Meditation and Contemplation

Luke Hankins is a poet, editor, and founder of Orison Books, a publishing company committed to supporting voices at the growing edges of spirituality and literature. In his first poetry collection Weak Devotions (Wipf and Stock, 2011), Luke explores the religious context of his childhood, one marked by violence, fundamentalism, mental anguish, and a pure desire to encounter God in the midst of it. With years of experience as an editor at Asheville Poetry Review Luke has written extensive poetry criticism, essays on aesthetics, and more—all in the service of his search for spiritual art and literature. As he writes in the mission statement of Orison, “the best spiritual art and literature call us to meditate and contemplate, rather than asking us to adopt any ideology or set of propositions,” and Luke’s edited anthology Poems of Devotion brings together emerging voices calling us toward that meditation he describes. He graciously allowed us to republish a few of his poems—and to present a new one for the first time (“The Right Way”)—and we discussed devotional poetry, faith and violence, and the struggle to find a language to express our spiritual longing.

from “Weak Devotions”

Why do You leave
some recess of my mind,
my heart, unlorded?
Leave nothing behind
that will linger in shit
and wallow and grind
itself in filthy defiance,
in masochistic, blind
groping after further
blasphemies. Furnace, kind
Lord, the furthest reaches
of me—make me refined.
Make me new. Take me to You.
Why have You assigned
this torture to me,
this desperate mind
that thinks inevitably
what it fears to think? Be kind
and do not let me be.
Need I remind
You, Lord, that You lay claim
to even the blindness of the purblind
worm—not only its righteous
wriggling? Be kind and be, kind
Lord, what You rightly are.
Rule what—whatsoever—you find.
Rein me in and reign in me.
There is freedom only when You bind.
Take me wholly, holy God.
Wholly, Holy. Mind my mind.

*Reprinted from Weak Devotions (Wipf & Stock, 2011).

Curator: More than a poet, you also edit work, curate anthologies, and run Orison Books, a press you founded. Online, we’re often trained to build our own platforms and focus on our own writing, so why work so intentionally with others? How did Orison come about?

Luke: I’ve been an editor almost as long as I’ve been a writer. In college, I worked at the campus literary magazine; in graduate school, I worked at Indiana Review; I’ve worked at Asheville Poetry Review, a national literary journal based in my current hometown, for ten years. I’ve always loved championing and publishing work that I’m enthusiastic about, and also working with authors to strengthen their work. Orison Books is a natural extension of those passions.

As valuable as periodical editing is, let’s be honest—the audience is miniscule. Books, however, are a little different. There’s at least a possibility that a book will gain a lot of attention and find a place on many bookshelves, to be treasured and returned to year after year. For whatever reason, we don’t treat literary magazines the same way. They feel more ephemeral and I think we treat them as such. Very seldom do people keep past issues of literary magazines on their shelves—unless their own work appears in them. Our cultural relationship to single-author books is different, more long-term.

Curator: You begin Poems of Devotion, an anthology of modern devotional poetry, making a careful distinction between devotional poetry directed toward God and poems about devotional experiences. Why is this distinction important for the reader to understand?

Luke: My aim in the introduction, and in the contents of the anthology, was to demonstrate not a genre so much as a mode of composition. The devotional mode, in my mind, is experiential on the writer’s part, a dynamic and uncertain process in relation to the divine—or at least the idea of the divine. This kind of poem enacts devotion through its very making, rather than simply recounting a past experience or pre-conceived notion.

And I want to be clear that when I speak of devotion, I decidedly do not mean simplistic expression of faith and certainty—that hogwash that passes for “inspirational” verse. To me, that’s not even devotion, because it doesn’t do justice to the human relationship to the divine. Real devotion is full of doubt, curiosity, wonder, confusion, anger, playfulness, fear, awe—all of those real human responses to the ineffable, transcendent, immanent sublimity of God.

Curator: I imagine the process of anthologizing devotional poetry exposed you to the best and worst of the genre. I wonder if you could reflect on the state of the devotional poem today? What’s happening in this genre that needs to change? What excites you about today’s devotional poetry?

Luke: I’ve just mentioned the hogwash that passes for inspirational verse. I think that’s all I need to say about that. There’s also the kind of poetry that seeks to convince the reader that the poet has all the answers or to proselytize—which I think is the opposite of devotional poetry because it doesn’t exist in relationship to mystery, but rather relies on false certainty.

But I think the state of real devotional poetry today is very exciting indeed. I’ve seen so much compelling recent work that embodies brave spiritual searching from poets and musicians like Christian Wiman, Jane Hirshfield, Leonard Cohen (ave atque vale), Yehoshua November, Kimberly Johnson, Vandana Khanna, Franz Wright (requiescat in pace), Bruce Beasley, Alicia Ostriker, Kaveh Akbar, Leila Chatti, and many, many others. I also want to single out the poems Brett Foster was writing at the end of his all-too-short life.

I hope that Poems of Devotion provides an important historical overview of recent decades, and that the annual Orison Anthology that Orison Books has initiated—we released the first volume last year—will help provide an ongoing record of today’s best spiritual writing.

Curator: Your recently published poem “Equal and Opposite” reflects on the weakness of language to express spiritual experience, and it reminded me of Rowan Williams, who said, “Language behaves as if it were always ‘in the wake’ of meaning rather than owning or controlling it.” In a way, you’re asking to be carried upstream to an experience of being that language cannot contain. How has poetry helped to carry you there?

Luke: I imagine that no one feels viscerally both the possibilities and limitations of a medium until they’ve worked with it for a long time. The longer I write poems, the more I feel the tension between the wild potential of words and their ultimate insufficiency. I think poets are fascinated with language for both reasons—its potential and its limitations—as I’m sure painters are with canvas and paint and musicians are with sounds.

One of the things that writing poetry does, over time, is cause you to attend more closely to the ways language informs, shapes, and even limits your experience. That’s what I’m wrestling with in the poem you mention. For better and for worse, humans are linguistic creatures, and we inhabit language constantly. Physical experience is always accompanied by and mediated through internal language.

I don’t have much more to say about this than what the poem itself says, nor do I think I’m able to say it any better than in that attempt.

Curator: It seems our public life has a fraught relationship with language right now. We’re reeling from political rhetoric and the constant bombardment of information online, and this atmosphere makes it difficult to speak and think clearly. The way we use words seems to be part of the problem, what can we do to restore our language and how can poetry and literature help?

Luke: I probably differ from most writers in this, but I don’t believe that language needs any restoration. Language itself is not ill—how could it be? Language, like any cultural product, is not inherently good or bad, right or wrong, healthy or sick. Language exists as a constantly evolving medium, a tool for us to use. What matters is the way we use it.

What you’ve called our “relationship with language,” however, may well be unhealthy. This is nowhere more evident than in our current politics, as you rightly point out. Donald Trump and his laughable excuse for a White House team continually use language to distort reality and to lie. Kellyanne Conway’s oxymoronic phrase “alternative facts” exemplifies this insane administration’s relationship to reality. The people in the most powerful positions in our country right now are deeply ill, spiritually, psychologically, ideologically. Their relationship to language is constant evidence of this.

While it’s vital that poetry continue to use language to illuminate reality and the human experience rather than distort it, its ability to effect political change in the moment is very limited. The audience for poetry in our country is a very small percentage of the population, and one that tends to already be politically progressive—poetry mostly operates in an echo chamber. We shouldn’t minimize the importance of shoring one another up through dark times, nor the potential for poetry to outlive us and benefit future generations, but we should also be honest with ourselves about the limitations of our literary work. We ought never give up our art, but we need to combine it with tangible political action as well.

Curator: The cycle of poems in the first section of your book Weak Devotions is an unflinching examination of violence. You write about writhing cottonmouths, barbed wire, a boy shooting another boy with a pellet gun, etc. The violence circles closer and implicates your own body where you’re in the earth digging a grave, your hands are soaked in blood. At one point you’re even covered in piss. These moments seem to operate in you as existential shock, a forceful clearing away of the mind’s debris in response to bodily suffering. How do you understand the violence that has happened in your life? How have you used it, and how has it shaped your understanding of religion?

Luke: Andrew Hudgins, in what I think is one of the finest religious poems of recent decades, writes about Christ in response to an artwork by Andres Serrano:

He peed, ejaculated, shat, wept, bled—
bled under Pontius Pilate, and I assume
the mutilated god, the criminal,
humiliated god, voided himself
on the cross, and blood and urine smeared his legs—
the Piss Christ thrown in glowing blood, the whole
and irreducible point of his descent:
God plunged in human waste, and radiant.

We have grown used to beauty without horror.

We have grown used to useless beauty.

(“Piss Christ,” from American Rendering: New & Selected Poems)

The idea that beauty without horror is of no use is a fascinating one. While I don’t believe that suffering in and of itself is a good, I do believe that we find God incarnate there every bit as much as we do in pleasureful experience. Beautiful art that doesn’t do justice to the suffering that is inherent in being human doesn’t serve art’s highest purpose.

I’m reminded also of a beautiful passage from one of Orison Books’ recent titles, Two Worlds Exist by Yehoshua November, in which the poet references mystical Chassidic teaching:

Two worlds exist:
The higher hidden one
and our earthly realm.
Everything that occurs in this life
flows down from the hidden world.
That which appears good
descends through an infinite series of contractions
until it fits within the finite vessels of this world.
That which appears tragic
slides down, unmitigated,
from the hidden realm—
a higher, unlimited good
this world cannot hold.
So the mystics explain suffering
if all comes from above,
from where no evil descends.

The poem concludes:

When I was younger,
I believed the mystical teachings
could erase sorrow. The mystical teachings
do not erase sorrow.
They say, here is your life.
What will you do with it?

So, while violence and suffering are not beautiful in and of themselves, I try in my work to find meaning in them, to see how they might teach me something about what beauty really means, by being informed by its opposite. In that way, maybe we can do something useful with our pain.

Curator: Violence can also be internal, and you’ve also explored the theme of mental anguish in your work. In section X of “Weak Devotions,” you say, “Do not leave me / feral and alone—yank / my heart that it may come heeling / and creaturely before You.” It’s a prayer asking for divine violence, and it echoes other devotional poems like Donne’s infamous “Batter my heart, three-person’d God.” These poems fit squarely in the tradition of “dying to self,” but what’s the difference between the death of self and self-harm?

Luke: I can’t pretend to know where the line between self-abnegation and self-destruction lies. It’s likely different for each person. Some of the spiritual thinkers I most admire—Simone Weil, Franz Wright, David Bazan—often seem to me to cross this so-called line. I love their work despite its extremity—well, also because of its extremity, if I’m honest. It’s something like what I’m talking about in the poem “The Right Way” when I say “I think / you’re wrong, but wrong in the right way.” The farther away I move from my fundamentalist upbringing, the more I find myself interested in ideas I technically disagree with, such as Weil’s insistence on the “destruction of the ‘I’” rather than simply its abnegation, such as when she speaks of “decreation” and “self-effacement”: “The self,” she writes, “is only the shadow which sin and error cast by stopping the light of God,” and “Even if we could be like God, it would be better to be the mud which obeys God.” I pity Weil. She’s all Romans 9 and no Sermon on the Mount. But I also admire the dark beauty of what she’s written, even where I think she’s mistaken.

About the self-destructive strands in my own poetry, I’d like to say that they’re the record of particular times in my life, and are not indicative of my day-to-day outlook. I recall that T. S. Eliot once said something beautiful and insightful about his early work when asked, late in life, whether he would change anything about his early work. He said, essentially, that he didn’t feel that he was enough the same person as to have the right to change anything about his early work. My collection Weak Devotions was published in 2011, so even the most recent of those poems are seven or eight years old—and many are much older. So, while I wouldn’t change much about them and I remain proud of them, they’re not the poems I’m writing today.    

Curator: In an introduction to a poet published by Orison, you say, “this is the highest and most essential function of art and literature: not to provide the so-called answers that ideology attempts to, but to delve fully into the unknown, to accept it, to bravely meet it. And by doing so, to convince those who encounter one’s art that they are not alone, but that there is that type of invincible human solidarity that Joseph Conrad so eloquently describes.” That distinction between ideology and literature is fascinating to me. I’m often more moved by Denise Levertov’s poetry or Frederick Buechner’s Godric than creeds, and it’s been cause for confusion for me. How do religious communities begin to support this kind of brave meeting?

Luke: Art is experiential. Creeds are propositional. Experience carries authority because it isn’t conclusive, but rather full of mystery. And if we believe—or at least suspect—that God is immanent in the actual world we live in, then we encounter Her through experience.

Creeds lose their authority because they seek to claim too much of it, without doing justice to experience. Religious-minded folks often make idols of creeds, all the while looking askance at art out of fear of idolatry. Dear God, the irony.

Curator: The poet Franz Wright said, “You gave me / in secret one thing / to perceive, the / tall blue starry / strangeness of being / here at all.” Your own work as both poet and editor searches for this enlarging of perception. Any last advice for our readers hoping to do the same?

Luke: The strangeness of being—the mystery—is all.

A Shape with Forty Wings

Love is strange and calls me to stranger things.
When I was young I thought that I’d know why.
I’ve drawn my life—a shape with forty wings.

The woods at night are full of awesome beings.
Listen carefully and you can hear them cry:
Love is strange and calls us to stranger things.

I want to follow everything that sings,
but I cannot tell you how afraid I am to fly.
I’ve drawn my life—a shape with forty wings.

The unseen Being deep inside me brings
ideas to mind I hope I’ll never try—
Love is strange and calls me to stranger things.

Possibilities surround me in concentric rings.
A light shines down that I cannot see by,
yet I’ve drawn my life—a shape with forty wings.

I walk about as if I understood my wanderings.
If You are near, show me how to die.
Love is strange and calls me to stranger things.
I’ve drawn my life—a shape with forty wings.

*Reprinted from Weak Devotions (Wipf & Stock, 2011).

The Right Way

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in a letter from prison,
The transcendence of epistemological theory
has nothing to do with the transcendence of God.
Which, given, is an epistemological theory all its own . . .
But the sentiment is right. It feels right to say that sentence.
And so I say it over and over, and I write it again and again.
He also says that God’s “beyond” is not the beyond
of our cognitive faculties. Hmm. I can’t
technically agree with either statement,
as they seem to arise out of the very processes
they’re attempting to discount. It involves a logical fallacy
for which I’m sure logicians have a name.
But I do say yes to these statements.
I do memorize and repeat them.
Dear Bonhoeffer, I don’t agree, but I feel you, man.
It’s strange—I could almost be talking to myself.
Heaven nowhere more possible than in the depths of hell,
I write. God as reason beyond reason.
Dear Me, I feel you, man. I think
you’re wrong, but wrong in the right way.


Equal and Opposite

Looking at the sky, the word sky
comes to mind. The word has a referent—
the sky itself—but the sky itself
has no referent. To live in language
is to anticipate metaphor,
but in this moment I sense the void
upon which, all these years, I have built
my house of words.
Only come with me
to the precipice where I peer in terror,
I pray, grasping at words
that offer no resistance
like feathers snatched from the air,
like ropes not tied to anything.
I plunge through the world
that is no language
praying (in my language)
to the absent Referent,
the force equal and opposite
to the void, the grip that can
(I pray) suspend my fall
so that I might hang
in what the sky means.


*Originally published in St. Katherine Review and also appeared in The Poet’s Quest for God (Eyewear Publishing, UK, 2016).

Chimneys Dark & Spirits Bright

This post was originally published in 2012. 

On the eve of Christmas’s reemergence in England,Charles Dickens and Washington Irving began a correspondence. It’s no secret, especially at this time of year, that Dickens was the father of Victorian Christmas. English folk had all but forgotten the festivities once surrounding the advent season, thanks to a superstition-wary protestant reign. By means of one well-timed Christmas story – A Christmas Carol – the upper classes were reminded what “keeping Christmas” meant, and were ready to dance quadrilles, deck halls, sing carols, and wassail to their stomachs’ content in the name of the holiday. They were also reminded of their country’s less fortunate, the Tiny Tims and workhouse families that remained hard up and left out, particularly in this time of heightened merriment.

Over in America some thirty years earlier, Washington Irving had done much to revive Christmas sentiment, as well, with his sketches of traditional English celebrations and a reimagined St. Nicholas. Dickens later admitted he drew inspiration for his own festive scenes from Irving’s descriptions. And so when, in 1842, Irving wrote Dickens to express his admiration, Dickens responded immediately, overjoyed to receive acclaim from the man who had authored the satirical Knickerbocker’s History of New York, which Dickens had “worn to death in [his] pocket.” It was only one year before Dickens would publish A Christmas Carol. These Victorian-era Fathers of Christmas, one British, one American, shared an appreciation of humorous satire, of keen social observation, and of England – particularly English Christmas tradition. Also, Charles Dickens and Washington Irving both had a thing for sending people up chimneys.

Dickens was against the practice, actually. He hated the tight climbing work that ruined – and often ended – the already miserable lives of London’s poorest child: the iconic Victorian chimney sweep. He knew about the physical dangers of bodies in small spaces, the carcinogenic effects of breathing soot, the after-hours life that usually involved no sort of family. And so the dark structures loom as a backdrop to many of his stories’ gloomier moments, grim monuments foreboding the death knell of many a hapless orphan. His more familiar characters like Oliver Twist barely escape such a fate. Alternately, the blazing chimney hearth shines in Dickens’s tales as a symbol of the warm potentiality of home. Dickens hoped for betterment in his economically fractured and morally broken city, and he put most of his eggs in the basket of home and family. In stories like the Christmas tale The Cricket on the Hearth, a bright fireside illuminates the family’s – and the reader’s – way.

Dickens himself never made a workplace of the chimney, but he was no stranger to child labor. The tale is familiar: his father found himself in debtor’s prison and a young Dickens found himself affixing labels to boot-blacking pots. Despite his early education, sharp mind, and vivid imagination, he was, for a time, a working boy, rubbing up against the lower classes. He never forgot it. In his young adult years, as his first fiction stories were just taking shape, Dickens served as a parliamentary journalist, actively reporting on proposed reform that had direct bearing on the suffering poor. And so the plight of the poor and the government’s response – or lack thereof – bled into his fiction. In 1843, at the age of 31, Dickens’s tendency toward keen observation of the human condition intersected with all he had seen and heard, andleft him with his most popular story to tell. Ebenezer Scrooge and the three Christmas Spirits formed themselves in his imagination, and he jumped on the idea like Santa to his sleigh. [1]

A mere three and a half decades before Dickens penned the landmark holiday tale, Washington Irving sent a different type of figure down a chimney for the first time: St. Nicholas. The “new” St. Nicholas Irving described in his 1809 Knickerbocker was neither the dignified bishop of Dutch wooden shoe-filling lore, nor the fat man in red we Americans now know best, popping a Coke top with a twinkle in his jolly, commercialized eye. There’s a rendering of St. Nick in Smithsonian Magazine’s December Art Museum feature, as interpreted by artist Robert Walter Weir. Irving’s version, like Weir’s painting, imagines a different type of Christmas spirit, darker and less trustworthy than the traditional Father Christmas, for all his glorious gift dispensing. As the article points out, it is a “mischievous St. Nick” about to disappear back up the chimney with his bag of toys, his finger to his nose, and, possibly, “the family silver.” It isn’t actually certain that Irving’s version descends and ascends chimneys in a like manner, but he certainly lights on rooftops and drops “magnificent presents down them [2]” throughout the Christmas season (which is an odd and rather creepy practice, if you pause to think about it). Here, in that very Knickerbocker’s History of New York that Dickens so loved, is a Santa who steals in like a thief reminiscent of those blackened London chimney boys. When it comes to the Irving’s jolly Christmas icon, there’s some strange, if unsettling, charm in the thought. In the matter of Dickens’s child sweeps, the idea is outright troubling.

Which may be why that particular purveyor of Christmas cheer – Dutch, impish, Coca-Cola-imbibing, or otherwise – doesn’t figure in Dickens’s versions of Christmas, though they are full of fireplaces and chimneys. Dickens knew what a nasty place, both literally and figuratively, the chimney was. He easily passed many a chimney sweep on the London streets, possibly as young as four years old – weary, sooted boys earning a dangerous, miserable, and likely short living, and reaping the contempt of London’s more civilized citizens. The wealthy of Victorian London looked upon the chimney sweeps and saw villains in the making. They depended on those blackened boys for household cleanliness and warmth and, above all, safety, but wouldn’t trust them farther than they could throw their stockings.

You could argue Dickens’s Ghost of Christmas Present bears some resemblance to the older, original Dutch Father Christmas, surrounded by gifts and food and imbued with a deeper concern for the important things in life – compassion and generosity, to start. Scrooge even discovers the “jolly Giant” before a flaming hearth in his home, suggestive of this invader’s good intentions, but it is fairly certain that this particular spirit never descended or ascended a chimney with a bag of presents to pay his Advent visits. He is a different sort of Christmas spirit. He is more interested in morality than in stocking filling. And it’s safe to assume he cares more about the welfare of chimney sweeps than about being Jolly ol’ Saint Nick. As the ghost preceding him declared, he is in Ebenezer’s house for the wretched man’s reclamation.

Not that cultural reclamation wasn’t an interest of Irving’s, too, especially by means of political satire. Nor did he leave chimney sweeps or their destitute like entirely out of his own tales. But the young sweeps Irving observed during his England travels are rendered as romantically as his Christmas-decked Bracebridge Hall, charming sidenotes to city life. Dickens, on the other hand, made his home in the same city as these destitute boys. He saw them out far too early and too late on the unfriendly city streets. There were no cheery-faced singing and scampering Dick Van Dykes in the bunch. Admittedly, Dickens could sometimes use the chimney sweep to comic effect. He also made use of the sweep’s perceived villainous side, as in Oliver Twist’s sweepmaster Gamfield, who represented the dangers into which a young boy without family or support might fall, circumstances that struck at the heart of Dickens’s concern for his city.Who knows?Perhaps Irving’s mildly disturbing St. Nicholas indicated Irving knew Christmas was not all full stomachs and bright, scrubbed faces. Either way, Dickens took the influence of Irving’s earlier, romanticized depictions of English Christmastide and did as he always does: he added in the urban neediness of the London poor, and also the pervasive neediness of the human spirit, whatever the financial circumstances.

There is no Santa Claus herein. There are only the chimneys themselves, bright symbols of the cheery, loving home and dark images the deepest filth the city – or the human soul – can scratch up. It might be said that Dickens’s fiction – holiday and otherwise – plumbs the blackened, sooty depths of human depravity to ultimately offer hope in visions bright as a blazing hearth.

A different type of Christmas spirit, indeed.

[1] In the new biography Charles Dickens: A Life (Penguin Press 2011), Claire Tomalin details this moment (p.148-9), as well as the many circumstances that developed Dickens’s deep concern for the lower classes.

[2] Irving, Washington. Knickerbocker’s History of New York, Complete. Kindle edition.


Prophesying Fire: The Legacy of James Baldwin

When James Baldwin’s famous account of America’s race crisis, The Fire Next Time, was first published in 1963, the critic Frederick Wilcox Dupee penned a review in the February issue of The New York Review of Books, which begins charitably enough: “As a writer of polemical essays on the Negro question James Baldwin has no equals.” But from this point onwards, Dupee’s review devolves into condescension. Dupee’s thesis is that Baldwin “exchanged prophecy for criticism, exhortation for analysis, and the results for his mind and style are in part disturbing.” After dismissing out of hand Baldwin’s epistle “My Dungeon Shook” as “not good Baldwin”—leaving the reader to wonder just what Dupee means by “good Baldwin”—Dupee turns to the much more famous and extensive second portion of the book, “Down At the Cross: Letter From a Region of My Mind.” Dupee admits that much of what is found here is “unexceptionably first-rate,” praising Baldwin’s account of his childhood and his “data” on the Nation of Islam—the content of Baldwin’s brief interview with the movement’s leader, Elijah Muhammad. But against the analysis that Baldwin levels against Dupee himself, as a member of the white majority and shareholder in white power as a critic of art, Dupee mounts a defense. He begins with a quote from Baldwin:

“’White Americans do not believe in death, and this is why the darkness of my skin so intimidates them.’ But suppose one or two white Americans are not intimidated. Suppose someone coolly asks what it means to ‘believe in death.’ Again: ‘Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?’ Since you have no other, yes; and the better-disposed firemen will welcome your assistance. Again: ‘A vast amount of the energy that goes into what we call the Negro problem is produced by the white man’s profound desire not to be judged by those who are not white.’ You exaggerate the white man’s consciousness of the Negro.”

Aside from providing a list of now-iconic lines from Baldwin, Dupee reveals his own prejudice and fear in his rebuke of Baldwin’s attempts to make clear the parameters and effects of systemic racism. In questioning what it means to believe in death, Dupee’s own ambivalence and ignorance is exposed; Dupee ironically shows that he himself does not know. Dupee’s final proposition, that Baldwin “exaggerates the white man’s consciousness of the Negro,” reinforces a reality that Baldwin himself articulated in terms that were nothing less than luminous: the complete lack of whites’ consciousness of black life. Perhaps if he had not so quickly glazed over “My Dungeon Shook,” Dupee would have realized that Baldwin had described this same unconsciousness: “I am writing this letter to you [Baldwin’s nephew], to try to tell you something about how to handle them [whites], for most of them do not yet really know that you exist.”[1]


Dupee’s review aside, The Fire Next Time is widely regarded today as a classic of literature, and essential reading for any student of race in America. In the two essays that comprise the small book, James Baldwin describes the status of the African American persons in American society, the religious ramifications of race, and the necessary response. The book’s brilliance is that it offers criticism that is both cultural and constructive—a point that Dupee fails to appreciate, even if he rightly identifies Baldwin’s prophetic tone. This tension, between constructive prophecy and criticism, has been born out throughout African American literature, and the dialectic remains apparent today in Baldwin’s successors. Baldwin’s legacy reveals an ongoing conversation in African American literature between the impulse to place hope in a future that has not yet come, and the urgent need to protect the body and safeguard African American life in the present.

This conflict has much to do with the historic relationship of American Christianity to both African American oppression and liberation; a topic that is well beyond the breadth of this discussion. Nevertheless, in much contemporary African American literature, there is a tendency to attend to the black body and threats posed to it by whiteness, and to see this attention as being at odds with constructive prophetic discourse. By this line of thinking, attention to the present means an attention to the body, and to attend to a hoped-for future is to separate oneself from life as it is truly lived. Few would disagree with the truth that defense of the body is defense of life. However, there is a life-giving aspect to prophecy as well, and “good Baldwin,” Baldwin at his best, critiques the bodily abuses of the present through both anthropological criticism and outward attention to prophetic hope.

Over the past year, Baldwin’s legacy has been taken up by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jesmyn Ward. Jesmyn Ward’s new anthology, The Fire This Time, is a spiritual sequel to Baldwin’s incendiary work, and Coates’ Between the World and Me offers a Baldwin-esque bildungsroman, narrating the experience of growing up black in a white nation. These writers are re-embodying Baldwin’s voice for an America that remains as racialized and divided as ever.


In her introduction to her anthology The Fire This Time, Jesmyn Ward identifies a crucial fact that Dupee missed, and which Baldwin knew well: Baldwin wrote for a black audience in a white world. In the aftermath of the killing of Travyon Martin, Ward “realized that most Americans did not see Trayvon Martin as I did.”[2] There was little understanding of Martin’s death as a tragedy outside of the black community, leading Ward to realize that Martin’s embodiment meant something different to non-black Americans.[3] In the wake Martin’s death, the experience of reading Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time transported Ward: “It was as if I sat on my porch steps with a wise father, a kind, present uncle, who… told me I was worthy of love.”[4] Ward felt inspired to re-present this tradition—passing the torch of struggle to a new generation of black children, activists, and thinkers—through an anthology. As an anthology, Ward’s book offers a catalogue of powerful, visionary voices, a community in which a frightened child might find “a wise aunt, a more present mother, who saw her terror and despair threading their fingers through her hair, and would comfort her.”[5] The result of Ward’s formal decision to assemble an anthology is that Baldwin’s voice is multiplied through many mouths, making The Fire This Time a recalibration and expansion of Baldwin’s original message for the present.


The book is divided into three segments, oriented to past, present, and future: Legacy, Reckoning, and Jubilee. Legacy and Reckoning consumes the bulk of the book, while Jubilee is relegated to the final twenty pages. Ward bemoans this fact, but also acknowledges its underpinnings: the past is “inextricably interwoven… in the present” and yet “bears on the future.”[6] Ward also admits to “a certain exhaustion,” an exhaustion no doubt felt across the African American community in 2016.[7] It’s hard to speak of jubilee, of prophecy, when racial violence and futility appear at every turn. To imagine a different future is difficult for Ward, and if her anthology is deficient, it is due to a deficit of the imagination; a deficit born of suffering, but a deficit nonetheless.

The future remained very much in view at the end of Baldwin’s essay. The final lines of “My Dungeon Shook” roar of Biblical judgment and justice: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!”[8] This line, taken from a slave spiritual, does not refer to the fire of revolution, but to the fire of judgment. This is a fire that brings resolution and justice; a fire that signals not the endurance of struggle, but the end of struggle. Baldwin meant to speak of fire as a warning; judgment is coming, and we ought to prepare ourselves. This was the religious angle that Dupee saw and feared. When Ward invokes Baldwin’s prophecy in the title of her own anthology, she is representing this religious voice, but blunting its prophetic edge. To speak of the fire this time means to look for the fire again and again, in the present. The future is awash in doubt, and justice is far from a forgone conclusion. For Ward, the sin of racism and racialized violence is one that must be repented of forever, without end. As a permanent, immovable brand on the American consciousness, there will be not one, but many judgments. That is why the central chapter of Ward’s collection bears the name Reckoning; and Ward’s is a sense of reckoning has to do more with taking account of the state of things, rather than hoping for a new reality.

Aside from shifting Baldwin’s prophetic voice form the future to the present, Ward offers a different sort of rationale for the task of exposing America’s racist history. Of her new collection, Ward writes, “I believe there is a power in words, power in asserting our existence, our experience, our lives, through words. That sharing our stories confirms our humanity.”[9] The rationale for Ward’s collection is an anthropological one, rooted in narrative. In sharing stories, we are speaking and empower ourselves. There is an inward turn here, to sharing the self, and in so doing, liberating the self, and confirming the self’s perception of the world. Baldwin’s turn is quite the opposite, focused outward. In “My Dungeon Shook,” Baldwin writes to his nephew James of a different kind of commitment. Not a commitment to reckoning, but a commitment to love.

“There is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is no basis whatsoever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing… is that you must accept them. […] You must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.”[10]

This is a provocative piece of writing. In the context of black liberation, acceptance and liberation—turned towards the white oppressor—seems incredible. Baldwin is asking his nephew to love his white neighbor away from the inhibitions which keep her from seeing him as he is: fully human, and capable of both giving and receiving love. While Ward’s anthology offers space to vent and discuss trauma, Baldwin’s text is a call to neighbor-love: “these men are your brothers—your lost, younger brothers.”[11]

Baldwin’s call to love is a call to an identification of the other, not identification of the self: “we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are.”[12] Baldwin knows who he is, and so he can identify the other. One senses from Ward, and from her colleagues, that the racial crisis of the twenty-first century is one of self-identification. Ward’s anthology focuses on issues relevant to black identity: Rachel Dolezal’s imitation of blackness, the complexities of family heritage, knowing one’s rights in a police state, and the condition of black life. These are all internal concerns which Baldwin himself knew well, crimes “for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive.”[13] And yet Baldwin does condescend, through his anger and hurt, to offer something to the wicked innocence of whiteness, to love his white neighbors by revealing to them their crimes, and in so doing, find healing.


Like Ward, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ also reckons with the realities of his time, and evokes Baldwin’s own aesthetic through his beautiful syntax and searing critique. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ ascension to the mantle of Baldwin has been met with some controversy, however, largely due to Coates’ assertion that Baldwin’s method—the way of love—cannot stop bodies from piling in American streets.

“…all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.”[14]

Between the World and Me is a letter to Coates’ son, sharing Baldwin’s epistolary form. But of Baldwin’s letter lays the burden of love upon his nephew James, Coates wants nothing more than to see the burden lifted from his own son. Coates will not condescend to Dupee and other whites in the service of a better world. To his son, he writes “the birth of a better world is ultimately not up to you. […] You are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know.”[15] Likewise, Coates has no time for the ideals that Baldwin espouses, prophecy in particular: “You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply so irrepressible justice.”[16] In Coates’ uncompromisingly physical world, a black boy’s only responsibility is for himself, and for the actions of other black bodies. Coates’ tone is not cynical, but realistic. He is frank about the realities he sees, and his hope is agnostic at best.

And yet Coates is not immune to the fairy tales he condemns. Coates’ unique take on Marvel Comics’ Black Panther shows that Coates has at least a propensity to entertain other realms than the world of flesh and blood in which he lives. Like Baldwin, Coates is searching for something imaginative—perhaps we can call it an eschatology, but it may be better described as a mythology—to mediate the crisis in the streets. Coates writes how as a child “I found the tales of comic books to be an escape, another reality where, very often, the weak and mocked could transform their fallibility into fantastic power.”[17] Coates’ fascination with comic books is not unlike Baldwin’s own fascination with religion. In “Down at the Cross,” Baldwin writes of the thrill of worshipping:

“It took a long time for me to disengage myself from this excitement, and on the blindest, most visceral level, I never really have, and never will. […] There is still, for me, no pathos quite like the pathos of those multicolored, worn, somehow triumphant and transfigured faces, speaking from the depths of a visible, tangible, continuing despair of the goodness of the Lord.”[18]

The hypocrisies of the church were not lost on Baldwin,[19] but he understood the imaginative power, the motifs, that religion could offer him. Coates, no doubt, sees something similar in the mythic world of superheroes. The Marvel Universe, like the Christian tradition, is populated by transformed and empowered individuals. Coates’ realism is thus punctuated by something like the Biblical motifs that Baldwin himself draws upon, even if their worldviews are at odds.


Time will tell whether the literary offerings of Ward and Coates will retain the enduring value of Baldwin’s own work. In the present, they render interesting reinterpretations of Baldwin’s legacy, seeing in Baldwin both inspiration for and divergence from their own view of America’s race crisis. Ultimately, their differences are philosophical: both Ward and Coates speak with frank realism, while Baldwin himself was nothing less than an idealist, believing that human beings have the capacity to do better:

“If we—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.”[20]

Baldwin’s is a high calling, and perhaps, more than fifty years after the publication of The Fire Next Time, other writers are correct to question whether it is too high. Regardless, Baldwin’s followers have not lost his prophetic voice and his certainty, the borderline-religious conviction that Dupee could not stand. Dupee has no time for prophecy. Rather than dealing with Baldwin on Baldwin’s terms, Dupee would rather be dealing with a black man remade in his own white image: “When Baldwin replaces criticism with prophecy, he manifestly weakens his grasp of his role, his style, and his great theme itself.” By this, the end of Dupee’s review, it’s unclear just what “great theme” Dupee has in mind. On this point, “My Dungeon Shook” could have offered Dupee a saving insight: these words are not for him. Dupee finds in Baldwin’s work a storm of fear and confusion, but so would anyone who is guest to a conversation between individuals they know little of and care little for.

But Baldwin’s great theme—his prophetic certainty that America places itself under imminent judgment—no longer requires a critic’s endorsement. It has been carried on well enough in our time. Baldwin’s history speaks for itself. The critic’s role, and the role of Baldwin’s heirs, is now to assess how close we stand to the imminent blaze that the great man foresaw. It may be that we are engulfed already.


[1] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, “My Dungeon Shook,” 6.

[2] Jesmyn Ward, “Introduction” in The Fire Next Time, 4.

[3] Ibid., 6.

[4] Ibid., 7.

[5] Ibid., 8.

[6] Ibid., 9.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, 106.

[9] Ward, “Introduction,” 10.

[10] Baldwin, “My Dungeon Shook,” 8.

[11] Ibid., 9.

[12] Ibid., 10.

[13] Ibid., 6.

[14] Ta-Nehesi Coates, Between the World and Me, 10.

[15] Ibid., 71.

[16] Ibid., 71.

[17] Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Return of Black Panther” in The Atlantic, April 2016.

[18] Baldwin, “Down at the Cross” in The Fire Next Time, 33.

[19] Of his experience in the church, Baldwin writes “I was… able to see that the principles governing the rites and customs of the churches in which I grew up did not differ from the principles governing the rites and customs of other churches, white. The principles were Blindness, Loneliness, and Terror.” Baldwin, “Down at the Cross,” 31.

[20] Baldwin, “Down at the Cross,” 105.

Racism 101

“Have you heard of Nikki Giovanni?” I ask, and the woman volunteering at the sponsorship table at a local event laughs. She is African-American, and she laughs, “Do I know Nikki Giovanni? Do you know Nikki Giovanni?” I am white, and I begin to put the pieces together. “I think maybe white people don’t know of Giovanni,” I tell her. She shakes her head, but she is smiling, and she comes over and sits with me on a bench where we talk for a few minutes about Star Trek and space travel and race and racism all things Nikki Giovanni talks about in her 1994 essay collection, Racism 101 [1].

“I didn’t know she wrote essays. I’ve only read her poetry,” my new acquaintance says. “I haven’t read any of her poetry yet,” I confess, though I would soon rectify that. I did know Giovanni was a poet of the Sixties, a part of the Black Arts Movement, a voice that black Americans, at least, have been listening to for decades. I stumbled across her by chance at a library book sale. Her name was familiar because she is now an English professor at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, where I used to live. At the library sale, her book Racism 101 was organized near Lorraine Hansberry’s To Be Young, Gifted and Black. Both seemed like good additions to my reading life, mostly because my understanding of being black in America is almost nonexistent. And that’s not okay.

I have been reading these essays now for the better part of a year, and I haven’t finished them yet. It isn’t because Giovanni is difficult to read. Reading through this book is like sitting next to her on my porch swing and listening, listening. But what I’m hearing is so different from what I saw growing up in the North Atlanta suburbs, and is sometimes so at odds with the histories I learned in my largely-homogenous high school, and is obviously so deeply important to understanding and loving people in my own life, in my own city, that I keep having to tell her,



“Can you say that again?”  

Giovanni writes about the legacy of the 1960’s, integration and Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcom X, and her recollections of it all. She writes to black college students who study at mostly-white colleges. She writes warm recollections of growing up, of her family, and of friends. She writes about her interest in space travel and the cultural implications of shows like Star Trek. She writes about being Black. As I read, she gives me a long list of histories to research and events to read about next, so I can rewrite my terribly white-centric understanding of my country’s history. Often I bring my husband, who looks like me, in on what she says. “Listen to this paragraph,” I say to him, “about her sister Gary’s experience in high school in the Fifties.”

“Her teacher in civics, a still-needed course that is no longer taught, discussed the Emmett Till case with his class. “Till got what he deserved,” he declared. Gary and [a friend] walked out, and [our father] made another trip to see [the superintendent]. Apologies all around. Shock and sadness that this could happen. I was sent to Knoxville, Tennessee, to live with my grandmother when [my current] school district was integrating. Our family had already given a soldier to the war to make white Americans better people.

After that sucker punch and I feel it the essay moves on. It’s more of Giovanni’s childhood memories, growing up in both Cincinnati and Knoxville during the Civil Rights movement. “Is she saying her family didn’t support Civil Rights?” my husband asks about that last sentence.

“No, the opposite. Something else is going on here.” I am trying to work it out.

“Her sister was the soldier, integrating her high school first. America was starting to do the right thing with integration legislation.” I’m getting there.

“But black citizens were still bearing the burden of the country starting to get things right.” Something different comes to mind. I recall the videos that made the rounds of Facebook during the week of July 4th, this year, black mothers responding to the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. One mom in particular [2], whose words I can’t forget, is wiping tears off her cheeks and crying out, “We are dying here.” She pleads with any white Americans watching her video: “We need you.” She hates having to say that. You can see it on her face. But she cries out again. “We need you.”

It isn’t that Giovanni’s family didn’t support Civil Rights. It is that they were finished sacrificing their children on the altar of trying to get justice and fair treatment. Another mom in another video last July said, more angrily, “I am tired of having to explain this to you.” I tell my husband what I am seeing, that African-American citizens in the Nineteen-Fifties, that our black neighbors now, that people of color in the Nineteen-Nineties when Giovanni was writing these essays, have been bearing first the burden of mistreatment, and then second the burden of the painfully slow process of things being made right. And now they’ve got the added burden of having to explain their experience to white folks so that we might understand. They’ve been doubly burdened, for a long time, and have had to heft the weight themselves because the rest of us so easily think everything is fine. “Talk about this to your white friends and neighbors,” the second mom says, “so we don’t keep having to. We are sick of explaining this to you.”

At the local event in my current city of Lynchburg, Virginia, sitting on the bench, chatting with the woman I have just met about how, like Nikki Giovanni, we both enjoy Battlestar Galactica, I tell her that Giovanni thinks the voice of Uhura in the original Star Trek was important. “It was so right, it made such sense,” Giovanni says in her 1992 interview of Mae Jemison, the first black woman to orbit space, “that the voice of the Federation would be the voice of a Black woman.” In her essay “Black is the Noun,” she says more: “The black woman’s voice sings the best notes of which earthlings are capable. Hers is the one voice that suggests the possibility of harmony on planet earth.” And why does she love Star Trek so much? “I love Star Treks,” she says. “The television series . . . marked a new era in television by obliging audiences to respect and even to admire differences among people.”

My new acquaintance shares the story of how Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura, planned to leave the show after its first season for Broadway. But then she ran into Martin Luther King, Jr. at an event, and he strongly urged her to stay on and continue being that black female voice on television in America. I looked up the anecdote later, and found the 2011 NPR interview [3] with Nichols. The interviewer points out that staying on Star Trek in order to be the one African-American female leadership voice on television must have been “a heavy responsibility. . . . I mean, the fact is you did put aside some of your own personal dreams to stay in that role.” Nichols agrees. Later, she talks about how African-Americans in entertainment are still mostly cast as “the friend, the buddy, the secondary role,” even though things are changing. The interviewer asks, “How do you interpret Martin Luther King, Jr.’s challenge today?” Nichols acknowledges that we’ve come a long way, but still: “I think it’s as valid today as it was when he declared it. His work isn’t finished. It’s only just begun.”

On the bench, my companion and I are quiet for a moment. I hesitate. I want to do the thing so many people who look like me are inclined to do once our eyes are opened to these sufferings of fellow citizens in our country. I want to talk about race. I want to confess to her what I don’t know about race and racism. But not every conversation between a white and a black person needs to be about race, or racism, in America. Probably more conversations, for our black brothers’ and sisters’ sake, need not to be. I may be seeing things anew, finally seeing them aright, but this woman doesn’t need to bear the burden of what I’m just now learning. She’s been living it every day. Still, I tell her, “I am learning so much about racism that I didn’t realize. I’m just starting to learn.” She is very gracious. “I’m still learning, too,” she says. “I’m always learning.”

