Enlightenment, then Laundry


Fallacy though it may be to imagine the narrator of a verse as equivalent with the poet, it’s impossible not to imagine the words of Robert Frost read in that clipped Yankee-via-San-Francisco accent of his, to intuit the blistering cold of a New Hampshire morning or the blinding whiteness of the snow-covered Franconia Range, the damp exertion of sweat under a flannel collar and muddy boots trudging across yellow and brown leaves slick with early morning ice. Frost is forever a poet of loose coffee grounds dumped into boiling water and intricate blue and red quilts, of wooden spoons hanging from hooks next to gas stoves and of curved glass hurricane lamps, of creaking wooden floorboards and doors swollen with summer’s humidity. Visiting his white clapboard, gable-peeked farmstead in Derry, New Hampshire, and perambulating in the golden woods of sugar maple and red oak and it’s hard not to romanticize the old man, eyeing him along the rough granite stone wall that he mended every spring, the famous structure whereby “Good fences make good neighbors,” which he wrote about in his 1914 collection North of Boston. The poet was always fixing things—mending, building, working. Our greatest singer of chores.

He’s at it again in his poem “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” which he wrote around 1934, five years into the Great Depression. In a cold New England field our narrator is chopping wood when he is approached by two hungry vagrants looking for paid labor. There’s something vaguely ominous about the unemployed lumberjacks, as “one of them put me off my aim/By hailing cheerily ‘Hit them hard!'” I envision the startled narrator wobbling a bit, axe stuck in aborted oak atop a chopping block. “I knew pretty well what he had in mind:/he wanted to take my job for pay.” What eventually follows is a digressive, ethical rumination, one that seems entirely foreign at a time when the gig economy has become ubiquitous. “The time when most I loved my task/The two must make me love it more/By coming with what they came to ask.” Propriety and dignity is such that the tramps won’t accept mere charity, but Frost’s enjoyment of his housework prevents him from parting with the chopping of timber. “I had no right to play/With what was another man’s work for gain./My right might be love but theirs was need,” says the narrator. Ambiguous as to what he does, if the desperate men convince him of the necessity of their task, as indeed Frost knows that their continued presence will eventually move him to turn over the axe. Yet in the chore, here amongst the warm sun and the chill wind, his “object in living is to unite/My avocation and my vocation… where love and need are one.” Frost really liked housework.

My own inclinations regarding chores are decidedly less romantic; well into my twenties, my existence was that of the stereotypical heterosexual bachelor. Living out of hampers, eating over sinks, kicking discarded magazines under the sofa. When I was an undergraduate, and even more dissolute in my habitations, my dorm room was piled with old newspapers, so that any enterprising geologist could excavate backwards through strata of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and discover George W. Bush’s reelection, the invasion of Iraq, Colin Powel’s U.N. testimony. My attitude matured with experience, or at least I got sick of living in filth—and I got married of course—so much so that I even developed an occasional affection for chores, their straightforward, contemplative, and measurable necessity. To clean cups, mugs, glasses, and dishes; to soap up a bowl or scrub crusted sauce from a fork, loading up the machine and placing that little alien detergent pod into its compartment; toggling between stream and spray to clean the sink of bread crusts and globs of yogurt. Lithuanian-American poet Al Zolynas describes as much in “The Zen of Housework” from his collection The New Physics, how his rubber gloved hand filled up a wine glass with water and soap, “thousands of droplets/of steam—each a tiny spectrum—rising/from my goblet,” what he designates the “grey sacrament of the mundane!”

Easy to valorize if nobody is making you do it; Frost’s hobby was apparently chopping wood, and most of us do our dishes and laundry because the alternative is disgusting, but there is a risk to turning the vacuum into meditation tool. The narcissistic self-regard of the husband proud of having moved a coffee cup to the sink. Without some self-awareness you might sound like the Berkely philosopher Paul Feyerabend, who told an interviewer that he most enjoyed doing housework, seeing it as an act of devotion to his wife. After he died, his wife said that Feyerabend had never done any chores.

Notice the differing words we use to describe vacuuming or cooking—from meditation to hobby to housework to chore to domestic labor—all of which depends on who is doing it for whom and what’s compelling them to do it. By contrast to Zolynas’ lyric, former Poet Laureate Natasha Tretheway writes in a poem from her collection Domestic Work about a maid for whom “All week she’s cleaned/someone else’s house,/stared down her own face/in the shine of copper—/bottomed pots, polished/wood, toilets she’d pull/the lid to.” Historically, housework has been synonymous with women’s work; whether poorly renumerated or not paid at all, the scrubbing, dusting, and washing are marked as feminine. When Frost was outside playing lumberjack, what was Elinor Frost was doing? She was inside picking dried johnnie cake batter off of the iron stove top, she was washing those musty red flannels with their stink of the woods, she was mixing soap and water in a dented steel bucket and letting the suds flow over a bathroom floor. Betty Friedan describes the score in The Feminine Mystique: “As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material… she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—’Is this all?'”

Ironically, as the second wave feminism of the 1960s and 70s smashed through (some) boundaries regarding women’s role in the workplace, the onus of domestic labor didn’t shift more equitably to male partners. According to a Gallup poll from 2020, even though women are now more than half the workforce, and on average contribute more to their family’s finances (even while a gender wage gap endures), they still are responsible for laundry in 58% of households and cooking in 51%—not to mention childcare. Important since housework, it must be said, is also often hard. Despite those technological miracles of capitalist utopia—the washing machine, the dishwasher, the vacuum cleaner—chores are not just time-consuming and monotonous, but arduous. There was a reason why activists started the International Wages for Housework Campaign in 1972, a call for a universal basic income that acknowledged that women’s domestic labor was indeed labor. Writing about the history of women’s labor in the nineteenth-century home, Susan Strasser explains in Never Done: A History of Housework how women’s “contributions could not have been more central. The household was… a center of production, where women spun, wove, and sewed raw fibers into apparel, and converted unprocessed plant and animal matter into meals.” Chores can be meditative, but to forget that they’re also instrumental is also to forget the people who actually do them.

A question Frost implicitly grapples with: what is the difference between the work we do for ourselves and the work we do for others? Trethewey writes how “Sunday mornings are hers,” a still busy day where “church clothes [are] starched” and floors are washed with “buckets of water. Octagon soap.” But the language that describes these chores is so different, joyful even. Rhythmic. There’s a “record spinning/on the console, the whole house/dancing” while she cooks on the stove, “neck bones/bumping in the pot” and “a choir/of clothes clapping on the line.” This maid who still has to clean on her day off is at least cleaning for herself, and not unlike the narrator in Zolynas’s poem, she’s got her moments of domestic transcendence as she “beats time on the rugs,/blows dust from the broom/like dandelion spores, each one/a wish.” I don’t know if she loves this work, but there is a similarity between Trethewey’s character and Frost’s narrator, that distinction between working for pay and working for oneself. What defines chores is that they have to be done. Domestic work is never done, a constant war of attrition against entropy. But also, in a circumscribed way it can be finished perfectly: A writer can always add another word or a painter another brush stroke, but once a dish is lemony clean it can be as fresh as a new mind.

If there is a danger in forgetting that the chore is work, there is also a loss if we don’t remember that Frost and Zolynas and Trethewey have a point. Housework can be a practice, a ritual, a sacrament—the very art of life. Chores can even be countercultural, in a way, as necessary work for an adequate life, rather than for increasing the profits of an invisible entity housed in that aforementioned glass and steel monolith. Still, it’s hard to interpret chores as innately subversive, especially if we rely on Comet and Arm & Hammer, Palm Olive and Tide, Kenmore and Dyson, Frigidaire and General Electric. Not long after the 2008 economic collapse, and perhaps as part of the general zeitgeist where anarchic self-sufficiency manifested itself in the heady utopianism of Occupy, there was a softer rise in enthusiasm toward ways of doing chores that didn’t put money in the pockets of executives at Whirlpool or Proctor & Gamble. Suddenly some hipsters became homesteaders, hammering espresso machines into plowshares. Sticky mason jars filled with pickled tomatoes and acerbic asparagus, frosted growlers of yeasty homemade ale, home ground coffee, an enthusiasm for strenuous carpentry among women and delicate knitting among men. During the high-water mark of the late capitalist Anthropocene, it’s “no wonder some began reaching back even further, to simpler times they’d never known firsthand,” writes Kurt B. Reighley in United States of Americana: Backyard Chickens, Burlesque Beauties, and Handmade Bitters—A Field Guide to the New American Roots Movement. He explains that “these modern pioneers are latching on to handcrafts, well-made shoes… They’ve stopped paying exorbitant gourmet prices for sun-dried or roasted tomatoes, and started learning to can their own, fresh from a local, sustainable source, maybe their own yard or a nearby farmer’s market.”

If anything, the pandemic exacerbated these sentimental desires; or, let a thousand sourdough starters rise. If the American sense of nostalgic chore work harkened to certain (often pernicious) myths of the frontier—rustic cabins and gas stoves, cracked leather and rusted machinery—than across the Atlantic there has been a retreat into a sort of cozy, fantasy Cotswold: warm ale by a hot fire in the cold pub kind of domesticity. A leader in that trend is Tom Hodgkinson, editor of The Idler and advocate for a Chestertonian anarcho-medievalism. In Hodgkinson’s view, corporate capitalism has severed our connection to the numinous, and in the quotidian repetition of chores we redefine ourselves. As a credo, Hodgkinson writes in Brave Old World: A Month-by-Month Guide to Husbandry, or the Fine Art of Looking After Yourself that the “most important but generally the most neglected of everyday living are simply these: philosophy, husbandry, and merriment. Philosophy is the search for truth… Husbandry is the art of providing for one’s family, and merriment is the important skill of enjoying yourself: feasting, dancing, joking and singing.” In Brave Old World, Hodgkinson gives detailed and witty instructions on everything from wood-chopping and bread-baking to pig-slaughtering and field-planting. Archeologist Alexander Langlands promotes a similar ideology in his book Craeft: An Inquiry Into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts, writing that in our alienated age there is an attraction towards “making… and making with a perceived authenticity: by hand, with love; from raw, natural materials; to a desired standard.” I’ll admit, the aesthetic appeals to me; the actual labor doesn’t.

Considering how much time we spend in grocery stores, or vacuuming, or doing laundry, or taking out the trash, it’s often occluded in our literature, albeit we know that Jeeves dusted and somebody was starching Mr. Darcey’s collars. “One can travel quite deep into the literary archive without finding a single reference to the activities that keep households running, and keep those within them alive,” writes Lisa Locascio in Lit Hub, and yet she argues that the “tasks grouped under the humble name housework are not only necessary, but poetic, provocative, and complex.” Housework exists at the nexus of many things—race and gender, the personal and the public, the routine and the transcendent. Perhaps it’s her Midwestern Calvinist practicality, but Marilynne Robinson endows the everyday with charmed straightforwardness, elevating the chore to its rightful place, nowhere as much as in her appropriately named Housekeeping, whereby she imagines having “swept the whole floor of heaven,” the eschatological work of “reclaiming… fallen buttons and misplaced spectacles,” whereby chores themselves are the work of reparation and repair. In cleaning, in organizing, in making that which is disordered ordered, there is a sense that “everything must finally be made comprehensible,” as Robinson writes, what “are all these fragments for, if not to be knit up finally?,” the verb itself a conspicuous conflation of feminine housework with fixing the universe.

Chores are the undercurrent of literature, because housework is so much like writing, particularly in editing and revision. (Besides, chores are either the thing done to avoid writing, or what doesn’t happen when writing commences, or what the author expects someone else to do as they write.) To be done well, both writing and housework must be done every day, lest the dust and cobwebs overcrowd your house and your manuscript, the dishes piling up in the sink like uncleaned sentences, trash overflowing in bins as if over bloated paragraphs. Or even worse, to leave a wall unpainted like a page left blank. And both, when done contemplatively, can focus the mind. Chores can be monotonous, back-breaking, thankless, but they can also be meditative, even ecstatic. That writing shares these aspects with housework is important. So too is the ritualized aspect of both endeavors, at least if there is to be any success in either. Read any of the dozens of dialogues that constitute the “Writers at Work” series collected across The Paris Review Interviews, a celebrated feature conducted largely by George Plimpton for nearly half-a-century, in which authors elaborated on how they organized their desks, or what brand of typewriter ribbon they used, or when during the day they most often labored. Worth more than a whole shelf of post-structuralist literary criticism, the “Writers at Work” series proves that theory and praxis are identical. Everything depends on where you work, what tools you use, and your schedule. It’s no different from a sink full of dishes. Writing requires the same dutiful regularity, for a person “must sit down and get the words on paper, and against great odds,” says E.B. White. “This takes stamina and resolution.” Raymond Carver also emphasizes regularity, saying “When I’m writing, I write every day,” in the same way that if a household lets receipts gather on the table and circulars in the mailbox, the situation becomes unmanageable. John Ashbery countenances against falling into bad habits, bemoaning the sloppiness that ensues if one happens to “stay up too late and sleep in too long” while Gabriel García Márquez concurs that any writing requires “extraordinary discipline.” Just as the goal of housework is parsimony and economy, Louis Erdrich recommends overwriting the ending of a piece and then going back “to decide where the last line hits.” Perhaps most crucial, and that which separates the happy writer from the tortured, the joyful gardener from the merely muddy, the zestful carpenter from one who keeps hitting his thumb with a hammer, is that the “most important thing is to be excited about what you are doing,” as James Dickey says. All of this advice is prosaic. So are instructions on how to clean a room.

If writing gestures toward an abstract world beyond, we must not forget that it’s always been a grubby job as well, of ink trapped under ragged cuticles and of aching elbows and wrists. Because we think of domestic work in less grand terms, the physicality stands out more, and yet chores can gesture to a certain beyond as well. Robert Pirsig’s countercultural classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance makes a case for the mystical possibilities of chores. Pirsig writes that people associate engine metal with “given shapes—pipes, rods, girders, tools, parts… as primarily physical,” but for those who actually fix such machines, the “motorcycle is primarily a mental phenomenon.” Writing is more physical than is supposed and the chore more mental, the two meeting in the middle. Another similarity, as Pirsig describes it, is that whether fixing a bike or writing an essay the “solutions all are simple—after you have arrived at them. ” Machines are extensions of our mind, can even alter and redefine the mind. Once you’ve realized that writing is a physical activity, defined by its own exertions, its own discomforts, its own ennobled suffering, and not just something ephemeral in the head, then you’re thankful for the technologies that make it possible—the pen, the typewriter, the word processor. Domestic work and technology have always been connected like hand in rubber glove. Even something as under-theorized as Carol Gantz’s subject in The Vacuum Cleaner: A History is rightly understood as “one of the ‘machine age’ marvels of the early twentieth century,” to cleaning what the personal computer is to writing.

Vacuuming, admittedly, doesn’t have the same romance, but Raymond Carver made something brilliant out of that mundane ritual in his short story “Put Yourself in My Shoes,” the genesis of which was a single sentence: “He was running the vacuum cleaner when the telephone rang.” The line appeared as if a mantra in the author’s head one day, later unspooling like a cleaner going over a carpet in rigid, tight turns. Other types of domestic labor have always drawn the attention of writers, been endowed with significance and romanticized. Gardening is celebrated as an artful and (literally) regenerative duty. A sense that in charting tomato vines’ progress, basil plants becoming lushly green with spring showers, craggy oregano growing green-brown against the autumn sun, is a bit like seeing a manuscript slowly take form. “If you have a garden in your library,” Cicero famously wrote in a letter from 46 B.C.E, “everything will be complete.”

Gardening speaks a vernacular both primal and cozy, and as such it draws writerly attention more than toilet scrubbing does—we read The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett and not The Secret Outhouse, after all. A garden is a mysterious space, intertwining vines clinging to a red-brick wall, dirt under fingernails and engorged vegetables, a sense of freshness and safety but also of sexual reproduction and perhaps the erotically illicit, as in that original paradise from which we were all expelled. In The Art of Love, Ovid sings of how “mid soft green there springs a sacred font”; Andrew Marvell avers that nothing is “as am’rous as this lovely green” in “Upon Appleton House.” For those who truly love gardening, the word “chore” is an obscenity for an activity nearer to vocation. Jamaica Kincaid movingly writes in My Garden that her own attempts shall never match her idealized vision, but “for me [that] is the joy of it; certain things can never be realized and so all the more reason to attempt them,” but my own Zen is significantly less chill. I’m merely an enthusiast for sitting in gardens—porches, stoops, or patios are also great—but I’ve never been a partisan of the dirt like those who possess a true green thumb. When it comes to produce, my housework extends rather to going to the grocery store which processes all of those goods of the garden (or farm rather), an enchanted place in my mind that as long as I go when it’s late and empty calms me as much as if I were a Buddhist monk circling a prayer wheel.

“This place recharges us spiritually, it prepares us, it’s a gate-way,” Don DeLillo writes of the supermarket in White Noise, and underneath the luminescent hum of the lights in a midnight Giant Eagle I concur; the place where with “hungry fatigue, and shopping for images” Allen Ginsberg had ecstatic visions of Walt Whitman “poking among the meats” and Federico García Lorca by the watermelons, of “peaches and what penumbras… Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!” Vegetables from a garden are so odd-shaped and dirty; give me rather the pyramid of oranges whose spherical perfection is marred only by the little nipple on top, of gleaming Macintoshes and Granny Smiths, of jumbled mountains of phallic bananas and crisp heads of lettuce, not to mention that shrink-wrapped steak and chicken breasts divorced from any sense that they were cut from a once fleshy creature. Not to speak of the rows and rows of pre-fabricated chemical American goodness, Oreos and Swedish Fish, Kit Kats and Cape Cod potato chips. Benjamin Lorr provides a bit of perspective in The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket, explaining that the “fresh apple you bite into has typically been sitting in dormancy for close to a year. Red cherries, that epitome of summer freshness, might have been stuck stabilized for two and half months. Bananas, avocados, tomatoes, and limes land somewhere in between.” Capitalism’s illusion of choice is the same as the illusion of freedom. I don’t normally care, as long as it tastes good.

Preparing food is how I express love. “I do think the idea that basic cooking skills are a virtue, that the ability to feed yourself and a few others with proficiency should be taught to every young man and woman as a fundamental skill,” writes Anthony Bourdain in Medium Raw. “[It] should become as vital to growing up as learning to wipe one’s own ass.” Writers, as you might know, always exist in a state of heightened, vibrating anxiety, hyper-attuned to observation and analysis, forever shifting words and sentences in our minds. Such a state is only alleviated by writing itself, or somehow turning your mind off, which is no easy thing. Cooking is the great mind-emptier, not because you can do it without thinking, but rather the opposite—you must be fully and completely emersed in feeling measurements and sensing temperature, of timing with your internal clock and constantly examining and tasting, of throwing spaghetti at the wall to see if it sticks. When preparing food, one immerses oneself into the flux, into the flow, and time itself becomes hyper focused. During the earliest days of the pandemic, not long after our son was born, I invented Pasta alla Campeggio, a dish named after the Cardinal who acted as Pope Clement VII’s legate to the court of Henry VIII. I should explain that this meal only has to do with Campeggio because we were rewatching the sublime ham of The Tudors during this period, and I enjoy the mixture of guttural consonants and soaring vowels in the Cardinal’s name, a word as pleasurable on the mouth as I hope that the food I’m preparing will be. I thought naming the food something that pretentious was funny.

Pay attention—a recipe. For Campeggio, I normally use a dry Italian pasta, preferably De Cecco brand, but Barilla is fine. Always a medium width spaghetti, anything thin and all the stuff you’re using to make the sauce will weigh it down, anything too thick and the gravy doesn’t emulsify over it in the way that you want. When boiling the water for the pasta, make sure that it’s as salty as the Aegean, and for reasons unclear to me I always add a liberal pour of olive oil. While the spaghetti is being prepared, I use a large circular skillet to make the sauce. By caveat, no measurements are offered; everything is done by intuition. First, heat up thinly sliced shallots from two bulbs and a heaping pile of already diced garlic, but be careful that nothing browns too much. Then, pour in enough extra virgin olive oil so that it coats the entire surface of the skillet, though not so much that you end up with a greasy mess. Everything is kept on lowish heat when you add about a quarter pound of very thinly sliced Jamon de Iberico (or prosciutto, though the Spanish ham is smokier), allowing it to curl slightly under the heat like the pages of a book being burnt, and then cool everything down slightly by dumping in around two dozen halved cherry tomatoes. Finally, right before adding the spaghetti, the equivalent of half-a-wheel of camembert (though brie also works) is distributed throughout the skillet in thinly cut strips, while the pasta (now drained of water of course) is mixed directly into the resulting sauce, rapidly swirled throughout so that the oil covered cheese adheres directly to the noodles. Serve immediately.

“To me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demi-glace, or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living,” writes Bourdain in Kitchen Confidential. I heartily concur. By no means am I a great chef; I’m at most a passable ad hoc cook for my family, and most of my recipes involve heating up a tortilla with Prego and plastic shredded mozzarella and calling it “low carb pizza” or dousing chicken breasts in Frank’s Red Hot Sauce. Yet Campeggio is my Brandenburg Concerto, my Nighthawks at the Diner. If done well, you have a Taoist synthesis of the pork’s feral gaminess and the creaminess of the cheese, the spaghetti has an al dente snap while the tartness of the tomatoes cools everything down. It must be eaten quickly and in obscenely prodigious amounts, and subsequent convalescence means that you’ve accomplished your aim. If preparing food and enjoying it with your family is a devotion of love, than the evidence of that act are the chores left over, the plates with bits of dried ham stuck to them, the slick forks and spoons and the skillet with detritus of browned shallot and garlic affixed within. Sometimes, as is the case when eating with a toddler, there is laundry to be done, oil and tomato stains to get out of shirts and pants. Because chores are only over when life is, which is part of the wisdom that they impart. Not perfectionism or completism, but the dutiful, continual, never-ending thisness of our lives.

Housework offers contemplation, yes, but more importantly it is a reminder of our inescapable physicality, of the materiality of being in this world. There is—or should be—a democracy in that, the often filthy, boring, grueling nature of what it means to simply have the honor of existing in this fallen creation, the joy, beauty, and ecstasy of the whole thing. One can tell the difference between those who never do any housework and those of us who do, for the former have callouses on their souls, they’re divorced from such an intrinsic part of what it means to be a human. Those who never make their bed or take out the trash, change a diaper or wipe a plate, whether because they pay someone else to do it or expect that it’s always the responsibility of another person (probably their wife). Most of all, chores wait for no person. Solve a difficult equation, compose perfect measures of music, or craft a beautiful sentence, and afterwards the dog still needs to shit, shoes have to be put away, and the stairs must be vacuumed. As the Zen parable has it, after you’ve reached enlightenment, ascended to Nirvana, and comprehended the illusory nature of existence, you’re still going to have to do the laundry.

