“When they ask what [God’s] name is, what shall I tell them?” —Exodus 3:13 “Language is only the instrument of science, and words are but the signs of ideas.” —Dr. Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language (1755) 1. Attar of Nishapur, the 12th-century Persian Sufi, wrote of a pilgrimage of birds. His masterpiece The Conference of the Birds recounts how 30 fowls were led by a tufted, orange hoopoe (wisest of his kind) to find the Simurgh, a type of bird-god or king. So holy is the hoopoe, that the bismillah is etched onto his beak as encouragement to his fellow feathered penitents. From Persia the birds travel to China, in search of the Simurgh, a gigantic eagle-like creature with the face of a man (or sometimes a dog) who has lived for millennia, possesses all knowledge, and like the Phoenix has been immolated only to rise again. In the birds’ desire to see the Simurgh, we understand how we should yearn for Allah: “Do all you can to become a bird of the Way to God; / Do all you can to develop your wings and your feathers,” Attar writes. An esoteric truth is revealed to the loyal hawk, the romantic nightingale, the resplendent peacock, and the stalwart stork. There is no Simurgh awaiting them in some hidden paradise, for the creature’s name is itself a Farsi pun on the phrase “30 birds.” Attar writes that “All things are but masks at God’s beck and call, / They are symbols that instruct us that God is all.” There is no God but us, and we are our own prophets. As a dream vision, The Conference of the Birds appears to be borderline atheistic, but only if you’re oblivious that such mysticism is actually God-intoxicated. And as with all mystical literature, there is (purposefully) something hard to comprehend, though a clue on interpretation when Attar writes that “The shadow and its maker are one and the same, / so get over surfaces and delve into mysteries.” Equivalence of shadow and maker—it’s a moving understanding of what writing is as well, where the very products of our creation are intimations of our souls. My approach to these mysteries, plumbing past the surfaces of appearance, is in an illustration of the epic’s themes done in the characteristic Islamic medium of calligraphy. Alongside the intricate miniatures which defined Persian art, there developed a tradition whereby ingenious calligraphers would present Arabic or Persian sentences in artful arrangements, so that whole sentences would compose the illusion of a representational picture. One such image is nothing but the word “Simurgh” itself, yet the way in which the artist has configured letters like the ascending alif, horizontal jim, rounded dhal, and complex hamzah presents the appearance of a bird rearing with regal countenance—all feather, claw, and beak. A beautiful evocation of Attar’s very lesson itself, for as the avian penitents learn that there is no Simurgh save for their collective body, so, too, do we see that the illusion of the picture we’re presented with is simply an arrangement of letters. Pithy demonstration of the paradox of literature as well. If the Simurgh of The Conference of the Birds is simply composed by the fowl themselves, and if the image of the calligrapher’s art is constituted by letters, might there be a lesson that divinity itself is constructed in the later way? Just as each bird is part of the Simurgh, may each letter be part of God? For as images had been banned, they still can’t help but arise out of these abstracted letters, these symbols imbued with a fiery life. Little wonder that incantations are conveyed through words and that we’re warned not to take the Lord’s name in vain, for it’s letters that both define and give life. A certain conclusion is unassailable: God is an alphabet—God is the alphabet. 2. “Bereshit” is the word by which Genesis is inaugurated, and it’s from that word that the name of the book derives in its original language. No text more explicitly deals with the generative powers of speech than Genesis, and in seeing the Torah as both product of and vehicle for God’s creation, we get closer to the sacredness of the Alphabet. Bereshit begins with the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet—bet—which looks like this: ב. Something about the shape of the abstracted letter reminds me of a tree with a branch hanging out at an angle, appropriate when we consider the subject of the book. There's something unusual in the first letter of the Torah being bet, for why would the word of God not begin with Her first letter of Aleph? Medieval kabbalists, adept in numerology, had an answer: It was to indicate that reality has two levels—the physical and the spiritual, or as Attar called them, the surfaces and the mysteries. But if the surface of the sheep vellum which constitutes a physical Torah is one thing, the actual reality of the letter is another. A deeper truth is conveyed by the mystery of letters themselves, the way in which abstract symbol can make us hallucinate voices in our heads, the way in which entire worlds of imagination can be constructed by dying the skin of dead animals black with ink. We dissuade ourselves against magic too easily, especially since literacy itself is evidence of it. That language is sacred should be an obvious truth. Even as the old verities of holiness are discarded, the unassailable fact that language has a magic is intuited at the level of an eye scanning a page and building universes from nothingness. Jewish sages believed that the alphabet preceded that initial Bereshit; indeed, that was a requirement that letters existed before creation, for how would God’s accomplishment of the latter even be possible without Her access to the former? As the kabbalistic book Sefer Yetsira explains: “Twenty-two letters did [God] engrave and carve, he weighed them and moved them around into different combinations. Through them, he created the soul of every living being and the soul of every word.” 3. Chiseled onto the sandy-red shoulder of a sphinx found at Serabit el-Khadim in the Sinai Peninsula is evidence of the alphabet’s origins that is almost as evocative as the story told in the Sefer Yetsira. As enigmatic as her cousins at Giza or Thebes, the Sinai sphinx is a votive in honor of the Egyptian goddess Hathor, guardian of the desert, and she who protected the turquoise mines which dotted the peninsula and operated for close to eight centuries producing wealth for distant Pharaohs. The Serabit el-Khadim sphinx is only a little under 24 centimeters, more than diminutive enough to find her new home in a British Museum cabinet. Excavated in 1904 by Flinders and Hilda Petrie, founder of Egyptology as a discipline, the little Hathor lioness lay in wait for perhaps 3,800 years, graffiti etched into her side attesting to alphabetic origins. The sphinx was carved by laborers whose language was a Semitic tongue closely related to Hebrew (and indeed some have connected the inscription to the Exodus narrative). In Alpha Beta: How 26 Letters Shaped the Western World, John Man describes how these “Twelve marks suggest links between Egyptian writing and later Semitic letters,” for though what’s recorded at Serabit el-Khadim are glyphs like “an ox-head, an eye, a house, a snake, and water,” what is found on the haunches of Hathor’s sphinx are the abstracted “roots of our own a, b, v, u, m. p, w, and t.” By 1916, Alan Gardiner used the decipherable Egyptian hieroglyphic inscription between the sphinx’s breasts, which read, “Beloved of Hathor, Lady of the Turquoise” to translate the 11 marks on her side, making this one of the earliest examples of a script called “Proto-Sinaitic,” the most ancient instance of alphabetic writing to ever be found. Gardiner hypothesized that this was an alphabetic letter system, arguing that it was either a form of simplified pidgin Egyptian used by the administrators, or that it was a simplified system invented by the workers. By simplifying the process of communication, the alphabet’s purpose was pragmatic, but its implications rank it among the most paradigm-shifting of history. From In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language, Joel M. Hoffman explains that if it’s “easier to learn the tens of hundreds of symbols required for syllabic system than it is to learn the thousands required for a purely logographic system,” than to learn easier still consonantal systems (as both proto-Sinaitic and Hebrew are), as these system “generally require fewer than 30 symbols.” Vowels may be the souls of words, but consonants are their bodies. The former awaited both the Greek alphabet and the diacritical marks of Masoretic Hebrew, but the skeletons of our alphabet were already recorded in homage to the goddess Hathor. Man writes that three features mark the alphabet as crucial in the history of communication: “its uniqueness, its simplicity and its adaptability.” Perhaps even more importantly, where pictograms are complicated, they’re also indelibly wed to the tongue which first uttered them, whereas alphabets can “with some pushing and shoving, be adapted to all languages.” The alphabet, a Semitic invention born from Egyptian materials for practical ends, “proved wildly successful,” as Hoffman writes, with proto-Sinaitic developing into the Phoenician alphabet and then the Hebrew, which was “used as the basis for the Greek and Latin alphabets, which, in turn, along with Hebrew itself, were destined to form the basis for almost all the world’s alphabets.” Birthed from parsimony, proto-Sinaitic would become the vehicle through which abstraction could be spread. Still, the blurred edges of our letters proclaim their origin in pictures—the prostrate penitent worshipping prayerfully in an “E;” in an “S,” the slithering of the snake who caused the fall. 4. Every single major alphabetic system, save for Korean Hangul developed in the 15th century, can trace its origins back to this scratching on a sphinx. The Phoenicians, a people who spoke a Semitic language, developed one of the first proper alphabets. Michael Rosen, in Alphabetical: How Every Letter Tells a Story, explains that the Phoenicians “used abstract versions of objects to indicate letters: a bifurcated (horned?) sign was an ‘ox’ (in their language ‘aleph’), and on down through the words for ‘house,’ ‘stick,’ ‘door’ and ‘shout’ up to ‘tooth’ and ‘mark.'” The alphabet is universal, applicable in any cultural setting, and yet the immediate context of its creation is of sailors and turquoise miners living in the Bronze Age. An epiphany when some turquoise miner abstracted the intricate pictures of Egyptian hieroglyphics, but used them not for ideas, but rather units of sound. The sea-faring Phoenicians, clad in their Tyrian purple cloth dyed from the mucus of clams, would disseminate the alphabet around Mediterranean ports. It’s the origin of elegant Hebrew, which God used when he struck letters of fire into the tablets at Sinai; the genesis of Arabic’s fluid letters by which Allah dictated the Qur’an. The Greeks adapted the Phoenicians’ invention (as they acknowledge) into which the oral poems of Homer could finally be recorded; the death-obsessed Etruscans whose tongue we still can’t hear appropriated the symbols of Punic sailors, as did the Romans who would stamp those letters on triumphant monuments throughout Europe and Africa in so enduring a way that you’re still reading them now. Languid Ge’ez in Ethiopian gospels, blocky Aramaic written in the tongue of Christ, Brahmic scripts which preserved Dharmic prayers, the mysterious Ogham of Irish druids, the bird-scratch runes of the Norseman, the stolid Cyrillic of the Czars, all derive from that initial alphabet. Even Sequoyah’s 19th-century Cherokee, though a syllabary and not technically an alphabet, draws several of its symbols from a Latin that can be ultimately traced back to the mines of Serabit el-Khadim. Matthew Battles, in Palimpsest: A History of the Written Word, writes how this “great chain of alphabetical evolution collapses in a welter of characters, glyphs, and symbols, mingling in friendly, familial and even erotic enthusiasms of conversant meaning.” We sense familiarity across this family tree of alphabetical systems, how in an English “A” we see the Greek α, or how Hebrew ח evokes the Greek η. But as the French rabbi Marc-Allain Ouknin explains in The Mysteries of the Alphabet, all of our letters were ultimately adapted by the ancient Canaanites from Egyptian pictures, for before there was an “A” there was the head of an ox, before there was “H” there was an enclosure. Ouknin writes that the “history of meaning is the history of forgetting the image, the history of a suppression of the visible.” In the beginning there was not the word, but rather the image. 5. During the 17th century, the German Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kirchner was bedeviled by the question of how image and word negotiated over dominion in the Kingdom of Meaning. Kirchner is an exemplar of the Renaissance; born not quite in time for the Enlightenment, he was fluent in conjecture rather than proof, esoterica rather than science, wonder rather than reason. His was the epistemology not of the laboratory, but of the Wunderkammer. In The Alphabetic Labyrinth: The Alphabet in History and Imagination, art historian Johanna Drucker writes that Kirchner’s studies included that of the “structure of the subterranean world of underground rivers, volcanic lava flow and caves, an exhaustive text on all extant devices for producing light,” and most importantly “compendia of information on China, [and] Egypt.” Kirchner is both the first Egyptologist and first Sinologist, even as his conclusions about both subjects would be proven completely inaccurate in almost all of their details. His 1655 Oedipus Aegyptiacus was both an attempt to decipher the enigmatic symbols on papyri and monuments, as well as a “restoration of the hieroglyphic doctrine,” the secret Hermetic knowledge which the priest associated with the ancients. He concurred with the ancient Neo-Platonist Plotinus, who in his Enneads claimed that the Egyptians did not use letters “which represent sounds and words; instead they use designs of images, each of which stands for a distinct thing … Every incised sign is thus, at once, knowledge, wisdom, a real entity captured in one stroke.” Kirchner thus “translated” an inscription on a 2-millennia-old obelisk which sat in the Villa Celimontana in Rome, explaining that the hieroglyphs should read as “His minister and faithful attendant, the polymorphous Spirit, shows the abundance and wealth of all necessary things.” Not a single word is accurate. For Kirchner, what made both hieroglyphics and Chinese writings so evocative was that they got as close to unmediated reality as possible, that they were not mere depiction, but essence. In The Search for the Perfect Language, Umberto Eco explains that Kirchner’s enthusiasms were mistaken, because his “assumption that every hieroglyph was an ideogram … was an assumption which doomed his enterprise at the outset,” for contrary to his presupposition, neither Mandarin nor ancient Egyptian operated like some sort of baroque rebus. Still, Kirchner’s was a contention that “hieroglyphs all showed something about the natural world,” as Eco writes. Pictograms were as a window unto the world; fallen letters were simply scratches in the sand. Where Kirchner and others faltered was in letting abstraction obscure the concreteness of the alphabet. If you flip an “A” upside down, do you not see the horns of the ox which that letter originally signified? If you turn a “B” on its side, do you not see the rooms of a house? Or in the curvature of a “C” that of the camel’s hump? 6. Iconoclasm explains much of our amnesia about the iconic origins of our letters, but it’s also that which gives the alphabet much of its power. Imagery has been the nucleus of human expression since the first Cro-Magnon woman blew red ochre from her engorged cheeks onto the cave wall at Lascaux so as to trace the outline of her hand. But the shift from pictographic writing to alphabetic inaugurated the reign of abstraction whereby the imagistic forebearers of our letters had to be forgotten. Marc-Alain Ouaknin explains that “Behind each of the letters with which we are so familiar lies a history, changes, mutations based on one or more original forms.” Since Gardiner’s translation of Serabit el-Khadim, there have been a few dozen similar abecedariums found at sites mostly in the Sinai. From those sparse examples, scholars trace the morphology of letters back to their original, when they brewed from that primordial soup of imagery, their original meanings now obscured. From our Latin letters we move back to the indecipherable Etruscan, from those northern Italians we trace to the Greeks, and then the purple-clad Phoenicians, finally arriving at the ancient Semites who crafted the alphabet, finding that the our letters are not a, b, and c, nor alpha, beta, and gamma, or even Aleph, Bet, and Gimmel, but rather their original pictures—an ox, a house, and a camel. Philologists and classicists have identified all of the images from which the 26 letters derive. In proto-Sinaitic, “D” was originally a door. If you flip an “E” on its side you see the arms outstretched above the head of a man in prayer. “I” was originally a hand; the wavy line of “M” still looks like the wave of water which it originally was. “R” still has at its top the head above a body which it originally signified; “U” still looks like that which an oar was placed upon in a boat. Kirchner thought that hieroglyphics were perfect pictures of the real world, but hidden within our own alphabet absconded from the courts of Egypt are the ghostly after-images of the originals. 7. The alphabet spread something more than mere convenience—it spread monotheism. Man argues that the “evolution of the belief in a single god was dependent on an ability to record that belief and make it accessible; and that both recording and accessibility were dependent on the invention of the alphabet.” God made the alphabet possible, and it would seem that the alphabet returned the favor. What first had to be forgotten, however, were the meaning of the letters’ original shapes, for in pictograms there lay the risk of idolatry, of conjuring those old gods who birthed them. At Mt. Sinai, the Lord supposedly used fire to emblazon Moses’ tablets with his commandments, the second of which demands that none shall make any “likeness that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” When writing those letters God very well couldn’t use ones that happened to look like a man, or an ox, or a camel’s hump. Ouaknin conjectures that “iconoclasm required the Jews to purge proto-Sinaitic of images,” for the “birth of the modern alphabet created from abstract characters is linked to the revelation and the receiving of the law.” The rabbi argues that it was “Under the influence of monotheistic expression [that] hieroglyphics began to shed some of its images, resulting in the first attempt of an alphabet.” Accessible abstractions of the alphabets were not a fortuitous coincidence, but rather a demand of the Mosaic covenant, since the newly monotheistic Jews couldn’t worship God if the letters of their writing system evoked falcon-headed Horus, the jackal Anubis, or baboon-faced Thoth with stylus in hand. Man writes that “both new god and new script worked together to forge a new nation and disseminate an idea that would change the world.” A skeptic may observe that the alphabet hardly caused an immediate rash of conversions to monotheism in Greece, Rome, or the north country, as Zeus, Jupiter, and Tyr still reigned amongst their respective peoples. Yet alphabetic writing’s emergence occurred right before a period which the Austrian philosopher Karl Jaspers called “the Axial Age.” Jaspers observed that in the first millennium before the Common Era, there was a surprising synchronicity between radically disparate cultures which nonetheless produced new ways of understanding reality which still had some unifying similarities between each other. Monotheism in the Levant, Greek philosophy, Persian Zoroastrianism, and the Indian Upanishads can all be traced to the Axial Age. For Jaspers, a paradigm shift in consciousness resulted in abstraction. What all of these different methods, approaches, and faiths shared was enshrinement the universal over the particular, the reality which is unseen over the shadows on the cave wall. In The Origin and Goal of History, Jaspers describes the Axial Age as “an interregnum … a pause for liberty, a deep breath bringing the most lucid consciousness.” Jaspers noted the simultaneous emergence of these faiths, but proffered not a full hypothesis as to why. I wonder if the abstractions of the alphabet were not that which incubated the Axial Age? In Moses and Monotheism, Sigmund Freud claimed that this “compulsion to worship a God whom one cannot see … meant that as a sensory perception was given second place to what may be called an abstract idea—a triumph of intellectuality over sensuality.” This triumph of abstraction included not just the prophets Isaiah and Elijah, but the philosophers Parmenides and Heraclitus, and the sages Siddhartha and Zarathustra, all of whose words were made eternal in the alphabet. From the Aegean to the Indus River, the common thread of the Axial Age was alphabetic writing, with the one major exception being China. In The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image, Leonard Shlain observed that the rise of phonetic letters coincided with the disappearance of idol worship in the Levant, writing that the “abstract alphabet encouraged abstract thinking,” a progeny born from the curve and line of the Word. Yet old gods can always be born again, their voices barely heard, yet still present in sacred phoneme, their faces peaking out in the spaces between our letters. 8. In the Babylonian desert, excavators frequently find small bowls, ringed with Aramaic and designed to capture demons. Molded by magi, the demon bowls are a trap, a harnessing of the magical efficacy of the alphabet. These talismans combined word and image to tame the malignant lesser gods who still stalked the earth, even after God’s supposed victory. Appropriate that God’s alphabet is that which is able to constrain in clay the machinations of erotic Lilith and bestial Asmodeus. One such bowl, which depicts the succubus Lilith at its center as an alluring woman with long hair barely obscuring breasts and genitalia, incants that “60 men who will capture you with copper ropes on your feet and copper shackles on your hands and caste collars of copper upon your temples.” Israeli scholar Naama Vilozny is an expert on the images of demons painted on these bowls by otherwise iconoclastic Jews. In Haaretz, Vilozny says that you “draw the figure you want to get rid of and then you bind it in a depiction and bind it in words.” There is control in the alphabet, not just in trapping demons, but in the ability to capture a concept’s essence. Writing’s theurgic power of writing, where curses against hell are as strong as baked clay. Magic and monotheism need not be strictly separated; a sense of paganism haunts our faith as well as our letters. The psychologist Julian Jaynes, in his The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, posited a controversial hypothesis that human beings were only “conscious” relatively recently, since shortly before the Axial Age. The alphabet perhaps played a role in this development, theoretically eliminating the others gods in favor of the one voice of God, the only voice in your head. But Jaynes explains that the “mind is still haunted by its old unconscious ways; it broods on lost authorities.” Certainly true when a frightened Babylonian places a bowl in the earth to capture those chthonic spirts which threaten us even though their dominion has been abolished. The alphabet facilitated a new magic. Consider that the fourth commandment, which reads “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain,” is not an injunction against blasphemy in the modern sense, for surely the omnipotent can abide obscenity, but that in historical context it specifically meant that you shouldn’t use God’s name to perform magic. To know the letters of someone’s name is to have the ability to control them; there’s a reason that the “angel” whom Jacob wrestles with refuses to be named. The four Hebrew letters which constitute the proper name of God—יהוה—are commonly referred to as the Tetragrammaton, there being no clear sense of what exactly the word would have actually been pronounced as. These letters have a charged power, no mere ink-stain on sheep-skin, for the correct pronunciation was guarded as an occult secret. Hoffman writes that the letters were “chosen not because of the sounds they represent, but because of their symbolic powers in that they were the Hebrew’s magic vowel letters that no other culture had.” The yod, hay, vov, hay of the Tetragrammaton demonstrated both the victory of monotheism, but also the electric power of the alphabet itself. God encoded into the very name, which in turn was the blueprint for our reality. A dangerous thing, these letters, for just as demons could be controlled with their names painted onto the rough surface of a bowl, so, too, could the most adept of mages compel the Creator to their bidding. 