I am thankful for her, and I am thankful for Nikki Giovanni and the words she has put down on paper often for different ears than mine, in magazines like Essence and The Black Collegian. So I tread respectfully as I go through the pages. In one place, Giovanni says, “You do not have to have had an experience to sympathize or empathize with the subject. That is why books are written . . . We learn from experience, true; but we also learn from empathy.” It is an honor to get to listen in and learn. It is also a responsibility. Perhaps another time, I can have the same conversation about Battlestar and racism with a white friend, and then that friend may start reading the likes of Nikki Giovanni (or Lorraine Hansberry or Jacqueline Woodson, if I may make further suggestions), and her ears will be open, and she, too, will begin learning about race and racism in our country and collectively, maybe we can take on some of our black neighbor’s burden.



[1] Giovanni’s book can be found here on Amazon.

[2] View that mother’s video here on Facebook.

[3] Read that NPR interview with Nichols here.

Shirley Jackson and the Ordinariness of Evil

In the classic supernatural thriller The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson writes,

“‘Don’t do it,’ Eleanor told the little girl; ‘insist on your cup of stars; once they have trapped you into being like everyone else you will never see your cup of stars again.

It was this basic fear of conformity—the prospect of becoming someone else’s idea—that compelled Jackson to divulge not only the supernatural but the wickedness of the everyday. To read Jackson is to dismantle the familiar and become on nodding terms with the void that will gladly take its place. With an unerring eye that exposed the macabre in domesticity and domesticity in the macabre, Jackson achieved a body of work that continues to validate the harmless eccentric.

Many of Jackson’s stories are written with alarming simplicity resonate the works of Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie: stories so deceptively minimal the reader initially feels cheated and remains so until she returns to those curt, stripped down sentences and discovers their enchantment. Unlike the stories of Carver and Beattie, which are heralded for their linear simplicity, Jackson’s stories read like Hitchcock gazing out of one of Hopper’s windows, projecting the loneliness and suspense of the times with all the wry humor that ignites our curiosity. Whether faced with film or prose, it takes courage to fully embrace characters living in a world of their own making, particularly Jackson’s characters, which center their readers in the drifting emotional mist.

The Lottery

Jackson wrote over sixteen works during her short life but only one story continues to hold such subversive impact. First published in The New Yorker in 1948, “The Lottery” is now the most widely anthologized American short story of all time and a staple of school curriculum. Yet, outside the used literature books crafted for the middle and high school classroom exist stories too risky for the syllabus. A prime example of this being the formidable reaction to the publication of “The Lottery,” an act that both undermined and mythologized one of America’s forthcoming influential writers.


Initially, “The Lottery” was received more as an insidious platform than the tour de force it is championed as today. To the surprise of Jackson and the editors of The New Yorker, “The Lottery” was subject to relentless vitriol and arrogance regarding the author’s intent. The mass, brutal reactions toward “The Lottery” are laughable today but the shameful aspects of such Salem-like judgments are undeniable. When the collective fears of a subculture are not addressed properly, well-meaning people may turn to the seductive lure of fable and conjecture. But what’s rarely addressed concerning the critical and cultural reception to such a work is the devastating toll it took on Jackson as a writer.

After The New Yorker debacle, the conflicting fear and dream of all writers was, for Jackson, in full tilt: the realization that total strangers are reading your work and doing so candidly. What made Jackson’s experience so unique was the writer-sized pigeon hole it left her in the aftermath. After all, such cataclysmic success is like an ill fitting coat of many colors. It drowns the artist and eventually the coat itself is all anyone chooses to see. The artist once capable of many hues is now imprisoned by the lurid fabric of unexpected grandiosity. It is the most devastating of exits.

The story that, for better or for worse, transformed Jackson into a literary icon was likely inspired by North Bennington, Vermont where she and her husband lived for the majority of their adult lives. As the wife of a literary critic and unapologetic egoist, Jackson lived a double life determined not by the ungovernableness of the psyche but by a hostile village of people that one would assume could exist in solely, well, a Shirley Jackson story. Naturally, Jackson was quickly assailed by insular, small town mentality and the young writer was often accused of elitism, paranoia, and the more titillating: witchcraft.

In an early biography she was described as an amateur witch, a possible publicity stunt that eventually functioned as a double-edged sword for Jackson considering she could never rescind the mischaracterization of her own writing. There was even a rumor she used a broomstick for a pen. In actuality, the only broomstick Jackson used was the one she wielded across the floor to renounce the dirt of the day-a day full of herding small children from dinner tables to bathtubs before sitting down to enjoy the solitary pleasures of writing. Although many of Jackson’s themes match those of upscale horror writer Patricia Highsmith, Jackson’s revelations focus on how hierarchical fixations alienate those who choose to wear spectacles of a slightly different colored lens. This specific type of alienation is perpetuated by a gloomy realm that denies the shared parts of human darkness and persecutes others for their differences. Such treatment is even bestowed onto children.

We see this in Eileen, the speculative teenager in the story “The Intoxicated”, who is writing a paper about the future of the world. “I don’t think it’s got much future,” she laments, “at least the way we’ve got it now.” The older and nameless male narrator of the story dispassionately tells Eileen that girls her age would be far happier if they traded Caesar for magazines and worried about nothing but “cocktails and necking.” The narrator caught between something carnal and paternal and forever doomed to say the wrong thing, is sympathetic in Eileen’s eyes.

Jackson’s Young Women

Young women in Jackson’s stories are either good, know-better souls like Eileen, or crypto-feminist icons like the indomitable Merricat Blackwood in We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Their diluted sexuality is like a botched fresco restoration glossed over to the point of caricature with all the original foundations underneath as raw and present as ever. Because sex is so remarkably absent in Jackson’s stories, it exists in all the spaces it has been denied. This, however, does not mean Jackson’s heroines are meek. These girls, feral in spirit and on the cusp of adulthood, confront the gritty realities that await them and ignore the trajectories of a more sedated human experience. It is their failure to compromise that ignites the hostility of those undeserving of their trust.

However bleak the lives of Jackson’s young characters may be, there are factors that render them victorious. Through disassociation cradled by a rich inner life, children can achieve a sort of cryptic independence free from adult scrutiny. These same children, however, are not free from reaching conclusions grounded in the external. Due to the burning loneliness of childhood experiences, it’s easy for a child to view the grim subtleties of the world in high relief. But children do not reach such conclusions on their own, and there comes a time when the adults who once chiseled away at a child’s life must accept these conclusions with dignity and grace.

Jackson’s characters, particularly her young heroines, seldom encounter a supportive elder brave enough to face them. What they find instead is the power to take the ordinariness of evil and reveal it for what it is: pervasive and extraordinary.

In Jackson’s work the inability to conform trumpets alienation. It is an inevitable occurrence that will cast shadows onto the world that tries to suppress the peculiar. For the sake of human intimacy, let us be content with all Jackson has given us. May we toast her wicked ways, the cups of our choosing running over plenty. As Merricat Blackwood tells us in the opening of We Have Always Lived in the Castle,

“I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had.

Letters from Fairyland

To commemorate Italo Calvino’s upcoming birthday, we’re rerunning this piece.

To many contemporary college students and used bookstore aficionados, the work of Cuban-born Italian author Italo Calvino is a gateway drug into the world of experimental writing, the kind of name you can drop confidently to underclassmen to secure your perceived status in the avant-garde of the well-read. Students in poststructuralism courses who can slog (or love) their way through If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler might sample only slightly less heady pleasures later on between the pages of The Castle of Crossed Destinies or The Barron in the Trees, and pick up indie girlfriends for sure by reading passages aloud from Invisible Cities. In the scholarly sphere, Calvino’s name is now fixed beside that of Umberto Eco in as an icon of effective continental, experimental writing in the 20th century, and the recent publication of his letters by the Princeton University Press is sparking retrospective reviews from all of the major papers and periodicals, many of which are the written equivalent of a head-scratch and a shrug.

Calvino’s letters are athletically written and often industry-focused: He spent the better part of his career as the manager of a publishing house, and those who invest in the big volume will be in for much more genial shop-talk then lyrical prose, extemporaneous criticism or infant fiction. This may register to many as a disappointment. Reviewers who approached the Letters hoping for short fictive experiments like those of the wonderful and absurd Cosmicomics, or perhaps more likely, a personal narrative that corresponds to the young protagonist’s political adventures in The Path to the Spiders’ Nests, found them dry and impersonal. The Guardian’s Ian Thompson was more optimistic than most, cautiously observing that “Above all, the letters illuminate the politics of book publishing in Italy after the overthrow of Mussolini.” In other words, they are letters about Other People’s Books (also the title of a collection of Calvino’s writings published in Italy), and about the trouble of publishing them in a partisan European country that is recovering from Fascism and a lost war. Very often, what we encounter in the letters are Calvino’s opinions about other Italian authors – a pretty far cry from the kind of personal disclosures that could rock the scholarly world. But even these  observations are studded with insights, like those in this brief comment about Luigi Pirandello, the prestigious Italian dramatist of a generation before:

Pirandello is hard, I’ve read him again and again, and reflected on him, though I’ve not yet properly digested him…But however much I continue to discover some new plus points in him, I can’t quite reduce the distance that separates us. Dentone too says he’s seen him but adds: philosophy is not poetry and does not supply us with dreams.

Here Calvino aligns himself with the poets, and in that loyalty we catch a glimpse of his orientation as an author; one who later observes that “…perhaps only the liveliness and mobility of the intelligence escape…the dense net of private and public constrictions that enfolds us.” And to intelligence we might easily add “imagination,” which Calvino possessed in spades.

And here is precisely where his critics zero in on him. Jonathan Galassi of The New York Review of Books notes the apparent “dryness” of the letters as deeply contrasting with the whimsical twists of his fiction, and from there launches into a guarded bit of diminution:

The depicting of the actual was never Calvino’s forte. Even in his first, most realistic novel, inspired by his partisan experience, the young hero undergoes rites of passage perhaps more proper to the realm of the fairy tale. Fantasy allowed him a kind of detachment, a freedom from self that he aspired to in writing, and “a burst of energy, action, optimism…which contemporary reality does not inspire in me.” He rejected as “decadent” “autobiography, introspection, egocentrism, all things that I have always hated and fought against.”

To criticize Calvino for failing to “depict the actual” is not a casual observation: It aims straight for the heart of his literary project, which was thoroughly invested in the actual tragedies and hardships of wartime and post-war Italy and Europe, no matter how obliquely his letters reveal that concern.

As a test case, his famous short story collection Invisible Cities is as good as any at revealing the undertow of the actual beneath Calvino’s fantasies. Framed as a series of exchanges between Marco Polo and his Tartar commissioner Kublai Khan, the subject of which is ostensibly Polo’s impressions of the various cities in Khan’s vast empire, the narrative of Invisible Cities quickly veers into the conceptual, remaining effervescently beautiful even while it undermines the credibility of Polo’s stories. “Your cities do not exist,” Khan tells Polo at one point. “Perhaps they have never existed;” to which Polo replies, “While, at a sign from you, sire, the unique and final city raises its stainless walls, I am collecting the ashes of the other possible cities that vanish to make room for it…” Later, Polo confesses to Khan that all of the dozens of cities he describes might, in fact, just be different versions of his native Venice, which (and here the poststructuralist students gasp collectively) he may never have left at all, making the whole collection nothing but a dream.

Certainly, these tropes and concepts seem far removed from the mundanity of the editing room, the trenches of WWII or the political dilemmas of a post-Fascist Italy, but in the stories themselves, and their meditation on the human project as summed up in the city, we can find a critical mind at work that has read clean through the library and brings the whole weight of that erudite intelligence to bear against society’s flaws. In his fifth story under the heading “Cities and Signs,” Calvino’s Polo tells Khan,

No one, wise, Kublai, knows better than you that the city must never be confused with the words that describe it. And yet between the one and the other there is a connection. If I describe to you Olivia, a city rich in products and profits, I can indicate prosperity only by speaking of filigree palaces with fringed cushions on the seats by the mullioned window…But from these words you realize at once how Olivia is shrouded in a cloud of soot and grease that sticks to the houses, that in the brawling streets, the shifting trailers crush pedestrians against the walls.

Here, waxing theoretical, Calvino observes astutely how words can often suggest their unstated opposites. But under the flag of that linguistic observation is another, bitterly practical one, about how prosperity tends to generate poverty at its fringes, or even at its heart. The piece brings to mind stories of Italy before WWII, where a single glisteningly-dressed Fascist battalion would get ferried from town to town ahead of the touring Mussolini, so that each impoverished community would appear both armed and prosperous: A gilded surface that belied the actual state of the “brawling streets.”

It is true that Calvino chose to write his fiction at a certain theoretical distance and that he specialized in the fantastic. But like the filmmaker Guillermo del Toro after him, whose monsters in Pan’s Labyrinth are physical signifiers of the warped Republican officers of the Spanish Civil War, some of whom seem to derive sexual pleasure from torture, Calvino has used the fantastic in fiction to process historical human violence, but without diminishing the monstrousness of that violence. His fantasies are not escapes from reality, but lurid analogues to it. In The Baron in the Trees, the fatal promise of one boy to live his whole life without touching the ground has luminous narrative consequences (how do you court a woman from the treetops?), but we are never allowed to forget that at the heart of his oath is a giant vote-of-no-confidence for humanity; a misanthropic streak that decays his fantasy-life in the leaves, and which was probably the reaction to a stuffy, loveless aristocratic childhood:

[W]e had…been warned against sliding down the marble banisters, not out of fear that we might break a leg or an arm, for that never worried our parents—which was, I think, why we never broke anything—but because they feared that since we were growing up and gaining weight, we might knock over the busts of ancestors placed by our father on the banisters at the turn of every flight of stairs.

There is humor in these reflections, certainly, but a bitter humor that only solidifies our sense that this narrator cannot help but inherit the coldness of the family he has fled. Read sensitively, The Baron in the Trees turns out to be a caustic domestic drama dressed up as a fanciful concept novel, and in Calvino one finds this commitment to wrestling with real personal or historical issues informing even his most far-fetched storytelling. Very often, Calvino’s covert subject is human industry, and its apparently inevitable decline into oppression and war; and though Invisible Cities is his sly historical commentary par excellence, the personality revealed in the letters is no less dedicated to these concerns.

In one of them, Calvino writes that:

“My working method has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight. I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language.”

The chain of priorities he describes here, which ascends from the practical into the conceptual, suggests not only that he tended to begin his composition with an observation of the streets or a morning with the newspaper, but that he even thought of language — which for him was a realm of dangerous abstraction — as connected at the roots with people, and with cities, and with the “heavenly bodies” that might ultimately hold both people and cities accountable for their tendency to embrace corruption. The man we encounter in his recently published correspondences might strike us as either fanciful or austere, but we can begin to know him best by learning how he wanted his work in fiction to “subtract weight,” or in other words, to relieve human burdens. This is not the mission of a fantasist, but of an author who believes he can freshen our experience of the mundane, or even the dire, by presenting it to us in fantastic new shapes. Far from having trouble depicting the actual, Calvino specialized in its transformation and interpretation:  His work lifts us into places where the surreal always seems familiar, so that we can return to a reality where, as he said of his own experience during the two years when he was compiling his book of Italian Folktales, “…everything that happened was a…metamorphosis;” the magic here was in the stories, but the transformation was in the reader.


Tricks Every Boy Can Do

Even though I was finishing up Tricks Every Boy Can Do by Paul Buchanan at the same time my stepson, a senior in high school, received his assignment to read John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, I nearly missed the parallels of the two brother narratives. Only on reflection did I realize that both stories are about brothers, and both contain one brother who torments the other. Also in both stories, the two brothers fall for the same woman and find themselves in paternity disputes over the child being carried by their mutual lover. Many other similarities run throughout both books.

But if I initially missed the connection, it’s likely because Tricks Every Boy Can Do is as much about the women in Alvie’s and Frankie’s lives as it is about the brothers.

The book begins with Rose, a single mother, exiled in her own Depression-era community, lonely and trying to do right by her two sons. She actually has three children, triplets, but the third, a daughter, died during childbirth. Even though the boys look identical, they are nothing alike, and never will be. Rose knew from an early age that Alvie would always need to be cared for; he’s weaker and more studious. He’s also a worrier, easily tricked and deceived by his brother. Rose knew Frankie, on the other hand—brash and manipulative and strong—would always take care of himself. From the time they were born, this was how Rose treated her sons.

We see this in the opening scene when Rose receives a call from the boys’ school explaining there has been an incident with a broken window. The school secretary phones Rose at work and says it was definitely her son. “‘Are you sure it was Frankie?’ Rose said. Her son, she suspected, had become the default defendant when anything at school was broken or stolen or set on fire or—in one case—coated with Vaseline.” But as it turns out, they haven’t accused Frankie but Alvie. And Rose is incredulous. “Alvie broke a window?” Rose asks. And then again, “Alvie? Alvie Ferrell?” She insists: “It’s Frankie. He’s pretending to be his brother again. Can you just put him on the phone a minute?” But when the secretary tells her that he’s crying and won’t stop, Rose immediately knows it really is Alvie. “I’ll be right there,” she says, and proceeds with the first of several rescues in the book.

The second woman we meet is the ghost of baby Doris, the third triplet. From an early age, Alvie senses her presence in their home. He imagines her growing up alongside him and Frankie, but he rarely mentions to anyone that she’s there. “Her presence—or, perhaps more accurately, her absence—seemed to lurk everywhere; a tingling void in the shape of a growing girl.” The animosity between the two brothers seems to be the primary reason Alvie is so determined to know and feel Doris’s presence in their home. Frankie is so different from Alvie, the two can hardly be in the same room; Doris, however, makes Alvie feel like he’s home.

As they grow older, though, he begins to feel that Doris, even though dead, may actually be outgrowing him. “Baby Doris’s presence began to take on a womanly yaw. Their mother’s gold chains and clip-on earrings would show up in the hearth or fallen into the gap between the radio and wall, or the air might faintly fill with the scent of a ghostly menarche. It was as if she were leaving both boys behind, as Alvie had seen other sisters do, in her journey toward some phantasmal womanhood.” That may be why he he attempts to contact Doris through a self-important “medium”—a neighbor girl named Lydia who is defensive about her occult powers—for which Frankie mocks him to no end. Oddly, Doris does seem to make an appearance, as if even from the grave she is there to stick up for Alvie. Despite his chiding, Frankie seems to understand this, too; somehow all the women in his life prefer Alvie to him.

We are reintroduced to Lydia when Frankie comes home from serving in World War II and Alvie and Lydia are now a couple. Like Rose, Lydia has become Alvie’s protector—as much from Frankie as anything else—and sees Frankie as a loner, looking out only for himself. It’s as if the three pick up where the seance left off: Lydia believing she possesses powers others can’t understand, and Frankie and Alvie even more rivalrous now that Frankie has reentered the picture. The contention between brothers seems to peak shortly after Frankie returns home, and Alvie and Lydia talk with him about their desire to live in Rose’s house once they get married.

“‘So I’m supposed to wander off somewhere so you two can play house?’ Frankie said. ‘You know I have as much right to this house as you do, Alvie.’ He looked at Lydia. ‘And a hell of a lot more than some people.’

“‘You’ll get your share of whatever’s coming to you,’ Alvie said. ‘We’ll buy the place from Rose.’ Alvie slumped a little in his chair, like he was relieved to have accomplished the assignment Lydia had given him.”

Also like Rose, however, what Lydia really wants is for someone to look out for her. This becomes more apparent as Rose develops early onset dementia, likely Alzheimer’s (though that word is not used because of the author’s staunch adherence to the historical setting of the story). Alvie, Lydia, and Frankie begin to work together to take care of her. In the process, the animosity between Lydia and Frankie seems to disappear. Lydia begins to defend Frankie’s decisions to Alvie, they share inside jokes, and eventually they begin having an affair.

Alvie suspects something is going on between his fiancé and brother when Lydia mentions getting some photos from Frankie. The two had to have been together when Alvie wasn’t present. Then, Alvie receives a warning about the affair before he actually discovers it, a warning from his demented mother, who watches Frankie and Lydia leave her nursing home room one day and exclaims, “Love birds. Those two are so sweet on each other.” When Alvie tries to correct her, she insists, “Your sister thinks so, too.” Apparently Doris also communicates with Rose, or at least that’s what Rose says during the fog of one of her episodes.

When Alvie eventually finds out for sure about the affair, Lydia chooses to stay with him rather than Frankie, since the two are now engaged. Because of Lydia’s choice, however, Frankie leaves town and exiles himself from his brother, his mother, and the woman he loves. Both women are heartbroken, though Rose has few clear moments now. And Lydia realizes that her own need to take care of Alvie has kept Frankie from loving and caring for her in his own way. She has chosen Alvie, but Frankie’s absence makes her marriage almost unbearable.

The fourth woman we meet in Tricks Every Boy Can Do is Fat Sadie, an obese bar owner and lounge singer who takes the exiled Frankie in as her bouncer, then bartender, and eventually her caregiver when she discovers she is dying. Fat Sadie is the first woman to let Frankie take care of her, probably because she is the first woman he loves who doesn’t love Alvie more. Their love is platonic, though, and he never stops longing for Lydia. Eventually, Frankie sees his opportunity to go home and fight for the woman he loves, though it could mean leaving behind the successful life he built for himself away from his family.

When Frankie comes back to town, he and Lydia end up back together, but only briefly. An unexpected pregnancy, however, causes Lydia to believe that Frankie, not Alvie, is the father. Alvie, however, knows the truth—that a childhood case of the mumps left Frankie impotent—and decides to fight for his wife.

As with other brother narratives, we expect this story to transform into a tragedy: two brothers fighting it out to the end. In the original brother narrative in the book of Genesis, Cain murders Abel in a fit of rage and jealousy. The envy and rivalry of Steinbeck’s Cal and Aron in East of Eden destroy not only the brothers’ lives, but their parents and all those who encounter them. But that’s not the case for Frankie and Alvie. Before Alvie can restake his claim for his wife, Doris sends him another message. He thinks Doris is leading him back to his wife, and as he’s always done, he lets one of the women in his life tell him what to do. But eventually, Alvie realizes that the decision is Lydia’s, not his. He can’t, or at least shouldn’t try to, force her to come back.

“Lydia had an agonizing choice to make, and in this moment Alvie knew he had the power to make that decision infinitely harder for her and its consequences more painful for everyone.

Or he could give her this: He could simply turn and descend the stairs. He could allow her to sort things out in her own flawed and human way.

Whatever she decided, he and Frankie and Lydia would find their way together; that much Alvie understood. The three of them were bound by blood and history. Their future, whatever it held, was something they’d go through together.

For the first time, Alvie realizes that he doesn’t need Rose or Lydia or even Doris to take care of him. In the end, it is Alvie’s goodness and maturity in letting Lydia go, in taking care of her rather than the other way around, that offer hope in this story. Suddenly, the brotherly competition loses its edge. There’s no more revenge and bitterness. Instead, Alvie accepts his fate and moves forward, even while maintaining his relationship with his brother.

Tricks Every Boy Can Do falls solidly in the tradition of brother narratives, but it stands apart with its decency and humanity. “How good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity!” David writes in Psalm 133. For Buchanan’s Alvie and Frankie, it’s a hard-fought but true reality indeed.


Tricks Every Boy can Do by Paul Buchanan is published by Harvard Square Editions.

The Cost of Customization

A couple years ago we painted a map of the country on the wall by the guidance office. There’s really nothing strange about this (what’s weird about a map on the wall of a high school?), and as I walk by it, heading from the English department toward the activities office, I frequently pause to examine the small papers posted where students plan to attend school next. Mostly, the papers cluster around South Dakota’s state schools, and a few dapple Minnesota, where we enjoy reciprocity.

It reminds me of the wall in my own high school in New Hampshire, where the guidance office hung laminated pennants decorated with our photos and post-high destinations. My friends were headed to places like New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Washington DC, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Oklahoma, while I was headed to Illinois.

Illinois is a long way from New Hampshire and before I visited my college, the furthest west I’d traveled was Florida. Upon attending, I was completely on my own, and I loved it. What was most important was that it was my college. I had discovered in this place, even in its brochures, an expression of myself, a setting befitting the person I wanted to be, even if I was aware that every college in existence was promising I could be a good-looking and intelligent pedestrian among orange deciduous trees.

It happened just like I’d hoped it would, too. My new environment encouraged me to thrive in particular ways, and I sensed the change when I returned home on breaks. I didn’t hang out with my high school friends much, though I harbored no animosity towards them. Yes, I was back, but I had replaced the ties of my old life with ties that matched my desires, a set of customized bonds. I’d inserted myself into a different community, one that kindled what I saw as my truer self.

These are the contours of my story, but the story’s arc is common enough to be a cliché. The teenager goes off in search of self-actualization and chooses a school that fits his vision of what he’d like to be. Colleges play their role by offering a particular “cultural identity” (Prescott College) and promising a corresponding experience of “personal transformation” (New England College) that will leave the student “caring about the community” and a “citizen of the world” (Whitman College). And as a cog in the machine meant to churn out cosmopolitan college graduates, I help cast my students as characters in this story: find out who you are, pick the perfect college for you, pursue your dream.

Yet as my high school economics teacher taught me, there is such a thing as an opportunity cost. To pursue one experience is to forgo another. As teenagers pursue their customized experiences of self-fulfillment, what are they missing? What are they giving up?

One thing they’re giving up is their high school classmates. When I watch my seniors hug goodbye to one another, trying not to poke each other in the eye with their silly square hats, it occurs to me how permanent some of those goodbyes will prove to be. I uttered the same goodbyes twenty years ago to people I have not seen since, and while I don’t regret leaving, I must admit that this separation from my community is one of the heavy costs of pursuing my own path. To customize my life meant to unknit myself from previous communal experience.

I recognize these contours in stories far different than my own, even in Sherman Alexie’s novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, where Arnold Spirit, an intellectually curious young man, decides to attend school off his reservation. Arnold needs to leave to keep from despairing, and as his teacher asserts, “You’re going to find more and more hope the farther and farther you walk from this sad, sad, sad reservation.”


So Arnold goes, and the greatest cost is his bond with his best friend, Rowdy, a cost Arnold realizes most powerfully when the two play against each other in a basketball game. Rowdy, a natural athlete, has always destroyed Arnold in their pickup games, but in this instance Arnold plays better than he ever thought possible, and his team beats Rowdy’s. Though he’s the hero, Arnold realizes after the final buzzer that while he had seen himself as the underdog, it’s his old school who is David, and he’s joined Goliath. With this thought, he recognizes his adoption of this new community as a kind of betrayal. He throws up and weeps, “because I had broken my best friend’s heart.”

Being a novel, Alexie moves Arnold to a place of insight. He weeps at the end because he wants his old community to have hope like his, but “I was the only one who was brave and crazy enough to leave the rez. I was the only one with enough arrogance.” And while Arnold won’t be going back, he wants to find Rowdy “and hug him and beg him to forgive me for leaving.”  He thus lands where he can see the good of his leaving, even as he recognizes the importance of loving those he’d left.

Like I mentioned, Arnold’s ordeal is mostly foreign to me. I didn’t need to leave my hometown and my leaving was not viewed as cultural betrayal; but I still understand his impulse to ask forgiveness. 

Mine was the ultimate knitted community, a town of fewer than 5,000 residents where the entire eighth grade class traveled to Washington DC on one bus. We attended a regional high school, which swelled our class’s ranks to 100, but that did not destroy our links, it simply extended the chain. We all knew what it was to jump off the covered bridge, to ski the Twister trail at Pat’s Peak, to get speeding tickets on Route 114. We knew who owned the town’s old names, which classmates were cousins, and whose dog would never bite if you entered the house when no one was home. These were experiences that were shared, not customized.

And while these were all good things—privileged things, really—to customize our experiences, we left. We withdrew ourselves from the limitations of what our small town could offer. We left behind the accents of the lifetime New Hampsha’ men for the spoils of a particular college. You can’t have it all, so we gave up our small-town community.

I see via Facebook that a few of us have returned, but I don’t know how many because I’m not there. A single plane ticket to New England costs around $600. A drive takes thirty hours. I won’t attend my high school reunion and, a bit like Arnold Spirit, feel a compulsion to apologize to my childhood friends.

In light of this, I recognize that when my students cry at graduation, they’re emotional for legitimate reasons, especially the students pursuing their dreams in California or Arizona. They’re right to see their leaving for college, in part, as a loss. I doubt they’ll change their minds or regret their decision, but to recognize the loss is at least to concede a certain reality.

It’s a reality we educators frequently deny. Each year when my students register for classes, my colleagues and I emphasize what their priorities should be: sign up for what you need, for classes you’re interested in and classes that will help you pursue your goals. Don’t just sign up for the classes your friends are taking. Then we extend the same advice to college: Don’t just pick the school your boyfriend is going to. Don’t be roommates with your friends.

In many specific cases that’s good advice, but I admittedly dole out the idea as a self-evident maxim. I wonder if I’ve been as right as I’ve thought. When students choose to value community over customization, who am I to say they’re wrong? I’ll always praise the man who elects to spend time with his children rather than pursue a promotion; why am I so loathe to praise the student who adheres to the same priorities in choosing classes or a college?

Even though I’ll never regret my choice regarding college, I could benefit from a mindset that values community more and a customized experience less. The conflict between the two recalls a passage from The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis’s fictional collection of letters from the demon Screwtape to his nephew, Wormwood. At one point, Screwtape warns Wormwood about the power of the parish church, which,

“being a unity of place and not of likings, brings people of different classes and psychology together in the kind of unity the Enemy desires. The congregational principle, on the other hand, makes each church into a kind of club, and finally, if all goes well, into a coterie or faction.

Lewis’ point concerns the church and shows how there, too, the cost of customization is community. America provides an interesting case study of his idea. Having embraced the congregational principle, American churches long ago fell into coteries, where attendees continue to break fellowship with one church and attend another for reasons as miniscule as singing styles or nursery workers. Some Christians have even followed the congregational principle to its extreme, creating, instead of a church, a one-man outpost. This form can use the Internet to customize a morning worship experience, maybe opening with Hillsong’s music and following it up with a sermon from John MacArthur.

Yet, certainly, Lewis’s idea applies to schooling since a college is a community of likings. A quick perusal of how students describe their classmates affirms how colleges naturally form sets of coteries. On Unigo (a website that helps prospective students “find the right school for you”) students at Brown suggest they are often “hyper-liberal”; at Reed, students report they are “predominantly liberal and non-religious”; and at Westmont students describe themselves as “very religious.”

But in the public high school classroom, I see a parish arrangement. When I finish class a bit early and my students mingle, they create a mixture they may never experience after graduation: the rancher is joking with the artist, the kid on Free and Reduced lunch is talking to the kid who drives a Jeep Grand Cherokee, the Fox News Republican is teasing the Bernie Democrat. I have my students’ best interests in mind when I encourage them to pursue their dreams the same way I did, but I have done so without appreciating the cost of that choice.

As I walk by that map in our hallway and see the glut of students attending our state universities, I admit I typically feel something akin to pity. Since my own classmates and I grew up surrounded by picturesque New England campuses, “college” meant a private liberal arts school. With so many choices available, we had thoroughly imbibed that there is a perfect school for you. My students, I therefore assumed, had not realized the possibilities for their own education. They had restricted themselves to what our area could offer, and what our area offered were state schools. 

Yet as I begin to recognize the cost of customization, I suspect I’ll view that map on the wall a bit differently. My students may have “settled” for a state school, but look at their Instagram accounts: they’re littered with recent photographs of the same best friends they had in high school. They’re still hanging out, they’re still laughing, they’re still together. Their opportunity, while lacking the ultimate customization, has not cost them all their community. I, meanwhile, have not seen my best friend Matt in a decade. I may have to quit viewing that cluster of papers around South Dakota with pity and replace it with admiration.

I still do not regret my choices, but over the last 15 years I have embedded myself into a new community, one I cherish. So the next time I face an opportunity to customize my experience—or the next time I discuss college options with a teenager—it appears I should consider these students’ example. They have something important to teach me about the cost of customization.

Becoming Inhuman

As Americans prepare to vote in November, we are encouraged to do what we can to make ourselves more powerful as a nation, even if that means ignoring or trampling on the weak to make our chosen space safer, more pleasant.

There have been many references to German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, in the news lately—perhaps not always directly by name, but indirectly by rhetoric and ideology. In a recent New York Times article “The Theology of Donald Trump,” Peter Wehner discusses the way Trump’s rhetoric sounds more informed by the teaching of Nietzsche than by the teachings of Christ (Christianity being, as of July, the religion Trump attests):

“What Mr. Trump admires is strength. For him, a person’s intrinsic worth is tied to worldly success and above all to power.”

In fact, Trump expresses great disgust for those he considers “weaker” than himself: women, the disabled, immigrants. A large portion of the American public, many self-labeling as Christians, are ingesting and chanting this ideology. But a quest for power in the interests of self-preservation and pleasure is nothing new. It is a tendency within human nature, a mark of deceitfulness in the human heart.

This quest for power has been documented, explored, and interrogated in literature that pushes the nature of the quest to its limits, painting a graphic picture of the insatiable desire to consume. Two novels of prophetic critique come to mind: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. One is a (muddled) nineteenth century critique of the European Imperialist mindset, and the other is a grim late twentieth century satire of the underside of the Wall Street elite; both central antagonists, however, are motivated by the same lust for power, pleasure, and self-preservation.

In Heart of Darkness, the journey down the river with Marlow to find the mysterious, feared, and adored Kurtz is, so to speak, the heart of the novel. But Conrad’s novel intentionally has no heart. We long for it as we attend to Marlow’s journey, hoping to find the answer in the person of Kurtz at the end of the river, but both the reader and Marlow are left wanting because the man, Kurtz, is “hollow to the core.” While listening to Marlow on the deck of a boat going down the Thames, the unnamed narrator tells us that this bard’s yarns are not like those of “other seamen” who tell simple stories, the “whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut.” In fact, the only meaning in Marlow’s storytelling is not found at the end of the tale, projecting sense onto all that leads up to it, but in the telling, itself, which might provide us with very hazy snippets of information and, at best, some moments of devastating self-realization.

Traditional narratives are formed around character change, a moment of epiphany and transition, but there is no such moment in this novel. When Marlow meets Kurtz, we see that he, like the story, only causes us to question our own depravity, and provides us no nugget of revelation about the meaning of the story, either. The non-traditional narrative is one of the first true modernist novels and teaches that when one is defined by a lust for power, there is little hope for character change. In the absence of a narrative denouement, there is also the absence of character transformation. And as Conrad is showing us Kurtz’s anti-climactic ending, he forces us to ask if this, too, is our end when our hearts are darkened by the same drive to consume.

We do find out that Kurtz is, if anything, a prototypical consumer. Working for a Belgian company, he’s found a home deep in the Congo only to acquire ivory. Like many involved in similar colonialist projects, he sees the Africans around him simply as cogs in his imperialist machine. His quest to, as he says, “exterminate all the brutes” because he has the strength, rhetorical skills, and brilliance to do so is almost completely justified by much of the (very disturbing) Social Darwinist ideology of the time (a toxic combination of the ideas of Nietzsche and Darwin).

But Kurtz goes beyond using the local people as tools and commodities; their awe of his power and brilliance propels them to set him up as a god to be worshiped. He naturally concedes. Marlow tells us that “everything belonged to him … [that he would speak of his] intended, [his] ivory, [his] river.” Kurtz’s lust to consume is never satisfied; interestingly, he is physically emaciated and weak when Marlow finds him. This visual depiction is a profound indication of his hollow spiritual state, a picture of one who can consume while getting less nourished, never recognizing his own illness. Many of Conrad’s insights hold complex theological resonances, including this poignant image of an inner vacuum that, as Pascal would argue, can only be filled with the infinite but is continually stuffed with finite things that never provide such fullness.

Marlow tells us that “all of Europe” went into the making of Kurtz. He is Imperialism. He is the Nietzschean Overman. He is the ultimate consumer, a philosophical materialist — the logical conclusion of a Western mindset that is driven by progress and efficiency at all costs.

And Kurtz is just not a shadowy figure from our distant literary past. Bret Easton Ellis’s novel, American Psycho, is about many of the same values (or the negation of all values in the name of self serving consumption). Patrick Bateman, the novel’s central character, is an acquisitions specialist on Wall Street. Like Kurtz, he is in the business of taking. Everything is an object to be consumed, including people.

Also like Kurtz, Bateman—a young, attractive yuppie with a large inheritance—constantly wants more. His desires are never satiated. These desires become ever more dehumanizing and cruel as Bateman lives the double life of a venture capitalist and serial killer. Ellis clearly makes the point that this connection, like the connections between Kurtz’s cruelty and his Imperialist project, are not incidental. Bateman is the logical result of the American religion of consumption, the worship of greed and pleasure, the desire for progress and efficiency at all costs.

I will spare you the gory details, but both Bateman and Kurtz enjoy the lustful power they experience when they maim and kill others; Kurtz puts heads on stakes to decorate his compound, while Bateman keeps them in his refrigerator. They are trophies of power, reminders of the sick thrill of playing God. At one point in American Psycho, Batemen tells us that “there are no more barriers to cross,” words that could also be one of Marlow’s many descriptions of Kurtz.

But my main interest in the comparisons between these two sinister literary figures is that their existence is a metaphor for the logical result of worship at the altar of consumption-driven modernity. Kurtz and Bateman never progress as characters; their cruel hedonism is a supposed benefit of their wealth and power. And as they dehumanize others, they become less human themselves.

There is something deeply moral in the depiction of both of these characters, a reminder that Nietzsche’s Overman, who desires “not contentment but more power…not virtue but efficiency” will end up imploding, only after destroying anyone who challenges his delusional authority. Although set in our glossy, contemporary context, these are age-old questions about human nature’s heartbreaking tendency to seek power, destroy, and devolve. Characters like these experience no character change, no epiphany, no real “story” in the traditional sense. Both can be seen as poignant and prophetic warnings of the dangers of consumption, objectification, materialism—critiques of the dark corners of the supposedly progressive, efficient Western mindset.


In and Out of the Marvellous

In the early days of cinema, moving images were often perceived as something akin to a magic trick. Most likely this had something to do with the veracity of the images; audiences famously bolted out of a room when a train drove straight toward the lens. Arthur C. Clarke once famously remarked that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” yet that is not quite what is going on here. After all, most people understand how film works, that it is little more than a rapid succession of images. With moving images, the emphasis is not so much on the “magic” as on the “trick”: the movement we see before our eyes is only an implied movement. Our brains fill in the blanks.

Nevertheless, the invention of film, together with Freud’s revolutionary theories of the mind, led philosopher Henri Bergson to evolve a new theory of what he called “psychological time.” Bergson sought to make a distinction between time as discussed in science and time as perceived by human beings. He argued vehemently that a purely scientific notion of time would not suffice. In particular, he was trying to account for the commonplace observation that time can move faster or slower, depending on its observer. Roughly speaking, Bergson stated that—as with the cinema—our life was also merely a succession of moments. The movement we see before our eyes is only implied movement, and our brains fill in the blanks.

It is unlikely that any film could still send whole audiences flying for the exit, or even collectively shock them—like Psycho once did, for example. Nevertheless, we have our own issues: our connections fail, phones die, hard disks crash. Our own existential crises, too: in Tom McCarthy’s 2015 novel Satin Island, the protagonist sits, waiting for a video to load, intently watching the “little spinning circle”: “What if it were just a circle, spinning on my screen, and nothing else? What if the supply-chain, its great bounty, had dried up, or been cut off, or never been connected in the first place?”

Another such a breakdown happened recently as I was watching a documentary called Out of the Marvellous, on the poet Seamus Heaney. The film was nearing the end, and it seemed to be conceding that the end of any film is a death, and that this issue needs to be confronted. So while the camera traversed a snow-covered road, the disembodied voice of Seamus Heaney began to muse on what it means to die. But just then, it all fell apart. The camera skirted forward in fits and starts. Frames were skipped, wedged out of the projection room and banished into hell. Meanwhile, Heaney detailed eternal judgment. My laptop seemed to be crushed by the impetus of the poet’s words, by the speed with which we traveled unto the end of the road, by the weight of the snow. The image stuttered as if we were losing power, freezing at times while the voice of the poet unerringly moved forward.

This breakdown fit so perfectly with the film’s subject matter that I no longer knew what was going on. Was this a technical failure or rather an integral part of the film? It might well have been an artistic choice, a metaphor for death—which is, after all, less the deliberate flick of a switch and more a kind of hardware failure. For a while I dithered over whether I even wanted to know which of the two it was, but in the end I had to find out. I revisited the scene: this time, the camera glided smoothly down the road. A perfectly planned death. What shocked me most was that there had been nothing to revisit; the breakdown, the glitch, was irretrievable.

I’ve written before about the appeal of the livestream, an inherent appeal separable from its particular contents. I quoted Don DeLillo, who wrote of a livestream of a highway somewhere in Finland that it was “real enough to withstand the circumstance of nothing going on.” The eerie experience I had with Out of the Marvellous was a bit like that, even though it was not a livestream but recorded video, meticulously calibrated in zeros and ones on hard disks and DVDs all over the world. Nevertheless, while viewing the documentary was not a unique moment per se, through a weakness in whatever link of the chain, it became unique all the same. It became performative, fleeting.

The documentary starts and ends with a road. What happens in-between—the chronological build-up of a life—is contained within these metaphorical bookends. So what happens if you take out a few of the paving stones in between? Is the road still one road, or has it split in two separate entities? Isn’t the point of a road—certainly of a road as metaphor—that it forms an undisturbed line from one place to another? Surely this is the idea of life as a road, that it literally represents a lifeline from being born to dying. Undoubtedly this metaphor can bear the inevitable bumps in the pavement everyone encounters; what it cannot bear is for the road to temporarily disappear. That would be a kind of magic trick, or a resurrection even: the feat of being, then not being, then being again.

The documentary is named after and opens with an excerpt from Heaney’s poem “Lightenings viii”:

The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.

The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,

A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
‘This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,’

The abbot said, ‘unless we help him.’ So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.

What is so moving in this poem is that the banal has become the marvellous, and vice-versa. The “marvellous” referred to is the quotidian monastic life the man “climbed back out of,” not the unlikely spectacle of a ship sailing through the air. The man, according to Heaney, is like “a successful Orpheus”: he goes into the otherworld and retrieves what he set out for. He has the power to step in and out of his life, to go temporarily off-road; yet, it is not a voluntary power—it is the doings of an anchor, a force out of his control. It is a glitch that carries him down from his world and into ours. Moreover, it is the kindness of strangers that brings him back home. As we might expect, then, there is little volition in not-being.

Russell Hoban once wrote a novel set in a near future, revolving around a technology called “flicker drive”: a way of teleporting near-instantaneously around the galaxy, based on the discovery that people “flicker” or oscillate; we are constantly here, then not here:

He wired both rat and cage to a camera with a nanosecond quartz flash, the circuit that activated the camera being completed only in the intervals in zoetic and inanimate currents; Lossiter’s film showed frame after frame of empty laboratory table, thereby demonstrating that life and matter are not continuous but intermittent, a nonlinear alternation of being and nonbeing at varying frequencies in the ultraband.

There is more than a nod to Bergson’s philosophy in Hoban’s words—yet he is attempting to reify the idea, to turn it from a psychological reality into a physical one. Loosely inspired by the zanier theories of quantum physics, “flicker drive” as a concept borders on the grotesque, yet it fascinates. I think of Hoban’s frames of nonbeing as the moments in which Zeno’s paradoxical arrow moves forward; unaccountable, off-road moments. They are the “marvellous” into which we are sometimes borne. For Hoban, “it is in those spaces of black between the pictures that we find the heart of the mystery in which we are never allowed to rest.”

