River, an account of his attempt to descend the Malagarasi River in East Africa. These books, like God’s Middle Finger, combine elements of travel memoir with historical erudition, steely political insight, and joie de vivre. Equal parts Kerouac and Kapuscinski, his storyteller’s eye for the exotic is grounded by a journalist’s commitment to demystification, and his depictions of disparate peoples and their cultures are always empathetic, but never sentimental. This sensibility is especially apparent in Crazy River, in which the author’s bid to make his mark as an explorer a la David Livingstone collides with the political realities of modern Africa, and culminates in a visit to post-genocide Rwanda for an audience with the country’s controversial president, Paul Kagame. Here, as elsewhere in his work, Grant’s willingness to abandon the security of his assumptions and embrace the journey reminds us there is no adventure like learning, no substitute for getting out in the world and making up your own mind.

Grant continues to produce wide-ranging profiles and articles for publications including The Guardian, The Telegraph (UK), and Port. Recently, he wrote about wild hog hunting for Al Jazeera America, presented a documentary version of American Nomads, and narrated an upcoming film on infanticide in Ethiopia. Born in Malaysia, raised and educated in London, Grant has spent most of his adult life in the United States and is now an American citizen.

After relocating to Atlanta, I was surprised to learn he had also moved, and now calls the Mississippi Delta home. Our proximity spurred me to contact him and he graciously agreed to an interview. His only stipulation was that I bring a bottle of decent wine to go with the dinner he and his fiancé would prepare when I got there.

Our interview took place at his home near Pluto, Mississippi, on a clear afternoon in July. We talked on the wide veranda in front of his house, watching birds come and go from a nest near the roof, with Grant stopping at one point to prevent his dogs from chasing down a passing tractor. Hundreds of acres of green farmland surrounded us as we discussed writing, travel, and life on the Delta. My line of vision included a cotton field, a shed that is now Grant’s writing studio, and, beyond that, the tree-lined banks of the Yazoo River.

—Dan Holmes


Dan Holmes (DH): What brought you to Mississippi?

Richard Grant (RG): Sometime in the mid 90’s I was living in Tucson and I heard this blues album by Junior Kimbrough, “All Night Long.” It was like no blues I’d heard before. It was kind of a droning, hypnotic, stomping blues and I just loved it and found out it was put out by this label called Fat Possum Records, which was run by a couple of college kids in Oxford, Mississippi. They were going around recording the last undiscovered authentic Mississippi blues men, and they somehow managed to get a million dollars in debt doing this. I was like, “That sounds like a magazine story to me,” so I drove out here, went to Oxford, did the story, interviewed a bunch of these old blues men, hung out with the two white guys who were recording them and just really liked Oxford. I made friends there and kept coming back at least once a year. Always enjoyed Mississippi, just the storytelling and the conviviality and that kind of gallows sense of humor that you find. Then when my marriage busted up I didn’t have anywhere to live and my friend Bruce Watson offered to put me up in the Fat Possum trailer in Water Valley, Mississippi, which is next to their recording studio. So I spent the summer in there. T-Model Ford and Paul “Wine” Jones and these other blues guys would come and stay at the trailer quite regularly and give me advice on matters of the heart.

I thought hard about moving to Mississippi for a long time. I’ve always found it an interesting, complicated place. I didn’t know how to write a book about it. And my friend (chef and author) Martha Foose said, “You need to write a book about the Delta. It’s kind of its own place. Separate from the rest of Mississippi, nowhere is more deeply Southern.” So she was supposed to take me on a big tour of the Delta and it was supposed to jog loose a book idea. She turned up hungover and took me down here to Pluto, her family farm, and it was just so beautiful. It was a perfect spring day, and she drove me over the levy and showed me this house and told me it’s for sale and I could conceivably afford it. I was living in New York at the time, couldn’t afford to live in New York and was kind of losing my mind as well. My dog was depressed. My girlfriend was kind of on edge. I brought her down here and she just fell in love with the house and the people.

But I couldn’t get a mortgage. Free lance writing, you know, irregular income. Then Martha’s father, the man who was selling the house, took me to meet his banker in Yazoo City. He said, “Well I love to read books and I think it’d be great to have a writer around here. I’ll lend you the money right out of my bank on one condition.” I said, “What’s that?” He said, “Me and my wife, we don’t get out of Yazoo much. Y’all got to come over and have dinner at our place and tell us about the rest of the world. Tell us some stories.” That’s how I got the mortgage. That never happens in America, does it? So then rather than write a book about a journey, it’s a book about trying to settle down in the Mississippi Delta.

DH: It’s my first time here. It’s unlike anywhere I’ve been.

RG: It doesn’t remind me of anywhere else in the world.

DH: You said on The Guardian’s “Road Trip USA: Mississippi” documentary, “Nowhere on Earth is more American” than the Delta. What distillation of American-ness are you thinking of?

RG: There’s something in the music and folk art and the body language and the way people brag—how entertainingly people brag. There’s a rollicking swagger to things that I think of as American. We’re all armed to the teeth here. And if you look at political belief here in Mississippi, they’re about as far from European political beliefs as it can get regarding firearms and personal freedom, attitude towards government. I don’t know that Mississippi does very well without the federal government; it’s one of the few states that gets a lot more out of it than it puts in. It’s basically settled by a bunch of surly Scotch-Irish that have always hated central authority. Then put the civil war on top of that.

DH: And reconstruction.

RG: Yeah. You kind of see where that reflexive anti-government thing comes from. They just turned down a billion dollars in Medicaid expansion that would have created 9,000 jobs.

DH: The issue of race always surfaces when trying think critically about this region. Is that a help or a hindrance to you as you try to write about it?

RG: Life here is race relations. It’s so tied up in everything. The South does not process its history quickly. It’s a conservative place with a small “c”. Things change slowly. I remember when my fiancé and I first moved here. We’d be staying up under the mosquito net trying to figure out what race is, and what it means here. It seemed like every time you went out of the house there’d be some encounter that would baffle you. Maybe they’d be standard things in the South, but they were new to us. It’d be like some white person making racist jokes, and you’re like, “Oh he’s a racist.” And you’d find out he’s incredibly close to some black individual who worked for his family and he’d be weeping at his funeral.  Another thing that’s hard to get used to—and this is very much a minority opinion—black people who denounce the civil rights movement. I don’t get it, but some older black people are nostalgic for the days of Jim Crow because the family was stronger and the church was stronger, black businesses were stronger, the black community was more cohesive. But I’m like, “Lynchings and Jim Crow justice?” You know? Having to act totally subservient? I don’t know. We’ve just been scratching our heads a lot. You also don’t hear about how there was a sizable minority of white liberals here in the Civil Rights era. They’ve kind of got written out of the history books too.