On War and Literature


While it is not the most wicked injustice of war, it is still a barbarity that so much of our attention is on the murderers and not the murdered. An argument can be made—good, valid, and true—that the names of those who start wars must stay on our lips as a curse, but let others do that, because I don’t want to do it now. To focus only on the monsters it is to reduce the innocent dead to corpses. Piles of rubble, of shoes and books and toys, of twisted bodies. We imperil our own conscience if we forget such evidence of life. Which is why I will not tell you the names of the two officers in the Japanese Imperial Army who, according to the Tokyo Nichi Nichi Shimbun engaged in a contest to see who could first kill a hundred Chinese civilians during the invasion of Nanjing. According to the paper, one man had killed 106 innocent humans and the other 105, with both lieutenants “going into extra innings.” I will not tell you the name of those two officers because I do not know the names of the 211 women, children, and men whom they murdered. I will not tell you the names of these lieutenants because I don’t know the names of the 150 additional people they killed the following day. Such atrocities “did not penetrate the world consciousness,” writes historian Iris Chang in The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, “because the victims themselves had remained silent,” and so I will not say the perpetrators names, for they had their own opportunity to speak at their trials.
During the six weeks of invasion that started in December of 1937, and 200,000 Chinese civilians were murdered, with at least 20,000 incidences of rape (both numbers are likely lower than what really happened). Robert O. Wilson, an American physician in Nanjing, recorded in his diary that the “slaughter of civilians is appalling. I could go on for pages telling of cases of rape and brutality almost beyond belief,” and he does. The doctor would testify at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East after the war’s end; in 1948 that same commission executed the two who were involved in that horrific contest. Whether or not it’s good and righteous and just to execute those who commit such crimes, I do not know. As to if it’s true or not that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, I have no real opinion. To take any human life makes me uneasy, but I will tell you that deep in my heart, I do not mourn for those two officers on the gallows, nor does the thought of them in Hell bother me, and whatever that says about me is something that I probably should have more concern about. I know that atrocities are committed by normal people, that those two may have grown up in loving families, that they may have delighted in their wives and children. I know that these soldiers were not demons, but that they were humans, and that that is all the more terrifying.
“Almost all people have this potential for evil, which would be unleashed only under certain dangerous social circumstances,” Chang writes. Also, important to remember that if everybody is capable of atrocity, only a small percentage of humans actually do so, lest we obscure evil in the gauzy miasma of moral universalism. Yet the question of what drives men to such wickedness is forever unanswerable. Why are some Adolph Eichmann and Josef Mengele and by contrast others are Mahatma Gandhi or Oscar Romero? Chang’s research involved discovering the involvement of German businessman John Rabe who established the Nanking Safety Zone, where through diplomatic immunity he was able to protect civilians and saved 200,000 people. Rabe was also a dedicated member of the Nazi Party. The only thing more mysterious than human beings is grace, whatever the origin of that grace might be. Separate from historical scholarship, intelligence reports, and national security briefings, war literature exists to comprehend the arbitrary nature of grace and damnation. If war literature is written to impart meaning, then all war literature is failure. Nothing is so incomprehensible as war; not logistics, or strategy, battles for land, glory, riches, or liberation, all of which can be perfectly logical, but the actual act of war, of waking up knowing that your life could be taken or that you must take a life. We’re told this is our animal nature, but the organized barbarity at Andersonville, or Dachau, or Nanjing has no corollary in the natural world. War literature exists not to impart meaning, but the appearance of it, so to gesture at something beyond this veil of shadows. Something unutterable, and ineffable, and silent, and strange. War literature, at its best, exists not as scripture but as liturgy, not to explain but to remember. Chang writes that “to forget a Holocaust is to kill twice,” and such writing ensures that we don’t become complicit.
Literature replaces the aridness of numbers with the texture of humanity, while somehow grappling with the full scope of an atrocity. When Joseph Stalin was Commissar of Munitions during the enforced famine known as the Holodomor, which killed almost four million Ukrainians in the mid-30s, he told a group of his colleagues that “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.” What is grotesque is that this ruthless theorist of the human abyss was correct. When death tolls mount from the hundreds, to the thousands, to the millions, the brain is only capable of processing so much. But the person that is forgotten is Myshko Cherkasy, who when he died and was to be buried his mother discovered that his grave was already occupied by another child; Michael Kovrak who starved to death in front of his young brother; Olya Sturko forced to give birth upon the wheat fields at a collective farm, who died from after a small amount of food eaten after weeks of starving. Journalist Petro Shovkovytsia wrote in 1933 how for the Soviets, “These were not people, but rather shadows of people. Cut them with the dullest of knives, and you will not get blood to flow from them: beaten, tortured, exhausted.” The task of war literature is to transform shadows into pictures, to put flesh upon the bones of mere statistics. To square individual tragedy with the horror of mass atrocity, to mathematically transform the number one into an infinity. Ethically, the writer and their reader must attempt to comprehend that each singular murder is but one of four million. With one or two or three deaths in mind we must try and imagine all of the deaths. Holding to particularity, we must mourn for the multiplicity. That this is by definition impossible does not occlude our responsibility; if anything, it’s all the more imperative. What is asked of us is something theological, to grasp towards the enormity of all that which we are incapable of understanding.
Every human is a universe; each individual in victory and defeat, love and hatred, desire and revulsion, is more complicated than all great literature, more beautiful than every painting, more true than all of the axioms of philosophy. The human soul is inviolate, and in its own flawed way, a species of perfection. Which is why murder is a sin, and to take millions of lives is a crime against humanity. Arguing that every human is valuable, that we’re all equal, that all deserve dignity, security, safety, happiness, love. Rank schmaltz, right? Sentimental affectation, correct? Cliché. Ah, but here’s the thing with genuine war literature—the ethical imperative is to understand that cliché is not the antithesis of truth. Another cliché—it might be hackneyed to say that it’s impossible to explain war to a child, but that’s only because it’s impossible to explain war. “The violence of war is random,” writes journalist Chris Hedges in War is a Force that Gives us Meaning. “It does not make sense. And many of those who struggle with loss also struggle with the knowledge that the loss was futile and unnecessary.”
War literature which does something as sacrilegious as to make sense scarcely deserves to be called literature. Reduced to its basest formulation, war is the practice of resolving disagreements, or acquiring land, or erasing humans whom you hate by organizing men with weapons who then kill people until everyone is tired of all the killing, or everyone’s dead. That is irrational, stupid, inexplicable, there is no making sense of that and so any honest war literature doesn’t concern itself with such theodicies. “When meaning is drawn from killing,” notes historian Timothy Snyder in Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, “the risk is that more killing would bring more meaning.”
A risk in reducing gun and wound to axiom and postulate, bullet to arid argument. You can’t summarize a null point of meaning with anything as quotidian as a syllogism. That shining and polished black-jack-booted Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz claimed in On War that war is “a continuation of politics by other means.” Perhaps, though often the opposite is just as true. I wouldn’t deign to impugn von Clausewitz’s instilling of bravery, loyalty, and respect within his troops, of inspecting ammunition, and armories, of evaluating the Cannae model of troop formation in imitation of Hannibal’s victory during the Second Punic War, but give me rather that grizzled frontiersman General William Tecumseh Sherman’s opinion as he marched all the way to Savannah that “War is hell.” Those three words seem at least truthful. War isn’t just hell, of course. War is also strategy, war is distraction, war is horror, war is entertainment, war is propaganda, war is spontaneous, war is planned, war is boring, war is exciting, war is oppressive, war is liberatory, war is wasteful, war is necessary, but most of all war is meaningless. At least the actual pulling of the trigger is. Being able to kill a man, the unawareness of if you’ll return, the knowledge you may never see your family again, the reality that somebody else might never see theirs again because of you—all of that can’t quite be circumscribed by logic or poetry. All war literature must be failed literature because it gestures to where words themselves fail. Such writing tries to express the inexpressible, for the moment that a human takes the life of another language has already broken down. I’m not saying that historians shouldn’t investigate the causes of wars, of course not, for the better to prevent them. But the actual act of taking a rifle and from a distance shooting a stranger in the head—that is madness. If logic comes out of war, then war itself is built upon a million illogical acts.
All honest war literature is fundamentally anti-war. That’s not the same as saying that all war literature must be pacifistic. Kurt Vonnegut’s autofiction/science fiction account of the Allied firebombing of Dresden in Slaughterhouse-Five, Norman Mailer’s indulgent but trenchant The Naked and the Dead, Joseph Heller’s hilarious and terrifying Catch-22, Dalton Trumbo’s disturbing account of being caged within one’s own destroyed body in Johnny Got His Gun, the German writer Erich Maria Remarque’s exquisite account of World War I trench fighting in All Quiet on the Western Front, each and everyone exemplars, each and every one anti-war, each and every one pacifistic, and tellingly each and every one by a veteran. Remarque explained that his book was to be “neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it.” But great war literature need not be pacifistic, only anti-war, which is to say that it comprehends barbarity. Two of the most poignant, brutal, and under heralded war novels of mid-century are Martin Booth’s horrific Hiroshima Joe and John Horne Burns’s The Gallery. Both books concern the ostensible “Good War” against the Axis Powers, with Booth focusing on the war against Japan, and Burns’s writing about the occupation of Naples by the Americans. And both, while not arguing against the reasons for the war, focus on brutality enacted against “enemy” civilians, how innocence is never a quality of those who fight, regardless of their side’s righteousness.
The titular character of Hiroshima Joe is Captain John Sandingham, a British POW captured by the Japanese in Hong Kong and witness to the unspeakable horror of the atom bomb. Sandingham observes the incineration of whole city blocks, women and men turned to ash, shadows burnt into sidewalks, and children with skin hanging from their bodies. He sees “what no man should be made to see; he died fearing what we all must fear,” a world where there is no distinction between soldier and civilian, where peace itself is conquered. The Gallery also disavows Manichean platitudes in fictionalized vignettes based on the American occupation of his beloved Naples, where the ostensible good guys were involved in extortion, racketeering, rape, murder. Burns’s novel is a warning at the dawn of the true American century, that “unless we made some attempt to realize that everyone in the world isn’t American, and that not everything American is good, we’ll all perish together.” It is ironic that  some of the greatest anti-war literature comes from the Second World War, arguably the most morally unassailable battle in human history. A generation after the Great War, and the “combatants were unillusioned from the start,” writes editor Sebastian Faulks in the introduction to The Vintage Book of War Fiction. “They knew how gruesome war would be, they knew that they had been dropped into it by inept politicians, but in place of innocent patriotism of their fathers they had a proper moral cause to fight for.” If war is necessary, there’s still nothing glorious about it. Between country or what’s right, at the very least there’s something to be said for fighting on behalf of the latter. As for myself, having never been anywhere near a frontline, a trench, or an active battlefield, I’m not a pacifist—merely a coward. There’s a difference there as well.
In a war of defense or liberation there can be many things—loyalty and courage, honor and fraternity. Glory, however, is invented by poets. War is blood congealing on the dead grass at Flanders Field and brains sprayed across Omaha Beach, it’s a gangrenous foot being sawed off at Manassas and bits of flesh dotting Hill 488. “I sing of arms,” as Virgil begins The Aeneid, a topic of utmost seriousness since a man first struck another man, our story of creation not in Eden but when Cain slew Abel. Triumph of kings and victory of the nation, glory of soldiers and the shame of the vanquished. Virgil’s epic is great poetry, but it’s also propaganda, albeit with its own anti-war moments studded like land mines within. The most antique of war literature, even when written to valorize, still has within it the seeds of truth. The Iliad of Homer, whether or not he had experienced war himself, is the great martial epic of valor, and yet within its opening lines there is the honesty which compels him to describe war as “Black and murderous… Incalculable pain, pitched countless souls… bodies to rot as feasts/For dogs and birds.” Achilles and Jason, Aeneas and Pallas, may fight with shields and spears, swords and helmets, while today soldiers wear Flak Jacket and brandish M4s, but the same absurd goal is at play—kill the other guy before you get killed. Despite the social Darwinian fallacy that understands people as living in a barely contained state of nature, just three days’ worth of good meals away from total anarchy, and to kill a man is a supremely unnatural thing, especially a stranger, particularly one who’s done nothing to you.
When humanists extol the canon’s universalism, they reduce and flatten our differences with the past, and the reality is that we neither love, pray, live, or work like our ancestors in Rome, or Greece, or Babylon, but the score of being made to kill a man—and the resulting wounds —remains similar. That’s the principle behind artistic director Bryan Doerries’s Theater of War Productions, which stages readings of Greek tragedies like Sophocles’s Ajax and Philoctetes for audiences of veterans as a way of coping with trauma. According to Doerries in The Theater of War: What Ancient Tragedies Can Teach Us Today, he has discovered that “people who have come into contact with death, who have faced the darkest aspects of our humanity, who have loved and lost, and who know the meaning of sacrifice, seem to have little trouble relating to these ancient plays. These tragedies are their stories.”
English professor Elizabeth D. Samet has explored something similar in her teaching U.S. Army cadets among the bucolic red, orange, and brown trees of autumnal West Point. Reading Homer and Virgil, not to mention Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, in a graduate seminar is one thing; teaching it to young women and men who are destined to one day experience such violence requires a different perspective. In her memoir Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point, Samet writes that “We surrendered rather easily to yet another romantic notion: that meaning is to be found only in misery.” Surprisingly neither Doerries nor Samet read or teach war literature as involving spangled glory; the former emphasizes that playwrights such as Sophocles were not authors of morale-boosting propaganda, while the former’s contention makes the radical claim that suffering isn’t about meaning, that to the contrary it can often be about nothing. And yet suffering must still be endured, and so literature acts not to explain the inexplicable but rather to soothe, to say “You are not alone, this has happened before, this will happen again, not everybody survives but some people do.” 
“‘Forward, the Light Brigade! /Charge for the guns!’ he said: /Into the valley of Death /Rode the six hundred,” wrote Alfred Lord Tennyson in 1854, mere days after the routing of the 4th and 13th Light Dragoons, 17th Lancers, and 8th and 11th Hussars during the Crimean War. Few poets seem stuffier than Tennyson; patriotic, formal, traditional, and conservative, his verse ponderously Victorian while across the Atlantic Walt Whitman was breaking meter and Emily Dickinson was reinventing metaphor. All of those exclamation points, that equestrian rhythm, that sickly celebration of valor. Yet even Tennyson drew a distinction between the incompetent men who sent boys to their death, and the boys themselves who “Storm’d at with shot and shell, /Boldly they rode and well, /Into the jaws of Death, /Into the mouth of Hell.” This, it could be observed, is still mythological language, Tennyson describing the campaign in the language of harrowing. He chose the wrong genre, for war literature isn’t myth, it’s horror. What’s lacking in Tennyson is the physical experience of war; he describes “Cannon to right of them, /Cannon to left of them, /Cannon behind them… While horse and hero fell, /They that had fought so well.” This is basically a boy’s fantasy of war. Tennyson might as well be describing soccer. The Poet Laureate wasn’t a veteran, and it shows; it’s what allows him to ask “When can their glory fade? /O the wild charge they made! /All the world wonder’d. /Honor the charge they made! /Honor the Light Brigade!” Now all that’s remembered is a poem more pablum than Parnassus, each of those dead soldiers now forgotten other than for some cenotaphs and memorials in England. What’s missing is blood—gouged eyes—protruding bones—first-degree burns—festering bullet wounds—severed hands and crushed bodies. What’s missing is the sense that death isn’t metaphor or simile or allegory, but that death is just death, a violent one all the more so.
Compare Tennyson’s verse to Whitman’s “The Wound-dresser” from his collection of Civil War lyrics Drum-Taps. Of Quaker pacifist stock, though a vociferous supporter of the Union, Whitman left Brooklyn for Washington DC after hearing of his brother’s wounding at Antietam, deciding to stay in the capital where he worked as a nurse in war hospitals. The good, grey poet would tenderly minister to the beautiful boys of American death, wrapping their burns and cuts, setting their broken legs, distributing sweets and occasionally reading his verse to men who undoubtedly had no idea that he was the greatest of American poets. “Bearing the bandages, water and sponge, /Straight and swift to my wounded I go, /Where they lie on the ground after the battle brought in, /Where their priceless blood reddens the grass, the ground.” Whitman is an abolitionist who comprehends that the Confederacy is defeated at Gettysburg and Antietam and nowhere else, but he is not delusional about the cost. Tennyson’s Dragoons, Lancets, and Hussars are heroes, whereas Whitman asks in a parenthetical “(was one side so brave? the other was equally brave).” The British poem lacks blood, it lacks corpses, it lacks bodies, replacing them with abstractions. In “The Wound-dresser,” Whitman describes “stump of the arm, the amputated hand… the clotted lint… the matter and blood.” Whether or not a war is just, or justified, or righteous, or right, Whitman understands that it results in men like the soldier whose “eyes are closed, his face is pale, he dares not look on the bloody stump, /And has not yet look’d on it.” The difference between the poems is that Tennyson described war in terms of glory, and Whitman knows that it’s about “clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill’d again.” One poem works because it tells the truth and the other one doesn’t work because it lies. As Remarque writes in the following century, “A hospital alone shows what war is.”
Besides, meter, rhythm, and rhyme can be useful, for what war lyrics are more successful than that of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, whose accounts of trench warfare written in the midst of the Great War itself? Owen was a working-class Shropshire lad tutored on Keats, Shelley, and Yeats; Sassoon was from a wealthy Baghdadi Jewish family and was educated at Cambridge. The two read and admired each other, and served at the same time along the crooked, burning gash of the Western Front. As inheritors of a classical English education, both men wrote in a cadence that owes more to the measured traditionalism of Tennyson than the barbaric yawp of Whitman, and yet when war’s madness can be barely constrained by formalism, its horrors are all the more pronounced. “Soldiers are citizens of death’s grey land,” wrote Sassoon in Counter-Attack and Other Poems, “Drawing no dividend from time’s to-morrows.” Almost oracular, but the eloquence of Sassoon’s rhetoric belies the horror it describes. From Owen’s most famous poem, “Dulce et Decorum Est,” written in the trenches themselves, he describes watching the burning, disintegrating, acrid death that results when a soldier is hit with mustard gas, for “someone still was yelling out and stumbling, /And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…/Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light, /As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.”
The Great War surprised the great powers, doddering men who’d amassed massive armies and let their technology outstrip their empathy. A war fought between the first cousins who ruled Britain, Germany, and Russia, offering up as sacrifice millions of young men cooked in mustard and shot at by gatling gun on the barbed wire of broken Europe. Critic Paul Fussell, himself a veteran of World War II, notes in The Great War and Modern Memory that “Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected,” and the impact of Sassoon and especially Owen’s verse is that it exists between the grandiosity of Victorian youth trained on myths of the Light Brigade when compared to the reality of Verdun, Somme, and Gallipoli. When Owen describes the dying man’s “every jolt, the blood… gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, /Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud /Of vile, incurable soles on innocent tongues,” he writes in an idiom where at the literal level of sounds is beautiful. Go ahead, read that bit out loud to yourself, listen to the cadence, the relationship of syllables to each other, the meter, the unforced rhyming, and admit that Owen has used beautiful language to describe an atrocity. And in that ironic gap, valor is erased by degradation. Owen expresses more about battle than propagandists ever could. He would die in 1918 while crossing the Sambre-Oise Canal. His mother received the telegram on Armistice Day, when bells were ringing in celebration throughout Shrewsbury. “The old lie: Dulce et Decorum Est/Pro Patria mori.” Who knows what poems have been interrupted by a bullet, what novels disrupted by mortar attack?
Some of the surviving lyrics are assembled in Lorrie Goldensohn’s remarkable American War Poetry, the first collection of its kind, including verse from colonial wars through Afghanistan, with sections dedicated to overlooked conflicts including the Spanish American War, the Indian Wars, and even the Spanish Civil War. Goldensohn writes that poetry is a way of conveying “battlefield advance and retreat, the daring and courage of leaders and men, as well as the despoliation of territory, the experience of prison camp and the making of refugees, the annihilation and wounding of human flesh, the grieving aftermath.” Every emotion is expressed in such verse, from cruel jingoism to fear, from patriotic loyalty to absurdity. Sarah Teasdale considers not the artillery of the Great War, but the silence which follows, for “There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground… And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn, /Would scarcely know that we were gone.” James Dickey, American Poet Laureate and a veteran of World War II, meditates in incendiary and gasoline, writing of how “All families lie together, though some are burned alive.” Rolando Hinojosa recalls American atrocities during the Korean War, how “I don’t want to look at the Chinese dead. /There are hundreds of them out there. They died in the city, /They died in the fields and in the hillsides. /They died everywhere.” Yusef Komunyakaa presents the haunting experience of searching for the names of dead friends on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where “My black face fades, /hiding inside the black granite.”  For sheer, methodical, scientific accuracy, however, and Iraq War veteran Brian Turner’s masterpiece from Here, Bullet provides both autopsy report and psychological evaluation. “If a body is what you want, /then here is bone and gristle and flesh.” That is what war poetry must be about, “where the world ends, every time.”
If war requires any genre, it’s not drama, or novel, or poetry, but journalism, the bearing witness as to what actually happens when troops cross a border or bullet pierces flesh. Studs Terkel’s interviews in The Good War, Philip Gourevitch’s harrowing We Regret to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families about Rwanda, Aleksander Hemon’s evocation of a Sarajevo youth before the wars in The Book of My Lives. Anthony Swofford expresses dark truths in Jarhead, his account of the Marine Corp during the Persian Gulf Invasion, and the fact that “as a young man raised on the films of the Vietnam War, I want ammunition and alcohol and dope, I want to screw some whores and kill some Iraqi motherfuckers.” Waiting for the invasion to begin, and the bored Marines sit in the Kuwaiti desert and watch movies about an earlier confrontation. Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Oliver Stone’s Platoon, Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. Swofford is blunt—all of those movies might ostensibly be anti-war, but for the grunts trying to psyche themselves up listening to Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries as U.S. helicopters drop napalm doesn’t engender pacifism so much as adrenaline. Which is the corollary to all war literature being anti-war, and that’s that war literature can’t help but be prurient, exploitative, exhibitionistic, pornographic. The moment editing and revision happen, then you’ve made literature, a polite way of saying something with an agenda, and anything with an agenda is incapable of examining the unvarnished totality of something, especially a black hole like war. A true literature of war has never been written. It might not even be possible.
There’s been some elision between violence and war in this essay. A sloppiness in that, because all war might be murder, but not all murder is war. Cain killed Abel, by himself. No general directed him. Violence might be natural (though so is cholera), but war is strange. “If wars were fought only by the men on the ground, the men facing one another in real battle, most wars would end quickly and sensibly,” notes Swofford. “Men are smart and men are animals, in that they don’t want to die so simply for so little.” Often war is presented as a bestial return to a state of nature, but it’s the exact opposite. With few exceptions, animals don’t engage in war, though they kill each other all the time. War is not the daughter of nature, but rather the son of civilization. War is fought by men, but it’s demanded by chiefs and priests, Caesars and kings, czars and dictators, generals and presidents. Like many of you, the last few months have had me thinking about W.H. Auden, but not the poem which you’re thinking of, but a lesser known verse. Only six short lines constitute “Epitaph from a Tyrant” published in 1940, a year after the invasion of Poland, appearing in Auden’s Another Time

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;He knew human folly like the back of his hand,And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

No human has ever been so physically powerful as to exert the authority which even the smallest war demands, so that the history of war is the history of tyrants somehow compelling men to violence. The Hitlers and Stalins, the Napoleons and Khans. Pharaoh Thutmose III. The earliest written record of war, when the Egyptians crushed the Canaanites 1,457 years before the Common Era. Recorded on a stele are the details of this supposed “campaign of victory which his majesty made to extend the frontiers of Egypt, in valor, in victory, in power, and in justification.” We are given laborious, self-satisfied, and grandiose detailing about Thutmose’s forces, so that “everything which his majesty did to this town and to that wretched enemy and his wretched army is set down by the individual day and by the individual expedition and by the individual troop commanders.” Over eight thousand Canaanites killed, half that many enslaved in the first recorded war. When shall be the last, and under what circumstances? Shall swords be beaten into plowshares or melted into radioactive dust? By a coincidence, Thutmose’s army laid siege to the Canaanite garrison at Megiddo, which for separate reasons is today far more known by its Greek name: Armageddon.

Mephistopheles in the Anthropocene


The Fitchburg Railroad ran a little under 50 miles between its origin in Boston and its terminus. A bit before the half-way point at the Concord station and the train glided along the western shore of Walden Pond. By the time the celebrated Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau had gone to the “woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life,” making his home in that small cabin in 1845 on the opposite side of the pond from the tracks, and the Fitchburg Railroad had already been operating for a year, built by underpaid, exploited Irish immigrant labor. Making its daily devotionals every day of the year, the Fitchburg thundered past the glacial kettle pond during chill New England winter with its frost tipped pines and the pleasant cool summer days with oaks’ greenness, past spring’s blooming lilac and dogwood and the autumnal maples’ red, orange, and brown. Having conditioned himself to listen to the black-capped chickadee and the song sparrow, of rain lashing against his cedar timber roof or of wind squalls in winter Nor’easters, Thoreau’s reveries were interrupted twice a day by the bestial whistle of the Luciferian locomotive as it made its way west and east. He did not like it. “We do not ride the railroad,” Thoreau wrote in his 1854 Walden; or, Life in the Woods, “it rides upon us.” Examining industrial capitalism’s effect on the globe in the 17 decades hence, and Thoreau didn’t know the half of it.

Remembering Walden as only the account of this eccentric, solitary quasi-hermit living on the edge of a Massachusetts bean fields in the woods outside of Concord belies the fact that so much of Thoreau’s book isn’t just about nature, but about the transformation of nature. Massive changes were underway on this continent that, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, had been valorized as Edenic since the first European saw land that didn’t belong to them; steam-boat and train, telegraph and factory all refashioned a very different landscape. Men like Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson alternated between despairing and triumphant, and as Leo Marx claimed in his classic study The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America, a studied ambivalence marked the intelligentsia on these subjects, noting that the “nothing quite like the event announced by the train in the woods had occurred before.” Regarding that metal shriek outside of Concord, and Marx catalogues numerous other instances as recorded by men like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Emerson, with the train representing how the “great world is invading the land, transforming the sensory texture of rural life… and threatening, in fact, to impose a new and more complete dominion over it,” as Marx writes. Were this an interruption only of the countryside’s quietude that would be one thing, but the train—or at very least what it represents—signaled the beginning of our current Anthropocene, when humanity’s rapacious consumption of the earth for material gain altered the very geology, ecology, and biology of the planet.

It’s estimated that because of the mass burning of coal for industry and transportation—a train’s engine is powered by coal after all—that the average temperature throughout the world rose a single degree Celsius during the 19th century, starting from when steam locomotives became common about three decades before the Fitchburg Railroad rumbled through Massachusetts: the beginnings of the Anthropocene and climate change. (The average temperature rose almost another degree in the last century.) Victorian scientists were aware of this connection; physicist Joseph Fourier writing in an 1837 edition of The American Journal of Science and Arts hypothesized that industrial exhaust “must produce variations in the mean temperature for such places,” while in 1856—two years after Walden’s printing—and Eunice Newton Foote wrote in The American Journal of Science that “An atmosphere of… [carbon dioxide] would give to our earth a high temperature.” Steamrolling towards a distant apocalypse, and Emerson, on whose land Thoreau resided, writes in his journal about how he hears the “whistle of the locomotive in the woods… it is prophetic.” More than they could have realized, for such progress over the past century-and-a-half now threatens to push the world towards an irrevocable climate catastrophe. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded in its 2021 report, we are at “code red for humanity,” with one of the coauthors, atmospheric scientist Kim Cobb, telling the American Association for the Advancement of Science that there’s “really one key message that emerges from this report: We are out of time.” Rather than merely the punctured idyl of a Concord evening, the Anthropocene’s dark promise is ever-rising temperatures and disappearing shore-lines, massive raging wild fires and blighted crops, vicious new pandemics and billions of refugees, ocean acidification and the earth’s sixth great extinction. More than just a whistle in the dark, the more potent image of what the train might represent was expressed by Thoreau and Emerson’s contemporary Connecticut Sen. James H. Lanman, who in his survey Railroads of the United States called locomotives “iron monsters… dragons of mightier power, with iron muscles… breathing smoke and flame through their blackened lungs,” these demons which leap “forward like some black monster, upon its iron path, by the light of the fire and smoke which it promises forth.” Lanman understood the attraction, however, for despite their sulphury breath, locomotives are “triumphs of our own age, the laurels of mechanical philosophy, of untrammeled mind, and a liberal commerce!”

That is the great paradox of the Anthropocene: the knowledge that industry and technology are killing us and our world but the fact that we’re forever hobbled by our addict’s inability to do anything about it. Such irrationality can’t be explained away by recourse to simple economic analysis, to the materialist’s fantasy that reason, logic, and utility explicate the ways of humanity. What it requires is the theological imagination, the poetic imagination, the vocabulary of avarice, greed, and vaingloriousness. If there is any myth that has spoken to modernity, especially regarding this ecological precipice, then it’s that master poem of the Romantic period (to which Transcendentalism was only one small branch), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s two-part closet drama Faust, the whole work begun in 1790 and completed in 1831, the decade before Thoreau moved into his little cabin. “If Henry Thoreau was impressed by Faust, he has unfortunately left no record of his enthusiasm,” writes Joel Porte in The New England Quarterly, and yet his landlord was abundantly aware of Goethe’s opus, if conflicted on its merits, Emerson noting in his 1863 Historic Notes of Life and Letters in New England that “the great poem of the age is the disagreeable poem of Faust.” Goethe had innumerable antecedents to draw upon in his drama, from the Faustbuch of the 16th-century Christopher Marlowe’s famed Elizabethan stage play of 1592. All took as their subject the notorious historical necromancer, magician, and alchemist who sold his soul to Satan’s emissary, the demon Mephistopheles, in exchange for a limited period of power, ecstasy, and knowledge. Yet writing at the dawn of the Anthropocene, with his Faust in part a critique of the rationalist Enlightenment instrumentalism that would literally fuel the coming industrial revolution, and Goethe’s work speaks to this moment of rising temperatures and sea-levels. Even more than during Emerson’s century, Faust is the operative myth for today.

“Like Faust, torn between his earthly lusts and his spiritual strivings, they were dualists; yet they yearned for unity,” explained Porte in his consideration of the spiritual conflict at the heart of the 19th-century, and if true while Emerson and Thoreau were alive, how much more accurate today? Faust is our operative myth because it’s only this narrative about a man willing to sell his very soul for power—which feels infinite, but is disturbingly finite—that is fully fit to express the madness of a culture collectively endeavoring to bring about the apocalypse all for the piddling convenience that a fossil fuel economy provides. Through his infernal contract, Faust is given certain abilities—he can transport himself anywhere in the world instantly, he has access to all knowledge, he can spy on people unseen—but of course the cost is his soul. What use would he have of Mephistopheles in our century, when Faust could effectively have the same abilities imparted through his smart phone, social media, and the 24-hour convenience of Amazon shipping? “Him will I drag through life’s wild waste, /Through scenes of vapid dullness,” Mephistopheles says, and it might as well describe the experience of endlessly perusing Twitter, anesthetizing yourself from calamity to calamity as you doom scroll. “Ah, what a sense of your own greatness must/You have,” Faust’s servant Wagner says to him, an apt description of our own ever narcissistic, ever insular perspectives that retreat into microscopic granularity, even while the world burns (though that does provide opportunity for a great Instagram background). Unless Mephistopheles simply remains the animating spirit of modernity as it had emerged in the 19th-century, his goal the promulgation of a utilitarian doctrine that sees both nature and other people as tools in the furthering of the individual’s own desires. “Ich bin der Geist der stets verneint!” the demon tells Faust: “I am the spirit of perpetual negation.”        

Faustian spiritual malaise and our on-going tragedy of the Anthropocene are not distinct, they are mutually reinforcing. A reduction of the earth’s resources into something that provides mere convenience for us and unimaginable wealth for a corrupt few requires a jaded worldview, a denial of the blessedness of the earth (and of those who inhabit it). Pope Francis writes in his encyclical Laudato si’: Care for Our Common Home that “Economic powers continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to… the pursuit of financial gain, which fail to take the context into account, let along the effects on human dignity and the natural environment. Here we see how environmental deterioration and human and ethical degradation are closely linked.” Few adjectives, I would suggest, more clearly describe such a situation as much as “Faustian,” since as the magician foolishly gives away something of infinite worth for the transient and illusory pleasures offered by Mephistopheles, so too does industrial capitalism sacrifice the environment for idols of wealth and myths of progress. What makes Faust such a potent myth—and certainly not just in Goethe’s iteration but in the deep archetypal sense with which people have been drawn to the story of the doomed magician for centuries—is that his human desires for power, meaning, significance, and intimacy, no matter how jaundiced what he actually received may have been, are immaculately understandable. He is not without sympathy.  However, the necromancer’s individual negotiation yielded him the appearance of omniscient powers for a time, and the price was damnation; we’ve been collectively offered oil, gas, and coal, and the cost is nothing less than apocalypse.