Yet what I experienced when the film faltered was not spaces of black; rather, it was what might be termed intercessional time. The road was still there on my screen—the camera had merely ceased to move, or so it seemed. Through the stillness, Heaney’s voice carefully strode ahead, exploring the marvellous. He would do so—and we would as well—in the full knowledge that the respite was temporary, and all the better for it; that we are “never allowed to rest” in it is after all precisely what creates the mystery. For an incalculable instance, Heaney and I flickered about, freed from the constraints of time and space, before returning back “into the heartland of the ordinary,” as Heaney would write in a later poem. We were “nine-to-five [men] who had seen poetry.”

Perhaps this is just one more thing technology hath wrought: making the irretrievable poetic—for crucially, in Bergson’s theory, “moments” only become moments after the fact. No one experiences the present as a succession of moments. But in an on-demand media landscape with endless storage capacities and a camera always at hand, more of these moments might come into being after the fact, because they are codified and classified somewhere. Technology does virtually the same thing Hoban tried to do to “psychological time”: give it a physical reality.

If poetry indeed happens in the otherworld—in the spaces of the black between the succession of moments—then the increased audiovisual registration of our lives should give us pause. Perhaps we need to burrow, like moles, back into the black and let the sands of time slip through our hands again—if only every once in a while.

Escaping from Infinite Density

“With every passing moment any given individual is being stripped of significance, either being herded together with a great number of others only to be slaughtered en masse or else being severely isolated, left to fend for itself with only its meager gifts for protection. And make no mistake but that this state of affairs is as it should be. Let us continue to hone and hone the methods by which man hangs his fellow man and be done, once and for all, with any hypocrisy.”

Sergio de la Pava’s recent novel, A Naked Singularity, nears its end with this Kafkaesque image of the human drive to find more violent and perversely satisfying ways to do harm to each other. His novel exposes a contemporary fetish for collapse and compression, a fetish that aids in the creation and perpetuation of human violence.

As the violent and emotional reactions to the deaths and murders in Dallas, Ferguson, Nice, and Orlando, this fetish lives in the news cycle. In the aftermaths of these tragedies, camps assemble and make ready for war. They accept and exclude, judge with ideology, and shout louder when evidence contradicts them. If a person is “pro-law” or “pro-cop,” that person clearly cannot be “pro-justice” or “pro-black.” So runs the logic of collapse, the lifeblood of compression, the lust of control.

These three—collapse, compression, and control—are at the heart of A Naked Singularity, the story of narrator and New York City public defender Casi. The novel is his struggle against a deaf, ironically blind, self-perpetuating, decidedly unjust justice system. Writing in the same tradition as great 20th Century authors like William S. Burroughs, David Foster Wallace, and others, de la Pava’s aim is satirical, and like all good satire, A Naked Singularity reveals what has been there, if only people would look and see.

The title, like William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, concerns itself with revelation and with truth. Burroughs meant his title to be taken literally; its meaning, well known among Burroughs fans, to be “a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.” Similarly, de la Pava’s novel suggests that moment of stark recognition coupled with an intimate knowledge of black holes and general relativity. Black holes have at their center a singularity, a region in which gravitational forces become infinite. Normally, these singularities are unobservable because the singularity is surrounded by the point of no return, the event horizon that gives black holes their name.

A naked singularity, on the other hand, has no event horizon, meaning that the infinitely collapsing point of infinite density and gravitational pull is observable. As a metaphor for New York City and 21st-century human life, the naked singularity is at one and the same time suggestive of both hope and despair. Hope, because the ability to observe the singularity leaves open the possibility of escape. Despair, because the observers (Casi, readers, and others) can see everything falling into it, to be compressed infinitely.

The exposition of Casi’s clients, many of whom he despises, reveal the withered husk of urban and contemporary life. In media res, the novel begins “—noise background,” amidst life and the middle of a moral struggle: “we were well into hour seven of this particular battle between Good and Evil and, oh yeah, that was Good taking a terrific beating…in that place, at that moment, Evil had us surrounded.”

The comic force of the “good versus evil” trope takes on a deeper moral significance as it becomes clear that here “Good” is an overworked lawyer defending real people from the dehumanizing power of the justice system, a fine-tuned mechanical beast that works to keep itself alive and exert its increasing power over those it consumes. While in most cases, self-perpetuation is not the embodiment of capital-e Evil, it quickly becomes clear that this government-sanctioned and legislated system of law and punishment is.

Casi calls judges and DAs “puppet masters” and meditates on “how it was that people were reduced to bodies, meaning the process. How you needed cops to do it and how their master, The System, needed to be constantly fed former people in order to properly function so that in a year typical to the city where the following took place about half a million bodies were forcibly conscripted.” As feeders of The System, the police “had the special ability to in effect create Crime by making an arrest almost whenever they wished” in order to maintain its proper functioning.

Far from being an anti-police novel, A Naked Singularity shows nothing less than the erasure of the human before a powerful System of politics, self-interested and ideologically implicated in its own process of survival. Its systematically legitimized ability to create the conditions for its own survival ensures its infinite and expansive reach that can pull “former people” into itself, into its singularity past the point of no return. Casi’s capitalizations of words like “Justice” and “System” serve to emphasize the powers of collapse, compression, and control enacted by these systems. Indeed, The System’s method of turning humans into “former people” is to engineer circumstances that will create citizens out of them, controllable individuals who are organized, categorized, and made insignificant through amoral laws invented to trap them.

De la Pava’s novel takes the tension between man and System to the ridiculously comic and the gut-wrenchingly emotive. The movement between comic and tragic is part of Casi’s attempt to truly and sincerely connect to another human being outside of the ideological and legal system in which he lives, moves, and breathes. Fraught with almosts, Casi’s attempts to connect are either rejected or destroyed on his own terms, as Casi refuses any relationship outside of the professional (read: systemically necessitated). Casi rejects friendship with his loony graduate-student neighbors, one of whom watches The Honeymooners on repeat in an attempt to make the characters into real people. He also tries, but fails, to reconnect with his lively, large Puerto Rican family, especially with his sister Alana, who is too distracted by her own problems to even notice Casi’s desire for human contact. These near misses, especially with Alana, are the closest Casi gets to a shared humanity outside of the legal-political singularity of his work and world.

Until Casi meets Jalen.

Jalen, the pro bono client Casi takes on, has the mind of an eight-year-old and a frightening-until-you-meet-him fascination with the “rainbow fruit” his mother gave him, i.e. Skittles. When Casi meets Jalen, the Aristotelian distinction between human and system is set in direct contrast with the overwhelming systematization of the human throughout the first half of the novel.

The tender moments that Casi and Jalen share make Casi realize that Jalen is not reducible to a body that committed a crime. He is, rather, a broken human in need of redemption. In the course of their conversation, Jalen begins talking about the “rainbow fruit” his mother used to make him. After Casi realizes this “fruit” is actually just Skittles, Jalen looks at him and says, “your eyes are funny now.” The reader knows that Casi is crying, the first time Casi has emoted anything in this novel besides anger, frustration, and wry bemusement. Before this boy, “beautiful and ugly simultaneously,” who is in need of human contact rather than a legally defined attorney-client relationship, Casi is able to help plead Jalen’s case, which has the potential to heal both of them.

This moment of beauty in a dark novel reveals the human triumphing over legally and politically organized relationships. Here Jalen becomes a human rather than just a client, rather than just a body the System will eventually consume. De la Pava even devotes the entirety of Chapter 30 to the correspondence between Casi and Jalen. The letters move from initial legal communication about the case to beautifully devastating personal letters about Jalen’s deteriorating circumstances and his eventual reliance on Casi for hope.

Their correspondence ends with a form letter sent to Casi from the correctional facility where Jalen was being held. Complete with circled options and space left for further explanation, the form unfeelingly states that Jalen took his own life, thereby “avoiding the judicial justice previously meted out by the People of the State of Alabama.”

Here, again, is the stark and brutal battle between Good and Evil. Two human beings fight against an all-consuming legal-political System that wants these two people to live and behave “by the book.” This is a well-regulated, scripted set of encounters that will admit no alternatives to what is essential to the System’s survival: the logics of compression, collapse, and control. To compress and collapse is to actually control how people interact with and relate to one another, and when human relationships and ideas follow the patterns laid out by the System, those relationships can be observed, understood, and regulated. The only way the System can understand human interaction is when humans are made into “former people”, when they are fed successfully into pre-determined categories of behavior and identity.

These categories can resemble anything that compresses the complex human being into something simple, singular, or quotable in a sound-byte. Terms like criminal, killer, offender, and defendant serve the perpetuation of the System in much the same way that “pro-cop” is forced to be synonymous with “anti-black” as if something so complex could be reduced to a two-word slogan.

In part, de la Pava shows what happens when humans become systematized, when they rely on an artificial system to do human work for them, when they put their faith in the institution of capital-j Justice rather than its real embodiment in individual action. But A Naked Singularity shows that humans are always superior to the systems that try to control and compress them. In the midst of the darkness in this novel, hope emerges through the revelation of the singularity itself. If only people would look and see the collapse occurring all around them, would continually struggle against it, de la Pava suggests, they might move towards escape, towards grace.

Rocket Girls

The race to space is often depicted as the last frontier—a rugged landscape that demands smarts as a compass and sheer gumption as the driving force. Usually men are the main characters in the historical narratives about the advance of rocket technology. Nathalia Holt’s book, The Rise of the Rocket Girls, upends such a  perception. As the tagline says, the book chronicles “the women who propelled us, from missiles to the moon to Mars.” Instead of describing women on the periphery of science, in supporting roles as astronaut wives or inspiring teachers, the women or “rocket girls” prove central to the fundamental equations that launched rockets into space and beyond.

The rocket girls worked as “computers,” literally—someone who computes—plugging numbers into complicated equations with a team of engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) during WWII. The laboratory began as a rogue group at CalTech named “the suicide squad,” with a band of daredevils launching homemade rockets into a California canyon. Their work proved tremendously formative for war efforts and the space race, but their impact in forming a more progressive work culture has been overlooked until now. Many of the women who found a vocation there were thrilled to find an outlet for their quantitative skills. One of JPL’s stars, Helen Chow, minored in mathematics at Notre Dame for fun, despite the fact that she couldn’t imagine a place that would employ her. As the launch of each missile and rocket depended on thousands of calculations, the all-women team of computers was absolutely critical to the success of JPL, and later NASA.

Precision in these calculations were vital, as a missing square root could cause an explosion during a test of a missile, endangering the lives of coworkers. They endured long work hours and high pressure situations:

“project could have beaten Sputnik possibly, certainly the women feel like that could have happened, but much of it was held back for political reasons. The women had these positions where they were incredibly skilled mathematicians, and yet they weren’t being given full credit and the full ability to show what they could do.

Still, the women in the book are deeply grateful for the chance to work in such a stimulating environment. As the 40s give way to later decades, they continued the fight against gender norms. Holt captures the magnitude of further shifts in the 60s, “Known as computers since the lab’s inception, they were now officially engineers. It was a breakthrough as big as landing on the moon.”

Holt’s narrative challenged my presuppositions about the role of women in science as a fairly recent development. In the prevailing historical narrative, women who contributed to scientific advancements, the Marie Curies and Ada Lovelaces, can seem like a one-off phenomenon. Instead, Holt presents an entire department of women integral to the success of physics problems of tremendous import. Without Holt’s dedication to uncovering these womens’ stories, their contributions might have dissolved into anonymity.

Rocket Girls paints a robust portrait of the women who worked at JPL, describing their relationships and their families alongside their work. As readers follow the failures and successes of the space race, they also enter into the lives and deliberations of the women as they fall in and out of love, have children and lose family members, leave and return to work. “For most American women, marriage meant being a housewife, but many of the computers had found a way to reconcile the two, managing their home and work lives with the poise of surfer riding a cresting wave.” The portraits of the women are authentic and relatable for any woman balancing relationships and a career. We see their deliberation over marrying when that may mean leaving a job they love. Barbara Paulson, a dedicated employee who manages the lab, is abruptly fired due to the insurance liability of having a pregnant woman on staff. While JPL was progressive in their hiring practices, the women certainly experienced the inequality acutely.

rocket girls 2

The women of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory helped launch the first American satellites, lunar missions and planetary explorations. Those “human computers,” as they were called, are seen here in 1953. Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

Once, when a group of men took to calling the women “computreses,” they countered the condescending label by referring to themselves as “the sisterhood.” In this progressive and sexist context, Holt paints a vibrant portrait of the camaraderie of the women who worked at JPL. The demands of their job were often isolating, so the women supported each other. They celebrated life milestones together and made phone calls to those who left after having children. For many years, the group was headed by Macie Roberts, a matriarchal figure who had the highest standards for accurate work and also fostered a convivial atmosphere. It’s telling that minority women felt at home with the group; Janez Lawson, the first African American female hire for NASA, compared her coworkers to her sorority at UCLA.  

Rise of the Rocket Girls should top the list of summer reads for anyone looking to reflect on  balancing life and career as a woman. I loved the wild celebration after a successful launch at Cape Canaveral and the ballroom dancing scenes at the Del Coronado in San Diego. I wanted to high five Barby, one of the earliest computers, when she attended a heart-stopping missile launch in a canyon while wearing a scarf to keep the dust out of her curls. Turn the clock back a few decades and read Rocket Girls to appreciate the women who were pioneers in every sense of the word—from the moon launch to our own work culture.

On Sandra Cisneros’ A House of My Own

In New York City, a place I’ve longed to live since childhood, I wrestle with unattainability. One evening on my friend’s rooftop, I watched the sun set over the Manhattan skyline. How ecstatic I was to finally see this in the horizon. The scene felt almost scripted. Two girls sit on a rooftop and talk each other weak. They are both new to New York. Wrapped in fleece blankets, they raise their wine glasses to the skyline. The sky darkens and the city awakens. 

It feels strange to attribute so much to one moment, but it was there on that rooftop, while aware of what I had, a peculiar desire for the homes I’d fled unfurled within me. I found that I didn’t want to leave and I didn’t want to stay. This ambivalence frightened me.


In her 2015 memoir, A House of My Own: Stories from My Life, Sandra Cisneros writes of flesh and shelter. These collected essays, written over the course of Cisneros’ life, are rooted in her desire for a house to call her own. A writer’s house shelters her interiority when the body is not enough. It wills her to create in solitude while providing a similar refuge to likeminded people. For Cisneros these people were relatives, friends, and the writers who functioned as both. These new and collected essays are ofrendas, offerings to her loves and influences, bits and pieces of a large life claimed, forming a rich mosaic of one compelling writer.

In the introduction to the collection, Cisneros writes, “We tell a story to survive a memory in much the same way the oyster survives an invading grain of sand. The pearl is the story of our lives, even if most wouldn’t admit it.” Through Cisneros’ writing I discovered that most stories blossom from a need to protect that hidden pearl of our lives.

In her essay “The House on Mango Street”, Cisneros recounts her journey of finding her voice as a young graduate student far from home. At twenty-one, Cisneros left her father’s house to attend the Iowa Writers Workshop. Unmarried and Chicana, this departure was, at the time, a radical act. Cisneros said she lived her independence, her sexuality “like a white girl” in the then absence of Latina writer role models. Throughout graduate school, Cisneros was acutely aware of this “otherness” that distinguished her from her classmates. Ultimately, grad school taught her to write the book her classmates could not, allowing her most private idiosyncrasies to manifest in her writing.

She says, “Writing in a younger voice allowed me to speak, to name that thing without a name, that shame of being poor, of being female, of being not quite good enough, and examine where it had come from and why, so I could exchange shame for celebration.”

Born and raised in Chicago, Cisneros’ childhood home was crowded with television noise and siblings, of parents who didn’t know how to bring her out of her own head. She eventually moved to San Antonio, a city of stunning Mexican heritage, and Cisneros was able to connect with a home and identity that sustained her. “You can tell I’ve been poor,” she says. “I over-glamorize my body, my house. I take my house personally. I take my art collection personally, too.”

In the essay “¡Que Vivan los Colores!” Cisneros writes about the house she purchased in San Antonio. Believing that color speaks its own language, she painted the house periwinkle to evoke the color of Mexican jacaranda trees. When the paint faded to a dull lavender, Cisneros’ home rose to local iconography. The community dubbed her place “the Purple House” calling to mind Frida Kahlo’s La Casa Azul. The Purple House was a thing of play, an homage to the tenderness of spirit. It was also the place for Cisneros’ self-reinvention.

In the Purple House, Cisneros found artistic merit in simplicity and excess. It’s where she collaborated with notable Latina writers such as Carla Trujillo, Salima Rivera, Helena Maria Viramontes and many others. It’s where she founded the Macondo Foundation, a series of workshops designed for socially-conscious writers who view their work as an outlet for community building.

If Cisneros’ writing has taught me anything, it’s that there is no limit to self-reinvention. A girl raised dirt-poor in a Chicago brownstone becomes an award winning writer and patron. She grows into the art world and lives a life in fierce color.

A recipient of numerous awards including a MacArthur Fellowship and two National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowships, Cisneros now resides in San Miguel. She sold the Purple House, the house she swore she’d never sell, to seek spiritual refuge elsewhere. When she told her U.S. friends she was moving to Mexico, they asked if she was afraid. In the collection’s epilogue, Cisneros mentions she was asked the question again when her Mexican friends heard she was traveling to visit the U.S.

I suspect these friends’ fears have little to do with Cisneros’ destinations. Our fibers yearn for destination. It’s the search that mystifies. Cisneros’ search for a house of her own was manifold in its distinct effects on her. As a writer and homeowner, she lived it all: The joys and the headaches, the company and the isolation. Everything that rises when independence beckons us to fall heart-first for the very process of our lives. Home is about the path not the furnishings. It’s about story too. Our stories and the distances we are willing to go to tell them.


As the city darkened into its twinkling silhouette, I told myself I was living my truth. I didn’t know what that truth was, I still don’t, but I believed in the stories I told myself to get there. When I arrived in New York last year, I was certain I had found my place on this side of things. Yet, there on the rooftop, I felt misplaced, vaguely wounded. I realized I had discovered the trails of my own wandering heart and saw there was no end in sight. My real home is not planted. Much like the writer in Cisneros’ essays, I live to keep on searching.

FROM THE ARCHIVE: The Great Railway Bazaar

This piece was first published in July 2014.


Almost forty years after its publication, Paul Theroux’s narrative of a train trip from Europe to Japan, The Great Railway Bazaar, is still bandied about Goodreads and NPR summer reading specials as an essential travelogue, which cuts through the wide-eyed innocence and humane goodwill that characterized the generation of travel writers before Theroux, like Patrick Leigh Fermor, taking its cutting tone and realism from Theroux’s cantankerous Cape Cod disposition and air of privilege. As is often the case with important books, those who criticize The Great Railway Bazaar do so for exactly the same reasons its supporters praise it—Theroux never withholds judgment as he steams his way through some of the most economically depressed regions in Asia, allowing his first impressions, favorable or no, thorough ventilation. He is particularly grumpy when forced to take third-class cars and share them with the lowest-paying customers:

“…I thought of them with pure horror. I knew the occupants: there was a bandy-legged gang of dark Japanese with bristly hair who traveled with a dwarf squaw, also Japanese, whose camera on a thong around her neck bumped her knees.

Theroux’s prose is so fluid that even his brutality is elegant. In fact, it is his most morally questionable moments that leave us most in awe, as if we were standing next to someone at a party who was willing to say every mean-spirited thing we were silently thinking, and who could do so with such an Orwellian bite it seemed to validate our cruelty.

The debate about whether Theroux’s racist generalizations are justified by the vividness of their expression has raged for forty years—it is the substance of the book’s fame. A contemporary reviewer for the New York Times wrote that we should love Theroux because “irony is essential, for living as well as for writing,” a point far too vague to be provable, but which captures the language a reader might use, internally, to justify the voyeuristic pleasure of watching Theroux call an elderly Japanese woman a squaw, or grumble that to him, sharing a car with Australians was “like a reminder that I’d touched bottom.” It is the inverse of the pleasure we feel watching a former slave blow the kneecaps off his old captors with a revolver at the end of Django Unchained, a brutality that thrills us precisely because the perpetrator hasn’t earned the right to treat anyone this way. We love Theroux because he is the traveler we would be without any restraint after a month of day drinking.


Less often written about is The Great Railway Bazaar’s war with narrative. Unlike Fermor’s genre-establishing A Time of Gifts, Theroux’s traveling yarn makes no attempt to novelize itself: interesting characters are noted, expanded upon, then abruptly abandoned at some midnight station, themes contemplated heavily for chapters at a stretch are forgotten once the landscape changes, and most notably, human interaction is purposefully avoided. Theroux’s ideal travel is not wading the colorful crowds of a Bazaar, but a carefully curated solitude. He is at his best when the cultures he set out to experience can be viewed from behind a first-class cabin window:

“…I preferred to travel for two or three days, reading, eating in the dining car, sleeping after lunch, and bringing my journal up to date in the early evening before having my first drink and deciding where we were on my map…I traveled easily in two directions, along the level rails while Asia flashed changes at the window, and at the interior rim of a private world of memory and language.”

When the inevitabilities of international train travel interrupt that private world, the narratives are a scattershot mix of geographic sketches, armchair cultural criticism, and arguments with train conductors, almost all fascinating, and in no order but the chronological. It is a bare, shameless sequence of events and feelings set down just as they arose, not polished for pace or political correctness, often strenuous to read, and the philosophical import of it is its steady, subtle insistence that even our most vivid experiences are much less meaningful that we often hope, an observation just as brutal as Theroux’s race-tinged aphorisms, and which hums in the background of the book relentlessly, like the muffled sound of wheels.

The frustration of Theroux’s apparent aimlessness is his point: this is not the optimistic lark of a veteran from the greatest generation, but its late-century follow up, a tour of colonialism’s ruins and the backwaters left behind by the collapse of the longform tourism industry epitomized by The Orient Express. Yet the book is not without its profundity, or its narrative flares in the dark—there are passages where Theroux’s nitpicky preferences and the cities he visits align, and a breath of the old, innocent traveler’s thrill sweeps through:

“We were still at the siding at Jaipur Junction. I lay in my berth…read a few pages of The Autobiography of a Yogi, then fell asleep. I was awakened at half-past twelve by a bump: my bogie’s being coupled to the Delhi Mail. All night the train rocked and clicked towards Delhi, while I slumbered in my cool room, and I was so refreshed on arriving that I decided to…see if, as my map said—though everyone claimed it was impossible—I could take a train to Ceylon.”

This story about trains is summed up best by what trains do at night in Theroux’s sleepy stations: shunting. The train backs up and adds a car—at once a reversal and a gain. So too with the book itself. We feel the reversal when Theroux refuses to novelize, when a rickshaw driver in Madras advertises an English prostitute, and he risks his neck rummaging through blacked out slums in search of a “…situation that attracted me. An English girl in Madras, whoring for peanuts…what had brought her to the godforsaken place?” Yet when he doesn’t find her, and ends up in the inevitable Indian brothel surrounded by giggling poor girls, he leaves casually, without dropping a dime, uninterested in these non-English narratives and observing only that none of the girls “could have been older than fifteen.”

The gain is in Theroux’s language. His epithets make The Great Railway Bazaar worth the price of admission, like this one about the passengers boarding India’s Grand Trunk Express:

“There were grand trunks all over the platform. I had never seen such heaps of belongings in my life, or so many laden people: they were like evacuees who had been given time to pack, lazily fleeing an ambiguous catastrophe.”

This is more than a good simile—the depth of the linguistic play makes each place he describes a metaphor for itself, capturing details and personalities with precision all in the turn of a phrase. At its best, Theroux’s language allows his locale to sing the song of itself, magically in spite of his own narrow-mindedness.

Forty years later, Theroux’s name-making work is still unblinkingly disrupting the nobility we misguidedly attach to travelers, who, of course, are just as vain as we are, and our obsession with authenticity, which lures us into believing that anyone who is just passing through, if they have the right attitude, can experience what another country is “really like.” The Great Railway Bazaar doesn’t try to distill any experience but the author’s own, and it does so with an artfulness that has the bite of a strong drink: in the end the buzz is worth the burn.


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FROM THE ARCHIVE: Renewing the Dialect of the Tribe

This piece was originally published last June.


A writer and professor of medical humanities at UC Berkeley, Marilyn Chandler McEntyre has authored numerous works—including Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies and What’s in a Phrase? —on what it means to steward language well, for our words to act as instruments of truth and life. More recently she has written a pair of books on the words and practices involved in the act of dying faithfully, the first being A Faithful Farwell. The Curator talked with Marilyn Chandler McEntyre about her writing, both old and new, the responsibilities of writers, fidelity to communal conversations, and how we talk about death. This interview has been edited for publication.



Adam Joyce: Why did you write Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies?

Marilyn Chandler McEntyre: Part of it came out of my own response to the intensified rhetoric after 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, and the Patriot Act. Corporations and government were justifying all kinds of new unfoldings in the process, which made it difficult to feel that one could trust the integrity of public argument, debate, and persuasion.

The work also came out of a really positive vocational sense of being called, both inside and outside the classroom, to deal with words. I had the positive desire to reflect on my own vocation and the negative motivation was sorrow and anxiety about the discursive environment that students and children are growing up in.

AJ: Amidst these problematic cultural habits and practices of language, what is the writer’s responsibility when it comes to words? Also, what about the essayist—what is his or her responsibility?

MCM: There is a lot of slippage and erosion in how our culture uses language, yet the processes of degradation aren’t always entirely conscious on the part of people who contribute to them. In the book I make a comparison between our treatment of language and the environment. Look at what is happening to the environment by virtue of industrial food processes, farming methods, factory farms, and so on, yet not everybody who eats meat thinks about factory farms. In the same way, not everybody who uses language considers how we have been acculturated to accept abstractions, imprecisions, forms of vagueness or half truths, and empty rhetoric, in political, media, and commercial processes.

The vocation of any writer is to be on the front line of people who are willing to spend mental energy, spiritual energy, cultural capital, and time crafting words, reflecting on them, and renewing them in the sense T.S. Elliot talked about. Borrowing from Mallarmé, he said that the task of the poet is to “renew the dialect of the tribe.”

Part of renewal in a poem or an essay involves recontextualizing words in such a way that people see them again, and say, “Oh yeah, I hadn’t thought of that word in that way.” The task of the essayist is first of all clarity. Clarity is a gift and entails things like precision, careful development, and examples.

AJ: In Caring for Words it seems like the concepts of stewardship and fidelity are interwoven, almost inseparable from one another. And that any sort of healthy “caring for words,” which goes beyond your own inner life and is rightly connected with a community and their words, requires fidelity. Does fidelity allow for us to talk about what good and careful conversation looks like differently than stewardship does?

MCM: I’m a great fan of Wendell Berry. I’ve recently been teaching his book, Fidelity: Five Stories, which complicates and opens up the definition of fidelity. After you have read those stories and his poem, “The Dance,” which says, “Love changes, and in change is true,” you can’t think about what it means to be faithful in quite the same way.

What it means to be faithful has to move from a simplistic idea of steadfastness, to a more fluid and nuanced notion of staying in relationship—helping people to step back from words by foregrounding them, and saying, “What do you think about this word again?” That is one of the ways a writer can pull words up out of the dust, polish them off, and give them new life.

In a class one time I put a list of values on the board that are attached to good writing, including: clarity, liveliness, persuasiveness, interest value, and others. It was a long list. I asked the students to pick five, rank them, and tell me what they really wanted to work toward in their own writing. A lovely student from the Czech Republic, who had just recently come to the United States, was staring at the list with some interest. When he saw me write down lively, he said, “That is it! I want all my writing to be lively.”

This moment goes to my heart because I think of the phrase the “Living Word” that is applied to Scripture. This is a deep idea that can be imported into writing that has integrity, authenticity, and comes from reflective living. We can ask of any writing: “What is it that makes this a living word or a life-giving sentence?”

“What is this writer being faithful to?” is a question I’ve often asked in literature classes. Any writer has to be faithful to certain things, and telling the truth is something that needs a lot of parsing. You tell the truth in different ways if you are writing fiction or non-fiction.

I’m teaching Moby Dick right now and Melville’s all over the place. Often you don’t even know who is narrating particular chapters. So Melville is not being faithful to a particular set of expected conventions—something that might irritate a lot of readers. It might appear to be infidelity. Yet Melville is being faithful to his purposes, which one can infer.

Then there is also a fidelity to the history of words, which Wendell Berry models so beautifully. He uses words that echo the English of the King James Bible. I never see him use clinical words like depression, but he does use words like sorrow. I feel as though he is being faithful to this language not for the sake of “going back to the good old days” but to retrieve something that has been splintered into multiple disciplinary discourses.

We have a calling to do a certain amount of the archaeological digging beneath the language we use, reach back into the etymologies of words, and to pay attention to the nuances of one word choice over another. We need to trust that those subtle differences make a difference.

AJ: And to trust the time it takes to make those choices well also matters?

MCM: It is really easy as you are sitting at your desk and have a deadline in front of you to think: “Life is short; why am I spending most of my afternoon tinkering with sentences?” But if this is what is given to me to do, why is it any less important than what the plumber does or what anyone does on the floor of Congress? The truth is that none of us gets to assess the ultimate difference our work makes. We don’t get to judge. To be faithful to what is given to you, to write, isn’t to judge whether what you are writing is drivel compared to what Wendell Berry is writing about.

Writing doesn’t start with ideas. It starts with your experience, even if you think it’s not of great public interest. Often it happens that if you are faithful to something that is burdening you, it turns out it does matter.

I wrote a little piece one time called “In Praise of Incompletion” It is about how too high a premium is placed upon coverage and completion in things from curricula to cleaning your plate—finishing a task becomes a virtue. I tell my students about the need to read a long novel slowly enough to understand how the writer is working, to be an apprentice, stand at the writer’s elbow, and see what is going on a in a paragraph. And if that means you don’t turn every page, then don’t turn every page. But come to class ready to reflect on what you have read, having noticed matters of technique that will help you listen more attentively to language and to read better.

After this piece was published I got letters from people who said this permission was such a relief.

AJ: There is a lot more to be faithful to in a conversation than just the people who you are talking with.

MCM: You are participating in a much larger process. It is very easy to imagine you are working on this alone, but every time something comes to the point of publication I realize it is simply something that I get to midwife out of an ongoing conversation, to bring it to fruition in a particular way.

I was in my 20s when a mentor said to me: “Pay a little more attention to the call of the moment and then the longer story will unfold as you continue.” That phrase, “the call of the moment,” has really been a watchword for me. To be faithful to your vocation is to recognize that at different seasons of life you are called to very different things. If you stay in a prayerful relationship with the Spirit, even if that looks like it is leading you on a zigzagging course, that may be what fidelity looks like in to the call of the moment.

AJ: So fidelity requires recognizing where you are, and what that place requires of you? And these levels of faithfulness are what help you know how to engage and use your writerly tools at different moments in those different places?

MCM: My husband is a pastor. One of the phrases that one hears in Presbyterian circles is “equipping the saints.” It is a quaint term, but that is what we do in community; we equip one another. Think of how often we borrow words from somebody, or somebody puts something a certain way, and you say: “Yes, I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it is a beautiful phrase.” You then proceed to steal it, in the way that Eliot means when he says: “Good poets borrow, great poets steal.”

So many lines and phrases I’ve received with gratitude from poets and writers. They have provided me with what Kenneth Burke, the literary critic, calls “equipment for living.”

AJ: So Kenneth Burke says literature, and maybe art in general, provides “equipment for living,” but in light of your recent writing, could you also talk about how it provides equipment for dying?

MCM: Over the last couple of years I have been working as a hospice volunteer—work that I really love—and have seen several family members through the last weeks of life. It is very demanding, heart-opening, and grace-filled work. It has always felt like a real privilege to be at the bedside of someone who is coming face-to-face with the thing we will all experience and find ways to be companionable as you walk with them.

One of the particular tasks I was given in hospice was to work with people who wanted help telling their stories for their families, to leave a story legacy. Autobiography is an interesting genre because you can tell your story with many purposes. There isn’t any required starting point, but you do have to decide if you are going to speak about intimate things and how to organize in such a way as to tell the parts of it that matter.

I worked with a 102-year-old woman who was remarkable. She had many funny sweet engaging stories to tell, but after I had been there two or three times she began to tell me about some very difficult things that had happened to her as a young girl. Her family said, “Let’s not talk about this.” Yet she needed to tell that story. My job there wasn’t to cheer that woman up, but to allow the stories that needed to be told to be told.

Part of caring for words is listening to other people’s words and listening for the story that is finding its way to the surface. It is a challenging task to find ways to talk about dying that navigate around the clichés on the one side and social stumblings on the other side—to offer people a language for death that is both frank and gentle.

A Faithful Farewell is one of a pair of books. Eerdmans, the publisher, asked me to write one book for people who were dying and then another one for their caregivers. But finding a point of view for people who were dying was really hard. Eerdmans ended up encouraging me to write it in the first person, which was a challenging assignment. Based upon a lot of visiting with those who are dying, I tried to articulate the paradoxes, the surprising moments, the boredom, the tedium, the irritation with caregivers who mean well, the moments of laughter when things are hard and nobody else feels like laughing, and the moments of gratitude and prayer. There are just lots of things that can happen if you have a gradual going.

AJ: This act of writing A Faithful Farewell in the first person, it reminds me of Christian Wiman’s phrase, “pain islands you.” When we are talking about our bodies, especially bodies in pain, the role of words is complex. We often ask what language “does” in that space, how it functions. The idea of writing a book about dying in the first person seems, in some way, an attempt to “de-island” that space.

MCM: It is certainly trying to, with a very overt and declared fictive device. I am not writing as a person who is in fact dying, but I’m creating and imagining a point of view to try to give a voice to those whom are dying.

I did this with some trepidation. I don’t want it to seem presumptuous, but part of what writers do in fiction is to create narrative persona to serve a particular purpose. To write from the vantage point of someone who is dying is like if I were to assume a persona from a different cultural background. I want to respect that I’m not that person. Tolstoy created women characters that were magnificent and Faulkner created Dilsey, who is one of the memorable African-American women in American fiction. But crossing those lines is always tricky. So entering into the perspective of someone who knows they are dying and saying what it could look like was a challenge.

It was also illuminating. It helped me find a deepened sense of peace with the reality of my own mortality. I’ve never been a person who is terribly afraid of dying, but I am afraid of pain. The fact we will die is a truth that we have to live into as our life continues.

AJ: What sort of space did writing about hospice and the final chapter of life provide for your other thoughts on language and word care? Did it send you back into your larger reflections on language?

MCM: I think working on that book, being in conversation with people who are dying, and every birthday I have makes me aware how precious the time we have here. The journey metaphor is a common metaphor for life. Yet it is important to think of life not only as a journey but also as a conversation. I try to open myself up in morning prayer and to whoever I encounter each day. It has put a heightened premium on encounter, conversation, and especially silence.

AJ: I read numerous times that a lot of hospice is learning what not to say.

MCM: That is for sure. When my mother was dying I was very impatient with people who came in, who needed to be chatty and cheerful. One of her friends, speaking of someone else said, “Well I like her but she is just terminally cheerful.” We need to learn to sit with someone and be comfortable enough in silence, to allow the conversation to find its slow rhythm. It does slow down simply because people have less energy.

This gets to a musical dimension of what happens in conversation. It is a jazz composition where you don’t exactly know what is coming next, you are listening to the cues, and you want there to be some pauses and rests in this collaboration. Rhythm is important.

AJ: Maybe, in its own way, cheerfulness islands you as well.

MCM: People are afraid of death and some compensate when they have to be in the presence of dying. They fill the space to protect themselves. We all struggle with fears, but if you say too much you cover up the things that really would be the gems you have to offer people, by burying them in sand.

AJ: Words can bury other words.

MCM: My book What’s in a Phrase is about unearthing those little phrases that might get buried in long sentences if you didn’t just stop and notice them—like finding opals in that brown earthly rock that they develop in.

AJ: Thank you so much for your time.

MCM: It was a pleasure.

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The Falling Star of the Self

When short forms are everywhere, from Facebook to Twitter, everyone fancies themselves a minor poet. Social media has provided the form, and now the content of poetry skews towards a celebration of the unadorned, defiant self.

My favorite example of this phenomenon is from John Updike, specifically his last collection of poetry, Endpoint. Assembled late in his life and published mere weeks before his own death, the collection starts out by cataloguing Updike’s recent birthdays. In “March Birthday, 2002, and After”, Updike awakens “alone and older, the storm that aged me / distilled to a skin of reminiscent snow.” Updike begins by describing this particular day in the manner of a weather report; the placid, snow-bound morning after the howling blizzard of his life. Ordinarily, a weather report would have something to offer the local community. Prepare for difficult driving conditions. Make sure to shovel your driveway. Updike’s imagery here is rich, but circular, having to do with Updike himself. This is not a weather report, but an Updike report, a final word of sorts. Having found ample time to contemplate his death, Updike relishes the opportunity to put the finishing touches on a life defined by self-reflection. Concluding “March Birthday”, Updike makes all days his own: “Birthday, death day—what day is not both?”

There’s something being said here about the confluence of experiences bound up in each 24-hour period; there’s also something being said of Updike himself. Specifically, we are told that each new dawn is an opportunity to celebrate the life of Updike, a gratuitous existential attempt to vaunt the self over all things, to make Updike the center of Updike’s own world, to have the final word.

For a long time, Endpoint was the only book of Updike’s that I owned. For this I blame David Foster Wallace, whose essay, “Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think”, is responsible for turning me off Updike and his work. In this scathing review of Updike’s late science-fiction novel Toward the End of Time (1997), Wallace lumps Updike with the other “Great Male Narcissists” of his generation, or—to use the Wallacian acronym—GMNs. The novel is an apocalyptic, futuristic meditation on the end of the self, of the world, whatever; for Wallace, the novel’s subject matter is beside the point. The novel flounders not because Updike is a bad sci-fi writer, or even a bad writer, but because Updike has fallen for a certain generational symptom. While the novel is indeed “clunky and self-indulgent,” Wallace is most critical of an attitude operative in Updike’s generation: the deterioration of a “brave new individualism” into “the joyless and anomic self-indulgence of the me-generation…the prospect of dying without even once having loved something more than yourself.” It was with Wallace’s critique in mind that I picked up Endpoint, and I found Wallace to be tragically correct.

This attitude has not gone away with modernists like Updike, but has bled over into the equally self-referential tendencies postmodern culture through the valuation of identity and independence. While we may now withhold judgment of others’ truths and are hesitant to totalize with our own, we still cultivate our private worlds with as much zeal as the GMNs—curating our self within the ether of the internet. So I am excited by poets who can take us—take me—outside of this interiority.

Ocean Vuong is one such poet. His first collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds, is a profound contemplation not of the self in isolation, but the self in transaction. Vuong was born in Vietnam, the son of a Vietnamese farm girl and an American soldier, and raised in America by his mother and grandmother. Inhabiting a body that is both queer and racially complex, interior reflection for Vuong is not indulgent, but vital; what does it mean to inhabit a body that is threatened, a body that doesn’t fit common racial and sexual categories? In spite of this, Vuong, does not capitulate to the self-referential impulse. Rather, his poetry extends beyond himself, seeking to understand, to thank, and to forgive.

In recounting a tryst with another young man behind a baseball dugout in “Because It’s Summer”, Vuong describes a sexual experience not in terms of self-gratification, but of gratitude: “…but you don’t / deserve it: the boy & / his loneliness the boy who finds you / beautiful only because you’re not / a mirror.” Vuong’s lines are fragmentary, trapping words that evoke desperation and hope: deserve, loneliness, beautiful, mirror. Rather than using sexuality as a means to assert the self or resolve a crisis of identity, Vuong’s taut syntax transforms the experience into an undeserved grace. Vuong understands both himself and his partner to be selves in isolation. Inhabiting queer bodies, both boys have found each other in loneliness, and find each other beautiful because they are not “a mirror,” not the same. While they share a kind of loneliness, they inhabit different selves.

This experience of both sameness and difference calls Vuong out of himself, and for this inversion Vuong has no response but a fervent stream of “thank you thank you thank you… because that’s what you say / when a stranger steps out of summer / & offers you another hour to live.” Rather than celebrating or bemoaning the self, Vuong celebrates the other, recognizing how his needs are met by the body and companionship of another. Here Vuong does not celebrate self-reliance, but surrender, a surrender evoked in the brevity of the lines themselves as they cascade in small rivulets down the page.

This exteriorizing of the self through the other is replicated in a poem about Vuong’s relationship with his father, ‘To My Father / To My Future Son’. In this particular poem, Vuong imagines himself as both father and son, inhabiting the difference and sameness that characterized “Because It’s Summer”: “Look, my eyes are not / your eyes. / You move through me like rain / heard / from another country.” These lines manage to address both Vuong’s American father and Vuong’s unborn son—perhaps never to be born. Both figures move through Vuong “like rain,” familiar and close, and yet infinitely distant, “heard from another country.” There is intimacy, “you move through me,” and rupture “my eyes are not / your eyes.” Vuong’s suggestion to his father and son, across these paradoxes, is again to refuse the impulse to seize, to possess, and control: “If you are given my body, put it down.” Vuong’s father is to release the body of his son, and Vuong himself, as a possible father, is to operate as a body separate from that of his son. This is not a celebration of the singular self, but a chastening reminder that there is more to the self than singularity.

These complex relationships remain a permanent problem for Vuong, but this does not keep him from offering an answer. Responding to these complexities, and chastening the self, is the role of poetry. In the closing lines of “For My Father”, Vuong writes, “Turn back & find the book I left / for us, filled / with all the colors of the sky forgotten by gravediggers. / Use it. / Use it to prove how the stars / were always what we knew / they were: the exit wounds / of every misfired word.” Vuong’s “book,” his own poetry, is a means to gently dissect and understand the complex of relationships that constitute the self.

The poetry collection serves as a kind of key, filled with “colors… forgotten,” words that illuminate and teach. These words are not docile things, however; they are sharp and dangerous. Words are inherently relational, disclosing meaning only in plurality, in the context of other words. Because all words are neighbors, one “misfired” word can transform the truth of the entire sentence. This same relationality applies to the language we offer in service of ourselves and of the other.

In Vuong’s eponymous metaphor, our descriptions are like falling stars that emerge, fast and aflame, from the inscrutable darkness of space. These descriptions can serve us by imposing categories in language, but they can also do harm to the self for the exact same reason, cutting off alternative identities, revealing new truths at the expense of others. This is how language leaves “exit wounds” when “misfired” from the self. Faulty descriptions can do much harm, and are never made in a vacuum.

The metaphor is complex and rich, but the lesson is clear: selves are understood in descriptions, in language, and in relationship. Knowing this, Vuong calls his reader to risk the harm of language to know others as well as themselves. The self, if indeed a complex of relationships that are not easily described, requires extensive work, humility, and others to grasp. There is the risk of harm in the exchange, but the beauty of language draws us on our journey of understanding.