DH: There’s definitely a strong vibe to this area. It’s very compelling but I could see it being “playing with fire” a little bit, whether it feels positive or negative.

RG: Things are getting better, though, and I do like being around that. They’re not engaging in any racial terrorism around here anymore. They’re not hanging people from trees in front of spectators. There are a lot of elected black officials. Many of them are not doing a good job, though that’s a separate issue. It’s a pretty segregated place socially, but when I’ve been to these events where black and white people do come together and have a really good time, it really feels like it matters somehow.

The thing about Mississippi—especially the Delta—you just can’t beat it for stories. Stories that come out of peoples’ mouths, stories in the newspaper. It seems like the culture encourages idiosyncracies and eccentricities. Like people get to express their full individuality. In the Delta, more so that in the rest of the state. Makes for wild and entertaining stories often, especially when you throw in a little exaggeration, which people here know how to do.

DH: We’ve spoken about some of the complexities here in Mississippi. You’ve intimated that it’s good to write about, for one thing. Is that something you look for in a place to live?

RG: I just found it really beautiful here, that’s the main reason that I wanted to live here. I found it interesting and I found it difficult to make sense of. I like that too. On the one hand people are nicer here than they are in most places. On the other hand they favor incredibly harsh policies on the whole and they’ve done all these terrible things in their past. They’re full of contradictions like that. And I just had so much fun here as well. Mississippi was always the place I’d come when my spirits were down, if I was depressed or unhappy. It was like my therapy. I would go to Oxford and go for a ramble around Mississippi. I would always have fun and it would kind of fix me. I suppose I do like remote places.

DH: Southern culture can be easy on visitors but hard to penetrate when you move here. Do you feel like more of an outsider here than you do in other parts of the U.S.?

RG: Absolutely. I do find it hard to penetrate. Especially when you have to drive a hundred miles to get anywhere and then you’re confronted with something that runs five generations deep and is all tangled up. People are quite warm and welcoming on the surface but are quite guarded at the next level down. Everyone’s just been here so long. I’ll be living in Dr. Foose’s house for the next 20 years.

DSCN4078Richard Grant’s House

DH: Does the Delta have anything in common with Eastern Africa or Northern Mexico, at least as a journalistic subject?

RG: There are aspects of the third world here, I’d say. Not just the poverty but the way things don’t kind of work properly. Dysfunctional local government. Trying to think of some examples of that. It was really hard to get a driver’s license. First time I went down there, the electricity was out. Second time I went down there—there’s no computers, just these badly photocopied forms that look like they’d been originally written in about 1979. It’s blurry, like a photocopy of a photocopy. So I had to fill that in. And then I wanted to pay with a bank card but they won’t sit up for that so I had to come back another time. And then they want me to bring my naturalization as an American citizen thing because they’d just passed some anti-Mexican law. I mean it was a real hassle. Things get ramshackle and third-world here sometimes.

In Greenwood you can join the police force without any training. Sometime within a year of getting hired you have to go to the police academy, but you can just go get a badge and a gun and a car and a ticket book. In Itta Bena they found that on the books they have to elect their judges but they’d been appointing them for 30 years and that all those decisions that the judges had handed down over 30 years could be challenged. Then the sitting judge refused to leave. The judge they were paying couldn’t get in the courtroom, so she’s drawing a salary but not doing any judging. Stuff like that just happens all the time. Quite a bit of corruption too. Can’t talk specifically about that, don’t want to libel anybody without sufficient proof. But you hear all these stories about corrupt police, corrupt judges, corrupt business arrangements.

DH: What about music? Will the book touch on that?

RG: It’s going to be an aspect of it. I’ve been hanging around juke joints. There aren’t many left but I do love the blues and it would seem churlish to write a book about the Delta without getting into it. There’s a fantastic blues guy who lives about 25 miles down there called Jimmy “Duck” Holmes who’s got a juke joint. I got him up here to play a party. Love him. I don’t know if you know the blues but Skip James was this really spooky hypnotic blues player from the 20’s who got rediscovered in the 60’s. He taught the guy who taught Duck Holmes how to play. They’ve got this special tuning they use. It doesn’t sound anything like Chicago blues. It’s mournful but beautiful.

T-Model Ford is the blues man that I got to know the best because he was up in the (Fat Possum) trailer all the time. Telling me, “You’ve gotta live like a tree.” And I go, “Well what do you mean?” He says, “A tree keeps growing and growing and don’t give a motherfuck about any other tree, and when he dies he knock them down!” That was one of those events—they were doing a fundraiser for T-Model Ford, the house is in a pretty rough black part of Greenville, which is a pretty rough town, and a bunch of white people came down there because they’re fans of his music. At first it was like, black people over here, white people over here, then by the end of it everyone was having fun and dancing and eating ribs.  When it happens here it feels like it matters a little bit more.


DH: How are the juke joints now?

RG: The one I went to down there, there was a couple from Montana and just a bunch of local farmers and tractor drivers and mechanics, what have you. The one up in Clarksdale is mainly European tourists at this point. It does change the atmosphere a bit. It’s more they want to take film and pictures of the blues man, whereas the one over here, people are there to dance and blow off steam. The tourists get all reverential, you know. Which is fine, it keeps the places going. It’s a gig for the musicians. First and foremost a lot of these guys don’t have a place to play. If it wasn’t for these tourists coming in it would be over. Some people say it’s artificial life support for the blues, but it’s fine by me. It was more fun in the juke joints when I was first going in to them 15 years ago.

DH: Have you seen a big change since then?

RG: Well there’s hardly any left. A bunch of them have burned down, closed down, and there’s like 4 or 5 left and there used to be a couple of dozen. That’s in the last 15 years or so. 20 years.

DH: I didn’t know it was that dire.

RG: Yeah. And it’s really tourists that are keeping them open now.

DH: Can you talk a bit about when you were first starting out?

RG: Writing wasn’t something that I ever wanted to do growing up. All I had was clear ideas of what I didn’t want to do, which was live a 9 to 5 life and work in an office. My main thing was I just wanted to get the hell out of England. I worked crappy jobs and got myself over here and spent a summer doing odd jobs, traveling around, and started writing letters back to friends in England. This was pre-email, 1986, 87. People really liked those letters and one of my friends said—he had started working for a magazine—“you know if you clean this up a bit we’ll pay you.” And I thought, “Good idea. Keep traveling and write about what I’m discovering and I won’t have to get a straight job.” So once I started doing that I read a lot of good magazine journalism, picking it apart and thinking about what made things work and what made things not work. I would work slowly and work hard on each paragraph, try it four or five different ways and see which seemed to be more effective.