I’m under no illusions that relabeling the Anthropocene as a Faustian Epoch will suddenly improve our environmental and economic situation, that merely identifying something so enormous with a term from cultural mythology will reduce the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and transition the global economy to something more humane and sustainable. Yet if there is any central proposition to demonology, it’s that even if you can’t control them completely, there is still a power in knowing the names of those creatures that bedevil you, whether Mammon, Moloch, or Mephistopheles. One need not literally believe in such entities—I don’t, and besides, I’m not even sure what “literally” would mean—but mythopoesis does allow you to measure the enormity of that which we’re up against. Even more importantly, to understand the Anthropocene’s negotiations as Faustian is an important reminder that much like the good doctor, we shouldn’t take those partisans of supply-side orthodoxy at their word that this system is “rational.” Anything that proposes unsustainable and dangerous growth to the detriment of the very biosphere is the exact opposite of rational, courting apocalypse for the benefit of imaginary numbers on a computer screen just like Faust falling in love with chimerical illusions conjured by Satan. What the designation of “Faustian” does is identify libertarianism, neo-liberalism, and all manner of capitalistic enthusiasms as what they are—not economics, but religion.

The relationship between free markets and faith has been noted since Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, and he was abundantly aware of the irrationality at the core of a system where economic “striving becomes understood completely as an end in itself—to such an extent that it appears as fully outside the normal course of affairs and simply irrational.” Weber’s thesis concerned the connections between religion and economics, but Eugene McCarraher argues something even more radical and certainly more reflective of the dire state of the world during the Anthropocene in The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity, arguing that “Under capitalism, money occupies the ontological throne from which God has been evicted.” According to McCarraher, the only way to understand the irrationalities of capitalism, especially at this point in our history, is that it’s the dominant religion of our world and age, where the Lord is the Invisible Hand, its priests are those titans of industry, the liturgy is commercialism, and the rites are sacrificial, with the offering of such dark rituals nothing less than the entirety of the biosphere. Capitalism is now no longer simply a means of organizing labor and money, distributing commodities and assigning them monetary value, but rather a dark faith unto itself. The goal is unlimited growth and ever more capital for a smaller and smaller group of people, even while all of our futures are endangered. Moloch, the Lord of utilitarian reductions and blood sacrifices, has been slowly wakening over the past five centuries. We see him in the thought-experiment of the 18th-century physicist Pierre-Simon Laplace, a demon who is aware of the position, trajectory, and velocity of every single particle in the universe, and thus according to the mathematician can predict every aspect of a predestined future with perfect accuracy, all of consciousness, intentionality, and freedom now mere numbers on a ledger. We see Moloch in the grim scholasticisms of John Calvin, who prayed to a God that existed purely for Himself, every bit the same fatalistic tyrant as Laplace’s demon. And now Moloch reaches his apotheosis with Adam Smith’s invisible hand around all of our necks. Such men, puritans and positivists alike, valorized the word “rationalism” as a kind of shibboleth that masked something malignant at the core, envisioning economics, the universe, and God as a type of hyper-efficient and carefully assembled steam engine, but now the boiler is overheating and the entire thing threatens to explode.

“Storms, earthquakes, fire and flood assail the land” says Mephistopheles, though he sounds like somebody reading their newsfeed. Should the Anthropocene reach its terminus when, despite its name, it becomes impossible for the planet to sustain human life, then capitalism will have revealed itself as the most disastrous ideology in history. Or, perhaps more accurately, not capitalism or technology per se, but those powerful individuals that view both of those things as an end unto themselves rather than a means unto an end. Right now we’re at an impasse—there is a new, global, political, and spiritual reawakening from the movement Extinction Rebellion to Laudato si’ that attempts to imagine a more equitable future—but there’s also the enthusiasms of the Lords of Capital, none more so than the confidence men of Silicon Valley who, like Jeff Bezos, shoot octogenarian actors into space or, like Elon Musk, tinker with monkey brains, praying to Moloch’s final incarnation in the form of the technoutopian Singularity, their creed being nothing less than Faust’s injunction “Bin ich ein Gott? Mir wird so licht!”—”Am I a god? Light fills my mind.” Few political movements have been more effectively tarred than the Luddites, who agitated among the textile mills of England a generation before Thoreau, men who understood that mechanization signaled their economic obsolescence, and thus under capitalism their extinction. Far from being antiquated bumpkins, they were radicals attacking the instrumentalism of unfettered technology. It’s not technology that’s the problem—it’s the doctrine that it’s something more than a tool, that in fact we’re tools for it. When Thoreau heard the locomotive’s whistle, his fear was that rather than riding the train, the train was actually riding upon us. The central economic, political, ethical, and spiritual question of the remainder of this century—no matter how much time we actually might have left—is how to stall that engine so that we’re able to get off of the tracks.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

Fourteen First and Last Sentence Novels


Everybody’s aesthetic is set by the time you’re eight years old. At its deepest level, the most intrinsic and elemental aspects of the self—within the basement of your soul—the stories you were told, the songs you heard, the pictures you looked at that are pressed into the service of constructing a person. My own aesthetic owes everything to the much beloved and much missed Pinocchio’s Bookstore for children, run by Marilyn Hollinshead from 1985 to 2002, opening the year after I was born and closing the year that I moved away for college. Pinocchio’s was located on Aiken at the terminus of narrow and dense shop-lined Walnut Street in the bougie Pittsburgh neighborhood of wood-paneled Victorians and brick Tudors known as Shadyside, uncharacteristically flat of terrain and gridded of street in the hilly city. Unassuming, the street-level entrance to the bookstore was at the end of a line of shops, the inventory only accessible through a staircase from the front door to the dimly lit treasures beneath, the entrance advertised with a vaguely unsettling drawing of the titular Italian puppet himself, all oak plank and joist with his nose not yet to prodigious growth. The subterranean locale meant that your descent smelled slightly of earth and rain, and the overall effect of entering the surprisingly large store was that you’d happened upon a magical cave that was filled top-to-bottom with books. Specializing in the gauntlet of children’s literature from board-books for babies all the way to Young Adult novels for those in high school, and Pinocchio’s made true for me Francis Spufford’s beautiful recollection in The Child That Books Built about “readings that acted like transformations… when a particular book, like a seed crystal, dropped into our minds when they were exactly ready for it, like a supersaturated solution, and suddenly we changed.”

Spending an hour on a rainy Saturday afternoon, in the dim lighting of Pinocchio’s with its burgundy wall paper and its toy pit, it’s racks of stuffed toy turtles and hedgehogs, its rows of paperbacks, and I came across many of Spufford’s transformations. There was Klutz Publishing’s Earthsearch: A Kid’s Geography Museum in a Book by John Cassidy, which had an aluminum cover and a pith-helmeted explorer on the front; inside there was a bag of rice and an unmarked, stiff brown page that was supposedly a sheet of Bulgarian toilet paper. From that book I acquired a love of the odd and idiosyncratic. Then there’s the classic World of the Unknown: Ghosts from Usborne Books, which terrified younger members of Generation X and older millennials, its violet cover showing a picture of an ethereal, monkish specter, while inside there were maps of hauntings in isolated Cotswold villages and accounts of a Manx poltergeist named Giff who took the form of a talking mongoose. That title is where my sense of the macabre comes from, which was strengthened when I discovered the gothic novels of the great John Bellairs, such as The House with a Clock in Its Walls with its classic cover by Edward Gorey. Finally, there was an anthology of Shakespeare’s plays retold for children, as I recall a green-covered book illustrated with vines and roses, and haunting drawings of the witches from Macbeth and whimsical ones of Bottom from A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, but I can’t remember the title, and I may have imagined it (though if I haven’t, please let me know). If in adulthood my aesthetic tends towards the eccentric, the twee, the idiosyncratic, an attraction toward fairy gardens and Medieval stone labyrinths covered in ivy, toward chill rain and overcast skies while listening to Arvo Pärt, then it’s because of Pinocchio’s. A title in that regard which stands out in my mind—a “seed crystal” as Spufford would call it—is the uncanny and beautiful picture book The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris van Allsburg.

Far more famous for the slightly menacing quirkiness of Jumanji or The Polar Express, and The Mysteries of Harris Burdick is the Caldicott Medal winner’s experimental title. Van Allsburg prefaces his book with a frame tale, recounting how a friend of his named Peter Wenders who worked as an editor had once met with a children’s book author named Harris Burdick. At their meeting, Burdick presented Wenders with 14 images from 14 separate books, each picture including only the title of the volume which it was from, and the first line. Burdick promises that if Wenders is willing to issue a contract for all the titles, the author will return with the books in their entirety. The next day, Burdick misses their scheduled meeting. Wenders tries contacting him to no avail. He spends years attempting to discover Burdick’s identity, but he is seemingly untraceable to both Wenders and van Allsburg. Consequently, van Allsburg assures us, he has reprinted the fragments in the hopes that Burdick may reveal himself. I was instantly struck. At the age of seven, when I first flipped through The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, I didn’t understand that the preface was a conceit—I believed that the strange illustrator was real. And I was obsessed by the images and their captions, for they are rendered in an eerie chiaroscuro making them appear nothing so much like Renaissance engravings, like black and white mezzotint. One picture from a book supposedly entitled A Strange Day in July shows a girl and a boy, about my age at the time, by a sun dappled body of water skipping stones. The caption reads “He threw with all his might, but the third stone came skipping back.” Another with the title The Harp had the first line of “So it’s true he thought, it’s really true,” showing a harp on a rock overlooking a bubbling, wooded stream with light filtering through the branches overhead, a small figure with a walking stick standing opposing. Mr. Linden’s Library depicted a girl who’d fallen asleep on a bed with crisp, white sheets, a volume opened in front of her with the tendrils of ivy growing out from it, the sentence reading “He had warned her about the book. Now it was too late.” Seed crystals.

Van Allsburg writes that Burdick’s “disappearance is not the only mystery he left behind. What were the stories that went with these drawings?” Seven-year-old-me was enraptured. Thirty-seven-year-old-me is still enraptured. My love of fragmentation, aphorism, mystery—all of it partially can be traced back to the van Allsburg book. If anyone is looking for a present, send me a framed copy of the 14 pictures in The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. Over the last 30 years, I’ve been fascinated by incomplete books, missing stories, lost volumes. The traces of literature that might have been is an obsession of mine. I’m often more moved by what the mind is able to imagine as concerns a largely absent book than I am by the real book right in front of me. Jorge Luis Borges, a fan of writing reviews of fake books (the subject of my own collection The Anthology of Babel) noted in the introduction to his Labyrinths that “To write vast books is a laborious nonsense, much better is to offer a summary as if those books actually existed.” I’d go even a step further—better to write the barest traces of a novel, and to let the perfected form exist within the mind of your reader. That was the aspiration I had when I first conceived of something I call “First and Last Sentence Novels.” The entire idea behind this form was that rather than writing an entire novel, the author would simply give readers the first and last sentence and the title of a hypothetical novel, an imaginary book. No other information is imparted, the only way for a reader to know anything about characters, plot, even genre, can only be implied by the clues that are the title, the first, and the last sentence. Perhaps it’s a bit pompous, but I think of this as a new literary form, a type of novelistic prose poem, a hybrid, a chimera, whose main currency is delight, wonder, and mystery. Is that pompous? I don’t care. The idea behind First and Last Sentence Novels is cool.

Several years ago, long before I began to write professionally, and I set up a little WordPress site, long-since expired, that was entitled First and Last Sentence Magazine, it’s logo a Medieval engraving of a monk dutifully working in a scriptorium. I posted a CFP on social media with a Gmail account for people to respond to me, and as I recall I received a few dozen responses with examples from folks, some of them pretty good. Still, the whole operation was only me, I never got many hits, and the whole project just sort of died, as those things do. Latter on I thought that maybe I’d just do my own collection of a few hundred First and Last Sentence Novels. Maybe I still will one day. But a benefit of working at The Millions is that I often get to speak with some of my favorite writers, people whose work I read long before I was ever on the masthead. Brilliant, engaging, thoughtful, poignant, hilarious, and sometimes mysterious writers. So, I decided that I’d take the opportunity to resurrect this project, and query several women and men who wrote some of my favorite books that I read over the last few years and see if they’d be willing to contribute their own entries into the what I hope will be the growing canon of First and Last Sentence Novels. If I’m being totally honest, I contacted these authors because I’m greedy and I wanted to read more of their writing; I contacted them because I wanted to read their novels before you did. By the constraints of the form, I wanted to see how the brilliance of these women and men played out across two sentences that because they said almost nothing were forced to have to say everything. Now, with a bit of bragging, I’d like to present 14 new novels by some of the United States and Great Britain’s most talented authors (plus my own, because I can, even though I don’t deserve to be here). These are authors who have been published by The New Yorker and The Paris Review, McSweeney’s and Harper’s, who have taught and attended MFA programs at New York University and the Iowa Writers Workshop, and been finalists and winners for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award. In their generous contributions to this project there is tragedy and redemption, terror and humor, introspection and elation, all in two sentences and a title. Most of all there is mystery. I hope that you find your own seed crystals here, your own transformations and that you’re inspired to write your own contributions.   

The Continental Marriage by Bethany Ball

Sentence – Her husband first told Irene he was cheating on her in a movie
theater waiting for the previews to begin.

Last Sentence – The movie lights dimmed and Sherman leaned over to Irene and
said, “Mistress light. That’s you. You are my Mistress light”

The Forty Story War by Matt Bell

Sentence – Later, after Brock was accused of his war crime but before his war,
he stood newly arrived in the vast processing lobby of the as-yet-unshelled
tower and reflected how he would once again have to learn to live without fresh
air, or else absentmindedly wander back outside to die.

Last Sentence
– Surprised, Brock fell, as from a great height, into his first general
sensation of love. 

Bird by Ellie Eaton

First Sentence –  There was a time in my life when I thought that everything I touched—career, relationships, friends, ambitions—went up in smoke; then, one day, it finally does.

Last Sentence – The roof sinks slowly in
on itself, a half-baked cake, and everything burns.

The Mess by Edan Lepucki

Sentence – The year my lover’s wife died was also the year my mother
domesticated a coyote, and I, realizing I’d never have a child, bought a Tesla.

Last Sentence
– “Does this hurt?” I asked.

The Treeline by Isle McElroy

Sentence – Last summer the snow didn’t melt.

Last Sentence
– “Is that what you think this is for?”

Marfa by Emily Nemens

First Sentence –  He saw the place first at seventeen, basic
training during the high heat of summer, the temperatures such that the
best—the only—relief he could find was the cement floor of the artillery shed,
the rare occasions he was alone long enough to put belly to cement (shirt
unbuttoned, loose from its belted tuck), cheek to floor, palms spread…it was
about surface area, about stillness, about imagining coolness, as much as
feeling it.

Last Sentence – Now, he’d not be able
to hear the explosion, the whoosh of flame and crumple of steel retracting, the
roof melting in on itself, falling as molten bricks—now, he’d only be able to
feel the change of pressure as oxygen rushed to the billowing action, he’d only
be able to sense the distant heat against his skin. 

The Bastard Child by Deesha PhilyawFirst Sentence – Before the highway split their mecca, the residents of Hollybrook took pride in their lawns, their cars, and their children’s light-bright complexions.

Last Sentence
– It was her mouth, he said, her absolutely sinful mouth, that made him come

Esoterica by Kathleen Rooney

Sentence – Nobody likes to receive a chain letter–nobody, that is, except
Hannah V—–.

Last Sentence
– The future descends, a flock of black swans.

Certain of My Books by Martin Seay

First Sentence – He found it bothersome—and odd to
see—innkeeping with his stuffy nose.

Second Sentence – He founded both, or some: an odyssey in
keeping with this stuff he knows.

Columbus Circle by Ed Simon

First Sentence – Tzipi had always teased Samuel that his
was a superstition, if a sweet one, that when crossing a busy street he always
took care to first visualize her, his wife, and then G-d, in that order, so that
should a speeding car cut him down in between those thoughts he’d at least have
had time to consider the face of the most important thing in his life.

Last Sentence – And he never regrated the choices which
he’d made, no, never, never, no, never at all.

Heart of Stone by Rufi Thorpe

First Sentence – There were many artists who restored classical sculptures in the 17th century, but none as tacky or disinterested in historical accuracy as Theo’s friend, Nicolas, who, with his fluffy hair and expensive clothes, would inevitably stand way too close to you and say things like, “But that what makes it art!” when you would point out, as Theo often did, that Nicolas had put the head of a Venus onto the body of what was meant to be a common woman, creating nonsensical chimeras that catered too boldly to the tastes of Cardinal Borghese, a known pervert, who was, incidentally, Nicolas’s uncle, nepotism being the only sane explanation for how Nicolas had gotten into the business in the first place, or at least this was how Theo framed it to his wife at night in bed, describing to her in excruciating detail every annoying thing that Nicolas had done that day as though each one was a small splinter that telling her extracted from his inflamed skin.

Last Sentence – “This is unjust! Ask Nicolas! Go and
find him, he will save me! I know that Nicolas will save me!” Theo
shouted, looking frantically from man to man, his face contorted in such
outlandish terror that the effect was more comic than tragic, and those who
loaded Theo into the cart felt they were not so much loading a man, but a
thing, a doll of a man, an empty mask, and Nicolas, who was eating a most
satisfactory lunch of pheasant and pears, was not fetched or even notified, nor
did he hear Theo’s cries in the courtyard, or perhaps he did register them, but
as background noise, like a dog barking in the distance.

Operation Roth: A Novel by Daniel Torday

First Sentence –  “I learned about the other, other Philip Roth in January, 2021, a few years after the insurrection at the Capitol, when Roth’s cousin Apter telephoned me in Philadelphia to say that Israeli websites had reported that, though he’d been dead for years, he was in Jerusalem.”

Last Sentence – “Let Saul Bellow’s Jewish conscience be your guide.”

Styles for Special Occasions by Dawnie Walton

Sentence – Nobody else in the class was going to ask them, so the seven Black
girls of Briar Heights High made plans to go to the prom together.

Last Sentence
– If Shana had been there, they would have smiled and told her what she already
knew: how much the girl looked like her mother, with her face turned up to the
cool blue light. 

Life, A by Teddy Wayne

Sentence – So this, he thought, is what it feels like to die.

Last Sentence
– At a quarter to seven on a gray December morning, after a seventeen-hour
labor for which a cesarean was nearly employed, Franklin Waters came squalling
into the world.

About the Contributors

Bethany Ball was born in Detroit and currently lives in New York. She has been published in The Common, BOMB, New York magazine, The American Literary Review, the Detroit MetroTimes, Electrical Literature, Zyzyvva, and Literary Hub. Her novel What to Do About the Solomons was published in 2017 by Grove Atlantic. It was shortlisted for the 2017 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and was a runner up in the Jewish Book Council’s debut fiction prize. Her second novel, The Pessimists, was published by Grove Atlantic this past October.

Matt Bell is the author most recently of the novel Appleseed (a New York Times Notable Book)  and the craft book Refuse to Be Done, a guide to novel writing, rewriting, and revision. A native of Michigan, he teaches creative writing at Arizona State University.

Ellie Eaton’s debut novel, The Divines, was named a most anticipated book by Harper’s Bazaar, CNN, Entertainment Weekly, Bustle, Electric Literature, Lit Hub, Shondaland, Alma, Stylist, iNews, The Millions, and New York Magazine. Her second novel will be published by William Morrow in 2024.

Edan Lepucki is the author of the novels California and Woman No. 17. Her latest fiction is the short story “People in Hell Want Ice Water,” available as an Audible Original.

Isle McElroy is the author of The Atmospherians, a New York Times Editors’ Choice. They currently live in New York. 

Emily Nemens is the author of The Cactus League, which was a New York Times Editors’ Choice and was named one of the best books of 2020 by NPR. She is working on her second novel and serves as the sports/senior editor for Stranger’s Guide.

Deesha Philyaw’s debut short story collection, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, won the 2021 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the 2020/2021 Story Prize, and the 2020 LA Times Book Prize: The Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction and was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction.

Kathleen Rooney is the author, most recently, of the novels Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk and Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey. Her poetry collection Where Are the Snows, winner of the X.J. Kennedy Prize, is forthcoming from Texas Review Press in Fall of 2022. She teaches at DePaul.

Martin Seay’s debut novel The Mirror Thief was published by Melville House in 2016.  Originally from Texas, he lives in Chicago with his spouse, the writer Kathleen Rooney.

Ed Simon is a staff writer for The Millions and a contributing writer for Belt Magazine. He is the author of An Alternative History of Pittsburgh and Pandemonium: A Visual History of Demonology, among other books.

Rufi Thorpe is the author of three novels, most recently The Knockout Queen, which was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award.

Daniel Torday is the author of the novels, The Last Flight of Poxl West and Boomer1. His third novel, The 12th Commandment, will be published in January 2023. Torday is a professor of creative writing at Bryn Mawr College. 

Dawnie Walton is the author of the novel The Final Revival of Opal & Nev, a finalist for the Aspen Words Literary Prize, longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, and named one of the best books of 2021 by The Washington Post, NPR, Esquire, and President Barack Obama. A former editor for Entertainment Weekly and Essence, she has written fiction and essays for Oxford American, Bon Appetit, and Lithub.

Teddy Wayne is the author of ApartmentLonerThe Love Song of Jonny Valentine, and Kapitoil. He is the winner of a Whiting Writers’ Award and an NEA Creative Writing Fellowship as well as a finalist for the Young Lions Fiction Award, the PEN/Bingham Prize, and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. A former columnist for The New York Times and McSweeney’s and a frequent contributor to The New Yorker, he has taught at Columbia University and Washington University in St. Louis. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, the writer Kate Greathead, and their children.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Daring to Eat the Peach: The Nature of Being Possessed

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Sitting at a table crowded with red and green and blue glazed tajine pots filled with mutton and saffron couscous that smelled of cinnamon, turmeric, and fenugreek alongside bowls of pickled plums and hardboiled eggs, while shakily holding a small cup of astringent anise mahia, William S. Burroughs first heard the ecstatic music of Boujelod—the Father of Skins; the Father of Fear—the goat god. Burroughs was obsessed with the mysterious place where words, and music, and images seem to come into a mind as if from without, the cursing and blessing of inspiration. He travelled to Morocco in 1954, three years after he shot his wife, Jean Volmer, to death in their Mexico City apartment; she was drunk and Burroughs was on benzos, they were performing a trick they called “their William Tell act.” The murder “brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a life long struggle, in which I had no choice except to write my way out,” Burroughs recalled in his autobiographical novel Queer. The author lived in the Tangiers International Zone, administered by a lackadaisical alliance of Portugal, Italy, Belgium, Holland, and the United States, enjoying the cheap dope and willing young men, but at the 1001 Nights restaurant and club he would hear the possessor, the font of all inspiration. The Dark One Himself.

Burroughs was always square in appearance, in keeping with his wealthy St. Louis upbringing and his Harvard education. At the 1001 Nights he’d have been conspicuous wearing a characteristic grey flannel suit and skinny black tie, a wool fedora and leather wingtips. Gaunt, hollow-cheeked and dead-eyed. Six musicians sat in a circle, wearing long, loose, green djellabas, rough woolen burnouses, and Berber caps. They played the double-reed ghaita, the goat-skinned tebel, the ceramic djarbouga, the picked gimbri, the bowed kamanja, and the bamboo lira. A single droning note pulsated, and then a squeal of other instruments would begin to play, the staccato vibration of a reed, the discordant strumming of the lute, the wafting of tones back and forth, a piercing ululation. Vocalists sang in multiphonics, what’s known as “throat singing,” wherein a single person produced two or three notes at once. Instrumentalists used circular breathing, inhaling through their nose and exhaling into their horns and flutes in a continuous stream, so that there are no pauses, no rests. No melody was discernible, but the rhythm was a complicated cacophony; the silence between notes was as deafening as the notes themselves. A flickering. To fall into their trance was like being hypnotized by a fire. Hallucinatory, incessant, relentless, incantatory, apocalyptic. A barefoot boy, clad entirely in goat-skins, brandishes two olive branches and begins to dance, an incarnation of Boujelod himself. A being better known as Pan.  

The musicians were from Jajouka, deep in the inhospitable Ahl-Srif mountains of the western Sahara. Seven nights a week, six of them would perform at 1001 Nights before a motley audience of diplomats and expatriates, prostitutes and bohemians. The restaurant would be packed with curious foreigners, shoes scuffing the zellij and leaning against walls decorated with woven tapestries featuring intricate ogee designs, lattice-worked brass lanterns illuminating Arabesque stencils on the ceiling. Sisters and mothers of the men worked as servers and in the kitchen, where the head chef was a Jajouka local, Mohamed Hamri. Only 21, Hamri would go on to become a folklorist who recorded the legends of the musicians; he had introduced a friend of the owner to their music three years before. Hamri first met the American composer and writer Paul Bowles in a Tangiers train station; the latter in turn introduced the young Moroccan to the Anglo-American avant-garde writer Brion Gysin, who owned and managed the 1001 Nights. At a beachfront festival in 1950, the two Westerners would first listen to the droning trance music, with Gysin recalling that he had thought “I just want to hear that music for the rest of my life. I want to hear it every day.” Of the three men who would first introduce the Master Musicians of Jajouka (as they’d come to be marketed) to a Western audience—Bowles, Gysin, and Burroughs—the least interesting person is the last, and William S. Burroughs was fascinating.

Bowles had come for the same sorts of reasons many libertines had—Morocco afforded him more freedom than was countenanced by his conservative family. Half a century was spent in Tangiers, which Bowles first visited in 1931 with his lover, the composer of Appalachian Spring, Aaron Copland. Cosmopolitan, elegant, charming, and handsome, Bowles had an impressive roster of friends, including Orson Welles, Salvador Dali, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Koestler, Tennessee Williams, Allen Ginsberg, and Gregory Corso. Christopher Isherwood was supposedly so taken with Bowles that he borrowed the name for the female protagonist of The Berlin Stories, immortalized by Liza Minelli in the musical adaptation Cabaret. During his time in Morocco, Bowles equally mastered musical composition and writing. Authoring dozens of scores for his own plays, he also wrote novels such as his dark Tangiers nocturne Let It Come Down, with its axiom that “We’re all monsters… It’s the age of monsters.” Critics have noted that Bowles’s music was light and his writing was dark, perhaps detecting the union of the Apollonian and the Dionysian borrowed from Jajouka.