For Vuong, poetry is not a matter of asserting the self, but a matter of meeting other selves across the natural distances that exist between us. When such meetings occur, as in “Because It’s Summer”, our obligation is gratitude, not control. The words we offer in service of our self-description to others tear out of us like falling stars, motes of light in the darkness of the self, making us vulnerable. In watching for these stars, Vuong‘s poetry is turned outwards. It is an expression gratitude for the sight and touch of the other, bearing wounds with words in search of intimacy.

This poetry is a repudiation of Updike’s type of poetry with its attempt to have the last word, and to have it by himself, unshared. Where Updike would know himself through himself, Vuong seeks to know himself through others.

Vuong’s poetry emerges as a beautiful and gracious offering, seeking empathy while eschewing a self-referential impulse. In the first line of his opening poem, “Threshold”, Vuong writes that “In the body, where everything has a price, / I was a beggar.” Maybe this is the self we need to reimagine today. Not as kings, shaping our relationships and identities to suite us, but as supplicants, kneeling in the streets for a little communion, a little bread.

A Review of Seeing Red

“Who am I? If this once I were to rely on a proverb, then perhaps everything would amount to knowing whom I ‘haunt.’ I must admit that this last word is misleading, tending to establish between certain beings and myself relations that are stranger…than I intended. Such a word means more than it says, makes me, still alive, play the ghostly part, evidently referring to what I have ceased to be in order to be who I am.”—André Breton in Nadja

Reading begins with loss. We are strangers in a strange universe built by and upon letters. Every detail is a novelty; every narration is a compelling accent. By our loss of contextual landscape, of comfortable familiarity, we are made blind. In this subtraction the world pulls away and a stranger emerges: the self.

Blindness, both physical and metaphysical, is where Chilean writer Lina Meruane begins Seeing Red, her English language debut. In it, past, present, and future tumble over each other with bloody repetition. From beginning to end, the chaos of time swirls around each word on the page until, like a vaguely luminous mist, it disappears.

Temporal reality gives way to linguistic reality as words become the translator between Lina, the character (and the author), and the slowly disappearing outside world. She fumbles in the spaces between the eye doctor’s waiting room, her apartment, and the airport on her way to and from her hometown, Santiago, Chile. Tension fills the darkening void: waiting for doctor’s reports, waiting for impossible healing, waiting for an unpredictable surgery from a foreign optometrist who cannot remember her name. Her partner Ignacio remains beside her on the streets between places she can no longer go, and her walkman recites the books she can no longer see.

“Who can know himself more than a blind man?” prods Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentinian writer who went blind at 55, in a work entitled “Blindness.” As Borges sight ceased, he saw his interior more clearly—and he found himself in a new language. This foreign language, Anglo-Saxon English, was made of symbols that “…have a prestige that they do not enjoy in their own language, for one hears, one sees, each one of the words individually. We think of the beauty, of the power, or simply the strangeness of them.” Interacting with a language through translation transforms not only the word, but the reader.

Language is entangled in the physical and metaphysical self. Words are as biological as saliva. Blurring the lines between physical and linguistic realities conjures a biographical curiosity in Seeing Red. Lina Meruane, the author (not the character), experienced temporary blindness after suffering a stroke. She, with Borges, turns the Western hymn on its side singing, “I am blind, now I see.” Blindness not only deepens adoration of the word, but widens the scope of reading.

Lina Meruane focuses on eyes over and over in the opening pages of Seeing Red. Like a magician with skillful poise, she pulls in the reader: are you watching? Keep your eyes open. While her physical vision fades to red, Meruane tumbles down into the abysmal interior life full of sounds, accents, sighs, and images: in short, all that makes up language. For Lina, loss of sight means her pupils are covered by a blood-fabric pulled like infinite handkerchiefs from the sleeves of her eye’s vessels. Then, as if sensing the crawling red nightfall, words illuminate in Lina’s mind with strange newness.

Vision. See. I.

In the fog of absence, any word that refers to the eyes, vision or seeing is charged with irony and, in the end, substance. Commonplace phrases, in this context, become full of loss and pain. There is subtle but sharp pain in the eye doctor’s waiting room where “there were a lot of people waiting to be seen” and to see. There is a sarcastic bite in harmless questions like “weren’t you going to go to Chile to see your family?”

On a flight to Chile, Lina muses on the verge of a panic attack,

This is just what I need, I thought, separating from myself and grabbing hold of Lucina, the Lucina who was me as I moved closer to Chile…In New Jersey I’d forgotten all my Spanish. Later, in Santiago, I’d forgotten English. Now, I’m forgetting myself, I thought.

Returning to her Chilean hometown resurfaces past complications for Lucina-hija: a mother who is oppressively helpful, a father who is present at a distance, a younger brother who takes on the weight of his suffering sister, and a successful older brother who sends his presence through an assistant. Lina, for a moment, is present.

Literally, the present tense washes over her language as she reconnects with her father. “I touch him like the professional blind woman I’m becoming. My father is alive, I think, he’s in there, inside his body.” Like a flash of bright light, the present tense adds an intensification of the words flowing between the characters. Past and future disappear from view, a sudden calm covers Lina’s reality. What brought Lina into the present? Was it her father’s voice? Was it the cold feeling of Santiago? Again, literally, it was language. As she exits her father’s Dodge and goes into the home, the present is again replaced from the mournful past.

Memory, the “mind’s eye”, is the fountain of blood that spills over the writer’s eyes as they put word to page. Reading, like loving, involves a removal of self from self. Reading is, in a sense, a demand to give up one pair of eyes for another. These are Lina’s demands of Ignacio, who gave “his arms to guide me, his legs to direct me, his voice to warn me.” In a moment of desolate introspection Lina thinks, “I wouldn’t have [Ignacio’s] sight to make up for the absence of my own. I would be left more blind.” Sacrifice demands intentional loss. Reading demands intentional blindness, and language is our faithful translator of what remains: a strange reality.

Arriving Where We Started

Seven pairs of eyes looked back at me as I settled into the chair at the head of the table. I was a young teacher, barely twenty-four, and this was my first class at my new job. We were studying the works of the Inklings with Genesis, the Gospel of John, and authors who influenced the Inklings thrown in for good measure. “What is the law of human nature?” I asked. Nervously, students began flipping through Mere Christianity. I attempted to keep my own nervousness from showing as I focused on recalling what Lewis said.

Seven years later, I’m still reading C. S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers, and G.K. Chesterton. They are my yearly companions. And every year I look forward to revisiting them. While reading the Inklings isn’t everybody’s yearly habit, experiences of yearly repetition are commonplace. Moving through time, we look for markers in our lives. During our years of education, those markers are often the school year and its holidays. In our adult lives, those markers change, sometimes still based on the children’s school year, or perhaps the fiscal year or sports’ seasons. Sometimes the markers disappear or change leaving a person unmoored. We need holidays to look forward to and daily work to attend to.

Knowing peoples’ need for habituation, several Christian traditions have an intentional calendar marking the seasons in its members’ lives. Church calendars go back to the beginnings of Christian history. Patterned in part after the Jewish calendar, the liturgical calendar helped Christians habituate their lives into Christ’s likeness. It helped Christians meditate on different aspects of Christ’s life during the year’s changing seasons. Advent is about the incarnation. This season is typically meditative and expectant. It is followed by Epiphany, a time of celebration, because the Christ-child, or as John writes, “the light of the world,”[1] came to dispel the “darkness”. Then comes Lent, a time of penitence, remembering that according to the Christian story, Christ had to die in order to bring life to the world. This is followed, of course, by Passion Week and Easter, where Christians remember the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. Each year the cycle is repeated. One theologian, Gerald Sittser, writes, “The early Christian calendar enabled the church to see time as a medium that belongs to God and unfolds according to God’s purposes.”[2]

Humans change when they reflect upon the same truths year after year. Given the unique experiences of the year and their prior experiences with those truths, the ideas morph and take on new significance. Just as repeated activity allows someone to master an action; so also repeated reflection forms a person’s thought processes and heart. Via habituation, people are transformed. The church calendar’s intention is to help Christians meditate on Christ’s life, enabling them to consciously put on virtue and put off vice as they move through the cycle year by year. Its intention is transformation.

It was several years into my teaching career when I realized the Inklings’ books were forming my gut responses. When I first read The Weight of Glory, some time in college, I was impressed by Lewis’s claim that “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their lives is to ours the life of a gnat.”[3] His words resonated with my belief that I, as a Christian, was called to love people. Revisiting those words year in and year out with students whose eyes lit up as they realized how much glory weighs—the heavy responsibility to love other people as eternal beings—made me understand how little I knew of love when I first read those words. It was then I began to see a pattern.

Like the church calendar, I too am moved through the seasons, but they are seasons directed by the thoughts of the Inklings. I move from wrestling with doctrinal conundrums to wondering at the beauty contained within Christianity. Repeated consideration of the Inkling’s curriculum changed me. I found myself understanding my problems and successes through their ideas and stories.

While discussing the novel That Hideous Strength, Lewis’s claim that it is impossible to remain neutral to what is true about the world hit me with clarity. It came at a time in my life when I flip-flopped in my positions when discussing issues with friends. Jane, one of the protagonists says, “I don’t want to take sides in something I don’t understand.”[4] Her friend Camilla responds, “But don’t you see…that you can’t be neutral? If you don’t give yourself to us, the enemy will use you.”[5] I realized then I needed to decide what I believe with the most current information I have, and I need to act based on those convictions. Because not acting is also choosing.

Periodically throughout the years when faced with broken relationships, the bleakness of CNN front-page news, or unfilled expectations in my life or in the lives of others, I would be encouraged by the pervasive theme of hope weaving throughout the Inklings’ texts. The Inklings believed people are meant to live for something beyond what can be perceived by the five senses or current hardships, a startling claim when realizing these authors lived through two World Wars. They wooed their readers with their commitment to a shared creed: the broken world filled with pain and difficulty is redeemed by God through His Son, and we, each and every person, can choose to participate in God’s offered redemption, joy, and love. When steeped in these stories and faced with small difficulties in comparison, I had to be encouraged. Tolkien writes of Sam in the depths of Mordor, a dark and despairing place, that, “Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out the forsaken land, and hope returned to him…the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach.”[6] For me, these texts are like that star shining high above difficult circumstances.

A teacher’s role is to form the thought and sentiment of his or her students. Yet, I have also been changed. Year in and year out I’ve walked with different groups of students through the Inklings. I’ve seen the ideas of the Inklings anew through the eyes of my students and I’ve seen the ideas afresh through my eyes, as I’ve become an older version of myself. It’s a yearly rhythm, which can be described in the words of T.S. Eliot, in one my most favorite poems to teach: “We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”[7]




[1] John 1.

[2] Water From a Deep Well, 100.

[3] C. S. Lewis, “Weight of Glory” 46.

[4] C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength 113.

[5] Ibid. 113.

[6] J.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings “The Return of the King,” 922.

[7] T.S. Eliot, The Four Quartets. “Little Gidding”

Donora Hillard Abides In ‘Jeff Bridges’

Jeff Bridges made this thing called Sleeping Tapes [1]. It was a promo album for Squarespace, a soft and motley collection of nonsequential tidbit stories, rhythmic chanting, field recordings of Bridges just tromping around his backyard with a boom mic, etc. The thing he made is a good thing. I like it. Sleeping Tapes is what I’m listening to from the shower, volume cranked above the plack of soap, shower water, as I consider Donora Hillard’s new book of Jeff Bridges-themed poetry. It’s called Jeff Bridges [2]. That’s all it is called. The thing she made is also a good thing.

kpax-jeffNot many people seem to know about Sleeping Tapes when I mention it. From the compendium of Bridges’ work, Tron or The Big Lebowski are well known. Maybe some people also remember him from Iron Man, those short villainous scenes, or True Grit. But plenty of Jeff Bridges fans have, you know, at least heard about Sleeping Tapes — and plenty more might have slept sweet and delighted to it already, or half-slept rolled into their sheets like human burritos, soaking Jeff’s pepper-and-chunk voice up slowly, weirdly calm. It eventually becomes part of the nature of a fan to know Jeff Bridges bit by bit, as fans soon discover their knowledge of him never seems complete or — heck, or even containable. I rinse my hair and imagine Hillard mouthing every track of Sleeping Tapes, memorized just so, while she scribbles her poems onto coffee filters, the backs of shared marketing mail pieces, a steno pad. Hillard’s book, Jeff Bridges, contains more of The Dude than Jeff Bridges perhaps knows he contains, himself.

And that’s why these poems work, why they are good and why I like them: Jeff Bridges — and we’re talking not only the entertainer, we’re also talking the personality concept he’s portrayed across his career, the man’s mythos and ethos — operates as a free-floating marker for various events in Hillard’s life. He is ever available as steady grounding, or as comforting voice; he is, as often as his depiction renews for Hillard in a poem, an existential sense-maker to all senselessness. Talk about uncontainable. The Dude is a balm for The Poet.

Hillard’s first poem in the book invites readers into Jeff Bridges-as-balm with zero questions asked. It slaps that balm on you before you realize. And the balm absorbs easily into the parts of you that you didn’t know had been so dry, peeling. Read it slowly:


You have 14 minutes
and then Jeff Bridges.
He lets you win at air
hockey and soaks your
diamonds in No More
Tears. He even holds
your hand after you are
fired for being small.
Happy. You will be happy
and he will give you the
last airplane cookie.
You will look down at the
weird tundra lights,
your America, the thing
with wheels for eyes
growing ever closer.


This poem begins the cycle of Hillard’s nameless, semi-narrative and illustration-juxtaposed conversation. On the other side of the page is the first of the illustrations, a rendering of The Dude by artist Goodloe Byron [3]. It’s this combination of Byron’s sketches and Hillard’s film-reference-drenched poetry (in this case, some of 1993’s Fearless) that gets a thematic momentum rolling for us, and by the next poem we’re ready to be balm-baptized once-over. Imagine how Jeff Bridges might explain his career to you over a drink: every story recalled would bite and soothe at the attentions, draw you in, the order unimportant. Hillard, adorned in grungy Dude bathrobe, pulls a bar stool up to you the same, and just details what comes to mind until you’re nodding along. Topics, no matter the initial shock or awe, drift in and out with restful sway. It’s a momentum to be admired.

The Dude abides.Much how Sleeping Tapes hypnotizes me into restful sway, Hillard could read me equally hypnotic with her book [4] — high praise from a fellow, and deeply-entranced, fan of the man, to be sure. Jeff Bridges, like Sleeping Tapes, is correspondingly a soft and motley collection of nonsequential tidbit stories, but instead of the entertainer walking us through his own mind before bed, he walks Hillard through hers, hand-in-hand, before she can even lay her head down. He calls her Baby Sister and looks up from playing his guitar as though paying half-attention, half-asleep, to dispense a saying that will stick. He cares. It’s, in a way, what every fan wants.


Baby Sister, he says, why?

Remember me in FEARLESS.
My hair was so long

and I wasn’t afraid
of any strawberry.

I stuck my head out
the window like a beagle.

I yelled at God,
‘You want to kill me but you can’t.’

So let it go. Let’s drive our
Volvo into a brick wall to make

Rosie Perez feel better.
Let’s buy presents for the dead.


And that’s the beauty of this book. Hillard has picked the stickiest sayings, the half-sleepiest, and said them into her life again and again until she couldn’t distinguish life from Jeff. For us, and for Hillard, Jeff Bridges is Jeff Bridges being wonderfully himself throughout her book — strange, zen-like, and brim with the necessary friendliness of the moment.

I blow-dry my long beard, bathrobe-wrapped, post-shower, and try to think about The Dude the way Hillard has thought about The Dude. I imagine him suggesting I put less stuff in my hair, maybe go for that more natural look. I imagine him patting my shoulder and smiling his thin, pastoral smile.

I put nothing in my hair and start my day.




[1] You can hear Sleeping Tapes here.

[2] Jeff Bridges is available directly through Cobalt Press in both print and epub format. 

[3] Goodloe Byron’s wonderful work can be found on Twitter and Tumblr.

[4] Wouldn’t it be cool if Jeff Bridges read an audiobook version of Jeff Bridges?

Room to Grow

E. B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web, was once asked by an interviewer if he ever felt the need to “shift gears” when writing for children. He replied, “Anybody who shifts gears when he writes for children will wind up stripping his gears… Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down.”

Christian virtues are not necessarily encouraged by authors—or by any artists, for that matter. But what White describes in this interview sounds a lot like the Christian virtue of charity. In its most basic sense, charity just means love. It refers to the love that God has for us, the love that we return to Him, and the love that we show to one another as a result of our relationship with God.

At another level, charity can mean creating space for one another, giving up one’s own life and easy happiness for the sake of someone else. It is making room for others. In that sense, White’s advice boils down to writing with charity. He reminds would-be authors that, if they want to write stories for children, they need to humble themselves and be willing to lay aside their own agenda. You have to be willing to “write up.”

One of the best models of this kind of charitable stance is Newberry Award-winning children’s author Beverly Cleary, who created some of the most well-loved characters in children’s literature. Today–April 12, 2016–is Cleary’s one hundredth birthday, and yet she remains stubbornly unimpressed with herself. When an interviewer asked her a few weeks ago if she was excited to turn 100, Cleary answered, “Well, I didn’t do it on purpose.”

The naturalness of getting older is a common theme in Cleary’s books, as is her commitment to the mundane sorts of experiences that make up life. Cleary’s books, for the most part, are written from the point of view of young children, and always remain true to the complexities and confusions of growing up. The problems of Henry Huggins, Otis Spofford, Ellen Tebbits, and Ramona Quimby are real problems, and Cleary takes them seriously. Rather than insert her adult perspective into the pages, she bows to her characters’ wishes, taking care to explain their motivations, which make perfect sense to them, of course.

In other words, Cleary’s books show her willingness to make room for her characters to take on lives of their own. As a result, her characters are imminently relatable, even lovable, especially the spunky, imaginative Ramona Quimby. Few characters in children’s literature have as rich as inner life as Ramona, and fewer are given room to explore it.


Ramona lives in Portland, Oregon, on Klickitat Street—a real street where Cleary lived as a girl. Ramona’s father works at various blue collar jobs and her mother sometimes picks up work at a doctor’s office. There is also Ramona’s older sister, Beatrice (called “Beezus”), who tolerates her, and Picky-picky, the cat, who despises her.

Cleary was once asked why so many people relate to Ramona, who is by far Cleary’s most popular character. She said, “Because she does not learn how to be a better girl.” Cleary was annoyed with the books she read in her childhood because the characters always learned how to “be better children.” In her experience, children did not learn how to be better children. They just grew up.

That’s not to say Ramona doesn’t learn things. Some of her most memorable experiences involve an unpleasant or confusing realization about herself. For example, at the beginning of Ramona the Brave (not the first book in the Ramona series, but the first that I was introduced to), Ramona is trotting home behind her big sister, mightily pleased with herself. She has just told off a group of boys who were making fun of Beezus’s nickname, which incidentally, Ramona gave her. It’s not until the girls get home that Ramona discovers that her “sermon,” as Beezus puts it, was not at all appreciated by her sister. Beezus was as embarrassed that Ramona came to her defense as she was by the teasing in the first place. Poor Ramona had no idea that she could hurt her sister’s feelings by standing up for her.

“Ramona was used to being considered a little pest, and she knew she sometimes was a pest, but this was something different. She felt as if she were standing aside looking at herself. She saw a stranger, a funny little six-year-old girl with straight brown hair, wearing grubby shorts and an old T-shirt, inherited from Beezus, which had Camp Namanu printed across the front. A silly little girl embarrassing her sister so much that Beezus was ashamed of her. And she had been proud of herself because she thought she was being brave. Now it turned out that she was not brave. She was silly and embarrassing. Ramona’s confidence in herself was badly shaken.

This kind of inside-outside comparison between Ramona’s imagination and her reality continues throughout the Ramona stories. Ramona rarely finds her expectations met when it comes to the reactions of others. Something that she takes great pride in might be ignored by everyone else, or worse, mocked. Something that Ramona takes as logical fact turns out to be a source of embarrassment for her, like when she sits quietly for a long time waiting for her teacher to bring her a gift, all because the teacher told Ramona to “sit here for the present.”

Roger Sutton, writing for the New York Times, commented that Cleary’s novels put kids on a level playing field with adults. Ramona doesn’t understand everything that happens around her, but she makes note of the glances that pass between her parents and the way Beezus acts when she gets a bad haircut. Ramona is often embarrassed, but Cleary is careful that Ramona never, ever looks dumb, either to adults in the story or to her readers. In fact, sometimes Ramona’s version of things makes more sense than the truth. Why doesn’t the word “attack” mean to stick tacks in people?

A less charitable author would take a moment like this and pat the character on the head, saying, “How cute.” Yet Cleary never uses a simpering tone or condescends to her characters. Instead, she sympathizes with them, and so do we. At one point, Beezus, in a fit of exasperation, says to Ramona, “Grow up!” Without missing a beat, Ramona yells back, “Can’t you see I’m trying?”

Ramona’s embarrassment at being herself, and especially at being herself without knowing what she was doing, could easily have been turned into a fable of some kind, where Ramona learns to be obedient, or maybe to be true to herself and be recognized for that honesty. But Cleary is too devoted to her little character (and too respectful of children) to leave Ramona with that kind of bow on her story. After all, most of us didn’t grow up through a series of character building episodes, one after the other. Childhood is messier than that.

That’s not to say that Cleary refuses to give Ramona a happy ending. Ramona the Brave ends with Ramona proud of herself once again for having stood up to a mean dog who stole her shoe. She remains self-aware, as always, but for the time being, she has recovered her bravery.

“Of course, she was brave. She had scars on her shoe to prove it… Brave Ramona, that’s what they would think, just about the bravest girl in the first grade. And they would be right. This time Ramona was sure.”

It’s hard to read one of Beverly Cleary’s stories without a glimmer of recognition at something one of the children is going through, whether it’s learning to read or finding something to do on a summer afternoon. It’s even harder to read one of her stories without seeing her self-sacrificial love for her characters covering every page. So, happy birthday, Beverly Cleary, storyteller of charity, and thanks for “writing up.”

The Danger of Reading

My family owns a book I will never read.

Actually, we own more than one book that I’ll likely not take time for: my stepson’s copy of Si-cology written by Duck Dynasty star Si Robertson, my husband’s 150 Years of Baseball, and a borrowed copy of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces I have kept way too long. Those books lie squarely outside my interests, and with so little time and so many books, why bother?

But there’s one book we own that I would probably enjoy but still will never read: John Green’s A Fault in Our Stars. Granted, it’s a young adult book. But that didn’t stop me from reading The Hunger Games. My husband read Fault and liked it. He’s actually watched the movie version a couple of times without me. It’s that good, according to him. But I will never read Green’s book or others like it because it is about cancer and someone in the book dies of the disease. For a cancer survivor who came close to dying of the disease myself, reading about people dying of cancer stirs up emotional turmoil.

Apparently this kind of selective reading has become popular among college students who ask to be excused from assigned readings because of the “triggers” contained in some classic literature. According to sociologist Frank Furedi, “At universities around the world, students are claiming that reading books can unsettle them to the point of becoming depressed, traumatised or even suicidal.” In his Aeon essay “Books are Dangerous,” he lists Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway (1925), F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), even Ovid’s Metamorphoses as books students have labeled psychically harmful.

Furedi spends most of the rest of his essay enumerating the many ways over the centuries that others have imposed danger labels on literature to keep students, women, the “uneducated,” the religiously pious, and other readers away from the influences of reading. From the Roman philosopher Seneca, “who advised that the ‘reading of many books is a distraction’ that leaves the reader ‘disoriented and weak,’” to The Lady’s Magazine: Or Entertaining Companion for the Fair Sex, Appropriated Soley for their Use and Amusement of 1780 that “warned that novels were ‘the powerful engines with which the seducer attacks the female heart,’” to 20th century Moralisers “who feared the malevolent influence of texts drew the conclusion that censorship served the functional equivalent of quarantine,” reading has a long history of inciting distress in its readers, according to some.

Growing up, my own religious training attempted to motivate us toward a self-imposed “trigger warning” approach to media consumption. For movies and music, the issue lay primarily in the moral arena: sex, nudity, profanity, and violence were to be avoided at all costs, regardless of the merits of the film or composition. But for books, the standard centered more on the ideas they contained. On many occasions, I was presented the metaphor of a counterfeit money expert who is able to identify fake currency not by studying the many different possible knock-offs, but by studying the real thing. In other words, I shouldn’t seek knowledge and truth outside of the texts our religious forbearers had already identified for us. To read books about Islam or atheism or evolution would invite trouble. Reading was dangerous.

Actually, reading is dangerous—possibly in the ways we have been warned about throughout history, where our minds are tainted by new ideas and tempted by knowledge of questionable deeds, but mostly in the ways we are pushed to question and analyze and possibly even reject old notions for new ones. When we read, we change—a dangerous proposition indeed.

“It is precisely because reading catches us unaware and offers an experience that is rarely under our full control that it has played, and continues to play, such an important role in humanity’s search for meaning. That is also why it is so often feared,” Furedi concludes.

But there is another danger in reading, perhaps even a greater danger, that is easily hidden among our preferences and ideologies.

Recently, my husband and I were discussing presidential politics and the primary election season at hand. About one candidate whom neither of us is voting for, we both expressed incredulity over the reasons anyone would make that choice.

“It’s not just that someone would vote for him, but that they aren’t doing any research to find out what he’s really like,” Steve said.

“Well, actually the problem might be that they are doing research but from a biased source,” I suggested, mostly because just the day before, I saw a conversation on Facebook in which two people offered sources to support opposing views about the same issues.

“When everything we read supports what we already know, who can argue with that?” I said.

Dangerous reading indeed. And not just in politics. Of course I’m not advocating only hostile reading, when our books and journals and magazines and newsletters whip us into a frenzy with every perusal. When I read authors who share my opinion and ideologies, I’ve found affirmation and increased understanding. But in hindsight, I also believe that I’ve stunted my own growth when I failed to challenge myself and my opinions by reading broadly and deeply from opposing positions, too.

But reading grows even more treacherous when we limit it not just by subject but by kind, because we have come to believe that our choices are not just morally or ideologically preferable but also intellectually superior. Of course there are many ways to frame these dichotomies. In literature we talk about literary fiction vs. genre fiction. In education, we think of the academy versus vocational training. There are films versus movies. High art versus low art. In “Reverting to Type: A Reader’s Story,” Alan Jacobs, Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program of Baylor University, frames the dichotomy this way: “the guy who talks about ideas” versus “the guy who makes things,” or the Intellectual and the Engineer. In his own reading, Jacobs started out as scientifically curious and increasingly became densely literary. He went from reading for enjoyment to “reading while thinking about what I am going to do with that reading.” When later he came back to both the scientific and science fiction reading of his youth—a reading that differed both in subject and in kind from his own professional reading—what happened surprised him.

“I pursued these matters out of relatively pure enthusiasm, delight in stretching parts of my brain that hadn’t been used much in a few decades. But in devoting so much of my leisure reading to books by scientists, I ended up, quite inadvertently, changing my views about my own profession,” Jacobs writes.

Primarily the change was this:

“Nobody can get a secure grip on this nearly infinite variety of inquiry and vocabulary, but every attempt to read across the boundaries of one’s own preferred practices is a tonic and a stimulant. We tell ourselves that we don’t have time for this kind of reading, but given the multiple rewards, can we afford not to take that time? Often it’s confusing, sometimes it’s clarifying, usually—if you can find the good, clear writers in the various fields—it’s a great deal of fun.

Of course “fun” doesn’t actually preclude danger. Reading of the kind Jacobs suggests is dangerous. But so is the alternative.

Maybe someday when I’ve been cancer-free for five or ten years, I’ll read The Fault in Our Stars. I know I’d like it. But before then, maybe I should pick up Si-Cology or 150 Years of Baseball. It might be fun.

Fantasy and Motivation

Enjoying fantasy can be dangerous business. You enter into a story, and if you don’t hold onto a form of disbelief, there’s no knowing where you’ll draw parallels between the fantasy and reality. You might find something true amidst the unbelievable.

Charles Taylor, philosopher and author of A Secular Age, argues we live in an age of disenchantment. He describes a shift in our sense of identity, from the “porous self” of our ancestors to the “buffered self” of today. Taylor describes the shift as more than the shedding of  supposedly irrational beliefs, but as the “loss of a certain sensibility that is really an impoverishment.” As moderns, we have trouble getting our heads around things like faeries and visions, and Taylor points out how we explain psychologically what our ancestors took at face value: there are faeries in the forest. Today, we believe that “Whatever has to do with thought, purpose, human meanings, has to be in the mind, rather than in the world.”

Writing about the relationship between fantasy and the buffered self, Alan Jacobs summarizes this shift:

“…a person accepts a buffered condition as a means of being protected from the demonic or otherwise ominous forces that in pre-modern times generated a quavering network of terrors. To be a pre-modern person, in Taylor’s account, is to be constantly in danger of being invaded or overcome by demons or fairies or nameless terrors of the dark—of being possessed and transformed, or spirited away and never returned to home and family.

The buffered self believes that it has more control and is therefore safer than the porous self, which contends with this “network of terrors.” But there are two sides to this story. If the universe is as empty as our buffered condition would have us believe, then we are insulated from both the “network of terrors” and the possibilities of external good, even divine good.

However, our buffered selves can still act as tourists in an enchanted world. Jacobs argues that works of fantasy allows buffered selves to participate in the “enchanted world” of our ancestors without losing the safety of our buffered state. As a genre, fantasy doesn’t constitute the porous self that Taylor speaks of, but rather hearkens back to it. Without relinquishing any control, we suspend our disbelief and simulate the porosity of our former faerie-fearing selves.

Fantasy resonates so deeply with many because, often, we’re not yet resigned to a wholly silent universe. Indulging in fantasy requires the temporary adoption an enchanted vision of the world, whether our own or another. Fantasy winds its way into the cracks of our vision and illuminates alternative ways for how—and who—operates the universe. Covering our eyes does not preclude the shining of a light just as a bulwark of manufactured meaning doesn’t foreclose on deep, spiritual truth. Fantasy invites us to look at the world in the light of a strange, new sun.

For this reason, good fantasy, like The Lord of the Rings, can animate and enlarge life itself.

This hit me this autumn while going through the most difficult semester of my academic career. I began studying journalism with a desire to tell great stories but came up against structural restrictions and found myself disillusioned, overworked, and lonely.

In search of respite, my wife and I invited a friend over to watch The Lord of the Rings films. Our friend had never seen them, and we were excited to share the joy we find in the stories with her.

Down in the Mines of Moria, Frodo’s dialogue with Gandalf echoed my struggle to accept personal failures and an uncertain future:

“I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.”

“So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides the will of evil.”

An encouraging thought, indeed, but not an easy one. I cried. I cried silent tears and sat in the dark with Frodo and found truth under the mountain. Yet, beneath a mountain of doubt, a light broke through; here was truth or, at least, the promise of life beyond the present shadow.

Gandalf’s advice brought me to a place where I understood what it meant to say “I will take the Ring, though I do not know the way.” The givenness of life comes with the weight of responsibility, but it isn’t a weight that must be carried alone. When a burden is given it must have a purpose, and it’s by discovering this purpose that life’s joys are sweetened by its pains.

Further in their quest, Frodo and Samwise have what’s essentially a discussion on the relationship between divine will and human responsibility; the perennial question of determinism. “I don’t like anything here at all […] but so our path is laid,” says Frodo.

To which Samwise replies:

“Yes, that’s so,” said Sam, “And we shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo, adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on, and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same; like old Mr. Bilbo. But those aren’t always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in! I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into?

The Fellowship of the Ring ends with a note on which most worldly quests fall apart. The fellowship breaks; the damage of Boromir’s betrayal can’t be undone despite his redemption, and the path before Frodo becomes even darker.

In spite of all that, when the credits rolled I found myself strangely resolved to my fate—whatever that may be. Instead of escaping into the story, the story had passed into me and overwhelmed my doubts.

If this world isn’t enchanted, then after the breaking of the fellowship, Gimli was right to say, “it has all been in vain.” Disenchantment has a diminishing effect; it makes us small, insignificant features of a quiet universe instead of participants on an awe-inspiring stage. Disenchantment leaves us to toil in obscurity or to grasp at power with what little agency we possess, often to the detriment of those around us. Disenchantment offers us fleeting, minor victories in the face of life’s daunting, and often crushing, trials.

Good fantasy, and the world it invites us into, animates because it presupposes a power both above and beyond us. It invites us into a universe that sings. A world in which we do not merely exist, but have being. Good fantasy can open us, make us porous to this divine good, which means we can work towards goals—our quests—with the hope that not everything will be in vain or, better yet, that nothing will have ever been in vain. After all, “despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt,” and we most certainly do not.

Good fantasy lets us see our lives aren’t wholly personal, or even how I might not be the hero of my own story, which frees me to ask this question: what kind of tale have I fallen into?

“I wonder,” said Frodo, “But I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale. Take any one that you’re fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.”

If you enjoy a good story this is good news of the highest order. Our stories have purpose; there are more reasons to get out of bed than to hide in fear. It’s a mercy to our unyielding desire for meaning that we don’t have to save the world to find our purpose in it, or even to change it.

Experiencing the enchanted worlds of fantasy is not escapism. Rather than providing a hiding place, it can lay our world bare, stripping away the buffers of our self-justification. If my troubles are the result of my poor choices then I’m just a fool, but if my path has been laid before me—given to me—then there is meaning in my struggle, no matter the outcome.

The wisdom of elves reminds us that it’s often the small hands that move the wheels of the world, a truth, when taken with the givenness of our stories, simultaneously lays a burden of responsibility on us while ensuring its lightness. As enchanted creatures, what we decide to do with what we’re given will carry on beyond this life, but we aren’t left to make the most of our lives alone. There is good in this world, and beyond it.

The Lord of the Rings is not a story about heroes; it is a story about becoming heroes, and that makes a world of difference. An enchanted world frees me to be a pair of small hands that matter, a character in a story full of songs about great deeds, and not all of them necessarily my own. Good fantasy reminds me that the world is enchanted and that the real escapism is a cocoon of manufactured meaning, a retreat from the illumined universe where we imagine ourselves both the author and the hero of our stories. This is an escapism that crushes, and suffocates.

True freedom comes with risk, and if we live in an enchanted universe then the risk is real, but the burdens are light.

Featured Image: Tolkien’s Orignial Watercolor for The Hobbit

Cold Wars and Culture Wars

Ilya, a Soviet dissident living in mid-twentieth century Russia, seeks out his former teacher, Victor Yulievich, at his home in Moscow. Needing encouragement for dark times, Ilya hopes for a conversation that will rekindle the idealism and exhilaration of his schoolboy years. Upon his arrival Ilya finds Victor asleep in his library, a glass of vodka close at hand. The scene provides Ilya with a moment for stark reflection. “He would have to ask him: Why he was lying there all alone, half-drunk, surrounded by the finest works of Russian literature? Maybe it was true that only beauty would save the world, or truth, or some other high-flown garbage; but fear was still more powerful than anything else.” Referencing the famous platitude from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, Ilya casts Victor as a kind of holy fool, one whose ideals are too noble and naïve to survive. Lying in a heap among these beautiful books, Victor encapsulates the crisis of the arts in Soviet Russia, becoming the emblem of Russia’s estranged relationship with its artists.

This relationship is a central concern of Ludmila Ulitskaya’s The Big Green Tent. Told largely through the eyes of three Soviet dissidents—a musician, a photographer, and a poet—and their families, The Big Green Tent demonstrates the bizarre relationship Russia shares with its own artists, paradoxically celebrated and censored. As Ultiskaya wryly notes in the novel, the 18th Century poet Pushkin may be the patron saint and founder of Russian literature, but not even he escaped the surveillance of the Tsar’s secret police: “The past was no better than the present. […] One had to try to escape, to wrestle free from every era, so as not to be devoured by it.” In Ulitskaya’s vision, the Russian artist is both intensely gifted but also destabilizing, traversing the borders of Russia’s history, trying to breath new life into communities while eluding the authoritarian state.

Ulitskaya herself is no different. As a vocal opponent of Putin and his policies, Ulitskaya has denounced contemporary Russia on many occasions, even as her literary fame has grown. While her writings celebrate the rich history and literary heritage of Russia, they also offer a scathing indictment of its political and social accomplishments. Thus The Big Green Tent is a Russian novel in the classical sense, expansive and complex, both celebrating and deploring its culture of origin.

Eschewing a typical timeline, the novel moves effortlessly between various moments in the lives of Ulitskaya’s characters, assembling a collage of human striving. This collage, inherently fractured (characters move frenetically into and out of marriages, across national borders, and amidst national crises) is reconciled under the eponymous Big Green Tent. This central image, described in the fevered dream of Ilya’s abandoned wife, Olga, is a place without doors, without borders: “a pavilion, all shining and golden,” where the dead and the living line up together to gain entrance. Here, in this eschatological vision, artistic expression is freed from authoritarian censorship. Inside the Big Green Tent there is “nothing,” but nevertheless those who enter the tent experience a sensory explosion. “There’s a particular scent, something you can’t even imagine, and everything is shining.” Unbounded by words or images, and circumscribed by no authority, the tent represents the unfettered possibility of free expression. This eschaton for artists is the realization of the unfulfilled hopes of Ilya and his friends.

While certainly a work of historical fiction, The Big Green Tent is grounded in the imagined future of Russian dissident artists. To use the H. Richard Niebuhr’s terminology, The Big Green Tent is “internal history;” history told from the perspective of the participants, a history into which we are invited to “think with poets rather than with scientists.”[1] Seen from this artistic vantage point and pressed towards a particular end (the communal ideal of the Big Green Tent), The Big Green Tent provides not only an account of the Soviet dissident experience as confessed by the community of Russian artists, but also offers an imaginative and prophetic vision of what the relationship between artist and community could, and indeed must, become.

Ulitskaya’s artists are made for community. And yet, for the stereotypical artist, community is supposed to be difficult. Ever since modernity, artists have been cast as social outcasts, tormented and alone in their genius. Artist and writer Makoto Fujimura tackles this stereotype head on, reinventing artists as mearcstapas, an Old English word for “border stalkers.”[2] As mearcstapas, artists lead from the margins, having a role “that both addresses the reality of fragmentation and also offers a fitting means by which artists can help people from all our many and divided cultural tribes learn to appreciate margins, lower barriers to understanding, and start to defuse the culture wars.”[3] Concerned with the polarization of truth and falsehood in the contemporary American “culture wars,” Fujimura identifies the permeability and fluidity of artists as they ply their craft. Far from casting artists as loners or outsiders, Fujimura describes artists as those who leave and then return to their communities, bringing new knowledge and insight. In this way, the role of the artist is twofold, both destabilizing and generative. Likewise, the artists of Ulitskaya’s The Big Green Tent are mearcstapas as well, voicing their dissent and combating the fear that is rampant in their communities through music, literature, and images. Ilya sneaks between alleys and over rooftops to photograph the bloody stampede in Trubnaya Square during Stalin’s funeral, capturing images of the violence to send in secret to the West. Sanya, crippled at a young age and unable to further his career as a piano player, pursues in secret an evolutionary theory of musical systems. Mihka, stigmatized as a Jew, is imprisoned in a labor camp for sharing his love of literature with a coworker. By exercising their freedom and engaging with their communities, Ulitskaya’s artists flirt with death. In each case, cooperation with KGB authorities leads to the end of these characters’ art and, either literally or symbolically, their lives. Contrary to the stereotypical image of the “lonely artist,” it is not the isolation of introversion or excessive self-awareness that leads to the untimely deaths of Ulitskaya’s artists. Rather, it is rigorous engagement within their communities, the itinerant and critical engagement of the mearcstapa, that leads to their undoing.

Ulitskaya points to a purpose for the arts beyond expressing dissent; her artists do not merely voice disapproval with the world in which they live. Nor are they simply destroyed by their own contexts. In spite of all that is set against them, artists create new worlds of their own. This is true revolution. Recognizing the musical genius of the crippled Sanya, the professor Kolosov realizes that this boy, too, understands that art is inherently transformative. “They were few and far between, the temporal forerunners of humanity, people who not only presaged the new world, but were also able to analyze and research it.” When Sanya hears music, he hears the end of the world and the beginning of a new one; the world of the Big Green Tent. The artist becomes a prophet.

Prophecy aside, Ulitskaya’s characters do not achieve the ideal of the Big Green Tent in their lifetime. They are undone by circumstance, fate, and in some cases simply poor planning. But little moments of reprieve shine through; in cultural climates which stifle the arts, whether Cold War or Culture War, artists can enjoy solidarity and find a modicum of peace. As Ilya awakens his drunken teacher, he finds that his own mind has gone blank. “What had Ilya wanted to ask him? What did he want to tell him? Nothing. This was just what he had wanted: to sit down and drink a glass together, to commiserate with each other, to feel mutual sympathy, compassion, love. They drank in silence. And Ilya felt better.” The Big Green Tent balloons over Ilya’s head, if just for a moment. For Ilya and Ulitskaya, perhaps this, for now, is enough.


[1] H. Richard Niebuhr, The Meaning of Revelation, 37.

[2] Makoto Fujimura, Culture Care, 39.

[3] Ibid.

The Empathy of Gina Berriault

Outside an old hotel in the Swiss Alps, an elderly writer fearing the end of his literary career watches two figures climb the steepest side of a distant mountain. Miles away, the climbers are visible as blackened specks against a glorious sheet of snow. They vanish then reemerge while the writer watches with a deepened wondering about this foreign couple braving the atmosphere. Suddenly the specks fall one after the other as if purposefully brushed off and the writer is left to process this casual ending of things. When he notifies the hotel manager of the climbers’ fate, he is assured that “No one is climbing and no one is falling”. Stunned, the writer returns to his room and writes down the first word he’s written all trip into his notebook on faint lines he “likened now to infinitely fine, blue veins”.

This lone writer is one of many broken souls that appear in Gina Berriault’s award winning collection of short stories Women in Their Beds. After a failed marriage, a daughter returns to her aging mother in the desert and reveals a devastating secret while a nearby wilderness fire lights the barren world around them. The neglected son of a sculptor travels the world to see the homes of his father’s famous works of art so he may make peace with loss and abandonment.

These are characters who brave the unknown. It is not from a sense of duty or romance that guide them from one difficult place to the next. With a direct and defenseless empathy, Berriault writes of humans on their way back into life, of characters returning after long departures from the self with old hearts racing close behind bursting with grief.

A recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award, the 1997 Rhea Award for the Short Story, a Guggenheim fellowship, and a Pen/Faulkner award finalist, Berriault somehow remains, as Andre Dubus once said, “One of our best and most neglected of writers.”  This is likely because Berriault was more concerned with writing as her contribution to the world than with the outward recognition that immortalized her contemporaries. Content with obscurity, of being as unknowable as the world itself, Berriault wrote to manifest the unseen.

Born in Long Beach, California to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, Gina Berriault’s childhood was marked by an early love for literature. As a girl, she typed stories standing at her father’s typewriter with the meditative precision of her self-assigned mentors, Gogol and Chekhov, in mind. Those years at the typewriter would eventually lead to a fruitful literary career in adulthood affirming her belief that stories “seem to be blessing all children, even those who can’t read a word”.