9. Incantation is sometimes called prayer, other times poetry, and occasionally the alphabet can substitute for both. As acrostic, alphabetic possibilities have long attracted poets. In Edward Hirsch’s A Poet’s Glossary, he writes about “Abecedarians,” that is, verses where each line begins with the respective letter of the alphabet. As all formal poetry does, the form exploits artificial constraint—in this circumstance, so as to mediate upon the alphabet itself. This is an “ancient form often employed for sacred works”; Hirsch explains how all of the “acrostics in the Hebrew Bible are alphabetical, such as Psalm 119, which consists of twenty-two eight-line stanzas, one for each letter of the Hebrew of the alphabet.” The “completeness of the form,” Hirsch writes, “enacts the idea of total devotion to the law of God.” St. Augustin, the fourth-century Christian theologian, wrote an abecedarian against the Donatist heretics; nearly a millennium later, Chaucer tried his hand at the form as well. Centuries later, the English journalist Alaric Watt wrote his account of the 1789 Hapsburg Siege of Belgrade in alliterative abecedarian: “An Austrian army, awfully arrayed, / Boldly by battery besieged Belgrade. / Cossack commanders cannonading come, / Dealing destruction’s devastating doom.” There are, to the best of my knowledge, no major examples of abecedarian prose. Perhaps somebody will write something soon? Because as Hirsch notes, the form has “powerful associations with prayer,” the rapturous repetition of the alphabet stripping meaning to its bare essence, emptying both penitence and supplication of ego, in favor of the ecstasies of pure sound. Such was the wisdom of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism, who was inspired by the ecstasies of Pietists to return worship to its emotional core. He sought to strip ritual of empty logic and to re-endow it with that lost sense of the glowing sacred. Sometimes prayer need not even be in words, the sacred letters themselves function well enough. The Baal Shem Tov’s honorific means “Master of the Good Name”; he who has brought within the very sinews of his flesh and the synapses of his mind the pulsating power of the Tetragrammaton. So much can depend on four letters. The Baal Shem Tov, or “Besht” as he was often called, lived in the Pale of Settlement, the cold, grey Galician countryside. Drucker writes that the Besht exhorted the “practicing Jew to make of daily life a continual practice of devotion,” whereby “each of the letters which pass one’s lips are ascendant and unite with each other, carrying with them the full glory.” The Besht taught that letters were not incidental; the alphabet itself was necessary for “true unification with the Divinity.” According to Hasidic legend, one Yom Kippur, the Besht led his congregation in their prayers. Towards the back of the synagogue was a simple-minded but pious shepherd boy. The other worshipers, with fingers pressing prayer book open, repeated the words of the Kol Nidre, but the illiterate shepherd could only pretend to mouth along, to follow writing which he could not read. Emotions became rapturous as black-coated men below and women in the balcony above began to sway and shout out the prayers. Finally, overcome with devotion but unable to repeat after the rest of his fellow Jews, the shepherd boy shouted out the only prayer he could: “Aleph. Bet. Gimmel. Daleth …” through the rest of the 18 Hebrew letters. There was an awkward silence in the sanctuary. Embarrassed, the young man explained, “God, that is all I can do. You know what your prayers are. Please arrange them into the correct order.” From the rafters of the shul, decorated with Hebrew letters in blocky black ink, came the very voice of God, leading the entire congregation in the holiest of prayers, repeated from that of the simple shepherd: “Aleph. Bet. Gimmel. Daleth …” And so, in the court of the Baal Shem Tov, in the early 18th century in a synagogue upon the Galician plain, God deigned to teach women and men how to worship once again, in the holiest prayer that there is. The alphabet, repeated truthfully with faith in your soul, is the purest form of prayer. 10. Alphabets are under-theorized. Because it’s so omnipresent, there is a way in which it’s easy to forget the spooky power of 26 symbols. Considering how fundamental to basic functioning it is, we frequently overlook the sheer, transcendent magnificence of the letters which structure our world. Disenchantment, however, need not be our lot, for there is a realization that letters don’t convey reality, but rather that they are reality. Ecstatic to comprehend, the way in which stains on dead tree are the conduit through which all meaning traverses, much like the electrons illuminating our screens. Fundamentally, what I’m arguing for is not just that our alphabet is a means of approaching the divine—no, not just that. God is the alphabet, and the alphabet is God. Heaven is traversed through the alpha and the omega. I argue that the alphabet betrays its origins, for word and image are joined together in symbiosis, no matter how occluded. Just as Kirchner believed hieroglyphics contained reality, so, too, is the alphabet haunted by pictures obscure; as Ouaknin enthuses, it’s in “unearthing the traces of the origin of letters and understanding how they evolved” that provide occult wisdom. Knowing that letters shift back and forth, so that they can return to the images which birthed them, as in the calligraphy which illustrates Attar’s Simurgh, is a demonstration of their fluid nature. Literal though we may misapprehend Egyptian pictograms to be, their abstract progeny in the form of our 26 letters are still haunted by their origins, and we can imbue them with a sense of their birthright now and again. Moreover, the mysteries of the alphabet subconsciously affect us, so that as Battles claims concerning letters since “whether alphabetic or ideographic, they start out as pictures of things,” the better to explain “why writing works for us, and why it has conserved these signs so well over these three millennia.” Nevertheless, the haunting of previous incarnations of letters’ past shapes can’t alone explain their strange power. Only something divine can fully explicate how some marks on Hathor’s hide charts a direct line to the letters you’re reading right now. Perhaps “divine” is a loaded term, what with all of those unfortunate religious connotations; “transcendent” would be just as apt. Questions can certainly be raised about my contentions; I do not wish to be read as airy, but with every letter of my sentences I can’t help but believe that the kabbalists and Gnostics were right—the alphabet constitutes our being. Reality, I believe, can be completely constituted from all 26 letters (give or take). Sift through all of them, and realize that the answer to any question lay between Aleph and Tav, not just as metaphor, but those answers are simply uncovered by finding the proper organization of those letters. The answer to any inquiry, the solution to any problem, the very wisdom that frees, can be discovered simply by finding the correct arrangement of those letters. Underneath the surface of these shapes are indications of their birth, but also that fuller reality just beyond our gaze. Vexation need not follow such an observation, but rather embrace the endless transition between image and word which is the alphabet. We need not pick between letter or picture, there is room enough for both. Xenoglossic is what we should be: fluent in language unknown to our tongues, but rather spoken in our souls. You need only repeat the alphabet as if you’re an illiterate shepherd in the assembly of the Baal Shem Tov. Zealots of the alphabet, with those very letters carved by fire into our hearts. Image: Temple of Hathor remains in Serabit el-Khadim by Einsamer Schütze
A little less than 50 miles from Krakow, at the confluence of the Vistula and Sola rivers, there is a town of slightly under 50,000 inhabitants named Oświęcim. The official tourist site for Oświęcim describes the city as being “attractive and friendly.” Image searches bring up Victorian buildings the color of yellow-frosted wedding cakes, and of modest public fountains; red-tiled homes and blue-steepled churches. There is a castle and a newly built hockey arena. Oświęcim would be simply another Polish town on a map, all diacriticals and consonants, were it not for its more famous German name—Auschwitz. Everyday people wake up under goose feather duvets, go to work in fluorescent-lit offices, buy pierogis and kielbasa, prepare halupki, and go to bed in Auschwitz. Women and men are born in Auschwitz, live in Auschwitz, marry, make love, and raise children in Auschwitz. People walk schnauzers and retrievers in Auschwitz—every day. Here, at the null point of humanity, in the shadow of that factory of death, people live normal lives. Amidst an empire of fire, ash, and Zyklon B. A mechanized, industrial hell on earth derived its name from this town. Theodor Adorno opined in his 1951 “Cultural Criticism and Society” that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Here, in the dark presence of gas chamber and crematorium, there are no doubt women and men who pass their time reading Czeslaw Milosz or Wislawa Szymborska, oblivious to the philosopher’s injunction. If you are to read that observation as optimism—that even in the midst of such trauma, such horror and evil, the music still plays—then you misunderstand me. Nor am I condemning those who live in Oświęcim, who’ve had no choice in being born there. Their lives are not an affront; I do not impugn to them an assumed lack of respect concerning this absence-haunted place. Such as it is to exist amidst the enormity of sacred stillness, a quiet that can only ever result from tremendous horror. The lives of Oświęcim’s citizens are simply lives like any other. Whatever the ethics of poetry after Auschwitz, the fact remains that there can’t help but still be verse—and waking, and working, and sleeping, and living. This has nothing to do with the perseverance of life in the face of unspeakable trauma; rather, it’s to understand that quotidian existence simply continues after Auschwitz—that very rupture in the space-time continuum of what it means to be a human—because there is no other choice. In Auschwitz we understand a bit about how the gravitational pull of trauma warps and alters space and place, and a true consideration of that singularity must also admit how demon-haunted other corners of our fallen world are, how blood-splattered and ghost inflected the very Earth itself is. What makes Auschwitz such an incomparable evil is not that it’s so very different from the rest of the world, but that it is even more like the world than all of the rest of the world already is. In that perverse way, Auschwitz is the most truthful of places. Judaism’s genius is that it understands how trauma permeates place. Auschwitz may be the exemplar for this praxis of suffering, but Jewish history is arguably a recounting of cyclical hatreds, all the way back to Pharaoh. Such an elemental, irrational hatred as anti-Semitism is very deep within the metaphysic of the West, seemingly in the marrow of its bones and drawn with mother’s milk, so much so that anyone truly surprised by its resurgence is either disingenuous or not paying attention. The Tanakh is a litany of those who’ve tried to destroy the Jews—the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Romans. Such is this basic narrative reoccurrence that it almost makes one concur that there is something to the concept of chosenness, but as the old Jewish joke goes, “Couldn’t G-d choose someone else sometime?” But if Judaism is a recounting of trauma (and perseverance in spite of said trauma), it’s also a religion of place, and what it means to live separate from particular places. The Tanakh itself recounts exile as the human condition. Before the MS St. Louis was turned back from Havana, from Miami, from Halifax and returned to the dark heart of Nazi Germany; before millions of Jews boarded Hamburg ships that were New York-bound; before the survivors of Czarist pogroms found succor in Hapsburg lands; before the expelled Sephardim of the Reconquista; before the Romans burned Jerusalem during Simon bar-Kokhba’s failed rebellion, and before the destruction of the second Temple; before the attempted genocide of Haman in Persia, and before the Babylonian Exile of the Judeans; before even the Assyrians scattered the 10 tribes of the Israelites; exile was at the core of the Jewish experience. The earliest reference to Israel is the Merneptah Stele, chiseled in Egypt some 12 centuries before Jesus Christ, predating the oldest extant scripture. There, at the bottom of an account of Pharaonic victories against adversaries, some nameless Egyptian scribe wrote, “Israel is laid waste and his seed is not.” The first reference to the Hebrews is how there are no longer any Hebrews. Exile and diaspora are the twin curses and gifts of the Jews; exile an individual condition and diaspora a collective one. This is the story of Abraham going into Egypt, of Moses being a “stranger in a strange land,” of being by the “rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept when we remembered Zion.” Even the earliest story of Genesis is one of exile, of being kept from the Promised Land by the flaming swords of Seraphim with their eyeball-covered wings and their fiery tongue of perverse ecstasy. Even now that a state which claims to speak on behalf of and in defense of Jewry governs from an undivided Holy City (with all the attendant geopolitical ramifications) the traditional Pesach injunction remains “Next year in Jerusalem!” for, there is a wisdom in understanding that the spoken Jerusalem is not the real Jerusalem. Such is the itinerary of Ahasuerus, the so-called “Wandering Jew,” who was a feature of Christian folklore; an immortal from the lifetime of Christ condemned to wander the world until the Second Coming. Yet a sense of dislocation, of fallenness, should be central to all understandings of what it means to be human. Judaism merely keeps that awareness front and center. One should always have bags packed since you never know when you might suddenly have to leave. Exile is, of course, intimately tied to the idea of place; for in being an exilic one is acknowledging that there is a place in which you feel you should be, but that which you are not. Such a condition only exists if there is an acknowledged home to which you are no longer privy. A useful distinction between what humanistic geographers call “place” in contrast to “space.” Far from obvious synonyms, the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan in his classic Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience explains that “‘Space’ is more abstract than ‘place.’ What begins as undifferentiated space becomes place as we begin to know it better and endow it with value.” Hard to ever build a place when you’re always on the road, though—when your bag always needs to be packed for that moment’s notice. Part of what Jewish history teaches us is the incommensurate difficulty of actually being able to turn space into place. The horrors that have been experienced over millennia are a genealogy of how trauma can transform place and space back and forth into each other. A dusty alleyway in the shadow of Herod’s Temple can be a place where one cooks lentils in olive oil and drinks wine from earthen clay pots, but that same place can very quickly be transformed into an abstract space once it’s been violated by the violence which sees family members’ blood spilled on those same dusty streets. If trauma is the crucible that can transform place into space, then the exile which results from that trauma counterintuitively transforms space back into place. When one is a wandering Jew with no country, then one is forced to make the whole world into one's country. Such is the true origin of humanism, of the Persian poet Kahlil Gibran’s contention that “The universe is my country and the human family is my tribe,” or the American radical Thomas Paine’s mantra that “The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren, to do good is my religion,” with neither of these men themselves being Jewish. Such perspective is the true gift of chosenness. Zion becomes that which you carry within you. Again, the spoken Jerusalem cannot be the true Jerusalem. This embrace of diaspora is an embrace of a humanism, which engendered a suspicion in stupid little anti-Semites like Joseph Stalin, who slurred the Jews as “rootless cosmopolitans,” not understanding that there is the most solemn strength in that very rootlessness. Today, the inheritors of that brutal myopia use the word “globalist” instead, but the same rank provincialism is still displayed. Judaism’s cosmopolitanism was born from trauma, for in the biblical age the faith was supremely concrete, the locus of worship projected onto a few square miles occupied on the Temple Mount. Yet the destruction of that sanctuary necessitated that a new Temple be found, one built in text and inscribed in memory and taken from place to new place. What results is a type of abstraction, if not the very invention of abstraction. God no longer dwells in the Holy of Holies, but rather in the scroll of the Torah, in the very imagination itself. Literary critic George Steiner has identified a hatred of abstraction as the ultimate origin of anti-Semitism. In his contribution to Berel Lang’s anthology Writing and the Holocaust, Steiner argues that people “fear most those who demand of us a self-transcendence, a surpassing of our natural and common limits of being. Our hate and fear are the more intense precisely because we know the absolute rightness, the ultimate desirability of the demand.” Across his career, in novels like The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H., and in books such as In Bluebeard’s Castle, Steiner has claimed that it’s precisely Judaism’s humanistic abstraction that engenders such perennial, if irrational, anti-Semitism. In that later book, he claims that there are three dispensations, “Monotheism at Sinai, primitive Christianity, [and] messianic socialism” where Western culture was presented with “’the claims of the ideal.” Steiner argues that these are “three stages, profoundly interrelated, through which Western consciousness is forced to experience the blackmail of transcendence.” Western culture has been presented with three totalizing abstractions that have a Judaic origin; abstractions that are born from the traumas of dislocation and that reject the idolatrous specificity of place in favor of the universalism of space. These tripartite covenants are represented by Moses, Christ, and Karl Marx, and Steiner sees in the rejection of the idealized utopian promise which each figure represents the origin of this pernicious and enduring hatred. For Steiner, anti-Semitism is at the very core of the Western metaphysic, irreducible to other varieties of white supremacy. Telling that the fascism which so often directs its rage against Jews is of the “Blut und Boden” variety, the “Blood and Soil” mythos which elevates a few miles of land and the superficial phenotypical commonalties between arbitrarily linked groups of people into an idol. Naive faiths that turn ooze and mud into the locus of belief, rejecting the rootlessness which praises the Temple that is all of creation. When such rhetoric as that of these fascists rears up again, it’s no surprise to see a resurgence of that primordial bigotry, for those that speak of blood and soil have no compunctions about staining the latter with the former. For American Jews, this has historically been more difficult to see. Historian Lila Corwin Berman asks in The Washington Post if we should have ever “believed in American exceptionalism, even just for Jews, when all around us was evidence of the limitations and ravages of that exceptionalism?” Berman asks an important question, one which gets to the heart of a paradoxical and complicated issue. America has long been imagined as a New Israel, even a New Eden, where our national civic religion is a strangely Hebraic branch of heretical Protestantism. Rhetoric from the 17th-century Puritan divine John Winthrop as delivered aboard the ship Arbela has long been enshrined in American consciousness, that we shall be as a “city on a hill.” Though Winthrop was alluding to the Book of Matthew, American faith is often written in that Hebraic idiom, where the “New World” is dreamt of as a “land of milk and honey,” a place where the New Jerusalem may dwell and where history is brushed aside in the regenerative millennialism of the continent itself. In Exile and Kingdom: History and Apocalypse in the Puritan Migration to America, the Israeli historian Avihu Zakai explains that there were two biblical templates for early American understandings of colonization: “the Genesis type, which is a peaceful religious migration based … upon God’s promise to his chosen nation that he will appoint a place for them,” and the “Exodus type, which is a judgmental crisis and apocalyptic migration, marking the ultimate necessity of God’s chosen people to depart.” Zakai has argued that those models have organized American self-understanding, where that initial migration of Puritans to America is as the Jews in the wilderness, imagining the push to the western frontier as a version of the Hebrews coming into Canaan. This subconscious philo-Semitism, which appropriates scriptural narrative and idiom, is arguably that which sets this nation’s experience regarding the Jews as being so different from that of Europe, and it goes somewhat toward an explanation of the national “exceptionality” that Berman rightly interrogates. Christendom has historically defined itself as being that which is not Jewish, yet that particular metaphysic is not foregrounded in American self-definition. If anything, the Jewish narrative as transposed onto American experience was an inoculation against the same sort of anti-Semitism that defined Jewish life in Europe. Despite the anti-Semitism that marks the nation’s history, alongside every other form of race hatred and bigotry, this was still the country where President George Washington could with right celebration write to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, in 1790 that the “children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land [will] continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.” Washington’s language consciously echoed that of the prophet Micah, where the spoken Jerusalem would be uttered in an American tongue. America as New Zion, however, has encoded within its own calamities, for divorced from the moorings of the faith which inaugurated it, the model remains dangerously embraced: this myth of America as empty, promised land awaiting settlement. In his classic study Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth, Henry Nash Smith wrote that one of the “most persistent generalizations … is the notion that our society has been shaped by the pull of a vacant continent drawing population westward through the passes of the Alleghenies, across the Mississippi Valley, over the high plains and mountains of the Far West to the Pacific Coast.” The tragedy was that the land was far from vacant, and how place would be defined in the Alleghenies, the Mississippi Valley, the Far West, and the Pacific Coast would be through a similar type of amnesia as that which allows the citizens of Oświęcim to buy their groceries and go to work every day. Anti-Semitism may not have been the central organizing metaphysic of America, but the loathsome and genocidal ethos of what the historian Richard Drinnon termed “the metaphysics of Indian-hating” was. Colonization was not a simple process of transforming abstracted space into place as settlers burnt a line across North America all the way to the Pacific; rather it was an exercise in trauma—in genocide and ethnic cleansing. We may ask ourselves how it is that the people of Oświęcim can live their lives in the shadow of a death factory, and yet in America we do a near equivalent. My own charming little corner of Massachusetts was witness to the almost gothic horror of the 17th-century Pequot War, and of King Philip’s War, which per capita remain among some of the most violent in American history—we live our lives on top of those mass graves. Historian Timothy Snyder in Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning explains how Adolf Hitler’s expansionist and eliminationist nightmare of Lebensraum was directly inspired by American Manifest Destiny, writing that for the dictator, “the exemplary land empire was the United States of America,” for this country’s example “led Hitler to the American dream.” The current president may similarly speak of himself as a descendant of those who “tamed a continent,” but never forget that those settlers wrote their scriptures in blood. Any uncomplicated celebration of how America has been good for the Jews must keep that aforementioned metaphysic in mind. So much of the mythopoesis of America is that this was always a land of refugee, the resting place for the Mother of Exiles. As true as some particulars of that myth may be, Lady Liberty’s torch can obscure as much as it can illuminate, for it would be very dangerous to pretend that America’s shores are a place where history had somehow stopped. Philo-Semitism can easily curdle into its near twin, and the American metaphysic is not so distant from the Christendom that birthed it. Anti-Semitism has re-emerged as poisonous fascist ideologies thrive from Budapest to Brasilia. Only the profoundly near-sighted could pretend that America—especially at this current moment—is immune from hatred of the “rootless cosmopolitans.” From the first arrival of Sephardic conversos to New Amsterdam in the 17th century until today, and the worst pogrom in American history happened last month in Pittsburgh, a half mile from where I grew up. As my fellow Pittsburgher Jacob Bacharach wrote in Truthdig following the Tree of Life massacre, “they are coming for Jews, for my people, coming for us again.” The corner of Wilkins and Shady is a few blocks from where I went to elementary school; it’s where I waited for the 74A when I was too lazy to continue my walk home from the stores in Squirrel Hill; it’s across the street from Chatham’s campus where I went to summer camp. This is a place that I love, and continue to love, and now it is the site of the worst pogrom in American Jewry’s four-century history. We ground ourselves in place, but there is always the threat of it being converted back into space, so better to carry those Jerusalems in our hearts. I draw an inspiration from the sacred condition of exile, from the undefined ideology of Diapsorism. Just as it’s impossible and still necessary to write over the trauma of place with a liturgy of mundane life, so, too, do I often see my own identity as being an exilic within exile, distant Jewish roots defining me as such in the eyes of the anti-Semite. I’m supremely cognizant of Jean Paul Sartre’s observation in Anti-Semite and Jew that “Jew is the man whom other men consider a Jew.” If we go by that definition, then I can show you a litany of emails in response to my political writings where the increasingly not anonymous anti-Semites of the world very much consider me to be a Jew. John Proctor declares in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, “it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life!” Just as I would never overwrite my own surname, so, too, would I never overwrite the trauma of place. Shira Telushkin, in a remarkable piece for Tablet, explains how in Jewish burial the bodies of those who are martyred in the practice of the faith are buried in the same state as when they were murdered, for “their blood cannot be forgotten, simply scrubbed away and disposed of. It must be honored, collected, and buried.” For this ultimately is what we must do: We must honor the blood of the dead, honor the trauma of these places, because rupture is preserved to remind us of God’s broken covenant, of America’s broken covenant. There must not be an exorcism of these ghosts of place; rather, there is no choice but to live with them. Moving from place to place, we carry that imagined Jerusalem within us, we carry that imagined America within us, warmed by the utopian lamp of the Mother of Exiles more than we ever could be by the disappointing reality of the actual one. Image: Tree of Life memorial; official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks
Before his execution on the 29th of October 1618, Sir Walter Raleigh enjoyed one last pipe of tobacco. Then, before laying his head upon the block, he engaged in a polite disputation with his executioner. According to William Tyler Olcott in his 1914 compendium Sun Lore of All Ages, “There was a discussion as to the way he should face, some saying he should face the east. Raleigh then remarked: ‘So the heart be straight it is no matter which way the head lieth.’” It’s an anecdote that presents the explorer as calm, courageous, scholarly. One imagines Raleigh staring toward the direction of golden sunset, toward that mythic city of El Dorado, which he’d repeatedly failed to find in the South American jungles. There’s a certain poetry in his response as well; in addition to his reputation as courtier, explorer, adventurer, and war criminal, he’s also one of our greatest poets. Raleigh’s artistic stock has waxed and waned, even if his lean, muscular, and plain style appealed to a certain imperial Victorianism. Even today, any comprehensive period anthology will include Raleigh’s most notable lyrics, especially his 1592 “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd,” a response to Christopher Marlowe’s pastoral “The Passionate Shepherd to his Lover.” The pair were so popular that the biographer Izaak Walton would record some half-century after the poems’ composition that two milk maids would repeat the conjoined lyrics back and forth from memory, having “cast away all care, and sung like a nightingale … the ditty fitted for it.” It’s hard to categorize “verse for milk maids.” Literary historian Michael Schmidt describes Raleigh’s “preferences for plain style and brusque, masculine utterance.” Schmidt sees Raleigh as a nascent metaphysical poet, not unconvincingly arguing that his verse “rich in verbal texture and in metaphor extended” implies that Raleigh is most properly classified alongside John Donne and George Herbert. C.S. Lewis noted Raleigh’s propensity for Anglo-Saxon affectations, his rejection of the humanistic optimisms of the 16th century, and as such he classified the poet as an anti-Petrarchan, as holding a vehemently English, almost anti-Renaissance position. Raleigh rejected the flowers of rhetoric, save for those simple (but not simplistic) tropes of the plain style: contrast, antithesis, anaphora, alliteration, parallelism, and the monosyllable. Lewis claimed that such opposition merited Raleigh’s inclusion among the “drab poets,” such as John Davies or Michael Drayton. Despite Raleigh’s continued anthologizing, his reputation as a relatively minor poet endures. By contrast, the idiosyncratic American poet-critic Yvor Winters saw great value in Raleigh’s rejection of Petrarchism. The so-called “Winter’s Canon” endures as a counterfactual literary history, valorizing poets whom he saw as unfairly marginalized. Winters presented a shadow canon existing tandem Shakespeare, Marlowe, Donne, and so on. A teacher of poets including Philip Levine, Donald Hall, and Robert Pinsky, Winters exacted a crucial, if obscured, role in what we talk about when we talk about Elizabethan verse. For Winters, a rejection of the excesses of Romanticism necessitated a recovery of plain style poets who’d long been passed over, a coterie of writers for whom verse was defined with the almost Puritanical parsimony of simply being “the art of saying something about something in verse,” where the poem is nothing more complicated than a “statement in words about a human experience.” In The New Criterion, David Yezzi explains that Winters’s “greatest single essay” was a piece for Poetry magazine were Winters argued that the Elizabethan era was “the most versatile in the language … unequaled, the peak from which he perceived a long decline.” According to Yezzi, Winters’s “critique of the poetry of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries flouts convention,” especially in his reclamation of plain style in opposition to the intricate beauties of Petrarchism. Critiquing Lewis’s language surrounding the “Drab Poets,” Winters writes that the former had blamed “modern scholars for approaching the period with Romantic prejudices” while conceiving of the “entire poetry of the period in terms of a Romantic prejudice.” Winters’ condemnation of Lewis, and by proxy the academic establishment, was withering; the problem with Lewis is that “he likes the pretty so profoundly that he overlooks the serious.” In arguing that plain style was superior to the “sugared” affectations of those inheritors of Petrarchism (including Shakespeare), Winters rejected “rhetoric for its own sake” and identified an enduring strain of minimalism which has defined much of subsequent canonical literature, particular American and Modernist writing. For a fine example of Raleigh’s proficiency in the plain style, take the prefatory sonnet for Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, an epic dedicated to Raleigh, who was Spenser’s commanding officer during the atrocity at Smerwick during the Second Desmond Rebellion. Raleigh’s sonnet is a brief in favor of both Spenser’s mythmaking, as well as of the plain style: Methought I saw the grave where Laura lay, Within that temple where the vestal flame Was wont to burn; and, passing by that way, To see that buried dust of living fame, Whose tomb fair Love, and fairer Virtue kept: All suddenly I saw the Fairy Queen; At whose approach the soul of Petrarch wept, And, from thenceforth, those Graces were not seen: For they this queen attended; in whose stead Oblivion laid him down on Laura’s hearse: Hereat the hardest stones were seen to bleed, And groans of buried ghosts the heavens did pierce: Where Homer’s spright did tremble all for grief, And cursed the access of that celestial thief! Raleigh enacts a sort of translatio studii et imperii, whereby the cultural significance of the Italian Renaissance will pass onto Britain as the site of future greatness. Spenser’s epic simultaneously built upon and rejected Italian models, such as Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso or Torquato Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered. Both the epic itself and Raleigh’s sonnet make an argument for nascent English literature, in opposition to models then in vogue. Raleigh imagines the burial place of Petrarch’s unrequited lover for whom Il Canzoniere drew its inspiration; the explorer sees “the grave where Laura lay,” and though hers is of a “living fame,” her mortal remains are so much “buried dust.” The metaphorical significance in Raleigh’s nationalist argument is obvious. Raleigh’s reveries are interrupted by the appearance of Spenser’s Fairy Queen, for even whom “At whose approach the soul of Petrarch wept.” The graces which inspired Petrarch have left, just as surely as the spirit of history moves in a westerly direction, where even “Homer’s spright did tremble all for grief, / And cursed the access of that celestial thief!” There is something apocalyptic in the sonnet, where “hardest stones were seen to bleed / And groans of buried ghosts the heavens did piece”; it conjures up nothing less than the raptures of Judgment Day itself, of the dead arising after the crucifixion, and as such it connects the project of English literary greatness to a millennial project. The sonnet is crafted with a certain parsimonious, minimalist elegance. An argument could be made that poems are best evaluated by how visceral their first lines are; as such, the memorable “Methought I saw the grave where Laura lay” would place Raleigh within the caliber of Donne or Emily Dickinson. His initial line is perfectly wrought. His range was impressive, more impressive than has sometimes been claimed. Consider his unfinished “The Book of the Ocean to Cynthia,” probably written while he was first imprisoned, possibly reconstituted by him from memory, and only rediscovered in 1860 among the papers of William Cecil, Elizabeth’s chief adviser. At an intended 15,000 lines, Schmidt describes it as “his longest and most ambitious poem,” best understood as “essentially autobiographical epic romance.” Schmidt explains that Raleigh has “moved beyond the aphoristic style, pithy and spare” and that the piece “traces English poetry’s transition from plain to aureate style,” arguing that the poem “can be read as ‘modernist’ avant la lettre.” Written from the perspective of the Ocean addressing the Moon, the symbolism involves a rather obvious declaration from the seafaring Raleigh to the Queen. These poems must be read as part of the project of bolstering British literary and imperial greatness; they should, of course, be understood as part of that hagiographical scripture for Elizabeth’s Cult of Gloriana. It would be apt, though, to also read something like “The Book of the Ocean to Cynthia” as a primogeniture of “American” literature, both because of who wrote it and because of its thematic concerns. Raleigh writes, with America in mind, that “To see new world for gold, for Praise, for glory, / To try desire, to try love sever’d far, / When I was gone, she sent his memory, / More strong than were ten thousand ships of war. / To call me back.” If there was any constant in Raleigh’s mind it was this “new world of gold,” this constructed El Dorado to which he would ever sail, and that image of a land overflowing with material opportunity that has been an American myth since the beginning. Scholar William Spengemann explains that the “writings we call Early American Literature enact and document” that discovery itself, “standing as they do at the crucial point where the geographical history of English, previously confined to a corner of Europe, first crosses the eastern shoreline of the New World.” In Raleigh’s poetry one sees intimations for elements of American literature from Herman Melville to Ernest Hemingway, arguably the genesis of a tradition where appropriately enough Raleigh is himself the first “American” writer. For Spengemann, Raleigh’s writings mark the “beginning of a long process of geographical expansion, demographic redistribution, and linguistic change,” and as such one could classify “The Book of the Ocean to Cynthia” as a type of “American” epic. Yet his most arresting poetry lay elsewhere. Raleigh’s considerations of mortality rank him alongside Donne as one of the most perceptive in a particularly melancholic era. Schmidt describes “The Passionate Man’s Pilgrim,” supposedly written on the eve of execution, as “the most amazing confrontation with death in English verse.” The explorer writes: And this is my eternal plea To him that made heaven, earth, and sea: Seeing my flesh must die so soon, And want a head to dine next noon, Just at the stroke, when my veins start and spread, Set on my soul an everlasting head. Then am I ready, like a lamer fit, To tread those blest paths which before I writ. His unadorned style conveys homespun piety, where God is simply addressed as He that “made heaven, earth, and sea” (note the descent downward, and the end stop with that geographic feature that made Raleigh’s name). Part of what’s so remarkable is the thought of Raleigh envisioning the promise of “an everlasting head” the evening before he was to lose his; the Christian hope that his “soul, like a white palmer, / Travels to the land of heaven.” It’s like a Protestant version of jisei, the Japanese death poems written by Zen monks prior to their passing. Far from Raleigh’s reputation for impiety, the libertine quaffing drams at the Mermaid Tavern, or the supposed member alongside Marlowe of an infernal “School of Night,” his death poem reconciled him to orthodoxy. In fairness, there is also that other Raleigh, the radically skeptical one; the poet who described “Our mothers’ wombs the tiring house be / Where we are dressed for this short comedy”; the Raleigh who condemns “Heaven the judicious spectator is / That sits and marks still who doeth act amiss”; the dour cynic who preaches that “Our graves that hide us from the searching sun / Are like drawn curtain when the play is done.” This is the Raleigh who in his History of the World would describe God as “the author of all our tragedies,” for whom “there is no other account to be made of this ridiculous world than to resolve that the change of fortune on the great theater is but as the change of garments.” His contention is as old as Ecclesiastes and as recent as existentialism. Raleigh arguably expresses a conventional contemptus mundi pose in keeping with the melancholia of the age which produced Robert Burton and Thomas Browne, yet there is still something arrestingly modern about it. Even more so a translation of Catullus: “The sun may set and rise, / But we contrariwise / Sleep after our short light / One everlasting night.” No intimations of immortality, nor succor of God; understandable that some would impugn Raleigh with the charge of “atheist,” even as he speaks through the deniable persona of a long-dead Roman. I’ve no idea to Raleigh’s personal atheism; the record is contradictory, and besides, overly autobiographical readings of literature are avoided for a reason. I suspect, like all of us, he tended to be a little bit of both, to varying degrees, depending on circumstance, despite Schmidt’s contention that “He speaks for and as himself.” Hard not to want to read Raleigh that way, this ever evocative, ever vital, ever romantic, ever troubling man. An innate attractiveness in this poetic explorer whom Schmidt reminds us had to live by “talent, wit, chicanery, and strength,” who “writes not out of habit but necessity.” If I can conjecture about Raleigh’s spiritual orientation, however, I wonder if not his variable agnosticism was born out of a desire not to necessarily see a Paradise in heaven, but to find one on earth. America, after all, was that which he pursued unto the very gates of mortality, the failed expedition to an El Dorado cause of his final misfortune, for it was that which spent his life. In “Farewell to Court” he writes of a “country strange without companion,” using prescient language eerily prefiguring his circumstances in 1617, stranded on Trinidad after seeing his son killed, and awaiting transfer back to London to be punished for violating the terms of his agreement with the King. William Carlos Williams, in his 1940 response to Raleigh’s response to Marlowe, writes that “We cannot go to the country / for the country will bring us / no peace.” Williams used the word “country” in the same pastoral sense as the original pair, but we’d be apt to think of it in the sense of the Americas as well, for America certainly brought Raleigh no peace, even as he prayed that the discovery of some temporal Eden would earn him respite from the punishment to which he’d been condemned. The poet was no atheist when it came to belief in America, though that god had ultimately betrayed him, as he placed his head upon the block towards the westerly direction of paradise, a country from which no explorer, not even Raleigh, may return. Image: Wikimedia Commons [portrait by Nicholas Hilliard]
1. Cotton Mather, third-generation New England Puritan divine, wrote in his 1721 pamphlet India Christiana that “we have now seen the Sun Rising in the West.” Mather’s conceit was allegorical, yet an aspect of poetry’s power is its refusal to let you forget the implications of the literal. In a fascinating bit of ecumenical consilience, an Islamic Hadith agrees with Mather that Judgment Day awaits for when “the sun rises from the West.” Both demand their hypotheticals. A westerly dawn, the blood-skied evening transposed to morning, would be such a strange sight that one wonders if the human mind would even be able to initially comprehend what was seen. An apocalypse of the subtle unexpected. Mather’s vision inspired my dissertation and would dominate the better part of a decade for me. The western dawn was striking to me, so arresting, that my reasons for that academic work flowed from this origin (even if the process was far from uncomplicated). Justifications for what one studies are always personal, but from that one line I built a personal cottage industry of bringing up Mather in incongruous circumstances, a familiarity with the stodgy, pudgy, wig-bedecked Calvinist I wouldn’t have anticipated. A dissertation is normally a method of working through some stuff. For me, among other things, I was working through sunsets. Technically I was writing about early modern representations of western migration, but I was really chasing the sun. Dusk feels like weight to me, when apprehension and beauty are comingled, an hour that prefigures death. I would cite Barbara Lewalski on Protestant poetics and Leo Marx on technology and the pastoral; Louise Martz on medieval traces in Renaissance lyrics, and Sacvan Bercovitch on Puritanism, but fundamentally all of that was just filler. I simply wanted a method to approach the dusk. 2. I’ve not been particularly drawn to Jack Kerouac since high school: With maturity, that affection fades. Still, On the Road has some beautiful passages, such as Kerouac’s description of a southwestern sunset: “Soon it got dusk, a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the color of pressed grapes, slashed with burgundy red, the fields the color of love and Spanish mysteries.” Kerouac can be florid (what are these “Spanish mysteries?”), and he inserted four references to wine in just one sentence. There is something to that comparison though, making explicit the strange intoxication of the sun as it collapses from the sky. A sunset can be both joyful and dangerous. If the witching hour is when ghouls stalk the earth, then the gloaming period is reserved for those creatures called duende in Spanish, that vital mystery which Federica García Lorca claimed is impregnable within “everything that has darkness” in it. Pablo Neruda wrote that “I love you as certain dark things are to be loved, / in secret, between the shadow and the soul.” Dusk is the hour of encroaching darkness and shadows; it’s when souls are most solid. Those are maybe the Spanish mysteries which Kerouac intuited. Describing a sunset is difficult, better to describe something else ineffable, like love or a shadow. 3. Kshudiram Saha in The Earth’s Atmosphere: Its Physics and Dynamics provides a soberer explanation of sunsets, writing that the intensity of a sunset is correlated to several different factors, including the process of the scattering, reflection, and absorption of light related to the size of the “particulate matter that may be suspended in the atmosphere” where “the degree of scattering depends upon the size of the molecules of particulars compares to the wavelength of the incident beam.” Saha explains that “light scattered is inversely proportional to the fourth power of the wavelength of the incident beam,” so that at sunset the “sky turns yellow or red because most of the blue is scattered away and lost” having to now pass through a “much thicker and denser layer of the atmosphere.” Sunsets, with their panoply of blues, bouquets of yellows, bushels of oranges, and engulfment of reds, will move through a specified choreography as the earth passes from day to night. Such is the anatomizing of twilight, so that when the sun is only 6 degrees below the horizon and dusk’s sky is the color of a robin’s egg we call it “civil twilight,” when it’s 12 degrees and the color of the wine-dark sea we refer to it as “nautical dusk,” and when it’s at it’s darkest before night’s blackness, dyed that color of perfect blue which is called “tekhelt” in biblical Hebrew, the color of the garment fringes for the High Priests dwelling in the Temple’s tabernacle, we call it “astronomical dusk.” 4. Painters are drawn to the golden hour, when solar light is evenly distributed and the Earth seems to softly glow. Claude Monet was particularly obsessed with how light diffuses through “particulate matter” (as Saha would put it). Monet explored shadow and sun as shifted across both seasons and hours. A striking portrayal of dusk is his 1904 Waterloo Bridge, London, at Sunset. In Monet’s painting, a hazy, blueish bridge disappears into abstraction. Particulars are subsumed into the melting glow of the polluted city at twilight, yet what luminescence refracts off said particulate matter! At twilight faces disappear, buildings and mountains become occluded, and the universe erases nature from our vision. Monet composed “a hymn to fleeting time,” as Carol Strickland explains in Impressionism: A Legacy of Light—an artistry whereby “One paints an impression of an hour of a day.” Monet calls forth that heavy hour, when in late summer there can be a stillness, and in many places (though not perhaps London) there is the intensity of insect shriek through the atmosphere. [caption id="attachment_105040" align="aligncenter" width="600"] Waterloo Bridge, London, at Sunset; Wikimedia Commons[/caption] Monet’s younger contemporary Edvard Munch depicted a different persona of the dusk in his celebrated, copied, imitated, parodied painting The Scream. Composed in four different versions, Munch’s indelible image of a contorted, wavy, abstracted man on an Oslo bridge screaming in mask-like pantomime is replicated in dorm rooms posters and on countless kitschy museum gift shop objects, from neckties to pillows. The Scream captures not just the beauty of dusk, but the horror; not just the solar grandeur, but the intimations of extinction implicit in any good sunset. As his fellow melancholic Norwegian, the contemporary author Karl Ove Knausgaard, notes in his preface to the Gary Garrels- and Jon-Ove Steihaug-edited Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed, when viewing the works of Munch, one feels the need to exclaim “here was emotion, here was the abyss, here was the angst.” Knausgaard argues that even though “So much in our culture is rational,” we ultimately “have no words for the simplest of things,” including a fiery red sunset in late August. For Munch, the sky is nothing so much as coagulated blood coughed up into a sink. 5. When considering sunsets, it’s hard not to invoke that old literary critical cliché of the symbol, even though that word has been largely verboten from serious academic literary theory for half a century. Yet the sunset can’t help seeming symbolic of something greater than itself, perhaps even to an overdetermined extent. Mather saw Armageddon, Kerouac felt intoxication, and Munch heard a scream. Sunsets with their clearly delineated endings are difficult not to interpret as the last act, the final curtain call, the epilogue, death. So saturated with meaning, that overreliance on the setting sun in a novel, or a film, or a television show can’t help seeming easy. Jean Chevalier, in his indispensable The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, classified a number of concepts which the setting sun is used to represent. Of the direction of the setting sun, Chevalier writes that “West is the land of evening, of old age, of the descending passage of the Sun.” In her meditation on the relative cultural semiotics of light and shadow, The Millions staff writer Jianan Qian elucidates how a sunset is never just one thing, arguing that in classical Chinese poetry there is a melancholy about dusk, while in western poets from Carl Sandburg to Gustave Flaubert the hour is imbued with a sense of hopefulness. She asks, “Can we reserve a little space for our own, where we worship our shadows, not your light?” The great power of the sunset, as I see it, is in that marriage of both shadow and light. From Gilgamesh to Cormac McCarthy, west has been the direction where the sun rests and light is extinguished, the inevitable location of death. We see ecstatic vision of that blood-red sphere, like the ripe yolk of some cracked egg sinking downward into the bowl of the western horizon. A symbol can be a fallacious thing, however, especially as we justify our belief in the Westerly Kingdom of Death, as a sunset is of course nothing but an optic trick. Like the Flaming Lips sang on 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, “You realize the sun doesn’t go down / It’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning round.” A sunset is finally nothing more than itself. 