DH: When you were working out kinks, were you publishing at the time?

RG: Yeah, I’ve pretty much published everything I’ve ever written.

DH: Early influences?

RG: I went through a Bruce Chatwin phase. I always thought Hunter S. Thompson was really funny. Never liked British fiction that much. I like Wilfred Thesiger who is another British travel writer. That was definitely an influence. And I like American journalism from the 70’s: Hunter Thompson and Tom Wolfe. Still seemed lively and fun when I found it in the mid 80’s.

DH: What made you come to the US?

RG: It was mainly to get out of England and travel. I was 20. I was into the Beats. I used to DJ and I would always DJ a lot of American music. I was into American books. I had friends in New York and Philadelphia. It just seemed like the obvious place to go.

American Nomads

DH: How do you know when a topic is big enough to make a book? Does everything start off as an article or do you kind of know right off the bat?

RG: The first book, American Nomads, I was collecting a lot of things in notebooks that didn’t really fit into magazine stories, and it was all to do with these drifters and nomads and people I’d met on the road. I was doing an amazing story about rodeo cowboys. They were complete nomads. I was talking to a friend who’d been reading Deleuze and Guattari on nomadism. We talked about these people I’m meeting and I thought, “This could be a book here.” Then I started going out to interview other nomadic groups. I was trying to write the book—I’d never written one before, I was desperately broke—and I just couldn’t make it work. It was just, “here’s a group”, “here’s a group.” I was reading history books too and I was trying to make the history tie together and it was dead on the page. I decided I needed to have a character whose progress you could follow through the book and I was the only option. So I started putting myself in it and that pulled it all together.

For God’s Middle Finger, in Mexico, I just poked up in the Sierra Madre a few times and I was totally intrigued by it. Living in Tucson you hear all these stories about big canyons and the Tarahumaras and it’s a “no-go” zone. That one would be an adventure/travel book. I was also in a reckless frame of mind for a period there. My marriage had just broken up and I wanted to do something difficult and, I guess, yeah, dangerous. I’d just been going that direction.

DH: Do you see Crazy River as a deepening of that impulse?

RG: I suppose so. I just couldn’t get over that there was a river no one had gone down before. In a way it was the same thing as the Sierra Madre: I couldn’t believe that no one was in there writing about it. It seemed like the kind of thing where you need a travel writer to go in and find out this stuff and bring back the news. I mention in Crazy River that you’d Google the river and nothing would come up! I found that to be an impetus.

The first time I went to Africa I was really terrified. At the last minute I got invited down the Zambezi River in dugout canoes. It was the 150th anniversary of David Livingstone coming down there and seeing Victoria Falls for the first time—I’m not going to use the term “discover.” So all of a sudden I was in a dugout canoe with hippos and crocodiles everywhere and I was really apprehensive. But I had the time of my life on that river. It was the African wild.

When I returned to Africa to research for Crazy River I was hoping for this deep wilderness reverie, but life intervened. It turned into something totally different. I had this vision of what the book would be, this sort of nice, clean journey down a river. Then that started to fall apart and I’m staggering around the slums of Zanzibar with this golf pro and it’s like, “Might as well keep notes!”  Then when I sat down to write it, it took a while to say: the way it actually happened is a good way to write the book. It is “plans falling apart and drifting helplessly” (laughs) without much control over what’s going on around you—that it would actually work on the page. I couldn’t see it for a while though.


DH: At the time you were writing it, did what had happened feel like a disappointment? Or could you see that it was turning into something else?

RG: In a sense it felt like a disappointment because it would have been a lot easier to structure and write the book if it had been just a nice neat journey from the start of the river to the end of the river. It would have had a nice, clean narrative line. I also think it would have been a lot more boring because, truth is, most days on the river are just not that interesting. You paddle, you scout, you eat lunch on the river bank. I really like it, but it would have been a more boring book, the one that I originally had in mind. I think the most interesting stuff in that book is not on the river. I ended up more interested in African politics and all of the other stuff going on.

DH: Do you do most of your research before or after, say with Crazy River

RG: With Crazy River I read a whole bunch of stuff on East Africa beforehand, and stupidly, some people think, I travel with 15 books, getting rid of some along the way. On a journey like that there is actually a lot of reading time. Not much else to do at night, sitting in some squalid little African hotel by yourself. It’s a good time to read. I like to read about the place I’m in while I’m there. When I was in Mexico, again I read a whole bunch before I went and then I had a crate in the  back of my truck—like a traveling library, about 30 books. I’ll read up on the newspapers and get my Google alerts for a year or so.

The newspapers here are great. They’re just full of weird things. Some of them have got really good local news stories. And I’ve got a shelf of books on the Delta that I’m kind of working my way through. But I guess not all travel writers or journalists do that. They just go in with a bunch of news clippings, but I have to find the best books and read them. I feel naked without that backbone of knowledge.

DH: In Crazy River there is a scene in a bar where you ask someone casual questions with what you describe as a “journalistic undertow”. What are some of the challenges of talking to people in other cultures where you need information for your work, but don’t want to be too pushy or rude?

RG: If you’re in that situation you need someone to be your friend, for reasons of personal safety as much as anything else. If you’re in that situation and you’re traveling by yourself in, say, central Africa, and you just pitch up in a town, you’re looking for someone that seems trustworthy that can be your friend, show you around, translate for you. The most important thing you can do is not antagonize that person. You can’t treat people the same way you would as a journalist here, in your own culture, because you’re dependent on their good will as a traveler. So you take your time and build trust slowly and get to the difficult questions subtly.

DH: That seems like another benefit to a more immersive approach to research, rather than someone who has a week to get everything they can. Lay the groundwork a little more.

RG: Yeah, as a journalist you get your clippings, you’d show up in a place and literally 9 times out of 10 everyone would have the story wrong as far as I could see it. Some journalists just bounced in and out with a bunch of first impressions. What I’ve found is if you stay a little longer and hang around the bars, and you don’t try to force things into a pre-existing framework that you often get a much different story. It seemed that the conventional wisdom was usually wrong. With a lot of journalists, you’ve got to pitch it to your editor, they go “here’s the story”, and they go to the place and try to make it the story they pitched to the editor. They’re trying to force reality into that shape.

DSCN4079 View from the porch

DH: Have you had issues with that yourself? You go somewhere and it’s different than what you were going for?

RG: All the time. But I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some good editors who understand that it’s often like that.  I want the freedom to write about what interests me. This book about the Mississippi Delta is not a travel book but it will have some similarities in that it’s a person who doesn’t know a place coming in and trying to learn that place. The difference is that I’m not passing through. I’m here. I’ve got more time to get to know the place.

DH: Do you expect to stay after the book is over?