It is no surprise that children are often the subject of Berriault’s work. The serious intimacy she brings to the private life of a child goes beyond careful observation. It’s as if, while writing, her eyes had rolled inward. Consequently, her characters remain children even when we meet them in the midst of their adult lives. They are children in their pressing desire to connect with the unloved, to lift the inadequate weight of the lost cause even when no one is climbing and no one is falling.

In “Sublime Child” Ruth is eighteen years old and coping with the recent loss of her mother Alice. Her grief distances her even further from passive relatives and the only way she can conceptualize survival is by hanging on to her mother’s married boyfriend Joe.

“Joe and Alice and herself,” Berriault writes, “they knew what love was because they had only one another.” When it becomes clear that the bond between Ruth and Joe cannot last, Ruth begs for her mother’s forgiveness and rains “her fists upon her own face.” Ruth’s new loss at the end rings louder and longer than the first. At the story’s end, we feel a completeness in the wake of disunion even when her characters, God help them, do not.

In many of Berriault’s stories, grief is a traveler’s companion. In “The Island of Ven” bereaved couple Noel and Eleanor venture to a Swedish island to visit an observatory of Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe. This is one stop of many on their “healing quest” to visit the homes of the world’s famous astronomers. There is something both poignant and harrowing about their journey, this mission to chase those who chased the stars. Perhaps it’s because of Nana, the daughter they lost long ago. Perhaps this is a quest for distraction and acceptance.

As with other stories throughout the collection, “The Island of Ven” is onto something. Maybe there is a patina of hope in the sky we can’t help but lift our faces to see. Above, there is a vastness that puts our sorrows into perspective. If only we could pass our sorrows onto the stars. After all, the farther the distance of things, the faster we are left behind. Eleanor briefly ponders the immeasurableness of grief in this gorgeous passage:

“She was thinking that there was an everywhere that Noel and the others could never measure, even with their perfect and indisputable instruments, even with the finest device of all which was their minds, and this everywhere, always beyond them, was grief and was what inconsolable meant. She was thinking that someone, somewhere in the world, goes out into that everywhere and never comes back. Noel touched her knee, bringing her back.

In Berriault’s stories there is company in the inconsolable, in this everywhere. The places her characters go are scary, but they’re also where we find the crux of Berriault’s fiction: a genuine attempt to understand the unresolved. Her characters, though on the cusp of self-pity, are never sensationalized in their brutal discoveries. This is what makes Berriault’s writing so powerful. She takes us into the depths of invisible strangers whether our faculties are capable of understanding them or not. 

As of today much of Berriault’s work remains out of print. Lydia Davis recently wrote, “I have always had faith that the best writers will rise to the top, like cream, sooner or later, and will become exactly as well-known as they should be.” With any luck, new generations of readers will discover Berriault again and again. Their grand circle of concern will widen at the mercy of her prose as they too embrace the tragic of the everyday-the climbs and the falls.

Noteworthy: Cutting through Static

It happens when I hear the Scottish accent of an old man. Or my hairdresser’s soft, unhurried tone. A gentle cadence like waves, rising and falling, sending tingles over my skin.

All the Light We Cannot See is built around the power of the human voice—particularly, a stranger’s, heard over the radio. On his website, author Anthony Doerr explains the germ for his 2015 Pulitzer prize-winning novel: I started with a boy trapped somewhere and a little girl reading a story to him over the radio. That boy is Werner Pfennig, an orphan who grows up with his younger sister Jutta in the coal-mining town of Zollervein, Germany in the 1930s. That girl is Marie-Laure LeBlanc, blind and living in Paris near the Natural History Museum where her father works as the locksmith. Doerr alternates chapters between these two characters before they converge in a powerful and beautiful way.

Marie-Laure and Werner meet in Saint-Malo, a small town on the coast of Brittany that the Germans occupied during World War II. When the Germans invaded France in 1940, Marie-Laure and her father fled to this small seaside town to live with her great-uncle. With them, they carried the Museum’s most valuable jewel, a pear-shaped stone called the Sea of Flames. Werner ends up in the same town because his knack for fixing radios earns him a spot at a training academy for Hitler Youth, from where he is enlisted to use his skills to track down the resistance.

Against this significant historical backdrop, the fictional Marie-Laure and Werner are nobodies: a blind girl and an orphaned boy. Yet Doerr crafts an epic story (in size and scope) of courage, redemption, and hope through their “miniature” lives. It’s no coincidence that the objects that define Marie-Laure and Werner are small things. Marie-Laure’s father builds her a wooden model of their Parisian neighborhood so she can navigate outside on her own. When they arrive in Saint-Malo, he builds her another model so she can do the same there. This model becomes her lifesaver.

In the orphanage where Werner grows up, he comes across a shabby radio. He pores over textbooks and studies the machine’s smallest innards, but he really falls in love with it when he tunes into a foreign broadcast and hears a Frenchman with a velvet voice talking about science in a way that utterly enchants him. This voice is in danger of being snuffed out though, both physically and metaphorically. It’s not long before listening to foreign broadcasts is illegal. An endless stream of state-sponsored propaganda fills Werner’s ears instead. Only through the hottest fires, whispers the radio, can purification be achieved. But the Frenchman’s voice returns to him at crucial moments: Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever. By contrasting these two voices, Doerr highlights Werner’s inner struggle to do what is right and the fear that often stands in the way.

All the Light We Cannot See reminds us that the tiniest things are extremely powerful. A tiny voice. A tiny model house. A tiny jewel. A tiny radio. A tiny life and tiny actions. Young and feisty Marie-Laure, along with her housekeeper and great-uncle, find small but significant ways to stick a middle finger to the Germans—baking tiny messages into bread, changing road signs to point the wrong direction, delivering flowers to an officer that he is allergic to. Their efforts show the power of many small acts done together that may just make a ripple in the waters. 

Werner, on the other hand, demonstrates how easy a life can be subsumed by a system beyond one’s control. He thinks the radio is how he can escape the fate of his father who died working in a coal mine, but his escape leads to imprisonment of a different kind. “It’s just numbers,” his professor routinely tells him. Numbers that lead him roving the countryside for terrorist broadcasts that his herculean crewmember takes out, shot after shot.

Although framed within the grand narrative of war, Anthony Doerr zooms in and tells an exquisitely written tale of two children—what they choose to do, the things chosen for them, and the greyness in between. As Werner’s sister Jutta reflects near the end, “It was not very easy to be good then.” Indeed. But what about all the light we cannot see? What about all the Marie-Laures and Werners, trying to be good? This is the question and the hope Doerr offers, even if it is as tenuous as a voice cutting in and out of static.

The Worlds Numbers Built

A young Michael Clune sits in front of his family’s television long after the jumbled noise of the VCR tape has stopped, absorbed in a primordial void of static, waiting for something. What is he waiting for?  He does not know. After 30 minutes, the static begins to take form. From the nonsensical ocean of static frizz, a single symbol emerges: a winged ‘W’ hovering over the formlessness of the black and white slats. “I was ready for the words at the end of television,” writes Michael Clune. So began his initiation into a new world of video games. But Michael has barely scratched the surface of this new revelation; what awaits him beyond the ‘W’ at the end of television is the binary at the end of language. What Michael has yet to realize is that ‘W’ is a fabrication of an even deeper reality: the terrifying determinacy of numbers.

Gamelife, by Michael Clune, is a memoir about coming of age in a time when technology has just begun to dominate children’s imaginative and emotional worlds. It is also, therefore, a timely memoir. Millennials are the first generation to be raised with easy access to virtual realities. C.S. Lewis once wrote that George McDonald’s fairy tales baptized his imagination. Clune’s imagination is baptized by the Commodore 64 and a library of floppy disks: Suspended, The Bards Tale II, Wolfenstein, and Elite. This changing world leads Clune to adjust his own understanding of reality. Through powerful storytelling, he demonstrates how, for better or for worse, video games provide narratives, hermeneutics, and revelations that shape how adolescents move through the world. “My imagination was as weak as a bay’s arm until computer games trained it. I can’t even remember the things I imagined before computer games.” Video games, though a kind of artifice, act as formative agents, teaching him how to understand his environment, God, life and death, and himself by training him through intensive repetition that would put a Suzuki pedagogue to shame. In narrating this formative aspect of gaming via memoir, Clune demonstrates the influence that virtual reality can exert on human lives. Though mediated by technology, the game worlds players inhabit, however temporary, take on lives of their own through their sheer expansiveness, becoming seamlessly merged with players’ interpretations and implicit philosophies.

Take, for instance, Michael’s experience of video game statistics. After facing an impossibly tough boss battle in The Bard’s Tale II, Michael wonders what it means to be hit for 490 points of damage. “What did it look like? What did it sound like? What did it feel like?” This arbitrarily large number, an expression of the “damage” the boss was able to inflict on Michael’s in-game avatar, begins to work on Michael’s imagination. For Michael, numbers become the key to completely new imaginative horizons, some of which are terrifying in their numerical precision.

Perhaps it is this precision that Michael’s parents fear in his experience of video games. When Michael’s mother realizes that The Bard’s Tale II is a role-playing game similar to Dungeons & Dragons, she confiscates it immediately: “It’s turning kids into satanists. They’re acting out the violence from it in school!” The video game becomes a forming subject; while still a fiction, “it” is nevertheless capable of transforming children into real life versions of the in-game characters. There is an intuitive linking of the numerical values and landscape of the game with the moral values of the real world. Though the game is a fantasy, it is not a stretch to imagine that it bears out real-world consequences. The numbers, their proportions, can be extrapolated into life itself. Like many evangelicals who grew up in the 90s, I was raised in a home where video games were strictly regulated based on content. Rather than dismissing these fears, Clune validates them. “I don’t think you have to be an evangelical Christian to know that there is such a thing as an evil truth and to know that it leaks constantly from the fantasy of numbers,” Clune observes dryly. Clune’s “evil truth” is that the numbers are, in a sense, more real than words. Words are insufficient, pale imitations of reality. “If we talk to nature or God in words, it doesn’t understand us. Words just sound like noise to nature.” Words are static. The primordial ‘W’ that emerges from the television static before Michael’s eyes is simply formlessness given shape.

While words are superficial, Clune claims that numbers are a fundamental scientific reality; they determine everything—even morality. Numbers can explain something as simple as a children’s game, or candles on a birthday cake. Numbers can describe the funnel of a tornado, or the severity of an earthquake. Numbers are utterly determinative—terrifyingly so. Clune’s revelation is that video games are, just like the world behind our computer screens, “numbers become flesh.” The numbers are real, and the images that wrap them are simply a shell. This is true of both fantasy and ‘reality’; the preeminence of numbers, Clune claims, is one of the universe’s foundational truths. If, as Clune claims, numbers are the cellular building blocks of reality, then real life is actually a video game that we are always playing. “All you really need for a good body is something that sees, something that knows, and some numbers underneath.” Perhaps this is all you need for a system of ethics as well.

The lessons that Clune learns from video games are not novel. In fact, in the utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill, western philosophy already has an ethical system based on mathematics. In Utilitarianism, Mill writes, “the ultimate end… is an existence exempt as far as possible from pain, and as rich as possible in enjoyments, both in point of quantity and quality.” For Mill, experiences of pleasure and goodness are quantifiable, being that which afford the greatest enjoyment to the largest number of people. What follows is Mill’s metric for evaluating the morality of a pleasure:

“If I am asked, what I mean by difference of quality in pleasures, or what makes one pleasure more valuable than another, merely as a pleasure, except its being greater in amount, there is but one possible answer. Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure.

Moral obligation is a construct, inferred from the subject’s environment. Morals are mathematical realities, relative statistics of pleasure, pain, and profit that are learned through experience as the subject moves through society and the physical world. The sanctions we experience that prevent us from doing degenerate things do not descend from on high, as though morals were arbitrated by a divine force or figure. Rather, these sanctions are agreed upon numbers, “numbers given flesh,” as Clune would say. Mill writes that “the sanction… is always in the mind itself; and the notion, therefore, of the transcendental moralists must be, that this sanction will not exist in the mind unless it believed to have its root out of the mind…” For Mill, moral sanctions are inferred imaginatively from one’s environment. There is no transcendental morality informing our decisions. The norms we receive are inferred from the mathematic and scientific realities that surround us; how many people are impacted by this good? Is this good desirable by the majority? What causes the least harm?

This idea was a forerunner of the “radical empiricism” that would be developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by philosophers like William James and Bertrand Russell. Taking Mill’s theory a step further, radical empiricists insisted that mathematical truths were logically perfect, and inherently superior to the linguistic interpretations that enshrouded them. Reality, at its base, is a series of mathematical syllogisms, and language is devoid of meaning unless it directly describes (however poorly) these syllogistic realities. Such a view does away with the need for any supernatural or extra-scientific experience; all that we are left with are the cold, mathematical reality of the universe. This is the “evil truth” of numbers.

It makes sense that this empirical framework is more evident in video games than in lived experience. As virtual worlds assembled on purely mathematical principles, video games are perfectly empirical. A video game avatar’s entire world is circumscribed by numbers and code. Boundaries, abilities, and mortality are strictly delineated by the game’s design. While video games offer the façade of endless possibility, they are in fact profoundly limited. Clune’s avatar in The Bard’s Tale II may wander through its 8-bit landscape in a parody of perfect freedom. But then, in combat, a boss strikes Michael for 490 damage. This is a simple equation, empiricism in its barest form: 490 damage equals death. Numbers become an uncheatable barrier. To get by the dragon, troll, or sorcerer you need to play the numbers game. Divide and multiply. Like any child, Clune reaches to understand this reality, making imaginative leaps in the process. The numbers inflate the battle on an exponential scale, and Clune can’t get his head around them. They reach beyond his lived reality, and somehow they seem more real. The numbers present an actual quantity, nearly tangible in its specificity. There is no mystery, no deus ex machina. All that remains is the machine.

Video games teach Clune, with more honesty than his own social world, the difference between how things appear, and how things are. Numbers, angles, lines of sight; the structure of video games come to structure the world his body inhabits. They offer his imagination a hermeneutic, an interpretive lens, to grapple with the confusion and disorientation of puberty in public school, moving to a new home, and divorce. In a life of constant change, there is something therapeutic, even preferable, about living in a world in which everything is explicable and predictable. As Clune describes his real-world experiences alongside the video games he played at the time, he integrates reality and fantasy, interchanging them, even confusing them. Video games have been mapped onto his life.

I was surprised and disturbed by Gamelife. It is not only an engaging read, but a poignant one as well, depicting a difficult childhood through the lens of virtual reality. Video games are not merely toys. They grip us, much like a painting, a film, or a novel. The images they present stick in our minds, and become points of reference for us. Though they are not “real” per se, we receive their meanings as applicable to our lives because of their believability. Clune’s memoir is an honest assessment of what video games are capable of, both as a form of entertainment and a form of education. Video games are not escapes from reality, but tangents. And as tangents, they are half-truths. Our world is, in a sense, circumscribed by numbers. This boundedness is an “evil truth,” or at least a limiting one. And yet, the inexplicable remains. None of us actually describe our lives in terms of syllogisms or formulas; we do so with stories and images, and even develop our own unique terminology for these experiences. Video games can teach us much, but they cannot circumscribe our reality, even though we may want them too. And sometimes, when we question this reality, we arrive at a different answer than Clune.

“What did it look like? What did it feel like?” When I was a ten-year-old playing Pokémon Red Version, I wondered how a tiny Pokémon, like the worm-like Caterpie, could possibly survive an attack from one of its larger brethren. If a Snorlax (visualized in the game as an obese, narcoleptic sloth) performed a ‘Body Slam’ on a tiny Caterpie, shouldn’t the smaller Pokémon be squished to death? After all, I knew what happened to insects that were trampled in real life. But in the game world, if the Caterpie was “leveled” enough, if it had enough hit points to receive the damage from its foe without “fainting” (Pokémon’s sanitized version of in-game death), it would in fact survive the blow, shrugging off the weight of a creature more than twenty times its size. This fact was fundamentally at odds with reality as I experienced it outside of the game world. That I could revive my tiny Pokémon to fight again after such an onslaught made no sense. Wouldn’t the Caterpie simply become flattened, squished, or otherwise cease to exist? What would happen in the real world if the same amount of force were exerted?  Instead of intuitively using virtual reality to question and clarify my lived experience, I was doing the opposite. I was taking what I knew of the real world to reveal the artifice of the game.

Clune was formed by The Bard’s Tale II, but only insofar as he chose that reality over another. The Bard’s Tale II wasn’t “right” about numbers being our fundamental reality, and when we think about it, The Bard’s Tale II had no authority to make such a declaration. Nevertheless, Clune wanted The Bard’s Tale II to be right, in the same way that many of us want our imaginations to be right. The trap of the video game, as a completely immersive experience, is that it makes its case so persuasively. We are persuaded because video games have the capacity to become reality to us, as they did for Clune. This is why Clune’s memoir is so valuable. We, too, should reflect further on the imaginative transformations that are occurring as we move through a world in which the digital and the physical, the ‘0’ of binary and the ‘W’ of language, are increasingly enmeshed.

Cormac McCarthy at Christmas

All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

–W.B. Yeats

I have at times found myself at a loss to explain to another person why I love McCarthy’s writing. It is not the kind of stuff you want to tell your Mom to read. Murder, cannibalism, necrophilia, incest—the list goes on. Not so much the beachy read that my friend was asking for when I sent her off with The Road. Sorry.

At a pivotal moment in McCarthy’s The Crossing, a teenage cowboy Billy Parham holds the dead wolf that he longed to set free, he experiences something I will not try to paraphrase:

He took up her stiff head to hold what cannot be held, what already ran among the mountains at once terrible and of great beauty, like flowers that feed on flesh. What blood and bone are made of but can themselves not make on any altar nor by any wound of war…which cannot be held never be held and is no flower but is swift and a huntress and the wind itself is in terror of it…

The wolf, like McCarthy’s larger universe, is at once terrible and of great beauty, and so are the novels themselves. John Grady Cole gets at this tension in All the Pretty Horses: “He thought the world’s heart beat at some terrible cost and that the world’s pain and its beauty moved in a relationship of diverging equity.”

The perennial coupling of terror and beauty is nowhere more evident than in McCarthy’s description of landscapes:

The jagged mountains were pure blue in the dawn and everywhere birds twittered and the sun when it rose caught the moon in the west so that they lay opposed to each other across the earth, the sun white hot and the moon a pale replica, as if they were the ends of a common bore beyond whose terminals burned worlds past all reckoning.

Such a world is mesmerizing but not approachable. To read these landscapes in McCarthy is to encounter a storm. Like a storm, the novel’s terrible beauty wrecks me, or at least estranges me from normal habits of thought. When I close the book, I am haunted by the sense that such beauty and horror are not confined to its pages but reside also in our world. In us.

Alain de Botton writes, “It is in dialogue with pain that many beautiful things acquire their value.” I do not pretend to grasp the philosophical meaning of how violence and beauty relate. Nor do I mean to imply that they depend upon one another. All I know is that day in and day out I spend my life hungry for beauty and frustrated by violence. And I don’t really understand either all that well.

As I am in the middle of writing this, I’ve heard the news from Newtown, Connecticut. I have no answers to the questions such an event begs. But it’s at times like this that I am especially grateful for art that acknowledges the darkness instead of airbrushing it. McCarthy’s terrifyingly beautiful sentences leave us no less surprised or disgusted by evil, but in fact more finely tuned to desire its final disposal, once and for all.

In The Road, a father and son run a terse dialogue on survival: “Are we going to die?” the boy asks. “We’re going to be okay, aren’t we?” “Is the dark going to catch us?”  The father cannot answer strong enough to offer repose: “I don’t know.”

“We’re going to be okay, aren’t we?”  What a poignant question for a nation in mourning. Are we?

Perhaps McCarthy is at his best when he unearths these kinds of questions in us. He pitches us into a world whose chaos does not submit to human understanding or even his own authorial control. The boy’s questions go unanswered all the way to the end. There are no reasons, no philosophical or forensic theories that can sate our desire for an answer to the horror of Newtown. We find ourselves grasping at the same impenetrable mystery that McCarthy describes at the end of The Road:

Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow…On their backs were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.

I cannot help but note that as we have moved through Advent towards the day when Christ entered the world, we cannot be fully conscious of his beauty and goodness until we are fully conscious of the ugliness and evil he came to consume. The danger of the carnival of nostalgia that this season has come to represent does not lie, as some have suggested, in the nostalgia itself, but in disaffirming the darkness of our stories. Sentimentality, nostalgia and inspiring stories only leave us to deal with the latest version of the darkness. The real Christmas story has the same theme of terror and beauty running all the way through it. Terror in the slaughtering of innocent children by Herod, the birth of a king in a feeding trough and the encroaching day that he will himself die a horrific death. Beauty in that his birth will mean the final disposal of such darkness, once and for all. The rhetoric of peace will submit to the human rhetoric of violence, and at this violent and mysterious intersection the cross will bring hope and a future.

“All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one’s heart have a common provenance in pain,” says McCarthy. Nostalgia cannot help our pain. Neither can a bootstrap hope. What we need is an intervention, something very real to enter into our world and our lives. The art of McCarthy can help constitute a moment to ask the questions necessary for finding ourselves in need of such an intervention, supplanting our nostalgia with inquiry and our happiness with real joy.

In a rare moment of stillness in The Road, the unnamed father and son discover a flare pistol. The father collects it for self-defense, but his son asks if they can go ahead and fire it:

I’d like to see it.

You mean shoot it?


We can shoot it.

For real?


In the dark?

Yes. In the dark.

It would be like a celebration.

Like a celebration. Yes.


Like a flare in the night sky, God has become man. And this is indeed cause for celebration.



This piece was first published in 2012.

The Sensational Lives of Clergymen

Beginning in the nineteenth century, the English-speaking world saw the rebirth of a strange type of clergyman: the priest-scholar interested in the otherworldly. While men of the cloth have long been part of the Christian intelligentsia (as have many scientists, inventors, and philosophers), with the nineteenth and twentieth century decline in church attendance and the rise of a techno-scientific elite, a small group of occult-minded priests and pastors began reviving the medieval and early Modern tradition of the holy man as expert demonologist. Along the way, these men, most of whom proudly upheld the stereotype of the eccentric English gentleman, helped to lend a certain level of respectability to the study of monsters and murderers.

Of course, given that we are talking about the post-Enlightenment world, the difference between men like the Anglican priest-scholar Sabine Baring-Gould (born 1834), an antiquarian, hagiographer, and scholar, and Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, the sixteenth-century German priests who composed the anti-witchcraft treatise Malleus Maleficarum, is fairly large. While the latter were steadfast believers in the existence of witches and witchcraft, the Reverend Baring-Gould, best known as the composer of “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” studied such things as werewolves and revenants as a rationalist scholar interested in the origins of myth and folklore.

Baring-Gould’s interest in the darker strains of European superstition would have marked him as a person-of-suspicion during the witchcraft trials that erupted throughout Europe between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries. If not for his belief that lycanthropy was the result of a mental disorder, Baring-Gould may have faced the Inquisition owing to his Protestant faith alone.

When the prolific Baring-Gould died in 1924, the spirit of his work was picked up by another unusual English clergyman. Born Augustus Montague Summers in Bristol, Montague Summers initially trained as an Anglican priest and was ordained as a deacon. However, rumors abounded that Summers had a less than passing interest in Satanism. More shocking still, Summers was charged with molestation, but was acquitted. These two rumors prevented Summers from advancing in the Anglican Church and followed him throughout his life. Summers devoted one of his volumes of poetry to Antonius, the young male lover of the Roman emperor Hadrian, which continues to be used as evidence of Summers’s leanings towards pederasty. Partly owing to these vocational roadblocks, Summers converted to Catholicism in 1909 and began claiming that he was an ordained Catholic priest. Known for wearing a simple black cassock and a biretta at all times, the eccentric Summers began publishing books like The Vampire: His Kith and Kin and The Geography of Witchcraft in the 1920s.

Whereas Baring-Gould brought heavy skepticism to his subject, Summers’s work openly displays his belief in the existence of vampires, werewolves, and witches. German sociologist Max Weber would argue that this difference is due to the differences between Protestant and Catholic doctrine. More specifically, Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism argues that Protestantism, with its heavy emphasis on rationalism and economic thrift, creates a type of mentality, or “spirit” that creates an inquisitive impulse that is not easily satiated by traditional explanations. Catholics, on the other hand, “prefer to sleep undisturbed” and prefer “a life of the greatest possible security, even with small income, to a life of risk and excitement…” Within Weber’s prism, Baring-Gould’s approach to the supernatural is thoroughly Protestant because it seeks to understand historical superstition from a rationalist, well-researched position. Conversely, according to Weber, Summers’s reaffirmation of European superstition is very Catholic because it merely accepts the dogma of the medieval church as factual.

Of course, this Weberian reading of Barine-Gould and Summers fails upon closer scrutiny. After all, Weber linked heavy rationalism with Calvinists, not the quasi-Catholic Anglicans. Still, the stereotype of the even-minded Protestant and the pearl-clutching Catholic persisted well into the twentieth century. Interestingly, this stereotype was somewhat subverted by two other occult-minded clergymen, both of whom discussed the supernatural via fiction. One was British, the other American; one was a Catholic convert, the other an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church. Most importantly, one achieved fame and respect during his lifetime, while the other was relegated to the sleazy pulp markets. Both men, Monsignor Ronald Knox and Reverend Henry S. Whitehead, helped further extend the phenomenon of the strange clergyman as something delightfully native to the Anglosphere.

Henry St. Clair Whitehead began his life in Elizabeth, New Jersey, on March 5, 1882. From here, he followed the time-worn WASP trajectory of Harvard (where he graduated alongside Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1904), travel, and a prestigious job as a newspaper editor in Port Chester, New York. Instead of entering into politics, Whitehead decided to attend Berkeley Divinity School in Middletown, Connecticut in order to become an Episcopal priest. After becoming a deacon in 1912, Whitehead was posted to the Danish West Indies (today’s U.S. Virgin Islands) between the years 1921 and 1929. Even before Whitehead returned to the States and settled in Dunedin, Florida, he had already made a name for himself as a short story writer with a taste for the fantastique. Whitehead tapped into his Caribbean surroundings and began writing about something that was sure to both scare and tantalize the readers of the pulp magazine Weird Tales: voodoo.

Whitehead’s best tales take place in the Virgin Islands and feature the narrator and protagonist Gerald Canevin, a fellow writer and Whitehead’s alter ego. The supernatural pervades Whitehead’s version of the West Indies, with voodoo rituals and curses as common as rainclouds or local legends about lost pirate treasure. “Passing of a God,” widely considered Whitehead’s finest story, treats Haitian voodoo as a topic of intellectual interest, especially since the subject had been covered in 1929 by the once enormously popular travel writer William Seabrook in The Magical Island (which would provide the source material for the 1932 horror film White Zombie). Whitehead was a serious student of Haitian folklore and did know quite a bit about the practice of voodoo in the West Indies. It’s unknown whether or not Whitehead seriously believed in black magic, but he certainly wrote as if the topic was within the realm of possibility.

“Passing of a God” and Whitehead’s other macabre tales are smart, well-crafted odes to conventional, if not exotic, horror. Despite his friendship with fellow Weird Tales regular H.P. Lovecraft, Whitehead did not write about cosmic monsters or the inability of humanity to comprehend the contents of the universe, even though the two collaborated on the short story “The Trap.”  Whitehead’s contributions to Weird Tales were frequently out-of-step with the magazine’s usual content. This may be why Whitehead is so little-known today. The only whisper of his legacy in popular culture remains Lucio Fulci’s 1979 film Zombi 2, a zombie film about a voodoo curse on the fictional island of Matool (based on Saint Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands).

While Whitehead lived a dual existence as a church rector and producer of uncanny and bizarre horror stories, Ronald Knox was busy codifying detective fiction, a close cousin of horror fiction, in Great Britain. Inspired by his religious training and his desire to make detective fiction more respectable, Knox created a set of ten commandments for the Detection Club, a formal group of British mystery writers of the likes of Agatha Christie, Dorothy S. Sayers, and G.K. Chesterton. The commandments are as follows:

1. The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow;

2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course;

3. No more than one secret room or passage is allowable. I would add that a secret passage should not be brought in at all unless the action takes place in a kind of house where such devices might be expected;

4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end;

5. No Chinaman must figure into the story;

6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right;

7. The detective must not, himself, commit the crime;

8. The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader;

9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but only very slightly, below that of the average reader;

10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

Knox, an Anglican priest at Oxford before his conversion to Catholicism in 1917, particularly wanted to rid British detective fiction of the influence of Sax Rohmer, whose popular character Doctor Fu-Manchu (the “Chinaman” of rule number five) blurred the lines between pulpy, overly sensationalist speculative fiction and detective fiction. For Knox and the other members of the Detection Club, mystery stories were first and foremost logical puzzles posed to the reader. Rationality and deductive reasoning were the meat of the genre, not trapdoors, happenstance, and the supernatural.

As with most commandments, Knox’s stipulations were frequently broken. Even when British mystery writers of the 1930s tried to conform to Knox’s dictates, they could not fully escape their chosen genre’s affinity with horror fiction. After all, death is the ultimate mystery, so anything dealing with death is bound to be a little spooky. Knox’s own detective novels were no different, with 1927’s The Three Taps, featuring the insurance investigator Miles Bredon, being the most outré.

Try as he might, Knox was in many ways a relative not only of Whitehead, but also Baring-Gould and, to a lesser extent, Summers. These four men were not only clergymen who all shared an interest in the Stygian aspects of life, but they were all dedicated writers who crafted books and short stories that dealt more with the secular world than the cloistered one. Some, like the Catholic Knox and the Anglican Baring-Gould, looked to scientific rationality when it came to the topic of human darkness. The Episcopalian Whitehead and the Catholic Summers did the opposite, writing about superstitions as if they were universal facts.

Taken together, these four men problematize the stereotypical dichotomy of the reasonable and analytic Protestant versus the credulous Catholic, which in turn may say something about how Christianity reacted to the growth of secularism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. During the age when popular occultism reached its peak in North America and Europe thanks to seances, spiritualism, and certain groups like the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (which included members like Aleister Crowley and W.B. Yeats), these clergymen carved out space of Christianity among the darker strands of popular culture. Interestingly, they came not to proselytize, but to remind readers that this world is full of magic, some of which is conducted in the shadows.

Red Wolf

Regarded as the Dracula or Frankenstein of werewolf novels by the few who have read it, Guy EndoresThe Werewolf of Paris is the story of Bertrand Caillet, a young man from the French provinces who is born into the world as a werewolf. After ravaging his hometown, Caillet travels to Paris as a student, but ends up becoming ensnared in both the Franco-Prussian War and the subsequent Paris Commune. In Paris, Caillet is shadowed by his “uncle” Galliez–a cantankerous veteran of the 1848 revolution who knows full well Caillet’s true nature. While Galliez tries to stop Caillet from his continuing attacks and Caillet tries to use romantic love as a way to transcend his lycanthropy, France descends into revolutionary madness, thus turning the novel into a story about supernatural and historical bloodletting.

The Werewolf of Paris is better known as The Curse of the Werewolfthe 1961 Hammer film starring the notorious party animal Oliver Reed as the titular lycanthrope. The film adaptation of Endores novel is far from faithful. The novel’s setting of 19th-century France becomes 18th-century Spain, while the relationship between Galliez and Caillet morphs from one of conflict and resentment to a tragically loyal bond. Such transformations were necessary. After all, its unlikely that audiences in 1961, even the most forgiving teenagers available on both sides of the Atlantic, wouldve liked to have seen Endores novel transferred onto celluloid without dramatic changes.

Like the Columbia-educated Brooklynite Endore himself, The Werewolf of Paris is a visceral, almost primal novel that includes loud political denunciations. At the top of Endores hit list is the rich, who are closely followed by the Roman Catholic Church. Endore–a longtime member of the American Communist Party who was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee while working as a screenwriter in Hollywood–cannot resist a good dig at both the French aristocracy and its bourgeoisie, whom Marx characterized as a financial aristocracyin The Class Struggle in France, 1848-1850.

The march through the regal city of Versailles, between lanes of closely packed people, a fanatic multitude, void of all sense of balance, void of pity and of intelligence. The city of the rich here demonstrated that it, too, could form mobs as mad as those of the poorest quarters of Paris. No bare, dirty or calloused fists were shaken at the cohort, but neatly gloved hands, hands of demimondaines in lace gauntlets, and hands of bankers in yellow kidskin.

This is the main thrust of The Werewolf of Paris–politics and history first, horror second. Since The Werewolf of Paris was published in 1933, such pronouncements wouldve been cheered by large segments of the reading public. Indeed, on April 10, 1933, The New York Times noted that a record 4,030 copiesof The Werewolf of Paris had been sold in a mere twelve days. Yet, The Werewolf of Paris has little to do with the Great Depression, nor does it have all that much to say about werewolves. Similar to Count Dracula, who, like a shadow, lingers away from the page for most of Bram Stokers novel, the werewolf in The Werewolf of Paris takes a noticeable backseat to Endores presentation of the Franco-Prussian War and the subsequent Paris Commune.

La Monde Diplomatique writer Carl Grey Martin correctly summarizes that Endore had a deep interest in the revolutionary moments of the 19th century. In The Werewolf of Paris the critical years of 1848 and 1871 inform a majority of the books action, even despite the fact that the book is supposed to be an eyewitness manuscript presented to the reader by an unnamed American doctoral student living in 20th-century Paris.

1871 is especially important, for this is when Endores race of the werewolveswas born among the intrigues of the leftist-proletarian Commune, then baptized by the repressive violence of Adolphe Thiers and the forces of the French Republic. Against such purely human slaughter, the deeds of the werewolf Bertrand Caillet seem minor.

Endores characterization of history as red in tooth and claw (especially towards the poor) goes hand-in-hand with his mixing of fact and fiction throughout The Werewolf of Paris. Historical figures such as Thiers, the far-left revolutionary Louis-Auguste Blanqui, and the painter and Communard Gustave Courbet co-exist and interact with Galliez and his doomed nephew Calliet. For his own part, Calliet, a sadistic neer-do-well who joins the National Guard as a way to make a little money without many responsibilities, bears more than a striking resemblance to Sergeant François Bertrand, the so-called Vampire of Montparnasse.Like the fictional Callieta who as a werewolf raids cemeteries in order to find easy meat–Bertrand was a sergeant in an infantry regiment who was convicted of grave desecration in 1848 after numerous corpses in Paris were found mutilated. During his defense, Bertrand claimed that he was seized by a certain type of madness that told him to rob graves for their human contents. Similarly, Calliet first suffers from realistic dreams that are full of murder and bloodlust. Then, when he realizes that the dreams are actually real, he  suffers violent urges that can and do turn him into a snarling animal.

In regards to the fantastical, The Werewolf of Paris fails to call forth the supernatural in any way that would be familiar for most horror readers. Caillets lycanthropy is portrayed as a mental disorder rather than a spiritual affliction, and his transformations stem from his mental disquiet rather than the cycles of the moon.

Caillets affliction was caused by a priest named Father Pitamont, who raped Calliets teenaged mother during a rainstorm in Paris. This blasphemous event was seconded by Caillets birth, which fell on Christmas Day. These two perversions are what create the werewolf curse. Essentially, they combine the ancient (the peasant fear of a child being born on Christmas) with the modern (rape and molestation allegations against the Catholic Church), thus forming a neat precursor to the novel’s primary oddity: the appearance of a figure from medieval superstition in the middle of modern history.

For all of its historical and social commentary about the great class struggle, The Werewolf of Paris presents a weak werewolf story that cannot compete with other horror heavyweights, past or present. This is, after all, a political statement masquerading as the fantastique. The werewolf Caillet loses his exceptional status due to his surroundings, which are themselves historically exceptional. When the normal world is full of barricades and tit-for-tat massacres, a werewolf can only find logic in a looney bin before calling the whole thing a mistake. By the end, all we are left with are a series of gruesome images that are swallowed up by the bigger events happening around them. Politics and history trump story and monster. Werewolves cannot compete with history’s horrors.

Perpetual Rediscoveries

Nothing ruins a book faster than a teacher who insists it is important. Scholars with the best argument against the existence of a literary canon use some form of this truism. Tim Parks works along this line in his recent piece for The New York Review of Books about reading and forgetting, and his argument deserves a reply.  

Parks begins by recalling one of those exhilarating instances, during a scattered professional reading life, where multiple texts converge on a single subject. Cruising the internet, he noticed a Nabokov quote about literature: “One cannot read a book: one can only reread it.” Then opening the Dutch writer Douwe Draaisma’s new book Forgetting: Myths, Perils, and Compensations, he read we are foolish if we “…imagine memory as the ability to preserve something…wholly intact.” The subject of both observations, Parks asserts, is how we remember what we read. The conclusions couldn’t be more different.

Nabokov’s sentiment sounds familiar: after we initially encounter a text, re-reading lets us view it whole—in Parks’ words “out of time.” This is the difference between watching a ship emerge slowly from a tunnel and seeing it later, anchored at harbor, where from shore we appreciate its intricate rigging.

Teachers and academics, Parks points out, draw comfort from this notion that only multiple encounters produce deep insights. The nature of their business forces them into circular but avowedly productive reading patterns. Yet backed by Draaisma’s work, Parks challenges this view. “Words in general,” he writes, “have a vocation for…fixing experience in a way that can be communicated across…time.” Be that as it may, he notes we seldom properly remember those words we calibrate to preserve experience. The precise arrangement that gives great literary style its impact is the first thing forgotten. What we possess of literature, unless we are cursed with photographic memory, comes to us in flying scraps at a high wind: we snatch what we can from entropy.   

Slowly, Parks’ crosshairs drift toward the literary canon. He concludes that a culture which celebrates re-reading as the best reading devalues “our [first] reactions to a book” as “irrelevant.” For Parks, this is the trouble with the canon. The riveting freshness that makes a new work memorable to us suffers, it would seem, when a hovering professor declares the “real delights” still lie beyond our grasp.

Decades earlier than Parks, the Cuban-born Italian novelist Italo Calvino wrote a piece for the very same New York Review which initially seems to back him up. True to his experimental style, Calvino’s article “Why Read the Classics?” is a shifting series of definitions for the same term. Arguing himself into corners then playfully escaping his own traps, Calvino defines and redefines “a classic” fourteen times. This could be read as proof that, as Parks implies, a classic does not exist except on an individual scale. But Calvino writes beyond that definition, arriving next at the principle that “every rereading of a classic is as much a voyage of discovery as the first reading.” Calvino’s critical touch is playful, but what he’s holding is a razor one that cuts Parks’ elevation of first readings into tatters. We detect the presence of a classic or canonical book, argues Calvino, “when it establishes a personal rapport” with us. “If the spark doesn’t come, that’s a pity; but we do not read the classics out of duty or respect, but only out of love. Except at school.”

Truly, the problem of the canon lives in schools. While literate adults would produce a canon on their own through conversation and experience, schools are where we deploy the texts we feel responsible for passing on. But unless a bad or careless teacher ruins a book for us in advance, all great reading experiences are fresh. There is no such thing as “reading from the canon” in the negative sense that Park bemoans unless teachers tell us a text is important before they tell us why it is wonderful.

Parks’ motives are pure. So were those of Reformation Protestants who threw their holy bricks through the stained-glass windows of so many cathedrals. The reformers wanted a return to the Old Testament and Acts’ supposedly unmediated prayer, a raw encounter with God undiffused by liturgy. But their more brainless devotees thought that smashing Catholic art was the same as stripping the Church’s artifice. Yet iconographic beauty was never the problem, as Knox or Luther would have told them, but how we approach the subject of prayer: the way an encounter with the holy is guided; the wonder and reverence cultivated in ourselves. Parks’ mistake is similar, though on a less dramatic scale: justifiably insisting that our best experiences with books are individual and subjective, he hastily throws out the whole idea of an objective literary canon.

The canon exists not in spite of those thrilling first readings, but because of them–because canonicity means freshness. If Homer’s gruesome elegance and knack for capturing the emotional moment didn’t continue to arrest us, we would stop reading him. And no amount of professorial insistence could create that prerequisite pleasure. Only great literature can do it; one of its chief pleasures being that regardless of context or historical remove, it always feels immediate. Hector’s helmet frightens his infant son, and with careful clumsiness, he removes it before he takes the child from his wife’s arms. A professor can prime a classroom to appreciate the full artistry of that exchange, but even an oaf is moved by it.   

Parks is right to observe, like Proust, that our memories of books or whatever else are “as fugitive, alas, as the years;” isolated from us by time’s accumulating complexities and distances. But most literature’s object isn’t to be remembered verbatim. It is to draw us back to itself by its capacity to enrich experience. Compared with the compounded thrill of reading Chaucer over again, to remember The Canterbury Tales word for word would be a burden. Better to commit the opening eighteen lines to memory and keep the rest a precipitating vagueness, begging to be solidified.

Perec in Purmerend

The stream seems like something that could have only begun as a joke, but in fact, it didn’t. The webcam which streams a roundabout in the sleepy suburban town of Purmerend in the Netherlands came to life as an internet connection test: was it possible to stream high-definition video live over the internet? The answer: a resounding yes.

But it must have quickly turned into a joke. When the stream was recently pulled offline, many people complained. Some said they watched the roundabout several hours a day and that it provided them with some much-coveted peace of mind. Whether the joke consists of actually watching the footage or merely claiming to do so, I’m not sure. All I know is that it intrigues me.

Watching the stream, I am reminded of Georges Perec, the French novelist who once sat in the window of the same café for one long weekend to observe a small Parisian square. He published the results of his little experiment in a small book entitled An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris. Reading the book is a bit like watching the roundabout: throughout most of the text, Perec semi-hypnotically enumerates the buses and cars that pass him by. “Why count the buses,” he starts to ask himself about half a day in. He answers:

“Probably because they’re recognizable and regular: they cut up time, they punctuate the background noise; ultimately, they’re foreseeable. The rest seems random, improbable, anarchic; the buses pass by because they have to pass by, but nothing requires a car to back up, or a man to have a bag marked with a big M of Monoprix, or a car to be blue or apple-green, or a customer to order a coffee instead of a beer…

In Purmerend, you can see just that. Every passing bus is strangely pleasing, because yes, they punctuate time, they reoccur like clockwork, but there is always the notion in the back of our heads that the system is kept running by bus drivers, ticket takers and passengers—humans. The pleasure is in the realization that this could almost just as well be a five-minute film incessantly looped, yet decidedly isn’t.

I decided to do to the roundabout what Perec did to the square; a kind of stake-out observation. I lasted about thirty minutes, if that.

Yet in that half hour, I did pick up on some patterns. Pizza couriers, hurried as they generally are, break the geometric mode of curving around the centre by shooting almost straight across the roundabout, tightly skirting and sometimes traversing the heightened middle section. I noticed that the text of the road signs in the centre of the roundabout is just too small to be legible, which could be considered an incessant taunt, but in a way strikes me as just perfect: it retains the roundabout’s right to be any roundabout in any place. Perec noticed something similar:

“By looking at only a single detail, for example rue Férou, and for a sufficiently long period of time (one to two minutes), one can, without any difficulty, imagine that one is in Étampes or in Bourges, or even, moreover, in some part of Vienna (Austria) where I’ve never been.