6. Humanity’s understanding of this illusion exemplifies the new rationality—of humanity’s rejection of symbol in favor of measurable phenomenon. Anticipating the Oklahoma-based rock band by a good five centuries, the man who would give his name to the accurate model of the solar system would write that “since the sun remains stationary, whatever appears as a motion of the sun is really due rather to the motion of the earth.” Heliocentrism predates Copernicus’s 1543 On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, but it was that Polish monk who would lend those models his name, his hypothesis later confirmed by Galileo Galilei, forever demolishing vestiges of the geocentric Ptolemaic model. Copernicus based his conclusion on a more parsimonious mathematics, eliminating the baroque system of epicycles that was previously required to explain anomalous celestial movements. In Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention from Fire to Freud, Peter Watson explains that the “traditional way to explain the heavens was in disarray,” so that the great genius of Copernicus was to simplify those models, even as in the process our exulted stature in creation would be displaced. Humanity was no longer at the center of reality, for the abolishment of the sunset was as if the abolishment of our significance. Novelist and journalist William T. Vollmann, in his incredibly unlikely Uncentering the Earth: Copernicus and The Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, wrote that “What moves me the most about [Copernicus]” was his struggle to “free the human mind from a false system.” Famed Russian dissident and dystopian novelist Arthur Koestler didn’t completely agree; in his classic The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe, he opined that “man’s destiny was no longer determined from ‘above’” but rather from “‘below’ by ... sub-human agencies.” These things could determine our fate but “provide … no moral guidance, no values and meaning.” Koestler was not such a relativist that he’d deny the accuracy of Copernicus’s verified hypothesis; rather, he chose to acknowledge that sometimes mythos undeniably holds an appeal that can’t be exorcised by data. 7. Karen Armstrong writes in A Short History of Myth that “We are meaning-seeking creatures.” Armstrong, like Koestler, wouldn’t dispute Copernicus’s conclusions, but she would claim that it’s a category mistake to abandon myth simply because it isn’t literally true. She explains that mythology has never been primitive science or empiricism done poorly. Logos and mythos, Armstrong argues, are two different epistemologies; the former is concerned with what’s factual, the latter with what’s true. Myths can’t calculate the parabola of a satellite, they can’t sequence the human genome or program a computer. But Armstrong argues that it’s a positivist error to collapse mythos into logos, for myth is concerned not with explanation but with meaning. That the sun should be so present across myths is not surprising; even in our contemporary era there is something mysterious about a sunset. A preponderance of sun gods: Egypt had Amun-Ra; Greece and Rome had Apollo. During the Amarna Dynasty, Pharaoh Amenhotep IV discovered monotheism and rechristened himself Akhenaten, abolishing the pantheon in favor of the singular Aten, god of the sun. The “Hymn to Aten,” whose language was later echoed in the Psalms, chants toward its subject that “When you have arisen, they live, / When you set, they die / You yourself are lifetime and men live in you,” transfiguring all of existence by the cycle of the sunset. Rosalie David in Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt explains that the pharaoh had “embarked on a course of action which has been … interpreted as a ‘religious revolution,’” whereby this imposed “form of solar monotheism” was defined by the “creative energy of the sun.” With the changing of a single letter, Christians also worship the Son. After all, Psalm 84:11 reads, “The Lord God is a sun,” with all of the implications of death and resurrection that that endless cycle of dusk and dawn represent. David writes of how the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead drew “parallel between the sun’s passage from night to day, and the deceased’s emergence from the tomb to the daylight”—Pagan wisdom, for in the transit of orb there is a narrative of death and renewal told daily, as sure as Apollo or Sol Invictus led their chariots across the dome of the Earth. As logos, all such stories are literally untrue, but that’s the least interesting thing about them. Such stories aren’t cosmology, but what they tell us is that though the sun sets, it will rise again, with all that that formulation implies. In his 1957 classic Mythologies, Roland Barthes writes that “Myth is neither a lie nor a confession: it is an inflexion.” At a frequency too high-pitched for most of us to hear, the sun god’s chariot still passes in transit from east to west. Laugh if we must at the strange contingencies of myth, but such narratives order our lives. When Mather looked westward across the massive expanse of that Hesperian continent where he imagined God’s Kingdom would one day dwell, could he have possibly imagined that at the terminus of this land there would be an empire of a different sort, devoted to the production of fantasy, albeit written in celluloid rather than mythos, in a place where Apollo’s chariot lands each dusk, and that we’ve elected to call Sunset Boulevard? 8. For most of human history, sunset meant something dangerous and intractable—the approach of darkness. In At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, A. Roger Ekirch writes that before the electric lights, the “darkness of night appears palpable. Evening does not arrive; it ‘thickens.’” Sunsets may be beautiful, but they bring “Night … man’s first necessary evil, our oldest and most haunting terror.” Camping can perhaps trick the city dweller into a simulation of that all-encompassing darkness from before the Industrial Revolution, but it’s a world that’s fundamentally inaccessible to us. Ekirch explains how “All forms of artificial illumination—not just lamps but torches and candles—helped early on to alleviate nocturnal anxieties,” yet even the brightest of candles flickers lower than the dullest of flashlights. This was an era where “bizarre sight and queer sounds” would come and vanish, a dark kingdom of the hours where “‘Night … belongs to the spirits.’” Perilous night, the totalizing regime of nocturnal darkness, would soon be banished. Artificial illumination steadily improved throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, with the mass production of candles, the introduction of burning coal, and the standardization of both oil and gas lamps. What would ultimately destroy those old gods was the birth of new ones, or as Ernest Freeberg writes, such was the awe generated by a “light that could burn without spark and smoke … [which] promised to turn vast swaths of night into day.” In his account The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America, Freeberg explains that the invention of the electric light bulb was “rightly hailed as a ‘marvel’ and a milestone in human history.” Millennia of people had been terrified by the sun’s descent, fearful of whatever creature swallowed that disk every night. And in a bright, glowing second of filament, the darkness could be forever slain with a light bulb. Deicide by technology, for Aten and Apollo’s fickleness were ultimately tamed by Thomas Edison. 9. We may have abolished one master, but as Ekirch explains, so, too, was lost “a distinct culture, with many of its own customs and rituals.” Electricity has facilitated the never-ending thrum of commerce that defines modernity, so darkness may have been eradicated, but it’s been replaced with the tyranny of neon activity. Servant to such a master as this, there is something countercultural in reinvesting the sunset with its significance, in seeing it as that portal which shepherds us into the province of night, with all of those attendant differences. Imbued with more meaning than its Christian descendant, the Jewish Sabbath is ideally a temporal utopia, a respite from the gods of this profane world. Measured from Friday dusk to that of Saturday, Sabbath represents a re-enchantment of the sunset. Anthropologist and physician Melvin Konner writes in Unsettled: An Anthropology of the Jews that the “Friday evening dusk was greeted as an arriving queen,” while the “Sabbath’s departure at dusk was marked with the rite of … separation.” Herbert Weiner in Nine and a Half Mystics: The Kabbala Today explicates the mystical symbolism of the “palace of the Sabbath,” writing that the period of time from dusk to dusk marks the “annulment of those divisions which characterize ordinary existence—between man and man, between mind and heart, idea and reality.” Dusk’s arrival abolishes our fallen world—at least for a day. The medieval Sephardic rabbi Avraham Abulafia writes in his poem “The Book of the Letter,” included in the Peter Cole-edited anthology The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492, that the “Sabbath subdues all the days of the week,” or as I might put it: “Everybody’s working for the weekend.” That’s what it felt like when I was in high school, and my friends and I began to make a ritual of ending the week at a local hoagie shop in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill, where in imitation of back-slapping old men we’d shake hands and genuinely wish each other a “Gut Shabbes,” ironically over cheesesteaks. Walking home in December, reflecting on a tradition not my own, I would have opportunity to observe the early dusk through the low winter sun; the way that the orange, lolling fingers of light rippled over cloudy, compacted gauze, and sometimes in moments of youthful exuberance I thought that I felt what Konner describes as the “consistency of the Sabbath… [its] seeming taste of heaven.” 10. There are the Pittsburgh sunsets from when I was growing up, when the red sky could burst from the low threading of hazy greyness, light refracted from both drizzle and the particulate pumped into the atmosphere from the massive coke processing plant south of the city, the dramatic hurried rush of orange collapse as the sun sank below the unfairly gorgeous hilly skyline, looking like it had been planned by a sacred conspiracy of divinities. Or, leaving by ferry from Hiroshima and approaching the stolid, painted red wood of the torii gate marking the entrance to the Itsukushima shrine, which seems to float on the water off of Miyajima Island, dedicated to the brother of Amaterasu, appropriately enough the sun goddess. This is the sort of dusk described by the 17th-century poet Matsuo Basho as encompassing the “twilight rain / these brilliant hued / hibiscus… / A lovely sunset,” where that beatific arch seems to connect the ocean to the sky as the fiery sun descends into the sea behind a fringe of green mountains on the distant main island—so beautiful that it seems incorrect. Or, the pyrotechnic psychedelia of the massive sun burrowing into the Pacific Ocean off of Waikiki Beach, a sunset which reminds you that there is something like outer space about the sea, a performance of your personal, immaculate insignificance in the presence of something that absurdly glowing. Hawaii’s sunsets are appropriately described by Sarah Vowel in Unfamiliar Fishes as “lurid.” As is twilight on that other ocean, watching the sun’s vital hemorrhage on a beach in Curaçao, looking like Derek Walcott’s description of the Caribbean as being where “the sunset bleeds like a cut wrist.” Or, the fragrant still of Central Park at dusk, when New York City is quiet enough, for just a second, that it charms you, air threaded with the warm charge of late summer, when that rectangular garden at the center of Manhattan allows you to contemplate such green thought in a green shade. Over the Hudson and New Jersey, the sun drops into that western home of the rest of the New World, and for a bit of the golden hour all of the light is refracted off of the glass, steel, and stone of Central Park West, the skyscrapers acting as prisms and mirrors for the sun, reflected a thousand times over in the windows of women and men. Or, the raspberry-tangerine sherbet skies of an early autumn dusk over the outfield wall of a minor league baseball stadium in eastern Pennsylvania; the increasingly quicker nightfall of the season now interrupting earlier innings. Crackle over the diamond as the temperature drops, and the lights on the scoreboard now so bright they hurt your eyes. In A Great and Glorious Game: Baseball Writings, A. Bartlett Giamatti writes that the purpose of baseball in the fall is precisely that “It is designed to break your heart … when the days are all twilight.” And of course, facing west from the Glasgow Necropolis, scattered with monuments to textile factory owners and brewers, looking out over the dense, crooked labyrinth of that grey city, a misty Scottish sun lolling towards the horizon, where she shines off of the broken windows of faraway tenement high rises. This sunset, this smear of yellow and orange, this eruption of blue and red, giving off final light as if it were God’s fireworks display, standing in a cemetery and realizing what sunsets have always really meant. Emily Dickinson understood dusk’s indomitable logic when she wrote that “We passed the Setting Sun – / Or rather – He passed Us,” where her and her traveling companion are headed west “toward Eternity.” 11. Dusk is nature’s enjambment. In the midst of the muggy Anthropocene, when humanity has seemingly wrenched the very seasons out of their proper order, with Antarctic ice-shelfs collapsing and river banks receding in drought while revealing the marked warning stones left from those in the lean times of famines past, dusk provides us a talisman reminding us that even we have our limits. In the filtered, gloaming light of an irreversible sunset there is profound wisdom, the experience of finality and the understanding that “This, too, shall pass.” Dusk reminds us that we’re not in control, not even of our extinctions. The poetics of sunset speaks of endings and closings, apocalypses and death. The hour before evening is not just the most contemplative one of a day’s existence, but the most poetic as well. Drawing a close to the light which illuminated before into the promises of darkness. Sunset is the most beautiful hour.
“To burn a book is to bring light to the world.” —Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) “Every book burned enlightens the world.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) Circumstances surrounding the occasional rediscovery of the poetry of the 17th-century divine Thomas Traherne are as something out of one of his strange lyrics. Intimations of the allegorical, when in the winter of 1896—more than two centuries after he’d died—and some of his manuscript poetry was discovered in a London book stall among a heap that was “about to be trashed.” William Brooke, the man who rescued these singular first drafts, had originally attributed them to Traherne’s contemporary, the similarly ecstatic Henry Vaughan, ensuring that at least until proper identification was made the actual author could remain as obscure in posterity as he had been in life. How eerily appropriate that among that refuse was Traherne’s Centuries of Meditation, which included his observation that the “world is a mirror of infinite beauty, yet no man sees it.” Not until he chances upon it in a London book stall. Traherne’s lyrics have reemerged like chemicals in a poetic time-release capsule, with the majority uncovered only after that initial lucky find. As his poetry expresses sacred mysteries, holy experiences revealed, and the subtlety of what his contemporary George Herbert termed “something understood,” how appropriate that Traherne’s work should be revealed as if an unfolding prophecy? Traherne, after all, prophetically declares that he will “open my Mouth in Parables: I will utter Things that have been Kept Secret from the foundations of the World,” a poet of secrets whose poetry had been kept secret, a visionary of paradox whose work celebrates “Things Strange yet common; Incredible, yet Known; Most High, yet plain; Infinitely Profitable, but not Esteemed.” With prescience concerning his own reputation, Traherne wrote of that “Fellowship of the Mystery, which from the beginning of the World hath been hid in GOD, [and] lies concealed!” Like so many of his contemporaries, from Herbert to Vaughan, Traherne was of Welsh extraction, smuggling into English poetics the mystically inflected Christianity of the Celtic fringe. Unlike them, he has remained largely unknown, with the Anglican priest born in either 1636 or 1637 to a Hertfordshire shoe maker and a mother whose name doesn’t survive. Traherne published only a single book before his death in 1674, an anti-Catholic polemic entitled Roman Forgeries. Such didacticism obscured Traherne’s significance, for in his other work uncovered during the 20th century, Traherne has emerged as a luminous, ecstatic, transcendental advocate for direct unmediated experience of the divine, where he instructs in “many secrets to us show/Which afterwards we come to know.” Now an Anglican divine, honored by the Church of England on October 10 and Episcopalians on September 27, Traherne is venerated in votive candle and stain glass, exemplifying the High Church perspective he embodied—rituals of incense and bells, of Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer and the liturgy of hours. Traherne, it should be said, was a bit of a cracked saint, however. As Leah Marcus notes in her essay “Children of Light,” reprinted in the Norton Anthology Seventeenth-Century British Poetry: 1603-1660, Traherne may have “loved Anglicanism” but “he built a large body of thought quite independent of it.” Following the chaos of nonconformism which marked the years of civil war, Traherne’s theology exceeded even the relative tolerance afforded by the developing policy of “latitudinarianism.” Marcus explains that Traherne contradicted “many of the chief tenets of Anglicanism,” possibly believing in a borderline pantheistic sense of God’s immanence in the natural world. Traherne, Marcus writes, intuited that “Heaven, eternity, paradise… are not places. They are a state of mind.” Such a strange poetic saint has continued to pay academic dividends for scholars fortunate enough to come upon misplaced work, exemplifying Traherne’s contention that “Some unknown joys there be / Laid up in store for me.” Among several such discoveries of “unknown joys,” there was the Traherne recovery by two scholars in 1996 at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., when Julia Smith and Laetitia Yeandle found an epic poem that reworked the narratives of Genesis and Exodus. Only a year later, and Jeremy Maute—working in Lambeth Palace, the London residence of the archbishop of Canterbury—discovered Traherne’s The Kingdom of God; unread for more than 300 years and regarded as a masterpiece, fulfilling the marginalia of an anonymous 17th-century annotator writing in that book’s flyleaf, who rhetorically queried, “Why is this soe long detained in a dark manuscript, that if printed would be a Light to the World, & a Universal Blessing?” For sheer miraculousness in the capricious contingency of the Lord, the most striking example of such a discovery is described by Kimberly Johnson in Before the Door of God: An Anthology of Devotional Poetry, where she writes that a “manuscript of visionary, rhapsodic work in mixed genre called Commentaries of Heaven… was rescued, half-burning and stinking, from a Lancashire trash heap in 1967.” Singed and still smoking, these singular papers were chanced upon by a man scouring the trash yard for discarded car parts. If said scavenger had been tardy in his scrounging, those verses would have been sent heavenward like the images of luminescence which permeate Traherne’s poetry. Helpful to remember the argument of Fernando Baez in A Universal History of the Destruction of Books: From Ancient Sumer to Modern Iraq, who explained that when it comes to books, sometimes ironically, “Fire is salvation.” Such power to “conserve life is also a destructive power,” for fire allows us to play “God, master of the fire of life and death.” After all, we often “destroy what we love,” and if there is anything at the center of Traherne’s poetry it is the ecstasies of God’s obscured love, absconded away in lost books hidden at the center of fiery whirlwinds. A parable worthy of Traherne: hidden scripture as a variety of burnt offering upon the pyre of the Lord, in the form of a smoldering Lancashire garbage heap. Browned paper blackening and curling at the edges, atoms of ink evaporated and stripped to their base elementals, literature reduced to an ash where poetry can no longer be read, but must rather be inhaled. Fortunate that Commentaries of Heaven was found, and yet there is a profundity in disappearing verse; the poem written, but not read; consideration of all which is beautiful that has been lost, penned for the audience of God alone. In that golden, glowing ember of such a profane place as a garbage dump, there is an approach to what literary historian Michael Schmidt references in his Lives of the Poets as Traherne’s “Images of light – starlight, pure light” as belonging to the “fields of heaven and eternity.” As metaphysical conceit, the manuscript was not simply a burning tangle of paper, but it was as if finding God himself in the trash fire, where the words “Who cannot pleas far more the Worlds! & be/A Bliss to others like the Deitie” were rescued from an oblivion of fire. Baez writes that by “destroying, we ratify this ritual of permanence, purification, and consecration.” After all, it was presumably only the heat and light that drew the scavenger’s attention, a brief moment when the volume could announce its existence before it would be forever burnt up like a Roman candle, lest it rather forever mold and rot. Baez writes that “we bring to the surface” through flammability, there is a restitution of “equilibrium, power or transcendence.” To burn sparks a light; to enflame such poetry is to set a purifying fire, and to find such an engulfed volume is to encounter a glowing divinity on the road from Lancashire. Traherne, the burning poet, who wrote “O fire of heaven! I sacred Light / How fair and bright, / How great am I, / Whom all the world doth magnify!” Categorized as a “metaphysical poet,” of which Dr. Samuel Johnson in his 1781 Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets described as being “men of learning” only interested “to show their learning.” Dr. Johnson infamously defined the metaphysical poets, 17th-century figures including John Donne, Herbert, Vaughan, and (sometimes) Andrew Marvell, as trading in clever metaphorical conceits whereby “the most heterogenous ideas are yoked by violence together.” In Donne’s verse, for example, two lovers could be described as the arms of a compass, or as Herbert’s devotional poetry took on the shape of objects he describes, as in “The Altar” from his 1633 The Temple. Often dismissed as more concerned with cleverness than depth, wit rather than rectitude, T.S. Elliot would refer to them as a “generation more often named then read.” Defense of the metaphysical poets was a modernist endeavor, begun by criticism like Elliot’s 1921 essay in the Times Literary Supplement, so that eventually the movement came to be regarded as the exemplar of the late English Renaissance. Traherne’s identification as a metaphysical, especially concerning his erudition and his religious enthusiasms, makes a certain sense. Yet he is less fleshy (and flashy) than Donne, less conventionally pious than Herbert, less political than Marvell, and nearest in tenor to Vaughan. It’s true that they share mystical affinities, even while the enthusiasms of the former are far more optimistic than those of the later. Yet Vaughan, associated with that philosophical circle the Cambridge Platonists, was privy to circulation—to being read and written about—to in short, influence. Traherne, by contrast, scribbled in obscurity. In designating him a member of such a group, we should remember that he had no influence on the rest of that school, for they hadn’t read him. But as Schmidt writes, “Such obliquity doesn’t obscure the material world; it illuminates what exists beyond it.” Traherne may be a poet outside of history and a creature without canon, but his audience is in eternity. Dr. Johnson wouldn’t have read him a century later, either. For that matter, Elliot wouldn’t have been able to read the majority of work attributed to Traherne, since the initial rediscoveries of the poet’s work only saw print little more than a decade before “The Metaphysical Poets” was published in TLS. More apt to think of Traherne as being a poetic movement of one, for when reading his cracked verse, with its often-surreal content and its ecstatic declarations, it’s just as easy to see Emily Dickinson as Donne, William Blake as Herbert. If anything, a blind analysis of Traherne’s poetry could lead a reader to think that this was verse by an exuberant Romantic, a mystical transcendentalist, a starry-headed Beat burning in the dynamo of the night. Consider his startlingly modern lyric “The Person,” where Traherne writes of “The naked things” that “Are most sublime, and brightest.” Inheritor of a Christian tradition of our innate fallenness, Traherne focuses on the divine immanence that permeates creation, as well as that transcendence that nature points towards. Nature is precisely not fallen, as when Traherne writes that “When they alone are seen: / Men’s hands than Angel’s wings / Are truer wealth even here below.” An almost exact contemporary of the Dutch Sephardic Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, Traherne