RG: We’re hoping to stay. The people around here have just been fantastic. We’ve become very close with neighbors who live down there (points), and we’ve got really good friends over here (other way). You think, “We’re moving into the back woods and it’s going to be isolated.” But it’s quite social here.

DH: As an inveterate traveler has the concept of home been elusive?

RG: Yeah. I was always not that interested in it until I saw this place. I’m trying to get into it. But I do get restless here and bridle at the amount of chores this place gives me. I’m heading off to the Namibian desert quite soon and I’m looking forward to that. I do like it here. It’s just a big adjustment. I was never really attached to the places where I lived. I feel attached to this place and it’s kind of a new sensation for me.

—Richard Grant & Dan Holmes

Richard Grant is a freelance British travel writer based in Mississippi. He was born in Malaysia, lived in Kuwait as a boy and then moved to London. He went to school in Hammersmith and received a history degree from University College, London. He is the author of American Nomads, God’s Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre, and Crazy River.


DSCN4433 - Copy

Dan Holmes lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has appeared most recently in Litro.



Jul 052014

Dawn Promislow


My husband and I were driving down a country road, a two-lane highway in Amish land of western New York, rolling green farmland and countryside, in the late afternoon. The road unfurled as we drove, and we spoke, then were silent, and the light was the old light of September, golden. But a black horse, glossy and young, and unharnessed, appeared ahead of us in the middle of the road: cantering, stopping, then cantering again. We slowed, my husband slowed the car. The horse cantered past us, a few metres from the car, down the road. I’d seen his dark eyes, clear, his smooth coat. We drove on.

And then we saw an Amish man standing on the side of the road, a horse harness in his hand, and a group of women alongside, dressed in long dresses and bonnets, in the still heat. The man was in black, his hat was dark against the surrounding green. We realized it was their horse running loose and free. We continued driving. Then my husband said, perhaps we should help them? We realized, it dawned on us slowly, slowly, like the afternoon, or like a morning, that they needed to chase the horse, but they could only chase the horse on foot, as they had no car. Feeling guilty that we hadn’t offered them a ride before, we turned around, my husband made a turn in the middle of the road, carefully, and we drove back. The man was walking along the road in the direction of the cantering horse, I seem to feel he was limping, although perhaps he wasn’t – but the horse was out of sight now.

We offered him a ride, he accepted without a word, and got in the back of the car. With his black pants he wore a white shirt, it was a worn white, almost not white, and loose, as he was lean, and he was bearded so his voice was soft it seemed to me, or there was a strange accent in which he spoke, and together with the horse harness he was carrying a pail with oats in it.

We drove back along the road, the three of us looking out and around, across the fields and farmland and clumps of trees, the fields were beautiful and golden in that afternoon light. The car slowed, there was just its low hum, no other sound, and we saw slanting light and pale blue, and green green green. But we did not see the horse. I kept imagining we would see him, I wished to see him, to catch sight of him, of his live, living black, moving against the green golden, or under some trees, shaded. But we didn’t see him. The man said, never mind, he was sure the horse would be found. I couldn’t think how he would be found. The man said let’s go back, he wanted to go back, I felt his strong wish to go back. So we drove him back to his farm on the side of the road (I saw its red barn, I see it still in my mind’s eye), and we dropped him off, saying we hoped they’d find the horse.

My husband and I drove on, we followed on that two-lane highway through the countryside of western New York, green-clad. We wondered about it as we drove, we wondered what would happen to the horse, and to the farmer who had lost him. The afternoon wound down in its beauty as we drove, and we neared home, our home. It became less beautiful because it was the city then, but I have imprinted the green-gold, and the black-trousered man, and the coal-black horse (and the red barn), and the few words, but soft ones.

My husband thinks they must have found the horse after we were gone, when the afternoon became so late that it ended, but we don’t know, and we won’t know, and we’re in the city now, and far away, and it’s not that afternoon any more, it’s even winter now and white here, and night as I write this.

—Dawn Promislow


Dawn Promislow was born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa, and has lived in Toronto since 1987. Her debut short story collection, Jewels and Other Stories (TSAR Publications, 2010), was longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award 2011, and was named as one of the 8 best fiction debuts of 2011 by The Globe and Mail (Canada).


Jul 042014


Reality manifests itself as constant and objective – independent of us, but as changeable in space and time. Consequently, its reflection in us contains both properties. Mixed up in our mind, these properties are confused and we do not have a proper image of reality. Piet Mondrian

Think: Mondrian meets Jell-O Jigglers. Like the Jell-O, this artist’s mind does not stop moving. Victoria Palermo and her work are of a malleable nature, recognizable, yet positively reinvented over the years: flexible, accommodating, expansive. From her well known molded rubber sculptures to small poured nail polish drawings, to “chairs” made from living moss, she continually surprises the viewer with her unique creations. Shifting recently into the intriguing possibility of the viewer participating in the composition of the work, her latest constructions and her thoughts on plasticity reveal a complex mind and fantastic spirit.

– Mary Kathryn Jablonski


Say the word ‘plasticity’ and most everyone thinks ‘plastic,’ that ubiquitous molded material that we love to hate.

In sculptural art, plasticity refers to the degree of dimensionality in an object, and the active interplay between positive volume and surrounding space. The term comes from the Greek word plassein, meaning “to mold.”

Catherine Malabou describes plasticity in her book, Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing. The active potential for mutability is the quality that engages her, and she proposes plasticity as a handy, adaptable concept to describe how to perceive form, time, and reality. Malabou is a former student of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida.

Malabou takes up the vocabulary of materiality to critique earlier philosophical models. By way of establishing a framework for reference, she describes the transformation masks made by coastal peoples of Northwest America, masks that were hinged to reveal multiple faces. Plasticity describes the ability of something to become something else, but implicit too is the possibility to resume original form.

Bernini’s baroque sculpture, Apollo and Daphne, comes to mind. A vivid—even literal—illustration of metamorphosis, the work presents two figures, one in hot pursuit of the other. We see the moment of contact as Apollo catches up and Daphne simultaneously turns into a tree. In side views, there is space between the two, but that distance collapses when the sculpture is viewed from behind or in front of the figures. Then they appear as one sculptural mass. Daphne alternates between appearing either pretty much like a woman or pretty much like a tree, depending on your vantage point. The space around and within is activated by arms, legs, hair, and drapery, all unified in a swirl of directional flow.

Toy transformers are a pop culture reminder of our fascination with objects that go about changing before our eyes. As I write, Transformers 4: Age of Extinction, will soon open at the local mall cinema, and that makes me smile. Transformers have plasticity.

The term plasticity may also indicate the capacity to explode or come apart.