The English-born Gysin’s mind vibrated at the same frequency as his American friend, and he was even more promiscuous, a brilliant dilettante, an experimental poet and novelist, performance artist, calligrapher, psychedelic theorist, and inventor, who wanted to push literature to the same extremes as modern art. His biographer John Geiger describes him in Nothing Is True–Everything Is Permitted: The Life of Brian Gysin as the “most influential cultural figure of the Twentieth Century that most people have never heard of.” Many influential people knew of Gysin, however, as he befriended Jean Genet, Francis Bacon, Max Ernst, Patti Smith, Timothy Leary, Iggy Pop, and David Bowie. More than anyone, he’s associated with Burroughs, who first dismissed Gysin as a mere restauranteur catering to “uppity queens” (himself included), but after the Englishmen’s death in 1986, Burroughs admitted that his frequent collaborator was the only other writer whom he respected. The two expanded on the “cut-up” method of composition, a means of using selective randomization to pull inspired words from the ether. First practiced by Dadaist poets like Tristan Tzara, the original cut-up method involved taking an original composition, and cutting words and phrases out with scissors, and then rearranging them into new texts, letting unseen correspondences, similarities, congruencies guide your hand as if an oracle. Gysin and Burroughs developed a variation they called “fold-in,” where two separate pages of writing are folded in half, and then combined, so that the new composition is read across. Their collaborative 1977 novel The Third Mind was written this way, wherein the “first step in re-creation is to cut the old lines that hold you right where you are sitting now,” something also on display in Burroughs’s most famous book Naked Lunch, a work of “magic and taboos, curses and amulets.”

What drew Gysin and Burroughs together was the incantatory aspect of literature, whereby the manipulation of words can generate divinations and conjurations. “The poets are supposed to liberate the words,” wrote Gysin in Let the Mice In, “not chain them in phrases… Writers don’t own their words. Since when do words belong to anybody?” The two explored how language could be combined and recombined, cut up and rearranged, how words can be as if a virus, where thinking happens on the page rather than in the head. Enthusiasts of tarot, astrology, and I Ching, Gysin and Burroughs understood inspiration as a form of possession, as an intersection between astral realms and the typewriter. This was magic as literary criticism. Heightened consciousness—meditation, drugs, sex—has often been used to pull the brain from its doldrums, to elevate it, to capture Icarian fire that’s then transcribed into mere books. “Magic calls itself the Other Method for controlling matter and knowing space,” Gysin is quoted as saying in Matthew Levi Stevens’s essay for Beatdom. They heard in the flickering drone of Jajouka the alchemical discordance of tone and note, that spirit kingdom where inspiration resides. “In Morocco, magic is practiced…assiduously,” Gysin claimed, “ecstatic dancing is the music of the brotherhoods [that] may be called a form of psychic hygiene. You know your music when you hear it one day. You fall into line and dance until you pay the piper.” Long after 1001 Nights closed, Gysin invited an English recording artist to Jajouka to record their rites. The musician stayed only for a day in 1969, but gathered enough material that an album of their heretofore unheard music would be released. He played the saxophone brilliantly, among other instruments, for a group named the Rolling Stones, and the album he produced was entitled Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Jajouka, finally released two years after he returned to his East Sussex estate where he drowned to death in his swimming pool at the prescribed age of 27.

“Pleased to meet you, hope you guessed my name,” Mick Jagger croons on “Sympathy for the Devil,” the most electric of tracks on the Stones’ 1968 album Beggars Banquet. In the Jean-Luc Godard documentary of the same name, Rolling Stones’ drummer Charlie Watts plays a Jajouka drum in one scene, a full year before his bandmate would decamp to Morocco. If there is a mystery about its provenance it’s unconsciously clarified in the primal syncopation that thrums through the track, with an answer in the chorus. The Master Musicians of Jajouka sound far more ominous than the Rolling Stones, and “Sympathy for the Devil” is already ominous, but the distinctive, bestial, Luciferian rhythm in both the rock song and the religious rites are paeans to giving the devil his due. Not to worshiping the devil, you must understand, but acknowledging these things of darkness that permeate creation. Music, poetry, writing, they are all inspired by the muse and inhabited by it, they allow us to be possessed by such forces, but they also exorcise them. Hamri wrote in Tales from Jajouka that “Such a powerful contact, with a sound and pitch so high, could be used with the blessing of Allah like a surgical tool to heal sick minds.”

Such music had first been brought to Jajouka by Boujelod, when a shepherd named Attar had dared to sleep in a forbidden cave near the village. Awakened by the goat god playing his pipes, Attar came to an agreement, whereby Boujelod would teach the shepherd his music, as long as the man kept such rhythms secret. Attar broke his promise, and in retaliation Boujelod demanded a bride from Jajouka as a sacrifice. The canny villagers sent out a young woman known to be insane, and her frenetic dancing exhausted Boujelod, who departed. Subsequently, the descendants of Attar have performed a pantomime of that incident every year, the ritual linked to both fertility and inspiration (for what is the latter but a variety of the former?). Ostensibly derived from the Islamic Sufi mysticism that’s prevalent throughout Ahl-Srif, a realm of saint’s shrines and dervish lodges, this music recalled far earlier traditions. Anthropologist Edvard Westermarck provides a hypothesis as to the origin of such rites in his anachronistically titled 1933 study Pagan Survivals in Mohammedan Civilization. Morocco is where Moorish-Spanish Al-Andalus kisses Northern Africa, a land whose dreams had been spoken in Arabic, Latin, Sephardic Ladino, Carthaginian, Phoenician, the Silha, Kabyle, and Tamazight languages of the Berbers, and the lost language of Silbo Gomero, spoken by the Guanche, who until the 15th century communicated in whistle, though ultimately murdered by the Spanish during their invasion of the Canary Islands. Deserts buffeted between the pagan and Jewish, the Christian and Islamic. Into this fragrant tagine, Westermarck detects a flavor of Roman origin, noting the similarity between the rituals of Jajouka and the festivals of Saturnalia, Lupercalia, and Kalends, as all of those festivals featured a penitent “dressed up in skins of some sacrificed goats … to benefit [the participants] and especially to expel illness… a scapegoat as well as a positive expeller of evil,” Westermarck wrote.

Gysin was blunter in his assessment of the practices, writing in The Third Mind that “Their secret, guarded even from them, was that they were still performing the Rites of Pan under the ragged cloak of Islam.” Timothy Leary was even more anachronistic, claiming that the musicians were a “4,000-year-old rock band.” Certain correspondences can be drawn between Jajouka and the scapegoat as described in the biblical book of Leviticus, or the various Dionysian rites of the Maenads practiced in the classical world. But there are, to be sure, problems with Gysin’s enthusiasms, not least of which is the barely concealed colonialist condescension that deigns to tell a group of men who are otherwise pious Muslims that he understands their own culture better than them, the orientalist assumption that a white Englishmen would be the best interpreter of Jajouka. They were, after all, a guild blessed by the Sufi saint Sidi Ahmed Schiech, whose shrine was still in the village. Still, it’s fair to note that the ritual of Boujelod has nothing obvious to do with Islam, and that if Westermarck and Gysin claim a Dionysian origin, it’s not necessarily ridiculous, as the Romans had ruled in North Africa for 500 years, and its possible some traditions may have endured, even if their origin was occluded.

Pagan rites had survived Christianity in sublimated European folk rituals, after all; in the Abruzzi village of Cocullo, not far from where my grandfather was born, the Festa dei Serpari honors St. Domenico on his feast day by parading his statue through the streets, decorated with a garland of writhing serpents, a practice derived directly from the Umbrian snake goddess Angitia. Perhaps there is something archetypal in these animalistic flourishes, all of those snakes and goats appearing across cultures but often connotating the same thing. From bacchanals and the Maenads to the witches’ sabbath and Black Mass, the goat has been endowed with ambivalent symbolism. Dionysus’s reveries and the orgies of Satan are not exactly parallel, but they’re not perpendicular either. Possession was strongly associated with the Dionysiac rites when the god was imported from the Thracians and he was quickly conflated with madness, irrationality, intoxication, and poetry. As E.R. Dodds writes in The Greeks and the Irrational, Dionysius was “a god of ecstatic prophecy,” “the patron of a new art, the art of the theater,” who was a “Master of Illusions,” and both the “cause of madness and the liberator from madness.” Dionysius wasn’t evil—but he was dangerous. This is true no matter what name he took—Pan, Orpheus, Bacchus, Ogoun, Sucellus, Loki, Tezcatzontecati, Osiris, Lucifer. Boujelod. Pleased to meet you. As Bachier Attar, a musician in the guild, told a New York Times reporter in 1995, “We say that jajouka music can wake the devils from the ground.”  

Part of giving the devil his due is performing such rituals as an honor, but also as a means of corralling that dangerous spark from whence poetry and song originate. The penitent in the skins of Boujelod is both possessed by the creature and exorcizing him—this has much to do with control as it does with abandon. Friedrich Nietzsche writes that those who “turn away with pity or contempt from phenomena,” who dismiss them as mere “folk diseases,” are “poor creatures [who] have no idea how blighted and ghostly this ‘sanity’ of theirs sounds when the glowing life of Dionysiac revelers thunders past them.” Nietzsche has no time for prigs who are “bolstered by a sense of their own sanity,” and when it came to Jajouka that was definitely not the case with Bowles, Gysin, and Burroughs, of whom many adjectives could be applied, but sanity would be one used sparingly. The latter two in particular were drawn to the archaic and ecstatic undercurrent of this music. Both were obsessed with the supernatural, the divine, the occult— the buried question sung by Orpheus but long dismissed by the rationally inclined as rank superstition—from whence is the origin of poems? Burroughs made clear his stake, writing in Queer that “My concept of possession is closer to the medieval model than to modern psychological explanation,” for he is speaking of a “definite possessing entity,” while Gysin, as quoted by Stevens, declared “I talk a new language… I talk about the springs and traps of inspiration.”    

When Bowles was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia—he dropped out and moved to Paris, then Tangiers—he was partial to certain subjects. Gregorian Chants. Duke Ellington. The Blues. And T.S. Eliot. That Anglophilic monarchist—an upper-class Missourian just like Burroughs—was steadfastly Apollonian, and yet he is not short on Dionysian evocations. The Waste Land was Bowles’s favorite poem, but in the “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” the titular fool asks himself “Do I dare. Disturb the universe?” Though this is not what Eliot himself meant, the line is an apt summation of what inspiration is—it’s both to be disturbed by the universe and to disturb the universe. For after all, you are a small sentient portion of that far larger medium of reality—we are all microcosms of that immeasurable thing—we are small parts of the universe that has gained consciousness. Prufrock asks himself “Do I dare eat a peach?” and in the context of the poem it’s an indictment of the aging narrator’s self-seriousness, but it relates well to disturbing the universe, for fruit has always facilitated the fall (and there’s no inspiration if you’re stuck in perfect Eden). Augustine stole some pears in the marketplace of Hippo, not far from Morocco, and then threw them away, the point of the filching to revel in wickedness. “I loved my fall,” Augustine writes in his fourth-century Confessions, “not the object for which I had fallen but my fall itself.” Augustine identified such transgressions as a manifestation of that ur-lapse, when Adam and Eve ate another piece of forbidden fruit. In the West it has traditionally been depicted as an apple. Some have hypothesized it was a pomegranate. Perhaps it was a pear or peach.

Regardless, we’re to understand that fatal act as the moment when everything went wrong, when humanity’s rebelliousness condemned us to exile. And yet it’s just as easy to see this decision as the first fruit of inspiration, a fortunate fall that imbued them with the audacious ability to create, which had previously only been the eternal purview of the Lord. Every inspired act was thus a faint echo of both God’s creation and the self-creation of the fall that propelled Adam and Eve to points east. Idiosyncratic as such an interpretation might be, it has ample heretical precedent, with the orthodox Hippolytus recording that the Gnostic Monoimus had preached that all must “Abandon the search for God and the creation and other matters of a similar sort. Look for him by taking yourself as the starting point. Learn who it is within you who makes everything his own… If you carefully investigate these matters you will find Him in yourself.” God was a mere demiurge, but the higher creator—often associated with the serpent—was the liberator. As with Dionysus and his snakes, or Angitia and hers, this liberation is the teaching of how to create, it is the imparting of inspiration. Both freedom and madness can result. A dangerous present. Hans Jonas writes in The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginning of Christianity that “it is understand that, though thrown into temporality, we had an origin in eternity, and so we have an aim in eternity.” A flash of inspiration is both evidence that we come from Eden and that we no longer live there; a brief reflection of what it feels like to create as God. A divinely imparted gift. A dangerous present.      

“Let me pass through the arch,” wrote Federico Garcia Lorca in “Double Poem of Lake Eden” from Poet in New York, translated by Greg Simon (no relation) and Stephen F. White, composed while the Spanish poet and playwright was staying in rural Vermont. With a Maenad’s intensity, Lorca intoned “Here you are drinking my blood… while my eyes are shattered by aluminum/and drunken voices in the wind.” This is a mystic who knows the secret rites, who sees in creation “my liberty, my human love/in the darkest corner of the breeze no one wants.” Bowles was intensely moved by Lorca, this demon-haunted poet who had made his stand in fascist Spain across the Straits of Gibraltar, a republican, anarchist, socialist, and most of all Spaniard who agitated for liberation against the Francoists, and who in some Andalusian field in 1936, five years after the American first arrived in Tangiers, suffered a bullet in the brain because of it. “Then I realized I had been murdered/They looked for me in cafes, cemeteries and churches/… but they did not find me. /They never found me? /No. They never found me,” reads an entire lyric from Poet in New York, presciently written seven years before his assassination. Appropriate, because just as Lorca was murdered on some road to Granada in the dead of night, a blood-sacrifice for the Spanish people, so was Dionysus torn apart and resurrected on the road to Thebes. In 1943, Bowles adapted some of Lorca’s lyrics for a zarzuela entitled The Wind Remains, with Bernstein conducting the opening night. Long fascinated with Spanish culture, and Lorca’s presentation of the nation as a death-haunted realm of pathos, where the bull fight was a Dionysian sacrament and stern Catholicism was the operative mood, Bowles also translated dialogue from Lorca’s play Yerma, which he incorporated into an opera of that same name.

Lorca’s original was a pagan tragedy worthy of the ancient Greeks in its horrific tale of a childless young woman driven to madness and murder by her inability to conceive, a play about the perils of inspiration deferred. After she has strangled her husband to death, and thus forever precluded the ability of having a baby with him, Yerma screams “Don’t come near me, because I’ve killed my child. I’ve killed my child with my own hands!” A modern ritualization of that murder from Euripides’s The Bacchae, when Pentheus is murdered by his own mother after she has been entranced by Dionysus. No modern aesthetician of darkness was as proficient as Lorca, for none was quite as blunt about the chimerical nature of inspiration. He was the theorist of duende, his term for the irrational, ineffable, inscrutable nature of the creative spark, independent from positivist and rationalist justification for where ideas originate, borrowing the name for his term from the malevolent spirit that populates Spanish folklore, a wicked gnome who can both give and take away. “Play and Theory of the Duende” was Lorca’s 1933 treatise on the ways in which certain works of art reflect this dark spirit, and in the process embodies qualities that are intangible, authentic, earthy, deathly.

“The duende, then, is a power, not a work,” writes Lorca, differentiating between inspiration and that which results. “It is a struggle, not a thought. I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, ‘The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet.’ Meaning this: it is not a question of ability, but of true, living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation.” For Lorca, the duende is explicitly Dionysian. Any type of art is capable of both being inspired by and producing duende, but Lorca thought that music, dance, and poetry had an energy that made them more amenable. Certain artists are obvious possessors of duende—Robert Johnson and his Satanic blues, most of Bob Dylan, all of Leonard Cohen, Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue and of course Sketches of Spain, everything in William Blake, Joan Didion’s sentences in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Tom Waits’s voice on Frank’s Wild Years, Toni Morrison’s narratives, The Velvet Underground and Nico, particularly “The Black Angel’s Death Song,” young Marlon Brando, Jackson Pollock’s splatters, the verse of Sylvia Plath, John Coltrane’s saxophone, and of course the musicians of Jajouka. “The duende’s arrival always means a radical change in forms,” writes Lorca. “It brings to old planes unknown feelings of freshness, with the quality of something newly created, like a miracle, and it produces an almost religious enthusiasm.”       

Inspiration arrives mysteriously; it is not necessarily freely chosen, but comes as if a grace. No artist or writer can quite say why or how inspiration comes, but they can often say where or when, which means that there are ways of summoning her. “The duende is an enabling figure,” writes poet Edward Hirsch in The Angel and the Demon: Searching for the Source of Artistic Inspiration, “like Freud’s idea of the uncanny or Proust’s perception of involuntary memory, because it makes something visible that might be otherwise be invisible… It surfaces wherever and whenever a demonic anguish suddenly charges and electrifies a work of art in the looming presence of death.” Dreams have always been a conduit for inspiration. Keith Richards awoke from a bender one night, grabbed his guitar and recorded a riff, in the morning he played back the hook for “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” Around the same time, the entire melody to “Yesterday” was imparted into the slumbering mind of Paul McCartney, so mathematically perfect that he feared it was something that he’d heard before and forgotten. The impetus to Frankenstein came to Mary Shelley after an evening of horror stories told amongst friends in a Swiss villa; that night in a fretful dream she “saw the hideous phantasm of a man sketched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.” John Milton similarly drew from night visions, claiming that the blank verse of Paradise Lost was directly transmitted into his skull by his muse Urania, and that in the morning the blind poet’s mind had to be “milked” by his amanuensis (a troubling metaphor). Drugs and alcohol have always been a treatment for summoning the muse, albeit often with diminishing returns. Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote his lush “Kubla Kahn” stoned on opium, with visions of “gardens bright with sinuous rills, /Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree,” until his reveries were interrupted by that infamous person from Porlock banging on his door. The Tang dynasty poet Li Bai wrote his lyrics “Looking up, I find the moon bright/Then bowing my head, I drown in homesickness” while drunk, and the Persian poet Omar Khayyam’s rubaiyat with his celebration of “A jug of wine, a loaf of bread and thou/singing beside me in the wilderness” was written with a cup of shiraz in hand. For a genius, an intoxicated mind can sometimes be the royal road to wisdom; for myself it was more often the muddy ditch to a hangover. Since getting sober I’ve found that walking and a shower just as often bring inspiration.   

Life is an ever-obvious source, experience mixed within the smithy of the unconscious mind in the creation of something new. Adventure, exploration, journeying have all been used to discover the intangible. There’s a reason why the perceived exoticism of Tangiers drew Bowles, Gysin, and Burroughs. Edward Gibbon resolved to write The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire while on a gentleman’s grand tour of Europe, where “as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the temple of Jupiter… the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind.” Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage drew no inspiration from the author’s own experience, his having been born six years after Appomattox. Without Manassas or Gettysburg, Antietam or the Wilderness to draw on, Crane rather explained that it was “sense of the rage of conflict on the football field” from whence he appropriated verisimilitude. To be inspired by an earlier work of art is common enough, to understand those that came before you as your muses. As a student of mine pointed out, both Dante’s The Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost are biblical fan fiction. There is no Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote without those “vain and empty books of chivalry,” no Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary without Don Quixote, no Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot without Madame Bovary. A divinely ordered chain of influence radiating out through all of that which we write and read, inspiration touching everything like light from the Big Bang. There are the iconic means of inspiration as well—ecstasy, madness, visions. Blake was gifted with “a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars,” which initiated him into his prophetic vocation; almost two centuries later, while Ginsberg masturbated to some lines of Blake in his Greenwich Village apartment, he heard the dead poet whisper in his ear “For everything that lives is holy, life delights in life.”     

Plutarch writes in The Obsolescence of Oracles that there was a chthonic message relayed throughout the Peloponnese two millennia ago, but rather than whispered it was shouted. During the reign of Tiberius and when the fishermen Thamus heard an echoing voice declare, “Are you there? When you reach Palodes, take care to proclaim that the great god Pan is dead.” Goat-legged spirit of the woods, the satyr so often conflated with Dionysus (at least by many of the mystery cults), the god of fertility, sexuality, and inspiration, had expired. The Church Fathers naturally saw in Plutarch an allegorical account of the birth of their own God who would die, and certainly paganism itself is replete with stories of perishing deities who descend only to be resurrected. Pan is, like Dionysus, another dangerous god, a wild and intoxicated being who imparts wisdom, or a version of it, to the drunk, the foolish, the ecstatic. Foolish to think that any such god can ever die, at least not really. Look at the first-century marble pulled from the Vesuvian ash of Herculaneum, goat-hooved, bearded, caprine Pan with his flute, arm around Daphnis, staring with Arcadian lust at the shepherd. Then look at Peter Paul Rubens’s orange sfumato-hazed print of the demigod from 16 centuries later, the stolid Catholic presenting the creature in odalisque repose, staring into the eyes of the viewer with the same intensity as that shepherd more than a millennium before. Pan has a way of possessing still. Dionysius, too.

Plutarch was wrong—no oracle can ever be silenced. William Butler Yeats claimed that his poems composed through automatic writing were compelled by a force beyond him, a djinn whom he named Leo Africanus. The Swedish artistic visionary Hilma af Klimt attributed her abstract masterpieces to a spirit which had possessed her, and by consulting a Ouija board, Sylvia Plath communed with a being who identified himself as Pan, writing in her poem “The Colossus” that she’d said to him “Perhaps you consider yourself an oracle,/Mouthpiece of the dead, or of some god or other.” Even Bob Dylan told an interviewer in 2004 that his music had its origin from a bargain struck with the “Chief Commander… [of] this earth and in a world we can’t see.” Burroughs and Gysin, both being Americans, the former by birth and the latter naturalized, and perhaps in keeping with the national spirit, tried to summon Pan through technologized ecstasy with their infamous “Dreamachine.” Not so dissimilar from Plath’s Ouija board, and the two built a contraption that involved placing a cardboard cylinder with evenly cut slits onto a record player with a light-bulb descended within. A person watching the Dreamachine with closed eyes would experience 13 flickers per second—the goal was to hack the viewer’s alpha waves and trigger ecstatic hallucinations, a psychedelic television for the unconscious. Whatever works.

“Awe bears traces of the holy,” writes Hirsch. “It is both rapturous and terrifying, because it puts one in the space of the transcendental, the world beyond.” Both the musicians at Jajouka and those fortunate enough to hear them experience rapture, an overcoming, a transcendence, an ecstasy. It’s similar as to when a singer gets lost within their own notes and the voice seems to come from some place other than within; what a painter experiences when certain colors and shapes announce themselves as if from without; how a writer can become immersed within the flow of composition in a way that’s not totally themselves, that’s not totally rational. To be possessed is to be in danger and to be dangerous; to be possessed is to be holy. Not long after Pan’s death was announced across the Mediterranean, when the oracles were supposed to be dumb, the prophecies mute, and those penitents at Cocullo still handled their snakes and the initiates of Jajouka still played their flutes, and a different group of the possessed danced in ecstasy. In the eastern most corner of the empire, by those waters of Zion, and the assembled apostles felt “tongues of fire” come upon them as they gloriously chanted, each in their own spirit intoxicated language, this redemptive Babel that was Pentecost. They danced as if Maenads. Luke writes in the Book of Acts that the disciples were “filled with the Holy Spirit, and [they] began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.” How it must have sounded like a squealing of reeds, a blowing of pipes. Each person speaking in their own words, their own language, singular acts of inspired creation, of unique rendering. The only unpardonable sin we are told is to deny the Holy Spirit, to ignore the enchantments of this creation and the meaning that permeates everything, to not play the pipes when Pan calls. We are told in that same book of scripture that when Saul was on the road to Damascus, Christ appeared in a blinding light and told him that it was “hard to kick against the goads.” The Spirit cannot be denied. Yet Luke’s words had been said before, the gospel writer was quoting the playwright Euripides. They had first been uttered some five centuries before by Dionysus in The Bacchae. Old gods have a way of always being born again.    

Image Credit: Wikipedia.

The Lost Art of Not Knowing Something

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“I just want to ask you a few questions.” —Socrates in Aristophanes’s play The Clouds (423 BCE)

Tell me if you’ve heard this—a head-in-scroll type always quoting Livy or Plutarch goes to the house of a terminally sick friend. His distraught wife euphemistically tells the scholar her husband has recently “departed.” The intellectual responds “When he arrives back, will you tell him that I stopped by?” Not doing it? How about this—”A guy with bad breath decides to take his own life. So he wraps his head and asphyxiates himself.” More grim than gay? Let’s try another—”A luckless eunuch got himself a hernia.” That line is kind of funny, if upsetting. All of these jokes are over 1,600 years old, from the earliest surviving joke book Philogelos, written by Hierocles and translated from the Greek by William Berg. When considering ancient humor, historian Mary Beard worries that we’re as “anxious guests at a foreign party,” as she writes in Laugher in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling, and Cracking Up, “joining in with the hearty chuckling when it seems the polite thing to do but never quite sure that [we’ve] really got the joke.” There is, however, an ancient Greek joke, of a sort, that I do find funny, though more for the fact that for two-and-a-half millennia it’s been taken so seriously. To whit—a goggle-eyed, snub-nosed, balding, short little gremlin of a man was rumored to be the wisest in Athens, which was confirmed by the Delphic Oracle. The man—known to wander the Agora berating people with annoying questions—couldn’t believe it. So, he set out to find anybody wiser than him, asking people the definitions of truth, happiness, love. Soon, however, he comes to a conclusion—they don’t know anything. As Plato writes in The Apology, “I am wiser than this man, for neither of us appears to know anything great or good; but he fancies he knows something, although he knows nothing; whereas I, as I do not know anything, so I do not fancy I do.” Slight advantage Socrates. Cue the music from Curb Your Enthusiasm.

This isn’t exactly the Socrates in Ward Farnsworth’s learned, erudite, and elegant The Socratic Method: A Practitioner’s Handbook, but it’s not not exactly that Socrates either. Author of Farnsworth’s Classical Rhetoric, Farnsworth’s Classical English Metaphor, Farnsworth’s Classical English Style, and The Practicing Stoic —all released from Boston-based independent publisher Godine in distinctive bestiary covers—this latest offering is a prologue to that last title. Just as Farnsworth explained how the ancient Stoics are invaluable, in The Socratic Method he demonstrates how the dialogues that the ancient philosopher engaged in can “help toward intelligence and [as] an antidote to stupidity,” seeing in the relentless, honest, and surprisingly humble mode a cudgel against “foolishness, cowardice, partisanship, hypocrisy, rage, vanity, and other demons.” For those whose palms get sweaty at the phrase “Socratic Method,” it perhaps brings back memories of stern law school professors in tweed responding to every answered question with yet another question, or of attending physicians berating their under-slept residents as they make hospital rounds. This is the Socratic Method practiced by Professor Charles Kingsfield of Harvard Law School who in the 1973 James Bridges’s film The Paper Chase holds up a dime and tells one unlucky student “Call your mother. Tell her there is serious doubt about you becoming a lawyer.” Farnsworth—the Dean of the University of Texas Law School—is far too delightful to imagine ever doing anything like that; instead of seeing the Socratic Method as a tool for berating, he sees it as a corrective defined by “an ethic of patience, inquiry, humility, and doubt,” a predisposition based in a “confidence that truth exists, but humility about whether he knows it.”

Socrates, like Christ, is more appreciated than emulated. As with the Nazarene, we’ve got no first-person accounts of Socrates; if the former was a creation of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (and Paul), then the latter was born from Xenophon, Aristophanes, and more than anyone his ostensible student Plato. Unlike Christ, we’ve got a decent idea of what Socrates looked like, though since ancient Greek sculptors were known to idealize the human form it raises the question of how much worse the philosopher actually was, since he’s normally depicted as a “short, stocky…. bald man,” as George Costanza described himself. A Roman carnelian gem from the first-century before the Common Era depicts Socrates as bald, bearded, and boobed, reminiscent of the grinning comedic masks of the Athenian theater. The connection between Socrates and humor should be clear, not least of all because he was an annoying gadfly who conscripted his interlocutors into philosophical dialogue, with the intent to demonstrate inconsistencies, poor definitions, and an exulted sense of their knowledge. I’d posit that there is a bit of Larry David in the philosopher. They both puncture hypocrisy, force us to question our own moral platitudes, and deign that we must defend our presuppositions, even if doing so seems rude. After all, as Plato wrote in Laches, “Anyone who is close to Socrates and enters into conversation with him is liable to be drawn into an argument,” complaining that the philosopher “will not let him go until he has completely and thoroughly sifted him.” Pretty, pretty, pretty good. Pretty good.  