evidences that pantheistic fervor which understands creator and creation to be synonymous, arguing for direct experience of the noumenal, for their “worth they then do best reveal, /When we all metaphors remove, /For metaphors conceal.” Traherne argues for divine language, a semiotics that approaches the thing-in-itself, poetry of experience that recognizes metaphor as idolatry, for the “best are blazon’d when we see / The anatomy, / Survey the skin, cut up the flesh, the veins / Unfold, the glory there remains: / The muscles, fibers, arteries and bones / Are better far than crowns and precious stones.” When Traherne wrote, Puritan typologists investigated scripture and nature alike for evidence of predestined fallenness; when Traherne wrote, Christian apologists charted irreconcilable differences between language and our world after Eden. But Traherne, rather, chose to write in that lost tongue of Paradise. His was an encomium to direct experience, an account of what the very marrow of life thus ingested did taste like. A language which in its immediacy seems both shockingly current and as ancient as gnostic parchment. Encapsulated in his poetry there is something not just of his era, but of all eras, occluded though that eternal message may be. Demonstration of Stuart Kelly’s description in The Book of Lost Books of “an alternative history of literature, an epitaph and a wake, a hypothetical library and an elegy to what might have been.” Traherne’s poetry was written during years of first Puritan Interregnum and then High Church Restoration, but for either authority the poet’s views would be idiosyncratic. Detecting intimations of consciousness on the moon and in the sea, dreaming of both angels and aliens when he “saw new worlds beneath the water like, / New people; ye another sky.” Marcus writes that Traherne couldn’t “be entirely defended against charges of heresy,” which might have been an issue had anyone read his poetry. Arguments can be proffered that Traherne was a pantheist who believed that nature was equivalent with God, that he was a Pelagian who denied the existence of original sin, or that he was a universalist who anticipated eternal salvation for all. A poet for whom the human body is to be celebrated, who would opine that “Men are Images of GOD carefully put into a Beautiful Case,” who with urgency would maintain that the souls of man are “Equal to the Angels” and that our bodies could be reserved for the “most Glorious Ends.” With antinomian zeal, Traherne argues that “through many Obstacles full of gross and subterraneous Darkness, which seem to affright and stifle the Soul,” the individual who transgresses will find themselves “at last to a new Light and Glory.” He evokes Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell a century before his fellow visionary would engrave his plates. In Eternity’s Sunrise: The Imaginative World of William Blake, Leo Damrosch accurately describes Blake’s verse as presenting infinity “here and now in the real world we inhabit, not far away in unimaginable endlessness. Eternity, likewise, is present in each moment of lived experience,” but so too is this a description of Traherne. Evocations of not just Blake, but Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Transcendentalism, for when Traherne describes God as “a Sphere like Thee of Infinite Extent: an Ey without walls; All unlimited & Endless Sight,” do we not hear the 19th-century American philosopher’s wish to “become a transparent eye-ball?” When Emily Dickinson sings of “Wild nights – Wild nights!” do we not hear Traherne chanting with declarative exclamation mark of “O ravishing and only pleasure!” And when Walt Whitman wrote in his 1855 Leaves of Grass that “I celebrate myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” we are reminded of Traherne’s conviction that “all we see is ours, and every One / Possessor of the While.” Traherne anticipates Whitman’s “conviction that all the world’s loveliness belongs to him,” as Marcus describes it, the two bards united in the faith that “although the world was made for him alone, it was made for every other single human being just as it was for him.” Traherne derived his ethic from Psalm 139, an orthodoxy holding that we must “praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” But from scripture Traherne finds a heterodoxy which plumbs the city that “seemed to stand in Eden, or to be Built in Heaven.” In this New Jerusalem, Traherne would list with a catalogue of Whitmanesque regularity that the “Streets were mine, the Temple was mine, the People were mine; their Clothes and Gold and Silver were mine, as much as their Sparkling Eyes, Fair Skins and ruddy faces.” Such similarities could lead one to assume that Whitman had a copy of Traherne as he gripped notebook and looked out on the brackish waters of New York Harbor writing of those “Crowds of men and women attired in usual costumes, how curious you are to me!”, or that Emerson considered the poet in his Concord manse—save for the fact that it’s impossible. Such are the vagaries of the lost man, the hidden poet who sings of “room and liberty, breathing place and fresh-air among the Antipodes,” this gospel of “passing on still through those inferior Regions that are under… feet, but over the head.” Traherne wrote in the 17th century, but he seemingly had memory of all those who came after. all those women and men who echo him even though they could never have heard him, who came to “another Skie… and leaving it behind… [sunk] down into the depths of all Immensity.” Writing poetry from a position of eternity, Traherne presents a fascinating anomaly of what Johnson describes as “poetic inspiration,” for until 1896, or 1967, or 1996, or 1997, Traherne couldn’t have inspired any of those poets who are so similar to him. Blake or Dickinson had never picked up a volume of his verse. Traherne’s very life is oddly yet appropriately allegorical, his liturgy concerned with this “preeminent figure… [of] the Unknowable,” as Johnson describes it. She writes that at the heart of devotional poetry is the “perceptual inaccessibility of the divine,” defined by the “fundamental principle of mystery and unknowability.” How perfect then is Traherne’s verse, lost in libraries or singed in trash fires, hidden from view until revealed like some ecstatic epiphany? In the book of Acts, St. Paul speaks to a group of Athenians about their shrine to the “Unknown God.” Traherne is our “Unknown Poet,” overturning our ideas of influence and inspiration, whose work with a mysterious, thrumming electricity courses through the lines of oblivious Whitman or the stanzas of unaware Dickinson, as powerful as magnetism and as invisible as gravity. Prisoners of linear time that we are, hard to understand that the vagaries of influence don’t simply flow from past to future. When Traherne celebrates “every Mote in the Air, every Grain of Dust, every Sand, every Spire of Grass” that is “wholly illuminated,” do we not detect Whitman? When he sings of “O heavenly Joy!” do we not hear Dickinson? In Traherne’s “On Leaping Over the Moon,” one of his oddest and most beautiful lyrics, I like to imagine that when he writes “I saw new worlds beneath the water lie, / New people; ye, another sky” and where in “travel see, and saw by night / A much more strange and wondrous sight” that what he espied were Blake and Whitman, Dickinson and Allen Ginsburg, you and me. Traherne is a poet who wrote for an audience that had not yet been born—perhaps still has yet to be born. From his poem “Shadows in the Water” he writes of how “Thus did I by the water’s bring / Another world beneath me think: / And while the lofty spacious skies / Reversed there, abused mine eyes, / I fancied other feet / Came mine to touch or meet; / And by some puddle I did play / Another world within it lay,” so that I imagine Traherne saw nothing less than that other world which is our own, looking onto the mirror of the water’s surface as if it were a portal to this parallel dimension, these “spacious regions” of “bright and open space,” where he sees people with “Eyes, hands and feet they had like mine; / Another sun did with them shine.” There is hopefully a future yet to come, where “chanced another world to meet… A phantom, ‘tis a world indeed, / Where skies beneath us shine, / And earth by art divine / Another face presents below, / Where people’s feet against ours go,” for in scribbling in secrecy what poet has addressed himself more perfectly to people yet to be imagined? Proper understanding relies on imagination, not just the role played in his composition, but Traherne’s strange status as imagined literature (for whatever manuscripts await to be plucked from burning trash heaps?). Alberto Manguel, writing with Borgesian elegance, argues in The Library at Night that “Every library conjures up its own dark ghost; every ordering sets up, in its wake, a shadow library of absences.” What is most sublime and wondrous about Traherne are not just his literal words on a page, but how we can’t disentangle him from what could have been lost, what perhaps still remains lost, and that which is lost forever. Perhaps in book stalls or trash fires there is more undiscovered Traherne; more rhapsodic, even more visionary than which we’ve been blessed enough to read. Traherne makes the comparison that an “Empty Book is like an Infants Soul, in which any Thing may be Written. It is Capable of all Things” and so is the infinite multitude of not just Traherne’s writings which we shall never read, but the full magnitude of all writings that we shall never see. Traherne’s magnum opus exists in the gaps, written in the lacunas, on a scroll kept inside the distance between that which is known and that which can never be found. Traherne describes this place as a “Temple of Majesty, yet no man regards it. It is a region of Light and Peace, did not man disquiet it. It is the Paradise of God.” Poetry of empty sepulchers and disembodied tombs, of empty rooms and cleared shelves; a liturgy of the Holy of Holies which contains no idol, but only a single, deafening, immaculate absence. At the Temple’s center there is that ever tended, ever burning, ever consuming fire which gives off that sublime heat and light, where Traherne could imagine with prescient clarity that “From God above / Being sent, the Heavens me enflame: / To praise his Name / The stars do move! / The burning sun doth shew His love.” Power of such words written in light, heat, and flame. Such books can burn sacred holes in our soul, a holy immolation in our hearts, giving off that intense light, which diffuse though it may be awaits those eyes that have yet to be born generations hence. Image: Flickr/Ernest Denim
Seneca’s suicide, at the order of the emperor Nero, presents a macabre scene. Previously adviser to the fickle, impetuous, paranoid, thin-skinned emperor, Seneca was erroneously implicated in an assassination plot and was ordered to take his own life. Seneca’s wife, Pompeia Paulina, distraught at her aged husband’s sentence, convinced him that they should die together, and so both opened their veins in the hope of expiring at the same moment. Hearing of this, Nero intervened and Pompeia was spirited away and patched up, the philosopher condemned to die alone. Scholar Simon Critchley writes in his irreverent and appropriately titled The Book of Dead Philosophers that Seneca’s “death is more tragicomic than heroic.” Critchley explains that “because of an aged frame attenuated by a frugal diet,” Seneca’s blood was too thin; he requested the hemlock in imitation of Socrates, but the poison didn’t take. Finally, he was placed in a scalding bath and suffocated to death with steam, like an ancient Roman Rasputin ultimately done in by the shower. Seneca was a theorist of Stoicism, that classical philosophical school drawing its name from the “Stoa Poikile,” the painted porch at Athens’ agora where the earliest proponents taught. Stoics recommended living according to reason and virtue; they extolled moderation above all things and advocated facing fortune and adversity, even death, alike with an even temper. Sixteenth-century French essayist Michel de Montaigne contended that to “study philosophy is to learn to die.” Montaigne had in mind the lessons of Seneca himself, who argued that “He who has learned how to die has unlearned slavery,” for it may be a “great deed to conquer Carthage, but a greater deed to conquer death.” Critchley explains that for Seneca, the “important thing is to be prepared for death, to be courageous.” As with Socrates, whose death was famously depicted by the neoclassical French painter Jacques-Louis David as a variety of class seminar that happened to end with the teacher’s suicide, Seneca’s execution provides means to contemplate the philosophical end. Spanish artist Manuel Dominguez Sanchez presented the subject in his 1871 painting “The Suicide of Seneca,” showing us the elderly, emaciated, pale body of the philosopher with his arm over the side of the bathtub like Jean-Paul Marat in David’s more famous painting. One of Seneca’s students, in a seemingly non-Stoic pose, lies slumped near the corpse, grieving with face obscured. To the back left a crowd of calmer men stand, but of the corpse itself it’s impossible to say whether Seneca met eternity with courage or not. Yet if there is any lesson about Stoicism for its critics, it might as well be in the waxy pallor of Seneca’s languid body, for the very word “Stoicism” has long connoted insult, signifying the stern, unemotional, robotic, unforgiving ethos of somebody who lives life as if they were already a corpse. According to Ward Farnsworth, that understanding is wrong, and he exonerates an unfairly impugned philosophy in his idiosyncratic, strange, yet convincing and useful volume The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User’s Manual. Dean of the University of Texas School of Law and former clerk for retired Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, Farnsworth previously authored two well-received books: Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric and Farnsworth’s Classical English Metaphor, and as with those earlier volumes, his tone is erudite, patient, and at times dryly whimsical. Contrary to being stern and unfeeling, Farnsworth argues that Stoicism is “a humble philosophy … a regimen for training the mind” that is deeply concerned with others and is fundamentally a “form of psychological hygiene.” Stoicism shares with the similarly maligned ancient philosophy Epicureanism a concern with “human nature and its management,” eschewing abstraction for pragmatism, metaphysics for what actually works. Farnsworth explains that the Stoics were “highly practical,” having “offered solution to the problems of everyday life, and advice about how to overcome our irrationalities.” As part of his defense, Farnsworth hopes to produce an actual guide for living the Stoic life, as based on concisely presenting “what the Stoics themselves said.” A succinct expression could be summarized in Marcus Aurelias’s assertion that “If any external thing causes you distress, it is not the thing itself that troubles you but your own judgment about it. And this you have the power to eliminate now.” From that observation comes all of Stoicism’s insights; Seneca’s approach to life is that “We must make it our aim to have already lived long enough,” and his position on acquisition is that the “shortest way to riches is to despise riches.” Human life is buffeted too much by arbitrary “externals,” by the desire for wealth, acclaim, sex, power, and so on, but the feeding of the beast never brings respite, for the beast can always hunger more. Rather, tranquility is attained by learning to silence the beast. The Practicing Stoic is organized into 12 “lessons,” ranging from how to approach death to how to contend with adversity, desire, and emotion. In pursuit of those queries, he gathers short selections from Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius (who was an emperor as well as a philosopher), whose lives briefly overlapped during the first century of the Common Era when men like Caligula, Claudius, and Nero reigned in a manner that was anything but even-tempered and moderate. Several later “students,” including Montaigne, Samuel Johnson, Adam Smith, and Arthur Schopenhauer, are included, naturally raising the question: Why those philosophers and not others? Why not Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, or the Buddha, whose approach to suffering and detachment is shockingly similar to that of the Stoics? For that matter, in giving modern Stoics their due, an argument could be made for Bill W., author of the “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous which explored a sort of folk-cognitive-behavioral version of the doctrine and is arguably the most widely read “Stoic” text in the world today. What all of these varied figures share is the principle that “We should stake our well-being on what we can control and let go of attachment to what we cannot.” Farnsworth explores manifestations of that axiom, providing short, elegant commentary on quotes that contend with whatever is under discussion. Despite sometimes being dry, he is insightful; though he is occasionally repetitive, he is convincing. Farnworth’s prose, is, well, stoic, but it’s also useful—as it should be. As Farnsworth writes, “A large share of Stoicism might be viewed, in effect, as interpretation of two famous inscriptions above the entrance to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi: know thyself; nothing in excess.” What could be more helpful than that? The Practicing Stoic is one of many philosophical self-help books, contending with the primordial question: “How am I to live?” Julian Baggini has made a cottage industry out of the genre, having authored The Philosopher’s Toolkit: A Compendium of Philosophical Concepts and Methods, What’s It All About?: Philosophy and the Meaning of Life, and The Edge of Reason: A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World. Alain de Botton rivals Baggini; his “School of Life” is “devoted to developing emotional intelligence,” and he cribbed from Boethius with his The Consolations of Philosophy, considered God (or the lack thereof) in Religion for Atheists, and penned the amazingly titled How Proust Can Change Your Life—even if the French novelist isn’t a philosopher, he’s at least philosophical. Farnsworth hasn’t even cornered the market on Stoicism alone, as there is A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine, Massimo Piglucci’s How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life, and even The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living (prepared for leap years), by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman, including more scholarly considerations by philosophers like Martha Nussbaum. Indeed there is a Stoic Solutions Podcast, The Practical Stoic Podcast, and an Annual Stoic Week held online, with the nerdy, masculinist ethos particularly popular in Silicon Valley. In The Conversation, Matthew Sharpe describes this online community “numbering over 100,000 participants” as being “Stoicism 5.0.” And of course, the biggest seller in the category of “philosophical self-help,” though not Stoic in nature, is the controversial right-wing Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson’s grandiosely titled 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. Seemingly there is a genuine desire for not just answers but meaningful answers, which this somewhat gimmicky genre supplies. Of variable insight, I can’t speak to the efficacy of all of these titles, but I can attest to the intellectual honesty of Farnsworth’s volume and the helpfulness in his centering on the primary sources themselves. Peterson’s best-seller is basically a mixture of Jungian pablum and unconvincing sociobiology masquerading as science, whereas Farnsworth’s guide is rigorous, well-argued, and applicable. No doubt Peterson would (and does) dispute such characterizations of 12 Rules for Life, and yet the thread of Western chauvinism, misogyny, and nativist triumphalism peers out through his claims, the better to counter with a cosmopolitanism as exemplified by Epictetus’s credo that “When asked what country you are from, do not say ‘I am Athenian’ or ‘I am from Corinth.’ Say … ‘I am a citizen of the world.’” (A crucial position as nationalists polish their jackboots.) [millions_ad] One of Farnsworth’s strengths is that he’s resolutely nonpartisan, as opposed to the thinly veiled reactionary politics of a Peterson, and in the process, Farnsworth actually speaks far more to contemporary concerns by counterintuitively not particularizing our moment. Where Peterson offers a banal “Do not bother children when they are skateboarding,” Marcus Aurelius invokes the profound “everything you see changes in a moment and will soon be gone”; one hopes that 12 Rules for Life is one of those transient things. Farnsworth jokes that “Some would regard Marcus Aurelius as a notably poor motivational speaker. For the Stoic he is among the only kind tolerable,” but who needs Peterson with his lobster serotonin when you can have Marcus Aurelius? Farnsworth is valuable because he isn’t transient, keeping with the seemingly universal character of the movement that he advocates, though he quips that despite “repeating … claims written 2,000 years ago,” the honest “Stoic would presumably say it’s still early.” Such is his good-natured humor, reflecting the humility of his philosophy. There is a stolid Victorianism in Farnsworth’s prose, the better to convey timelessness so that he’s convincing when he claims that the “most productive advice anyone offers nowadays, casually or in a bestseller, often amounts to a restatement or rediscovery of something the Stoics said with more economy, intelligence, and wit long ago.” Farnsworth’s claim may be sweeping, but he convinces you, not by making those connections explicit but in letting you infer them. When Seneca writes, “there is not one [person] whose life is not focused on tomorrow. What harm is there in that, you ask? Infinite harm. They are not really living. They are about to live,” I note the concept of “mindfulness,” of “living in the present.” When the poet Horace, a Stoic fellow-traveler, observes that “they change their climate, not their disposition, who run beyond the sea,” I hear echoes of the warning in the recovery community against “pulling a geographic.” And when Seneca imagines the possibility of “looking down upon the earth from above” and saying to oneself, “Is this the pinpoint that is divided by sword and fires among so many nations?” I see prophetic intimations of the beautiful “Earthrise” photograph taken in 1968 during the Apollo 8 mission, Carl Sagan’s “pale blue dot.” Strangely, Stoicism’s most helpful sentiment is that cosmic sensibility. A crackerjack account of intellectual history emphasizes a tendency toward humility as humans realized their less privileged place in existence, from Copernicus to Darwin to modern cosmology, but the Stoics anticipated this by two millennia. Marcus Aurelius noted that “the whole of the sea is a drop in the universe … all the present time is one point in eternity”; while other emperors built themselves monuments, this particular emperor had the wisdom to understand that this, too, shall pass. Such comes the ethic that “Our ultimate insignificance makes the case for living well in the present, for no other purpose survives,” as Farnsworth explains. Stoicism’s continuing relevance is its ability to help us cope with the ever-mounting anxieties of postmodernity, the daily thrum of Facebook and Twitter newsfeeds, the queasy push notifications and the indignities of being a cog in the shaky edifice of late capitalism (or whatever). Even more than that, Stoicism is attuned to the largest problems that our species faces, perched on the verge of extinction. Quoting Marcus Cato, Seneca wrote that “As for the cities that ever held sway over the world … someday people will ask where they were,” adding with almost eerie insight that perhaps “severity of climate will drive their people away, and neglect will destroy what they have abandoned.” Mature insights offered by Stoicism during the humid days of the Anthropocene. Such may be the position of the literary scholar Roy Scranton, who in We’re Doomed. Now What?: Essays on War and Climate Change is an eloquent theorist of what it means to live on the precipice of ecological collapse. Hard not to hear Seneca’s voice as Scranton imagines “some unknown future, on some strange and novel shore, human beings just like us … sitting circled around a fire on the beach … one telling a story about a mighty civilization doomed by its hubris, an age of wonders long past.” We need not distinguish between the planet’s mortality and our own, for as Seneca wrote, “We live in the midst of things destined to die.” What Stoicism offers is a way of life in the midst of death, a maturity toward what extinction means. Seneca claimed that “We go astray in thinking that death follows, when it has both preceded and will follow. Whatever conditions existed before our birth, was death.” I’d heard similar arguments before, but after reading that in Farnsworth, something about the reasoning struck me like a neophyte in a Zen parable who is suddenly enlightened. What is death to fear when there was a time that we did not exist? When we were already dead? I’ve read of a tradition where a Roman general would triumphantly parade through the streets, with golden laurels and purple-trimmed robe, and as part of this precession, an enslaved person would whisper in the ear of the victor that “You too are mortal.” Stoicism is a philosophy of memento mori, of reminding us of that simple yet profound fact. What The Practicing Stoic argues—and convinces us of—is that this philosophy of mortality provides a measure of freedom to both the general and the person whispering in his ear.
Dear Reader, envision that Village which grew upon the southern strand of that isle of Manhattoes: a Lenape settlement purchased for 60 guilders and named for Amsterdam, later to be acquired by gunships of King James, and her wooden-legged governor relieved of duty; a frontier town in that Era of Enlightenment, though a hearty fragment of some 7,000 souls clinging to that huge, dark, and mysterious continent; and which, upon the fresh-green breast of the New World a mighty metropolis to rival Babel or Byzantium would grow. Here, in the dusk-laden twilight of empire, let us contemplate our origins as we live out our endings, and ask which original sins have cursed our posterity? As this land was a fantasy of 18th-century people, dreaming in the baroque vernacular of that sinful and glorious age, an era which saw the twinned gifts of mercantile prosperity and the evils of human bondage, it befits us to speak in the serpentine tongue of the era, mimicking the meandering sentences and the commas and semicolons heaped together as high as oranges or coffee beans from the Indies sold in a Greenwich Village shop in 1746: something that the essayist Francis Spufford accomplishes in his brilliant account Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York (which, if not available yet in quarto form, is now for purchase in the equally convenient “paper back”). Reminiscent of novels like Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (with its fake Jacobean play), Charles Johnson’s postmodern picaresque Middle Passage, or Eleanor Catton’s Victorian Gothicism in The Luminaries, Spufford returns us to when “New-York” (as it was then spelled) was a middling colony on the largest harbor in the world. Still smaller than Philadelphia and not yet as culturally significant as Boston, New-York was poised by virtue of geography and diversity to ultimately become America’s greatest city. Spufford’s main character describes his native London as “a world of worlds. Many spheres all mashed together, to baffle the astronomers. A fresh plant to discover, at every corner. Smelly and dirty and dangerous and prodigious,” an apt description of New-York’s future. As of 1746, the city was only a hundredth the size of London, and “Broad Way” was a “species of cobbled avenue, only middling broad,” but where even her modest stature indicated the Great White Way which was to come, populated as it was with “Wagon-drivers, hawkers with handcarts and quick-paced pedestrians…passing in both directions.” Burnt and rebuilt, paved and repaved, built tall and torn down, there is (unlike in Philly or Boston) scarcely any evidence left of colonial origins. Golden Hill conjures that world for us, the literary equivalent of visiting Independence or Faneuil Hall. At a reeking Hudson River dock we skid over “fish-guts and turnip leaves and cats’ entrails, and the other effluvium of the port,” and in a counting office we smell “ink, smoke, charcoal and the sweat of men” as in domestic rooms we inhale the odor of “waxed wood, food, rosewater and tea-leaves.” Spufford allows us to glimpse New-York as it was and proffers explanation of how our New York came to be. What results is a novel about novels themselves and about America itself as the greatest example of that form. [millions_ad] Golden Hill follows the perambulations of Richard Smith, a mysterious Englishman arriving with a bill of order for £1,000 from a venerable London firm, to be fulfilled by a New-York creditor. Smith’s arrival throws the town into consternation, for what the stranger hopes to accomplish with such a large sum remains inscrutable. Denizens of the town include Greg Lovell and his daughters, namely the acerbic ingenue Tabitha, the delightfully named assistant to the governor, Septimus Oakeshott, and a whole multitude of Hogarthian characters. Spufford has digested the canon of 18th-century novels, when the form itself was defined, and in the winding, playful, self-aware sentences of Golden Hill one reads an aperitif of Sarah Fielding’s The Governess, an appetizer of Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, a soup of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, a supper of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela or Clarissa, a dram of John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, and of course a rich desert of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. Spufford’s bildungsroman is a celebration of those door-stoppers, and he liberally borrows their conventions, imitating their social sweep and tendency to knowingly meditate on fiction’s paradoxes. Conventions are explored: not just the marriage plot subversions of Richard and Tabitha’s courtship, but depictions of an elegant dance, the performance of Joseph Addison’s omnipresent pre-Revolutionary play Cato, a smoky game of piquet, a snowy duel, an absurd trial, and a squalid prison sentence (as well as a sex scene out of Cleland), all constructed around the rake’s progress (and regress). Tabitha contends that novels are “Slush for small minds, sir. Pabulum for the easily pleased,” but Golden Hill proves that in their finely attuned imitation of consciousness and construction of worlds both interior and exterior, novels remain the greatest mechanisms for empathy which language has ever produced. True to the form’s name itself, novels are about self-invention, and as such Richard Smith is a representative example of the bootstrapping characters of his century, the protagonist (and his creator) intuiting that there is significance in the first page’s freshness, where “There’s the lovely power of being a stranger.” A particularly American quality of the very form of the novel itself. Smith explains that “I may as well have been born again when I stepped ashore. You’re a new man before you, new-made. I’ve no history here, and no character: and what I am is all in what I will be.” The religious connotation is not accidental, for in that most Protestant of literary forms, the novel always accounts for a conversion of sorts, for what else is self-invention? In the 18th-century Letters from an American Farmer, the French settler J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur posited that the American was a “new man,” and as the novel constructs identities, so, too, could the tabula rasa of the western continents, for Spufford’s protagonist was a “young man with money in his pocket, new-fallen to land in a strange city on the world’s farther face, new-come or (As he himself had declared new-born, in the metropolis of Thule).” Because of both chronology and spirit, America is the most novelistic of countries. Novels are engines of contradiction, and nothing is more contradictory than America as Empire of Liberty. Anyone walking a Manhattan street adorned in both unspeakable luxury and poverty can sense those contradictions. America is just slightly younger than the novel, for despite notable precedents (such as Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote), the form was an 18th-century phenomenon; as a result, we’ve never been as attracted to the epic poem, preferring to find our fullest encapsulation in the ever-elusive “Great American Novel.” Long-form, fictional prose—with its negative capability, its contradictions, and its multivocal nature—was particularly attuned to that strange combination of mercantilism, crackpot religiosity, and self-invention which has always marked the nation. If Golden Hill were but a playful homage, it would be worthwhile enough, but the brilliance of Spufford’s narrative is that he makes explicit what was so often implicit in those books. Literary critic Edward Said brilliantly read Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park for sublimated evidence of English colonial injustice, but in our era, Spufford is freer than Austen to diagnose the inequities, cruelties, and terrors which defined that era and which dictate our present lives as well. From Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko through Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno and into the modernist masterpieces of Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison, race has always been integral to the novelistic imagination, and America’s original sin has oft been identified as corollary to myths of self-invention, indeed that which hypocritically made such self-invention for a select few possible. From his Broadway hotel, Smith hears someone “sweeping the last leaves, and singing slow in an African tongues as if their heart had long ago broken, and they were now rattling the pieces together desultorily in a bag.” When Spufford describes New-York in the midst of a nor’easter as being “perched on the white edge of a white shore: the white tip of a continent layered in, choked with, smoothed over by, a vast and complete whiteness,” he provides an apt metaphor for the fantasies of racial purity which have motivated those in power, and of the ways in which white supremacy smothers the land. Far from being only a Southern “peculiar institution,” the bondage of human beings is what allowed Northern cities like New-York to grow fat, where for creditors like Mr. Lovell it was “every stage, every transaction, yielding sweet, secure profit, and those profits in turn buying a flood of Turkey-carpets, cabinets, tea-pots, Brummagem-ware toys and buttons, et cetera, et cetera.” That dizzying array of comforts and luxuries purchased with “Slaveries, Plantations, Chains, Whips, Floggings, Burnings…a whole World of Terrors.” Not content to let the central horror of slavery elude to the background, Golden Hill demonstrates how the wealth of colonial New-York was based on an economic logic which admitted that though the “slaves died in prodigious number…there were always number still more prodigious from Africa to replace them in the great machine, and so the owners kept on buying, and eagerly.” Golden Hill is as much about today as then, for despite its playfulness, its readability, its love of what makes old novels beautiful, it’s fundamentally an account of American darkness—from the Guy Fawkes Day bonfire, which might as well be the Charlottesville rallies of last summer, to the capturing of our current fevered paranoia by invoking the so-called “Negro Plot,” when some five years before the setting of Golden Hill, over a hundred enslaved Africans were hung, immolated, or broken on the wheel in southern Manhattan, having been implicated in a nonexistent conspiracy to burn down the city. Leave it to an Englishman to write our moment’s Great American Novel, who with sober eye provides a diagnosis of American ills and, true to the didactic purpose of authors like Richardson and Defoe, provides a moralizing palliative to the body politic. Spufford’s novel concerns invention and passing, wealth and poverty, appearances and illusions, the building of fortunes and the pining for that which is unavailable—not least of which for what some liar once called the “American Dream.” In one of those moments of unreliability which mark the novelist’s art, Spufford writes that the “operations of grace are beyond the recording powers of the novelist. Mrs. Fielding cannot describe them; nor Mr. Fielding, nor Mrs. Lennox, nor Mr. Richardson, nor Mr. Smollett, nor even Mr. Sterne, who can stretch his story further than most.” But we’re not to take such an argument at face value, for despite Tabitha’s protestations, novels have always been conduits of moral feeling. Golden Hill proves it. The only different between Spufford’s diagnosis and those which focus only on the degradations of the individual is that the rake whose fallenness is condemned in Golden Hill is America itself.
Before John Milton could be a visionary writer, first he had to be a visionary reader. All poetry is supported by the accumulated scaffolding of tradition and defines itself in part by subverting that tradition. Milton was simultaneously partisan for and a rebel against tradition. And if it’s true that every writer is first and foremost a reader, then Milton arguably had a greater command of that corpus than anyone in the 17th century. Fluent in 12 languages ranging from Latin and Hebrew to Syriac, Milton was among the last of the true polymaths. His mind was a veritable wonder cabinet, and Paradise Lost was an expression of that—capable as it was of making “a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” From Tasso and Aristo he took a certain baroque stateliness, from Spenser a sense of mythic proportion, and from Shakespeare an appreciation of history and of lines well wrought. And, of course, he took his story from The Bible. Paradise Lost, across 10,000 lines of poetic blank verse ultimately assembled into 12 books, was famously a project “unattempted yet in prose or rhyme,” and the result was a consummate reimagining of scripture—an act not just of revolutionary writing but of radical reading. Milton took the few chapters in Genesis devoted to Eden and the fall and spun a maximalist, erudite, learned, fully realized drama. Narratively exciting, religiously wise, metaphysically deep, and just ambiguous enough to keep the critics writing about him for more than four centuries. In Milton’s hands, Lucifer was configured as a new type of anti-hero, and scholars have long argued as to whether Milton’s sympathies lie with that attractive and beguiling character or with God. But as Milton was influenced by past greats, so he in turn became spectacularly influential. Paradise Lost is often more respected than read, obscuring the fact that for generations Milton was regarded as the ultimate of English poets. Writers have continued to explore those ever-regenerative concerns about the most profound things: creation, fallenness, redemption, sin, and salvation. If Milton was a reader first, then through his example we are all readers in his stead. I present my own idiosyncratic and subjective reading list of some of those readers. The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) by John Bunyan Bunyan’s tongue may have been rougher than Milton’s, yet his Victorian biographer, James Anthony Froude, observed, “Bunyan was a true artist, though he knew nothing of the rules, and was not aware that he was an artist at all.” Nobody would accuse Milton of that. Both men suffered for their religion and politics; prison stints are in their biographies, and both ultimately went blind. The Pilgrim’s Progress may be a very different text than Milton’s poem, but the task of explaining the divine lay at the center of both their missions. An unapologetically didactic and evangelical work, Bunyan’s book reduces all of the nuance of character that we celebrate in Paradise Lost in favor of the broadest possible allegory. Milton’s poem is rightly celebrated for his use of blank verse, unrhymed iambic pentameter, but Bunyan also departs from conventional expectations in presenting his religious dream vision in a similar aesthetically radical way by using a new narrative form whose very name signaled its novelty–the novel. The Pilgrim’s Progress, once profoundly popular in the English-speaking Protestant world and holding pride of place next to The Bible itself, has never reached the critical acclaim that Paradise Lost has. And yet even if Bunyan’s name is less famous today, arguably more people have read his proto-novel than ever read Milton’s work (even if most of Bunyan’s readers are in the past). He certainly would have known of Milton, and his reputation as the Reformation’s answer to Dante would have provided a crucial model to the creation of Protestant art. Milton: A Poem in Two Books (1805-08) by William Blake As Vergil was to Dante, so Milton is to Blake, with both poets considering questions about inspiration and creation. Blake erroneously saw Milton as a steadfast Calvinist, but in that biographical error (made by many) Blake was able to generate a consummate drama by having his imagined version of Milton repudiate Calvinism in favor of what Blake viewed as the hidden, subversive sympathies implicit within Paradise Lost. As a result, that visionary heretic’s confident declaration that Milton “was of the devil’s party without knowing it” has in many ways remained the most popular understanding. For Blake, Paradise Lost was a revolutionary work by a revolutionary poet who advocated regicide and rebellion against injustice. Milton is a strange mystical vision every bit worthy of its biographical subject written in Blake’s unique prophetic voice and illustrated with the water colors that made him one of the great artists of the 19th century in addition to being one of its most sublime poets. In Blake’s retelling of biblical history from creation to apocalypse, he argues against Calvinism’s division of humanity into the elect and condemned, rather positing that the truly chosen are the latter. As his strange theology is explicated, he gives an “unfallen” Milton in heaven the opportunity to redeem himself of the life-denying Puritanism that Blake associates with Milton, thus finally making the author of Paradise Lost worthy of that revolutionary spirit that Blake associates with him, so that both can fully take up the injunction to “Rouze up, O Young Men of the New Age!” Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus (1818) by Mary Shelley Victor Frankenstein is placed in that lineage of fire-stealers who dangerously animate the world with forbidden knowledge. Dangerous creation has a long history; before Frankenstein could stitch together decomposing flesh into his industrial age monster, before Rabbi Judah ben Lowe could bake clay from the banks of the Danube into his golem, before Prometheus could mold man from soil, there was God himself breathing dust into life. Adam is the original created monster, a point made clear by Shelley herself in what is arguably the first and still the greatest science fiction novel ever written.. Shelley’s original creature’s sutured tongue could have been from Milton’s corpse itself, for the creature acquired language from a copy of Paradise Lost. As he recounts to Dr. Frankenstein, he “read it, as I had the other volumes which had fallen into my hands, as a true history. It moved every feeling of wonder and awe … Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existences… but I was wretched, helpless, and alone.” Shelley’s erudite monster intuits that Adam is “a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the especial care of his Creator,” but the subversive brilliance of Frankenstein is the suggestion that perhaps we’re not so different from the monster. Consider the novel’s epigraph, a selection from Paradise Lost in which Adam asks God, “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay/To mould Me man? Did I solicit thee/From darkness to promote me?” The implications are unavoidable: for Adam’s lament to the Lord, a cry as to why creation should be chosen for us the unwilling, is also the monster’s plea. The Voyage of the Beagle (1839) by Charles Darwin In a century with George Eliot, Charles Dickens, and Jane Austen, perhaps the greatest novel was that non-fiction account of the naturalist Charles Darwin’s journey to the Galapagos Islands. I am not claiming that the biologist’s account is fiction; rather that in the evocative, nascent stirrings of his theory of evolution through natural selection Darwin was also telling a literary story of the greatest drama. While noting his observations, Darwin often had a particular literary story chief in mind. He writes, “Milton’s Paradise Lost had been my chief favourite…and in my excursions during the voyage of the Beagle, when I could take only a single small volume, I always chose Milton.” Darwin approached natural grandeur through a type of biological poetry, explaining that his biological observations instilled in him “feelings of wonder, astonishment, and devotion, which fill and elevate the mind.” As a young man aboard the Beagle, he was simply another pilgrim observing, categorizing, classifying, and naming the creatures in his tropical paradise as surely as Adam did in Eden. Although Darwin was a dutiful and careful interpreter of fact, he couldn’t help but think in the idiom of myth. Shirley (1849) by Charlotte Brontë Charlotte, Emily, and Anne’s father, Rev. Patrick Brontë, made Paradise Lost a mainstay of family reading. Milton’s influence runs through the women’s work, but never more obviously than in Shirley, Charlotte’s novel after Jane Eyre. Written a year after the tumultuous revolutions of 1848, Shirley took place in that similarly revolutionary year of 1812 when Luddites smashed the machinery of Blake’s “dark Satanic mills,” which had begun to crowd and pollute the Yorkshire countryside where the novel takes place. With the backdrop of both Romantic revolution and the postlapsarian machinations of industry, Shirley calls to mind Hell’s capital of Pandemonium, where the demon Mulciber tends the “fiery Deluge, fed/With ever-burning Sulphur unconsum’d.” The master of Brontë’s Pandemonium is Robert Moore, a northern English textile factory owner, whose livelihood has been threatened by the ban on exportation of cloth to America due to the War of 1812. Moore courts the wealthy and headstrong Shirley as a potential solution to his economic woe, and in their conversations Brontë provides a defense of Eve, while recognizing the emancipatory kernel at the core of Paradise Lost. Brontë was a keen reader of Dr. Johnson’s literary criticism, in particular his contention that Milton “thought woman made only for obedience, and man only for rebellion.” With Milton’s chauvinism in mind, Shirley inquires, “Milton was great; but was he good?” Shirley revises Milton’s myopic portrayal of Eve, preferring to see her as a “woman-Titan,” claiming, “Milton tried to see the first woman; but… he saw her not.” But despite that myopia, Brontë discerns a subversive thread underneath the surface of Paradise Lost. When Eve is deciding to partake of the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, she reflects that it shall “render me more equal, and perhaps, /A thing not undesirable, sometime/Superior; for inferior who is free?” For the royalist Dr. Johnson, the republican Milton’s chauvinism may seem irreconcilable to any true conception of liberty, but as Brontë discerned within the poem itself, Eve has a keen awareness that freedom without equality is a fallacy. And thus in one of the great poems of liberty, by one of its most ferocious advocates, the accuracy of Eve’s reasoning becomes clearer. Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851) by Herman Melville If Paradise Lost was a poetic consideration of the darker things in the psyche, of a megalomaniacal single-mindedness that pushed its antagonist into the very bowels of Hell, then Herman Melville’s obsessed Captain Ahab is our American Lucifer. As Lucifer stalks Paradise Lost, so Melville’s novel is haunted by Ahab, that “grand, ungodly, god-like man.” Melville claimed, “We want no American Miltons,” but it was an unconvincing declaration, considering that he basically became one himself. Just as Lucifer would struggle with God and be cast into Hell, and Ahab would wrestle with Moby-Dick and be thrown into the Pacific, so would Melville grapple with Milton, though the results were perhaps not quite damnation. Yet he did write a letter to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, “I have written a wicked book, and feel as spotless as the lamb,” and that his novel had been “broiled” in “hell-fire.” Melville, it would seem, was of the Devil’s party, and he very much knew it. Moby-Dick, of course, drew from seemingly as many sources as Paradise Lost, from literature, myth, and scripture, not to speak of the tawdry sea accounts that provided the raw materials of his narrative. Moby-Dick’s narrator, Ishmael, claims that he has “swam through libraries,” and so too did Melville, but it was Paradise Lost that floated upon those waves as his white whale. Scholar William Giraldi describes his discovery of Melville’s 1836 edition of the Poetical Works of John Milton in the Princeton University library, with the volume lined by “checkmarks, underscores, annotations, and Xs.” Giraldi concludes that it was in rereading Milton late in 1849 that made his Great American Novel possible. The whale, of course, has always been configured as more than just a mere symbol, variously and ambiguously having his strange, great, empty white hide as a cipher potentially standing in for God, or the Devil, or America, or the very ground of Being. But where Lucifer is so comprehensible in his desires as to almost strike the reader as human, Melville’s whale is inscrutable, enigmatic, sublime—far more terrifying than the shockingly pedestrian God as depicted by Milton. These two texts in conversation with one another across the centuries provide an almost symphonic point and counter point; for what Melville gives us is an atheistic Paradise Lost and is all the more terrifying for it. Middlemarch (1871-72) by George Eliot George Eliot’s Victorian masterpiece has affinities to Milton’s epic in presenting a tableau of characters in her fictional provincial English town on the verge of the Reform Act, as Eden was once on the verge of the fall. Reverend Edward Casaubon, an eccentric and absurd pseudo-intellectual who is continually searching for his Key to all Mythologies, is believably Eliot’s satirical corollary to Milton. Casaubon is a parody of the Renaissance men who existed from London to Paris to Edinburgh to Geneva and of which Milton was certainly a prime example. But more than any narrative affinity with the poem, what Eliot provides is conjecture on the circumstances of Paradise Lost’s composition. Milton was middle-aged by the time he began composition of Paradise Lost, as was Casaubon who was a prematurely grayed 45 in Middlemarch. And as Casaubon relied on the support of the much younger wife, Dorothea, so too did Milton rely on the assistance of his daughters: Mary and Deborah. As Dorothea says to Casaubon in a pose of feminine supplication, "Could I not be preparing myself now to be more useful? ... Could I not learn to read Latin and Greek aloud to you, as Milton's daughters did to their father?" In his late 50s, Milton was completely blind (most likely from glaucoma), and he was only able to complete Paradise Lost by enlisting (or forcing) his daughters to act as his amanuensis. The labor of writing the epic was very much only made possible through the humdrum domestic labor of his daughters, forced to work as his scribes in between cleaning, cooking, and all the rest of Eve’s duties. Perelandra; or, Voyage to Venus (1943) by C.S. Lewis Both were adept apologists for Christianity and masters of the mythic idiom that moderns elect to call “fantasy.” But there are profound differences as well. Politics for one: Milton was a fire-breathing republican; Lewis was a staid, traditional conservative. Religion for another: Milton, as revealed in the anonymously penned iconoclastic and heretical treatise De Doctrina Christiana, denied the Trinity, embraced materialist metaphysics, and considered the ethics of polygamy; Lewis’s faith ran to High Church affectations that embraced kneelers, stain-glass, and hymns, his theology one of sober minded Anglican via media. But Lewis couldn’t help but be moved by the poetry of Paradise Lost, even if in its particulars it strayed from orthodoxy. One of the greatest Milton scholars of the 20th century, though he remains far more famous for his justly celebrated children’s novels like The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-6), Lewis’s A Preface to Paradise Lost (1941) counts as arguably the most important work of criticism about the poem until Stanley Fish’s Surprised by Sin (1967). Facing the specter of Adolf Hitler just across the channel, Lewis was perhaps not in the mood to consider Lucifer’s impassioned monologues in Paradise Lost as being that of a romantic rebel, rather arguing that his single-minded, narcissistic, sociopathic ranting is precisely that of an evil madman. A Preface to Paradise Lost stands as the great rejoinder to Blake’s arguments; Lewis claims that Milton is no crypto-partisan of Lucifer, but rather one who warns us precisely about how dangerous the attractions of such a rebel can be. Thoughts of paradise and the fall were clearly in his mind when two years later he published the second book of his science fiction “space trilogy,” Perelandra. Lewis’s hero is Elwin Ransom, who like his creator is a Cambridge don (Milton’s alma matter incidentally), a philologist who undertakes an aeronautic mission to tropical Venus, a prelapsarian land of innocent nudity and sinlessness—a planet without the fall. While there, Ransom fights and defeats a demonically possessed scientist who threatens to once again infect paradise with sin. As Milton’s Lucifer had to travel through “ever-threatening storms/Of Chaos blustering around” so as to get from Hell to Eden, Lewis’s Professor Weston must travel by space ship to Venus to tempt their queen in much the same manner that Eve had once been seduced. It’s a Paradise Lost for the age of telescopes, V1 rockets, and soon nuclear weapons. Howl and Other Poems (1956) by Allen Ginsberg What could the beat “angelheaded hipster” possibly have in common with one of God’s Englishmen? Milton with his Puritan Hebraism and that Jewish boy from Newark spoke in the same scriptural idiom. In both poets that prophetic voice thunders, whether in blank verse or free, condemning the demons who represent what enslaves the minds of humans. From Canaan to Carthage the descendants of the Phoenicians constructed massive, hollow, bronze statues of a bull-headed human; outrigged them with mechanical, spring loaded arms; tended a fire within their bellies; and then projected their children into the creatures’ gapping mouths so that they could be immolated within, as a sacrifice to the god which this sculpture represented: Moloch. In Milton’s day, theologians concurred with both the authors of The Talmud and the Church Fathers that these ancient pagan gods were not fictions, but rather represented actual demonic beings who had once tricked people into worshiping them. The first book of Paradise Lost presents a huge pantheon of the fallen, diabolical creatures, including such once-luminaries as Beelzebub and Belial. Moloch, whose smoky furnaces puffed out the cries of infants and the smell of burning flesh all across the southern Mediterranean, has an important role in Lucifer’s Pandemonium. He is the “horrid King besmear’d with blood/Of human sacrifice, and parent’s tears.” For Ginsberg, the anti-deity is associated with “Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways!” For in the entire second section of the Beat masterpiece Howl, Ginsberg condemns “Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgment! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!” From Canaan to England to America, Moloch was a signifier for the consumptive, cannibalistic, vampiric, rapacious appetites of those systems that devour and dispose of human beings. Milton associated it with the absolutist dictates of illegitimate kings; Ginsberg saw Moloch as an embodiment of the military-industrial complex, but what both poet-prophets decried was exploitation and injustice. The New York Trilogy (1985-6) by Paul Auster Self-referential, digressive, and metafictional—in many ways, “post-modernism” is a term that is less about periodization and more about aesthetics. Thus Paradise Lost, with its breaking of the fourth wall and its massive body of references, is arguably a post-modern poem, which is perhaps what drew the experimental novelist Paul Auster to it. As a student he was “completely immersed in the reflections on language that come out of Milton,” which directly led to the writing of his most famous novel. City of Glass, the first volume in Auster’s The New York Trilogy, examines the intersecting reality and fictionality of identity, with the author himself a character (as indeed Milton as narrator is a character within his own poem). A rewriting of the generic conventions of noir, City of Glass follows Auster-the-detective reporting to Auster-the-writer about his investigations of a writer named Quinn, who is trailing a man named Stillman trying to murder his father. Stillman was abused by his father, a linguist who hoped that by raising his son without language he might in turn naturally become fluent in the tongue once spoken in Eden. Milton was interested in the relationship between language and reality. When it came to the inhabitants of Eden, Adam named them “as they passed, and understood/Their nature, with such knowledge God endued.” Renaissance scholars were obsessed with what the primordial tongue may have been, arguing that it was everything from the predictable Hebrew to the long-shot Swedish, and they sometimes purposefully deprived a child of language in the hopes that they would reveal what was spoken before the fall. What is revealed instead is the ever shifting nature of all language, for even if Eden’s tongue remains unspoken, the significance of speech and writing is reaffirmed. In “the good mystery there is nothing wasted, no sentence, no word that is not significant. And even if it is not significant, it has the potential to be so - which amounts to the same thing.” Mystery was of course a theological term before it was the provenance of detectives, and as partisans of the inexplicable Milton and Auster both bend language to imperfectly describe ineffable things. Milton in America (1986) by Peter Ackroyd Some have argued that Paradise Lost is a potent anti-imperial epic about European colonialism, for what is the literal story save for that of natives under attack by a powerful adversary who threatens their world? Perhaps following this observation, Peter Ackroyd audaciously imagines an alternate literary history, in which a Milton escaping Restoration chooses not to write his famous epic, but rather establishes a colony based on godly principles somewhere in Virginia. Ackroyd’s novel explores this American aspect of Milton’s thinking, remembering that Milton’s nephew John Philips was the translator of the Spanish Dominican Bartolomé de las Casas’s classic account of Spanish atrocities in Mexico, The Tears of the Indians. For Milton, before the Luciferian arrival of Europeans to America’s shores, these continents were of “that first naked glory! Such of late/Columbus found the American, so girt/With feathered cincture; naked else, and while/Among the trees on isles and woody shores.” While Milton was writing, his fellow countrymen and coreligionists were beginning their own belated colonial expeditions on New England’s rocky shoals; Paradise Lost published almost a half-century after the Mayflower set sail. The Pilgrims and Puritans who defined that “city on a hill” held Milton in high esteem, and throughout her history, Americans have hewed to a strongly Miltonic ethos. As Ackroyd’s imagined version of the bard tells his apprentice aboard their evocatively and appropriately named ship the Gabriel, “We are going far to the west…We are travelling to a land of refuge and a mansion house of liberty.” Not one to simply genuflect before literary idols, Ackroyd presents a zealous, authoritarian, tyrannical Milton, who wandering blind among the woods of America and hearing visions from his God decides to wage war on both a group of peaceful Catholic colonists who’ve settled nearby, as well as the Native Americans. Ackroyd presents an audacious reimagining of the very themes of Paradise Lost, the original tragedy of America’s genocidal beginnings told with Milton himself as a surrogate of Lucifer. [millions_ad] The Satanic Verses (1988) by Salman Rushdie Somewhere above the English Channel an Indian jetliner explodes from a terrorist’s bomb, and from the flaming wreckage, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha “plummeted like bundles.” The Bollywood actors are both miraculously condemned to an “endless but also ending angelicdevilish fall,” which signaled the “process of their transmutation.” What follows in Salman Rushdie’s fabulist novel of magical realism are a series of dream visions, where along the way Farishta, true to his given name, begins to resemble the archangel Gabriel and Chamcha finds himself transformed into a devil. The fall of these angels conjures the losing war against God before creation, when “headlong themselves they threw/Down from the verge of Heav’n,” and as Chamcha becomes a devil, the formerly beautiful Lucifer transformed into Satan. Milton’s theology could be strident, as indeed so is that of the post-colonial, secular Islamic atheist Rushdie. The latter famously found himself on the receiving end of a fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini concerning perceived blasphemy regarding depictions of the prophet Muhammad, precipitating a decade of self-imposed hiding. An anxiety that Milton knew well, as he could have easily ended up on the executioner’s scaffold. Any author with their own visionary theology risks being a heretic to somebody, illustrating the charged danger of religion. Scripture, after all, is simply the literature that people are willing to kill each other over. Many partisans for the parliamentary cause certainly found themselves victims of political retribution upon the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. The anti-republicans had long memories; in his 1646 tract Eikonoklastes Milton described royalists as an “inconstant, irrational, and Image-doting rabble," a veritable “credulous and hapless herd.” Restoration would not bode well for the poet who had once mocked the circumstances of the death of the new king’s father. Charles II returned to his throne from exile in France, and Milton’s name was included on a list of those to be arrested. Ultimately he was spared the hangman’s noose because of the intercession of the fellow poet and political chameleon Andrew Marvell, who unlike his friend was an adept at altering his positions with the changing eddies of power. Milton’s threat of persecution was largely political, while Rushdie’s was explicitly religious, but that’s just to quibble. Religion and politics are two categories which are inseparable, both in Milton’s era and our own. Both men illustrate how writers can be the weather vanes of society, sensitive towards the changing fortunes of potential tyranny, and often victim to it as well. Rushdie once said in an interview, “Two things form the bedrock of any open society—freedom of expression and rule of law,” a hard-won bit of wisdom and a sentiment that is a worthy descendent of Milton’s argument for free-speech in his 1644 pamphlet Areopagitica, where he wrote that “he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself.” His Dark Materials (1995-2000) by Philip Pullman His Dark Materials is sometimes characterized as atheistic fantasy. Pullman has claimed that the books were written in direct response to the Christian fantasy of Lewis, who he disdains as bigoted and misogynist. Pullman aptly explains that he just doesn’t “like the conclusions Lewis comes to,” and he is similarly dismissive of that other titan of fantasy writing, J.R.R. Tolkien. But rather than reject fantasy completely he asks why the genre shouldn’t be as “truthful and profound about becoming an adult human being?” He continues by claiming, “There are a few fantasies that are. One of them is Paradise Lost.” And so Pullman ironically repurposes Milton to write a specifically anti-Christian apologetics. His Dark Materials takes place in a counter-factual history where the contemporary day seems vaguely Victorian steam-punkish, the Magisterium of the Catholic Church exerts absolute control over knowledge (even if in this world John Calvin became a pope and moved the papacy to Geneva), and a type of magic exists. Pullman depicts movements between parallel realities of the “multiverse,” the existence of “daemons” (a type of animal familiar used by the characters), and the actual death of God—not to speak of the talking polar bears. Who the villains are in the trilogy is not ambiguous. One character explains, “What is happening, and who it is that we must fight. It is the Magisterium, the Church. For all of its history… it’s tried to suppress and control every natural impulse.” But perhaps “Gnostic” might be a more accurate description of the theology of His Dark Materials than simply either anti-Christian or atheist. Pullman’s religious imagination is profound, if heterodox, but it certainly has the concern with ultimate things that are the hallmark of all great, visionary religious writing. Rather, Pullman has followed that injunction of Blake’s that claims that one “must create a system, or be enslaved by another man’s.” Arguably that was exactly what Milton had done as well, taking the narrative of scripture and fashioning his own new story. And so, in that fashion, all great authors must work from the raw, dark materials of the traditions that have come before us, using that substance as the ever malleable base for our own systems. The story is not just long—it never ends. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
On September 5, 1607, the British trade ship Dragon found itself off the coast of Sierra Leone, and Capt. William Keeling and his Portuguese interpreter were entertained by the sailors staging what is supposedly the earliest recorded production of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. We are informed that the play was presented to keep the crew from “idleness and unlawful games, or sleep.” While the existence of the so-called “bad quartos” assures us that Hamlet’s premiere was on the stage of the Globe in Southwark, England, the earliest specific dated mention of the play being staged was aboard the warped wooden planks of this worn vessel (though some have convincingly doubted the veracity of Keeling’s diary). If the accounts are to be believed, at the outset of what would be a three-year voyage to round the Cape of Good Hope in search of Indonesian spices, the seamen working on behalf of the East India Company performed the play “and in the afternoone… went altogether ashore, to see if… [they] could shoot an elephant.” Shakespeare was still alive when this production of the Danish play first premiered, his celebrated sonnets to be printed two years after that evening aboard the Dragon and a year before the ship would once again find itself in the port of London. Fully eight more plays were to be written by the Bard after this extemporaneous staging of his most famous play in view of those white-sand beaches of the gold and ivory coasts—and in view of the slaving castles, which the English had operated for a generation already. Tellingly, one of those eight plays yet to be written was The Tempest, Shakespeare’s prescient allegory of colonialism, a tale of “A brave vessel, /Who had, no doubt, some noble creatures in her;” if the records are to be believed, the noble creature in the Dragon was Shakespeare’s words. Prospero is an appropriate corollary to the crew, being as they were only the first in a long line of travelers who brought Shakespeare along on their trips to Africa, both in pamphlet and pig-skin bound volume, including characters as varied as the Victorian adventurer and translator of the Kama Sutra Richard Burton, the infamous self-promoter Henry Morton Stanley in search of Dr. Livingstone, Teddy Roosevelt on a post-presidential safari, the Danish coffee magnate and writer Karen Blixen, and the communist revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara holed up in the Cuban embassy at Dar es Salaam reading from the folio. Yet it is the Dragon as origin myth that provides the most arresting image. Hamlet, as it were, has many African origins; if the Dragon’s seafaring production was the first we have official record of, than the first “talkie” film version of Shakespeare found its genesis in 1935 Mombasa, where Indians brought by the British to build eastern Africa’s network of rails had their Urdu production Khoon ka Khoon pressed to celluloid. Both anecdotes are recounted in Cambridge professor and Shakespeare scholar Edward Wilson-Lee’s fascinating Shakespeare in Swahililand: In Search of a Global Poet. Reflecting on how “the earliest recorded production of Hamlet was a command performance for a Portuguese-speaking native of the West African coast” is part of his project to move a bit closer to that “Holy Grail of Shakespeare studies: an understanding of Shakespeare’s universal appeal” while remaining painfully aware of the fact that “that very universalism [has been]…used as a tool to exclude [some] from the bounds of the human.” Raised in Nairobi by American conservationists, Wilson-Lee is aware of the ways in which Shakespeare was often handmaid to the subjugation of people by English colonialists, who used the playwright as evidence of British superiority, while at the same time acknowledging the complicated ways Shakespeare was used by people across Africa in their own striving for national self-determination. There are, of course, unmistakable political implications for a white Oxbridge African such as Wilson-Lee writing about Shakespeare’s reception across Africa. Readers may be uncomfortable at Wilson-Lee’s recounting of a colonial childhood of wild monkeys in the yard and mango for breakfast, but the author doesn’t shy away from acknowledging his privilege, freely admitting to luxuries such as travelling throughout East Africa by rail, where “white-gloved stewards turned down starched sheets," visits to Kenya’s air-conditioned shopping malls constructed in imitation of American suburban convenience, and G&T’s at the Aero Club of East Africa. This privilege is most damningly on display in his reflections on the nature of white guilt at his family’s employment of black domestic laborers, a theme he sees in Shakespeare’s “obsession with master-servant relations.” Wilson-Lee’s is an odd hodgepodge of a book—part memoir, part travelogue, part historical account, part literary criticism. And yet despite its chimerical nature, it is an effective book, combining as it does an adept theoretical orientation, an admirable facility with the Explication de texte of Shakespeare’s language, and a humanism that is sometimes lacking in the most arid of literary theory. Too often, conservative “defenders” of Shakespeare against some imagined threat to the canon obscure the very real ways in which both Shakespeare in particular and English literature in general were used to erase the lives and culture of people in colonized lands, as a type of soft artillery. But Wilson-Lee isn’t wrong when he says that it’s hard not to feel that Shakespeare “almost alone among writers, defies such cynicism.” He conjectures that though Shakespeare’s genius may simply be “some grand collective delusion, a truism rather than a truth,” he can’t help but find that “every time, the dawning freshness of a turn of phrase, a short exchange or an orchestrated speech makes dull the cleverness which wrote these impressions off as nostalgic.” In what is one of the book’s most poignantly beautiful scenes, Wilson-Lee describes listening to two surviving records of that Urdu production of Hamlet preserved at the British Library (the film itself being lost to posterity), explaining that the music of that production was pressed neither on vinyl nor wax cylinder, but rather “on discs made from shellac, crushed beetle-shell.” And so he could hear “the same sounds that would have rung out of the ramshackle theatres onto the Mombasa streets, the love songs of Hindustani Shakespeare, preserved in the carcasses of beetles which had once footled around the forests of Bengal.” Shakespeare in Swahililand functions both as a historical account of the role that the Bard has played in east Africa, as well as the author’s own travelogue through the historically Swahili-speaking parts of the continent, including Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, with stops outside of Swahililand in Ethiopia and South Sudan, noting that “one of the first books printed in Swahili was a Shakespearean one” in the form of a translation of Charles and Mary Lamb’s sanitized Victorian bestseller Tales from Shakespeare. His historical account moves from Shakespeare’s own day through 2012 when the South Sudanese delegation to the Cultural Olympiad staged a Juba Arabic performance of Cymbeline for London’s Globe Theater. Shakespeare in Swahililand is replete with fascinating anecdotes about the poet’s reception, while never losing sight of the complexities of that reception. These include descriptions of Roosevelt in the bush reading the Collected Works by gas lamp; Blixen arguing with her servant Farah about The Merchant of Venice, the latter interpreting Shylock as the unequivocal hero of the play; Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere’s scholarly Swahili translation of Julius Caesar, a performance of that same play with the title role being filled by Uganda’s future president Apollo Milton Obote in a 1948 version staged at Makerere University; and the brilliant performance of one of that university’s first Muslim female students, Assiah Jabir, in the role of Volumna in Coriolanus. There are even shades of our current controversy over the Central Park Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar, as a similar imbroglio occurred in Ethiopia in 1952 when the Roman tyrant reminded audiences of Emperor Haile Selassie. Wilson-Lee’s story isn’t an uncomplicated one of people across Africa simply taking to the essential core of the Bard; the playwright was enlisted as a subject for Indians to “pass exams for the Colonial Service,” and after Britain’s empire collapsed, theaters were funded by the CIA front the Congress for Cultural Freedom to further American corporate interest, ensuring “the continuation of capitalism,” with unprofitable east African theaters “regularly subsidized by the American oil company Caltex.” And yet for all of the imperial usages of Shakespeare, a subversive core endures, as he becomes something that can be made distinctly and confidently “African.” It’s a conclusion which neither reduces Shakespeare to Immutable Platonic Genius, nor to to colonial handmaiden viewed as great only because a bunch of genocidal Englishmen forced people to say so at the point of a bayonet. Rather, Shakespeare becomes a multivocal, contradictory, expansive author, one for whom the inconsistencies become precisely the point. This is a “universalism born not of a shared and distinct experience but of mutual contemplation of something so vast and varied as to accommodate every point of view.” And so we have an Indian version of Twelfth Night titled Bhul Bhuliyan, which recasts the opening Illyrian shipwreck as a tragic railroad bridge collapse, with Wilson-Lee reminding us that few “members of the Mombasa audience would not have known or been related to at least one of the 2,498 men who died during the construction of the line which ran from the coast to Lake Victoria.” Or we have Nelson Mandela, imprisoned on Robben Island reading and rereading the plays to keep his sanity and his spirit intact. Or the linguist Alice Werner who in 1913, while studying Bantu, had The Story of the Flesh and the Thigh told to her as an indigenous tale, realizing later that it drew its narrative from Edward Steere’s Swahili version of The Merchant of Venice. The most famous challenge to the supposed universalism of Shakespeare is in anthropologist Laura Bohannan’s 1966 classic Natural History article “Shakespeare in the Bush.” She recounts how she is asked to tell a story by a gathering of Tiv tribal elders in the highlands of Nigeria, and so she ultimately chooses Hamlet. The elders supposedly reacted with incomprehension at the strange tale: all Tiv know that ghosts are not real, no Tiv would ever scold his mother as Hamlet does, and Ophelia could not have drowned herself because only a witch can do that. As Bohannan records, the elders said “We believe you when you say your marriage customs are different, or your clothes and weapons. But people are the same everywhere; therefore, there are always witches and it is we, the elders, who know how witches work”—a telling if ironic inversion of the normalcies of western triumphalist universalism. And yet, while Bohannan’s anecdote was meant to demonstrate the fallacy of literary universalism, Wilson-Lee would argue that it only proves that universalism is innately complicated. Witness Hamlet looking for his father’s ghost on Mughal battlefields, or the Marathi translation of Romeo and Juliet inventing an entire backstory for Romeo’s first lover Rosalind (she marries Tybalt and is responsible for losing Friar Lawrence’s message about Juliet’s sleeping potion). Such revisions are as if “watching someone you love in costume, newly beautiful but still the same.” As Wilson-Lee takes pains to explain, despite Shakespeare’s original role in colonialism, African liberation proponents “and other political agitators became adepts at using the colonials’ cultural totems against them,” just like “Caliban cursing Prospero in his own language.” Yet Caliban need not only curse, for the subaltern may speak, and sing too. As a result, across Shakespeare in Swahililand we discover that Wilson-Lee’s African Shakespeare is both colonizer and colonized, Prospero and Caliban, invading Roman of Cymbeline and resisting Celt of that same play, for “everyone can, to an extent, find their own Shakespeare.” This then, is the other side of appropriation, the sublime poetry of subversion.
Renaissance playwright Ben Jonson: sacred and profane, bawdy and holy, contrite and arrogant, dramatic and boorish. Examine Abraham van Blyenberch’s painting of Jonson that hangs in London’s National Portrait Gallery. Jonson does not cut a particularly handsome figure: His nose looks like it was broken in a fight (it probably was), his mouth hangs open, his hair is messy, and he seems hungover (he probably was). But it’s hard not to see a keen intelligence and sarcastic humor in that intense, bemused, skeptical stare -- not to mention a bit of pathos from a man who had his share of sorrow during his own life. When compared to the face of William Shakespeare, whether the balding, bourgeois shopkeeper of the first folio’s engraving or the bohemian sporting a piratical earring in the Chandos portrait, Jonson’s picture is largely invisible today. Ironically, if he’s widely known for one thing, it’s predicting his competitor’s enduring popularity. He has become a victim, as he would put it, of “That old bald cheater, Time.” In the dedicatory sonnet he wrote in 1623 for the collected works of his sometimes-friend and all-the-time nemesis Shakespeare, he claimed that the latter was, “Not of an age, but for all time.” Rarely is literary horserace betting so spot-on, as one only need look at the commemorations and reflections about the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death (I wrote my own article, in fact). Of course, Jonson’s prediction was accurate, and in some sense it was correct to the detriment of the man who made it, for that little bit of verse about Shakespeare is probably the most widely quoted fragment of Jonson. Yet 1616 saw not only the death of Shakespeare, but also the publication of the first major folio of dramatic work, predating the more famous folio of Shakespeare’s. At the ripe age of 44, and with his career only half over, Jonson took the unprecedented and unusual step of collecting his poetry (a respected form) alongside his masques and drama (relatively not respected forms), and compiling them in the large, expensive, prestigious form of the folio. Jonson’s folio brought new legitimacy to the stage, and in the process he revolutionized English literature. Last April, Shakespeare had his day of commemorations; now, let this other folio and the man who made it have their moment, no matter how modest -- even if Jonson was himself anything but a modest man. Outside of academic circles, where there has been a resurgence in interest, Jonson is a distant third in the contemporary popular imagination about the time period, after canonical Shakespeare and sexy Christopher Marlowe. When it comes to Renaissance theater written by people other than Shakespeare, you’re lucky to see Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus performed, and some edgy directors will give us John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi or John Ford’s fantastically titled ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. Jonson, though it’s not unheard of, isn’t produced as often. Yet Jonson was the great showstopper of the age, revolutionizing the theater every bit as much as the others, writing in every major genre from domestic and revenge tragedy to city comedy, and penning verse that despite its deceptive simplicity is among the most moving of that age. Moreover, while Shakespeare is in some sense a cipher onto which a variety of positions and opinions can be projected, Jonson in his imperfections can seem more real. Shakespeare may have been for all time, but Jonson was so of his own age that he remains more tangible as a personality. Like Shakespeare, Jonson was from a relatively working class background (his step-father was a bricklayer). Accepted to Cambridge, finances precluded him from attending. But Jonson was still proud to the point of conceitedness when it came to his deep humanistic reading. After all, it was in that same sonnet to Shakespeare where Jonson jabbed that the Bard knew “Small Latin and less Greek.” Like his counterpart, Jonson made a reputation in Southwark, across the Thames from the City of London, which was governed by anti-theater Puritans. Jonson worked among the first commercial theaters in English history, surrounded by taverns, brothels, and bear-baiting pits, with the river acting as perdition’s boundary. In the Middle Ages, theater had been an extension of the Catholic Church, with massive pageants like the Corpus Christi Cycle dominating the dramatic imagination. Upon the Reformation and with the stripping of the altars and the closing of the monasteries, theater was forced out of the cloister and into the entertainment business. There was already a coterie of playwrights writing on secular themes in blank verse before Jonson and Shakespeare would become famous, but it was Jonson’s generation (and in large part Jonson himself) who would elevate the grungy, grubby, dirty medium to the realm of true art. Writers like Thomas Kyd, Thomas Dekker, John Fletcher, Richard Beaumont, Robert Greene, John Webster, and John Ford transformed the stage into a platform for exploring complex narratives, difficult characters, and immaculate turns of phrase. In plays like Every Man in His Humour (1598), Sejanus His Fall (1603), Eastward Ho! (1605), Volpone (1606), Epiocene, or the Silent Woman (1609), The Alchemist (1610), Bartholomew Fayre (1611), and The Devil is an Ass (1616), among dozens more, Jonson perfected a distinctly English voice. He could shift from learned erudition to puckishly working-class, a diction that could be estimably holy while also ribald, verse where the tavern’s lanterns and the cathedral’s candles burn your eyes simultaneously. Of his corpus there are masterpieces that can stand alongside Shakespeare and Marlowe, plays like the “beast fable” Volpone, a satirical account of the Court of St. James’s diplomat in Venice, Jonson’s friend Henry Wotton. In Volpone human personalities are endowed with bestial characteristics, from the titular character, who is a “Sly Fox;” to his sycophantic servant Mosca, who is as drawn to his master as a fly is to shit; Corbaccio “The Raven;” and Voltore “the Vulture,” who is of course a lawyer. A similar sensibility concerning the foibles of human vanity regarding wealth, religion, and almost everything else is also demonstrated in The Alchemist with its cast of conmen, cutpurses, prostitutes, and credulous Anabaptists. But no play in Jonson’s body of work, or indeed that of the English Renaissance’s, is as unmitigated a triumph of narrative complexity, earthy dialogue, and experimental finesse like that of his masterpiece Bartholomew Fayre. A “city comedy” that attempts to demonstrate the complex, chaotic, fetid, and glorious reality of everyday life in England’s capital. Jonson creates characters who ply their wares at the massive carnival-like fair at the edge of the city, where different classes and occupations all mingle, with the play presenting as complete a tableaux of the city as ever depicted on the stage during the Renaissance or any other era -- Samuel Taylor Coleridge thought it among the most perfect plots ever created. Figures like Win Littlewit, Justice Overdo, and the unsurpassed Ursula the Swine Woman deserve to be resurrected on our stages more frequently, if at least for the weirdness of seeing the puritanical kill-joy Zeal-of-the-Land Busy intellectually humbled by a puppet during a theological argument centering on the genitals of marionettes. Jonson took every opportunity to get one over on his Puritan persecutors (who would ultimately close the theaters during the years of Interregnum, from 1649 to 1660). The author’s irreverent cheer, as displayed in scenes such as the puppet-genital-disputation in Bartholomew’s Fayre establishes Jonson’s fusion of learning and humor, always the most potent alliance against puritans either then or now. A failed actor with the Admiral’s Men, he became one of their star playwrights at the Rose Theater (and in turn Shakespeare performed as an actor in Jonson’s early hit Every Man in His Humour). Paid £100 a year by King James I, Jonson is credibly the first Poet Laureate of England (placing him as the first in a line that would include William Wordsworth, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Ted Hughes), Yet he also served prison time in 1597 for his role in writing a “Leude and mutinous” play entitled The Isle of Dogs (which is now lost), and then again a year later for murdering an actor in a duel. He received a comically light sentence by utilizing a loophole called “benefit of the clergy,” where his knowledge of Latin supposedly demonstrated an immunity from civil courts. In keeping with Jonson’s wild contradictions, the scurrilous, libelous, banned, and imprisoned playwright found an intellectual home not just at Newgate Prison, but later at the Palace of Whitehall, where he helped to develop the genre of the masque. The aesthetic precursor to opera or the musical (or maybe even more appropriately the Vegas dinner show), masques were spectacular pageants of performance, music, and special effect pyrotechnics that demonstrated the Stuart Court’s wealth and power. Often featuring “performances” by royalty themselves (including some of the first by English women upon the stage), Jonson entered a fruitful, if often contentious, creative partnership with the architect Inigo Jones. In masques written for Queen Anne, such as The Masque of Beauty (1608), Oberon, The Fairy Prince (1611), and The Golden Age Restored (1616), Jonson wrote dialogue to be spoken among the technically dazzling mechanical sets of Jones, featuring marvels such as mermaids riding in on seahorses and the ladies of the court traveling upon a giant clam shell pulled by aquatic monsters across a raging storm. That latter effect was used in The Masque of Blackness (1605), which also has the dubious distinction of being among the first performances to use blackface in the depiction of African characters; the English had just begun their horrific role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. If Jonson’s legacy is one of creative brilliance, we must also reckon with the fact that it includes the Queen of England, Scotland, and Ireland standing aloft a palatial stage with burnt cork upon her face. The charged, neon, electric luminescence of spectacle hangs about Jonson and his work. In short, Jonson was one of the inventors of creative marketing, with a sensibility that would be perfectly attuned to the gimmicks of the modern social media universe. For example, there was the publicity stunt whereby he spent several months in 1618 walking from London to his ancestral homeland of Scotland. He lodged in Edinburgh with the famed Scottish poet William Drummond who then wrote a popular account of the feat, a description of the new “British” Poet Laureate exploring a rapidly emerging terrain where England and Scotland were unifying. Jonson’s reflections on his encounters were pithy and human; if Twitter had existed he’d have no doubt presented an entertaining collection of hashtagged reflections on his journey north (as indeed the University of Edinburgh did when they transformed Jonson’s accounts into tweets a few years ago). Even more audacious than his walking tour to Scotland was the so-called “War of the Theaters” two decades earlier, which ran from 1599 to 1602, and featured Jonson in possibly mock-competition with the playwright Thomas Dekker (among others) in a rhetorical fight across several plays that seems to almost prefigure modern-day hip-hop feuds. Whether the whole thing was a legitimate display of grievances between writers or a cagey mutually beneficial marketing ploy to increase ticket sales is arguable, but this delineates precisely what’s so fascinating and current about Jonson. But if Jonson’s plays were enjoyed during his lifetime, it was his poetry that was expected to achieve true posterity; though for the last century, Jonson’s verse and that of his protégés have seen their regard fall in favor of more sophisticated poets. The 18th-century lexicographer Dr. Johnson (of no relation —notice the “h”) defined the metaphysical poetry of Jonson’s friend John Donne as poetry where “heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together,” a verse that revels in contradiction and paradox. By contrast, Dr. Jonson identified the “Cavalier Poets” (or “Tribe of Ben”) in opposition, with a more conservative aesthetic. It should be clarified that these categories are ever malleable, and that strictly speaking most literary historians classify Jonson less as a member of the Cavalier poets than as their guiding influence. But if Dr. Johnson was one of the first literary critics to distinguish between these two movements (ones that the poets themselves might not have recognized), then it wasn’t until T.S. Eliot’s 1921 essay “The Metaphysical Poets” that the critical regard of the “Tribe of Ben,” and by proxy the man whom they drew inspiration from, would see a precipitous decline, from which the Cavaliers have never really recovered. In Eliot’s (accurate) estimation Donne and those influenced by him were poets of unique ability, exhibiting intellectual daring displayed with provocative metaphors, conceits, and wit. The Cavaliers, by contrast, were poets whose verse was as conservative as Eliot’s politics -- lyrics that were all carpe diem, gathering one’s rosebuds while one can, drinking, carousing, and pining for some aristocratic golden age. Where the metaphysics were daring and mature, the Cavaliers were seen as traditional and childish. Where the metaphysics concerned themselves with the complexities of faith and doubt, the Cavaliers wrote poems about some comfortable, pastoral fantasy. Jonson’s estimation of Donne was that, “for not being understood, [he] would perish,” the irony being that it was Jonson who perished and precisely because he was understood too well. There is difficulty in simplicity, though; it’s hard work to make a poem seem easy. Still, Jonson, of course, was no Donne. Jonson’s poetry may have had enough wit, cleverness, ingenuity, and immaculate phrases that his verse deserves to be anthologized next to Donne’s Holy Sonnets or “To His Mistress Going to Bed,” but ultimately there is a reason why Elliot canonized the metaphysical poets over the Cavaliers. As the Victorian critic John Addington Symonds observed of Jonson, “His throne is not with the Olympians but with the Titans; not with those who share the divine gifts of creative imagination and inevitable instinct, but with those who compel our admiration by their untiring energy and giant strength of intellectual muscle.” With Donne’s compasses, his globes, and his interrupting sun, the poet constructed an entirely novel little world, made cunningly. By contrast Jonson was less an initiator of a radical movement than he was an incredibly talented and competent writer of verse, albeit an often-brilliant playwright. And with such an outsized, Falstaffian personality (how he might despise that adjective being associated with him), it’s easy to forget those closest to Jonson. While writing poetry and staging those plays, Jonson and his wife had to bury three children. We aren’t even exactly sure of the name of the woman whom Jonson described as “a shrew, yet honest,” his wife who probably went by the appellation Ann Lewis. Despite Jonson’s barb about her, by all accounts their matrimony was relatively warm. But the heartbreaks of life can take their toll; despite affection, they didn’t live in the same house for Jonson’s last five years. Even if his inner life can sometimes be obscured in bombast and anecdote, more the raconteur with a glass of sack in one hand and a barbed comment on his tongue than a figure poised for introspection, the most moving of his poetry makes Jonson the human more closely available to us. If poetry is truly a fragment of emotional singularity, a warm and holy sanctuary providing organization to experience and meaning to life, then Jonson was nothing less than completely, and truly, a poet. Writing in elegy of his dead son, who shared his name, Jonson says, “Rest in soft peace, and, asked, say here doth lie/Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.” One should resist the cynicism that observes how Jonson equates his child as being simply another production of the poet’s brilliant mind (even if “his best piece of poetry”), for a man of Jonson’s ambition and ego that claim is not insignificant nor empty. But the poignancy and pathos of “On My First Sonne” is in its heartbreaking conclusion, “For whose sake, henceforth, all his vows be such, /As what he loves may never like too much.” In that one line we get as much sense of the traumas and the losses of Jacobean London (where losing your children at a young age was no rare incident) as we do in all of Bartholomew Fayre, and we see the human at the center of Jonson’s own self-mythologizing. Consider the pain that must accompany this self-imposed distance, this moratorium on feeling, whereby he must resist liking that which he loves due to the inevitability of its loss. The confessional is implicit in this 12-line masterpiece, and hiding among its letters and punctuation is a father’s loss, preserved and passed down for four centuries. Having written verse such as this, Jonson has no need to be celebrated with the biggest monument in the Poet’s Corner, or to have his bust displayed in the lobbies of libraries, or to have his plays produced every month of every year in every major English speaking city in the world. He has no need of those things because he has already perfectly accomplished what it is that a poem is supposed to do, whether that poem is known by everybody, anybody, or nobody. And we should be grateful to Ben Jonson for letting us share in his loss. And we should be thankful to Ben Jonson for writing poetry such as this. And we should remember Ben Jonson, this, the 400th year of his first folio. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.