Palermo1-DIYD.I.Y., wood and Plexiglas, 2013

Applying the concept of plasticity to worldview sounds plenty plausible in a time when fixed meanings have gone the way of fixed identities (who do you decide to be on Facebook?).

But, what does all this mean for art making? Always, on a material level, there is a plastic nature to our perceptions of form (an object), which evolve as we take in additional visual information, our brains on auto-update. In studio—what to work through? —perhaps, making visual, the subject of plasticity, mutability, and transformation, and the idea that…

Palermo2-mylittlecomplex(my) little complex, silicone rubber, 2013 (three views)



nothing is static, but nothing is lost. It just becomes something else….

Palermo5-Lean-inLean-in, silicone rubber, 2013 (two views)


Victoria Palermo


Upstate New York artist Victoria Palermo works in both two- and three-dimensional modes with scale ranging from vest pocket to too big to fit in a pick-up truck, she favors a variety of media—as in nail polish, rubbery mix, wood chunks and carpet scraps. Recent projects include a bus stand in North Adams, Mass (thanks to support from MASS MoCA), outdoor sculpture at Chesterwood, and a three-person exhibit at Union College exploring the implications of Simon Mawer’s (and Mies van der Rohe’s) Glass Raum. Her work was included in the 2010 exhibit, Jewel Thief, curated by Ian Berry and Jessica Stockholder, at the Tang Museum. In 2004, she had a solo exhibit at the Williams College Museum of Art. Previous exhibits have taken her to farther away places including Marseilles, NYC, and LA, with reviews in Sculpture, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Lake George Mirror.

Her website can be found at www.victoriapalermo.com. New work will be shown this summer, indoors and out, at Salem Art Works in Salem, NY (see www.salemartworks.org).



Jul 032014

James KochalkaCartoonist James Kochalka

Sydney LeaSydney Lea & his grandson Arthur

At NC hybridity is a meme; cross-pollination is an artistic genre unto itself: books & art, artish books, art made of books, cross-genre books & text/art thingies we might not wish to categorize in the name of aesthetic license. This time Contributing Editor Sydney Lea (who also happens to be the Vermont Poet Laureate and a former Pulitzer Prize finalist for poetry) combines with cartoonist James Kochalka to produce poetic cartoons or maybe poetoons or maybe just poetry and images, nostalgic, whimsical, and touchingly comic.



The team-up project began during James Kochalka’s term as Vermont’s (and the nation’s) first Cartoonist Laureate. Sonia Rae of the Vermont Arts Council’s people got chatting one day to James Sturm, director of the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, and they wondered how a collaboration between the Cartoonist Laureate and the Poet Laureate might go. It would be, at least, unique. I knew and liked James, whose band is one of several that my son Creston plays in– I call its music faux naive– but cartoons? And yet I decided, Nothing ventured…etc.

The team-up proved a highlight of my tenure. We both enjoyed it (and so have more collaboration in progress as I write this). We started with my sending James a poem from my book Young of the Year, one that remembers some Yankee old-timers I knew and loved. A native Vermonter, James remembered some of his own, and I was floored by how closely his renderings matched the sort of people I had in mind.

So we were done, right? Not so fast, James told me. Now it would be my turn. He sent me the panels of Squiggle that you see here. I was to compose a poem suggested by these deft drawings.

I won’t vouch for any high quality in this collaboration besides James’s; but I can tell you how confirmed I was in my belief that gratifying artistic endeavor may come from the most unexpected places!

Sydney Lea

Garnett and Leon in December



Squiggle: Tonight’s the Night



—Cartoons by James Kochalka; Text by Sydney Lea

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

Kockhalk self portrait

James Kochalka is a comic book artist, writer, musician, and video game designer from Burlington, Vermont.  His comics have won four Ignatz Awards, the Harvey Award in 2006, and an Eisner Award in 2012.  His notable works include the diary comic strip American Elf, the Glorkian Warrior graphic novel and video game, and the SuperF*ckers graphic novel and animated cartoon series.  In 2011 he was named the first Cartoonist Laureate of Vermont.


Jul 032014


Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret succeeds both through its deconstruction of the adventure story and in its full embrace of the genre … one can only hope that more of Ondjaki’s work finds its way through the translation process. His is a voice the entire world should have the pleasure to experience. — Benjamin Woodard


Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret
Translated from Portuguese by Stephen Henighan
192 pages ($18.95)
ISBN 978-1927428658


Angolan author Ndalu de Almeida, who writes under the mononymous pen name, Ondjaki, is something of a literary wunderkind: at 36 years of age, he has already published 20 books, won the José Saramago Prize for Literature, and been named one of Africa’s best writers by The Guardian. And yet, though celebrated throughout his homeland, Europe, and South America, he remains relatively unknown in the English-speaking world. This is unfortunate, for the newly released Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret, a devilishly simple-yet-sturdy tale of childhood and revolution (and just the third work of Ondjaki’s to appear in English), proves how behind the curve we English-speakers are: so often doused by literature hampered by the overly serious, Ondjaki’s writing, full of humanity, vivacity, and character, is a whimsical breath of fresh air.

Skillfully translated by Stephen Henighan, Granma Nineteen is set in Luanda, Angola in the 1980s, years after Angola’s independence from Portugal, but firmly entrenched in the country’s long civil war (which mostly occurs off-screen), and follows the daily lives of the residents of Bishop’s Beach, a community of mostly children and grandmothers. The story is told through the eyes of a young, nameless boy, as he and his friends (in particular Pi, or 3.14) wander the neighborhood and mingle with a menagerie of delightfully nicknamed locals—Comrade Gas Jockey, Crazy Sea Foam, Dr. KnockKnock—and equally interesting Soviet troops, who occupy the land in an effort to support the ruling political party. The troops are also overseeing the construction of a massive, rocket-shaped mausoleum to house the corpse of fallen President Agostinho Neto, and it’s this structure that sparks the novel’s conflict: rumors arise that the Soviets plan on dynamiting, or “dexploding,” several homes in the beachside community to expand the tomb. Hearing these whispers, the children decide to take on the Soviets, planning a secret attack on the mausoleum in hopes of driving the invaders away before their land is destroyed.