But the main reason I stopped my experiment short was, I’d like to think, more profound: Perec’s point was to observe everything. No matter how insignificant the place and no matter how meaningless the exercise, his stake-out would at least be perfect, a complete encapsulation and observation (at which, by the way, he fails bitterly: “even when my only goal is just to observe,” he notes, “I don’t see what takes place a few metres before me: I don’t notice, for example, that cars are parking”).

My fascination with this webcam, on the other hand, stems precisely from the opposite sentiment, the idea that everything occurring before my eyes is utterly mundane, and ephemeral. Nothing matters, so nothing has to be registered. In fact, this opposite view, and this whole situation, the live stream and my observation of it, were anticipated in Don DeLillo’s 2001 novel The Body Artist:

“She spent hours at the computer screen looking at a live-streaming video feed from the edge of a two-lane road in a city in Finland. It was in the middle of the night in Kotka, in Finland, and she watched the screen. It was interesting to her because it was happening now, as she sat here, and because it happened twenty-four hours a day, facelessly, cars entering and leaving Kotka, or just the empty road in the dead times. The dead times were best.

I don’t know if the Kotka live stream really existed back then; if not, the passage is strangely prescient. It goes on:

“She sat and looked at the screen. It was compelling to her, real enough to withstand the circumstance of nothing going on. It thrived on the circumstance. It was three in the morning and she waited for a car to come along—not that she wondered who was in it. It was simply the fact of Kotka. It was the sense of organization, a place contained in an unyielding frame, as it is and as you watch, with a reading of local time in the digital display in a corner of the screen. Kotka was another world but she could see it in its realness, in its hours, minutes and seconds.

At a certain point—I am writing this while casting nervous glances at the screen, which is inexplicably hard to ignore—a woman on a bike, with a girl on the rear seat, rides straight onto the middle platform of the roundabout, does two, maybe three laps, then dives off it again. Over the next few minutes she reappears episodically, entering the screen from different angles, striking different trajectories, almost as if she was airbrushing us a message.

She must have been aware of the webcam, which went viral several weeks back. Her entrance is like a snap of the fingers breaking a spell—the Kotka spell. What her action breaks is “the circumstance of nothing going on.” It turned simple observation—a scarce commodity online—into the now ubiquitous act of performance.

Within this small world of the roundabout, this place “contained in an unyielding frame”, that act was akin to a revolution. I want to bring it back to the screen, but of course can’t, and I am struck by this inability. Everything that appears in video on the screen these days, whether live or not, is captured, catalogued and retraceable. This is not. It is ephemeral; a normal state in the real world, yet a bizarre fact online. It was, unsurprisingly, also DeLillo who once wrote that “if a thing can be filmed, the film is implied in the thing itself.” Perhaps the great thing about this live stream is that, bar the girl, film does not seem implied in it. It is, indeed, simply the fact of Purmerend.

The difference between the video, which can endlessly be replayed, and the live stream, which is always one thing, always the present, always simply the fact of what it is, is like the difference between Perec’s cars and buses: the live stream passes by because it has to pass by; yet the video can back up, can break the ceaseless punctuation of time. In another paragraph from The Body Artist, DeLillo nails this inevitability of the live stream, dubbing it “an odd and hollow urgency”:

“She set aside time every day for the webcam at Kotka. She didn’t know the meaning of this feed but took it as an act of floating poetry. It was best in the dead times. It emptied her mind and made her feel the deep silence of other places, the mystery of seeing over the world to a place stripped of everything but a road that approaches and recedes, both realities occurring at once, and the numbers changed in the digital display with an odd and hollow urgency, the seconds advancing toward the minute, the minutes climbing hourward, and she sat and watched, waiting for a car to take fleeting shape on the roadway.

Turn the stream into a video and this urgency disappears. A video, any video, could never be an act of floating poetry. In the technicalities of its recording and in the inevitable circumstance of determined frame following determined frame, it loses precisely the ambiguous qualities of the poetic. Instead, the stream is more like Magritte’s famous pipe: not simply the fact of Purmerend, but a video of a fact of Purmerend. Nobody wants to look at that.

A Half-hearted Pilgrim

I watched the movie first. Then I went online, wanting to know more about this woman who changed her last name into a verb; who walked 1100 miles from southern California to the Oregon-Washington border on the Pacific Crest Trail; whose 2012 memoir Wild so captivated Oprah that she picked it for her book club and was made into a 2014 film starring Reese Witherspoon.

When I at last read Cheryl Strayed’s book, I was quickly engaged in a story that felt familiar and foreign: a woman who goes on a solo journey of healing and discovery. Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, anyone? Running away from civilization and re-finding yourself in nature. A modern day Thoreau? Or Christopher McCandless in Into the Wild?

While Strayed’s story resonates with these predecessors, none of them seemed to fit Strayed’s story. It isn’t just a hiking adventure novel. It isn’t a Romantic escape-to-the-wilderness, run-away-from-your-problems tale. And it certainly isn’t an escape through self-indulgent luxury as in Gilbert’s case. Strayed does “run away,” but it happens earlier in her life, after her mother dies from cancer. Unsure how to deal with her grief at twenty-two, Strayed has sex with a string of random men. She dabbles in heroin. She aborts a pregnancy. Her marriage ends.

Then, four years after her mother’s death, Strayed decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. She wants to confront her loss, grief, guilt, and self-destructiveness on the hike. Yet due to the physical grind of walking, her  Thoreau-like hopes didn’t last too long:

“I’d imagined endless meditations upon sunsets or while staring out across pristine mountain lakes…Instead, I only moaned, and not because my heart ached. It was because my feet did and my back did and so did the still-open wounds all around my hips…

There’s nothing romantic about losing your flesh or toenails.

So what type of story is Wild? When Cheryl reaches Ashland, Oregon, she meets a woman who admires her for traveling “the pilgrim way.” That’s when it dawned on me that Wild is a modern-day pilgrim story, but with a twist.

Pilgrim texts follow a narrative from brokenness to redemption. A paradigmatic example from the medieval period is Dante’s Divine Comedy in which Dante travels from the pits of hell to the heights of paradise where he at last sees God. The story is an allegory for the soul’s journey from sin to salvation. Similarly, Cheryl Strayed is grappling with her sins and sorrows, climbing a literal and allegorical mountain looking for redemption. She is not unlike Dante who,

Midway this way of life we’re bound upon
I woke to find myself in a dark wood
Where the right road was wholly lost and gone…

Cheryl Strayed recognizes she went wrong. Her new legal name prompted by her divorce is a permanent reminder of her past. She is quick to explain, however, that she didn’t choose “strayed” for its negative connotations, contrary to what one would think. She chose it because of its potential for power and transformation: “I had strayed…I was a stray and that from the wild places my straying had brought me, I knew things I couldn’t have known before”.  

Different levels of meaning can be found in pilgrimage stories. The physical or literal journey creates the occasion for the spiritual or allegorical one. Strayed frequently talks about the relationship between the two. She christens her backpack Monster and considers it a metaphor for her burden to bear. She reflects, “…perhaps by being forced to focus on my physical suffering some of my emotional suffering would fade away.” Her emotional suffering can be summed up by her self-given identity: “the woman with the hole in her heart.” After trying to fill that hole with drugs and sex, she now tries the simple and ancient practice of walking.


In pilgrim narratives, the characters walk towards a site of religious significance, usually Jerusalem or Rome or the grave of a saint, with the hope of encountering God there. Strayed’s destination is a bridge aptly named the Bridge of the Gods that links Oregon to Washington. That’s about as far as the symbolism goes, however. Early in her memoir, Strayed says she doesn’t profess to any religion and, in fact, acknowledges her dislike for God. Strayed is looking for transformation from and by herself: “I’d set out to hike the trail so that I could reflect upon my life, to think about everything that had broken me and make myself whole again.” Therein lies the difference between pilgrimage texts of the medieval period and this pilgrimage text of the 21st century. God isn’t the source of transformation—the pilgrim is. Maybe this is why Strayed’s story is so compelling to our postmodern culture. It highlights our do-it-yourself, save-yourself world where the same individual who strays from the path can find the way back again.

So is the hole in Strayed’s heart filled by the end of the book? Yes and no. When Strayed reaches Crater Lake (whose name incidentally echoes her previous self-given identity), the physical place becomes a metaphor of her spiritual state. This is the site of her revelation, the spot that “made [her] feel as if [she’d] arrived”, though it isn’t really clear how or why. She can’t picture Mount Mazama that once erupted there, creating a crater that took hundreds of years for rain and snow to fill. To her, “there was only the stillness and silence of that water: what a mountain and a wasteland and an empty bowl turned into after the healing began.” She sees Crater Lake as she is now—transformed and full.

Strayed’s pilgrimage is a powerful story of transformation, regardless of who or what changed her. There’s no doubt that long trips in the wilderness can alter you, especially if you let it. And Strayed let it. Her courage and perseverance are admirable as she goes “from lost to found on the Pacific Crest Trail.” And yet because Strayed starts out so contrite and desperate even (who chooses to walk 1100 miles to heal?) her reflections in the last quarter of the memoir fall surprisingly flat:

“What if I was a liar and a cheat and there was no excuse for what I’d done other than because it was what I wanted and needed to do? What if I was sorry, but if I could go back in time I wouldn’t do anything differently than I had done? What if I’d actually wanted to fuck every one of those men? What if heroin taught me something?…What if what made me do all those things everyone thought I shouldn’t have done was what also had got me here?

Really? I asked at this point. I am myself prone to the whole “no regrets” philosophy common in our culture. We don’t like to make mistakes or admit them. Other times, we too easily condone them with the truism that they shape who we are now. After such a transforming story, for Strayed to go back and essentially say “it’s all good” robbed her work of its own power.

Strayed’s heart may be filled by the end of the book, but I’m not exactly sure what it’s filled with. Comforting clichés? Convenient justifications? It’s almost as if she’s come full circle to deflecting her grief. Even if Strayed had chosen her last name to be descriptive of her mistakes rather than some poetic statement about the power of darkness, it wouldn’t have lost strength—it would have added to it by showing her humanness. Same with her tears. The one and only time she cried on trail is near the end, after meeting a young boy with a llama who sings her a heart-wrenching version of “Red River Valley” upon hearing that she lost her mother. At last she’s visibly grieving, I thought to myself as I watched this scene in the movie. Yet the book reveals her tears are already post grief: “I wasn’t crying because I was sad. I wasn’t crying because I was happy…I was crying because I was full.” We read that Cheryl goes from half to whole or weak to strong on the Pacific Crest Trail without seeing how she got there. But strength isn’t just saying I’ve accepted everything—or I’m even glad for it—and I’m fine now. There is a place for lament, even in a life turned around or a life well lived. Sometimes you really do have regrets, and it’s learning to live with them and because of them that gives a different kind of strength.

The Apocalypse of Seveneves

At a Douglas Adams book talk I attended near the end of the last century, someone asked the author what advice he had for writers. Adams’s first bit of advice was this: Don’t start a book by blowing up the Earth, which is of course how Adams’ started The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Neal Stephenson begins his latest novel, Seveneves, by blowing up the moon.[1] The destruction of the Earth follows, but Stephenson gives his large cast of characters a couple of years and hundreds of pages to figure out how they are going to survive this apocalyptic event. Since Stephenson has called for a return to inspiring overarching narratives in science fiction, and his title (“seven Eves”) refers to a symbolically full number of Eves, one should approach this book as one would an ancient apocalypse: with an incredible hope for a beginning in an end.

To escape the coming deluge of fire—the “Hard Rain” caused by the break-up of the moon’s remains—the governments of the world collaborate to build a space ark. Unlike its biblical predecessor, filled with representatives “of every living thing of all flesh,” this “Cloud Ark” will preserve select humans and a comprehensive digital repository of Earth’s genetic and cultural heritage. Instead of forty days, this new ark must transcend any “traditional legacy-passing schemes” and preserve humankind and culture for five millennia until a new Earth can be created. This epic endeavor to extend human life in space and time involves creative and ambitious uses of technologies, which raise questions about the role of technology in human development. How will technology triumph in the struggle against nature? How will human nature evolve outside of its natural or original habitat? What will a substantial dependence on technological expertise and tools, such as robots and computerized control systems, mean for human culture? In such a highly technological culture, what are the inherent or properly imposed limits of technology? Finally, will technology create a new and better Earth?


Taken at Crater Lake

The hard news about the end of the world as we know it is shared with humanity at Crater Lake, Oregon, where natural and human history reveal a prophetic message “for anyone who wanted to read it”: “Between six and eight thousand years ago, an unimaginable catastrophe had befallen this place…surviving humans had kept the story alive in legends of an apocalyptic struggle between the gods of the sky and of the underworld.” The first sign of hope for humanity in Seveneves is seen in the response of the last generation during what is called the Age of the One Moon, who collectively engage in their own apocalyptic struggle by building out the International Space Station, digitizing everything from genetic sequences to family records, and launching as many people and as much stuff as possible into space. Although only a portion of humanity will survive, everyone is invited to contribute content to “a literary, artistic, and spiritual legacy that would outlive them.” Like members of the childless generation in P. D. James’s apocalyptic novel The Children of Men, many transfer their hope in the future to a record that will survive them. But unlike Michel Faber’s apocalyptic novel The Book of Strange New Things, there is not a total fall into chaos. This reader was comforted to learn that in the latter days “most of the people of Seattle were still obeying [parking] rules.”

Stephenson’s vision of the future, both near and distant mixes continuity and discontinuity. Ancient patterns of human nature, both glorious and inglorious, are present in the struggle for survival. Social media wars continue in space, via Spacebook and Scape; new forms of “techno-mystical ideation” emerge; fights for control of diminishing spheres of influence become increasingly savage; and perplexing records are created for later generations to sort out, reflect on, and interpret. But we also witness the innovation and ambition Stephenson would like to see in our pre-apocalyptic world: “The imperative to develop new technologies and implement them on a heroic scale … to escape from [our] current predicaments.”[2]

Five thousand years into the future, when the descendants of the Seven Eves are ready to return to a remade Earth, humans have evolved to thrive in highly technological environments. And yet, with the accumulated knowledge of Old Earth, and all that has been added to it through millennia of progress and regress, people are still debating the appropriate integration of technology in human life. The term “Amistics,” referring to Amish scruples about certain technologies, is used to describe “choices that different cultures made as to which technologies they would, and would not, make part of their lives.” Among the descendants of the Seven Eves, two distinct cultures exist: one, called “Red,” is “enthusiastic about personal technological enhancement.” The other, called “Blue,” views technological aids “with some ambivalence.” For Blues, “Each enhancement is an amputation.”

Looking backward, Blue culture critiques Old Earthers for focusing “their intelligence on the small and the soft, not the big and the hard” and for building “a civilization that was puny and crumbling where physical infrastructure was concerned, but astonishingly sophisticated when it came to networked communications and software.” At a fundamental and individual level, they observed a common tendency to let personal technologies get in the way of higher faculties and distract from greater achievements. In the canonical video record of the events leading up to and following the end of Old Earth, called “the Epic,” the historical figure who embodied this behavior was Tavistock Prowse. Prowse, who had been sent up to hold the Cloud Ark community together with his social media skills, ended up fueling a rebellion through his blog. When his recorded activities were scrutinized by later generations—“how he had divided his time between playing games, texting friends, browsing Spacebook, watching pornography, eating, drinking, and actually writing his blog”—statistical analysis “tended not to paint a very flattering picture” and Prowse became a cautionary figure:

“Prowse had been squarely in the middle of the normal range, as far as his social media habits and attention span had been concerned. But nevertheless, Blues called it Tav’s Mistake. They didn’t want to make it again. Any efforts made by modern consumer-goods manufacturers to produce the kinds of devices and apps that had disordered the brain of Tav were met with the same instinctive pushback as Victorian clergy might have directed against the inventor of a masturbation machine. To the extent that Blue’s engineers could build electronics of comparable sophistication to those that Tav had used, they tended to put them into devices such as robots.

Stephenson thus presents a future in which new genetically engineered human races live within a sophisticated technological infrastructure above the Earth’s surface, but have not yet matched the storage and network capabilities of five-thousand-year-old smartphones, tablets, and laptops. This vision of technological progress includes technological restraint: old technologies, such as paper books, persist; automation is complemented by human intervention and enhancement; and physical skills are still cultivated and valued. When the action shifts to the surface of New Earth, we discover other Amistic alternatives: those from the sky are not the only ones who have adapted, naturally and technologically. The selections made above, represented in and through the massive digital library and archives in the sky, have terrestrial counterparts below.

Near the end of the book, as histories and narratives collide and the origin story of New Earth takes form, another type of ark appears off a beach. The name of this “complex mechanical” vehicle, Ark Darwin, represents human as well as natural selection and adaption. In On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin used Francis Bacon as epigraphical cover for his exploration of natural causes to explain natural phenomena. Bacon claimed that one cannot “search too far or be too well studied in the book of God’s word, or in the book of God’s works.”[3] Bacon valued both divine and natural revelation, and was among the first modern natural philosophers to bring scientific discovery and technological work together, making the latter the natural application of the former. Both, Bacon argued, had critical roles in restoring what had been lost in a primordial fall from the original creation. Although Stephenson’s New Earth is rather different from Bacon’s utopian New Atlantis, the two works share a largely optimistic appraisal of scientific and technological dominion over nature.

Like Dave Eggers’s novel The Circle, which says more about “the small and the soft” ends of our personal technologies, Seveneves is hard to classify as utopian or dystopian. The near technological future that Eggers creates is ostensibly utopian (“the dawn of the Second Enlightenment”), but it is far from an ideal place. And although Stephenson’s near and far technological futures could be described as dystopian (with the destruction of the Earth and all), they are not without idealistic characteristics. Both, however, are apocalyptic: not only because they deal with cataclysmic disruptions, but because they open up our perceptions of knowledge, time, space, and community to uncover and reveal something deeper about the ends of these fundamental dimensions of experience. While The Circle remains a work of apocalyptic realism staying close to a material reality familiar to us, Seveneves more radically addresses apocalyptic questions of human understanding, nature, and destiny—and the dependencies of these on technology.

For Bacon, the future redemption of the world depends on much more than human agency aided by science and technology. Without referring to divine revelation, Stephenson also suggests something more. The final scene of Seveneves occurs in an improvised refectory on Ark Darwin, with a discussion of an agency beyond Darwinian natural selection and human technological intervention called “the Purpose.” According to the guesses of a leading character closest to the answer, the Purpose concerns the purpose to the universe. In the millennia-long struggle for life after the moon blew up, he says to new friends with whom he is sharing a meal, there “was surprisingly little thinking about the Agent”—the name given to the unknown cause—“Where it came from. Whether it was natural or artificial, or even divine.” “The Purpose,” he continues, is a way “of saying there’s something bigger than this crap we’ve spent the last week of our lives dealing with.” “I like the feeling of that,” he concludes; “People who claim they are motivated by the Purpose end up behaving differently—and generally better—than people who serve other masters.” Political tensions persist outside Ark Darwin, with armed forces facing off, but at this table an ancient and familiar form of fellowship suggests hope for something greater than an old or new Earth.



[1] Neal Stephenson, Seveneves (New York: William Morrow, 2015). All quotes are from the EPub Edition.

[2] Neal Stephenson, “Innovation Starvation,” available from

[3]Francis Bacon, quoted opposite the title page of Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection: Or the Preservation of Advanced Races in the Struggle for Life (London: John Murray, 1859).

A Halfway Review of a Sometime Farmer

“Do you remember Noel Perrin driving his eco-car around town?” I ask.

My husband laughs, “Yes.”

“What color was it?”

“Red,” he says. He pauses and thinks some more. “Definitely red.”

I open my laptop and search Indeed, yes, there is the book Solo: Life with an Electric Car, Noel Perrin’s account of driving his retrofitted electric Ford Escort across the country in 1991. The end of his road was Thetford, Vermont, the small New England town where my husband grew up. The car on the front cover is red. He really has seen Perrin’s vehicle zooming around.

I wait for more details, but he has returned to his own reading.

I return to my reading: Perrin’s essay collection Best Person Rural. “Vermonters don’t gush,” Noel Perrin says. Tell me about it.

Noel Perrin – essayist, Dartmouth College professor, self-described Sometime Farmer – is exactly the right person to tell me about it. He was an honorary Vermonter. Though he grew up in New York, he spent most of his adult life in rural central Vermont. As English Department faculty, he wrote his share of academic pieces (one book, unexpectedly, having to do with the history of guns in Japan), but he is mostly known by the essays he wrote about where he lived. Those who know him best think first of his Person Rural essay collections. These are his accounts of the experiences and relationships, both meaningful and humorous, connected with life on his farm.

Best Person Rural is the final of the five Person Rural books, a posthumously-selected collection across his essay-writing life. Its hardback cover is also red, just like that eco-Escort. The book was an early present from my mother-in-law on my first New England Christmas visit. “Here,” she said, handing me the gift-wrapped book. “I want you to understand where your husband comes from.”

Perrin writes about this place, its landscape and its people. Interesting neighbors, covered bridges, cow highways, and maple syrup. And he writes about many of the things I appreciate most, actually, about another author concerned with conservation and community: Wendell Berry. Townspeople, history, continuity. Humor. I was destined to love Perrin from the start, and I read Best Person Rural every morning for weeks in a row. With each page turned, there’s more and more to love: economy in spending and acquiring, generosity in knowing and living. Curiosity about the way things work. Willingness to try and fail. So I became a fan, immediately and fast.

I continued to read more collections of essays  by Perrin, and I sank comfortably into the feeling that I was sitting on an old front porch, hearing worn, grey boards creak under the shifting weight of rockers as he told me tales of his land, his house, his most recent escapades, his neighbors – some nice and some not. He was never hard to listen to. And so I wanted to write about him, to spread his name far and wide – but I couldn’t. Any analysis I tried took me straight off that porch and into some dull, dry academic space, which was decidedly un-Perrin.

The thing about Perrin is that his writing was not yet my kind of writing, and so I didn’t know how to talk about it. He demonstrates this best when, in his final essay, he talks about something that’s as serious as it gets: the disease that was killing him. He, in typical Perrin fashion, mentions it almost in passing. It gets only a small paragraph in the middle of a heartfelt essay about why he and his wife love their Thetford farm. “I have developed a remarkably unpleasant version of Parkinson’s disease,” he says. “One of the unpleasant things it does – one of the very minor ones – is make it impossible for me to lift heavy rocks. Heavy anythings, actually. Thank God for chinkers.” And then he’s off to talk about cider-making. I didn’t get it yet. I was only beginning to see that understatement and simple sentences could pack a strong punch. I didn’t get that this kind of writing was a legitimate and difficult and even beautiful kind of craft. At the time, I leaned toward lyricism in my landscape prose. And when looking for lyrical prose, I look beyond Perrin’s nonfiction and find what I want, instead, in the likes of Wendell Berry’s Port William tales.

About the same time I was trying and failing at reviewing Perrin, Wendell Berry’s short story collection A Place in Time came out. Whereas Perrin is decidedly northern, Berry is firmly of the south. Hills and farms, rivers and floods, small towns, main streets, and bachelor antics provide fodder for heightened prose. There are moments of sheer hysterics and appreciation for the huge fun and lightness that human life can have: bachelors get pantsed in front of the widows they have crushes on. And the like. But goodness, there are moments in Berry that transcend, there in his imagined town of Port William. Like in the story “Fly Away Breath,” when four teenaged girls, sitting the night over their dying grandmother’s bed, watch as she breathes her last and sinks into death – or so they think. Suddenly, against the solemn silence, the old woman gasps deep and loud, and the girls, having received the fright of their lives, can do nothing but collapse into unbridled laughter. When their grandmother’s spirit finally does depart, it is under this blanket of sheer joy. It must have been the best of blessings to leave this life for the next like that. This kind of heightened spiritual moment is throughout Berry’s fiction; there is so much humanity and dying and blessing and joy, and I love this kind of thing.

But I love Perrin, too, and no academic analysis, it would seem, can do a good enough job explaining why. But I think that my inability to pull apart my love for Perrin is found in the beginning of Berry’s book, Jayber Crow. It begins with a warning:

“Persons attempting to find a ‘text’ in this book will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a ‘subtext’ in it will be banished; persons attempting to explain, interpret, explicate, analyze, deconstruct, or otherwise ‘understand’ it will be exiled to a desert island in the company only of other explainers.”

Perrin forces me to heed. His stories are told for real life rather than an ivory tower. They are for reading and enjoying – and perhaps for recognizing and knowing – but not, I think, for explaining.

My mother-in-law nailed it half a decade ago when she handed me that copy of Best Person Rural: “Now you can know where we’re from.” I want to know the backstories of people and places. I want to see the bigger picture. In Berry, I find myself flipping from story to Port William story, tracking fiction characters across time, puzzle piecing them together. But this also is what’s great about Noel Perrin. He, too, tells me stories of a place – of people united by a specific place – in and across time. And it’s real and true. I want to know about Thetford, Vermont, and Noel Perrin tells me in print, just like my husband tells me via memory. That car was red; they all used to see Perrin zipping around town in it.

Here’s what I’ll say, and don’t tell Jayber. Perrin, for all he has in common with Berry, approaches imagination from the other side, rendering true experiences plainly, rather than imagined experiences lyrically. Perrin’s deceptively plain prose makes me laugh and then strikes me deep, all the same. C.S. Lewis says the best kind of story is the sort that brings glory this side of heaven, as close and ordinary as the bread on the table and the coals in the grate. But I don’t need to do any more analyzing or explicating. Perrin has done the best work on his own, right there at the beginning. A man who scours the country for a retrofitted eco-car a full decade before that kind of thing was done and drives it home across country, searching for recharging opportunities all along the way, and who convinces Dartmouth college to set up an electric parking space just for him, and who teaches English literature and tries an inexperienced hand at farming in rural Vermont – well, he’s at the least going to have interesting stories to tell, isn’t he?

Another evening.

“What do you think of that book you’re reading?” I ask my husband and await a response.

My husband’s thumb holds his place while he looks up to consider.

“I like it.” He’s in the first chapter of Robert Farrar Capon’s cookbook-memoir The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection.

I won’t let him off the hook that easily, Vermonter or no. “Really?” I ask why. This isn’t ordinarily his type of book.

He thinks for another long moment, then simply says, “Because it’s about the world.”

So with Perrin. His Vermont essays are about a real place in time. They are simple, fun, and worth the read.

Photo Credit: Valley News

The Literature of Witness

In a recent article for The Hedgehog Review, Alan Jacobs reflects on a strange experience. Years ago at Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Writing, he spent an afternoon in an interview room with Frederick Buechner, watching strangers praise the novelist as essential to their Christian lives. “Your writing has meant everything to my faith,” they all seemed to be saying, “I don’t think I could be a Christian without your books.” The force of their compliments leads Jacobs to ask how writers could have become so essential to the development of a community’s faith. As a scholar of literary history, he understands that this role of spiritual mentor used to be played by very different cultural figures—notably theologians, logicians, even scientists. “It seemed to me,” Jacobs observes, “that such radical dependence on literary experience would have been…impossible even a century earlier.”

The inquiry propels him into a history of Christian humanism, beginning with Renaissance Italian poets, and ending (as too many Christian histories of literature seem to end) with C.S. Lewis, whose “baptism” into the faith was at the hands of the Victorian novelist George MacDonald. At a stage when Lewis knew nothing about Christianity, MacDonald’s fiction initiated him “into habits of aesthetic experience that would later make him receptive [to faith] for reasons he could not then have stated…” So Jacobs arrives at the now classic notion of “pre-evangelism,” which Lewis and his great friend Tolkien often advanced in their mature essays.

The “Witness of Literature,” as Jacobs calls it in his article’s title, derives from its capacity to prime our imaginations to comprehend spiritual reality. Just as Lewis was inadvertently prepared to accept God’s existence by MacDonald’s fantastical novels, many a Christian can remember feeling affection for Aslan before they believed in Christ. The lion often hinted to the Pevensies that he had “other names,” one of which, we’re left in little doubt, gets whispered from the altar where as adults we take communion. “All those,” Jacobs concludes, “who are led to and strengthened in religious faith by writers must believe that writers have, at the very least, superior powers of perception enabled by superior imagination.” It is these superior powers of imagination that make authors the “best new arbiters” of spiritual wisdom in our century, infusing literature with the power to witness.

Yet this language of witness has been, as Jacobs certainly knows, picked up by other writers to describe literature’s potency. Famously, the Polish-speaking Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz used it in his book-length lecture series The Witness of Poetry. Here, “witness” is used not in the evangelical sense, but in that of the courtroom. “I have titled this book The Witness of Poetry,” Milosz writes, “not because we witness it, but because it witnesses us.”

But what has poetry witnessed us doing? As a young Lithuanian who migrated to Poland in the thirties, Milosz was present for many of the twentieth century’s most notable bloodbaths: the Warsaw Uprising, the Nazi occupation, and the equally horrible advent of Communism. Each event diminished his circle of literary contemporaries, until they were but a handful of exiles across the globe. In California for much of his adult life, Milosz was able to lucidly recall the moment when, clutching a copy of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland under his arm, he realized that “we were going to need a different kind of poetry:”

“A man is lying under machine-gun fire on a street in an embattled city. He looks at the pavement and sees a very amusing sight: the cobblestones are standing upright like the quills of a porcupine. The bullets hitting against their edges displace and tilt them. Such moments in the consciousness of a man judge all poets and philosophers…The vision of the cobblestones is unquestionably real, and poetry based on an equally naked experience could survive triumphantly that judgment day of man’s illusions.[1]

The man under the machine gun was of course Milosz, and from that judgement seat (who could question his place there?), he condemned any poetry that did not deal in “naked experience.” By this, he meant that poetry, and by inference all of literature, needed to pay unflinching witness to the very worst realities if it was to stay relevant in a war-rocked world.

To Jacobs, the idea that literature is essential to spiritual development seems historically unprecedented. Milosz, too, was facing an unprecedented historical situation–that of genocide in the heart of modern Europe–and searching for a literature that was adequate to it. In fact “adequate” became a vital word for twentieth-century Nobel authors, whose claims about literature’s powers were dulled, yet hardened, by repeated coatings of blood. Seamus Heaney, who lost many relatives and friends to the diffused terror of Northern Ireland’s “troubles,” said that he became a poet when his “roots crossed his reading,” a process that energized his search for “images and symbols adequate to our predicament.”[2] That predicament was violence perpetuated by the deadly mixture of conflicting ideologies and a shrinking world: the recipe that produced the bitter concoction of our global political landscape.

Such a political landscape tended to leave the literal one dotted with burnt-out buildings. Milosz had seen plenty of these in Krakow. And knowing from such tumultuous political experiences that “What surrounds us here and now is not guaranteed,” Milosz insisted in The Witness of Poetry that we must construct literature “out of the remnants found in ruins.” Imaginative writing was his way to redeem culture destroyed–intentionally or unintentionally–during conflict. By his lights, the “witness” of poetry is its bracing power–not the power of pre-evangelism, but of preservation and reconstruction.

But Milosz’s imagination was, as he confirmed in an interview for The Paris Review, both Christian and Catholic. Though he sometimes wandered the fringes of orthodoxy: his confessor Pope John Paul II once told him that in terms of belief, his poems seemed to “make one step forward, one step back,” to which Milosz answered: “Holy Father, how in the twentieth century can one write religious poetry differently?”[3] It therefore seems possible that at their roots, Jacobs’s idea of literature’s witness and Milosz’s might cross, or even be one and the same.

After all, the Christianese language of “witnessing” is simply a slang corruption of “witness” in the same judicial sense Milosz proposes–to Paul, the act of evangelism is firstly an act of reportage: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance” he writes to the Corinthians, “that Christ died for our sins…that he was raised…and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.”[4] So from the start, to bring others into belief was to testify with reference to reliable observers. The Bible, a piece of literature as rich at it is confusing, gets much of its energy from claiming to be fact. It can only “witness” to us in Jacobs’s sense because it has first witnessed us in Milosz’s.

“It is far too easy,” Jacobs writes, echoing the fourteenth-century French humanist Jean Gerson, “for the point of…discourse to be lost in the apparatus.” This is precisely the danger Milosz hoped to avoid by emphasizing literature’s duty to record “naked reality.” The point, as Jacobs and Milosz both seem to understand, is that imaginative literature is essential to our spiritual development. The practice of writing, reading, and appreciating it is inseparable from our pursuit of truth, because its prime effect is to heighten perception. Sensitive readers of books make shrewd students of reality. “How did literary writers come to be seen by many as the best custodians and advocates of Christian faith?” Jacobs asks. The answer might be that they always were, but that it took the nightmares of the twentieth century to wake us up to their importance.



[1] Czesław Miłosz, The Captive Mind, 41.

[2] Seamus Heaney, “Feeling into Words,” Preoccupations 56

[3] Czeslaw Milosz, The Art of Poetry No. 70. Interviewed by Robert Faggen.

[4] 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, 5b, & 6. NIV

Noteworthy: On James Tate

“And who // really cares about such special days, they / are not what we live for.” James Tate was an American poet and winner of the Pulitzer Prize who passed away on July 8th. He wasn’t interested in the once-in-a-lifetime “special” days, like the wedding referenced in this poem. Like many poets, he was after the mystery in the ordinary. “The challenge is always to find the ultimate in the ordinary horseshit,” he said in his poem called “South End,” and in his interview with poet Charles Simic for The Paris Review. In his poems, the ultimate is often found by a transformation of the ordinary into the bizarre.

His poem, A Glowworm, a Lemur, and Some Women, begins,

A Glowworm drove by
on its way to a Philosophy Department meeting.
It was in a very large car,
and the radio was playing loudly.
Two nude women were praying at the stoplight.
A lemur hopped onto the hood
and asked directions to the nearest gorse bush.

Oddity and surprise marks this strange world. Tate creates a situation, or a set of characters, and then follows them to their conclusion. In The Paris Review, Tate says,

“The hardest work for me is creating the situation, this new reality. Once that’s done I can work within it, follow the implications. I take a step, I see what the new implications are, I take another step, I see what the next implications are—and I just proceed like that.

Humor lurks in these strange worlds. As the story of the glowworm, the lemur, and the women progresses, the familiar becomes odd, comical. In his poem, How the Pope is ChosenTate imagines the pope as a dog and describes him as a judge might describe a show dog.

But these humorous situations often become tragic or serious. Tate tells Simic that the comedic and tragic can’t be separated, and the one leads into the other in much of his work. After saying that the popes chew up crosses and have mouths covered in black flies, he ends the poem, “Eyebrows are a protection / when the pope must plunge through dense underbrush // in search of a sheep.” This image can go two different ways, either suggesting how the pope, is like Jesus the Good Shepherd, the good sheepdog, hoping to protect his flock, or it can suggest a more predatory one. Peering from the underbrush, the pope is a wild dog in search of prey.

Tate follows implications through to surprising conclusions, turning humor into critique and tragedy, mystery into revelation. 

The Book we Need

For thus the Lord said to me: “Go, set a watchman; let him announce what he sees.”— Isaiah 21:6

“Sentimentality about Lee’s story grew even as the harder truths of the book took no root.” —Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy.

Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer who has made it his life work to challenge the inherent bias in the American legal system against the poor and people of color. A few years back, Mr. Stevenson was working on the exceptionally grievous case of Walter McMillian, a black man falsely accused and tried for the murder of a young white girl. The facts of the case were obviously twisted, with dozens of people (including a police officer) witnesses to that fact that McMillian was at a church fundraiser at the time of the murder. The more Stevenson dug, the more he found: false confessions and bribes and the arrest and intimidation of witnesses were all revealed. Eventually, he found himself in Monroe County, Alabama, requesting that the D.A. consider the need for a new trial.

Monroe County and its courthouse is moderately famous now, the place where Harper Lee was from and based her novel To Kill A Mockingbird on. The town, Stevenson writes, is full of homages to the book. When he goes to the courthouse in order to find out why the state has arrested one of his witnesses, the receptionist chats with him about Mockingbird:

“Have you read the book? It’s a wonderful story. This is a famous place. They made the old courthouse a museum, and when they made the movie Gregory Peck came here. You should go over there and stand where Mr. Peck stood—I mean, where Atticus Finch stood.”

Mr. Stevenson is not pleased. He finally promises to go check out the museum, but thinks to himself: “I was too busy working on the case of an innocent black man the community was trying to execute after a racially-biased prosecution.”

Everywhere he looks, Mr. Stevenson finds a town so completely enamored with Atticus, so completely enamored with the sense that wrongs have been righted, so sure that the mockingbirds have been protected—all the while gross racial injustice continues to plague the town. He goes on to write:

“Today, dozens of legal organizations hand out awards in the fictional lawyer’s name to celebrate the model of advocacy described in Lee’s novel. What is often overlooked is that the black man falsely accused in the story was not successfully defended by Atticus. Tom Robinson, the wrongly accused black defendant, is found guilty. Later he dies when, full of despair, he makes a desperate attempt to escape from prison. He is shot seventeen times in the back by his captors, dying ingloriously but not unlawfully.

Mr. Stevenson wrote Just Mercy, an entire book about those similar to Tom Robinson, people who were tried and found guilty in the eyes of the law while God in heaven knew them to be innocent. It is 2015 and there are still Tom Robinson’s everywhere you look, still a Monroe (or Maycomb) county inside all of us. The town where Ms. Lee set her novel is plastered with posters for a stage adaption of the book that supposedly changed our nation’s conscience, which showed us that proud justice could and should be attained in the South. But it didn’t change us enough. I know, because when I read the words of Mr. Stevenson I was surprised. Tom Robinson died? I hadn’t remembered that part. All I had remembered were the parts that looked like me, the reflection I wished to see. I needed a watchman to tell me the truth. As it turns out, I needed to read To Kill A Mockingbird as it was originally meant to be written.

Harper Lee wrote Go Set a Watchman first. It has a quick and hasty feel to it, written in strong conviction and more than a little anger, and tied up a little too neatly. It is not a sequel. It is what she intended to tell us all along, but for quite a few years she had to give us what we could handle. Now she gives us this: Scout (now Jean Louise) all grown up and twenty-six years old, riding the train back to Maycomb county, discovering with shock and horror that the moral compass she has used as a guide is no longer any good.

I too was elated, then worried, then cautiously curious when I heard about Go Set a Watchman. Like everyone else I love to fixate on the talented who leave us at the party much too soon, hungry for more of their genius and wit, their insight into all of our most private lives. I came to read To Kill a Mockingbird a bit later in life, after high school, swallowing large chunks of the text in my Christian fervor, recognizing a book of minor prophecy when I saw one. But it has been years since I read it, and my mind is hazy with the somber black-and-white film making a mythology out of both Atticus and Ms. Lee. Of course, I side with the Finches and their friends—I am stubborn, like Scout; responsible, like Jem; imaginative, like Dill; and sure to do the right thing, like Atticus. It is a book that is finely written, a book which makes one feel proud, a book about being on the right side of history.

Go Set a Watchman quickly and cleanly upends everything I remember about To Kill A Mockingbird. Everyone in Maycomb county is a racist; at least, all the people that Jean Louise interacts with. Her auntie, the church ladies, her boyfriend, every white man in the county, her dad. It is that last one that supposedly will set all of our teeth ajar, will floor us like it does Scout. Go Set a Watchman will undo the saint and send him toppling to the ground, splintering into shards, will take away all of our hard-earned good feelings about ourselves and the state of race relations in our country. Indeed, to read Atticus Finch describe his philosophy of segregation in maddeningly calm monologues, is very hard to take. I sensed both the desperation and moral highness of Jean Louise, and I identified with her.

The flashbacks to the childhood of Scout, Jem, Dill, and Hank are exquisite in their detail and their penchant for fun. The religious words drifting through the pages evoke memories for those of us who grew up singing “blood-curdling hymns.” But most of all, for those that adored precocious little Scout, there are glimpses of her to be found in the grown-up Jean Louise. Her fierceness is on full display as she is confronted with the naked racism of her beloved Atticus (calling him a “double-dealing old ring-tailed son of a bitch”), and again as her world crumbles around her and as she starts to entertain the idea of building it up again, brick by brick. She is a character I relate to, because I too am white and privileged and angry and sad.

Like Jean Louise, I went off on my own into the big wide world and when I took the train back home I couldn’t understand what had happened to my community. I was shocked when Trayvon Martin was killed. I was horrified by the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland. I can’t seem to ever stop being surprised these days, an age when black lives are gunned down or strangled or choked on a near daily basis on little to no evidence of misconduct. Racial reconciliation is not at hand, and the streets are loud with monologues which are barely different  from those on display in Go Set a Watchman. On Facebook, in the news, on talk radio, I hear the prejudice everywhere. We may not use the same terms as those in Maycomb County in the 1960s, but there is talk instead of  welfare queens and thugs rioting in the streets; latino drug lords and rapists and muslim terrorists. We are all very scared of our world changing, when it turns out it hasn’t changed very much at all.

Go Set a Watchman is by no means a perfect book. Uncle Jack, the supposed sage of the book, claims the Confederacy was not about segregation and slavery. Jean Louise, in a devastating encounter with her beloved childhood housekeeper Cal, is unable to recognize the pain of the black experience in the South, unwilling to tolerate any anger directed towards herself. But perhaps, more than anything, is the fact that the central conversation surrounding the book is in regard to the character of Atticus Finch. We are devastated, shocked, saddened and surprised that a beloved white icon of justice and mercy could be racist. This is the central tragedy of Go Set a Watchman. But the truth is, discovering racism and bias and prejudice in the people and communities we love is nothing compared to the tragedy of the black experience in America. The real tragedy, it turns out, is the continued presence in America of a white supremacy that is marked less by hooded klansmen than a blandly logical argument for individualism without acknowledging structural bias.

Did Harper Lee know, all those decades ago, that we would be stuck in the same miserable place? That we would continue to believe in the noble white savior, that we would just want to know that we are all him and he is us and that we no longer live in the black and white South but the vivid, colorful world where one is only judged by the content of their character, and their ability to pull up hard on those proverbial bootstraps? I don’t know how she knew, but I think she did. I think she waited on purpose, waited until we had built up the icon of white respectability and justice, until we had assuaged ourselves of any responsibility, until we forgot about Tom Robinson getting gunned down by the prison guards, and then she gave us the truth, the complicated individuals that we all are.

If there is one danger to be had in Go Set a Watchman, it is this: that we focus on Atticus Finch, Racist. That we turn him into an Other, that we distance ourself from him just as we did from the prosecution in To Kill A Mockingbird. That we take the moral high ground out of Maycomb county, that just like Jean Louise we seem to think we maybe missed that deadly disease of the heart and brain. When the truth is, we took Atticus and we turned him into a museum, a tourist destination, a book to read and feel good about. We  ignored the truth that many of the same fundamental inequalities and injustices remain in our country.

Bryan Stevenson, as he worked to free men and women from an unjust legal system here in America, has no more patience for those obsessed with To Kill A Mockingbird, because he cannot bear to read about fictionalized justice in a very unjust world. Which is why Go Set a Watchman is exactly the book we need right now. Near the end, Jean Louise tells Atticus “I remember that rape case you defended, but I missed the point. You love justice, all right. Abstract justice written down item by item on a brief—nothing to do with that black boy, you just like a neat brief.” The same could be said for all of us that read and adored and missed the horror lurking underneath To Kill a Mockingbird. We missed the point. We need this, a prejudiced book for prejudiced times. We need a voice crying out in the wilderness, tenderly pointing out all the blind spots we have accrued on the journey.