“In its caustic moments the Socratic function does some of the work of the fool or court jester,” Farnsworth writes, his task is to be “offensive when the ego overstates itself. It pokes at self-importance and hubris when they need mockery.” In Plato’s Symposium, Alcibiades says, “If you are foolish, or simply unfamiliar with him, you’d find it impossible not to laugh at his arguments,” while Plutarch admiringly writes in On Old Men in Public Life that Socrates “played the philosopher while joking with you,” as he was the “first to show that life affords scope for philosophy at every moment, in every detail, in every feeling and circumstance whatsoever.” If the secret to humor is timing, than Socrates landed an epic delayed joke, because though he claimed to be devoid of wisdom, some 2,400 years after he was executed by the Athenian state for the supposed corruption of the youth (and his involvement in educating several of the anti-democratic leaders among the deposed Thirty Tyrants) and Alfred North Whitehead would claim in Process and Reality that the entire “European philosophical tradition… consists of a series of footnotes to [him]” (well, Plato, but it’s the same thing). How’s that for a punchline, the self-declared nudnik who created the entire Western tradition?

Such is Socratic irony, for nobody who reads the dialogues can suppress the feeling that the philosopher doesn’t actually believe his stated ignorance, and yet his methodological skepticism has long been a philosophical loadstar. Bertrand Russell writes in A History of Western Philosophy that Socrates was a “pattern to subsequent philosophers for many ages… indifferent to worldly success, so devoid of fear that he remains calm and urbane and humorous to the last moment, caring more for what he believes to be the truth than for anything else.” This is the figure depicted in Jacque-Louis David’s 1787 neo-classical masterpiece The Death of Socrates, the regal old man, arm pointing aloft as he makes another point to his distraught students while being handed a cup filled of hemlock, so honest that with his dying words he is recorded in Plato’s Phaedo as having said the he owed a rooster to a friend, so “Pay it and do not neglect it.” Some have always been a bit suspicious of this martyr to reason, this Christ of philosophy; in The Trial of Socrates, muckraking labor journalist I.F. Stone surveyed primary sources in the original Greek and concluded that his subject was a “loyal monarchist” who was executed for his anti-democratic activities, though that punishment was a “black mark for Athens and the freedom it symbolized.” Russell, meanwhile, simply called Socrates “smug and unctuous.”

Whatever his politics or personality, Socrates has remained synonymous with the idea of a philosophical life for nearly 24 centuries. Just as Christ’s advent divides history, whether we’re Christian or not, so too does Socrates cleave ancient philosophy in half. Before Socrates, philosophy was practiced by an assortment of mystics and weirdos like Pythagoras, or else it was the provenance of the rhetorically minded charlatans the Sophists, who in total disregard to the truth were interested only in teaching how to be convincing. Socrates shared much with them, particularly the merits of argumentation, but where the Sophists were only interested in winning, the former had truth in his scope (even if ever elusive). The master wrote nothing himself, and posterity records his teachings entirely through Plato, from whom it’s almost impossible to disentangle. Plato in turn taught the Macedonian philosopher Aristotle, but when the student was passed over to lead the Academy, he’d found his own group, the Lyceum. Between the two of them, Plato and Aristotle effectively separated the rest of Western philosophy amongst two camps. Enmity between an adviser and his student, the dialectic that moves scholarship forward, same as it ever was. Where Plato was otherworldly and abstract, Aristotle was pragmatic and concrete; the first was mathematical, the second was scientific; the older rational, the younger empirical; the former spiritual, and the latter physical. As with The Beatles and The Stones, you can like both, but not equally. Yet as a melody through the two, and through movements including the Stoics, Skeptics, Epicureans, and Cynics, was the example of Socrates, who modeled a method rather than a doctrine. Plato is most identified with his Theory of Forms, the idea that perceived reality is a shadow of some transcendent realm. It’s hard to parse whether this idea is Socrates’s or Plato’s. What we do know is that Socrates unequivocally demonstrated the utility of his much-vaunted method.

Farnsworth explains that this method “proceeds by questions and answer,” with Socrates “always focused on the consistency of his partners” so that he can “identify the principle behind what his partners are saying.” After Socrates has gotten his interlocutor to define whatever it is that they’re talking about—courage, virtue, justice—the philosopher “shows that the principle doesn’t cover things that it should, or that it does cover things that it shouldn’t,” while using “concrete examples to drive his reasoning.” Throughout the process Socrates never claims expertise, seeing himself and whomever the unfortunate Athenian he has cornered—and is probably just trying to buy pistachios and olives in the Agora—as being involved in collaborative process. As a representative example, consider Socrates’s cross-examination of Laches in which he asks the latter what courage is, with his unlucky partner answering that it’s a “sort of mental persistence.” With a definition given, Socrates examines it both for internal consistency and to demonstrate to Laches that this definition is incomplete, for “I don’t think that you take every instance of persistence to be courage,” since you “count courage as something rather admirable,” and yet there are forms of persistence that are obviously unintelligent, and unintelligence isn’t admirable. “If anything is harmful and dangerous, is it admirable, would you say?” asks Socrates. “No, that wouldn’t be a defensible position,” Laches answers. They go on like this for awhile until both admit that neither of them knows what courage is. This process of dialectic—the posing and answers of questions to demonstrate contradictions and to reach ever greater degrees of specific granularity—is powered by elenchus, the rhetorical maneuver of asking somebody questions that they’d agree with so as to ultimately make them identify logical inconsistencies in their original presupposition (there is a reason that law schools teach in this manner). For a contemporary example, watch Peter Falk in any episode of Columbo.

While the radical Skeptics such as Pyrrho used this method to prove the unknowability of anything, Socrates was up to something different. His intent wasn’t to continue the dialogue to a point where both parties are just as ignorant as before, but rather to reach a state of aporia, a wondrous, enlightened ignorance, though also a state of relative knowledge. The philosopher saw his difficult role in this process as rather being like a midwife. “Socratic thought is a route to wisdom but not wisdom in a box; it denies that wisdom can be fit in a box,” writes Farnsworth. What does Farnsworth want his reader to do with the Socratic Method? He makes clear that he doesn’t intend this to be societally prescriptive, all of us sitting down with our MAGA coworkers and reasoning them out of QAnon conspiracy theories through elenchus. Rather the “rightful first subject of skepticism isn’t others. It’s ourselves,” for Farnsworth argues that the true utility of the method is to feed an inner Socrates who forces us to continually refine our own beliefs, presuppositions, commitments, ethics, and ideologies. If inconsistencies are discovered we can strengthen our previously untested beliefs by further refining them; if they withstand such scrutiny, we can be confident in why we believe what we do. Maybe Socrates is smug and unctuous, maybe he isn’t all that pleasant, but he’s still somebody we need the assistance of. “There has to be an opposition party within the self,” Farnsworth writes, because the “internalized Socrates amounts to an honorable adversary.”  

The Socratic Method is scant with current day examples, preferring to bring up Epictetus and John Stuart Mill rather than Bill Maher and Ben Shapiro, which is of course a good thing. Yet it’s obvious that Farnsworth has our current discourse in mind (not least of all because he explicitly says so), and in the Socratic Method he identifies a tincture to that which ails the body politic. “If I were pressed for a one-word opposite of the Socratic method, a strong candidate would be Twitter,” he writes. With a bit of the curmudgeon about him, Farnsworth claims that social media carries “a kind of poison” within, a noxious brew of “quick reactions, easy certainties, one-liners and rage” that “craves confirmation and resents contradiction.” The author is mute about his own partisan allegiances, but it’s personally telling that as I read that description it became important to me that Farnsworth wasn’t talking about my side. Hot cheeked and frowning, I anticipated some fulsome denunciation of “cancel culture” and “social justice warriors,” which never came. Ironically, when reading over my notes for this piece, I examined a line when Farnsworth describes the danger of unexamined cultural precepts, writing that “Wretchedness can occur because points of tension in the values of the society have not yet been brought to its collective awareness in a clear enough way” and I wondered if a conservative reading The Socratic Method would think that the author was overly “woke.” Then I realized that perhaps I’d subconsciously been projecting something, that Farnsworth had made his point about the dangers of not submitting yourself to the inner Socrates and rather letting Twitter think for you.

Don’t worry, this isn’t an account of how The Socratic Method made me go conservative, far from it (nor do I think that that’s what Farnworth intends). And while it’s easy to see Farnsworth critiquing the “discourse” as bothsiderism, I think what he’s arguing is far more subtle. People who receive their deepest political commitments from memes that originate at a .ru domain address or who scour Trumpian Twitter misspellings for secret codes dropped by JFK Jr. are in need of intercessions beyond that which can be supplied by the Phaedo, but I do think Farnsworth is correct about the algorithmic conformity machine for the saner among us. Author Meghan O’Gieblyn describes the Internet’s uncanniness in her excellent book God, Human, Animal, Machine: Technology, Metaphor, and the Search for Meaning, writing that while online she senses “the speed with which ideas go viral, cascading across social platforms, such that the users who share them begin to seem less like agents than as hosts, nodes in the enormous brain,” where there is an “efficiency of consensus, the speed with which opinions fuse and solidify alongside the news cycle, like thought coalescing in the collective consciousness.” Who among us has not decided, even subconsciously, what their opinion would be based on a missive from some Blue Checkmark Oracle? Who hasn’t experienced the push and pull of sentiment as drawn from the whirlpool of the newsfeed, positions coalescing as if from outside their own mind? From that perspective the Socratic Method is absolutely an antidote to the creepy hive-mindedness of the worst of digitally powered unthinkingness. The issue isn’t what the opinions are; the issue is how you arrived at them.

Because there is an innate radicalism to aporia, an affirmation not of certainty, but of less uncertainty. This isn’t utopian because it’s individual; it’s not quixotic because you can start doing it now. “The Socratic method means, among other things, asking and receiving questions fearlessly,” Farnsworth writes, “it means saying what you think, and not getting hot when others say what they think; it means loving the truth and staying humble about whether you know it.” Staying humble and being honest—those are Socrates’s most revolutionary sentiments, even if he often seemed a bit conceited. Over the last generation, activists and scholars have critiqued the Western tradition—if ever a Socratic activity—for being patriarchal, racist, colonialist, and so on. Which of course is true—it would be lying to deny those things. But the punchline at the core of that tradition is the Socratic aporia, the humble and gracious uncertainty that’s willing to interrogate away every excess, indignity, and contradiction until confronted with the unvarnished and perhaps ugly truth. Seeds for the undoing of everything that deserves to be undone within Western philosophy were first planted by Socrates. That’s the irony about reactionaries who claim to be defending the classics by denouncing “critical race theory,” or “cultural Marxism,” or deconstruction, or whatever, because they despise the subversions which those things are supposed to signify, but can you imagine anything more Socratic than subversion? Those who claim to be students in the School of Athens are most often those who screech about the corruptions of youth. Where’s that hemlock?    

A few months ago The Washington Post reported that Princeton historian Allen Guelzo argued that critical race theory was based in the pernicious work of the 18th-century Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant, seemingly based only on the first word in the title of his magnum opus The Critique of Pure Reason. Clearly this is stupid, and the Twitter hive-mind appropriately showered scorn on Guelzo’s claim. But in a more profound way, where Guelzo erred was in identifying Kant as the origin of such a perspective. It was Socrates who was responsible—and we owe him gratitude. “Only the search to the origins of one’s ideas in order to see the real arguments for them, before people became so certain of them that they ceased thinking about them at all, can liberate us,” wrote reactionary classicist Allan Bloom in Giants and Dwarves, and he was absolutely correct, though not for the reasons that he thought. Only by proper, rigorous, Socratic questioning can we hope to redeem ourselves, but the irony for a Bloom is that in that process the United States might not come up so well, capitalism might not seem so great, the bulk of the Western tradition might require some remodeling, all thanks to the time bomb hidden within that tradition itself. Contra Bloom’s staid traditionalism, but in keeping with Farnsworth’s pedagogical radicalism, Roosevelt Montás argues in his delightful and important Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changes My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation that when teaching the Platonic dialogues to low-income students in the Bronx, “Socrates whispers to them not to mistake… marks of privilege for true expressions of merit and to find in their own intellectual integrity a source of self-worth and self-respect that surpasses any material advantage their peers might have over them.” Because whatever role Socrates played in the politics of Athens, whatever he did or didn’t do that merited execution, both Montas and Farnsworth are correct that the dialectic is dangerous in the most powerful way.

Socrates was a schmuck. You see, I’m a schmuck, and I’m sure that you are as well. The common impediment of the human condition is that we’re all schmucks. We’re clowns that have slipped on the seltzer and landed in the whipped-cream pie, but some of us are looking up at the stars (or at least the mural of them on the vaudeville theater ceiling). That’s the thing with a schmuck—they’re conceited, narcissistic, egocentric, but they can also be humbled, and in such degradation is the road to something that kind of, sort of, might pass for wisdom. So often theories of humor are based in cruelty and mocking, but self-deprecating Socrates knew that the greatest target of comedic opprobrium was always the fool in his mirror. That’s the power of humility, because you can defeat your sparring partner by first defeating yourself. Something in that regard always seemed a bit Jewish about Socrates, the funny bits of him more Borscht Belt than Baklava. “Socratic philosophy starts with ‘I don’t know.’ It ends with ‘I don’t know,'” writes Farnsworth. What could be more Jewish than that? Especially since questions are the “sound of thought happening.” An anarchic jester and a wise fool, Socrates was most of all a tummler and his method was schtick. Between Athens and Jerusalem there is the prat-fall, the one-liner, the gag, the bit, the joke. Greek philosophy gave us the dialectic, and for that we should be grateful, but in the prophetic tradition of Judaism there still remains a far more redemptive mode of denouncing injustice and uncovering the lie, and that’s iconoclasm. Tell me if you’ve heard this one—the biblical patriarch Abraham’s father, Terah, was the fashioner of pagan idols. When asked to guard his father’s statues, Abraham (then known as Abram) took a stick and smashed them to bits, save for the largest one in whose hand he placed the instrument that had committed such vandalism. According to a midrash of Rabbi Hiyya, when Terah returned, the enraged father demanded of Abraham who had destroyed the idols. The son pointed to the most formidable of the idols, still holding that stick, and said “He did.” Now that’s funny.         

Read More Puritan Poetry

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“I am drawn, in pieties that seem/the weary drizzle of an unremembered dream.”—John Berryman, Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1956)

At the height of their dominance, the North American mastodon traversed from the Arctic Circle to as far south as Costa Rica, going extinct during the Pleistocene about 11 millennia ago. With an average height of 14 feet and a weight of around eight tons, the pachyderm foraged throughout the frozen American forest for millions of years; white tusk glinting in moonlight, coarse brown hair hanging in ragged clumps from massive haunches, trumpeting trunk echoing in Yosemite, the Berkshires, the Adirondacks. Sometime in the last 20, or 30, or 40 thousand years, one of these mammoths perished in those virgin woods near what would be Claverack, N.Y., her body covered over in rich soil and her bones transmuted into fossils. Above her decaying corpse the glaciers would recede, then the ancestors of the Mahican would arrive, after them came the Dutch, and finally the English. A Knickerbocker whose name is lost to posterity was digging in a marsh by the Hudson in 1705 when he unearthed a five-pound honey-comb ribbed bright-enameled ivory molar. On July 23, the Boston News Letter printed report of a “great prodigious Tooth brought here, supposed by the shape of it to be one of the far great Teeth of a man.” Some of those who were enslaved, recalling their lives in Africa, remarked that the tooth looked similar to that of an elephant, but those observations were dismissed.

Edward Hyde, the infamous cross-dressing 3rd Earl of Clarendon and Governor of New York and New Jersey, had the molar dispatched to the Royal Society in London, with his own evaluation being that it was from some Antediluvian monstrosity, possibly the Nephilim spoken of in Genesis, the giant progeny of fallen angels and loose women. The Puritan divine Cotton Mather came to the same conclusion, citing the teeth in his Biblia Americana as evidence of the flood. And in Westfield, Mass., a minister named Edward Taylor wrote a poem about the gargantuan teeth. A private man, Taylor was taken to penning verse entirely for himself, and in the molar he saw a muse, writing 190 verses about how it evidenced the glory of God. “This Gyants bulk propounded to our Eyes/Reason lays down nigh t’seventy foot did rise/In height, whose body holding just proportion/Grew more than 7 yards round by Natures motion.” Taylor recorded his epic in a commonplace book of some 400 pages, which included lyrics that would eventually be regarded as the greatest of early American verse, described by Michael Schmidt in Lives of the Poets as a “strange voice, new and yet with old and tested tonalities,” sealed away in a leather-bound volume donated by his family to Yale’s Beinecke Library and fossilizing on some shelf until discovered in 1937, like an ivory tooth sifted from the silt.

After Professor Thomas H. Johnson’s uncovering of Taylor’s poetry, some of the lyrics would be printed in The New England Quarterly, and just as a mammoth tooth had charged imaginations in the early 18th century, so would scholars construct grandiose interpretations of the significance of this yeoman farmer, Paracelsian physician, Congregationalist minister, and religious poet. Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mark van Doren pronounced Taylor the author of the “most interesting American verse before the 19th century,” and critics quickly heralded this forgotten writer who had prohibited the publication of his work during his lifetime as the equivalent of the Spanish Baroque poets who were his contemporaries in Mexico City, or as a frontier George Herbert or John Donne, who doesn’t just make “one little room an everywhere” but who counts out iambs and trochees while splitting wood on his homestead, plumbing metaphysical poetry’s intricacies while braving Nor’easters and fortifying his town’s defenses during King Philip’s War. Whether or not Taylor was the equivalent of Donne (he wasn’t), the poet crafted some brilliant and beautiful poems, with Werner Sollors writing in his contribution to the Greil Marcus edited New Literary History of America that the minister was a “tinkerer, risk taker, language explorer, multilingual punster, lover of metaphors, and coiner of strange images, a trained rhetorician skeptical of eloquence, a divine with an odd sense of humor, an isolated frontier poet striving for new ways of expressing.” Hyde and Mather looked at a mammoth tooth and saw a giant; Johnson and van Doren read Taylor’s Preparatory Meditations and God’s Interpretations and detected the greatest American poet until Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. What the truth was, in both cases, happened to be different, but no less wondrous because of it.

The strange epic inspired by the mastodon tooth wasn’t included in Johnson’s first edition of the Poetical Works of Edward Taylor, perhaps a bit too eccentric for the New Critics of the day, but the lyrics that made the cut were lauded as among the finest of the 17th century. “Am I new minted by thy Stamp indeed?” Taylor addresses God, writing that “Mine Eyes are dim; I cannot clearly see./Be thou my Spectacles that I may read/Thine Image and inscription stampt on me.” Editor of The Poems of Edward Taylor, Donald E. Stanford, snarks that the “puritan tendency to invest all aspects of life with religious meaning had a profound and often unfortunate effect on Taylor’s choice of images… [he] had little concern with incongruous connotations. He saw resemblances rather than differences,” and yet I’d argue the source of his genius is simile. Taylor has a wit and a metaphorical cleverness that’s indicative of conceit; configuring himself as a book stamped with register’s approval and God as a pair of glasses is certainly clever. In such a comparison, one sees love as a compass or conjugal pleasure in a flea. The rhyme scheme and rhythm are simple but they’re not rustic. Some critics claimed to see in Taylor crypto-Catholicism (inaccurate), or his verse as prefiguring Ralph Waldo Emerson or Gerard Manley Hopkins (fairer). Such claims dehistoricize Taylor, who though a brilliant poet was an orthodox Puritan, concerned more with the Half-Way Covenant than what it meant to be an American poet, much less an American (he was English, after all).

During graduate school, I would read fat anthologies of early American verse filled with names that are forgotten. David S. Shields’s beautiful Library of America anthology American Poetry: The Seventeenth and Eighteenth-Centuries with its bible paper and black ribbon bookmark; Harrison T. Meserole’s slightly gothic purple covered American Poetry of the Seventeenth Century, and Alan Heimert and Andrew Delbanco’s The Puritans in America: A Narrative History, its cover adorned with a ghostly close-up of the woodcut engraved shortly after Richard Mather landed in Massachusetts, depicting his disembodied hands and glasses. During dusk, the sunlight would filter through the canopy of trees that looked over my 19th-century apartment’s communal courtyard— which was rounded on two sides by kudzu covered hills and the building behind me, a rickety wooden fence separating me from the railroad tracks and the Lehigh River beyond—and with the sound of crickets and the occasional blare of a train whistle as the bestial metal monstrosity lumbered past, I’d read. Poems like John Wilson’s “To God our twice-Revenger,” Edward Johnson’s “New England’s Annoyances,” Urian Oakes’s “An Elegie Upon that Reverend, Learned, Eminently Pious, and Singularly Accomplished Divine, my Ever Honoured Brother, Mr. Thomas Shepherd,” Nathaniel Evans’s “To Benjamin Franklin Esq: L.L.D., Occasioned by hearing him play on the Harmonica,” and of course Ned Botwood’s “Hot Stuff.” Sometimes I’d sojourn to Bethlehem’s northside where 18th-century dormitories of the German-speaking Moravians still stand, walking through a cemetery of flat gravestones down a lonely red-brick path to sit on a bench behind the federal-style church, perusing my collections of forgotten poetry. What I’m saying is that, as with all reading experiences, the atmosphere of where you first encounter early American poetry can make a difference, can add a romance.

The early Americans whom we’ve enlisted in our national story were abundantly and irrevocably different from us. Their concerns were not our concerns, their lives were unfathomable. They were not better than us —often they were clearly far worse (and yes, sometimes they were noble, or steadfast, or loyal). Taylor’s obsession with whether he was worthy of administering communion speaks little to secular people. Cracking the spine of one of those anthologies was a way of being with folks whose views were divergent from mine, whose beliefs I sometimes find abhorrent. They would recognize me at best as an apostate and at worst as a papist heretic. I respected them. Sometimes I even liked them. “If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant: if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome,” wrote Anne Bradstreet in her 1664 Meditations Divine and Moral, as Yankee a sentence as has ever been written, and true, I think, even as the winters get shorter and warmer. Coming to love Puritan poetry is an odd aesthetic journey, for poets like Taylor are not easy. It’s the sort of thing you expect people partial to bowties and gin gimlets to get involved with. Perhaps that’s how one Ipswich realtor read my wife and me, back when we lived north of Boston and with mortgage dreams of millennial wanderlust we toured a 17th-century house just to see how wooden shoe people lived. When the agent discovered my job, I detected his misguided sense of luck, and he told me that just the previous autumn he’d sold “Mistress Bradstreet’s house,” pointing toward a wooden-planked salt-box across the road. Latter, when I examined the brass plaque affixed to the side, I discovered that he was telling the truth.  

Seventeenth-century America had no Donne. There was no Shakespeare or Jonson or Milton in Boston or Philadelphia or New Amsterdam. Still, something about the mistiness of the period, the distance and oddity of these people who were ministers and physicians and the enslaved who wrote verse moved me, as if putting on a pair of divine glasses to read something intrinsic stamped on the soul. Taylor and his mirror of infinity, Bradstreet on hardship and duty, Michael Wigglesworth’s meditations on sin, and dozens of others who if they didn’t rise to the heights of the country they left still struck me as beautiful because they were so enigmatic—not because of any perceived universalism, but precisely because they were so unlike us, unlike me. That is, I suppose, a reason to read early American poetry. Not because it’s a mirror, but rather a window of fogged, dimpled, rough-blown glass. Too often the justification of engaging with centuries-old literature is because readers will see themselves reflected in those works, but if you want to see yourself go on Twitter. If you want to spend time with something alien, foreign, strange, and odd, read early American poetry.  

Preparatory Meditations is an odd book because it wasn’t written for consumption, at least not by human eyes. The poet had no concern of readers, or critics, or scholars; Taylor’s verse was the most pure that there can be, written for him and Him alone. The work’s title refers to the purpose that those lyrics served, to prepare for administering the sacrament of communion (that perseveration being a reason why he was misinterpreted as secretly sympathetic to Catholicism, which he adamantly wasn’t). Today such a poet would be seen as an oddball eccentric, an outsider. By contrast, Taylor wasn’t just a respected minister, his family was so esteemed that his grandson became president of Yale. Which speaks to the alterity of Puritan poetry—it’s very reasoning is countercultural. “Did God mould up this Bread in Heaven, and bake,/Which from his Table came, and to thine goeth?” Taylor writes. “Its Food too fine for Angells, yet come, take/And Eate thy fill. Its Heavens Sugar Cake.” Christianity is so obvious in Taylor’s verse that it demonstrates how secular our current age is (especially among Christians). To read Taylor is to be in the presence of somebody with a gem-like intensity, a flame as much as a man, and unless you’re a very particular type of person, he is most likely somebody who is little like you. And his poetry can be beautiful. Though Taylor couldn’t have thought of himself as an American in the sense that citizens of the United States do, I think it’s helpful to countenance that fiction, in part because I find that myth as instructive in and of itself. “Infinity, when all things it beheld/In Nothing, and of Nothing all did build,/Upon what Base was fixt the Lath wherein/He turn’d this Globe, and rigalld it so trim?” wrote Taylor. Hemispheric turning and building an everything from nothing, not dissimilar to inventing the idea of America, a fictional domain that’s its own type of heretical divinity.

No period of American literary history raises the question of what an American is more than our earliest poetry, which during the twilight of empire becomes an ever more urgent query. Richard Ruland and Malcolm Bradbury note in their study From Puritanism to Postmodernism: A History of American Literature that “more than most literatures, American literary history is frequently dominated by the interpretations modern writers make of their predecessors,” good enough justification at midnight to go back to sunrise. That’s not to mention the other reasons to contemplate such verse—that it’s often beautiful and almost always deeply weird. At the time of Taylor’s rediscovery, the nascent field of American Studies was constructing a new understanding of what this nation meant, and in part that involved retroactively reading events in the 16th through the 18th centuries as prophetically pointing towards the United States, the sort of typology practiced by Puritans when they read the Hebrew Scriptures as foreshadowing Christ. Ruland and Bradbury write that “any discussion of American literature draws on long-standing speculation… shaped by large questions about the nature of American experience, the American land and landscape, American national identity and the nature of language and expression in the presumed ‘New World.'” That’s all fantasy of course, albeit useful fantasy. For those constructing a new canon nearly a century ago, these early authors became an invaluable argument for the nation’s singular literary origins. William C. Spengemann writes in A New World of Words: Redefining Early American Literature that the “reigning theory of American literature as an independent, autochthonous, unique collection of writings with a history of its own appears to be little more than a political fiction” whereby “American literature comes from a certain place” rather than being written in a particular language (namely English).  

Such an “ambiguous literary status,” writes Spengemann, is due to thinking of writers like Taylor as “American rather than as English, as a primitive phase in the evolution of a truly ‘American’ literature that would not arrive until a century or two later.” Johnson and van Doren saw a giant, when really Taylor was a mammoth (but being a mammoth is good enough). What’s fascinating to me about early American literature, if we acknowledge Spengemann’s point while turning him on his head, is that works from that gloaming period makes us question what “America” means, that word that after all should be applied to a whole hemisphere and not just 13 British colonies (of 38 that were part of British North America in 1775). American literature is marked by an obsession with defining itself, because in every way that matters, “America” has never actually been a place so much as a variable, contradictory, and difficult idea. From the Aleutian Islands to Tierra del Fuego, both continents of this hemisphere have been endowed with millennial, utopian, and Edenic associations. The Spanish historian Francisco Lopez de Gomara wrote in 1552 that the “discovery” of America was the “greatest event since the creation of the world” (he made an exception for the incarnation and the crucifixion), while in his India Christiana of 1721 Mather would apocalyptically write “we have now seen the Sun rising in the West.” To read American literature then—but especially early American literature—is to read letters from an imaginary realm. From beginnings to endings, Genesis to Revelation, to be an inhabitant of the more than16 million square miles of the New World is to be the citizen of a myth.

Who knows if that’s how Bradstreet felt as she approached Boston Harbor aboard the Arbella in 1630, among the first of the Puritans to follow the Pilgrims who’d arrived in Massachusetts a decade earlier. “I found a new world and new manners, at which my heart rose,” Bradstreet recalled, “But after I was convinced it was the way of God, I submitted to it and joined to the church.” In her father’s spacious library in Northampton, England, she studied the verse of the Huguenot poet Guillaume de Salluste Du Bartas and the once-popular Englishman Joshua Sylvester. In America, Bradstreet raised six children in Cambridge. During all this time she wrote poetry. While darning her husband’s socks, she wrote poetry. When preparing cornmeal johnny cakes for her children, she wrote poetry. When scrubbing rough wooden floors held together with iron joists, she wrote poetry. When cleaning clothes with burning lye, she wrote poetry. When breastfeeding her babies, bathing her daughters and sons, and burying her children—Bradstreet wrote poetry. Apocryphally it was the Rev. John Woodbridge who filched her verse to London in 1650, where without her knowledge it was published with the grandiose title The Tenth Muse, lately Sprung up in America. She was lauded as a brilliant voice, the first sapling of American verse to grow from the stony soil of New England. Much of her poetry, written when she was younger, is inspired by the historical, theological, philosophical, and natural interests of DuBartas and Sylvester, Bradstreet penning miniature epics known as the “Quaternions” about subjects as varied as the seasons or the four providential kingdoms of eschatology. Her poetry that is most remembered, however, is that which is sometimes called “domestic,” whether because it conforms to our understanding of what a woman’s verse should sound like or because it’s far more moving to contemporary readers (in a manner that Taylor isn’t).

“I wakened with thundering noise/And piteous shrieks of dreadful voice./That fearful sound of ‘Fire,'” Bradstreet wrote in a 1666 poem about the accidental burning of her Cambridge house. “When by the ruins oft I passed/My sorrowing eyes aside did cast/And here and there the places spy/Where oft I sat and long did lie.” Bradstreet attributes the burning to divine providence, though she doesn’t let the reader forget what it would mean to see the place where you raised your children, loved your spouse, and wrote your verse, burnt to ash. Today the site houses a Starbucks and a CVS, across the street from the legendary Harvard Square newsstand. Part of my attraction to early American poetry, long before I ever lived in Massachusetts, was the charged aura its presence seems to leave behind. Mistress Bradstreet isn’t there anymore, but I spent hours reading her poetry where her house used to be, drinking a venti black dark roast. That presumed familiarity can be misleading though, as we try to transform those whom we love into images of ourselves. A detriment and fallacy in contemporary critical thinking is often to refuse taking those in the past on their own terms, to torture them into the Procrustean bed of whatever we believe so that they become ethically more palatable. Not that we shouldn’t condemn them when they deserve it, but intentionally misreading them doesn’t do justice for them or us either. Emory Elliot writes in The Cambridge Introduction to Early American Literature that the “advocates of Anne Bradstreet continue to construct an image of her as a cultural rebel who produced poetry in spite of the religious and social forces against her as a woman and a Puritan,” while Heimert and Delbanco explain how some see her as a subversive celebrating “things of this world, rhyming out a pagan heat in forced solitude.” All of it reminds me of a panel I attended at a conference that was titled something like “Queer Bradstreet,” and one of the presenters rather honestly admitted that as much as they wished there was something subversive, radical, or transgressive in her poetry, there simply wasn’t. “If ever two were one, then surely we,” wrote Bradstreet to her husband, a sometimes governor of Massachusetts, “If ever man were loved by wife, then thee;/If ever wife was happy in a man,/Come with me ye women if you can.” Perhaps one can engage with this in a hermeneutic of suspicion, reading against the grain, searching for signs of duress. Certainly that’s sometimes the case with poetry. And yet it also does a disservice not to take Bradstreet at her word—not that we should want to emulate the Puritans, not that we don’t see what was stifling, zealous, or constricting about their world (though we’d do better to note those instances in our own) but that we show her the respect to acknowledge her humanity, as distant as her time may have been. Anne Bradstreet was Anne Bradstreet, and that was more than enough.

Bradstreet and Taylor are the most frequently taught and anthologized of American poets from that vast hinterland of years before the 19th century, since as even Meserole admits “time and circumstance have been unkind to the poetry of this era.” They’re the most read because, if you’ll forgive the simplicity here, they’re the best. Dismissing the rest would be a mistake, though. Rhymes are often rough, meters awkward, and Christ knows the themes can be didactic, but to reduce such verse to mere “historical evidence” is to ignore the fact that idiosyncrasy and temporal distance are their own literary affects. Nobody would ever mistake Michael Wigglesworth with Milton, even while he was the author of per capita the single most popular book in American history, the apocalyptic epic poem The Day of Doom. A kind person might surmise that Wigglesworth’s name sounding like a character from a British children’s television show is some part in why it’s hard to take him seriously, and yet the poetry speaks for itself in that regard, for as Bradbury and Ruland conclude, his writing “was not, admittedly, a joyous read.” A minister at First Parish in Malden, Wigglesworth was tortured by nocturnal emissions, and believed that his depravity made him incapable of preaching the word of God. He resigned, and the subsequent minister embezzled church funds, so the congregation begged Wigglesworth to return, which he reluctantly did. Almost too spot-on as a parody of the black-clad, dour, humorless and abnegating Puritan, Wigglesworth haunted by his own dirty thoughts and semen. Elliot writes that “Puritan doctrines may have led to self-destructive repression and even depression,” which seems clear, but in losing sight of the fact that Wigglesworth was a suffering neurotic, we harden our hearts. And yet the sheer popularity of The Day of Doom speaks to why we should pay attention to Wigglesworth, pages worn to gossamer thinness and ink smudged from fingers periodically licked to turn those pages, binding loose and covers missing.

Virtually no copies of The Day of Doom’s first edition survive because the book was literally loved to death.  “Still was the night, Serene & Bright,/when all Men sleeping lay;/Calm was the season, & carnal reason/though so ‘twould last for ay.” Wigglesworth’s ballad meter gallops along, giving a poem about the apocalypse a juvenile feel, something almost ironic or even kitsch. If anything it makes the verse more ominous. “For at midnight brake forth a Light,/which turn’d the night to day,/And speedily a hideous cry/did all the world dismay.” If we are residents of the United States of Apocalypse, Americans forever obsessed with our dramatic collective leave of this world, than Wigglesworth was the first consummate master of Armageddon, writing a poem that with eerie prescience seems to almost describe a nuclear explosion. Inevitably the Puritans spoke an idiom that was violent, even if they themselves wouldn’t have necessarily thought of it that way. Paradise was lost before William Bradford’s slipper ever hit Plymouth Rock, and yet the gleeful despoiling of a land that they thought was virginal speaks to a collective rapaciousness that still slinks its way across our culture. For that reason, and that reason alone, it would be worth it to pay attention to those earliest indications of what this land is, as in their own bloody conflicts they forced themselves into a new type of human being known as the “American.” Benjamin Tompson, the first English-language poet to actually be born in America, writes of the colonists’ adversaries in New-England’s Tears, his 1676 epic about the hideous violence of King Philip’s War, that they should be “besmeared with Christian blood & oiled/With fat out of white human bodies boiled./Draw them with clubs like mauls & full of stains,/Luke Vulcans anvilling New England’s brains.”   

Important to observe that this generation of New Englanders were the first who self-described themselves as Americans even while they continued to eliminate the original Americans. It’s what’s disturbing about reading early American poetry—those authors may have configured themselves as new Adams in Eden, but none of them were innocent. More than Atlantis, the Hesperides, or Utopia, America was a blood-soaked, skull-bedecked howling wilderness, and the Puritans were aware of that contradiction (if less confessional in their role in making it that way). “The Puritan imagination… was central to the nature of American writing,” write Ruland and Bradbury, in a way that wasn’t the case in other colonies whose great literatures—often far more accomplished than what was being produced in Boston—were extensions of national literatures in Spain or Portugal. They write that the Puritans brought to the New World a sense of ” millenarian promise— the ‘American dream’ that is still recalled in so much modern literature.” As crafters of an idea, the Puritans saw themselves as entering into a covenant, where to be an American was to ascent to a particular creed more than it was anything else. But at what price is that dream purchased, especially to acquire the deed to a cursed house that has yet to be built? American literature is always haunted—by a place that never really existed, and the innumerable dead whom we murdered in the land that really did. America is a Faustian bargain.  

Now that the sun really does seem to be rising in the West—hard yet to tell whether it’s a mushroom cloud or a California wild fire on that horizon—there is something essential about returning to when those myths were crafted, when the fresh green breast of the New World was first espied, or at least invented. Could it have been any different? And what voices do we refuse to hear when we listen to only these? I think about the earliest verse believed to have been written in English in the New World, penned by the notorious libertine Thomas Morton who established his own ecumenical, interracial, non-conformist, and neo-pagan colony known as Merrymount on the site of present-day Quincy, Mass. During their Mayday revels, when Morton invited the Native Americans to Merrymount to celebrate the forging of his new country, he affixed to the Maypole two hermetic, occult, and bizarre poems, but they are lyrics that predate Taylor, Bradstreet, and Wigglesworth by decades. “Drink and be merry, merry, merry boys;/Let all your delight be in the Hymens joys;/So to the Hymen, now the day is come,/About the merry Maypole take a room,” Morton records in New English Canaan, the account of his brief carnivalesque experiment before the Puritans cut down the Maypole, arrested and then expelled Merrymount’s leader. The other lyric is all the more mysterious, in keeping with Morton’s boast that it was “enigmatically composed… [and] puzzled the Separatists’ most pitifully to expound it.” The author gleefully supplies a gloss of “The Poem,” mocking Plymouth dunderheadedness, but even so the reader might have trouble making sense of such lines as “What meads Caribdis underneath the mold, / When Scilla solitary on the ground / (Sitting in form of Niobe,) was found,” continuing that “the Seas were found/So full of Protean forms that the bold shore/Presented Scilla a new paramour/So strong as Sampson and so patient/As Job himself, directed thus, by fate,/To comfort Scilla so unfortunate.”

Jack Dempsey gives an enigmatic reading in Early American Literature, arguing that such verse addressed “the most catastrophic human event in seventeenth-century New England: the ’Great Mortality’… [which] between 1616 and 1619 killed as many as ninety percent of an estimated 90,000-135,000 Native Americans inhabiting land from Maine to Connecticut.” The critic claims that Morton is honoring the cemetery upon which his experiment was being enacted, writing that the poem “invokes three famous healers for the world of human troubles it describes”—Oedipus, Proteus, and Asklepios—as well as the pain of the biblical character Job. “Morton’s Oedipus seems called upon to read a riddle concerning epidemic,” writes Dempsey, so that his verse could function as a “’comfort,’ if not exactly a cure, for the ‘sick.'” Odd to think about that Maypole today, gnarled tree stripped of bark, two pages of verse nailed to its side, the whole thing crowned with a set of stag antlers. During our own season of pandemic, undoubtedly more than a million Americans already dead, it’s a duty to recall the smallpox horror that killed those who lived here before. Our time feels as apocalypse, theirs was. Morton’s verse does nothing to resurrect them—he doesn’t even name them—but he acknowledges them. He mourns them. That, maybe even more than Merrymount, gestures towards an America-that-could-have-been. Puritan poetry is a verse of the frigid strand and cold shoals, leafless trees whose spindly branches frame a gray sky and of perennial drizzle in an overgrown marsh, of slate gravestones with winged skulls and austere white churches ringed with a foreboding wilderness—solemn, gothic, macabre. I love it in spite of itself, but I mourn for all of the poems too muffled for me to listen. Returning to such verse, I try to make out the sound of that other America, and I wonder if it’s possible to hear what future poems may sound like, if there are future poems, lest we get buried in the silt like Pleistocene monsters forgotten beneath the earth.

Image Credit: Wikipedia.

Tripping the Late Capitalist Sublime

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“Dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains/And there’s no end in sight/I need the darkness someone please cut the lights.”—Arcade Fire, The Suburbs (2010)

When my wife and I lived just north of Boston, we’d drive past wood-paneled, yellow-painted two floor colonials and Queen Anne Victorians, pastel blue Cape Cods and rustic brown salt-box houses, until the meandering cow path of Lowell Street shunted us onto the Middlesex Turnpike toward the Burlington Mall. I never enjoyed malls when I was young; our closest was the Monroeville Mall where George Romero filmed Dawn of the Dead, and I disliked the creepy uniformity of those spaces, the steep escalators and strange indoor fountains, the shiny linoleum, piped in Top 40, and artificially lit interiors. Over time, I defeated my own snobbishness. The futuristic slickness of the Apple Store, the faux-exoticism of Anthropologie, the seediness of Spencer Gifts and Hot Topic, the schmaltziness of Yankee Candle. “Not only is the mall a place of material reward,” writes Matthew Newton in Shopping Mall, “it is also a space to meditate on your surroundings,” where wandering “feels almost like slipping off into a dream.” The few things I bought at the Burlington Mall included a pair of swim trunks at Macy’s, my glasses, and maybe bubble tea slurped through one of those unnervingly thick straws. What I did do, however, is stand in the second-floor food court overlooking the turnpike glazed in January snow with the low-winter sun of early dusk appearing as if a squib of yellow butter scrapped lightly across browned toast glowing golden. I see no shame in admitting that I love the mall.
Everyone in literary circles has met the man whose family had homes in Manhattan and upstate New York, in rural New England and in Hilton Head, and somewhere in Europe, but who hates Pottery Barn, Williams-Sonoma, even Starbucks. These types emphasize that family wealth isn’t theirs, but their parents’, and the bright orange sashimi and red tuna nigiri sitting in an open fridge at Wegman’s, the fake distressed wood of Pier 1, the cutting fragrances of Sephora were only bourgeois affectation for the rest of us. A privilege of the wealthy class tourist is the ability to whole-sale skip over life in the middle, even while that middle disappears. Despite not needing the money, these types often romanticize manual labor, seeing in summer gigs as a dishwasher something authentic, the callouses from scrubbing a rough steel-wool pad across pasta-caked plates and burns from scalding water, the rhythmic mindlessness of loading glasses and bowls into their plastic tray and then sending them on a conveyer belt through the industrial washer. Such fantasies are a rejection of the suburban, the bourgeoise, the basic. “The assumption that everyone else is like you. That you are the world,” such a man might quote from David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, “The disease of consumer capitalism. The complacent solipsism.” ($15.49 on Amazon Prime). Despite being privileged enough to grow up upper middle-class, I’m close enough to the factory that I see something of the tourist in that aforementioned pose, and 12 years in inner-city public schools at least kept me honest. I don’t know much about class, but I know that most people who don’t have a choice in anything but the dishwashing rarely have the option to run that steel wool across the bright reds and blues of Le Creuset when they get home. Poverty is a luxury that only the rich can afford. As for me, I’ve always loved Williams-Sonoma.
During the mid-19th century, an economist enthused that capitalism has “created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations,” name-checking the marvels of “steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs… canalization of rivers,” while asking “what earlier century had even a presentment [of] such productive forces?” He was a paragon of bourgeoise tastes, an avid reader of the sentimental novels of Honoré de Balzac, a fan of maudlin Romantic music, and a perennial smoker of cheap cigars. Today he’d no doubt enjoy a Pumpkin Spice Latte at the Burlington Mall. His name was Karl Marx and the selection quoted is from The Communist Manifesto. Marx’s critique is pertinent because he acknowledges what’s seductive about capitalism. Any radical analysis that ignores what’s so great about owning stuff isn’t really a radical analysis at all; any claim that television isn’t actually amazing, or junk food never tastes good, or pop music is anemic is just bohemian posturing. Sing me a song of Chipotle’s burrito bowl, all gristly steak, synthetic cheese, and fatty guac; of the glories of an MTO hoagie ordered from a Wawa screen; of the bruising trauma of the NFL; of the spectral sublimity of Netflix. Marx’s denunciations of capitalism—written with the support of his wealthy friend Friedrich Engels—were trenchant because he didn’t confuse ethics with aesthetics. By contrast, Pete Seeger—who God bless him was right about war and labor, and produced some catchy songs as well—couldn’t shake the condescension of an upstate New York childhood being raised by two WASPy Julliard professors. “Little boxes on the hillside/Little boxes made of ticky tacky/Little boxes, little boxes/Little boxes all the same.” We’re to look down on these middle class dupes for their spiritually bereft lives, their desire to golf and drink martinis. Seeger—whose family had a rural New Jersey estate and died with $5 million to his name—saw those tracts of suburban sprawl as deadening. But you know who I bet wouldn’t mind one of those ticky tacky little boxes? Homeless people.

“Modern bourgeois society,” Marx writes “is like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.” Dispute the prescription if we must, Marx was perceptive in his diagnosis—for all of the material plenty that industry supplied to some, capitalism depends on exploitation, it is defined by inequity, it requires alienation. The problem isn’t the ticky tacky houses, the problem is that people in McMansions have convinced those in those little boxes that their enemies are people in public housing (and government assistance is nefarious socialism). Engels and Marx used an occult rhetoric of wizards, specters, and hauntings, and it’s apropos, for capitalism itself is a religion. “Under capitalism,” writes Eugene McCarraher in The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity, “money occupies the ontological throne from which God has been evicted.” If our religion is capitalism, then our theology is consumerism and our God is the Invisible Hand. Our prayers are “Have It Your Way,” “Think Different,” and “Just Do It;” our avatars are Ronald McDonald, Mr. Peanut, and the Kool-Aid Man; our relics are the Golden Arches, the Mercedes trinity, and the Pepsi Tao. Our liturgy, that’s advertising. It’s produced some great and beautiful art. What I would argue to you is that all of it—the television commercials and the print advertisements, the marketing campaigns and the logo designs—constitutes the United States’ artistic patrimony; that our great literature is the jingle, the copy, the billboard, the TV spot. It’s true that capitalism exploits humans—you get no disagreement on that. Furthermore, as we peer down on our remaining decades and realize it was industry itself that took us to the Anthropocene’s sweltering apocalypticism, and suddenly Marx sounds Panglossian.

Still, I can appreciate Super Bowl ads, I can enjoy TGIFridays, I can prostrate myself before capital’s liturgy even with my impious heart. You need not be Catholic to be moved by Dante, so why can’t three minutes about Budweiser and Clydesdale horses move me? “Endure, and keep yourselves for days of happiness,” wrote Virgil in The Aeneid, all in the service of Caesar Augustus, an authoritarian dictator; Donatello’s bronzed “David” is a moving evocation of the body’s perfection produced for the Florentine Medicis, and Dmitri Shostakovich’s tonalities are immaculate, albeit composed for Joseph Stalin. When the tyrants are dead, maybe it’s easier to appreciate beauty, but soon enough the ice caps will drown billions of us all, so why not enjoy our equivalent artists and their preferred medium now? James Walter Thompson who filched the Rock of Gibraltar for the Prudential Insurance Company in 1890; Doyle Dane Bernbach and their lemonish Volkswagen; Ogilvy and Mather with contracts for Schweppes, Guinness, Rolls-Royce, Sears, Dove, and so on. The little narratives constructed by these (mostly) men, tiny portraits and miniature novels, weren’t created just to sell people things, for as Jackson Lears writes in Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America, “they also signify a certain vision of the good life; they validate a way of being in the world. They focus private fantasy.” Wherever people are hungry they’ll purchase food, wherever they’re thirsty they’ll buy drink, but commercials sell you an entire worldview. Every culture has myths, ordering stories of reality. In Athens, to live the good life depended on reason; in Jerusalem it was to commit yourself to faith, and on Madison Avenue it’s to live for consumption. We don’t have Hesiod’s Theogony or the Torah, our scripture is a 30-second spot. Our myth tells you that you are incomplete, disordered, and unhappy, but that the solution involves the accumulation of things, beautiful things, tasty things, sexy things, amazing things, and that through such commodities you become perfectible, as surely as an ancient Greek making offerings at Delphi ensured his favor among the Olympians, as much as a Medieval penitent paying an indulgence ensures release from Purgatory. Does any of it work? Well in the immediate sense, paying the indulgence makes you feel better too. But look, the churches are defunct and our faith is dying as our shopping malls are boarding up, our prayers as unanswered as the next shipping delay. Still, as the Sibylline Oracle at the Mall of America says,
The heartbeat of America is openhappiness, when a diamond isforever in the happiest place onearth.
Because you’re in good hands,so don’t leave home without it.
We bring good things to life, andgo the extra mile. The power ofdreams is the relentless pursuitof perfection, good to the lastdrop.
Eat fresh, expect more, and pay less—anytime, anywhere. Because you’reworth it.
Can you hear me now?

Critique my little cento, but whatever way you arrange it, some version of this lyric will be a more enduring work than anything by T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound. If you can only feel sublime in a cathedral, I pity you, because the numinous can be smuggled into these commercial prayers, however empty their promises. Virgil, Donatello, and Shostakovich all exploited emotions, and they were servants of nefarious masters as well, and yet it would be a fool who thought that The Aeneid, “David,” and “Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47” don’t intimate the shores of eternity, the breath of transcendence. Materialism in its most raw and literal form has little to do with it. “It isn’t the whiskey they choose,” wrote David Ogilvy in Ogilvy on Advertising, “it’s the image.”

Like a wounded gladiator, Pittsburgh Steelers defensive tackle “Mean” Joe Greene limps back to the Three Rivers Stadium locker room after a bruising first two quarters. A tow-headed little boy follows the football player and offers to help his hero, but the famously gruff Greene declines. Then the child offers him his Coke, and again he’s turned down. True to the rule of three, Greene finally accepts the supplication of sugar water, and downs the Coca-Cola while the boy turns back. Before the child can return to the stands, “Mean” Joe says with a smile “Hey kid, catch!” and throws his jersey to the boy. The Hero’s Journey as envisioned by McCann Erickson in 1979. A 2020 neurological study demonstrated that 90 percent of NFL players have suffered chronic traumatic encephalopathy from injuries sustained on the field. Leo Burnett had similar masculine ambitions when tasked with reorienting Marlboro Cigarettes towards the men’s market in 1954. Across a blasted, rugged, western terrain, all otherworldly plateaus and the burnt ochre sun of dusk, rides a cowboy. The visuals are John Ford, the music is from The Magnificent Seven, the most iconic of the “Marlboro Men” was Darrell Winfield, who played the role for 20 years after working as an Oklahoma rancher. Marlboro sold a fantasy, that of the homesteader, the bootstrapper, the stern and taciturn settler kept company by his shadow. This isn’t a place—Marlboro Country is everywhere. Two years after the character’s introduction, Marlboro’s profits increased 300 percent from $5 billion to $20 billion. Five of the men who played the Marlboro Man died from lung cancer.

Calvin Klein’s in-house ad agency borrowed Western accoutrement in a 1981 television ad. Brooke Shields whistles “My Darling Clementine,” laying odalisque in jeans and cowboy boots, wearing a pewter belt buckle and a slightly open red blouse. “You know what comes between me and my Calvins?” Shields asks. “Nothing.” If the point wasn’t already clear, Tom Richert writes in The Erotic History of Advertising that it was an “unmistakable double entendre when framed with a camera shot that took thirteen seconds to slowly move along the length of her inseam before including her face.” Shields was 15. In a 2021 Vogue interview, she recalled “I was a kid, and where I was, I was naïve.” Three years later, and Steve Hayden, Lee Clow, and Brent Thomas would take advantage of the slightly warming Cold War and the ominous connotations of the year “1984” in their famed Ridley Scott directed Super Bowl spot for Apple Computers’ new Macintosh. A group of androgynous, grey-hued drones shuffles in lockstep into an industrial hanger where they watch an address by an obvious Big Brother stand-in delivered on a massive blueish telescreen. “We have created, for the first time in all history, a garden of pure ideology,” says the speaker, “where each worker may bloom, secure from the pests purveying contradictory thoughts.” But then, a solitary rebel emerges, a blonde woman in red running shorts and white tank top who seems like she has escaped from an aerobics studio, sprinting through the grimy and steamy hanger, pursued by riot police, and in the last moments of the ad she flings a sledgehammer at Big Brother’s screen, which explodes. Whether this incarnation of ’80s material excess was targeting Soviet communism or IBM is ambiguous, but a voiceover informs us that “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984.” It aired only once, during Superbowl XVIII. The estate of George Orwell sued Apple Computers.

The Macintosh ad illustrates the brilliant vampiric logic of capitalism, for a totalitarian must continually dominate those whom he oppresses, but the capitalist insidiously convinces to you that he’s your friend. By outsourcing tyranny to the individual, everything is much more seamless. Capitalism privatizes totalitarianism, which on the whole is much more effective. In a review of the ad that ran in Harper’s for its 30th anniversary, Rebecca Solnit outlines how Silicon Valley has been instrumental in coarsening the discourse, increasing the gap between the wealthiest and everybody else, and ironically manufactures their products in Chinese factories that evoke the dreary setting of the commercial, before concluding that “If you think a crowd of people staring at one screen is bad, wait until you have created a world in which billions of people stare at their own screens while walking, driving, eating in the company of friends—all of them eternally elsewhere.” If resistance took only flinging a hammer at a screen (where’s the sickle?) fighting authoritarianism would be so much easier, but the genius of capitalism is that any rebellion can instantly be integrated into the status quo and used to sell jeans, computers, and beer. Like a virus, capitalism just mutates to overcome the vaccine. Thomas Frank writes in Commodify Your Dissent: Salvos from the New Gilded Age, an anthology coedited with Matt Weiland, that the counterculture’s “frenzied ecstasies have long since become an official aesthetic of consumer society, a monomyth of mass as well as adversarial culture… Corporate America is not an oppressor but a sponsor of fun, provider of lifestyle accoutrements, facilitator of carnival.”