The novel opens in medias res: there is an explosion in Bishop’s Beach, and as the dust begins to settle, it appears as if the neighborhood’s giant mausoleum has started to crumble. From here, Ondjaki leaps backward in time to tell the story leading up to this moment. It’s a well-worn trick, the flashback, one often used in action films, where the viewer is immediately dropped into the action, only to then step back and learn about the situation. Adding to this, Granma Nineteen’s premise certainly reads as if it lifted elements from the plots of many children’s adventure films from the 1980s (think The Goonies, or Explorers, or Red Dawn). But what’s intriguing about Ondjaki’s story is how fully aware it is of these familiar tropes. Rather than existing as a paint-by-numbers adventure, the novels functions as almost a commentary on the formula, with Ondjaki’s narrator constantly referring to the films he and his friends take in at the local cinema as they plan their attack. These children know how movies work, and apply this knowledge to create an adventure. For example, the first time the gossip of dynamite being smuggled in by the Soviets is raised, 3.14 says, “In cowboy movies dynamite is for blowing up trains, houses or even caves, to find gold” (18). This reference to cinema continues two pages later, when the narrator spies on the mausoleum from his bathroom. He turns off the light to remain invisible to the outside world. “I’d learned this from a war movie,” he says (20).

By constantly having his characters live out and reference moments from their favorite films, Ondjaki’s narrative succeeds on two fronts: first, a steady verbal rhythm is created. The word “movie” appears 26 times throughout the thin volume, and with each mention, the reader is simultaneously transported back to the previous mentions (a flashback-within-a-flashback, if you will) while also propelled forward within the narrative. This creates a wonderful looping rhythm to both the piece and the language within. Secondly, these moments reinforce to the reader the fantasy that is the novel: Only in a film would a ragtag group of youngsters take on a military force with nothing but their wits and courage. And this is where Ondjaki’s flashback structure also helps cleverly underline the narrative as that of playful, rambunctious popcorn. Knowing the mausoleum will be ruined at the beginning of the story allows the reader to fully embrace the events that lead up to the explosion.

In using a child’s perspective, Ondjaki writes a political rally cry of a novel without ever having to dedicate space to heavy political rhetoric. Angola in the 1980s was a cog in the Cold War, but these ideas mean nothing to a child. As such, while Ronald Reagan is mentioned, it is through the beak of a parrot as the children launch their attack:

We ran forward, then went in stealthily along the side of the veranda so that Granma wouldn’t call us. The yard was dark. The parrot His Name shouted out to expose us: “Down with Amer-ican imperialism.” We made an effort not to laugh: the words came from a television commercial that hadn’t run in a long time. Just Parrot finished off: “Hey, Reagan, hands off Angola.” (143)

Instead of talking politics, then, Ondjaki’s protagonist and his friends stumble through their adventure chatting about the things that ring true to children: cheating in games, the proper way to make fun of a superior, and the queasiness of the fairer sex. These are children who threaten to “smash your face in” (36) one moment, and then barter the next, as in when 3.14 and our hero attempt to procure a pair of pliers from Madalena, another child:

“You guys…You talk and talk and you don’t say anything.”
“You’re the one who’s not replying.”
“What was the question?”
“The question was about the pliers.”
“There must be a pair in the toolbox.”
“You can’t just lend them to us?”
“‘Just lend them’? Just how?”
“Just like that.”
“And if they catch me in Granma’s stuff. Aren’t they ‘just’ going to give me a thrashing?”
“No, Granma will only give you a kind of thrashing.”
“I can go see if they’re there.”
“Thank you, Madalena.”
“What’s this thank-you stuff? Thank you is what you say to the Comrade Teacher in school. Here there’s going to have to be salt for us to eat with green mangoes.”
“But haven’t you got the key to the pantry?”
“No. It’s in the display cabinet.”
“And the key to the display cabinet?”
“It’s in Granma’s room.”
It was agreed: salt in exchange for the pliers. Later she showed us a huge pair of pliers with a plastic grip that would be great for cutting an electric cable. We had already seen this in movies and everybody knew that to cut electric cables you had to be wearing shoes, wrap the pliers in a piece of cloth and not have wet hands or feet. (39)

Ondjaki rarely employs dialogue tags in exchanges like this, which adds to the chaotic nature of the moment. This chaos highlights an interesting concept: The reader doesn’t really need to know when 3.14 or the narrator or Madalena is speaking, for in the land of children, it’s less about who is speaking, and more about the end result of the conversation. Want conquers all. And here, Ondjaki also returns to the motif of cinema, lending the dialogue an association with the rapid-fire tête-à-têtes found in the screwball comedies of Preston Sturges and Howard Hawks. Again, the escapism of the children influences their lives.

In the end, Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret succeeds both through its deconstruction of the adventure story and in its full embrace of the genre. Added to this are Ondjaki’s quirks—the children wonder if Crazy Sea Foam has a pet alligator, the titular grandmother earns her moniker after losing a toe—and his uses of magical realism—one of the grandmothers turns out to be a ghost—which combine to build a story unique in its straightforwardness. In finishing Granma Nineteen, one can only hope that more of Ondjaki’s work finds its way through the translation process. His is a voice the entire world should have the pleasure to experience.

 — Benjamin Woodard



Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in, or is forthcoming from, Cheap Pop, decomP magazinE, and Cleaver Magazine. In addition to Numéro Cinq, his reviews have been featured in Necessary Fiction, Publishers Weekly, Rain Taxi Review of Books, and other fine publications. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com and on Twitter.


Jul 012014


The book’s narrative structure is more diegesis than conventional plot. The journeys upon which these three friends embark is more psychological than physical. Loss figures heavily in I’ll Be Right There, particularly death. Jung Yoon is haunted by her mother’s death, the professor keeps a collection of books written by people who died before the age of thirty-three – “the age at which Jesus was crucified and Alexander the Great created his empire and died” – and Miru has named her cat after Emily Dickinson whose death-themed poetry all of the characters admire. —Laura K. Warrell


08^883618 1Shin060814.jpg

I’ll Be Right There
Kyung-sook Shin
Other Press
Paperback, 336 pages, $15.95


The day I finished reading Kyung-sook Shin’s I’ll Be Right There, three people died in a string of shootings in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, a mere twenty-four hours after six students were killed by a classmate at a college in Santa Barbara, California. Perhaps a root cause of the spiritual crises currently roiling in so many American bellies is the inability to contain in the same intellectual space a culture in which inexplicable violence like this occurs alongside such privilege and enlightenment. But May 2014 was hardly a peak in the horrifying human activity we call world news as much as a continuation of the kinds of events that compel us to ask why things are as they are.

The characters in I’ll Be Right There live in a different part of the world (South Korea) during a different period in history (1980s) but pose the same questions: who am I and what is this life all about? What makes Shin’s novel such a gratifying and ultimately cathartic read is the answers it provides to these monumental questions, answers that may not fit the sunny, New Age thinking of the day. As the author explains in an interview on her publisher’s website, “we may be the protagonists of tragedy [but] we are also the heroes of our most beautiful and thrilling moments.”