Editing Suburbia

“This is, mind you, suburbia.” Annie Dillard, “Living Like Weasels”

I do a lot of walking in the suburbs of Katy, Texas, where I live, just west of Houston. I walk to see whatever there is to see, including the grand Texas sky with its impressive cloudscapes, which we Houstonians claim as our mountains, and birds and various critters among the other natural sights. On a disciplined day, I wake early and walk a mile or two around the retention pond in our neighborhood. On a less disciplined day, I walk our dog along one of the streets near our house. On an extra special day, my husband and I walk the trail at a local park, usually seeking out a favorite, quiet stretch of asphalt flanked by particularly tall pine trees whose scent conjures the tonic mountain air of our beloved Colorado. This spot on the trail is also where we saw a deer up close, and I guess too personal, for it scampered back into the woods.

I love my husband’s company, but every once in awhile, I wish I could walk the park’s trails alone, if they were not scattered with suspicious men sitting on top of picnic tables. My introverted personality craves the solitude of the sun-streaked woods and the sweet little creek that bends its will only when it encounters oak tree roots lodged in the soil, then continues on its merry way. This solo-rustic desire was planted within me a long time ago, during seven-mile hikes with my dad and brother in Colorado during my childhood, when my love for that state was born, all the while eating ostrich eggs for breakfast, or being chased down a mountain by lightning.

My love for the natural world grew to maturation when I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard in my early, infant 20s, in my tiny studio apartment in Houston. This beloved book is as old as I am, both of us existing since 1974. I thought I understood this paper-paged friend fairly well. I described my adoration for Pilgrim here on The Curator in 2009 — how I learned to see properly and poetically thanks to Dillard’s writing. And loving and rereading this book all of these years has reaffirmed aspects of who I am that will never change: I love books, I love to read, I love nature, I love solitude, I love writing.

So when I came across an article in The Atlantic, “The Thoreau of the Suburbs” by Diana Saverin, where she divulged revealing details about Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and Annie Dillard’s writing process, I was ecstatic. Saverin’s piece blew my mind and left me wide-eyed, but not from bedazzlement or writerly bliss and inspiration — more like shock and disillusionment. Saverin writes, “[S]he wasn’t even living alone. She was residing in an ordinary house with her husband—her former college poetry professor, Richard Dillard. Before she published her book, she scribbled in her journal, wondering who would take her book seriously if its author was a ‘Virginia housewife named Annie.’ She couldn’t change the fact that she lived in Virginia or was a housewife named Annie, but in the end, it didn’t matter. Her husband never made it into the book.”

* * *

In my previous Curator piece, “On Learning to See,” I almost seemed apologetic that I live in suburbia instead of Annie Dillard’s supposed exotic surroundings. But I wouldn’t have been apologetic if I had known that Dillard herself was a housewife living in and walking around suburbia, beautifully and poetically describing the natural world of her domestic surroundings. I always conjured a dreamy fantasy when reading Pilgrim, one of solitude and beauty and wandering and philosophical epiphanies.

After reading Saverin’s Atlantic piece, I don’t love Pilgrim at Tinker Creek any less—it is still some of the most beautiful writing I’ve ever read—but I do look at the book differently. Now I know that part of Dillard’s story is missing. It would be more compelling to know that a housewife wrote such a phenomenal book, admitting her suburban reality instead of the typical dismissal of suburbia, deeming such a common life boring or uncool.

* * *

I pulled into the driveway after church one day, talking on the phone with my mom, to find a hawk sitting in the epicenter of a small white bird’s carnage on our side lawn, the feathers spread out like a small, gentle explosion. The hawk’s eyes were wide and steadied on me. I trailed off mid-sentence, my eyes wide too, both enchanted and horrified by the beautiful, bitter, inevitable tragedy of violence in nature. That hawk and I stared at each other for a good few minutes; then it soared gracefully and powerfully away to nestle in a pine tree down the street. The circumference of white feathers remained on our lawn for a few days like a piece of installation art symbolizing the delicate reality of death.

Yesterday as I tended to our breakfast dishes, a tiny snail sidled up our kitchen sink window, a rivulet of slime trailing below its ecru body, its tiny eye-tipped tentacles bending back and forth, assessing the strange transparent terrain, and perhaps assessing the giant human face peering so closely with no respect for a snail’s personal space. I wondered if it was a baby snail. I stepped away for a moment, and when I returned I was surprised to see how fast that snail had booked it up our window, almost out of sight.

One morning, very early, I lugged my weary body out of bed, determined to exercise. I stepped out our back door and inhaled fresh air; I caught the scent of pine high above me. I crossed the street, turned the corner, and reckoned with the oval-shaped path around the pond. Sometimes I see whimsical faces in the long, spindly streaks of tar mending ruts in the asphalt, but that day the faces were inexpressive, impassive — quite frankly, they were bored. The sky was a major disappointment of gray, but I trekked onward with a miraculous determination, seeing as this was pre-coffee. I passed fledgling cypress and oak trees growing alongside each other. A few mockingbirds flitted about silently, not in the mood for mimicry. The typically vibrant colors of neighbors’ flowers spilling over their fences were mute and dull. I felt the groaning of creation mentioned in Romans 8 in my bones and in every living thing around me. On the last stretch of the path, a slender cruciform of white glided through the air in my peripheral vision. I looked upward and to the left to see a great egret swooping low overhead. I could see the fringe of its stately wings, and the narrow point of its beak. That elegant white bird felt like a royal visitation, come down out of the silent sky to speak peace and joy and reviving over me. I wanted to grow small and spry enough that I could jump and grab hold of its legs, climb gently on its back, and fly in tandem wherever we pleased.

* * *

“We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here.” Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

* * *

In light of Dillard’s omissions of suburbia and domesticity, I’ve been wondering about the term “creative nonfiction.” Shouldn’t I write as truthfully as I do creatively? Can’t I do both? If I were to write a memoir about walking in my neighborhood and what I observe, should I delete all details of the suburbs of Houston where I reside? Should I edit out the word “retention” in my great egret account and merely write “pond”? Should I omit my drummer husband and our mundane, peaceful working-from-home life? Should I make my book a strictly Thoreau-esque affair to appeal to the nature-loving masses? And what exactly would such an account be? Saverin also divulged in her Atlantic piece that Dillard was hip to the fact “that there had always been a certain amount of delusion involved in the lone-man-in-the-wilderness narrative.” Thoreau’s cabin sat on land owned by his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, within walking distance of Concord, and it was rumored that Thoreau’s mom did his laundry. He was no doubt a great observer of the natural world, but again, the truth was made to seem optional and unappealing.

Perhaps I struggle with this impulse, too. Writing requires faith, and part of faith is seeing what is true and not turning away from it, nor hiding it. Perhaps above I should have written that along with an idyllic, gurgling creek in the heart of Cullen Park, trash sits on some of those oak tree roots, also diverting the path of the water. Or that the men atop picnic tables laughed and reeked of marijuana, maybe not so much enjoying it as selling it. Or that we have often walked on what seemed like a secluded part of the trail to the sound of children’s parties blasting celebratory Tejano music through the pines. Perhaps we all struggle with Dillard’s type of writerly omissions, such as many other writers have done before and after the publication of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek — to include what we like and delete what we don’t. We probably do this in other aspects of our lives as well, especially in this day and age saturated with social media — the name Facebook even having literary connotations — where we can easily present an image of our lives that we like, and a flattering angle of our appearance with a selfie. But our unfaithful omissions in writing and in life do not reflect reality.

As writers, we need to be honest, which is another component of faith. But this honesty is not so much about describing every single thing I’ve seen in our local park or in my suburban neighborhood, but of giving you a well-rounded mental photograph of my place, my reality. This recalls some of my favorite lines from the novel Peace Like a River:

Is there a single person on whom I can press belief?

No sir.

All I can do is say, Here’s how it went. Here’s what I saw.

I’ve been there and am going back.

Make of it what you will.

This is my writer’s declaration. In order for your reader’s imagination to make of things what it will, I have to give you the materials with which to make, to create. If I omit that I live in suburbia, but describe other waterbirds such as a blue heron we saw in the park, that doesn’t give you a true glimpse of things. You might think I live in a coastland area outside of Houston, living in a simple beach cottage.

Part of the glory of my great egret sighting was that it soared above my head in the mundanity of suburbia. Annie Dillard taught me to perpetually notice: What is happening when I’m not looking, when I’m not seeing? But after digesting Dillard’s decision to edit out the suburban and domestic aspects of her existence, I don’t believe that she taught me how to be authentic in my writing, at least not in this instance. I feel disillusioned by her lone-woman-by-the-creek narrative. I believe that Dillard really did see all of the natural wonders she described in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, but the omissions of her suburban neighborhood and her college professor husband fall short of truthful. Aren’t writers witnesses to the good, the true, the beautiful, the banal — all of it? Isn’t that part of the art of seeing that I learned from Dillard long ago?

Part of the glory of nature in the suburbs is that it happens in suburbia, in a place you might least expect to behold beauty. But whether I write that book about walking or not, and no matter what I write, I am a writer. I am a suburban housewife, a resident of Katy, Texas. I live in a two-story brick house with my drummer husband, two cats, and one dog. I plan to write a great many things during my life that have nothing to do with the suburbs, but my place shapes me. I do understand Dillard’s poetic habit of seeing, and I also believe we writers should undertake that artful practice of observation. But the poetic is more powerful if it is rooted in the truthful — what is really “going on here.” I have seen the poetic, transcendent glory in my neighborhood, and I am here to write, my feet grounded in suburban soil.

Voice and Intimacy in Robinson’s Lila


“Someday, she would tell him what she knew.”

Marilynne Robinson writes like fine wine: she takes her time in years and the result is rich, heady prose. Gilead won the Pulitzer 10 years ago. The epistolary novel came 24 years after her novel Housekeeping, a text well received in literary circles. The wait has been worthwhile. In every piece, fiction or nonfiction, Robinson’s prose changes, and what Robinson has done in her most recent work, Lila, is something altogether different from her accomplishments in Gilead. Robinson still uses her great strength: vivid first person perspective, intimate details, and her lyric tone. But the language and pacing of Lila veers in a different, earthy direction, towards the genuine voice of a different economic class.

In Lila, Robinson returns to the world of Gilead, Iowa and introduces us to Lila, Reverend Ames’s young wife. Gilead focuses on the love of a father to a son in a series of letters to the young child John Ames will not know into adulthood. Lila focuses on motherhood, of all that goes through Lila as she waits for her child to be born. Lila’s history is absent from Gilead because as a first person narrative, Reverend Ames cannot reveal what he does not know. Lila is from a different world, a different class, yet it would be a mistake to claim Lila as a text about class. It would also be a mistake to accuse Robinson of co-opting a language unsuited to her, one where imitation is a form of pity. Instead, she imbues Lila’s stream of consciousness and intellectual strength on par with Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Lila’s vocabulary never strays into what could be called a false, scholarly tone. Robinson never missteps. Instead, the author’s clear love for her characters grants them dignity and grace that never involves condescension. Ultimately, Robinson’s work here expands and deepens what has been a central exploration in all her works: what does true human compassion look like and what does it take to cross the distance between one human and another?

Robinson captures our human isolation from each other in the most intimate spaces seen most vividly in the relationship between Reverend Ames and Lila. The difference and distance between the two is great, but is marked by love for the other.

Lila is as different from the Reverend as she could be, both by education and the independence of her thought; she regularly challenges and questions the honesty and love in what she is taught about God. The Gilead community and the Reverend’s parish responds to her at times with pity instead of love, and pity undresses human dignity. She vacillates between shame and defiance, saying, “I got shame like a habit, the only thing I feel except when I’m alone.”

The syntax of that sentence is rough yet elegant: “I got” instead of “I have” followed by unique turns of phrase. It is not usual to speak of having something “like a habit.” She struggles to read the Bible much less understand it. She learns, with fascination and pride, to write her own name. Lila is not a woman who would speak to anyone directly in a letter much less allow for the direct address of a first person narration of her story. Lila will tell what she knows in a different way.

Lila’s way is through a close third narrative voice and the voice of her memory, one that associates freely and profoundly, like a poet. Her mind wanders from memory to subject to reflection, one that masks, unveils, and re-masks herself. She begins the new practice of reading the Bible and then thinking on it in the mornings. One morning she copies the sentence “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was waste and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” The line prompts a long meditation on beginnings and darkness, one that ranges from the plants she loved to the people she knew. Deep into the scene she stops abruptly to consider what the “old man,” Reverend Ames, would think:

“She would tell the old man, I didn’t use to mind tansy. I still like apricot now and then. She pretended he knew some of her thoughts, only some of them, the ones she would like to show him. Mellie with her babies. Doll smiling because she had a bit of sugar candy from the store to slip into Lila’s hand when the others weren’t looking.

Lila curates her own thoughts for us, carefully and specifically, choosing what she would like to be seen. This is early in the novel and as the story progresses, she lets herself think more and more on the darkness, the places the Spirit of God had to go before he said, “Let there be light.”

The narrative voice here is striking. The close third person could also be Lila’s own voice considering herself and her life at a slight distance, as if it would make remembering easier. It places the reader in close proximity to her, but not fully inside of her. Similar to her relationship with Ames, there is intimacy here, but there is also distance.

Lila sometimes reads like a gentle mystery novel with significant events left untold. Robinson allows for the mystery: the complexity of what we know and do not know, the complexity of what we say and what we do not say. Lila knows and does not know and lives between the two.

“Lila knew it couldn’t have been the way she remembered it, as if she were carried along in the wind, and there were arms around her to let her know she was safe, and there was a whisper in her ear to let her know that she shouldn’t be lonely.”

Lila knows things even when that knowing is of what she does not know. Like a skilled philosopher, she parses what must have been alongside a vivid experience of what could not have been. Memory has made her first years good, a kind of retroactive grace just as she finds “the old man” and carries his child.

The voice also allows us to experience dialogue naturally, rather than in a constructed (and false ringing) retrospection. We can both be inside Lila’s experience and separate from it, seeing her—or as she imagines herself seen—by her husband, the woman who raised her, and other characters. Just after her baptism, Lila and the Reverend discuss getting married.

“’No. No.’ She wasn’t crying. She couldn’t look at him. ‘I want this so damn bad. And I hate to want anything.’” This is a moment when Lila reveals more of herself than at other times. She exposes herself even as she can’t look at him directly or tries to prevent herself from crying. She uses “damn” in a way that emphasizes the emotion behind her words. Neither she nor John Ames responds to that. He replies:


‘I want you to marry me! I wish I didn’t. It’s just a misery for me.’

‘For me too, as it happens.’”

John Ames is trying to reach her in these words. There is a shared experience between them, a desire for marriage that seems contrary to their lives before yet interwoven with it as well. Then Lila fires back at him:

“I can’t trust you!” And this is the heart of Lila. She does not trust. She does not trust others or herself. And the promise of a life with someone who could love her and who she could love dismantles her quiet poise. “I don’t trust nobody,” she continues. “I can’t stay nowhere. I can’t get a minute of rest.’”

There is a power in Lila’s words–intimacy and distance. Her words allow us to identify with her and love her. The shame Lila feels towards herself is not one we participate in; the love others feel towards her is one we do.

Robinson grants dignity to Lila through the evasive and associative voice; Lila is given a choice in how she expressed. This praise cannot be said for many other texts that attempt to transcend personal positional experience into a strong empathy with another time, place, ethnicity, or culture. A popular example of this failure is The Help, Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 best-selling novel. Stockett gives a close first person voice to a variety of characters. Yet her local dialect falls flat. One character describes her mother this way:

“Mama turned me by the shoulders so I’d look at her instead of the cake. Mama was a crack-whip. She was proper. She took nothing from nobody. She shook her finger so close to my face, it made me cross-eyed.

The first person creates a constructed vocabulary and syntax even while trying to have a local sound. It is, one must concede, a suspension of disbelief that all first person narrations require. But authorial dignity is still missing; it is not imbued into the voice but declared in the voice of the characters, a forced move. Instead of giving breath to the characters, the author takes away their autonomy and dignity.

Robinson retains a respect for her characters, admitting them to be “mysterious” even. She noted in her interview with the Paris Review that, “The minute that you start thinking about someone in the whole circumstance of his life to the extent that you can, he becomes mysterious, immediately.” She permits things to go unsaid and allows the development of individuals to proceed on their terms and not on hers. Not once does the narrative voice ask or require Lila to be any woman other than what she is, never once insisting on a vocabulary or syntax false to her education and her experiences.

Admitting to the separate mystery of a character is a kind of grace, one we see in the mystery of Lila. An author cannot manufacture grace for her characters, a kind of “grace” that lands on our ears as trite and watered down. It is woven in the narrative voice as Robinson does or it is applied like pity. It is only as Robinson has identified with Lila, seen herself in this woman, lost but wise, that such art could be made. As full spiritual experiences, novels like Lila challenge our humanity beyond the technicalities of readership or authorship. They challenge us to become more fully human by entering intimacy with the stranger, as Robinson has done with Lila, and finding the grace we need in that act.

Proust’s English Muse

The Scottish man of letters, C.K. Scott Moncrieff, is mostly known for introducing Marcel Proust’s multi-volume novel, In Search of Lost Time, to the English-speaking world. His translation is still thought by many lovers of Proust to be a classic; and it is in large part responsible for the eponymous translation prize still awarded annually in the UK for literary excellence in French to English translation.

Not surprisingly, though, a translator’s biography often goes unnoticed. After all, part of a translator’s role is to play second fiddle to the author. The translator is supposed to disappear. But C.K. Scott Moncrieff didn’t disappear. His presence was redolent on every page, devoted to matching the literary quality of every sentence he translated. Joseph Conrad was among those who praised Moncrieff’s translations as often being of better literary quality than their original. No mean feat, to say the least.

Thanks to a recent biography by Jean Findlay, Chasing Lost Time: The Life of C.K. Scott Moncrieff, Soldier, Spy and Translator, the times of Scott Moncrieff (“Charles” from here on out) are far from being lost.  Biographies like Findlay’s are crisp air in cramped and stuffy literary rooms of ideology. Findlay paints an honest picture of a complex man without a hint of political agenda or polemic—a temptation that, given Charles’s sexuality and religion and the battles raging today concerning the relation between the two, could have easily spawned an ideologically freighted biography. Happily, we are given a portrait of a man rather than a marionette of ideas.

Charles was a devoutly orthodox Catholic, gay,  and a highly decorated war hero of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers who worked for one of the twentieth century’s great literary giants: G.K. Chesterton—that fat, frolicking, beer-imbibing word wizard who nearly convinced even Franz Kafka he’d found God in a godless time. In today’s world, where large swaths of the population refuse to see beyond their various cookie-cutter ideologies, Charles would be an utter enigma. He was what all good men should be: a contradiction; and he sought what all good men should seek: divine grace.

Charles was born to educated, middle-class Presbyterian parents in Scotland on 25 September 1889. Early on in childhood his parents recognized a predilection and precocity for all things literary and aesthetic; and scarcely could he have inherited a better familial atmosphere for his gifts to flourish. Before the ripe age of eight, Findley tells us, he was already reading “Stevenson, Milton, Wordsworth, Arnold, George Herbert and Ruskin. These were not the usual texts given to small boys to develop an interest.” Both parents were avid readers and published writers with strong pedigrees of educational rigour. “We were made for better things than to be wealthy,” wrote Charles’s grandmother; they were above all else to be highly educated, wise, virtuous, and generous citizens before accumulating vast sums of wealth—an ideal that Charles would later take to heart, giving large portions of his wealth away to those in need.

As a young man studying classical literature at the prestigious Winchester College boarding school, Charles fell into the company of a London literary group made up mainly of gays like himself; excepting that a great deal of them were, unlike Charles at the time, Catholic converts. Notable among the group was Robert Ross, a good friend of the late Oscar Wilde who worked tirelessly to repair Wilde’s posthumous reputation scarred by his infamous trial.

It was also through this group wherein Charles met a lifelong friend in Vyvyian Holland, one among two sons of Wilde, with whom he would exchange numerous letters throughout the years, often filled with bawdy humor such as this particular encouragement to Holland about possibly translating Stendhal into English: “You can do it [translate Stendhal] straight on the typewriter without even stopping to masturbate, as in the case of Proust.”

Findlay writes of this early period that, “Charles felt close to the religious inspiration of Wilde’s work, and he was told by Robert Ross of the author’s deathbed conversion to Catholicism and of Wilde’s description of the Roman Catholic Church as being ‘for saints and sinners alone – for respectable people, the Anglican Church will do’.” And that during Wilde’s “time at Trinity College, Dublin, and later in prison, Wilde had pored over the works of Augustine, Dante and Cardinal Newman.”

It was Catholicism’s truthful reckoning of human nature as something flawed and confused, yet nonetheless shook-foiled (as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it) with the glory of God, that appealed most strongly to this group and that would later grip Charles as well. “The Church,” as Chesterton wrote in The Everlasting Man, “is justified, not because her children do not sin, but because they do.” It was the Catholic Church, Findley writes, that “offered the forgiveness that society could not provide” this group of literary men. In other words, it was the Church’s doctrine of grace, rather than solely the aestheticism of the Church, that drew them into its fold.

Before Charles was able to produce his masterful translations, he would endure the hells of the First World War, which ruthlessly corroded the isles’ men into a small remnant of tortured souls. While the war was certainly hell, Charles believed it could also test the mettle of virtues such as courage, perseverance and self-sacrifice—and possibly even ignite faith.  Like Chesterton and many others of his day, Charles was a firm believer in the cultivation of chivalry; so much so that he devoted considerable time and talent to translating the Song of Roland (for which Chesterton wrote the introduction) into lyrical English as a paean to the courage of his fellow soldiers, a poem he wanted understood “in the light of many of the aspirations, intentions and even despairs of today.”

The war ruined Charles’s health. Alongside the mental terrors suffered from battle memories and the deaths of many close friends, he would hobble about on a limp leg and struggle against recurring bouts of trench fever the rest of his short life. What was once the bright face of a young and strong and handsome man was now a broken visage of a war-torn man. Despite such difficulties, however, Charles was immensely productive. He seemed to have been one of those mysterious souls who could fit a week’s worth of work into a single day, and yet still have time for an enviable social life with the leading literary figures of his time.

Chivalry and literature being as they were very important to Charles, it was his devotion to Catholicism that loomed largest in his heart and mind. His faith was “as absorbing to him as his translation of Proust,” writes Findlay. And above all else, Charles wrote, “Christianity is characteristic of our armies far more nearly universal than courage or cowardice, or drunkeness or sobriety or chastity or the love of plunder.” In the fog of war and virtue and vice, Charles clung to the clarity of Christian doctrine: the belief that nothing—neither death nor life, height nor depth—can separate humanity from the love of God. “Charles’s faith in life after death was powerful and orthodox. Death through sacrifice for one’s friends meant Glory, and Glory was an experience of God’s presence.” His body decaying in the battlefields of France, Charles picked up his pen after confession with the Brigade Chaplain and wrote: “So now I am a proper papist. As we left, the Sacristan, who had been tidying up things, said very kindly, ‘C’est un nouveau frère en Jesus Christ.’” Findlay nicely describes his conversion:

“It was not a flash of light on the road to Damascus that turned Charles towards Catholicism but a steady tramp through France and the dramatic appearance of a devastated world. France had something to do with it; his aesthetic and historical interests were in art and buildings inspired by the Catholic spirit – pre-Reformation churches and cathedrals in Britain, the towered cities of France and the steady stream of chapels and wayside monuments to the Madonna in the Low Countries. However it was more by observing other people that Charles was inspired to conversion.”

For an aesthetic mind like Charles’s, there is no doubt that Catholicism’s long and strong obsession with beauty would have kindled a flame; upon seeing Rouen Cathedral, he would have seen and thought the same as John Ruskin, that it was an embodiment of “Sacrifice, Truth, Power, Beauty, Life, Memory and Obedience.” But most importantly it was Catholic lives that compelled him: Chesterton, Waugh, Knox, Ross and his Catholic comrades celebrating mass in old French churches in the midst of suffering and death.

After the war and his conversion, Charles’s most significant endeavor was to bring Proust’s eight-volume masterpiece, À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, to the English reader. This was not easy. Proust was still alive when Charles finished Swann’s Way, and he was by no means recognized immediately as a living literary legend. Thus Charles had to put forth a considerable effort to ignite interest in Proust, which included pulling together a compilation of essays in praise of Proust’s work by notable literary figures. If the first volume had flopped, there was a good chance Charles would have had difficulty selling translations of the remaining volumes to a publisher. Of course Charles pulled it off to great acclaim and praise, earning Proust’s admiration as well. Joseph Conrad wrote to Charles saying he “was more interested and fascinated by your rendering than by Proust’s creation. One has revealed to me something and there is no revelation in the other… [You have] a supreme faculty akin to genius…”

It wasn’t only Proust he was translating during this period of rapid work. He was also working on various novels by Stendhal, including The Red and Black, as well as tirelessly persuading publishers to get Pirandello’s works into English. He was, as Findlay says, “chasing lost time”:

“Having spent the flower of his youth on the war, he felt that he was chasing lost time for the last ten years of his life. This feeling of being hounded by time led to a frenetic work schedule, and him publishing nineteen volumes of difficult translation, writing thousands of letters and neglecting his physical health. It is unlikely he ever cooked himself a meal, relying on black coffee and wine by day and dining out at night where he was celebrated as a first rate entertainer by his friends. Proust wrote a slow exploration in search for lost time, but Charles was actively chasing time, he was a man never at rest; constantly making unnatural demands on himself, leading an action-packed life.

The rose was wilting. Charles’s body could endure no more. He succumbed to stomach cancer at only 39. His last days were spent in Rome, cared for by the nuns of the convent of St. Joseph. Here he kept up correspondence with T.S. Eliot while being visited by his many friends. Chesterton made the pilgrimage and read Virgil’s Aeneid in Latin as Charles lie in bed. And a fortnight before his death Evelyn Waugh arrived, giving Charles his “first blissful evening in months.”

The last days of C.K. Scott Moncrieff were spent making last rites. “Charles,” writes Findlay, “a man of forty, was certain that the consecrated host carried by the nun was the body of Christ.” “You could say,” she adds, “that his conversion to Catholicism freed his spirit. He discovered the sacrament of confession, where man is reconciled with himself and God, not trapped in guilt, and this gave his spirit flight.”

The Musical Brain: Detectives of Infinity

“How, then, can I translate into words the limitless Aleph, which my floundering mind can scarcely encompass?” – Jorge Luis Borges in “The Aleph”

In the collection of Roberto Bolaño’s nonfiction, Between Parenthesis, there is an unfinished speech titled “Sevilla Kills Me.” Here the Chilean author of major novels (i.e. By Night in Chile, The Savage Detectives and 2666) discusses new Latin American literature and lists important writers of the Spanish language. The list: Daniel Sada, César Aira, Juan Villoro, Alan Pauls, Rodrigo Rey Rosa, Ibsen Martínez, Carmen Boullosa, Antonio Ungar, Gonzalo Contreras, Pedro Lemebel, Jaime Collyer, Alberto Fuguet, María Moreno, and Mario Bellatin. Although the speech was written in 2003 it didn’t appear in English until 2011. Perhaps Bolaño hints at the expanse in time created by the work of translation when he punctuates the list saying, “The river is wide and mighty and its surface is broken by the heads of at least twenty-five writers, under fifty, under forty, under thirty. How many will drown? I’d say all of them.”

Bolaño, fortunately, was wrong. One writer who has made it across the translation gap multiple times is the eccentric César Aira. In contrast to previous slim books, like the nebulous Shantytown or the brainy sci-fi The Literary Conference, New Directions published a stout collection of translated short stories named The Musical Brain earlier this year. Within its pages Aira unveils a dazzling reality that eludes predictability.

Consider “Picasso”: a puzzle and roundabout homage to the Cubist patriarch. While visiting the Picasso Museum the narrator is presented a choice by a magic milk-bottle genie: be Picasso or own a Picasso? The narrator, a writer, decides via rational hoops and hypotheses to have a Picasso. A painting appears on the table before him. As quick as it came, the painting gives him what he really wants: the possibility of a new reality. Selling the Picasso would give him money to stop working and start writing. In this purchased-space he can become a “one and only.” Autonomous reality bursts in at the last moment, and thus demands he (and the reader) abandon scientific rationality. How does he suppose that he can leave the Picasso Museum with a Picasso under his arm?

Throughout The Musical Brain reality takes on myriad forms beginning with a fiction manifesto cloaked as a tale of childhood. The narrator in “Brick Wall,” el memorioso, recalls with obsessive precision the multitude of films he saw as a child. The “perfect economy of signs” formed a compact mass of meaning that kept him, and his childhood friend Miguel, returning to films.  “To us [movies] seemed like a super-reality, or, rather, reality itself seemed diffused, disorganized, deprived of that rare, elegant concision that was the secret of cinema.”  What the narrator sees in cinematic fictions are signs of a broader context—an expanding reality within a sign, a look, a word. “Brick Wall” reveals what the reality of Aira’s stories  demands of us: that we become a detective. Every detail is a clue, every narrative was a detective story, inviting us to become a detective that inspects with a black light what lies hidden in the deep fibers of our worlds. Like the narrator in “No Witnesses” the reader must develop the detective’s sight: “The corner was very dark, but accustomed as I was to gloomy places, I could see fairly well.”

Reality in The Musical Brain is a dizzying constellation of images, words and signs. Such a limitless atmosphere overwhelms characters searching for their identity among the stars. The fame-seeking narrator (suspiciously named César Aira) of “The Spy” questions:

“Was I a misunderstood genius or some barely half-talented writer lost in the ambiguous meanders of the avant-garde? Impossible to say. The suspicion that gags and paralyzes me in the theater, with its layering of real and virtual spaces, also suspends the question of my life or death as a writer.”

This paralysis is the result of the narrator’s attempt at living in two realities by acting out two roles: character and writer. In the end, he no longer knows himself from the other. This in-story César sees the abysmal constellation around him and responds “Who am I?” In contrast, the real César, like a true detective, peers into the infinite and asks “Who are you?”

Through “The Infinite” Aira shows that despite reality’s savage and terrible autonomy, it is beautiful. Two boys create a game that names numbers ad infinitum. Each tries to say a larger number than the other. Eventually they realize that numbers are an infinite in the infinite reality of words. An infinity of infinity. One of the boys says, “We distanced ourselves from [words] so that we could see how beautiful, funny, and amazingly effective they were. Words were magical jewels with unlimited powers, all we had to do was reach out and take them. But that feeling was an effect of the distance…” Mastering reality is impossible in the face of the infinite. Colossal conceptions turn to atoms in comparison with the reality of things. But, along with the boys in “The Infinite”, the detective, the writer, the reader, the artist, the human says, “We knew that, and yet some strange perversion, or the lure of danger, sustained our crazy longing to try…”

Out of the stories in The Musical Brain Aira materializes reality as it is: an infinite polyhedron. Multiple faces and images, words and signs, constitute an enigmatic reality that is simultaneously a “chaotic muddle of signs and meaning”and “a whirl, an abyss of irrational atoms.” Aira transcends genre classification and hides the unimaginable universe beneath the stairs of simple prose. Roberto Bolaño remarks: “Once you’ve read Aira, you don’t want to stop.” Even so, César Aira is one name on an infinite list of writers from Latin America and et cetera who have tried, are trying, and will try to circumnavigate an infinite reality with words.

Guy In Your MFA

One pretentious, mansplaining, literary tweet at a time, Guy In Your MFA has become an internet phenomenon. Run by Dana Schwartz, since its inception last year the Twitter parody account has been named one of Paste’s  75 Best Twitter Accounts of 2014 and has garnered over 50,000 followers. Dana talked with The Curator about comedy, Twitter, and the literary jerks we all love to hate. This conversation has been edited for publication.


Adam Joyce: What do you do officially?

Dana Schwartz: I’m a student at Brown. So officially what I do on a daily basis is try to make it to graduation without failing out. I study public policy, and I was actually pre-med for a majority of my time at Brown. I made it through organic chemistry, physiology, everything, until last summer when I had my internship at Conan in Los Angeles.

I just fell in love; it was really a round peg-round hole scenario. I had been going full speed ahead with medical school without realizing that what I really loved to do was write, be funny, and try to make things to put out to the world. And I’m really happy that I have a physical project going. So that sort of changed my path – it was a fun conversation to have with my parents.

AJ: Were your parents supportive of the shift? Or was there a long arc to convincing them?

DS: My parents were actually ridiculously supportive, almost ludicrously supportive, especially because they don’t think I’m very funny. So they don’t understand what I do at all. They don’t understand Twitter and I don’t think my humor is their cup of tea. The fact they are still supporting and have faith in my abilities sort of makes it even nicer.

AJ: Are you planning on doing an MFA? Is that the trajectory at this point?

DS: I was planning on it. I took a lot of fiction writing classes. I love writing fiction. Guy In Your MFA (Guy) was born out of a big stack of pieces I needed to critique for the next day and my frustration with this whole culture of pseudo-pretentious literary works, both in myself and in my colleagues.

I had also been researching MFA programs, reading a ton of the journals they put out, reading a lot of very MFA stories, which are their own sort of subgenre. That is sort of how I educated myself into this world. But, actually, at the moment I am not planning on getting one. But I didn’t talk myself out of it through Twitter.

AJ: So it’s not like you mocked your way out of wanting to do an MFA?

DS: I wear the hat that is used in Guy’s image. I have it and I wear it all the time.

AJ: Are you hoping the Twitter personality accomplishes anything? It came out of a humorous venting about this space, but has clearly touched a nerve. Do you have hopes for what it means beyond the venting?

DS: It has already accomplished an incredible amount for me personally. It got me attention from the literary world, an agent, and put me in touch with editors and publishers. And it helped me establish that comedy was something that I was actually capable of doing.

I’ve used it as a starting off point. I started a second parody Twitter account, which was basically to avoid doing real schoolwork. It’s called DystopianYA and is another twist on a genre type. It has been fun for me to practice recognizing and twisting tropes, and whether anything comes directly of those projects or whatever the next step might be, the really important thing is that it has set me up skill-wise and with contacts. So I can work hard and make something really cool for my next project.

AJ: So are there any categories you are hoping to tackle next? Are there any tropes in the on deck circle for mockery?

DS: I wish. I think I have to give up the trope Twitter account though. Or else that will become my “thing,” and I’m hoping to branch out from 140 characters.

AJ: That could become another trope to critique at some point.

DS: Right! You become the girl that spends too much time on Twitter, and that is its own embarrassing sub-genre.

AJ: The infinite regress of Twitter parody accounts that come out of it?

DS: You keep going too deep and looking from mirror to mirror to mirror.

AJ: Have you ever received any pushback over the character?

DS: The good news is not too much. Most people recognize it is a loving parody and that it doesn’t come from an antagonistic or vindictive place. I am a fiction writer; it is something I love to do. Part of the reason I can get into Guy’s head so well is because I have some of that in me. I think all writers kind of do. Whether you grew out of it at 16 or you think you did, we all sort of have that deep down idea that our thoughts matter more than everyone else’s. Or that maybe we understand “Howl” just a little better than Allen Ginsberg.

So no, there has not been a lot of pushback, which makes me very happy. I’ve never hoped to make comedy just for the sake of offending people. I hope people recognize it comes from a place of love. Although the pushback I do get is hilarious and is only from people who don’t understand what it is. For example, I’ll have Guy say something moderately racist or incredibly Texan and some people are flabbergasted at how terrible a human being I am.

My favorite story is about one conversation with a man in real life. There was an article about Guy on my campus, and I was talking about it, and he clearly didn’t know I wrote Guy In Your MFA. He said, “Oh yeah, Guy In Your MFA, I feel like you can only understand it if you are a male writer. It’s talking to a really masculine sensibility.” And he went on to say: “It’s funny for everyone, but it really captures something for male writers to especially relate to.” And I was like, this is so great, almost what I had always wanted. I’ve made it if a man is explaining what I’ve made to me. This is the peak.

AJ: There is always a lot of talk about the cultural consequences of comedy. But this is a moment, where at least people are responding to what Guy exposes and agreeing that this pretentious little voice inside needs to be mocked.

DS: I think part of the power of that literary guy is that he is really intimidating a lot of the time. His goal is to make the people around him feel intellectually insecure. So I think there is power of being able to put into the world the idea how, “Ugh this guy is so frustrating and ridiculous.” And to have a chorus of people come back and say, “Yes, we know,” as opposed to sitting in the corner of your workshop being nervous because he made a snide comment about how you didn’t read Dostoevsky in the original Russian.

Which I did, I should make very clear…

Yeah no, I actually barely read it in English.

In terms of the cultural consequence of comedy I love someone like John Oliver, who can use humor to draw attention to something really important and call it out in a really visible way. One thing I struggled with when I went from pre-med student to comedy writer was whether I was still doing “capital-G good” in the world anymore. And so it became important to me find places where I could still feel good about what I was doing and feel I was having an impact on the world. At the moment that means calling out things that annoy me and things that should change, like how women are treated in comedy.

I was at Conan for an entire summer, and there was not a single sketch with a female character. That bummed me out. Even really modern places like ClickHole, which I adore, has no female staff writers. Or someone as prolific and as incredible as Jerry Seinfeld says something ignorantly dismissive like, “It doesn’t matter where comedy comes from whether it is a man, a woman, or a man of color.” And this was after he got pushback for only having white male comedians on his show for the first season. It made me angry, because there is absolutely a difference in terms of how comedy is perceived coming from a female mouth versus coming from a male mouth, and that is absolutely what I want to draw attention to and try to change.

AJ: So Guy In Your MFA is like a painful medicine?

DS: Yes, some conversations are hard to have but that doesn’t mean they are any less important. It probably means they are more important.

AJ: And humor is a way to make those conversations, not necessarily less painful, but maybe a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down? Yet Disney might not be the best place to go for a philosophy of comedy.

DS: But Disney is a whole other realm of horrible stereotypes and tropes.

I do wonder if Guy In Your MFA comes off as some crazy feminist man hater trying to make all literary white men look bad. When the fact that matters is that Guy just happens to be an identity that is most often put on by straight white males. It’s like when people got mad at Lena Dunham when she wrote that piece about her Jewish boyfriend, because she’s not obviously Jewish. It’s like I’m not allowed to make fun of men because I’m not a man.

AJ: The odd idea that you are only allowed to make fun of those you are exactly like?

DS: Which is why I’m merciless when it comes to my family.

AJ: Maybe that is why they don’t think you are funny?

DS: Probably because I’m not very fair to them.

AJ: If we could switch gears, I’d like to ask you a few questions in character if possible.

DS: Let’s do it. Let me quick put on a hat and some fake glasses to get in character. I don’t wear glasses, but I feel like it would be “on brand” for me.

AJ: So if you could travel back in time and share a whiskey with one writer, who would it be and why?

Guy in Your MFA: Ernest Hemingway. Because I feel that the gritty experience of war cannot be accurately conveyed through literature. His thoughts are only fully experienced in conversation. We could share a drink and stories of love lost.

AJ: So this links up great with the next question. When I read Ernest Hemingway, for some reason I always want to drink red wine. What does reading Hemingway make you want to do?

Guy in Your MFA: Well obviously I know why it makes you want to drink red wine. That is a pretty pedestrian reading of what I assume to be The Sun Also Rises in which he goes to Spain. It is a simple jump from Spain to red wine, so I can’t quite fault you there. However, it makes me want to get out and experience war, to kill large animals for sport in order to reaffirm what it means to be a man. It makes me want to hold a woman, travel the world, and get drunk. But more than that it makes me want to write.

AJ: Do you have any advice for young white writerly males?

Guy in Your MFA: I would assume if you need advice then you are not a real writer. Real writers are always writing, it is not something they work at or seek to achieve, it is something they are burdened with. The ability to write is a gift. Not all possess it, but those who do would never need advice from a fellow weaver of words.


Noteworthy: Clive James’s Life Sentence

The Australian poet and critic Clive James has just released two new books—a fine way to start a year when everyone thought you’d be dead. The title poem of his new poetry collection Sentenced to Life begins by locating its author, who was diagnosed with leukemia, lung disease, and kidney failure in 2010, in the strange limbo of a day he thought he’d never live to see: 

Sentenced to life, I sleep face-up as though
Ice-bound, lest I should cough the night away,
And when I walk the mile to town, I show
The right technique for wading through deep clay.
A sad man, sorrier than he can say.

But surely not so guilty he should die
Each day from knowing that his race is run…

The passage echoes James’s recent translation of The Divine Comedy, where in the second Canto, Dante notes the gathering silence as he and Virgil approach the entrance to the afterlife: 

The day was dying, and the darkening air
Brought all the working world of living things
To rest.

Just as Dante’s narrator was sentenced to wander the underworld, refining his spirit and his craft, James has treated his recent years at death’s door as a visionary poetic struggle. The atmosphere, heavy with both anxiety and restfulness, suggested by the “darkening air” that brings “the working world of living things | To rest” characterizes Sentenced to Life from cover to cover. The double-meaning of “life sentence” shouldn’t be lost on his readers: James feels compelled to serve the time left by making it meaningful, one sentence at a time, even if this process feels as difficult as “wading through deep clay.”

This sentiment also dominates Poetry Notebook, his latest book of criticism. He introduces it by noting how the urgency of illness has relegated him to short pieces. To those of us used to his longer essays, this might seem like cause for disappointment, but James’s writing has always shined when compact, and there is enough critical bite in one page of Poetry Notebook to digest for days.

In his typical aphoristic style, James can sum up a whole critical argument in a single epithet. A highlight from the first few pages:

“…like abstract painting, abstract poetry can extend the range over which incompetence fail[s] to declare itself. That [is] the charm for its author.”

Or even more compressed and memorable:

“Real talent can survive anything, even encouragement.”

Clive James has survived a lot over the last five years, including an abundance of encouragement. His two latest releases reveal as much talent as ever. They are enough to make us hope his life sentence will last a good deal longer.


D.H. Lawrence and Discontent with the Modern World

“Otherwise it was black darkness; one breathed darkness.”—D.H. Lawrence, The Rainbow

When it comes to literary tastes, we’d all do well not to take the opinions of writers we already admire too seriously. For instance, don’t let Vladimir Nabokov’s invective against Dostoevsky detour the actual reading of, say, Crime and Punishment or The Brothers Karmazov. And don’t let Waugh’s and Joyce’s dismissal of D.H. Lawrence do the same. Great writers hating great writers is a symptom of epic genius. I know the power of influence from experience; it kept me from touching anything D.H. Lawrence wrote for quite a long time.

None of the three writers mentioned above—whom I deeply admire—had a very high opinion of D.H. Lawrence. In the face of my uninformed prejudice, however, two idiosyncratic reasons drew me to Lawrence anyway. One, we shared the same alma mater (Nottingham University). Two, he hailed from a working class family, the son of a miner; he didn’t have the uber-educated childhood that most of his fellow writers had. I could relate, and gave Lawrence a chance.

What I discovered: Lawrence was a damn good writer. Now, this doesn’t mean he’ll  satisfy the standards of the last century’s great English craftsmen, his prose being wild and often grammatically a bit off-beat, but it is difficult to find another writer of the last century whose power to evoke—poetically, intuitively and metaphysically—the wonder and beauty of creation better than Lawrence.

There are very few writers I know of who sow more discontent with the modern world than Lawrence. After putting a  book of his down, our world of machines—with its incessant obsession with near-sighted utilitarianism, mechanical philosophy, materialism, false sexuality and crude capitalism—feels like a self-revelation of falsity, a soulless delusion completely undeserving of anything called humanity. His work pulsates with a poignant desire, groaning even, for paradise regained. And despite his frequent sparring with Christianity, he can’t help but retell, with subtle references, familiar biblical stories. As the Roman historian Sallust said in Of Gods and the World, “These things never happened, but are always.”

Regarding Lawrence, G.K. Chesterton wrote how he “was in favor of very ancient things…and notably one of the most ancient things on earth: the worship of the earth itself, the great Mother, Demeter.” Lawrence

“was in fact in violent revolt against anything and everything that can be called modern. He did not merely hate industrial machinery and the servile society it has produced. He hated practically all the effects of science and public education and even political progress.”

To say the least, this is not the kind of thing you’d expect to hear about a writer whose books were constantly being banned for obscenity, notably pornography. The great irony of the charge was that it came as a moral judgment. In an age that was vociferously reducing the human to a soulless machine, Lawrence came along and painted humanity as a sensual being with a real soul.

Judging by Chesterton’s words we might be tempted to think Lawrence was a bipolar schizophrenic. On the one hand a tree-hugging liberal, on the other a raging right-wing lunatic. Of course he was neither. To cast Lawrence into such political camps would be a gross anachronism. Lawrence was something altogether different, a mysterious outsider to everything and everyone: “I feel a great stranger, but have got used to that feeling, and prefer it to feeling ‘homely’. After all, one is a stranger, nowhere so hopelessly as at home.”

Loneliness and alienation from both ourselves and the natural world were his great themes.Modern science didn’t have to rape and pillage the earth in the name of progress, it could move with more caution. It could think twice about construing the natural world as just a great, vast mindless machine to be manipulated by the purely accidental and soulless imps it produced (ourselves).

But how to reconcile the loss?

Lawrence feels the loss in everything. He intuits that it has something to do with the loss of wonder. If his was an age that was truly on the road of cultural progress, why then did it condemn its “workers to ugliness, ugliness, ugliness: meanness and formless and ugly surroundings, ugly ideals, ugly religion, ugly hopes, ugly love, ugly clothes, ugly furniture, ugly houses, ugly relationships between workers and employees”? Lawrence knows that the loss of genuine communion with ourselves, with others, and ultimately with God, has something to do with a loss of beauty.

The Rainbow

The Rainbow

In Lawrence’s best novel, The Rainbow, there is a recurrent theme of the “darkness beyond,” the formless void girding creation and consciousness together. The novel is a magnificent and intricate foray into three generations of the Brangwen family, set in eighteenth century Nottinghamshire and culminating in the first decade of the twentieth, a period which saw rapid transformations of both intellectual and natural landscapes. Upon the threshold of this cultural shift stands Tom Brangwen and his foreigner wife, Lydia, with her daughter, Lena, from a previous marriage.  Take these few selections from their life:

“…with a slow insinuation of a kiss that made something break in his brain, and it was darkness over him for a few moments.”

“A darkness had come over Lydia’s mind. She walked always in a shadow, silenced, with a strange, deep terror having hold of her, her desire was to seek satisfaction in dread, to enter a nunnery, to satisfy the instincts of dread in her, through service of a dark religion. But she could not.”

“A darkness was on her, like remorse, or like a remembering of the dark, savage, mystic ride of dread, of death, of the shadow of revenge.”

“And when he looked at her, an overmuch reverence and fear of the unknown changed the nature of his desire into a sort of worship, holding her aloof from his physical desire, self thwarting.”

“When he came to, as if from sleep, he seemed to be sitting in a timeless stillness. What was he listening for? He seemed to be listening for some sound a long way off, from beyond life.”

The allusions to Genesis are redolent. And there is certainly something in these passages that give warrant to Chesterton’s chief complaint against Lawrence, namely: “He [Lawrence] confessed, in effect, that he could only worship Demeter from the neck downwards. He could only do it by setting the subconsciousness against consciousness, or in other words, the dreams against daylight.” Chesterton quite rightly thought that Lawrence too easily dismissed reason—what happens above the neck—and in particular the articulation of reason found in the great theological edifices of Christian thought.

Lawrence seemed to think that reason could only be the bastard son of a soulless mechanical philosophy, the madman of logic that Chesterton so brilliantly describes in the beginning of Orthodoxy, “The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.” But the logician doesn’t have to be mad because, as Chesterton says, “Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.” But, then again, maybe Lawrence was so pessimistic because so much of what he saw in the daylight of the modern world was “ugliness,” an ugliness created by dull imaginations, by votaries of the mechanical philosophy.

Nevertheless, Chesterton thought there to be “something grand about D.H. Lawrence groping blindly in the dark,” even if “he was really in the dark, not only about the Will of God, but the will of D.H. Lawrence. He was ready to go anywhere; but did not really know where to go next.”

Indeed, Lawrence was truly grand. He was also the perfect picture of a man caught between two disparate worlds. Lawrence was heir, whether he liked it or not, to two rival experiences of consciousness and the world it perceives. To put it much too simply, Western civilization is caught in the crossfire of Saint Augustine and Friedrich Nietzsche; between Nietzsche’s Madman proclaiming the death of God and the erasing of the horizons of being, making way for the Übermensch—the deployment of a dark will to power behind every experience—and Augustine’s ever-present God, the God so intimate in our every experience of being and consciousness as to be nearer to ourselves than we our to ourselves, yet simultaneously infinitely and qualitatively beyond us, the hidden and manifest God.

The history of the West is the history of the disappearance and replacement of Augustine’s ever-present God who fills and transcends every experience with the formless void of Nothingness lurking behind every act of will, the night behind every day. The French novelist, Georges Bernanos, was right to say that “the modern world is but Christianity gone mad.” Modern consciousness feels hauntingly like Genesis retold, a beginning that does not begin with the transcendent God but with darkness, the formless void that must be grasped and shaped into whatever form our ominous wills descry.

The tension between these two worlds is played out in the lives of Lawrence’s characters. And it’s not always dark and formless and void behind their minds. After about a hundred pages into The Rainbow—which is a beautiful meditation on the enigma of ourselves to others and even to ourselves, and how love gets tangled up in its web—a sudden light breaks forth through all the darkness, it doesn’t solve the mystery we are, but rather casts a divine light upon the mystery. Violence gives way to peace. Nietzsche gives way to Augustine. It is quick and sudden like lightning, there and gone. But it is there. The divine for Lawrence is not an easy deus ex machina. His gods are dark, but his God is Light. Lawrence, like the rest of us, has a hard time distinguishing the two, but he does distinguish them. Take this moment when the violent tensions of Tom and Lydia’s marriage—a kind of local mimesis or picture of a cosmic drama, à la Adam and Eve—transform into the peace of communion, two becoming one:

“Everything was lost, and everything was found. The new world was discovered, it remained only to be explored. . . . [They] had passed through the doorway into the further space, where movement was so big, that it contained bonds and constraints and labours, and still complete liberty. She was a doorway to him, he to her. At last they had thrown open the doors, each to the other, and stood in the doorways facing each other, whilst light flooded out from behind to each of their faces, it was the transfiguration, the glorification, the admission.”

The formless void, darkness, is important for Lawrence. And rightly so; it is, after all, the place we spend most of our days. However, it is not large enough for the human soul. The soul demands something infinitely larger than the void. Playing in the void can only give limited freedom to its subjects; it is the bad infinite of an unconstrained will, the will of Nietzsche’s Madman. Lawrence may spend most of his time groping in the dark, but at least he recognizes a transfiguration when he sees one. This is what makes him, in the words of Chesterton, “grand.”

The Liquidation of Language

“The great enemy of clear language,” wrote George Orwell in his essay “Politics and the English Language,” “is insincerity.” Language is being liquidated, sold off piece by piece, its assets turned over and redistributed for other purposes. “Language,” he wrote, “is in a bad way.” (Orwell’s essay was published in 1946, three years before he wrote about Syme and the Newspeak dictionary in his classic dystopia 1984.)

To be sincere is to be clear. Readers and listeners sense that they are being lied to when the message is buried beneath jargon, euphemism or cliché. One may escape the reaches of Wi-Fi, but one cannot escape communication. It is the way humans connect, the way they express themselves, and the way they progress civilization. Ask anyone who has had to learn a new language in a foreign country: he was instantly brought low—the inability to communicate left him as a toddler. Language is not simply a tool, with its uses determining whether it is good or bad. Nothing is simply a tool. But even tools shape who we are by offering us choices that we previously did not have. Language is thus a moral consideration.

This is the case Marilyn McEntyre makes in her book Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies. Like Orwell, she believes language is in a bad way. She observes how “many newspapers write to a fourth-grade level and so train readers to expect nothing more challenging.” Or this: “Forty-four percent of all American adults do not read a single book in the course of a year.” Young people are brought up in a culture of public discourse saturated with political smearing and accusations, advertising’s lies and slogans, and television’s hyperbole and over-generalizations meant for mass consumption. This isn’t young people’s fault, of course. They have been the “target market” their whole lives, “literally victims of corporate forces so large, relentless and skillfully camouflaged” that they don’t even know they’re being attacked. They’re taught in classrooms “to be critical of empty rhetoric,” but all they see from adults in their lives, in print and on TV is gossip, ad hominem attacks, hyperbole and lies, so is it any wonder they don’t want to listen? In short, “they need our help.”

In order to think clearly, humans must speak clearly. So then, “the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.” In the classical sense, this sort of education was the most prized form. Classical curriculum in the old Latin schools was the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music), which dominated schooling for over a thousand years, but then started to recede in the nineteenth century. Recovering this ancient tradition may perhaps revitalize our current state of apathy and misuse. But in order to get there, we must understand what language is and what it is not.

Some say the purpose of language is to assert or deny ideas. Some say the exact opposite, that language is used to disguise meaning, like a soldier saying he “reduced the element” rather than he killed a person; politicians employ this use of language daily. Orwell said much when he wrote, “Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.” And still others argue, “language exists to communicate whatever it can communicate.” But I say that language is like a liquid. It’s hard to set down hard rules on it. What was once considered The Rule fifty years ago is now no longer a rule.

For example, in their essays “Grammar Puss” and “Tense Present,” authors Steven Pinker and David Foster Wallace, respectively, trace where the “Do not split infinitives” rule came from, going back to Latin and eighteenth-century grammar textbooks. “Julius Caesar could not have split an infinitive if he had wanted to. In Latin the infinitive is a single word such as ‘facere,’” but English has two-word infinitives; so grammatically there is no reason English can’t split infinitives. Further, language changes almost too quickly to record: dictionaries and Bibles must be updated with each generation. But these prescriptive rules “serve as shibboleths, differentiating the elite from the rabble.” Or let Stephen Fry convince you of the silliness of many grammar rules.

Like liquids, language has immense power. A small stream can move massive amounts of dirt, and a little flood can destroy a town. Who has not been moved by a line of verse? Who has not altered heaps of her life due to a single quote? Who can forget what that one person said to you in a fit of anger, or that small criticism of your personality? A single word has more power than a thousand missiles. Caring for words is one of the most important activities a person can do.

Thinking in this way, and attempting to use language with precision and care comes with a risk. For choosing “to go beyond the adequate is sometimes to risk the look of elitism, the accusation of pretentiousness or pedantry.” Or, as Wallace labels them, “Grammar Nazis, Usage Nerds, Syntax Snobs, Language Police,” in a word, “snoot.” This is the case with every discipline: writing, art, design, whatever. Some people will always snarl at you for wanting to be better. The irony is that in wanting to be a better thinker, writer, or theologian, one desires to be clearer and simpler, thus desiring to be less pedantic, not more.

You see, this clarity and precision is actually meant to care more for people. McEntyre writes,

“Precision is, after all, not only a form of responsibility and a kind of pleasure, but an instrument of compassion. To be precise requires care, time, and attention to the person, place, or process being described.”

Imprecision is apathy and laziness. It has damaging returns, especially for people of faith. God created language, and thus people of God ought to (are commanded to) care immensely about the words they use. Again, language, especially for people of faith, is a moral consideration, and its proper care requires a liberal amount of humility. Think for a moment about the humility of God in giving his word over to humans to be translated, or preaching that word through a translator; even with our most precise humans we are still falling short, and God shows compassion.

Instead of saying they’re “hanging out with friends,” Christians say they’re “fellowshipping in community.” Instead of “I think,” it’s “I feel called.” This may perhaps, like academic jargon, give an air of spiritual superiority. But more than that: it separates who is “in” and who is not, separating believers from unbelievers. One knows that the other is in the Christian club when he or she says, “We’re being intentional about doing life together,” rather than, “We’re going to eat a cheeseburger at a restaurant.” Instead of saying, “I like being nice to people,” Christians say, “I like coming alongside and loving on people.” This sort of Christian cliché is the opposite of inclusion, and is thus a subtle rejection of the gospel they proclaim; a subtle rejection that can be avoided by thinking more sharply and reading more widely, or relating more broadly.To non-Christians these phrases will immediately sound like tunes on a cracked tea kettle. What would “I’m just washed in the blood” sound like to someone who has never gone to church?

The irony here is that Christians spend their time (or should spend their time) studying the greatest literary work in human civilization, higher than even Shakespeare or Milton. The “legacy of the English Bible alone is at least equivalent to owning all the oil in the Middle East… it gives its readers unequaled access to and control over the shaping of public discourse.” Go to the book of Proverbs, for example, and underline every reference to the tongue, lips, the mouth, or words, and you will have underlined well over one hundred times. Yet the brilliance of the Bible is whittled down and repeated so often that its phrases have little originality anymore. As Orwell wrote, “Orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style.”

Some will argue that rather than pretense, jargon or exclusion, Christian English is only a different dialect of American English shared between a common group or Discourse Community, a term known as code switching. We all do it. Parents talk in one way to each other and another to their kids; this is true also of bosses and employees, coaches and players, scholars and laity, and within various schools or organizations. David Foster Wallace says that everyone knows this. But what everyone doesn’t know is that these dialects “have their own highly developed and internally consistent grammars” that are “nearly incomprehensible to anyone who isn’t inside their very tight and specific Discourse Community.” The purpose of code switching is to conceal meaning rather than reveal it. That is, again, a subtle form of exclusion. (Though it’s also the case in each time period in history. Wallace argues that modern English speakers say, “I was attacked by a bear!” but two hundred years ago we might have said, “That ursine juggernaut bethought to sup upon my person!”)

Language may be in a bad way, and people may think that we are so far down the road that turning back now is pointless. We might as well go on to the next town and gather supplies there. But I hope that we try to slow it down, to recover the lost art of listening, speaking and reading well, that our fellow primates may, at the very least, enjoy some of the words we speak and write.

Saving language is effectually saving people. It would seem not at all unjustifiable in view of these assertions to proceed and replicate these principles to persons in various and sundry geographic regions.

In other words, go therefore and make disciples of all nations.

The Payoff

The first time I stopped reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest I vowed to return, but I quietly doubted. I lacked faith. I picked it up because people whose opinions I valued wrote about it with admiration, but these writers-on-the-Internet were not with me while I read it, and late at night I struggled to comprehend the meaning, let alone the purpose, of a four page riff on a drug dealer’s thoughts. At least I thought that’s what it was. I can’t recall now and since I barely knew then, what does it matter?

The second time I stopped reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, I did not vow to return. I knew I would. I restarted after reading a number of Wallace’s essays, catching his tone and sense of humor. I grew attentive to his singular observations of seemingly obvious phenomenon, shaking with such laughter that I could not read him in bed for fear of waking my wife.

In that second reading I caught all the characteristics of Wallace I’d missed–that humor, that insight–and found myself willing to slog through difficult stretches for the sake of discovering what else he was offering. I had been “seduced into doing the work,” to use Wallace’s own words.[1] I’d begun to comprehend the payoff of reading this demanding novel.

Payoff, I am learning, is vital to my reading as well as my life. I am entirely convinced that Wallace is right when he says, “the demands you make on a reader are not in and of themselves valuable; . . . demands on a reader need to serve a discernible function and there needs to be some sort of payoff.”[2]

Discernment of payoff begins with the long-term payoff—a confidence that the result of our reading will justify our efforts. Our confidence may arise from previous experience with an author or a trustworthy recommendation. Frequently, the book itself alerts us to the worthy nature of its conclusion. In many essays, a promise is made in the thesis and delivered through its claims; with stories, even simple foreshadowing can draw us along.

No one delivers the foreshadowing of an epic and worthwhile conclusion better than Homer, who in the first pages of The Odyssey unabashedly builds our anticipation for battle: “if only he might drop from the clouds / and drive these suitors all in a rout throughout the halls.” Once we’re hooked, Homer will not permit this desire to shuffle to the back of our minds: he constantly uses dramatic irony to increase tension and our anticipation, like when Antinous famously hurls a stool at Odysseus-as-beggar, leaving Odysseus shaking “his head, / silent, his mind churning with thoughts of bloody work.”[3] Thus the bloody work of the coming payoff never escapes our mind. Its importance builds to such a crescendo that when we experience it, it’s cathartic.

Yet ideally a reader will not have to wait until the conclusion of a book to experience a bit of payoff. I learned this through Thoreau’s Walden, a book I did not read until after I’d graduated college. With no due dates bearing down on me and a roommate with an opposite work schedule, I read it aloud, savoring the rhythm of each line by phrasing it properly and enunciating it forcefully:

I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.

Had I not read so slowly, I surely would have missed the feel of such a sentence: its parallelism and its patient rise to a climax. And in contrast to my first Thoreau encounter at age 17, I had learned to attune myself to nuances of figurative language, like when he compares our muddled understanding of reality to muck and mire a builder must dig through:

Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe . . . till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we call reality, and say, This is, and no mistake . . .

The best rewards I received from Thoreau were not ending payments. To be sure, Walden contains those in the form of wisdom and perspective, insights that can change the way a person lives (“Simplify, simplify”); but I ultimately appreciated the ongoing payoffs, the aspects of literature one can savor even while enduring the difficulty of reading.

 My ability to seize payoffs undergirds my enjoyment of literature, but I find it striking how the same notion applies to other areas of life, notably to my experience of religious faith.

In the most obvious way, one must wait for the rewards of the Christian faith—Heaven after death assumes this, and typically this realization undergirds an adherent’s initial adoption of faith.

I personally began to trust in that ending in high school. Over the course of twenty years, though, I have grown capable of spotting and appreciating the nuances of the payoff, even those available now. They tend to arise from loving God and loving my neighbor—the benefits of a faith lived out in deed. They materialize in the form of a kind word or an answered prayer, the surprising joy of a humble confession or a tearful apology. They manifest themselves in the form of a mysteriously grateful heart.

This recognition of payoff ultimately distills to trust in the author–be it the author of a book or the author of life. If a person does not trust the author to deliver a worthwhile ending, they will abandon the author and find another way to occupy their time. In my faith, I am learning to trust the author’s intentions and better interpret his work, encouraged by how frequently I recognize the ongoing payoffs of loving him. I am bold enough to believe my reading life is growing similarly, and that’s why I trust that the next time I attempt to read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, I’ll finish it.

[1] Wallace, David F., perf. “Interview from the Leonard Lopate Show A.” David Foster Wallace: In His Own Words. Hachette Audio, 2014. CD.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin, 1997. Print.

Art by: Fish-man

That Pure Exclusive Music

Recently some students of mine organized a Lenten social media fast, and asked me to be a faculty sponsor. Those who gathered at the meeting were few enough to fit around a small table, but the sentiments they brought were similar: all of them were tired. All complained they needed a furlough from the panopticon in which social media imprisons middle and high school students, who more than any other social group are governed by the vox populi. I see social media as only one manifestation of a creature, fed by hormones, that is as old as humankind, and have no intention of attacking it here. But it is notable that the idea of “creating mental space” in one’s life by unplugging from Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat (the “big three” for students at the school where I teach) resonated so strongly for these students, and that they unanimously talked about replacing these predominantly visual/aural mediums with some form of print: the Bible, a novel, or a book of poems. Many of them also spoke about using the time to memorize poetry or scripture.

As a teacher, I perform small touchdown celebration-style victory dances on the inside whenever a student of group of students initiates such a rich-sounding activity. When a student learns to value the profits of mental discipline, they have become truly educated. Learning has become a tool they can use to shape their interaction with society rather than a crucible through which they need to pass before moving on as a passive member of society.

Yet the particular activity these students chose reveals the tension they perceive between what Mike Chasar, in a recent article for Poetry, called the “…oral and print value economies.”[1] Chasar’s piece is a response to Catherine Robson’s new book Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem, a study of memorization in the British and American school systems, and its effect on the students who emerged from those systems in the mid and late twentieth century.

Heart Beats is partly the story of memorization’s decline as a popular assessment tool, and therefore as a cultural influence in the United States. Chasar’s response argues that memorization has escaped the classroom only to flourish in other settings, many of them still scholastic. These range from “Poetry Out Loud competitions to Def Poetry, all sorts of YouTube videos, and Disney’s celebrity-studded ‘A Poem Is…’ video series that premiered during National Poetry Month 2011,” and are proof that the funerary tone of Robson’s book is inappropriate in light of the exploding role poetry memorization is beginning to occupy in the age of the Internet.[2]

Chasar rightly notes that the marriage of poetry memorization to the World Wide Web is a strange one, since oral and print cultures often represent competing cultural economies. My students’ desire to shift away from the apparently “less meaningful” visual/oral mediums of Instagram and Snapchat to “more meaningful” printed media handily illustrates that competition.

Especially in the world of education, the association of refinement and complexity with print and of shallowness and transience with aural culture runs deep.

This loyalty is strongest of all in the Humanities. As Chasar writes, no matter how popular Poetry Out Loud and ‘A Poem Is…’ become, from the perspective of educators and high-performing students “…oral/aural formats are tainted by affiliation with the values of the worlds of oral communication out of which people are meant to be educated.”[3] These “worlds of oral communication” would seem to be represented by pop and hip-hop music, slam poetry, sitcom television, and many other forms of apparently “low culture” from which my students feel the need to distance themselves. They assume that to enrich their mental experience during a season of contemplation, they need to abandon aural and visual media in favor of print.

Yet this assumption is troublesome, because without recourse to brain science or sociology, my students and I cannot say anything meaningful about the relative quality of aural versus print media that is not anecdotal. Reading a book simply “feels different.” More strange in light of Chasar and Robson’s insights is the instinct each of my students shared that the ultimate commitment to absorbing “high-quality” media would be to memorize poetry. But as Robson’s book astutely observes, to memorize a poem is to snatch it back into the aural cultural economy from which the industry of poetry has worked hard to separate it.

One assumes that when we memorize a poem, we intend at some point to recite it, possibly during casual conversation. Doing so would make it part of our aural culture. But a poem that enters the vernacular loses some of its sheen. I’ve often cracked jokes to peers and students about a decontextualized quotation from Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” decaled on the wall near our eighth grade lockers. It is, of course, the “I took the road less traveled by” passage, reduced to a truism (not to mention misinterpreted) through overuse in public discourse. What makes me roll my eyes at that quotation? Its association with the supposedly “low” aural cultural economy, out of which it is my job to elevate students by means of encouragement, clever class exercises, or outright coercion.

“The sea was not a mask,” Wallace Stevens writes in “The Idea of Order at Key West,” “No more was she./ The song and water were not medleyed sound/ Even if what she sang was what she heard.”[4] These lines express something about the unbridgeable gap between a person’s internal experience and the external world. The woman singing as she walks the shore might sing about the ocean’s thunder; the sounds might even intermingle. But they are not the same sound, not the same phenomena. A brilliant poet well-read in twentieth century philosophy, Stevens wrote a great deal about that separation between the inner and exterior worlds. He thought of poetry as similar to the woman’s song: it originated within and could almost communicate with the outside.

My students and I might not share Stevens’s complex and bleak vision of art’s role in the world, but our assumptions about the relative quality of aural and written media illustrate a dichotomy just as stark. We think that to memorize a poem is to enhance our inner experience, because printed poetry is the penultimate expression of the inner experience. But what happens when on those very rare occasions, we encounter a poem’s “moment” in our everyday lives and (spurning the eye-rolls and social stigma we know we will suffer as a result) recite it?

When we do, we risk corrupting poetry’s prestige in the name of keeping it relevant to someone other than career academicians who have shanghaied it by accident of their enthusiasm, bureaucratic writing culture, and understandable devotion to systematic analysis. I once had the opportunity to ask the great Alaskan nonfiction writer Leslie Leyland Fields if she ever considered devoting herself seriously to poetry. I was an aspiring poet myself. Her reply was that she considered poetry a dead language; a series of dusty exchanges between professorial types who had forgotten that the purpose of language was to communicate. Memorized and recited poems are the strongest evidence available against her case.

Printed poetry captures interior experiences—what Stevens called our “pure exclusive music.” When we read it, our inner worlds are stimulated and enriched. But only memorized poetry can create cultures. There have been occasions when, walking into a room full of chattering ninth graders, I have heard them exchanging scraps of The Odyssey’s invocation of the muse as the punchline of a joke. As long as jokes like these continue, Homer’s language will enjoy a place among the living.

The Swedish poet Thomas Tranströmer likened poetry to the notes kids pass back and forth in the classroom while that teacher History drones away at the podium. Robert Hass noted that now they are texting each other instead, but the intimacy and irreverence of poetry is captured well by either metaphor. It may be that under the pressure exerted by the Internet’s swelling hegemony, the value distinctions between print and aural cultures still so thoroughly propped up in educated minds will begin to crumble. If so, poetry only stands to benefit, because its relegation to the page of the academic journal is a tiny span on its lurid and decidedly unacademic timeline. It is not absorption into lowbrow culture that endangers poetry, but imprisonment in the highbrow. In any case, despite the loud and worried voices of its advocates, poetry is in no danger of extinction, because nothing so fine and so useless will ever be abandoned by young students once they’ve gotten a taste for it. Nothing is as essential as the inessential.


[1] Mike Chasar, “Orality, Literacy, and the Memorized Poem: Hearing Art’s Heartbeat,” Poetry, January 5, 2015,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Mike Chasar, “Orality, Literacy, and the Memorized Poem: Hearing Art’s Heartbeat,” Poetry, January 5, 2015,

[4] Wallace Stevens, “The Idea of Order at Key West,”,

Noteworthy: Diane Severin on Tinker Creek

“I live by a creek, Tinker Creek, in a valley in Virginia’s Blue Ridge,” Annie Dillard wrote in her luminous Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

“An anchorite’s hermitage is called an anchor-hold; some anchor-holds were simple sheds clamped to the side of a church like a barnacle to a rock. I think of this house clamped to the side of Tinker Creek as an anchor-hold. . . . The creeks are the world with all its stimulus and beauty; I live there. But the mountains are home.”

The reader would be forgiven for thinking that Dillard was indeed living alone in the wilderness by Tinker Creek, an anchoress living deliberately, determined to live amidst “the mystery of continuous creation,” and to, Thoreau-like, “front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Dillard meant to write in the tradition of Thoreau and other writers — Edward Abbey, Aldo Leopold, John Muir — who lived alone in the wild. But, like Thoreau, she wasn’t quite alone. Diane Saverin writes in The Atlantic:

“Dillard knew that being a graduate student, or a professor’s wife living in the suburbs, wasn’t as exciting as, say, living alone in Arches National Park, as Abbey did. In Desert Solitaire, he describes the gopher snake he befriended to keep rattlesnakes away from his trailer. The gopher sometimes wrapped around his waist, inside his shirt, and rested on his belt. (“I’m a humanist,” he writes, “I’d rather kill a man than a snake.”) Such a narrator embodied all the right American ideals: the mythic frontiersman, the wild man, the true hermit.

But to write in the tradition of lone-man-in-the-wilderness, Dillard had to find a way out of the facts that (a) she wasn’t a man and (b) she wasn’t living alone in the wilderness. Reading through the journals and notecards Dillard kept while writing Tinker Creek, Saverin finds Dillard wrestling with the manuscript and trying to reconcile her writing with the unmentioned parts of her life (“The husband she lives with, the friends she lunches with, and the people she plays softball with are all conspicuously missing.”) Dillard even considered making Tinker Creek a novel before deciding to write a novelized book of nonfiction. “I didn’t obscure anything, I just left it out,” Dillard tells Saverin.

Saverin’s whole essay is worth the read. And then also worth the read is what Dillard left in Tinker Creek: her razor-keen eye and her exuberant reception of the world’s mystery:

When her doctor took her bandages off and led her into the garden, the girl who was no longer blind saw “the tree with the lights in it.” It was for this tree I searched through the peach orchards of summer, in the forests of fall and down winter and spring for years. Then one day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked  breathless by a powerful glance. The flood of fire abated, but I’m still spending the power. Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared. I was still ringing. I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck. I have since only very rarely seen the tree with the lights in it. The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it, for the moment when the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.

May we who find ourselves in the suburbs live so deliberately.

* The featured image is of a handwritten draft with Dillard’s whimsical doodles in the margins (Annie Dillard/Beinecke Library/Diana Saverin).

On Fairy-stories

I have never seen the stars.

Instead of stars, I have seen spirits:

of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath an ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued.
(J.R.R. Tolkien, “Mythopoeia”)

I have seen magicians: retired stars living on magical islands.

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s terms, I have always had a recovered view of the world.

Tolkien, in his talk “On Fairy-stories,” wrote that one purpose of fantasy literature was to enable readers to regain “a clear view” of the world as it ought to be. He called this “Recovery.” It is closely akin to “Escape,” another purpose of fantasy. Tolkien believed that when modern life is ugly or evil, escaping into a more beautiful, virtuous world is a good idea. When we read works of fantasy literature, we can escape into worlds where our primal desires are fulfilled: our longing to talk to animals, to live in harmony with nature, to serve a just king, and to escape from Death.

He gives an example of Recovery: once we have read about a Pegasus, we look at ordinary horses differently. Tolkien’s Ents are another powerful example; a profound emotional response to the Ents can help us look at trees differently and appreciate them more. Perhaps we will be less likely to hew wantonly with axes and commercial logging equipment if we have seen trees as wise, ancient beings with eyes full of the depths of time. The fantastical Ents, in other words, enable a recovery of a clear view of the true nature of trees, undoing the de-mythologizing effects of industry.

Yet I never had the de-mythologized, un-recovered view because my father read the Narnia chronicles to me before I could read on my own, before I had time to develop an industrial view of trees as lumber. Perhaps even before I saw trees, my parents were reading out loud to each other when I was a bun in the oven. While my childhood included plenty of books that did not echo with the horns of Elfland—Little Women, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Sherlock Holmes—my spirit was stirred by The Secret Garden, The Wind in the Willows, A Wrinkle in Time, stories by Lloyd Alexander, and George MacDonald’s Princess books. Later, there was Harry Potter, and now Game of Thrones.

I did not encounter The Lord of the Rings during those early childhood days. I was in high school before I even read The Hobbit. Yet when I finally did read Tolkien’s works, I felt like a native to his world. I entered Middle-earth not as a stranger, but as a distant relation. Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films were part of this fantastic vision, too: in spite of their many failures as adaptations, they capture the sublime sense of a metaphysical longing—a yearning for paradise across the sea—with which Tolkien’s legendarium is infused. The skies over Weta Workshop in New Zealand are “a jewelled tent / myth-woven and elf-patterned.” Fantasy literature and film did not offer a recovery of a clear view that I had lost; it was that clear view, from my earliest days.

I have always found “Consolation”—the third element of good fantasy according to  Tolkien—in these stories. One such solace is the Happy Ending, which Tolkien discusses especially in relation to “Eucatastrophe”: “The good catastrophe, the sudden joyous turn” that is the quintessence “of a good fairy-story.” Stories can give me a catch of the breath, or lift my heart, or make me cry, but so can landscapes and people’s lives.

Then I saw Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films, and the smog rolled in.

[I’ve written about the Hobbit trilogy before. Here are my reviews of the first film in Curator and in Comment, of the second film, and of the third film in Christianity Today and on The Oddest Inkling.]

I am quite critical of Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy. Of course, those films are technically spectacular: every detail is precise. The costumes, props, sets, and CGI are flawless. The cinematography is stunning. The acting is superb. Many of the parts are magnificent; yet something is wrong with the whole.

What is wrong with the whole? Isn’t the movie’s Middle-earth a secondary world of “arresting strangeness” with an “inner consistency of reality” (as Tolkien wrote in “On Fairy-stories”)? Isn’t the story a myth that conveys truth? Perhaps the Hobbit films fail to enact the three essential elements of good fantasy: Recovery, Escape, and Consolation.

I can’t say whether the Hobbit movies could give someone a Recovered view of the world, because I already had that Recovered view before I saw them. However, if anything, those movies damaged and tarnished my perspective, forcing me to go back to the texts to regain a clear vision. The sordid nature of many extraneous moments—dwarves in the toilet, humorous beheadings, Dain’s dirty mouth, Alfrid’s filthy face, and so on—are smudges across the vibrant spectacle of virtue and beauty offered by other characters and scenes in the films.

Now, I’ve written elsewhere that I think the moral ambiguity of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is one of its strengths. And I certainly don’t take the narrow view that simply expanding “one little book” into “three huge films” is in itself problematic: Jackson, obviously, has made a post-LOTR Hobbit. He has drawn in other texts, such as the Appendixes (including “The Quest of Erebor”), drafts, letters, and hints. He is re-enacting The History of the Hobbit. In other words, he didn’t film the 1937 published Hobbit: he filmed how he imagined Tolkien would have rewritten The Hobbit to fit the larger world of The Silmarillion and the whole Legendarium. I get that. It’s an admirable endeavor.

Yet does it succeed?

Many viewers loved Jackson’s Hobbit. I can only say that they do not provide me with Recovery or Consolation. Perhaps these movies do provide me with some measure of Escape, as I forget my daily life and its toils while I am watching certain scenes. Yet other sections are so ignoble that the toils of my daily life come crashing back, and become more burdensome due to suffering such mediocre filmmaking, or at least, in hearing the words of such disreputable screenwriting.

Tolkien wrote in “On Fairy-stories” that, “Drama is naturally hostile to Fantasy.” He thought that simply acting out a great work of speculative fiction would ruin it. As an example, he said that he loved reading Macbeth on the page, and found the witches convincing, but that no stage production would ever make the witches anything but “intolerable.” This is easily applied to works on the screen as well as on the stage. Yet he himself sold the film rights to The Lord of the Rings in 1969. So is it fair to say that any movie adaptation of Tolkien’s work would be a failure, or only these movies?

Perhaps another generation will be able to watch yet another adaptation of these great books, and judge for themselves. Let us fervently hope, however, that the Tolkien estate holds out against the filming of any of the Silmarillion material for a long time yet. Our cultural sensibilities are far from ready to adapt the spiritual profundity of that text. I am afraid that if Eärendil the Mariner’s transformation were depicted on screen, he would become merely a star, “some matter in a ball / compelled to courses mathematical,” rather than a living spirit. I am afraid the living spirit would be stripped from that story, as it has largely been from the Hobbit films.

Safe as Houses

When I was young, I buried myself deep in the attic corner, huddled under layers of quilts beneath dusty rafters bowing to midnight winds. After a while, I would creep downstairs for a cup of hot cocoa and a tomato sandwich, worrying about hurricanes. Later, a strange woman clad in sodden boots and layers of endless scarves would blow through the door. Was she a tramp? Was she a witch? I wouldn’t know until the end of the book.

C.S. Lewis says that his childhood house is “almost a major character” in his life’s story. He is a product of its “long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics explored in solitude”—and also “of endless books” (Surprised 7). My childhood was full of roomy suburban houses with fluffy cream carpets and fresh new furniture. Am I a product of that comfy environment? Certainly. But I have also spent time in countless rooms inside books: Cynthia Voight’s bayside, marsh-lined farm in Homecoming and Diceys Song; Susan Cooper’s Grey House in Over Sea and Under Stone; Madeline L’Engle’s two-hundred-year-old New England farmhouse on the hill in the Time Quartet (including A Wrinkle in Time, in which young Meg Murry escapes her wind-torn attic for a kitchen sandwich, only to meet with the strange Mrs. Whatsit). Growing up, my imagination passed into these houses again and again.

In his book A Place of My Own, Michael Pollan describes a response to houses and buildings that is more than just intellectual appreciation of architecture. He talks about our “unconscious experiences of space,” our “immediate, poetic responses to place” that make us want to be in one particular building and not in another (74).

I’ve gone from 1970s ranch house to mid-‘80s new construction to college apartment (and apartment, and yet another apartment) to mountain Arts and Crafts bungalows to quaint 1940s post-war development…and now back to 1970s ranch house. Our current rental echoes the floor plan from the first ten years of my life: the paneled front living room with dining and kitchen to the back, the straight-shot hallway and its arsenal of doors. But the walls in this house are thin as cardboard and the wallpaper is weird. The tile upgrade on the kitchen floor is nice; the lavender paint choice overwhelms the senses.

It strikes me that most of the houses I imagine out of books—Meg’s attic-topped home, Dicey’s clapboard farmhouse, Howl’s moving castle—morph on the indoors into this familiar floor plan, wood paneling and all. The doorway from living room to kitchen is always in the same spot. Meg’s mother stands there to call her family to dinner. When something extra is needed, like Mrs. Murry’s science lab, it gets tacked onto the back kitchen door.

It seems my imagination will not bend far past the walls—both fictional and actual—between which it grew up. My thought-life is as firmly rooted as any old oak. What if, I wonder, the actual walls that housed my imagination’s first forays into such a specific spot of ground—one I didn’t and couldn’t choose for myself—were any different? What if they changed from year to year? I wonder this in fear as we move our daughter from house to apartment to rental home in the first three years of her life. Or what if, much the worse, they were tattered-down walls, worse than lavender, cracked and crumbled from the bad foundation of, say, a broken family or a cruel moment in history or a hungry bank account? What if, more awful still, there had been no walls at all? What then?

Fiction can only go so far in its cover for fact.

In his book The Gates of November, Chaim Potok and his wife meet a stranger outside a Moscow Metro station on a Friday evening “in the first week of January 1985” and follow him through dark, snowy streets (3). The Potoks have traveled to this city, through bitter cold and in careful silence, to visit a man they have never met.

The Potoks arrive at this man’s apartment building, and the stairwell has “the air of an old New York tenement, but with no vivid sounds of life drifting out from behind closed doors. Here you wanted to walk on tiptoe, expecting a sudden leap out of the violet shadows by figures demanding to know what you were doing there” (5). This is Soviet Russia. But then the Potoks enter the apartment:

“It was a fair-sized room that served as both a living room and a dining room, the air warm and stuffy, the floor covered by a rug, the slightly shabby genteel look not unlike that of the rooms in which I grew up in middle-class neighborhoods of New York. In front of the couch stood a table with seven place settings (6).

The book is nonfiction, but the same space is echoed time and again in Potok’s fiction: Davitas Harp, My Name Is Asher Lev, The Chosen. In his imagination, generations of Jews live in these apartment spaces, and it is in these homes that they gather, rest, worry, pray, debate, fear, and observe Shabbat. And welcome guests.

The family the Potoks have met are the Slepaks, heroes in Jewish circles for resisting the oppressive Soviet regime during the 1970s and ‘80s. The Potoks are in Moscow to meet with and encourage the many Jews who are risking their lives. And they have made this trek on this particular night in order to say, “We Jews in America have not forgotten you or what you have done.” Who would travel such a long way and through danger just to tell strangers, “We know you are here. You are not forgotten”?

The Potoks stay only for the evening. It is a visit rich in conversation, and together the families share a Shabbat dinner. Though Potok recalls that a “consuming desolation lay upon the room,” in the same space a “warm intimacy settle[s] upon” the gathering, “a quality of familiarity and closeness brought on by a shared table” (10). Potok recounts a piece of advice he once heard. He says the “only true question we ought to ask one another is: ‘What are you going through?’” (6). This question could be asked anywhere. It could be asked in a faded, desolate Russian apartment across the effort of a language barrier, or on a front porch with peeling paint and rotted steps. It can be asked in any room in which people sit together and remind one other: “I know you are here. You are not forgotten.” How much does it really matter what color the walls are, or what square footage the floor plan?

Today, my husband and I are painting over the lavender walls of our rental house to try to make it look more like home. I feel desperate for a home of my own, one whose freshly-minted green kitchen paint won’t get passed on to a stranger after the lease is up next summer. What is it I’m actually wanting in my desperation to own a house? Am I looking for something that is okay to desire on this side of eternity? I hear an old pastor of mine gently admonish: “Of course you don’t feel at home here. No place on this earth is going to be home.” Am I looking for safety and security? I think of Dicey in Voight’s Homecoming as she sits at her grandmother’s long farmhouse table: “‘How do I know you’re not going to rob me?’ her grandmother said. How could she know? Dicey thought. The people in the houses were in just as much danger as the people outside the houses” (251). A house in and of itself is not the answer.

I hear Dicey’s revelation, and I hear my pastor’s admonition, but that doesn’t mean I like it. What is the point of yearning for a home if some piece of eternity can’t break into this present reality and illuminate ordinary days with a sense of belonging, of comfort, of peace, of history, of safety, of meaning, of home in all its best iterations? I read too much into my pastor’s words. He only meant for me not to look for perfection in my communities. Dicey and Potok get even more to the point.

I return to the architecture-scapes of my imaginative youth. At the center of them is Bag End. In Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo and company are far from his cozy hobbit hole (“Home is behind, the world ahead”), and oh, how they miss it. They sing songs of perseverance: “apple, thorn, and nut and sloe, / Let them go! let them go!” (107, 106). They are indeed sojourners, and so am I. Will it yet happen that I arrive at the place Bilbo discovered when he finally returned home and “was quite content”? It sounds glorious: “the sound of the kettle on his hearth was ever after more musical than it had been even in the quiet days before the Unexpected Party” (Hobbit 271). Perhaps I will. Perhaps I won’t. But it is guaranteed that one day, if not in this brief moment of earthly life, then on the other side, “We’ll wander back” (or will it be for the first time?) “to home and bed” (Fellowship 107).

Till then, in the words of poet Carl Dennis, I’ll remind myself, as I’ve had to before, that “whatever [I] might do elsewhere, / In the time remaining, [I] might do here.” Wherever “here” is, whatever the walls that house me, whether they be lavender, green, or otherwise, I resolve to pay attention to the person nearest me. I will turn to him and ask, “What are you going through?”



Lewis, C.S. Surprised by Joy. Surprised by Joy. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 2002.

Pollan, Michael. A Place of My Own. Dell Publishing, New York: 1997.

Potok, Chaim. The Gates of November: Chronicles of the Slepak Family. Alfred A. Knopf, New York: 1996.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring. Ballantine Books, New York: 1993.

The Hobbit. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York: 1997.

Voight, Cynthia. Homecoming. Fawcett Juniper, New York: 1992.