Well, true. Still, I hope that filching the subversive to sell soap has the unintended consequence of injecting resistance into mass culture, that if we can hear the quiet chords of redemption in Virgil and Shostakovich, that we can also see rebellion in a Macintosh ad, even if the intent was duplicitous. Few ads are more cynical than McCann Erikson’s 1971 Coca-Cola Hilltop ad, in which dozens of vaguely countercultural looking young women and men sing a paeon to the glories of pop in an Italian field with glassy eyed Peoples Temple intensity. “I’d like to buy the world a home/And furnish it will love/Grow apple trees and honey bees/And snow white turtle doves,” they sing in perfect harmony. “I’d like to buy the world a Coke/And keep it company/That’s the real thing.” Obviously this millennium of fraternity and fizzy water deserves scorn, and yet dialectically it does contain a kernel of resistance against its own best interests, this evocation of a utopian moment, this depiction of a better world, even if you’ve got to have a Coke at the same time. Media theorist Marshal McLuhan claimed in The Mechanical Bride that “To get inside in order to manipulate, exploit… To keep everybody in the helpless state engendered by prolonged mental rutting is the effect of many ads,” but 25 years later in 1976 he’d admit in Advertising Age that his subject was the “greatest art form of the twentieth century.” Again, both of these things can be true. Not for nothing did Marx think that capitalism was the most revolutionary movement up until that point, and consumerism does unify people in a type of cracked democracy. Andy Warhol, our greatest theorist of commercial semiotics, wrote in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol that a “Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good.” It can both be true that capitalism is an exploitative system and that Cokes are good.
Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men—which introduced many of us to the history of advertising—features Hilltop in a crucial scene, with the implication that the show’s alcoholic, philandering anti-hero Don Draper was responsible, inspired to appropriate the hippie aesthetic after a California Esalen-retreat. Draper is a Luciferian figure, simultaneously beguiling as cankered, and despite his worst intentions sympathetic. What makes him fascinating isn’t that he’s a monster, but that he’s human. Mad Men’s best monologue, or at least its most memorable, is in the season finale of the first season when Draper gives a presentation to Kodak executives about a campaign for their new slide projector. Loading up happy pictures of his own troubled family, and Draper intones that nostalgia is a “twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a space ship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards, forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called a wheel, it’s called a carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels… to a place where we are loved.” Sometimes Draper is understood as a sociopath, but that’s incorrect—he has a surfeit of empathy. If he didn’t, such a presentation wouldn’t be possible. Part of what fascinates about ad men is that it’s such a succinct and obvious way in which writers could sell out, in the commodification of creativity we see both warning and pride. Draper is the suit who reads Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency, a cerebral soul who is an embodiment of the axiom that ad men are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Partially the reason why so many ad men wrote novels and Madison Avenue became a subject for serious post-war literature, the dejected copywriter as an existentialist hero. There’s Frederic Wakeman’s misanthropic The Hucksters and Jack Dillon’s The Advertising Man, but nothing is more associated with this sub-genre than Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. Wilson’s protagonist Tom Rath is a Manhattan public relations consultant, overworked and jaded, who says “I’ll write copy telling people to eat more cornflakes and smoke more and more cigarettes and buy more refrigerators and automobiles, until they explode with happiness,” for he is “not a cheat, exactly, not really a liar, just a man who’ll say anything for pay.”  

Ad men completely reshaped the mental topography during these years. Louis Menand writes in The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War about how the postbellum world was dominated by “commercial and entertainment culture: movies and television, newspaper and magazine photographs, advertisements, signage, and labeling and packaging.” This was the silver age of mental coercion (ours is the golden), when Soviet writers like Mikhail Sholokhov and Nikolai Ostrovsky were used to produce official literature that extolled collectivization and the command economy, where in the latter’s novel How the Steel Was Tempered a character could shout “all my life, all my strength were given to the finest cause in all the world—the fight for the Liberation of Mankind!” Capitalist propaganda is far more subtle, rather we have “those Golden Grahams/Graham cracker tasting cereal/That taste is such a treat!” I’ve no clue who wrote that particular jingle, but Madison Avenue has always had an outsize concentration of literary ambition. Who among you knew that F. Scott Fitzgerald, Salman Rushdie, and Don DeLillo all worked as copy-writers? Rushdie may have penned The Satanic Verses, but he also wrote “Naughty! But Nice” for Fresh Cream Cakes while working at Ogilvy and Mather; Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby with its description of “such beautiful shirts,” that rain of blue, and green, and yellow that Daisy sends down onto Jay, but while first living in Iowa the author’s line “We Keep You Clean in Muscatine” was emblazoned on laundry trucks throughout the city.

There’s no simple correspondence here, no one-to-one symbiosis, but the experience of DeLillo at Ogilvy and Mather must have informed his writing. In DeLillo’s White Noise, erstwhile professor of Hitler Studies and small liberal arts faculty member Jack Gladney exists, like all of us, in the medium of commercials. Thomas DiPietro records the author as saying in Conversations with DeLillo that America’s central commandment is “consume or die,” and that’s on display in the novel. Commodity fetishism is the contrition through which the capitalist soul is formed, where one “found new aspects of myself, located a person I’d forgotten existed. Brightness settled around me… I was bigger than these sums. These sums poured off my skin like so much rain. These sums in fact came back to me in the form of existential credit.” In White Noise, Jack mumbles the prayers of our faith—”Mastercard, Visa, American Express.” Good copywriter DeLillo must have been, White Noise expresses a truth of advertising—all of this purchasing isn’t about stuff, it’s about identity. Before the omnipresence of consumer culture, if you needed to plow—you bought a plow. If you needed to shovel—you bought a shovel. But as the sacrament of Jack’s purchasing demonstrates, the simulacra of reality that is late capitalism asks you to buy (and sell) your soul. White Noise is an example of the advertising turn in literature, where a character’s personality is signaled through the products that they buy. Victorian novels let you understand characters through phrenology, the slope of a brow signaling criminality or the distance between eyes demonstrating intelligence, but in post-modernism it’s the brand of ice cream somebody eats or the type of car they drive.

If you didn’t already know that Patrick Bateman was a sociopathic serial killer in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, or that he imagines himself to be, than you at least understand that he’s a conceited prick with his “six-button wool and silk suit by Ermenegildo Zegna… cotton shirt with French cuffs by Ike Behar… Ralph Lauren silk tie and leather wing tips by Fratelli Rosetti,” along with all those Eddie Money cassettes. By comparison, a very different personality is conveyed in the brands named by Jeffrey Eugenides in The Marriage Plot, where “Sometimes Madeline made him tea. Instead of going for an herbal infusion from Celestial Seasonings, with a quotation from Lao Tzu on the package, Madeline was a Fortnum & Mason’s drinker, her favorite blend Earl Grey.” The vaguely New Age-y affectations of Celestial Seasonings with its sleepy bear on the box rejected in favor of the stolid, slightly stodgy, sort-of-fussy Fortnum & Mason’s with the Royal Seal on its packaging, so that Madeline isn’t some hippie, but rather a serious person, an Anglophile even (or at least that’s what she’s trying to convey, she owns both brands clearly). Not even poetry is so otherworldly to ignore capitalism’s siren; Frederick Seidel has been writing about his luxury Italian motorcycles for decades, of Ducatis “all around, all red, all beautiful,/Ducatis as far as the eye can see,/Each small and perfect as a ladybug,” published in 2019 in The London Review of Books. Clive James provides ingenious readings of modernist poetry’s relationship to advertising in Poetry Notebook: Reflections on the Intensity of Language, noting that “Theoretically [poets] have despised the land of Just Add Hot Water and Serve, but in practice they loved the slogans. Readymade cheap poetry, the scraps of advertising copy, properly mounted.” He enumerates examples from e.e. cummings, Eliot, and Philip Larkin, though reserves attention for poet—and advertising executive—L.E. Sissman who could write of how “The maître d’/Steers for my table, bringing, in his train,/Honor in Pucci, Guccis, and Sassoon.” Bateman with his business cards and Madeline with her tea; Seidel on a motorcycle and Sissman’s song of Pucci, all of these brand names tell us something.

But of course they do in real life as well; we interpret peoples’ consumer choices in our day-to-day interactions far more than we do in fiction, and what we look for are signs of ideological affiliation. As our politics become only more tribal, what we eat, what we wear, what we drive all become signifiers, readymade symbols that advertise our identity. Imagine somebody who drives a Ford pickup, enjoys a Coors with his Chick-fil-A as compared to a woman who owns a Subaru with a radio tuned to NPR on her way to Trader Joe’s. You know exactly who these people are, or at least who they’re supposed to be. Often this has little to do with class in any traditional socio-economic sense, as “lifestyle usurped the more traditional class markers of income, and even education and occupation,” as Lizabeth Cohen explains in A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America. Cohen asks you to predict the different sorts of people who would buy a “Cadillac over a Chevrolet, a ranch house instead of a Cape Cod, The New Yorker over True Story magazine,” and you immediately understand her point. It speaks to something deterministic in the American psyche since the type of ice cream we buy predicts who we’ll vote for, though I offer no appraisal on this one way or the other, just the observation. And politics is only one vestige of this, obviously, consumer choices are instrumental in the formation of identity within and across races, genders, sexualities, and religions as well. We shop, therefore we are.
It becomes impossible to imagine anything different, what Mark Fisher describes in Capitalist Realism as the process by which the market “subsumes and consumes all of previous history.” Marxists use the term “late capitalism” as an optimistic shorthand, when the internal contradictions usher in the millennium of socialism. While I think that we’re definitely in capitalism’s end-stage, I’m not quite as sanguine, because I suspect that what the contradictions of the system will generate is nothing. As with anything consumed without respite, you eventually run out, and history is no exception. How will we define ourselves when the final bill comes due, when the eternal credit card is maxed out, especially since we’re incapable of imagining anything other than capitalism? In aforementioned Dawn of the Dead, all of those survivors of the zombie apocalypse hole up in the Monroeville Mall, where to get through to the other side of consumerism you must yourself become consumerism. With undead cannibals smashing their gory faces against the automatic doors and marauding through the asphalt flat lot, inside we’d raid Footlocker and Dick’s, we’d engorge ourselves at Cheesecake Factory and Red Robin, and we’d wait for the zombies to consume us all. “What haunts me is not exactly the absence of literal space so much as a deep craving for metaphorical space,” writes Naomi Klein in No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, “release, escape, some kind of open-ended freedom.” As Klein describes it, advertising and design mark everything in our reality, and we’re so constricted we can’t even imagine what wild open space would look like. For all that consumerism has promised us—comfort, security, identity—it was always the assurance that we could keep on purchasing our freedom that was the biggest illusion. Now the shipments are on back order and the shelves are empty, but for the time being you can still have whatever it is you want delivered right to your front door, never mind that the driver can never stop working. What happens after collapse when we can no longer define ourselves through products? No clue—the burden of defining some better world falls to those left behind after the rest of us have already left. In the meantime, have a Coke.    
Bonus Links:—A Brief Late-Stage Capitalism Reading ListWhen Capitalism and Christianity Collide in Fiction

Image Credit: Free SVG

Letter from the Collapse

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“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of monsters are born.” —Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks (1930)

“Twenty-thousand years of this, seven more to go… The quiet comprehending of the ending of it all.”—Bo Burnham, Inside (2021)

In our corner of Northern Virginia, we were fortunate to never see the dead birds. Yet throughout the Mid-Atlantic—a cardinal on the pebbly beaches of Delmarva or a sparrow on the Jersey Shore, a finch like an omen in front of Independence Hall or a bluebird as a threat on the steps of the Capitol—the creatures started to die by the thousands. With little sense of this new plague, experts recommended the removal of bird feeders. And so I dutifully took down the tall model where I examined mourning doves over morning coffee and listened to woodpeckers on the birches, watched the hawks who flew above, and the sleek, elegant crows speaking in their own impenetrable tongue. The Allegheny Front, an environmental show on Pittsburgh’s WYEP, posted a photograph of an afflicted robin found in Erie, Penn. Laid out in a cardboard box decorated with spruce leaves, it looked like the otherwise pristine creature was sleeping, the only sign of its illness the thick crust on her sealed eyes. An affect not unlike the wisps of cotton that escape from underneath the lids of taxidermied birds. “The phenomenon has since spread through 10 states,” writes Andy Kubis at The Allegheny Front, “including West Virginia, Ohio, Maryland and Delaware, and in 61 of 67 Pennsylvania counties.” Observers noted neurological symptoms, birds unable to fly or crashing into the ground; the dead animals, found framed by the brittle, yellow grass of sweltering June, with the characteristic discharge from eyes and beaks.

Ornithologists proffered hypotheses, noting that the avian pandemic accompanied the cicada Brood X. Those creatures we couldn’t avoid seeing, skeletal eldritch horrors bursting from the earth and their own bodies: red-eyed grotesqueries whose incessant droning permeated the humid air for weeks, who dropped from branches and through car windows like something out of a horror film. Between the dead birds and the cicadas, the summer had a Pharaonic glean, intimations of Exodus. A surreal poetry to these chthonic beings, the existential crisis of their lives spent hibernating for 16 years, only to emerge and then die. “Happy the Cicadas live,” wrote Charles Darwin in Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Death, though quoting Xenarchus. Our dog took to biting them in half and pushing them between the slots of our deck’s wooden planks, casting them back to hell. By the time they disappeared, without even bothering to say goodbye, I’ll confess that we missed them. But in their brittle, green bodies there was an answer to the bird pandemic, for it seemed that people had attempted to poison the cicadas, and after ingesting their pesticide-corrupted corpses the birds were killed instead. The “sense of cosmic significance is mostly unique to the human relationship with birds,” writes Boria Sax in Avian Illuminations: A Cultural History of Birds, but not apparently to those squeaked out by some bugs, the same people who undoubtedly water their lawn during a drought, or who buy the last 10 chickens during the coming food shortages.  Trillions of cicadas emerged; to avoid them was an impossibility, but you only had to bear them for a short while, and yet people unable to reason that there is no eliminating something of that magnitude and too impatient to wait decided that they knew better. Is there a more perfect encapsulation of the American mindset in these dwindling days?

I’d be amazed if you couldn’t sense it—the coming end of things. A woman sits by her grandmother in a St. Louis, Miss., ICU, the older woman about to be intubated because Covid has destroyed her lungs, but until a day before she insisted that the disease wasn’t real. In Kenosha, Wisc., a young man discovers that even after murdering two men a jury will say that homicide is justified, as long as it’s against those whose politics the judge doesn’t like. Similar young men take note. Somebody’s estranged father drives to Dallas, where he waits outside of Deeley Plaza alongside hundreds of others, expecting the emergence of JFK Jr. whom he believes is coming to crown the man who lost the last presidential election. Somewhere in a Menlo Park recording studio, a dead eyed programmer with a haircut that he thinks makes him look like Caesar Augustus stares unblinkingly into a camera and announces that his Internet services will be subsumed under one meta-platform, trying to convince an exhausted, anxious, and depressed public of the piquant joys of virtual sunshine and virtual wind. At an Atlanta supermarket, a cashier who made minimum wage, politely asks a customer to wear a mask per the store’s policy; the customer leaves and returns with a gun, shooting her. She later dies. The rural mail carrier who has driven down the winding, unnamed roads of a northwestern Oregon hamlet for over three decades notes to herself how the explosion of annoying insects on her windshield seemed entirely absent this summer. A trucker who lives in Ohio blows his airline break, and when trying to get a replacement finds that it’s on backorder indefinitely. Walking across Boston Common this October, and two men holding hands and heading toward the duck boats realize that they’re both sweating under their matching pea coats. It’s 83 degrees. On the first day of July, my family huddles in our basement; a tornado has formed in the District of Columbia, and is rapidly moving across the National Mall.     

Everyone’s favorite Slovenian Marxist Slavoj Zizek snottily gurgled it a decade ago, writing in Living in the End Times that the “global capitalist system is approaching an apocalyptic zero-point,” and identifying four horseman in the form of environmental collapse, biogenetics, systemic contradictions, and “explosive growth of social divisions and exclusions.” Not everyone claims to see the gathering storm however, especially those who are most responsible, though if they do, they’re silent about it in their New Zealand compounds. Degenerated, chipper, faux-optimism is a grift during our epoch of dusk; Jeff Bezos expecting us to clap when he shoots Captain Kirk into space; Elon Musk mouth-breathing about cryptocurrency and terraforming the rusty soil of Mars, as if we haven’t already heated one planet too much; Peter Thiel promising us that there will be a digital heaven where all of the billionaires can download their consciousness unshackled from the material world, and we can serve alongside them as Egyptian slaves entombed with their masters, clicking on PayPal,and Amazon and Facebook for a silicon eternity. Such promises are the opposite of hope, they’re only grinning assurances of dystopia instead of apocalypse. Besides, such things are chimerical; ask not for whom the Antarctic ice shelf collapses, or for whom the ocean acidifies, or for whom the temperature rises at 3 degrees Celsius, it does all these things for Bezos, Musk, and Thiel as much as you and me. Ours is the age of Covid and QAnon, supply chain breakdown and surveillance capitalism, food shortages and armed militias, climate change and bio-collapse. We’re merely in a milquetoast interregnum as we wait for monsters to be born in a year, in three. If poets and prophets have traditionally been our Cassandras, then on some level everybody knows that a rough beast is slouching towards Bethlehem right now, though despite that one sees perilously little grace, kindness, and empathy. Even the insanity of those who believe whatever conspiracy theory happens to give them scant meaning intuit that the insects are disappearing, the waters are rising, and the absence of 700,000 lives means that something is askance.

“The world sinks into ruin,” wrote St. Jerome in 413, some six decades and change before the final sack of Rome that marks the Western empire’s fall. “The renowned city, the capital of the Roman Empire, is swallowed up in one tremendous fire,” he noted of the Visigoth Alaric’s siege. Hard not to imagine that some didn’t realize that the end was coming, shortages of pungent garrum made in Mauretania, a scarcity of Cappadocian lettuce and Pontic fish. In 410, the Emperor Honorius recalled all legions from Britannia to defend the eternal city from the Visigoths who would soon traipse through its burning streets. Envision that horde, ascending the marble steps of the Senate, in furs and horned helmets, brandishing their red standard and crowding through the halls of that once august and solemn space. Can you even countenance it? The Romanized Celts requested from the emperor the return of defensive legions, and in his rescript Honorius “wrote letters to the cities in Britain urging them to be on their [own] guard.” The United States Postal Service will be late in delivering packages, because of supply chain shortages there is no chicken available at the Stop & Shop, the power grid will be down this winter in Texas. You’re on your own. As civil society crumbled, Romans turned to all variety of superstitions and occultisms, cults and conspiracies. As Edward Gibbon noted in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the “zeal of fanaticism prevailed over the cold and feeble efforts of policy.” Stop the steal! Lock her up! Make America GREAT again! Living on a heating planet filled with dying animals and governed by either the inept or the insane, and it’s hard not to feel a bit strange going to work, buying groceries, saving your salary, as if everything were normal. “We live as though we are going to die tomorrow,” wrote Jerome, “yet we build as though we are going to live always,” or, as David Byrne sang, “Why stay in college? Why go to night school?… I ain’t got time for that now.”

Whenever comparisons are made between Rome and America, there’s always somebody who denounces such language as not just histrionic, but clichéd. The latter is certainly fair; ever since the founders obsessed over republican virtue we’ve imagined that the Potomac is the Tiber, and we’ve parsed (arch-royalist) Gibbon’s history for clues about our falling. Copies of Plutarch and Livy were brought to the Continental Congress, and the most popular colonial American play was a turgid script by Joseph Addison about Cato (it would be performed at Valley Forge). The young Republic declared itself to be a “Novus ordo seclorum,” a “New Order of the Ages,” in conspicuous Latin borrowed from Virgil’’s Aeneid, while the Federalist Papers were written under pen-names like Caesar, Brutus, and Publius and John Adams attributed his worldview to Cicero. Roman symbolism was replete, as in the fasces that would adorn the Senate located on Capitol Hill. When George Washington deigned not to hold a third term, he was compared to the noble dictator Cincinnatus who dropped his sword for a plow, which was enough virtue that by 1840, four decades after the first president’s death, and the sculptor Horatio Greenough rendered the general as a muscular Jupiter in a toga. By the final year of the Civil War, and the first president was depicted underneath the Capitol dome as a purple robed Roman god in “The Apotheosis of Washington”. The Lincoln Memorial, the Supreme Court, the Capitol, all of it neo-classical ridiculousness. Gore Vidal recalled in United States Essays: 1952-1992 that his grandfather, Sen. Thomas Gore of Oklahoma, remarked to Franklin Delano Roosevelt about the bloated buildings of Washington that “At least they will make wonderful ruins.”  

Vidal, that classical patrician, wrote that “Empires are dangerous possessions… Since I recall pre-imperial Washington, I am a bit of an old Republican in the Ciceronian mode, given to decrying the corruption of the simpler, saner city of my youth.” Hardly a postbellum pose, for critics have feared that the Republic would slide into an Empire before the Constitution’s ink was dry. Naturally there is also fear of collapse, and long has there has been foreboding about the decline and fall of the American Empire. On the top floor of the austere New-York Historical Society, there is a pentad of paintings by the unjustly forgotten landscape artist Thomas Cole, a series known as “The Course of Empire.” Rendered between 1833 and 1836, Cole was disturbed by both the vulgarity of Jacksonian Democracy and the brutality of Manifest Destiny. A member of the Hudson Valley School who reveled in the sheer grandiosity of the nation’s natural spaces, Cole imagines in “The Course of Empire” a fantastical country from its primitive state of nature, through an idealized agrarian state, into a decadent imperium, an apocalyptic collapse, and finally desolation. Overlooking each painting is the same mountain peak, roughly the shape of Gibraltar’s rock, the one consistency as Cole’s civilization follows the course of its evolution, a reminder that nature was here before, and despite how we may degrade it, will still be here afterwards. The penultimate landscape, entitled simply “Destruction,” presents the denouement of this fantastic city, a skyline of columned, porticoed, and domed classical buildings in flames, bellowing smoke partially obscuring that reliable mountain; vandals flooding the streets, murdering and raping the city’s citizens, pushing them into the mighty river that bisects it. A triumphant monumental statue is now decapitated. With its wide marble buildings and its memorials, Cole’s city resembles nothing so much as Washington D.C., though when he lived the capital was more provincial backwater than the neoclassical stage set it would become. Cole made a note that “the decline of nations is generally more rapid than their rise,” concluding that “Description of this picture is perhaps needless; carnage and destruction are its elements.”

Enthusiasm for such parallels, along with attendant breathless warnings (including the ones that I’m making) have hardly abated. In just the past decade, there have been articles entitled “8 striking parallels between the U.S. and the Roman Empire” by Steven Strauss in 2012 at Salon, Pascal Emmanuel-Gobry’s “America now looks like Rome before the fall of the Republic” from 2016 in The Week,  Tim Elliot’s 2020 piece at Politico entitled “America is Eerily Retracing Rome’s Steps to a Fall. Will It Turn Around Before It’s Too Late?,” Vox’s essay from that same year “What America Can Learn from the Fall of the Roman Republic” by Sean Illing, and Cullen Murphy’’s succinct “No, Really, are we Rome?” from The Atlantic of this year. Just to dissuade those who parse such things, Tom Holland wrote “America Is Not Rome. It Just Thinks It Is” for The New York Review of Books in 2019. With an article that reprints Cole’s painting underneath the headline, a pull-quote reads “There is nothing written into the DNA of a superpower that says that it must inevitably decline and fall.” Well, with all due respect, the second law of thermodynamics mandates that everything has to fall apart, but Holland’s point is taken that in a more immediate sense, comparisons of America to Rome tell us little about the latter and everything about the former. But for those who see the comparison as tortured beyond all reasonableness, the truth can be bluntly stated as follows: our current problems aren’t like the fall of Rome because they’re far, far worse. Would it only be that we faced the collapse of the U.S. government, or authoritarianism, or even civil war, because the rising average temperature per year, the PH of the oceans, and the biodome’s decreasing diversity are things unheard of on the Earth since the Permian-Triassic extinction of more than 250 million years ago, when 70 percent of life on land perished and almost 95 percent in the seas did.     

“It is worse, much worse, than you think,” writes David Wallace-Wells in The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming. Wallace-Wells describes the five previous mass extinctions that shaped evolution, explaining that four of these “involved climate change produced by greenhouse gas.” Before the Permian-Triassic extinction, the land was occupied by the fin-reptile dimetrodon and the hog-shaped Lystrosaurus, the abundant atmospheric oxygen supported massive dragonflies and centipedes, and the oceans were plentiful with mollusks and trilobites. For some still unexplained reason the amount of carbon dioxide rapidly increased, which in turn triggered the release of methane, so that this feedback loop “ended with all but a sliver of life on Earth dead,” as Wallace-Wells writes. “We are currently adding carbon to the atmosphere at a considerably faster rate; by most estimates, at least ten times faster,” he explains. If we didn’t know what caused that warming 250 million years ago, we know what’s doing it now—us. Should the worst case scenario of the United Nations Intergovernmental Report on Climate Change come to pass, then in the coming century the exponential increase in warming will result in an ice-free arctic, obliteration of the coastal cities where two-thirds of humans live (no more Venice and Amsterdam, New York and Miami), the mass destruction of farm land, continual massive wildfires for which we will look back fondly on the summer of 2021, never-ending hurricanes and tropical storms, heat waves, droughts, desertification, new pandemics, and at worse the acidification of the ocean and the resultant perishing of most things that live beneath the waves. Short of a social or political revolution to reorient the world away from the cannibalistic capitalism which has brought us to this moment, we’ll read Gibbon as halcyon (assuming anyone is around to read).

This summer I threw a little digital life buoy out into the whirlpool of Twitter, another one of those horseman of dystopia, and asked others what it felt like to be living during what could be the apocalypse. Mostly I discovered that my anxiety is common, but one gentleman reminded me that there were Medieval millenarians and Great Awakening Millerites awaiting their messiahs who never came, and that they were all mistaken. That is, if you’ll forgive me, exceedingly stupid. There have been times when I was sure that I was going to die—the shaky prop plane flying low to the ground between Philly and the Lehigh Valley and the erratic driver going 20 miles over the speed limit who almost side-swiped me on a stretch of I-95 in Massachusetts—but just because I survived shouldn’t lead me to conclude that I’m immortal. Armageddon isn’t any different. My critic, though, seems to be in the minority—most people have that sense of foreboding, picking up whatever cries are coming from the Earth that the summers feel hotter, the animals scarcer, the sky sometimes glazed an ungodly glow from the redness of western fires. “The piers are pummeled by the waves;/In a lonely field the fain/Lashes an abandoned train,” wrote W.H. Auden in his 1953 poem “The Fall of Rome,” perhaps about his own justified fears regarding nuclear conflagration. I imagine the poet placing his wrinkled, droopy, hang-dog face to the ground and picking up on those frequencies that are today a cacophony, the “Private rites of magic” that now mark the fascists of one of our only two parties, how “an unimportant clerk/Writes I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK” reminding me of the striking heroes who are leaving the degrading and barely remunerated labor of late capitalism, how the “Herds of reindeer move across/Miles and miles of golden moss” in a warm arctic, and my beloved “Little birds with scarlet legs… Eye each flu-infected city.”

From the Greek, “apocalypse” means to “uncover” hidden knowledge, so for those of us anticipating what the future holds, it’s been the apocalypse for a while. What are you to do with this knowledge? Our politics operate on inertia and project onto individuals a responsibility that was always vested in the powerful themselves. Perhaps you should ditch your car, turn off your air conditioning, recycle, give up meat, and begin composting, but do that because those thing are good for your soul, not because you’re under any illusions that “Not The End of the World” is a consumer choice. Be neither a defeatist nor certainly an accelerationist, however, for avoiding the boiling of the oceans and the burning of the air must be what we put our shoulder to the door for. “To hope is to give yourself to the future,” writes Rebecca Solnit in Hope in the Dark, “and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.” Waiting for transformation like it’s the messiah isn’t preferable to collectively willing that transformation, but I know not what that will look like because I’m not a professional revolutionary. The signs that are appearing in the windows of McDonald’s and Subway, Starbucks and Chipotle, from workers tired of being mistreated and underpaid is the largest labor rebellion in a generation, the totally organic Great Resignation spoken of everywhere and reported on nowhere—it gives me hope. It gives me hope because that dark faith, the capitalism that has spoiled the planet, isn’t inviolate; a confirmation of Ursula K. LeGuin’s promise that “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable; so did the divine right of kings.” A corollary is the welcome mocking of fools like Bezos, Musk, and Thiel. Just the widespread awareness of our situation is promising, not because I valorize despair, but maybe if there are a billion little apocalypses it will somehow stave off the big Apocalypse. The whole of the law is treat others as you would wish to be treated and don’t cross a picket line, the rest is all theory. Now, go, and study.   

Finally, I’m only a writer, and the most recondite type, an essayist. Could there by any role for something so insular at the end of the world? In The Guardian, novelist Ben Okri recommends “creative existentialism,” which he claims is the “creativity at the end of time.” He argues that every line we enjamb, every phrase we turn, every narrative we further “should be directed to the immediate end of drawing attention to the dire position we are in as a species.” I understand climate change as doing something similar to what Dr. Johnson said the hangman’s noose did for focusing the mind. It’s not words that I’m worried about wasting, but experiences. What’s needed is an aesthetic imperative that we somehow live in each moment as if it’s eternal and also as if it’s our last. Our ethical imperative is similar: to do everything as if it might save the world, even if it’s unlikely that it will. Tending one’s own garden need not be selfish, though if everyone does so, well, that’s something then, right? I’m counting the liturgy of small blessings, noting the cold breeze on a December morning, the crunch of brown and red and orange leaves under foot, the sound of rain hitting my office window, the laughter of my son and the chirping of those birds at the feeder who delight him. I’ve no strategy save for love. “The world begins at a kitchen table,” writes Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, in a lyric that was introduced to me by a Nick Ripatrazone essay. “No matter what, we must eat to live.” Harjo enumerates all of the quiet domestic beauties of life, how the “gifts of earth are brought and prepared” here, and “children are given instructions on what it means to be human” while sitting at this table, where “we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and/remorse. We give thanks./Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and/crying, eating of the last sweet bite.” That, finally, is the only ethic I know of as the oceans flood and the fires burn, to be aware of our existence at the kitchen table. When the cicadas come back in 17 years, I wonder what the world will be like for them? I hope that there will be bird song.    

Image Credit: Wikipedia

A Year in Reading: Ed Simon

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Three years ago, the Bundeswehr initiated an unlikely experimental program at the University of Tübingen. “Project Cassandra,” which was exactly the codename you would want a secretive military program to be named, was led by an enigmatic professor named Jürgen Wertheimer, which is exactly what you would want his name to be. They developed a program capable of sifting through metadata and applying an algorithm to ascertain where future conflict would occur. They were unusually successful, foreseeing turmoil in Algeria, Kosovo, and Nigeria that political scientists had missed, all the more impressive because Wertheimer is a literature professor. Philip Oltermann explained in The Guardian that the Bundeswehr believes writers possess a “sensory talent” in identifying “social trends, moods and especially conflicts that politicians prefer to remain undiscussed until they break out into the open.” If writers hear subsonic vibrations just below the crust, then by reading an aggregate of them there might be a way to predict the future. “Writers represent reality in such a way that their readers can instantly visualize a world and recognize themselves inside it,” Wertheimer told Oltermann, after the former had traded in tweed for cammo.

Well, that’s one alt-ac career path. Ignoring the rumors that the CIA and the NSA have long recruited translators at those dreary annual meetings of the MLA held in frigid Boston or Chicago, there is an enigmatic, furtive allure to Project Cassandra, not to mention a practicality, because Wertheimer’s central conceit is obviously correct. George Orwell predicted telescreens in Nineteen Eighty-Four, and now we willingly give our privacy away in the blackness of our Androids. Aldous Huxley claimed in Brave New World that our future would be anesthetized bliss, and now our dopamine rushes are supplied by pawing at the screens of those same Androids. Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, and now Texas. Oltermann mentions John Brunner’s 1968 Hugo Award-winning science fiction novel, Stand on Zanzibar, which envisions the 2010 ascendancy of the Chinese economy and the United State’s response as led by “President Obomi.” I’ve long suspected that literature provides intimations of where we’re headed, and though that wasn’t my purpose when I set out digesting novels this year (my purpose was just to read) by this November I felt like I had been listening to a chorus of Sibyls.

Syllabi remain
my operative mode for comprehending reality. Making lists, dividing the year
into units, divining some overall theme to things, whether teaching or planning
my weekend, is how I exist. Just like an engineer looks at the universe and
sees a computer, I examine my own life and I see a college class. So, in
January, when setting out to decide what I’d read this year, I made a syllabus
of sorts, though I wouldn’t know the title of the class until the end of the term.
Rather than just perusing my local library stacks, the unvaccinated version of
me from last New Year used The Millions’ “Most Anticipated”
lists for 2020 and 2021 and compiled a few dozen titles that sounded
interesting. I’d inadvertently gathered what Wertheimer would consider a statistical
sample set.

Everything in this essay came from that initial list; I don’t include any books that I already reviewed for sites, nor titles I consulted in my writing, or the hundredth time I flipped through Paradise Lost. By the nature of this list, all of these books were newly published, though presumably most of them  were written before the pandemic. Much to my own embarrassment none of these titles was in translation, and the majority were by Americans with a few Brits thrown in. Because of my parochialism, and 12 months later I feel as if I’ve divined the unforged smithy of our national soul, for each of the novels provided a glimpse of living in the last days of empire, like the parable of the blind men describing an elephant, if this pachyderm was instead our rapidly fraying social contract. Our age is one of pandemic, supply chain breakdowns, economic collapse, and nascent fascism, and our writers have responded by crafting subverted Great American Novels, writing tomes of collapse, be it national, spiritual, personal. Each book taxonomizes the passing of anything that even remotely looked like it could be described naively as the “American Dream.”

The title of Ayad Akhtar’s Homeland Elegies announces itself as being concerned exactly with the themes that the traditional Great American Novel dabbles with. “Homeland” with its connotations of the vaguely-totalitarian federal agency that emerged in the wake of 9/11 and which often targeted Muslims, and “Elegies” with all of the grandiose and mournful implications of recognizing something that has passed. Narratively ambitious and sprawling, Homeland Elegies concerns a narrator named “Ayad Akhtar,” a Pakistani-American raised in Wisconsin and living in New York who bares more than a passing resemblance to the author whose name is on the cover. An acclaimed playwright before he was a novelist, Akhtar is often positioned as the Philip Roth of Islam, a fearless Muslim-American willing to portray his community in all of its complexities without desire to placate or whitewash, such as in his controversial Tony Award winning Disgraced.

Homeland Elegies follows his not-quite-identical roman a clef backwards and forwards from the present day of his professional success (around 2018) to Akhtar’s Midwestern childhood, while dropping in on events like 9/11, the 2008 economic collapse, and the election of Donald Trump as 45th president of these disunited states (indeed Trump is a character in Homeland Elegies, by connection to the author’s cardiologist father). Hyphenated Americans have historically been slurred as somehow “less than” the nationality than appears on the right side of that dash, but Akhtar is an American prophet who understands that the nation is in free-fall. Neither memoir nor autofiction, Homeland Elegies is best described by its author as a curated social media feed, a place where truth and fiction mingle in that ever-chimerical invention of the self. At the core is the complicated relationship of father and son, and the book is both about immigration and assimilation, but more than that, it’s a condemnation of American materialism, excess, and the illusory promises of the city on a hill. “America had begun as a colony and that a colony it remained,” writes Akhtar, “a place still defined by its plunder, where enrichment was paramount and civil order always an afterthought.”

Andrea Lee imagines a luscious estate among the detritus of past empires in Red Island House, her sumptuous novel published after a 15-year hiatus. Philadelphia-born Lee has spent the bulk of her adult life in Italy, and that worldly cosmopolitanism is evident in these interconnected short stories that chattily explores the family and staff who live in the titular mansion. A massive rose-hued house in Madagascar overlooking the Indian Ocean that is built by a Falstaffian Italian industrialist for his younger African American wife, Red Island House upturns expectations. In her author’s note, Lee writes that this is a “novel about foreigners in Madagascar; its viewpoints and its ‘voice’ are those of an outsider looking in,” and with shades of V.S. Naipaul and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o she proves as adept at describing the haunted beauty of Madagascar as she was describing the Tuscan countryside in earlier works, a master stylist reinventing the post-colonial novel.     

Shay Gilliam is an Oakland-born, upper-class Black professor of African-American literature at an Italian university who spends her off season on the windy, mango-grove shores of her husband’s pastoral idyll, a woman for whom Africa was a “near-mythical motherland” who discovers that the complexities of colonialism are often individual and that as a result our identities are always relative. Gilliam’s sometimes boorish husband, a working-class street kid made good, is “dizzied by the infinite possibilities offered by using first world money in a third world country, one of the poorest on earth.” A novel of current breezes and expats in white suits plying local girls with rum, of grilled fish on the beach and tourists on mopeds speeding past unimaginable poverty. Across 10 chapters and two decades, Red Island House shows the cankers in both paradise and marriage. Characters shift in and out, people are introduced only to disappear, and Gilliam’s perceptions always dance about true self-insight, even as it becomes clear that a similar complexion is all that unites her to this island’s inhabitants.

History similarly haunts Danielle Evans’s excellent short story collection The Office of Historical Corrections. The Office of Historical Corrections seamlessly moves from humor to poignancy. “Boys Go to Jupiter” details the social media fallout after a coed who posts a picture on Instagram of herself in a Confederate flag bikini, a story that says more about so-called “cancel culture” than 100 editorials, while “Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want” acts as both parody of pretentious art culture and meditation on the #MeToo movement and the ways that powerful men still escape culpability.

It’s the titular novella that’s the true standout however, “The Office of Historical Corrections” following a mystery as investigated by Cassie and Genevieve, two often antagonistic childhood friends turned grad school adversaries turned agents in an invented federal agency named the Office of Public History. To call Evans’s story Kafkaesque is to ignore just how singular her style is, though she has a sense of the absurdity of bureaucracy, and is also aware of how history is defined by ghosts upon ghosts. Evans is also adept in sarcasm, and the title story with its federal agents printing out corrections to inaccurate historical markers is as strange and funny as anything written about the traumas of racism. “Besides the tablecloths, the décor is all old photographs and postcards that they scrounged up from wherever,” Cassie notes of a Midwestern hipster restaurant, “because you know how white people love their history right up until it’s true.” The Office of Historical Corrections is a parable for the era of Black Lives Matter and the rightful pulling down of Confederate statues, of Critical Race Theory hysteria and white grievance, a novella about passing and self-hatred, survival and violence, and how the American story can be funny except when it isn’t.  

Christopher Beha’s The Index of Self-Destructive Acts is a doorstopper that like many recent titles (Homeland Elegies, Dario Diofebi’s Paradise, Nevada) is fundamentally a historical novel about the very recent past, in this case the year immediately following the election of Barack Obama. And like those other novels, The Index of Self-Destructive Acts combines a dizzying era of contemporary concerns—in this case punditry, finance, the publishing industry, the collapse of journalism, predictive algorithms, the Iraq War, and baseball—crafting an allegory of our present. In this case the allegory concerns Sam Waxworth, a statistical wunderkind in the mold of Nate Silver who correctly predicts every single federal race in 2008 and Frank Doyle, a columnist for a newspaper clearly based on The New York Times who’d once been a Great Society-supporting liberal lion working in the John Lindsey administration but had since transmogrified into a reactionary ogre, scotch pickling him into a George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld acolyte.

Sam has been hired to write copy for Interviewer, a publication that used to be The Atlantic but after it was purchased by a tech-bro was turned into Buzzfeed, and the young prodigy is tasked by his editor to interview Frank. The older columnist was a onetime childhood hero of Sam because of his baseball writings, but the statistician rejects Frank because of his overly romanticizing the game. Baseball is a field of battle between Sam’s sabermetrics and Frank’s poetry, as the young upstart crow from flyover country “tried to attend to the facticity of things,” while his older sparing partner understands that “polls couldn’t capture a mood. For that you needed to look around a bit.” Like all true systems novels, from Charles Dickens’s Bleak House to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, there are a panoply of characters, namely Frank’s entire immediate family (Sam starts an affair with the columnist’s daughter), and a multitude of themes are explored, none so much as what it means to choose if everything can be reduced to mathematics. When an allegory refuses didacticism for negative capability, that’s when we call it a novel, and the strength of Beha’s endeavor is that it’s not clear who exactly is sympathetic or not in the contest between Sam’s unfeeling, analytical technocracy and Frank’s painfully wrong though still fundamentally emotional perspective on life.

An English sonnet has never been as sublime as the orange sun melting into the horizon over a minor league ballpark, faint chill of desert air rustling through the stands in the seventh inning before the final beer rush, odor of sodium-nitrate saturated hot dogs and smoky peanuts hanging heavy in the air. If baseball is an undercurrent in The Index of Self-Destructive Acts, then it’s everything in Emily Nemens’s The Cactus League; interconnected short stories that are as charming as Bull Durham and as heartbreaking as Denis Johnson. A former editor for The Paris Review, Nemens follows the path of Bernard Malamud’s The Natural and Roth’s self-aware The Great American Novel, using baseball as the major metaphor of American life. Our national pastime, it has been supposed, brings the poet out in the accountant and the accountant out in the poet, but as anyone who is a fan knows, the calling of strikes and outs has nothing really to do with a game and actually everything to do with anything else.

The Cactus League gives kaleidoscopic perspective to the fictitious Los Angeles Lions’ preseason and their star outfielder John Goodyear who appears to be in the midst of a crackup, of sorts. Nemens’s novel is set in greater Scottsdale, the Arizona desert a fading pink and the entire city a massive suburb of itself, all gated communities, preposterous grass lawns, the big box sprawl of Phoenix, and above it all Frank Lloyd Wright’s ethereal Taliesin West. In nine interlocking stories (get it?) Nemens follows a host of characters from agent Herb Allison, to local baseball groupie (and architecture enthusiast) Tamara Rowland, the aging batting coach Michael Taylor, and Goodyear himself. The effect is sublimely dizzying as the narrative moves from one character to another, using a collage effect to underscore the consequence of baseball by bringing the players, the coaches, the wives, the reporters, and the fans to bear. Nemens’s chapters are stunningly rendered character portraits of figures who face increasingly dwindling days, like their sport and nation. “Here’s the thing about baseball, and all else: everything changes. Whether it’s the slow creep of glaciers dripping toward the sea, or the steady piling up of cut stones, rock upon rock until the wall reaches the chest high, nothing is still.”

The southwest is mythic in a manner that’s unlike the overdetermined east. Puritan Yankees and Cavalier Southerners are forged into something new in the unforgiving environs of the desert, and in that way, it becomes the most American of places. Paradise, Nev., is an unincorporated town whose enigmatic name aside, most people have never heard of, though it contains some of the most iconic buildings in the United States, a neighborhood better known as the Las Vegas Strip. Paradise, Nevada is the title of the Italian novelist and former professional poker player Dario Diofebi’s massive consideration of that mirage and late capitalist America. The Bellagio, Caesar’s Palace, The Venetian, the Positano—a city of excess and neon, decadence and luck (as well as its opposite). If you don’t recognize the last casino that’s because it’s the invention of Diofebi, an exact replica of the Amalfi Coast built by the reclusive billionaire Al Wiles, who constructs a kingdom of sand and water pipes AND fake Adriatic breezes and the smell of Mediterranean lemons, all to impress his wife, a Swiss model who eventually leaves him.

Diofebi uses the 600-some pages of Paradise, Nevada to portray Las Vegas in 2014 and 2015 as a microcosm of America, presenting the interlocking and eventually intersecting stories of Ray, an online poker player who absconds to Sin City to make a living, a man with too much faith in statistics and game theory; Tom, an illegal Italian immigrant who got lucky at the tables and ends up becoming embroiled with a shady vlogger and pickup artist; Mary Ann, the Mississippi raised former New York model who works as a cocktail waitress; and Lindsay, a Mormon journalist with literary ambitions confronted with whether it’s possible to serve both Mammon and Moroni. Fundamentally a novel not just about class consciousness, but more simply money—who has it and who doesn’t—Paradise, Nevada gets to the nihilistic core of American consumerism while never losing sight of the fact that all of those neon lights are gorgeous. “It’s a beautiful town to just watch,” says Wiles, “So many stories, so many myths, so many struggles. Stare at it long enough and you’ll… slowly convince yourself that all those stories amount to some kind of meaning.” Diofebi’s attempt at the great Las Vegas novel ends up being the great novel of predatory neoliberalism, though perhaps that’s the same thing.

“The Great Flu had come to America on ships along with spices and sugar,” writes Anna North in Outlawed, “then spread from husband to wife and mother to child and trader to trader by kisses and handshakes, cups of beer shared among friends and strangers, and the coughs and sneezes of men and women who didn’t know how sick.” I can guarantee that North’s Outlawed is the best alternative history feminist Western that you will read this year. A cross between Atwood and Cormac McCarthy, Outlawed imagines a turn-of-the-century Dakota several decades after a mass pandemic, and the survivors’ grandchildren live in a version of America that’s as Medieval as it is Wild West. A syncretic faith worships the baby Jesus since so much is now invested restoring the population, but women who are unable to conceive (or whose husbands are infertile) are punished as witches, the fate of Ada who is adopted by the Hole in the Wall Gang, an all-woman outlaw group whose leader is an enigmatic, androgynous and messianic figure known only as the Kid. All great science fiction should ultimately be judged by the veracity of its world building, and in this regard North’s novel is a triumph, a fully-fledged reality that’s a mirror of our own twilight civilization. As depressing as the plague ravaged misogynistic West of Outlawed may be, North’s is no dystopia, for as in the work of Ursula K. Le Guin or Octavia Butler, the novel gestures towards genuine redemptive possibility, even in the ugliness of life.

Convents are emphatically different from outlaw gangs, and yet both exist outside of normal culture. Claire Luchette’s subtle, sad, and beautiful Agatha of Little Neon follows four nuns from the Diocese of Buffalo reassigned to gritty, post-industrial Warwick, R.I., where they’re to administer a half-way house for addicts and ex-convicts. Agatha is the most intellectually independent, though her religious doubts are kept to herself, even as she develops a life independent of Little Neon (the name of the house, given because of its garish green paint job) as a math teacher at a local Catholic high school. In their role as caretakers for these women and men—Tim Gary who is missing half of his face following cancer surgery; Lawnmower Jill, a drunk and junky whose nickname is derived from her favored form of transportation—the nuns often fumble in their unworldliness. Multiple themes are explored—secularism and faith, abuse and trauma, addiction and recovery. In a nation where 100,000 people died of opioid overdose this year, Luchette’s novel sings of American brokenness. Agatha of Little Neon is not a book about affordable redemption; in the tradition of the greatest Catholic novels salvation is not guaranteed nor is it cheap. This is a story about broken lives, and is all the more arresting because of it. More meditation than story, prayer than novel, Luchette’s book is the sort that in crystalline minimalist prose with nary a comma out of order, evokes midcentury existentialist classics. “We didn’t know much about addiction, about homelessness, but we know how it could look.” Sometimes that’s enough. Sometimes it isn’t. This is the most moving book about grace and what it means to whisper a silent prayer to nobody that I read this year.   

“I felt pride, of course, but something more, something better: freedom,” says Opal Jewel in Dawnie Walton’s much lauded and thoroughly brilliant The Final Revival of Opal & Nev. The titular rock star is self-assurance incarnate, a blustery, bluesy genius who emerges ex nihilo (or at least from Detroit). The Final Revival of Opal & Nev is the great rock music novel of the year, if not the decade. Walton explores the fraught dynamics between her invented duo, a folky proto-punk outfit from the early ’70s composed of Neville Charles, a sensitive Englishmen enraptured by all things American, and Opal, a young Black singer and songwriter in possession of abundant talent and style. The Final Revival of Opal & Nev follows an upcoming reunion, decades after their falling out, their own solo careers, and Altamont-style violence that marked their earliest success. Composed of interviews between figures associated with the act as conducted by Sunny Shelton, a music journalist who is the daughter of the band’s studio musician drummer whom Opal had had an affair with, the novel inevitably drew comparisons to Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Daisy Jones & the Six. I enjoyed both books, but the strength of Walton’s novel is that Opal and Nev are so different from anything in our actual world, like an outfit composed of Nick Drake and Nina Simone, with Patti Smith on backup for good measure. Walton uses this imagined alternative musical history to explore not just the difficulties in creative partnership, but also questions of appropriation, race, and what music says that words can’t. As David Mitchell writes in his similarly brilliant rock novel Utopia Avenue, “If a song plants an idea or a feeling in the mind, it has already changed the world.”  

Rock music might be the critic’s approved version of popular culture—all of those Lester Bangs and Greil Marcus essays—but in The Gimmicks, Chris McCormick explores an influential but disdained art form in professional wrestling. To say that The Gimmicks is “about” professional wrestling, the sweaty, campy, grappling of pituitary cases wearing ethnically offensive costumes in a bit of scripted drama—the purview of the Iron Sheik and Rowdy Roddy Piper—is a misnomer. The action of The Gimmicks swirls around wrestling in the same way that The Cactus League is “about” baseball, but McCormick uses Avo Greogoryan, an immigrant from Soviet Armenia who performs under the name of the Browbeater, to explore questions about family, trauma, betrayal, diaspora, political violence, the Turkish genocide of the Armenians, and competitive chess strategy. Evocative of both Michael Chabon and Jonathan Safran Foer, McCormick’s trio of friends and family—Avo; his cousin, zealous Ruben Petrosian; and the woman they both love, bookish Mina Boghossian—are refugees from a collapsing empire. “It’s a marvel how memory works,” says Tony “Angel” Krill, the Browbeater’s pony-tailed manager, after he’s been noirishly recruited to find Avo following the wrestler’s disappearance, “how it holds its shape like smoke in the cold…most of my best forgetting is done on purpose.” Epic in range, McCormick’s novel depicts concrete Kirovakan in the U.S.S.R., the sun-bleached streets of Los Angeles’ Little Armenia, the arrondissements of Paris, the blindingly white homes of the Grecian shore, and the crowded alleyways of Istanbul, not to mention a thousand sad, sweat-filled, crowded, and hot gymnasiums in North Carolina, or Kentucky, or Nevada. Throughout McCormick asks what it means to be a genuine human being when kayfabe becomes your reality.

Physical power in its undiluted form is also a theme in Rufi Thorpe’s astounding The Knockout Queen. Set among the chlorinated paradise of suburban Orange County in the mid aughts, high school volleyball star Bunny Lampton, who is blonde, beautiful and 6’3”, forges an unlikely friendship with her next-door neighbor Michael, the narrator of the book, a closeted goth classmate living with his aunt in one of the lower middle-class homes of this neighborhood that’s seen a sprouting of McMansions. Bunny’s father is an alcoholic widower, a charming and deeply corrupt real estate developer who harbors Olympic dreams for his daughter, and is largely tolerant of her friendship with the haunted boy next door, whose mother is in jail for the attempted murder of her husband. The Knockout Queen deftly recreates adolescence during the first decade of this millennium, that era of low-rise jeans and autotune, but more than that it’s a brutal meditation on power in its rawest form, because “it’s different when it’s the woman who’s violent. It strikes people as abnormal. Like, it’s natural for a guy to just ‘lose his temper,’ but if a woman does the same thing, then it’s a sign of something deeper wrong, like psychologically or almost metaphysically.” From the turn of our century until today, Thorpe charts the diverging fortunes of the North Shore Princess and the boy from the other side of the tracks (or fence as it were), with The Knockout Queen marked by loyalty, dispossession, the ravages of time, and the often-startling brutality of what it means to be a human being with a human body.        

In her disquieting The Divines, Ellie Eaton conveys the pain that teenagers inflict on one another. Moving with perfect narrative pacing between the late ’90s United Kingdom and contemporary Chicago and Los Angeles, The Divines is narrated by Josephine, the wealthy daughter of British expats in Hong Kong who once attended the ultra-exclusive girl’s boarding school St. John the Divine in the English countryside. Students at an institution that is far more expensive than it is good, the Divines are known for their hair flip, their cruel pranks, and their abysmal town-gown relationship with the working-class denizens of this depressing hamlet. Much more than a coming of age story—Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt posters on walls, filched cigarettes, and sweaty school dances—The Divines is about class, trauma, and violence. “Divines could be cruel, conceited, arcane, but we were faithful to the end.” High school can fuck you up, and Josephine still ruminates on her relationship with popular Skipper, her illicit friendship with the townie Lauren, her traumatic infatuation with a maintenance man, and most of all the bullying of a diminutive but shrill classmate who was marked to become a world-class figure skater. Josephine is an unreliable narrator who seems estimably reasonable, a villain lacking self-awareness who befuddles the reader, with Eaton having written a galling account of how trauma mutates, until it’s not even recognizable to the past itself.

The Divines isn’t a horror novel, but it has the feel of one—the gothic campus, the insular community, the provincial townies, and the implied murder on the first page. Horror increasingly bleeds into literary fiction. Perhaps it’s this moment, simultaneously apocalyptic and boring, dulled by social media clicks and 24-hour news, the jittery anxiety of now. No contemporary writer is as adept at malignant narrators as Ottessa Moshfegh, whose characters are worthy of Poe or Dostoevsky. Moshfegh’s latest, Death in Her Hands, is a worthy addition to her oeuvre. Narrated by Vesta Gull, an elderly widow who relocates to a small town that seems like New England, discovers a note in the woods that reads “Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body,” though sans an actual corpse. Vesta becomes obsessed, spinning intricate plots. Death in Her Hands is not quite a murder mystery and not quite gothic, but something far darker. Teddy Wayne also penned a not-quite-horror-novel in his disturbing Apartment, where rather than a cursed manse the story is placed in Columbia’s MFA program, haunted by an awkward, obsessive, slightly creepy nameless narrator who finds it natural to “alter our retrospection in subtle ways, to airbrush our unpalatable blemishes here and there.” Apartment explores the poisons of envy and resentment, class and money, and the risks of self-delusion, concluding that “Sometimes the only way to start over in life is to burn down the house.” Julie Fine offers an actual (maybe) supernatural tale in The Upstairs House, where English graduate student, ABD, and new mother Megan Weiler begins to believe that beloved children’s author Margaret Wise Brown is haunting her Chicago apartment building. “Memory… is a wild and private place to which we only return by accident, as in a dream or song,” reflects Megan in this upsetting story of postpartum depression and scholarly dissatisfaction.

No novel I read this year was quite so viscerally pertinent as Hari Kunzru’s wicked Red Pill. As he did for America’s conflicted history in White Tears, so Kunzru provides diagnosis of European sicknesses rooted deep within its poisoned blood and soil. Drawing his title from the Internet vernacular that refers to those who’ve been initiated into far-right politics, Red Pill recounts the unhinged experiences of its mild-mannered American narrator, a nameless academic who has stumbled into a year-long fellowship at a German research institute in Wannsee, the Berlin suburb where the Reich outlined the “final solution,” back when the Bundeswehr enacted a policy far more evil than just reading a lot of books. The narrator is a good liberal wearily watching the ongoing 2016 presidential election from across the Atlantic while ostensibly writing a monograph about the Romantic poet Heinrich von Kleist, though he actually spends his days walking around Wannsee’s pristine environs and becoming obsessed with an ultra-violent American copaganda show called Blue Lives, which reads like a cross between Blue Bloods and The Shield, with script rewrites from Friedrich Nietzsche. The narrator becomes convinced that dangerous alt-right talking points have been encoded into Blue Lives, as he scours message boards and charts the nihilistic references that the show’s creator Anton has written into the scripts. By fortuitous coincidence, the narrator and Anton meet. “Everything he said sounded like a dare,” the narrator writes of Anton, “an outrage that was taken back as soon as it came out of his mouth. I meant it, I didn’t mean it. Sorry, not sorry.” Understanding that trolls can end up being camp guards, that transgression can slide into genocide, the narrator tries to unmask Anton, but there’s only so much he can do in a world laughingly careening towards Armageddon.

American literature is always about America itself, just as English literature is about class or German literature is about death. Though Kunzru is British, there is something integral about our psychic life displayed in Red Pill, a novel about Europe’s past and America’s future. On the evening that I finalized my reading list—including adding Red Pill to my queue—I was largely optimistic. Six weeks before, and the presidential election had delivered a result that made me hopeful. The polls in Georgia looked surprisingly good. For a bit of time, after four years of nascent authoritarianism, alt-right provocation, and dystopian machination, there were reasons to be happy. That night, I went to sleep expecting that the moral arc of the universe does tend towards justice. We should always listen to Cassandra, though. When I turned in, it was already early morning on January 6.  

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