An acclaimed novelist in her native South Korea, Kyung-sook Shin has published seventeen works and is known for her rich explorations of the inner worlds of her characters as they attempt to navigate the constantly shifting terrain of their lives. Her previous novel, Please Look After Mom, was an international bestseller and won the Man Asian Literary prize in 2012. I’ll Be Right There, her second book to appear in English, draws on Shin’s experiences as a student in Seoul during the military dictatorship of General Chun Doo-hwan whose autocratic rule triggered pro-democracy demonstrations in the 1980s. In May 1980, at least 150 people were murdered in the Gwangju massacre, an event the author told The UK Guardian was even more harrowing to her generation than the Korean War.

The novel opens with a prologue: the narrator, Jung Yoon, receives a call from an ex-boyfriend Myungsuh telling her their beloved college professor is dying. Jung Yoon’s memories immediately coalesce around one central question the dying professor’s teachings once inspired: “What are you doing with your life?” Finding an answer to that question becomes the desire every character in the novel wants to fulfill.

After the prologue, we flashback eight years; Jung Yoon is sitting in the professor’s class, watching her new classmates Myungsuh and Miru acting “like each other’s shadow”; later, the three meet at a demonstration (Myungsuh  rescues Jung Yoon after she’s knocked unconscious in the ruckus), become friends, walk around the city, talk endlessly, think about moving in together but don’t, meanwhile Jung Yoon and Myungsuh become involved only to split up when the intensity of their relationship becomes unbearable. In the second half of the book, Miru, who happens to be in love with the professor, tells the story of her sister, who killed herself after her boyfriend went missing (an interest in politics seems linked to disappearances). Miru feels responsible for her sister’s unhappy life. She takes up her sister’s quest to find the missing boyfriend,  a quest that ends in her death.

In the final chapter, Jung Yoon finds the courage to face her painful past by visiting her dying professor, where her suffering and the suffering of her friends gains meaning and beauty.

The main mystery of the book (the engine of the novel) is the mystery of Miru’s sister and the way she’s tied to the pro-democracy demonstrations. Before her disappearance, she passes on to Miru an envelope filled with clues she’s collected about her boyfriend — “some men came looking for him,” she says. Taking up her sister’s search for her lost lover is Miru’s answer, her existential choice, as it were, to the novel’s central question – “What are you doing with your life?”

The book’s narrative structure is more diegesis than conventional plot. The journeys upon which these three friends embark is more psychological than physical. Loss figures heavily in I’ll Be Right There, particularly death. Jung Yoon is haunted by her mother’s death, the professor keeps a collection of books written by people who died before the age of thirty-three – “the age at which Jesus was crucified and Alexander the Great created his empire and died” – and Miru has named her cat after Emily Dickinson whose death-themed poetry all of the characters admire. Several of the people who enter the narrative will not survive to its end, which contributes both to the book’s somber mood and to the ultimately uplifting spirit of its message.

But before Shin leads her characters to enlightenment, she lingers in their anguish. After Jung Yoon and Myungsuh first meet at the demonstration, he talks to her about his own disenchantment with the circumstances of life.

“‘They can’t stand it,’” he says of the protesters. “And that’s why they form barricades, throw paving bricks, and run away only to get caught and arrested. What they can’t stand is the fact that nothing ever gets better. Nothing has changed since last year…if I hadn’t met you…I might not be able to tell the difference between this day last year and today.’”

This is the first hint at Shin’s larger premise – that love and friendship are central to human existence because they rescue us from alienation and liberate us from despair. Inherent in Myungsuh’s words is the notion that social conflict is inevitable and constant, and so protest is ultimately futile. What is fresh and vital in life comes through our connections with other people.

The demonstrations insistently interrupt the three friends’ lives; bomb blasts and the scent of tear gas infect their personal moments; they stroll through riot zones; strangers telephone them begging for news of missing friends or relatives. The endless churning of political violence is both a literal and metaphorical representation of their existential crisis.

The old professor’s philosophy sustains his students and give the book its philosophical spine. Early in the novel, he tells the story of Saint Christopher, the medieval saint who wanted to spend his life serving the strongest man in the world and finally found him when he was told in a dream to carry a child on his shoulders across a river. When he gets to the other side, the child transforms into a man and tells him, “‘It was I, Christ. When you crossed that river, you were carrying the world on your shoulders.’”

“It is your fate to brave the swollen waters,” he says. “Though the waters may rise you must not stop before the child reaches the other side. So, how do we cross this river…you must treasure yourselves and hold one another dear.”

Shin uses folk tales and anecdotes like this to convey the underlying themes of the novel. She devotes pages and pages to the many stories the characters tell each other. A key bit of folklore, told by Miru, for example, is the tale of a cat who guides the dying to a salt lake while listening to them tell the stories of their lives, a tale, in fact, that seems to reflect the structure of the novel itself.

Miru’s search for her sister’s boyfriend does not have a happy ending, and the love affair between Jung Yoon and Myungsuh fails to last — they are exes by the time he telephones Jung Yoon in the novel’s first pages. But instead of a happy ending, perhaps what Shin wants for her readers is what their professor wants for his students: a life of examination that is not overcome by despair.

“Living does not mean passing through a void of nothingness but rather through a web of relationships among beings,” the professor writes in a letter. “Insofar as everything is always changing, so our sense of hope shall never die out…until you are down to your final breath, love and fight and rage and grieve and live.”

—Laura K. Warrell

LW sexy headshot white wall

Laura K. Warrell is a freelance writer living in Boston. She teaches writing at the Berklee College of Music and the University of Massachusetts Boston and is a July, 2013, graduate of the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has previously published both fiction and nonfiction in Numéro Cinq.

Jul 012014

Silverman, with Quizzle, web

Our July issue starts with fanfare and a delicious pun and a text/photo collage of excerpts from Sue William Silverman’s new memoir, The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew, explores her conflicted feelings toward Judaism and her efforts to pass as Christian – refuge from a scary Jewish father. It’s an exploration of identity among a mishmash of American idols and ideals. At the heart of this journey are three separate encounters with the overtly Christian, 1960s pop-music icon – and father of four daughters – Pat Boone. He represents a kind of talisman reflecting Sue’s desire to belong to the dominant culture and religion. She tries on other identities as well – Baby Boomer, ballerina, hippy, kibbutznik, lefty, rebel – seeking an authentic self. The book is more ironic than dark and simultaneously celebrates the inclusivity of American culture and subverts the notion of belonging.

Here in this montage are photographs that reflect specific moments in the memoir. Accompanying the photos are quoted excerpts from individually titled chapters of the memoir.

Sue is an old friend and colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts. This is her second appearance in NC. It’s terrific to have her back.


Silverman, The Pat Boone Fan Club, for web


Even though I’m now an adult, Pat Boone still reminds me of those innocent all-American teenage summers at Palisades Park, Bermuda shorts and girls in shirtwaist dresses, corner drugstores, pearly nail polish, prom corsages, rain-scented lilacs, chenille bedspreads and chiffon scarves, jukebox rock and roll spilling across humid evenings…. He is Ivory soap, grape popsicles, screened porches at the Jersey shore, bathing suits hung to dry, the smell of must and mildew tempered by sun and salt. He is a boardwalk Ferris wheel, its spinning lights filling dark spaces between stars. He remains all the things that, as you age, you miss—the memory of this past smelling sweeter than honeysuckle on the Fourth of July…. —Sue William Silverman

My Sorted Past


Sally Pressman [the actress who plays me in the movie version of my memoir Love Sick] hands me her copy of my book to autograph, right before I leave the set in Vancouver. She’d scrawled stars and check marks in the margins to note certain passages. Some sentences are underlined, others highlighted. I sign my name on the title page, with a blue pen, along with a little message.

I regret that I never asked Sally for her autograph. But what would she have signed for me? A loop of celluloid? My copy of the salmon-colored schedule of scenes? Perhaps she could have signed her name beside the line about Sue’s sorted past.

Of course the word “sorted” was meant to be “sordid.” But I like the mistake. In the movie, in my book, in my flesh-and-blood life, I’ve sorted through selves, as if through old photographs, in order to discover one image that’s the one authentic me. How many costumes and masks did I change to wander through one small life?


The Wandering Jew

The Wandering Jew

One afternoon in St. Thomas, I see the movie Limelight starring Charlie Chaplin…who saves a young ballerina, Thereza, about to commit suicide because she suffers hysterical paralysis. She can neither walk nor dance….

After I see the movie, I am virtually mute for days. I stay home sick from school. I refuse to eat. I refuse to get out of bed. Only he can soothe me, Chaplin, this tramp, helping young ballerinas dance. He comforts girls who are lost, lonely, confused, paralyzed, trapped. He leads them away from harm’s way, saving them….

Since we first moved to the island, I have taken ballet lessons from Madame Caron at the Virgin Isle Hotel. She is the mother of French actress Leslie Caron, star of Gigi. I’ve never seen Leslie Caron in person, but her brother sometimes visits the island. The other girls and I, while practicing pliés and arabesques, watch for him outside the hotel windows. He struts around the swimming pool in a French-cut bathing suit, a Gaulois Disc Blue aslant between his lips. We girls dance as if for him, hoping to be noticed.

Today, however, after seeing Limelight, I don’t watch for him. Nor am I able to chatter with my friends as we change into Danskin leotards and pink tutus. I sit on the floor in the dressing room, my Selva ballet slippers in my hands. I mold the rabbit fur into the toes, then slide my feet inside the soft cushions. I crisscross the pink satin ribbons up my ankles and calves.

Once I’m ready to dance, I feel transported to London. The scent of trade winds ebbs as I inhale a cold, damp winter. As all the girls trail down the corridor to the hotel ballroom, I, Thereza, enter the stage of the Empire Theatre. Charlie Chaplin waits for me in the wings. My adult eyes are lined with mascara and kohl, my cheeks and mouth rouged.

The orchestra tunes in the pit.


That Summer of War and Apricots 1

Sue with an Israeli paratrooper

I lie alone on the ground beneath stars and planets in an orchard of mishmish (apricot) trees.  I am in Israel, having recently quit my job on Capitol Hill, my first after graduating college.  I press my head against the ground as if I can feel reverberations of Ari’s footsteps patrolling the kibbutz, his military boots circling closer to me.

I’ve been awake since four a.m.  From four to eleven, in the cooler air, my group picks apricots.  I strap a white canvas bucket over my shoulders and carry a wood ladder from tree to tree.  Before dawn, fruit is almost invisible on the dark branches.  I search more by feel, my fingers distinguishing fuzz from the slickness of leaves.  After filling a bucketful, I unhook the bottom.  Apricots, like cataracts of sunbeams, flow into the bed of a truck.  Then I return to the ladder: more apricots, more trees….

I flew to Israel after the Six Day War.  For the first time I’m proud to be Jewish, after wishing, all my life, to be Christian….

But do I belong here in Israel?

Am I of this new sun-drenched nation? Or just in it?

A callused hand grips my forearm.  A glint of an Uzi. Ari. His nose is thin, his eyes green, his hair so blonde he could pass as one of my Christian boyfriends….

We don’t speak.  Night spills stars across the Mediterranean sky.  The moon presses me to the earth—this Israeli moon, this soil, this man cradling me, our bodies bruising fallen fruit.’


That Summer of War and Apricots 2

2, That Summer of War and Apricots

Beneath my bare feet the floor in my bungalow is gritty with dust and sand. Out the window, yellow-green fields flow to orchards…, the air brittle with the friction of insect wings. In the distance, a Soviet-built MiG-21 zips open the sky. It plunges toward earth—quick—dropping a bomb on an Israeli town or military encampment…. Its silvery light ebbs to black. A plume of smoke hazes the horizon….

I lie on my mattress stuffed with straw and covered by a rough wool blanket….

I drift, my head on the hard pillow, gently rocked by slow concussions of sound. Light burns dust into air….

This, while a blank aerogramme rustles in a desert breeze.


Galveston Island Breakdown: Some Directions

Galveston Island Breakdown, Some Directions

At Thorne’s, a new restaurant, stand on the sidewalk gazing through floor-to-ceiling windows. Candlelight flickers on forest-green walls, white tablecloths, the mahogany bar. The ornate mirror behind the bar reflects bottles of liquor. Your husband, holding a Black Russian, sits with couples who used to be your friends, before you caused a scandal by running off [with a man driving] a blue convertible. Now they no longer speak to you.

Reflected in the window, see yourself superimposed on the room. But imagine the way you looked when you dined here. You wore long skirts, silk flowers in your hair. You sipped Sambuca with a coffee bean garnishing the bottom of the crystal glass. All evening your husband talked about the restoration project. He loves these buildings…and, sure, you love them, too. But you want him to love you more.

Leave before anyone sees you, lurking.

—Sue William Silverman

(Quotes from The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew by Sue William Silverman by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. © 2014 by Sue William Silverman.)

Sue William Silverman’s new memoir is The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew (University of Nebraska Press). Her two other memoirs are Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction (W. W. Norton), which is also a Lifetime TV movie, and Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You (University of Georgia Press),which won the Association of Writers and Writing Programs award in creative nonfiction. Her craft book is Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir (UGA Press), and her poetry collection is Hieroglyphics in Neon (Orchises). She teaches in the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.


The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew