Letter from the Pestilence

One particularly brutal winter, more than half a decade ago now, I used to find myself fantasizing about stripping down to my underwear and t-shirt and calmly walking out into the massive field of snow that blanketed the flat lot across from my apartment complex so that I could quietly freeze to death. These day dreams came on casually, and it was only after a few times of realizing that I had been online looking up “What does it feel like to die from the cold?” that I might be in trouble. For several weeks following an arctic blast, my small Pennsylvania town was covered in snow and ice, which the tax averse city fathers did little to clear. Though I obviously wasn’t ensconced inside my apartment for the entirety of that time period, able to mostly slide down the hill to my job, and more frequently to the bar where I could get black-out drunk and somehow amazingly get back home, the isolation somehow felt both metaphorical and literal. During that time I mostly kept company with box wine, liquor, beer, and a Netflix subscription, and despite my Google searches I thankfully never saw fit to try my experiment during those blackouts. Weather wasn’t the cause of my depression obviously; my father was dying of a terminal illness at the time, I had yet to figure out that I should stop drinking, and there is some betrayal in my brain chemistry. But the chill permanence of the starkly beautiful and isolated landscape was certainly an affirmation of the pathetic fallacy, every bit as trite as if I’d made it up for a book. I eventually came out of the depression—as one does.

If you’ve ever been depressed, then you know that sometimes it feels like you’ve been wearing dark sunglasses on a bright day; the strange film that seems to cover everything and muck up the synapses in your brain. There might be drama to some people’s depression, and while there was certainly anxiety and the dull hiss of fear punctuated by moments of panic in mine, for much of it there was a surprisingly low volume. It occupied you all the time, but there was something almost relaxed about it, like the way the moment before you freeze to death is supposed to feel like a gentle letting go of one sense after the other. One of the signs of depression is that you lose interest in things that you love. In a clinical sense, that was true for me; I abandoned a lot of the intellectualization of literature that was my passion (and my paying job as a graduate student), but in a far deeper way it wasn’t accurate at all. Maybe I didn’t want to write interpretations of poetry, teach the novels that I kept on teaching, or talk about drama in graduate seminars, but words were stripped to their most elemental and jagged for me, boiled down and rendered into a broth that I kept on drinking. This isn’t going to be where I set up a false dichotomy between thinking and feeling, between interpretation and experience, nor is it a rejection of the critical discussion of literature. I truly derive pleasure from those things, and it was a blessing when my desire to engage them returned.But when everything was stripped away from my desire, when I could scarcely feel love, least of all for myself, the words were still there. At the core of the humanities, it turns out, remains the human. Sometimes reading felt like running in place in a swimming pool; sometimes I was so distracted by my malady that the connection between sense and syntax was all but severed. I was lucky enough that I could still do it though—and with a dim awareness that it was because I had no choice if I was going to come out on the other side. During this period, either ironically or appropriately, I read Andrew Solomon’s stunning personal etiology The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression. Much like Leslie Jamison in The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath, Solomon gives an account of our shared affliction in terms of history and medicine, and offers his own dark nights of the soul. Solomon writes “To give up the essential conflict between what we feel like doing and what we do, to end the dark moods that reflect that conflict and its difficulties—this is to give up what it is to be human, of what is good in human beings.” The Noonday Demon’s great power is that it doesn’t reduce depression to character building, nor does it simply explain it away, but it does give some scaffolding of meaning to the experience of meaninglessness. Solomon’s prose is exemplary, his empathy is complete, and though I don’t personally know him, reading The Noonday Demon was just enough a connection—as weak as my transponders were—that a bit of static electricity was able to power me through when I got better.I only bring this up because currently we’re all in the pest house. What a strange thing, this social isolation, the self-quarantining? Suddenly societal survival depends on all of us anointing ourselves as depressives, staying sequestered in our homes as whatever hell burns through the immune systems of our fellow humans. When I was depressed, I drew hope from the fact that other people weren’t depressed; it felt like if my world was unravelling there was at least a world. The surrealism of our current moment is that none of us have that same luxury anymore. Ironically there’s something democratic in our common situation, the way in which we’re all feeling the same fear, the same uncertainty, the same panic, worry, anger, and anxiety. A solidarity, finally. If there’s anything different between our current situation and personal depression—the sense of doom, the preoccupation with a malignant force, and the inability to fully immerse yourself in that which gives joy make this feel like a type of cultural depression—it’s that there’s also a weird joviality out there. The often funny social media gallows humor (I’m partial to a picture of the advertising mascot Mr. Clean with the caption “He left us when we needed him most.”) and the odd confessions with strangers, like the Trader Joe’s checkout guy who told me he’d miss karaoke most of all.

The depressed, ironically, might have an immunological consciousness more prepared for the quarantine that is now necessary. No longer kept in my apartment by diminished serotonin levels and several feet of snow, now it is the coronavirus that keeps me home. “Depression at its worst is the most horrifying loneliness,” Solomon writes, “and from it I learned the value of intimacy.” Our school has been those feelings of nothing that have trained us in the art of that most human of things, our need for connection, precisely at the moment when its necessary to sever those ties. “You cannot draw a depressed person out of their misery,” Solomon correctly notes, but “You can, sometimes, manage to join someone in the place where he resides.” We live in an ugly era—mean, intemperate, cruel, cynical, narcissistic. Everyone says that of their age, but doesn’t it feel a bit more true of our own? Now, as if the Earth has a breaking fever, it seems as if the very planet itself is shaking us off. We’re all in that dark place now; some of us will get sick, as well. Many of us will. We will all require a kindness in that.

Like Solomon was once something I was able to hold onto—however so slightly—that returned me to life, there must be an engagement with each other, with that which we’ve created, with that which exists to make connection, with that which joins us in the places where we reside. Creation can’t be a luxury, nor is it just entertainment, or a way of passing time. Recently, I saw a video of an empty street in Florence, where women and men are quarantined where Boccaccio was once sequestered from the plague, where Petrarch’s beloved Laura de Noves succumbed to it. From an open window, a strong baritone voice from an unseen man starts singing in an Italian I can’t understand, then a woman joins in somewhere down the alley, then another man, then another. Even the feral dogs in the street are barking joyfully by the end. All of them were isolated, but none were alone. Creation must be a kindness.

Image Credit: Needpix.com.

On Pandemic and Literature

Less than a century after the Black Death descended into Europe and killed 75 million people—as much as 60 percent of the population (90% in some places) dead in the five years after 1347—an anonymous Alsatian engraver with the fantastic appellation of “Master of the Playing Cards” saw fit to depict St. Sebastian: the patron saint of plague victims. Making his name, literally, from the series of playing cards he produced at the moment when the pastime first became popular in Germany, the engraver decorated his suits with bears and wolves, lions and birds, flowers and woodwoses. The Master of Playing Cards’s largest engraving, however, was the aforementioned depiction of the unfortunate third-century martyr who suffered by order of the Emperor Diocletian. A violent image, but even several generations after the worst of the Black Death, and Sebastian still resonated with the populace, who remembered that “To many Europeans, the pestilence seemed to be the punishment of a wrathful Creator,” as John Kelly notes in The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of all Time.

The cult of Sebastian had grown in the years between the Black Death and the engraving, and during that interim the ancient martyr had become associated with plague victims. His suffering reminded people of their own lot—the sense that more hardship was inevitable, that the appearance of purpled buboes looked like arrows pulled from Sebastian’s eviscerated flesh after his attempted execution, and most of all the indiscrimination of which portion of bruised skin would be arrow-pierced seeming as random as who should die from plague. Produced roughly around 1440, when any direct memory of the greatest bubonic plague had long-since passed (even while smaller reoccurrences occurred for centuries), the Master of the Playing Cards presents a serene Sebastian, tied to a short tree while four archers pummel him with said arrows. Unlike more popular depictions of the saint, such as Andrea Mantegna’s painting made only four decades later, or El Greco and Peter Paul Reubens’s explicitly lithe and beautiful Sebastians made in respectively the 16th and 17th centuries, the engraver gives us a calm, almost bemused, martyr. He has an accepting smile on his face. Two arrows protrude from his puckered flesh. More are clearly coming. Sebastian didn’t just become associated with the plague as a means of saintly intercession, but also because in his narrative there was the possibility of metaphor to make sense of the senseless. Medical historian Roy Porter writes in Flesh in the Age of Reason: The Modern Foundations of Body and Soul that the “Black Death of the mid-fourteenth century and subsequent outbreaks…had, of course, cast a long, dark shadow, and their aftermath was the culture of the Dance of Death, the worm-corrupted cadaver, the skull and crossbones and the charnel house.” All of said accoutrement, which endures even today from the cackling skulls of Halloween to the pirates’ flag, serve to if not make pandemic comprehensible, then to at least tame it a bit. Faced with calamity, this is what the stories told and the images made were intended to do. Religion supplied the largest storehouse of ready-made narrative with which to tell stories, even while the death toll increasingly made traditional belief untenable. John Hatcher writes in The Black Death: A Personal History that many lost “faith in their religion and…[abandoned] themselves to fate,” where fatality is as unpredictable as where an arrow will land.

A different narrative, though not unrelated, was depicted 40 years later. Made by the Swedish painter Albertus Pictor, and applied to the white walls of the rustic Täby Church north of Stockholm, the mural presents what appears to be a wealthy merchant playing a (losing) game of chess against Death. Skeletal and grinning, Death appears with the same boney twisted smile that is underneath the mask of every human face, the embodiment and reminder of everyone’s ultimate destination. Famously the inspiration for director Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film The Seventh Seal, Pictor’s picture is a haunting memento mori, a very human evocation of the desperate flailing against the inevitable. Both pictures tell stories about the plague, about the lengths we’ll go to survive. They convey how in pandemic predictability disappears; they are narratives about the failure of narratives themselves. What both of them court are Brother Fate and his twin Sister Despair. The wages of fortune are the subject of which cards you’re dealt and the tension of strategy and luck when you avoid having your bishop or rook taken. Life may be a game, but none of us are master players and sometimes we’re dealt a very bad hand.

There has always been literature of pandemic because there have always been pandemics. What marks the literature of plague, pestilence, and pandemic is a commitment to try and forge if not some sense of explanation, than at least a sense of meaning out of the raw experience of panic, horror, and despair. Narrative is an attempt to stave off meaninglessness, and in the void of the pandemic, literature serves the purpose of trying, however desperately, to stop the bleeding. It makes sense that the most famous literary work to come out of the plague is Giovani Boccaccio’s 1353 The Decameron, with its frame conceit of 100 bawdy, hilarious, and erotic stories told by seven women and three men over 10 days while they’re quarantined in a Tuscan villa outside Florence. As pandemic rages through northern Italy, Boccaccio’s characters distract themselves with funny, dirty stories, but the anxious intent from those young women and men self-exiled within cloistered walls is that “Every person born into this world has a natural right to sustain, preserve and defend” their own life, so that storytelling becomes its own palliative to drown out the howling of those dying on the other side of the ivy-covered stone walls.

Pandemic literature exists not just to analyze the reasons for the pestilence—that may not even be its primary purpose. Rather the telling of stories is a reminder that sense still exists somewhere, that if there is not meaning outside of the quarantine zone there’s at least meaning within our invented stories. Literature is a reclamation against that which illness represents—that the world is not our own. As the narrator of Albert Camus’s The Plague says as disease ravages the town of Oran in French Algeria, there is an “element of abstraction and unreality in misfortune. But when an abstraction starts to kill you, you have to get to work on it.” When confronted with the erraticism of etiology, the arbitrariness of infection, the randomness of illness, we must contend with the reality that we are not masters of this world. We have seemingly become such lords of nature that we’ve altered the very climate and geologists have named our epoch after humanity itself, and yet a cold virus can have more power than an army. Disease is not metaphor, symbol, or allegory, it is simply something that kills you without consideration. Story is a way of trying to impart a bit of that consideration that nature ignores.

The necessity of literature in the aftermath of pandemic is movingly illustrated in Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven. Mostly taking place several years after the “Georgian Flu” has killed the vast majority of humans on the planet and civilization has collapsed, Mandel’s novel follows a troupe of Shakespearean actors as they travel by caravan across a scarred Great Lakes region on either side of the U.S.-Canadian border. “We bemoaned the impersonality of the modern world,” Mandel writes, “but that was a lie.” Station Eleven is, in some sense, a love letter to a lost world, which is to say the world (currently) of the reader. Our existence “had never been impersonal at all,” she writes, and the novel gives moving litanies of all that was lost in the narrative’s apocalypse, from chlorinated swimming pools to the mindlessness of the Internet. There is a tender love of every aspect of our stupid world, so that how the crisis happened can only be explained because of the fact that we were so interconnected: “There had always been a massive delicate infrastructure of people, all of them working unnoticed around us, and when people stop going to work, the entire operation grinds to a halt.” As survivors struggle to rebuild, it’s the job of narrative to supply meaning to that which disease has taken away, or as the motto painted on the wagon of the traveling caravan has it: “Survival is insufficient.” The need to tell stories, to use narrative to prove some continuity with a past obliterated by pandemic, is the motivating impulse of English professor James Smith, the main character in Jack London’s largely forgotten 1912 post-apocalyptic novel, The Scarlet Plague. With shades of Edgar Allan Poe, London imagines a 2013 outbreak of hemorrhagic fever called the “Red Death.” Infectious, fast-moving, and fatal, the plague wipes out the vast majority of the world’s population, so that some six decades after the pestilence first appears, Smith can scarcely believe that his memories of a once sophisticated civilization aren’t illusions. Still, the former teacher is compelled to tell his grandchildren about the world before the Red Death, even if he sometimes imagines that they are lies. “The fleeting systems lapse like foam,” writes London, “That’s it—foam, and fleeting. All man’s toil upon the planet was just so much foam.”

The Scarlet Plague ends in a distant 2073, the same year that Mary Shelley’s 1826 forerunner of the pandemic novel The Last Man was set. Far less famous than Shelley’s Frankenstein, her largely forgotten novel is arguably just as groundbreaking. As with Station Eleven, narrative and textuality are the central concerns of the novel; when the last man himself notes that “I have selected a few books; the principal are Homer and Shakespeare—But the libraries of the world are thrown open to me,” there is the sense that even in the finality of his position there is a way in which words can still define our reality, anemic though it may now be. Displaying the trademark uneasiness about the idea of fictionality that often marked 19th-century novels, Shelley’s conceit is that what you’re reading are transcriptions of parchment containing ancient oracular predictions that the author herself discovered while exploring caves outside of Naples that had once housed the temple of the Cumae Sibylline.

Her main character is a masculinized roman a clef for Shelley herself, an aristocrat named Lionel Verney who lives through the emergence of global pandemic in 2073 up through the beginning of the 22nd century when he earns the titular status of The Last Man. All of Shelley’s characters are stand-ins for her friends, the luminaries of the rapidly waning Romantic age, from Lord Byron who is transformed into Lord Randolph, a passionate if incompetent leader of England who bungles that nation’s response to the pandemic, to her own husband, Percy, who becomes Adrian, the son of the previous king who has chosen rather to embrace republicanism. By the time Verney begins his solitary pilgrimage across a desolated world, with only the ghosts of Homer and Shakespeare, and an Alpine sheepdog whom he adopts, he still speaks in a first person addressed to an audience of nobody. “Thus around the shores of deserted earth, while the sun is high, and the moon waxes or wanes, angels, the spirts of the dead, and the ever-open eye of the Supreme, will behold…the LAST MAN.” Thus, in a world devoid of people, Verney becomes the book and the inert world becomes the reader.

The Last Man’s first-person narration, ostensibly directed to a world absent of people who could actually read it, belies a deeper reason for the existence of language than mere communication—to construct a world upon the ruins, to bear a type of witness, even if it’s solitary. Language need not be for others; that it’s for ourselves is often good enough. Literature thus becomes affirmation; more than that it becomes rebellion, a means of saying within pandemic that we once existed, and that microbe and spirochete can’t abolish our voices, even if bodies should wither. That’s one of the most important formulations of Tony Kushner’s magisterial play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. Arguably the most canonical text to emerge from the horror of the AIDS crisis, Kushner’s three-hour play appears in two parts, “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika,” and it weaves two narrative threads, the story of wealthy WASP scion Prior Walter’s HIV diagnosis and his subsequent abandonment by his scared lover, Louis Ironson, and the arrival to New York City of the closeted Mormon Republican Joe Pitt, who works as a law clerk and kindles an affair with Louis.

Angels in America combines subjects as varied as Jewish immigration in the early 20th century, Kabbalistic and Mormon cosmology (along with a baroque system of invented angels), the reprehensible record of the closeted red-baiting attorney and Joseph McCarthy-acolyte Roy Cohn, and the endurance of the gay community struggling against the AIDS epidemic and their activism opposing the quasi-genocidal non-policy of conservative politicians like Ronald Reagan. If all that sounds heady, Kushner’s play came from the estimably pragmatic issue of how a community survives a plague. Born from the pathbreaking work of activist groups like ACT UP, Angels in America has, because of its mythological concerns, an understanding that pandemics and politics are inextricably connected. In answering who deserves treatment and how such treatment will be allocated we’ve already departed from the realm of disinterested nature. “There are no gods here, no ghosts and spirits in America, no spiritual past,” says Louis, “there’s only the political, and the decoys and the ploys to maneuver around the inescapable battle of politics.” Throughout Angels in America there is an expression of the human tragedy of pandemic, the way that beautiful young people in the prime of life can be murdered by their own bodies. Even Cohn, that despicable quasi-fascist, who evidences so little of the human himself, is entitled to some tenderness when upon his death kaddish is recited for him—by the spirit of Ethel Rosenberg, the supposed Soviet spy whom the lawyer was instrumental in the execution of.At the end of the play, Prior stands at Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, with all the attendant religious implications of that place’s name, and intones that “This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won’t die secret deaths anymore… We will be citizens. The time has come.” In telling stories, there is not just a means of constructing meaning, or even endurance, but indeed of survival.  Fiction is not the only means of expressing this, of course, or even necessarily the most appropriate. Journalist Randy Shilts accomplished something similar to Kushner in his classic account And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, which soberly, clinically, and objectively chronicled the initial outbreaks of the disease among the San Francisco gay community.In a manner not dissimilar to Daniel Defoe in his classic A Journal of the Plague Year (even while that book is fictionalized), Shilts gives an epidemiological account of the numbers, letting the horror speak through science more effectively than had it been rendered in poetry. Such staidness is its own requirement and can speak powerfully to the reality of the event, whereby “the unalterable tragedy at the heart of the AIDS epidemic…[was that] By the time America paid attention to the disease, it was too late to do anything about it,” the shame of a nation whereby Reagan’s press secretary Larry Speakes would actually publicly laugh at the idea of a “gay plague.” Shilts waited until he finished And the Band Played On to be tested for HIV himself, worried that a positive diagnosis would alter his journalistic objectivity. He would die of AIDS related complications in 1994, having borne witness to the initial years of the epidemic, abjuring the cruel inaction of government policy with the disinfectant of pure facts.

Most people who read about pandemics, however, turn to pulpier books: paperback airport novels like Michael Crichton’s clinical fictionalized report about an interstellar virus The Andromeda Strain, Robin Cook’s nightmare fuel about a California Ebola pandemic in Outbreak, and Stephen King’s magisterial post-apocalyptic epic The Stand, which I read in the summer of 1994 and remains the longest sustained narrative I think that I’ve ever engaged with. Because these books are printed on cheap paper and have the sorts of garish covers intended more for mass consumption than prestige, they’re dismissed as prurient or exploitative. Ever the boring distinctions between genre and literary fiction, for though the pace of suspense may distinguish entertainment as integral as aesthetics, they too have just as much to say about the fear and experience of illness as do any number of explicitly more “serious” works.

The Stand is an exemplary example of just what genre fiction is capable of, especially when it comes to elemental fears surrounding plague that seem to have been somehow encoded within our cultural DNA for more than seven centuries. Written as an American corollary to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Stand depicts a United States completely unraveled one summer after the containment loss of a government “Super-Flu” bioweapon nicknamed “Captain Trips.” In that aftermath, King presents a genuinely apocalyptic struggle between good and evil that’s worthy of Revelation, but intrinsic to this tale of pestilence is the initial worry that accompanies a scratchy throat, watery eyes, a sniffling nose, and a cough that seemingly won’t go away. If anything, King’s vision is resolutely in keeping with the medieval tradition of fortuna so expertly represented by the Master of the Playing Cards or Pictor, a wisdom that when it comes to disease “Life was such a wheel that no man could stand upon it for long. And it always, at the end, came round to the same place again,” as King writes.

Far from being exploitative, of only offering readers the exquisite pleasure of vicariously imagining all of society going to complete shit, there is a radical empathy at the core of much genre fiction. Readers of Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore’s graphic novels The Walking Dead (or the attendant television series) or viewers of George Romero’s brilliant zombie classics may assume that they’ll always be the ones to survive Armageddon, but those works can force us into a consideration of the profound contingency of our own lives. Cynics might say that the enjoyment derived from zombie narratives is that they provide a means of imagining that most potent of American fantasies—the ability to shoot your neighbor with no repercussions. More than that, however, and I think that they state a bit of the feebleness of our civilization.

This is what critic Susan Sontag notes in Illness as Metaphor about how pandemic supplies “evidence of a world in which nothing important is regional, local, limited; in which everything that can circulate does, and every problem is, or is destined to become, worldwide,” so that products and viruses alike can freely move in a globalized world. The latter can then disrupt the former, where plague proves the precariousness of the supply lines that keep food on grocery store shelves and electricity in the socket, the shockingly narrow band separating hot breakfast and cold beer from the nastiness, brutishness, and shortness of life anarchic. Such is the grim knowledge of Max Brook’s World War Z where “They teach you how to resist the enemy, how to protect your mind and spirit. They don’t teach you how to resist your own people.” If medieval art and literature embraced the idea of fate, whereby it’s impossible to know who shall be first and who shall be last once the plague rats have entered port, than contemporary genre fiction has a similar democratic vision, a knowledge that wealth, power, and prestige can mean little after you’ve been coughed on. When the Black Death came to Europe, no class was spared; it took the sculptor Andrea Pisano and the banker Giovanni Villani, the painter Ambrogio Lorenzetti and the poet Jeauan Gethin, the mystic Richard Rolle and the philosopher William of Ockham, and the father, mother, and friends of Boccaccio. Plague upended society more than any revolution could, and there was a strange egalitarianism to the paupers’ body-pit covered in lye. Sontag, again, writes that “Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.” Such equality motivated the greatest of medieval artistic themes to emerge from the Black Death, that of the Danse Macabre or “Dance of Death.” In such imagery, painters and engravers would depict paupers and princes, popes and peasants, all linking hands with grinning brown skeletons with hair clinging to mottled pates and cadaverous flesh hanging from bones, dancing in a circle across a bucolic countryside. In the anonymous Totentanz of 1460, the narrator writes “Emperor, your sword won’t help you out/Scepter and crown are worthless here/I’ve taken you by the hand/For you must come to my dance.” During the Black Death, the fearful and the deniers alike explained the disease as due to a confluence of astrological phenomenon or noxious miasma; they claimed it was punishment for sin or they blamed religious and ethnic minorities within their midst. To some, the plague was better understood as “hoax” than reality. The smiling skulls of the Danse Macabre laugh at that sort of cowardly narcissism, for they know that pestilence is a feature of our reality and reality has a way of collecting its debts.

Illness sees no social stratification—it comes for bishop and authoritarian theocrat, king and germaphobic president alike. The final theme of the literature of pandemic, born from the awareness that this world is not ours alone, is that we can’t avert our eyes from the truth, no matter how cankered and ugly it may be in the interim. Something can be both true and senseless. The presence of disease is evidence of that. When I was little, my grandma told me stories about when she was a girl during the 1918 Spanish Influenza epidemic that took 75 million people. She described how, in front of the courthouse of her small Pennsylvania town, wagons arrived carting coffins for those who perished. Such memories are recounted to create meaning, to bear witness, to make sense, to warn, to exclaim that we were here, that we’re still here. Narrative can preserve and remake the world as it falls apart. Such is the point of telling any story. Illness reminds us that the world isn’t ours; literature let’s us know that it is—sometimes. Now—take stock. Be safe. Most of all, take care of each other. And wash your hands.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Poetry Is Prayer

The English colony of Jamestown was only 18 years old in 1625, during the midst of what the poet John Donne, preaching safely from London, had called the “barbarous years,” when disease, starvation, and violence nearly destroyed the Virginian settlement. Its unfortunate colonists had been reduced in their most dire straits to exhuming the corpses of the recently dead, so that the living would have something to eat. If anytime would necessitate prayer, it would seem to be when people resort to cannibalism, and no doubt there was rending of garments in Jamestown. Across the Atlantic, too, for the collapse of the Virginia Company humbled an investor named Nicholas Ferrar. A courtier, and eventually an ordained Anglican deacon, Ferrar reacted to the financial implosion of his American investments by taking what money remained and purchasing an abandoned medieval church named St. John’s in the Salisbury village of Little Gidding.

Orthodox in his Calvinism, Ferrar was still High Church, and mourned for what had been lost from that Catholic past of multicolored stained glass and incense burning in thuribles. His little chapel had been stripped bare during the reformation of a century before, and he hoped to restore some ornamentation to that bare-ruined choir. At Little Gidding, Ferrar and his siblings dedicated themselves to founding a secular oratory, what later Puritan critics maligned as a “Protestant nunnery.” The Ferrars were to live simply, by a rigorous schedule of prayer, study, service, and contemplation. Upon the white-washed walls of their home, Ferrar and his brother John and sister Susan (and their respective families) painted psalms, so as to “excite the reader to a thought of piety.” As prayers are outward expressions of inner devotions, sent on vibrations of sound to whatever Ear is listening, the community at Little Gidding displayed their psalms as a type of signpost to the divine, hoping that they’d be noticed. Appropriate for a family that had turned their walls into printed pages, their home into an anthology, because the Ferrars supported Little Gidding with the trade of book binding.

Critic Don Paterson writes in The Poem: Lyric, Sign, Metre that poetry has “invested itself with those magical properties, and also took the form of spell, riddle, curse, blessing, incantation and prayer. For those atavistic reasons, poetry remains an invocatory form.” Like spells written on hidden parchments, there was enchantment to the textuality of the Ferrars’ house, with its divinely graffitied walls. The house a book based on the Book, which produced books. None more famous or influential than a slender volume of poetry titled The Temple, written by a friend of Ferrar’s named George Herbert, a priest. Ministering a village over, Herbert was a product of courtier culture as well, and of similar social status to the Ferrars, his mother of the wealthy Newport family, and a patron to Donne. Like the pious Ferrars, Herbert had rejected the trappings of nobility that were his guaranteed birthright, preferring rather to work as a humble reverend on the Salisbury plain. When Herbert sent his friend a copy of his devotional poems in 1633, he said that he wished them to be printed should they have “advantage of any dejected poor soul,” and if Ferrar saw no such quality, the verse should be burned.

Herbert’s The Temple pairs with Donne’s “Holy Sonnets” as among not just the greatest of 17th-century metaphysical poetry but the greatest religious lyrics ever written in English. Poems like “The Collar,” “Love (III),” and his “shape poems” (with typography working as image) such as “The Altar” and “Easter Wings,” were as a type of worship. A century later and the Puritan schoolman Richard Baxter would enthuse that “Herbert speaks to God like one that really believes in God;” obvious faith beats like a metronome in the meter of his verse. “Heart-work and heaven-work make up his books,” said Baxter, so that it’s impossible to disentangle theology from his poetry, as it might be for modern readers of sexier metaphysical poets like Donne. Biographer John Drury writes in Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert that “Divinity saturated and enclosed his world: the whole of it, from the slightest movements of his own inmost being to his external circumstances in time and the natural world…Divinity was the cause and the sum of how things are, without remainder.” That being the case, Herbert’s poetry itself couldn’t help but be devotional, couldn’t help but fundamentally be as if a prayer. What I’d venture is that all poetry is fundamentally a prayer.

My ideas may be muddled or inchoate, and for that I beg your patience, but I think that some of my half-formed thinking (multitudinous as it will be) can be illustrated by a Herbert poem appropriately entitled “Prayer (1).” Of the poem’s subject, Herbert describes it as “the church’s banquet…God’s breath in man returning to his birth, /The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage.” There are two things happening in those lines; the obvious is the connection of God’s Spirit to the individual spirit of man, how the animus of our breath finds its origin in the divine. All fine and good, but what’s more fascinating is the description of prayer as being a “soul in paraphrase,” for that explicitly aligns prayer not with completism—axioms, treatises, arguments, syllogisms, or any other method of total explication—but that prayer provides an intimation of what a soul is. “Prayer (I)” is replete with this language of incompleteness, it’s in some ways a statement against method. He writes of “The six-days world transposing in an hour,” a type of paraphrase of creation itself, and of “A kind of tune,” or the “Heaven in ordinary.” The imprecision of Herbert’s language is precisely the point—prayers are exemplary because they don’t exist to say everything that can be said; they exist for all of that which can’t be. The result of prayer, Herbert famously concludes, is “something understood.”

Everything depends on that indefinite pronoun, for in the ambiguity of “something” Herbert gestures at what prayer is. It’s not necessarily that prayer deals with only the ineffable (though that concept intersects with prayer), but rather that the product of prayer is this amorphous, free-floating, mercurial something of which Herbert speaks. Prayer imparts a type of knowledge—something has been understood. But good luck in being able to simply or literally say what that something is. So, Herbert differentiates prayer from other forms of sacred language; prayer has not the delineation of a creed or the rigor of an argument, it has not the logic of theology, nor the narrative of scripture. Prayer has this understood something, but by its nature what exactly it is must be felt rather than known, believed rather than stated.

The poem is about prayer, but it’s also about poetry. If Herbert is making an argument about prayer’s significance being incompleteness, then the precise same thing must be said about poetry as well. Like prayer, poetry is not the same as creed or argument, thesis or claim, philosophy or pedagogy. Both prayer and poetry are synonyms, albeit respectively associated with the sacred and the profane. They concern things that can only be espied from multiple perspectives, for the ecstasy of ambiguity and the spurning of literalism, for the quality of having “something understood” even if such a thing is contradictory or indefinable or impossible to summarize. The two forms are mechanisms for approaching the unapproachable, they are engines driving us to that which is an infinite distance away. What’s imparted is the mysterious “something”—when done well, prayer and poetry can both change you, but it’s difficult to put into words what that change was. A sublimity in that paradox, for prayer and poetry are defined by being words that gesture beyond words themselves.

All literary language is a special case; all literary language is exception. Since Plato, philosophers have found it difficult to categorize what exactly literature is supposed to be. Fictional narrative, after all, is simply lies artfully arranged. Or at least that’s one way to look at it, albeit a reductionist one that doesn’t perform due diligence toward just how weird literature is, this process by which we hallucinate entire worlds after staring at abstract symbols. Because it seems real, literature compels questions like that jocularly posed by the Shakespeare scholar L.C. Knight, when in 1933 he asked, “How many children did Lady Macbeth have?” Knight was raising a point about the way we talk about fiction, where a question can be posed that is logically and semantically coherent, yet totally meaningless. Lady Macbeth had no children of course, since she wasn’t real (or at least not in the form that the Bard presented to us). A similar metaphysical conundrum was posed by the philosopher Bertrand Russell, when he asked what the “truth status” was of the question “Is the present King of France bald?” There no longer being a King of France, it would seem that either an affirmative or negative answer is completely meaningless, yet that’s affectively the nature of all fiction.

Poetry and fiction aren’t reducible to each other; if anything, they’re sometimes contrasted (in part because narrative poetry, such as the epic, is a largely moribund genre today). But poetry also has an innate weirdness that makes it difficult to classify—what exactly defines it? What makes poetry poetry? Formal characteristics—rhyme, meter, rhythm, and so on—make little sense as a distinguishing characteristic after almost two centuries of free verse. Russian linguist and critic Roman Jakobson argued (in a paper first published in Thomas A. Sebeok’s anthology Style in Language) that the “poetic function” of language was neither to express nor to communicate clear-cut truth, but rather existed with “the message for its own sake.” Jakobson’s claim was that poetry is basically always about poetry, that verse announces the strangeness of language itself rather than communicating literal facts. What defines poetry is not how it’s constructed, but what it does. Poetry announces itself as language through a process of defamiliarization—iambic pentameter and anaphora are ways in which a reader understands that something odd is happening—but it need not be facilitated only through formal rhetorical means. Paterson rightly condemns the fact that “Too often our interpretations are unconsciously predicated on the real-world existence of a truth, albeit a truth conveniently veiled or missing,” but to be overly hung up on the “truth” of poetry is to precisely miss the point. The medium truly is the message.

In an odd way, such pronouncements were anticipated by the Renaissance critic and poet Philip Sidney, who in his 1580 Defense of Poesy argued that “The poet, he nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth.” Facts can be lied about, but a poem can’t be evaluated on whether it’s “true” or not, at least in any literal or logical way. What’s the “truth status,” Russell might ask, of the statement “I have measured out my life in coffee spoons?” Certainly, it’s not literally accurate, or privy to scientific falsification, but that it says something significant should be obvious. Poetry is thus a cracked type of speech, language that is about language, expressing truths that move beyond mere words but which can be indicated in their splendiferous ambiguities. Poetry is rhetorically distinct from other uses we have for words, Jakobson would argue; it’s not the dry literalism of logic, nor the pragmatic utility of instruction, or even the dense world-building of fiction (though that last certainly can intersect with poetry). Rather verse is when language thinks about itself. Popularizer of religion Karen Armstrong argues something similar in the introduction to Thomas J. Craughwell’s Every Eye Beholds You: A World Treasury of Prayer when she writes that “Prayer helps us to liberate ourselves and to use language in an entirely different way.”

Functionally, I see no difference between prayer and poetry. I should emphasize that this doesn’t necessarily have to do with God per se, but rather with what prayer and poetry do. And as both are in some sense very present-based genres, existing for their own purposes rather than to convey some other primary piece of information, what they do is ultimately the same. W.H. Auden famously declared that “Poetry makes nothing happen,” but there is a theological profundity to that, the idea of something existing without pragmatic justification to some bottom line, having being rather as a glorious singularity unto itself. Not dissimilar to the God of the medieval scholastics, whose views the literary critic Terry Eagleton described in The Meaning of Life, writing that God’s purpose and His creation isn’t a “question about what the world is for, since in… [theological] opinion the world has no purpose whatsoever. God is not a celestial engineer who created the world with some strategically calculated goal in mind. He is an artist who created it simply for his own self-delight, and for the self-delight of Creation itself.” The Word of God thus becomes something very close to the word of Auden. Something close to the ecstasy of prayer as well. Poetry fulfills what Jay Hopler described in the preface to Before the Door of God: An Anthology of Devotional Poetry when he noted that “poems confront two of humankind’s most powerful actuations: the drive to create and the drive to know a creator.”

Both poetry and prayer are written in a type of transcendent tense, they seem to bring voice forward from a certain perspective of eternity. The visceral presentness of both makes them different from other forms of language, for poetry and prayer don’t merely correspond to things that have happened in the world, but they are a reality itself. Kimberly Johnson writes in the introduction to Before the Door of God that “though a lyric poem may have a narrative that unfolds over its course, the first drama it relates is the coming into being of that speaking voice,” for poetry is an ever regenerative form, it is not ossified representation of some outside subject—it is the subject. Unlike painter Rene Magritte’s visual pun “The Treachery of Images,” with its depiction of a pipe with the sentence “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” a similar gambit makes no sense with a poem. There is no delay in verse, it has an immediacy that oracularly announces itself as a presence. Poetry and prayer share in this incantational quality, because they trade not only in representation but in a certain theurgy. This is the position that the narrator addresses to God in Charles Simic’s poem “Prayer” included in his collection A Wedding in Hell: “You who know only the present moment, /O Lord, /You who remember nothing/Of what came before.” An encapsulation of prayer and lyric alike, as well as the experience of being God in eternity, for unlike other modes, verse exists perennially in this moment we live in right now.

Because poetry and prayer, as an experience, belong not to the past or the future but rather a continual present, they both have the incantational quality of being able to resurrect that which is gone, of bringing to bear an actual presence with the reading of a poem, the chanting of a prayer. Eagleton, with good reason, sees something fallacious in this claim, arguing in How to Read a Poem that “On this view, form and content in poetry are entirely at one because the poem’s language somehow ‘incarnates’  its meaning,” but dismissing such romanticism by saying that “words which ‘become’ what they signify cease to be words at all.” But that might be precisely the point: that which distinguishes poetry from prose isn’t form, but the quality by which the former does actually, in some way, invoke or “call down” a different reality from the one in which the reader exists— while making allowances to poetic “prose” being capable of that same quality.

The Harlem Renaissance poet Jean Toomer performs such an incantation in his lyric “Georgia Dusk.” Toomer writes of a “lengthened tournament for flashing gold,/Passively darkens for night’s barbecue” where men gather and “Their voices rise… the pine trees are guitars,/Strumming, pine-needles fall like sheets of rain…/Their voices rise… the chorus of the cane/Is caroling a vesper to the stars.” Poetry is not editorial or syllogism, but it is a calling forth, a transubstantiation. With Toomer’s invocation of this rural black town observing the simple eucharist of a barbecue, how is it not possible to feel the warm breeze of Georgia dusk whistling through the pines, as the yolk dusk descends into the hills, the drone of cicada punctuating the gathering coolness? That Toomer can put the reader there, it seems to me, is not an example of the “incarnational fallacy;” it is simply an incarnation.

Paterson differentiates prose from poetry by noting that with the former, the “well-chosen word describes the thing as if it were present,” but the latter “persists in its attempt to invoke, to call down its subject from above, as if there were no ‘as if’ at all.” That’s because when we read a poem, whether our loud or in our head, we embody the speaker. We’re possessed by the narrator, this spooky character who isn’t quite equivalent with the poet herself. Johnson argues that “poetic speech endures with a kind of immortality. Among other effects, it preserves the human voice far beyond the scale of human life…. the voice that is preserved over centuries comes to the reader’s corporeal as well as intellectual awareness, resurrected anew, as it were, through each new reader’s ears and eyes and breath and heartbeats.”

When we read Marianne Moore’s poem “By the Disposition of Angels,” which takes as its subject this quality of possession itself, we resurrect both Moore and the immanent voice that speaks and exists beyond mere personality, querying “Messengers much like ourselves? Explain it. /Steadfastness the darkness makes explicit? /Something heard most clearly when not near it?” Moore’s poem gives voice, literally and figuratively, to this precise strangeness of poetry and prayer: it’s ability to make us hear that which seems to not be there. “Poet and reader enter a bizarre cultural contract where they agree to create the poem through the investment of an excess of imaginative energy,” argues Paterson, “This convergence of minds adds a holographic dimension to the poem, one denied other modes of human speech. A poem’s elements can sometimes appear to have been summoned into existence with enough potency to engage our physical senses.”

Possession isn’t the same thing as transformation, however. When we pray, we speak to God; as when we read and write poetry, we perhaps speak to our narrators. At their most ecstatic, those things blur into our selves, but when we stand up from the kneeler or close the book we return to being ourselves, what poet Malachi Black describes in his poem “Vespers,” when he writes that “Lord, you are the gulf/between the hoped-for/and the happening.” Any recitation, any reading, has a gulf between it and the actual divine, for a poem must be a mechanism of approaching an eternity that we never quite reach. Ronald Thomas, Welsh poet and Anglican priest, describes in his poem “Kneeling” the “Moments of great calm,/ Kneeling before an altar/Of wood in a stone church/In summer, waiting for the God/To speak.” The simple physicality of his description takes part in that incantational poetics whereby we can transpose ourselves into that private moment, but the illusory nature of that experience isn’t obscured. We are, after all, “waiting” for God to speak, and that uncertainty, that agnostic quiet isn’t incidental to the prayerful qualities of poetry—it’s instrumental to it. Thomas writes, quipping on St. Augustine, to “Prompt me, God;/But not yet. When I speak, /Though it be you who speak/Through me, something is lost. /The meaning is in the waiting.” When Thomas humbly admits that “something is lost,” it’s an acknowledgement that the possessions of poetry are incomplete, yet that gulf between God’s understanding and our fumbling is the vacuum into which poetry must dissipate.

Because if there is anything that poetry and prayer share, that distinguishes them from other forms of language—be they plays and novels, policy briefs or automobile manuals—it’s that both must engage with that abiding sense of mystery that exists in those silent places where the soul dwells. A novel or a play or an essay can have mystery at its core, and can be all the better for it—but such mystery is incidental to it being in whatever particular genre it happens to be in. Philosopher George Steiner noted in Language and Silence: Essays 1958-1967 that “When the word of the poet ceases, a great light begins,” explaining that “Language can only deal [with]… a special, restricted segment of reality. The rest, and it is presumably the much larger part, is silence.” What differentiates poetry is not form or content, but that poetry is the language that is written not in words, but rather in the gaps between them. Poetry and prayer are implicated in that mystery, that sacrament. “Mysteries expound mysteries,” writes Moore, and it’s a good shared explanation of prayer and its identical twin poetry.

That sense of divine mystery is invoked by our most immaculate of modern devotional poets Denise Levertov in her “Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus” from the collection Candles in Babylon. Writing at the mystical confluence of her duel Jewish and Christian background, between America and Europe, the political and the sacred, Levertov voiced the “deep unknown, guttering candle, /beloved nugget lodged in the obscure heart’s/last recess” more fully than any poet after the Second World War. Levertov is an incarnational poet, able to describe “woodgrain, windripple, crystal, /in crystals of snow, in petal, leaf… fossil and feather, /blood, bone, song, silence.” A poet of immanence, but one for whom all of this world is built not on exhalation, but inhalation, of “our hope… in the unknown, /in the unknowing.” This is the subject of all poetry and prayer, the injunction “O deep, remote unknown, /O deep unknown, /Have mercy upon us.” The beating heart of all poetry and prayer must be this blessed silence, this sacred unknown. Such a faith is what animates both vocations. For when we approach the sepulcher of that which Herbert called “something understood.”

Image Credit: Needpix.

Steal This Meme: Beyond Truth and Lies

“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”—Audre Lorde

At that unhappy moment when Donald Trump took the oath of office with what has proven to be an attitude of obscene disingenuity, I happened to be 38,000 miles in the air somewhere above the Pacific off the coast of California. By happy and fortuitous circumstance, I was in possession of a ticket to Honolulu in January, the month when most of my colleagues’ professional society of literary scholars chooses to force its members into dreary hotel conference rooms in Boston or Chicago. By unhappy circumstance, of course, this day scheduled for my trip to God’s own terrestrial paradise (everything they say of Hawaii is true) happened to be the genesis of our never-ending Annus horribilis. All morning I’d harbored irrational fears about what would happen at the exact second when Trump put his hand to Bible (for the first time I assume). When I bundled into a cab on First Avenue headed on the Van Wyck towards Kennedy, the pink-gauze sky was just breaking over shrouded Brooklyn and Queens and Barack Obama was still president.

Half-a-day later, when we touched down some 5,000 miles away, having completely embargoed myself of any social media or news, and thus being blissfully unaware of “American carnage” and the inauguration speech that even George W. Bush thought was “weird shit,” I was able to fall asleep near Oahu sands in a cocoon of immense privilege while pretending that I was somehow not even in America anymore (Trump started his political career claiming something similar). With morning, I first encountered Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who in recent years has attempted to rehabilitate himself on Dancing with the Stars in that characteristically malevolent and tacky way that Americans have perfected, with his bizarre insistence that the National Mall contained “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe,” an easily disproven claim. A day later, and Trump adviser and amoral mercenary Kellyanne Conway would defend Spicer while on Meet the Press, arguing simply that they were in possession of “alternative facts.”

Because a Catholic scrupulosity compels me to never totally enjoy a vacation, I’d taken with me the Anglo-Russian television producer and London School of Economics media theorist Peter Pomerantsev’s crucial Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia. When I came across the unfamiliar title at the Strand’s Central Park book stand a few days before, I suspected that there might be something helpful in Pomerantsev’s account of how the Kremlin had constructed a strange, chimerical, mutant form of authoritarianism that wasn’t just built on lies, but where lies themselves became the operative ideology, an epistemically anarchic relativism that he called “post-modern dictatorship.” The son of Soviet dissidents who moved to Britain and later Germany, where his father first worked in Russian programing for the BBC and then Radio Free Europe, Pomerantsev would later spend a decade in his native country also working in media, where he could watch as Vladimir Putin, with the assistance of Svengalis like Vladislav Surkov, mastered the dizzying, confusing, relativist aesthetics of modern Kremlin propaganda.

Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible presents a Russian authoritarianism that owes as much to the cruelty of reality television as the Stalinist show trial; as much as they used to make the commissar vanish, they’re just as content to make people disbelieve the commissar (though ricin is still useful sometimes). Pomerantsev describes a country that “had seen so many worlds flick through in such blistering progression—from communism to perestroika to shock therapy to penury to oligarchy to mafia state to mega-rich—that its new heroes were left with the sense that life is just one glittering masquerade, where every role and position or belief is mutable,” so that the Russian state can be defender of a staunchly reactionary traditionalist order when that benefits its aims, or the battle-hardened fighter of fascism when that perspective assists it. What Putinism represents, argues Pomerantsev, is not ideology so much as something transcendent of truth or falsehood, where lies aren’t strategy so much as faith itself.

Now Pomerantsev broadens his scope out from Moscow, to London, Washington, Belgrade, Manila, Beijing, Mexico City, and that nebulous universe that exists in the connection between modems and smartphones in his second book This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality. He describes a “world of dark ads, psy-ops, hacks, bots, soft facts, fake news, deep fakes, brainwashing, trolls, ISIS, Putin. Trump,” where the author meets “Twitter revolutionaries and pop-up populists, trolls and elves, ‘behavioral change’ salesmen and Infowar charlatans, Jihadi fan-boys, Identitarians, truth cops, and bot herders.” While not always as unified as Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, Pomerantsev’s latest book (culled from essays originally published in The Guardian, Granta, The American Interest, and The London Review of Books) does provide a primer on how our dystopian new reality of digital simulacra came to be, what it has come to mean, and possibly how we might mitigate the worst of its effects.

Finding ferry-people across this social media Styx, Pomerantsev talks to experts like Russian dissident Lydia Savchuk who infiltrated the Internet Research Agency, the infamous St. Petersburg “troll farm” that long played a role in Moscow politics and that during the 2016 presidential elections saw “Over thirty million Americans… [share] its content among their friends and families.” The author doesn’t limit his analysis to the Kremlin, however, noting that Putinism is but “one front of a vast, global phenomenon.” Something those of us who are horrified by Trump would do well to keep at the forefront of our minds; for there is a certain type of centrist “#Resistance” person addicted to MSNBC and long conspiratorial Twitter threads who harbors the dangerous illusion that Trump is the disease and not the symptom, and that some mythic “normalcy” can be returned upon his ejection. There is also a variety of further-left individual (of which I suppose I’d include myself as a cautious fellow-traveler) who find the first group’s thinking unhelpful, but then overcorrect and end up minimizing the legitimate ideological and technological threats posed by a Kremlin that’s made itself the international of a revanchist order. What Pomerantsev makes clear is that this phenomenon is one that isn’t limited to one country—that’s precisely the point. Our crisis of democracy does not begin and end at the United States.

To that end, This Is Not Propaganda includes interviews with dissidents, hackers, and activists around the world who are attempting to fight a multi-pronged war against the cyber divisions of authoritarian states that have been able to so effectively weaponize information (and the appearance of information) over the past decade. These include the Philippine journalist Maria Ressa who has repeatedly been the target of digital attacks directed by the authoritarian president Roderigo Duterte, the Serbian democracy activist Srđa Popović who was instrumental in the movement against war criminal Slobodan Milosevic (and also literally wrote the guidebook for 21st-century agitators against oppressive governments) and the Mexican hacker Alberto Escorcia who has developed strategies for protestors to reverse-engineer some of the very same technologies used by states to spread disinformation. Pomerantsev even talks with the godfather of digital disinformation, the advertiser, analyst, and cofounder of Cambridge Analytica (which played such a decisive role in the 2016 election) Nigel Oakes. What emerges is an incomplete and sometimes inchoate picture of the second decade of our century, though one that still provides some names, faces, and intentions behind the dark avatars that swarm through Twitter like locusts spreading memes and propaganda, and the good wizards who’ve made it their mission to stop them.

Any radically new information technology alters human consciousness, and has the potential to promulgate disinformation amongst a credulous public not yet literate in the vagaries of the new order. Medieval manuscripts were no more accurate than websites; 14th-century readers of the anonymous The Travels of Sir John Mandeville thrilled to stories about dog-headed Cynocephalics, and two centuries later a rash of printed apocalyptic pamphlets, like the “English Nostradamus” Mother Shipton’s pseudographical prophecies, spread throughout Europe, driving paranoia as surely as Reddit and Twitter defuse QAnon conspiracy theories today. Yet Pomerantsev would be correct in saying that our current predicament is of a different kind, for unlike manuscript or print, our smartphones make us veritable cyborgs, creatures with super computers in our pockets who are continually, potentially connected by network to every other fellow cyborg in the world. This relativist consensus, an epistemic collapse that allows everyone to choose whatever truth is convenient to them, is a type of post-modern magical thinking. However, it isn’t just a return to archaic superstitions, but a reversal of the Enlightenment project that was based in an idea of objectivity that made the work of democracy possible. “There is nothing new about politicians lying,” writes Pomerantsev, “but what seems novel is their acting as if they don’t care whether what they say is true or false.”

We see this happening in real time if we compare the (obvious to some of us at the time) bogus rationale that the Bush administration used to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the similar way that the Trump administration has gone about validating the extrajudicial assassination of Qassem Soleimani. While the former was an unmitigated human disaster and the later may yet hopefully prove to not result in the same scope of death, the Bush administration operated as if falsehood and truth were actual categories, even while they consciously chose to mislead. They operated in quasi-official channels, sending Secretary of State Colin Powell to the United Nations to make the case for war with (compromised) intelligence, and cobbling together a coalition of other countries that supported the invasion. Trump’s Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, on the other hand, tells us to believe that Soleimani was imminently about to attack U.S. interests, and doesn’t even bother to construct a more fully fleshed out lie. At that point, we’ve left even the realm of falsehood, and enter the halls of magic. Pomerantsev explains that “Fox and the Kremlin exploit the same ideas: If reality is malleable, why can’t they introduce their own versions too? And if feelings are emancipatory, why can’t they invoke their own? With the idea of objectivity discredited, the grounds on which one could argue against them rationally disappears.”

My above account lets the Bush administration off the hook entirely too much, for the fact is that Trump is just better at deconstructing the division between truth and lie than they were. That most people know that Trump is lying—and that he still gets away with it—counterintuitively shows how masterful said lying is. Much of this has to do with the way the social media ecosystem of Facebook and Twitter have altered how people understand reality; Trump doesn’t have to make any case for the third of the country that’s going to believe what he says, no matter how absurd it might be—they’ve already made that case themselves in their own heads. The previous Republican administration had already flirted with epistemological tweaking during the Iraq catastrophe; one should remember the anonymous source high in the White House who in a gambit worthy of French philosopher Jean Baudrillard dismissed what he called “the reality-based community” to New York Times Magazine reporter Ron Susskind. Propaganda has always traded in flat-out lying—that’s its nature. Part of Pomerantsev’s argument, however, is that the new world of digital misleading has in some sense democratized tyranny, making all of us unwilling accomplices in spreading a constructed reality, whereas in the past such campaigns were obviously top-down.

Glib traditionalists could point to “post-modernism” as the origin of this free-for-all, but our current crisis of epistemology doesn’t come from French academic salons, but rather the cynical calculations of political pragmatism. Charting how the democratic promise unleashed by the fall of communism in 1989 cynically ended with the justifications for the Iraq war in 2003, Pomerantsev notes that “Words and images filled with potent meaning in East Berlin ended in Baghdad.” With democratizing events as varied as the collapse of Soviet authoritarianism, the execution of Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania, the exile of Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, the resignation of Suharto in Indonesia, and the abolishment of apartheid in South Africa, it could seem obvious to the self-satisfied liberal that the moral arc of history did indeed predictably move towards justice. “If once upon a time one could speak confidently about history’s waves of democratization flowing in a single current,” Pomerantsev writes, “now a great storm has broken out and it’s hard to tell what’s flowing where and in which direction.” We’re done with Ceausescu, Marcos, and Suharto, but now we have Putin, Viktor Orbán, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Jair Bolsonaro, Duterte, and Trump. Such is the state as aptly described by documentary filmmaker Astra Taylor in her perceptive book Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone when she writes that “Political gridlock, corruption, unaccountable representatives, and the lack of meaningful alternatives incense people across the ideological spectrum; their anger simmers at dehumanizing bureaucracy, blatant hypocrisy, and lack of voice.” Into that vacuum defuses the state agitprop of cynical actors willing to hijack our agency for their own coercive ends.

Such meme engineering rewrites the DNA of consciousness, acting as a parasite in the host and completely altering their worldview. In a passage that will no doubt have many nodding in recognition, Pomerantsev describes “people I have known my whole life [that] slip away from me on social media, reposting conspiracies from sources I have never heard of… which is rearranging our relations and identities with its own logic, or in the cause of someone else’s interests we can’t even see.” By way of making contrast between the previous century’s authoritarians and today’s savvier Madison Avenue and Silicon Valley-trained versions, Pomerantsev begins each chapter with a biographical account of his own parent’s running afoul of the Soviet government during the 1970s. In his family’s story, information was something emancipatory that could dispel the official Kremlin line, with censorship the cudgel used by the Soviets to oppress those who opposed them. Today, however, and it’s a surfeit of information that does the same, so much data that nobody can sort through it.

Censorship in 2020 functions not literally, but rather by screaming untruths so loudly through so many channels that reality itself is drowned out. Appropriately enough this is a free market version of propaganda, the tools of the state’s lies privatized and outsourced to your friends, family, and coworkers. The irony is that in the Soviet Union, everybody knew that what Pravda printed was a lie; today people share links from dubious sites pushing a line to assist the status quo under the guise of subversion. Our dire situation was summed up by the Ukrainian investigator Tatyana Gerasimova, who helped conduct an investigation of a tragic fire in Odessa that occurred following the Russian invasion, and which separatists and nationalists each blamed the other for, the truth ultimately being more complicated. Despite that nuance, Gerasimova explains that the truth can’t set one free if you’re incapable of recognizing the truth when presented with it. “Everyone lives in their own reality, everyone has their own truth, there is no reconciliation. We created the investigation to show that there is a difference between truth and lies. In that sense we failed.” So inured are we to the idea that there might be a truth, that there has been a trickle-down rewriting of reality, where now Big Brother doesn’t even have to convince you that 2+2=5. You saw it memed by your uncle on Facebook (the Deep State was the one who said 2+2=4 all along).

Our hellscape’s prophet of authoritarianism is less Franz Kafka than Philip K. Dick. Kafka’s vision of totalitarianism is of the show-trial, the prison, the centrally organized bureaucratic state whereby in The Castle he could write, “If a man has his eyes bound, you can encourage him as much as you like to stare through the bandage, but he’ll never see anything.” In our current world, we’ve put the bandage on ourselves and forgotten that we’re wearing it. Ours is much closer to the neon cacophony of Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep where a character says “Everything is true…Everything anybody has ever thought.” The cruel irony of that is if everything is true, then nothing is true; if everything is permitted, then nothing is.

Pomerantsev writes that “More information was supposed to mean more freedom to stand up to the powerful. But it also has given the powerful new ways to crush and silence dissent.” As it has turned out it’s the melee of continual information shared by our zombified fellow citizens that’s proven the easiest method to awash us in propaganda. Compared to the authoritarians of the past, Pomerantsev writes that “today’s strongmen are not so rigid. Instead of hanging on to one single ideology, they have learned to speak with different tongues.” To the detriment of all of us, one of the languages they’re most proficient in is a rhetoric that has been available on A.M. radio and amongst shock jocks and stand-up comics for generations, but that has been divorced from any transgressive import it may have once had, now rather serving the purposes of state power.

Leftists were once the funny ones, the Dadaist antics of groups like the Yippies potently using rude and obscene humor to challenge state and corporate hegemony, for “laughter removes the aura of impenetrability around an authoritarian leader.” A perusal of much of woke Twitter will demonstrate that the left has disastrously ceded ground in this regard, the import of humor being taken up by the right in a manner that poses serious challenges to the cause of justice. Pomerantsev recounts visiting popular Manila comedy clubs where stand-ups “pick victims in the audience and roast them, taunting them about the size of their penises, or for their weight, and this right in front of entire families who all laugh along in the relatives’ humiliation.” Duterte’s rhetoric mimics such stand-ups exactly, and goes a long way to explaining his popularity in the ostensibly socially conservative nation. “It’s a type of humor he shares with a troupe of male leaders across the world… [where] toilet humor is used to show how ‘anti-establishment’ they are.”

Such is the disingenuous use of “I was just joking” by leaders from Putin to Trump, who are able to deploy a cavalier cruelty without repercussions. It’s an ingenious hacking of liberals’ natural affinity for the freedom of speech, but done for profoundly illiberal aims. We still understandably valorize the jester speaking truth to power, men like Bill Hicks and George Carlin who were willing to say the seven words you can’t say on television, because if you’re barred from saying the word “fuck” then you’re barred from saying “fuck the president.” But our new authoritarians understand something about amoral tools—they can be asymmetrically used. Pomerantsev notes that “when such language is used consistently by men with real power to degrade those weaker, this humor becomes menacing: It lays the linguistic path to humiliating victims in other ways as well, to as pace where all norms disappear.” Laughter, it seems, is indeed indelible in the hippocampus.

Voters with NPR tote-bags and New Yorker subscriptions may have been caught off guard by the 2016 election results, but they were never the audience for The Apprentice anyhow. The current crisis in democracy, facilitated by cruel and relativist propaganda, is much less surprising if you’re familiar with the past several decades of popular culture that doesn’t receive prestige awards. Trump’s rhetoric matches not the highfalutin pretensions of William F. Buckley, George Will, and The National Review, but it owes everything to A.M. radio sports talk, shock jocks like Don Imus and Howard Stern (neither of whom were supporters of the White House’s current occupant), reality television, and the preening and theatrics of World Wrestling Entertainment. Following the release of the Access Hollywood tape, there was much hand-wringing about how people don’t talk like Trump did in that video—but of course many people do.

For his supporters, the “joy of Trump is to validate the pleasure of spouting shit, the joy of pure emotion, often anger, without any sense,” writes Pomerantsev. It’s not that they’re unaware of the cruelty; the cruelty is the point. While I had long been more pessimistic about the election then many of my liberal friends and colleagues, I definitively knew that Hillary Clinton would lose when on that Tuesday night I saw CNN interview a woman in a Pennsylvania bar (of the sort that I’m estimably familiar with) who dismissed the “pussy grabbing” comments by saying (and I paraphrase) “I don’t care. Lots of women talk that way too.” From a certain perspective, the election of Trump—a gameshow host who is in the WWE Hall of Fame and made his entertainment career appearing on Stern and talking about how his daughter is sexy—seems less a fluke and more a dispiriting inevitability.

This Is Not Propaganda is not necessarily a hopeful read. True, some of the figures whom he speaks with, from Popović to Escorcia, have and do contend with far worse than we do, and they are able to keep a type of revolutionary optimism. It’s hard to ignore Trump, and in some cases it’s malpractice not to consider him when necessity compels us. And yet few of us will wish on our death-beds that we’d wasted more words on his inanities, his narcissism, his bloated absurdity. One of authoritarianism’s most insidious characteristics is that it doesn’t give you the option to ignore it.

Pomerantsev doesn’t necessarily offer the average citizen much in the way of a map out of the quagmire, though that’s less his intent. He alludes that if we’re to hope for any kind of restoration of truth, of objectivity, of rationality, of democracy, that we must “formulate a vision of the alternative political model you want to see.” What this looks like will be hard to say, but it’s necessary to figure that out. What it won’t look like is the endless, lame obsession over Trump, who wants us to obsess over him: all of our own memes inexpertly put together about “Mango Mussolini,” “Cheeto Jesus,” and “Drumpf.” We can’t win that game, so let’s stop playing it. Tyrants may not believe in truth, but there should be succor in knowing that truth is very much real—and patient. “It’s coming from the feel / That this ain’t exactly real,” wrote that prophet Leonard Cohen, “Or it’s real, but it ain’t exactly there.” And yet the chorus could still be sung that “Democracy is coming to the USA.” Hopefully.

Image: rob walsh

Prayer Is Poetry

“Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same things as prayer. It presupposes faith and love.” —Simone Weil, “Attention and Will” (1942)

“I do not mean to deny the traditional prayers I have said all my life; but I have been saying them and not feeling them.” —Flannery O’Connor, private “prayer journal” (1946)

Murmuring fills the stone halls of Mt. Athos’s monasteries, exhaling like breath into a cold and clear morning. With its thousands of monks, there is not silence—there is the opposite of silence. Excluding the sounds of nature—the cooing of turtle doves and the swooping of Dalmatian pelicans; the sound of rain hitting the granite paths of the isle; the lapping of the ocean upon the jagged rocks—there is the omnipresent shudder of thousands of men’s faintly mumbled devotions, called to prayer by one of their brothers hitting the metal of a semantron with a wooden mallet. Like chill dew condensed on green leaves still black before the dawn, prayer clings in the atmosphere of this place. Prayer is the ether of Athos through which light must travel; the dun of monks chanting at every hour of the day and for all days is like a holy cosmic background radiation.

At the tip of that rocky peninsula, jutting like a limb into the wine-dark Aegean, are the 20 communities of the Orthodox Monastic Republic of Athos, an outcropping that has been continuously home to ascetic, celibate, reverential monks for 18 centuries. There, overlooking the Greek sea, sit buildings like the blue onion-domed mirage of St. Panteleimon Monastery, filled with Russian monks keeping their liturgy, and the Byzantine castle that constitutes the Stavronikita Monastery in honor of St. Nicholas. That holy bishop looks down on his novices with black eye from gold icon; St. Nicholas is joined by companions such as St. Gregory, St. Nektarios, and the gentle Virgin of Theotokos, as painted by the great artist Theophanes the Cretan. In their otherworldly position, what do the icons see? There they watch scores of dark robed monks, who with lips covered by black and grey and white beards repeat the same prayer as if breathing, over and over: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Such a process, the continual repetition of the Jesus Prayer until it begins to lose coherence, in the same way that a continually uttered word begins to sound like nothing if you do it long enough, lends the words a different sort of significance. Any true hearing of the prayer has to consider the words beyond the words, that which it gestures toward in dictionaries that exist beyond literal statement. Meaning is sacrificed for mystery, and in the process an infinity is gained. Many who use this approach, known as Hesychasm, do so “not just as a philosophical device for indicating God’s utter transcendence, but also, and much more fundamentally, as a means for attaining union with Him through prayer,” notes Timothy Ware in his classic introduction The Orthodox Church. The spiritual cosmonauts who are Hesychasts engage in this extreme repetitive prayer, chasing the literal semantic meanings out of words like souls departing from dead flesh, because such “negations…acted as a springboard or trampoline whereby the mystical theologian sought to leap up with all the fullness of his or her being in the living mystery of God,” as Ware explains.

As superficial attributes are burnt away, the sinner is to encounter that noble silence that is at the core of all of us, the ineffable utterances of prayer. A process whereby those enraptured in the liturgy will subtract that which defines their externalities; a prayer so fervent that it will blind your eyes, mute your mouth, and deafen your ears. This is prayer at its most extreme—absolute, indomitable, and unceasing. Philip and Carol Zaleski explain in Prayer: A History that the “roots of the Jesus Prayer lie in the traditional belief that names contain power…and that repetition of a name concentrates and focuses this power.” The famed utterance is based on these contemplative principles of Hesychasm formulated within Eastern Orthodoxy, whereby the individual empties her soul out so as to make room for those defusing molecules of holiness. In such a space, it is not just the spirit, mind, heart, and mouth that utter the anchorite’s prayer, but indeed the elbow and ankle, the eyelash and earlobe, the knuckle and wrist also. Writing in the fourth century, the Church Father John Cassian said that the Jesus Prayer is to be one that you think upon “as you sleep, as you eat, as you submit to the most basic demands of nature…You will write it upon the threshold and gateway of your mouth, you will place it on the walls of your house and in the inner sanctum of your heart.” For if the Jesus Prayer is a narrative, it is one into which those who pray must descend; if it is a poem, it is one where the words themselves become indistinguishable from the reader, where the recitation becomes life.

The Jesus Prayer is not mere supplication, rather it’s a variation on what Walt Whitman intoned in Leaves of Grass whereby “your very flesh shall be a great poem.” When one transforms themselves into an evocation, it matters not whether we’re speaking of “prayer” or “poetry,” for in heaven those categories are the same thing. Prayer is like poetry in that the greatest examples of both take as their greatest subjects themselves. All true prayers are about prayer; all beautiful poetry is really about poetry. Like all divine utterances, the Jesus Prayer is also narrative and rhetoric, capable of being read critically. This is not to diminish the import of this celebrated Orthodox prayer; we must avoid collapsing the liturgical into the aesthetic, the profundity of ritual into the mere marketplace of art. But the Jesus Prayer—all 12 words, four clauses, three commas, and one period that constitute it—wouldn’t be as effective were it not also poetry, if it did not also have an endlessly regenerative story at its center. A script into which any penitent could imagine themselves.

For those who aren’t Orthodox, but are familiar with the Jesus Prayer, it’s perhaps read less as literature itself and more a concept that may have been encountered in literature. The prayer plays a large part in the plot of J.D. Salinger’s novel Franny and Zoey, whereby the former of the two Upper East Side Glass sisters becomes obsessed with the Jesus Prayer after reading an account of it in the 19th-century anonymous Russian tract called The Way of a Pilgrim. As Franny recounts to her college boyfriend, when considering unceasing prayer as is practiced on Athos, one must emphatically ask if they had ever heard “anything so fascinating in your life, in a way?” Far from mere neurotic scrupulosity, the Jesus Prayer is a melding of the person with the poem, whereby the author of The Way of a Pilgrim could say that “Sometimes my heart would feel as though it were bubbling with joy; such lightness, freedom, and consolation were in it.” The repetition of prayer is like wheels turning in the wind, equally dispelling meaning and its malignant sibling worry. Franny was right to be fascinated.

So, let’s close read the Jesus Prayer as poetry. It begins with that invocation, a calling upon Christ as if Homer entreating the muse; it transitions into the statement of identity for the Son of God, whose majesty is contrasted with the narrator of the lyric who is in need of saving grace. The plaintiveness of requesting mercy has the weighted heaviness of its simple declaration. So much is held in those last two words; the indefinite article indicating the universality of sin, the confession of that condition the material for all great drama. The Jesus Prayer is a microfiction written in the present tense, where the main character is whoever should be speaking it. The great tale it tells is that of unearned salvation. The peroration is inconclusive, the ending yet to be written.

God will hear any prayer as poetry—even the recitation of the alphabet or guttural nonsense syllables may be recognized by the Lord as prayer, but humans require prosody to stick in the brain. Too often prayer is dismissed by the secular because it’s reduced to mere plea for intercession; it’s slurred as being a cosmic gift-card, and not recognized for what it actually is—the only poetic genre defined by its intended audience being the Divine. Not enough attention is paid to the poetic aspects of prayer, scarcely more attention is paid to the prayerful qualities of poetry. Prayer is just as deserving of critical analysis, of close reading and interpretation through the methods of literary interpretation as any verse is. Such is the position of The New Yorker’s esteemed book critic James Wood, who in his introduction to the Penguin Deluxe Edition of the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer’s 1549 The Book of Common Prayer argued that the Church of England missal marked “one of the great, abiding works of English literature.” There are a handful of anthologies that treat prayer with the literary interest expressed by Wood. The Oxford Book of Prayer is an ecumenical anthology compiled by a group of scholars that goes beyond Christianity to explore the varieties of the poetic numinous, with the committee member George Appleton explaining that their desire was to express admiration for “all who value the religious experience of mankind, and are seeking the Eternal Mystery and Transcendence.” Religion popularizer Karen Armstrong offered her own selection of prayers as poems in the collection Tongues of Fire: An Anthology of Religious and Poetic Experience, which is sadly out of print. But for the most part, there is an endemic critical fallacy separating prayer and poetry.  

Theologians frequently divide prayers into five categories: adoration, petition, thanksgiving, contrition, and confession; in an act of Episcopalian parsimony the essayist Anne Lamott collapses those categories in her new-age guide Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. Certainly prayer as a genre has multiple uses, with petition for the Lord to redress our needs and desires but the least of these. That’s not to diminish the importance of supplication; there are few things more understandable, universal, and human than the individual crying out to God in helplessness. Even God Himself supposedly does it as He dies upon the cross. If poetry is to be an expression of the breadth of humanity in its full experience, than the various purposes of prayer are a helpful encapsulation of what it means to be a person; running the gamut from ecstatic wonder to humble gratitude, desperation to guilt. The most powerful of prayers arguably embody all of those reasons for praying in the first place, because it’s not always easy to separate the terrible wonder toward God from our desire for redemption or our cries for help.

Filmmakers often understand the innate dramatic potential of a prayer, whether it be John Cazale’s stoic Fredo calmly reciting a Hail Mary in the seconds before his brother Michael, as played with reptilian efficacy by Al Pacino, shoots him in the back of the head during an ill-fated fishing trip in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather: Part II; bellowed out in horror and sadness like Harvey Keitel’s tortured scream within a cathedral at the conclusion Abel Ferrara’s gritty noir depiction of a corrupt cop in Bad Lieutenant; or Samuel L. Jackson’s character Jules Winnfield reciting scripture (hubristically invented by director Quentin Tarantino) before executing someone who has run afoul of him in Pulp Fiction. If crime drama seems heavy on prayer, then it’s because prayer isn’t only for quiet meditation, but exists at those places where sin and the sacred must by necessity occupy the same space. Such is the explanation as memorably delivered by Jackson, who reflects that when it comes to his scriptwriter’s pseudo-scriptural inflection, “I been saying that shit for years. And if you heard it, that meant your ass. I never gave much thought to what it meant. I just thought it was some cold-blooded shit to say to a motherfucker…But I saw some shit this morning that made me think twice…The truth is… you’re the weak, and I am the tyranny of evil men. But I’m trying.”

Prayer must by definition be extreme; to make oneself a conduit for the transcendent by words artfully arranged is, in a materialistic culture dominated by ruthless pragmatism, a transgressive practice. For those who reject prayer as maudlin affectation, more Thomas Kincaid than Caravaggio, know that the later has been at the forefront of the sacred a lot longer than the former. Not surprisingly, but strangely under remarked on, is the understandable facility with that poets themselves have in composing prayers. The 19th-century novelist Anne Brontë wrote her own subversive supplication in 1844, asking “My God! O let me call Thee mine! / Weak, wretched sinner though I be, / My trembling soul would fain be Thine, / My feeble faith still clings to Thee.” The poem is perfectly orthodox (lower-case “o” emphasized), for there would be nobody in the Church of England at the time who would look askance at confession of their faith’s fallibility. Yet there is also an eroticism in Brontë’s lyric, the romantic connotations of asking the beloved to be the speaker’s, the desire to cling to the beloved. In her language she calls back to the 17th-century Metaphysical tradition of George Herbert, or especially John Donne; in her punctuation she calls forward to Whitman. The forwardness of her confession that “Not only for the past I grieve, / The future fills me with dismay” is Brontë’s alone, however, the universality of such an observation paradoxically belying its personal nature.

Some of our greatest modernists have penned prayers as captivating as anything written in a patrist’s cell or jotted in the margins of a Puritan’s notebook, and not even necessarily the obvious figures who had religious fascinations like T.S. Elliot or Ezra Pound. Broad-shouldered Carl Sandburg of that hog butchery capital of the world Chicago wrote an unlikely prayer, appropriately enough for his proletariat subject-matter entitled “Prayers of Steel.” In a manner that evokes the Holy Sonnets of Donne, Sandburg asks the Lord to “Lay me on an anvil, O God. / Beat me and hammer me into a crowbar./Let me pry loose old walls. / Let me lift and loosen old foundations.” If prayer is erotic, then it’s also violent—it’s instrumental. Such a practice is to be a technology for transformation, and Sandburg’s desire is to be made into something with all of the heft, energy, and grit of sheer matter, so that God would “Beat me and hammer me into a steel spike. / Drive me into the girders that hold a skyscraper together. / Take red-hot rivets and fasten me into the central girders.” For such is a fundamental tension, a beautiful paradox of prayer—that it requires a profound humility, but is based upon the belief that a simple human can casually compose verse for the Infinite, so that he who is in repose may “be the great nail holding a skyscraper through blue nights into white stars.”

Another modernist psalmist is the Jamaican-American poet and seminal Harlem Renaissance figure Claude McKay, who composed a melancholic and intensely personal meditation in 1922, writing that “’Mid the discordant noises of the day I hear thee calling; / I stumble as I fare along Earth’s way; keep me from falling,” a declaration that is perhaps that which most sharply differentiates prayer as a subset of poetry—for unlike the later the former is always obligated to be honest (for its Reader would know if it wasn’t). In a theme that has motivated religious narrative from Paul to Augustine to Hank Williams Sr., McKay tells God that the “wild and fiery passion of my youth consumes my soul; / In agony I turn to thee for truth and self-control.” The rhyming couplets, as critically out of fashion as they were and continue to be, give the prayer the sing-song quality of hymn; their formal innocence add to the sense of helplessness that motivates the most intense of prayers.

That great wit and raconteur Dorothy Parker, more famous for her cutting gin-and-vermouth fueled quips at the Algonquin Round Table than piety, penned a beautiful and sad prayer in 1930 that James P. More Jr. described in One Nation Under God: A History of Prayer in America as “conveying a rare tenderness in the midst of personal loss.” Written in light of infidelity, miscarriage, and the omnipresent companion of alcoholism, Parker pleaded, “Dearest one, when I am dead / Never seek to follow me. / Never mount the quiet hill / Where the copper leaves are still, / As my heart is, on the tree / Standing at my narrow bed.” Parker’s sadness is a rejoinder to those who see in prayer only the myopia of personal contentment, for the asking of a cosmic favor. Rather, her prayer is an artifact of the broken ego that defines the tragedy of any prayer uttered truthfully—that prayer, if it’s to be heard, must be a ritual of ego extinction, of Hesychasm. “Only of your tenderness, / Pray a little prayer at night,” wrote Parker, “Say: ‘I have forgiven now – / I, so weak and said; O Thou, / Wreathed in thunder, robed in light, / Surely Thou wilt do no less.”

If prayer was “effective” than people wouldn’t die young, alone, sick, spurned, and forgotten; if prayer was “pragmatic” than loved ones wouldn’t suffer and pass, people wouldn’t be in debt, homes wouldn’t be foreclosed; if prayer was “useful,” than we’d never be despairing and broken. That prayer’s purpose isn’t to be effective, pragmatic, or useful speaks to a far deeper thirst that the practice quenches. Prayer isn’t about avoiding bad things; it’s about how one approaches their inevitability in a fallen world. Because I am a broken person who once drank too much, and discovered that it was impossible for me to drink less without drinking everything, I decided that it would be easier to not drink at all. As such, there’s a perhaps predictable and cliched prayer that I’ve long been partial towards, but which has as much significance to me as the Jesus Prayer had to John Cassian. The Zaleskis write of the “Serenity Prayer” that “nothing in it smacks of ideology or sectarianism, and yet its demands, if followed faithfully and to the letter, require Solomonic insight and saintly fortitude.”

Commonly attributed to the liberal Protestant minister and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who claimed that he first preached it in a sermon at an Evangelical church in western Massachusetts during World War II, the prayer was attributed by the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill W., to everyone from an “ancient Greek, an English poet, [or] an American naval officer,” as the Zaleskis write. As seen on coffee mugs, wall-hangings, key chains, and cross-stiches, the Serenity Prayer implores “God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change,/Courage to change the things we can,/And wisdom to know the difference.” This Stoic injunction is often misinterpreted as maudlin pablum by those who stop at the first sentence, misinterpreting the call to surrender as unthinking capitulation, whereas in reality it is often good sense. It’s the second sentence that has the pathos, however, and in the third there is the ingredient for all true narrative. When people are unable to know the difference we call it tragedy; when they can, we call it something else—even if tragedy remains forever a possibility.

The prayerful greatest hits have much to recommend in themselves as well, of course. Each of the great Abrahamic faiths is poetically bound by defining prayers, whether the Jewish Shema Yisrael, the Christian Pater Noster, or the Islamic Shahadah. The Shema’s blessing is both principle and poem, the short declaration “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is One,” a statement of divine synthesis, unity, consilience. The imploration that the collected people must listen raises our profane realm into the transcendent. As with the Hesychasts or Whitman, humanity itself is transposed into the very flesh of the prayer. Melvin Konner describes the phylacteries used by observant Jews in the recitation of the prayer, writing in Unsettled: An Anthropology of the Jews about “tefillin, the black leather boxes that hold the words of the Shema, fulfilling the commandment to place them as ‘a sign upon the hand’ and ‘frontlets between the eyes.’” The Shahada does something similar, presenting an axiom as a prayer, the drama implicit within it a statement about reality itself. “There is no god but God,” prays the observant Muslim, and part of the beauty of the statement lies in its tautological simplicity, self-referentiality only broken in English transliteration by orthographic convention regarding the capitalization of certain words. The Pater Noster has a similar sense of the ways in which heaven (and perhaps hell) dwell not in a beyond, but in the here and now, as clear as a poem placed in a box and affixed to the forehead. What could be more tangible than the forgiveness of debts and of our “daily bread?”

America’s greatest psalmist, Emily Dickinson, defined the genre as being “the little implement / Through which Men reach / Where Presence – is denied them,” the gap of that characteristic dash saying everything we’ve ever felt, thought, or wondered about the spaces at the center of that absent Writer we call G-d. Perhaps that old language of adoration, thanksgiving, contrition, and so on is limited, better to think of prayer as being the poetry that you internalize and take with you, a consumptive implement that burns away the detritus of personality to leave behind (w)holly ash. Prayer is the poetry that possesses the body, the kernel of a soul left over when everything else has been immolated. Poems are written for audiences, readers, the poet themselves, but only prayers are written for God.

No doubt the literary genre for which there is the greatest number of compositions, but for which the vast majority of them will never be heard or read by any living person. The only literary genre in which there need not even be words for it to be a poem. All true prayers have as their subject the drama of salvation, redemption, reconciliation, peace. Such was the request of the great Iranian poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi who in the 13th century ecstatically implored us to “Come, come, whoever you are. Wanderer, worshiper, lover of learning – it doesn’t matter, / Ours is not a caravan of despair. / Come, even if you have broken your vow a hundred times, / Come, come again, come.” So that prayer is, even when it seems to despair, a fundamentally optimistic genre. What it presupposes is that every second is a portal through which some kind of grace may enter. What it hopes is that there is somebody on the receiving end, listening.

Annotate This: On Marginalia

“We have all seized the white perimeter as our own And reached for a pen if only to show We did not just laze in an armchair turning pages; We pressed a thought into the wayside, Planted an impression along the verge.” —Billy Collins, “Marginalia”

Sometime after the fourth century, an unknown transcriber of the Mithraic scholar Lactantius Placidus accidentally conjured into history a demon named Demogorgon. Writing in the margins of Placidus’s commentary on Statius’s Latin poem Thebaid, the transcriber turned his attention to a line concerning “the supreme being of the threefold world.” By way of gloss, the scholar noted that Statius had been referring to the “Demogorgon, the supreme god, whose name it is not permitted to know” (even while Placidus apparently knew it). Etymologically the provenance of the word is unknown. Aurally it reminds one of the daemons of ancient Greek philosophy, that indwelling presence that acts as a cross between consciousness and muse; a terrifying sounding being, with its portmanteau connotations of both “demon” and of the serpentine-locked “Gorgon.” Most uncanny of all is that no reference to the “Demogorgon” appears to exist before the Placidus’s marginalia.

As if he had been manifested from the very ether, the Demogorgon has replicated from that initial transcription through literary history. After that initial appearance, the Demogorgon appeared in Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th-century On the Genealogy of the Gods of the Gentiles, where the Italian author connected the entity to the demigod Pan while interpreting a line from Ovid’s Metamorphoses; by the Renaissance he’d be incantated in works such as Ludovico Aristo’s I Cinque Canti, Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, and Christopher Marlowe’s diabolical play Doctor Faustus. A few centuries later, and the sprite mentioned in Placidus’s gloss would be name-checked by Voltaire, and he’d be conjured in Percy Shelly’s Prometheus Unbound and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

By the 20th century, the Demogorgon would become a character in Gary Gygax’s role-playing phantasmagoria Dungeons & Dragons, and he now enjoys his ninth life as the bestial, reptilian antagonist of the first season of Netflix’s exercise in Gen-X nostalgia Stranger Things. Cultural footnote though the Demogorgon may be, that scribbling in the border of Thebaid endures. What Spenser described as something “Downe in the bottome of the deepe Abysse / Where Demogorgon in full darknesses pent, / Farre from the view of Gods and heauens blis, / The hideous Chaos keeps, their dreadful dwelling is.” More prosaic an explanation for the creature’s genesis—whoever had been copying Placidus’s commentary had misread the Greek accusative referencing the Platonic concept of the “demiurge.” All those deltas and gammas got confusing. There never had been a Demogorgon, at least not outside of that initial misreading. Even Placidus nods, it would seem (just like the rest of us). At least that’s how it’s often interpreted, but in the genre of marginalia, which is its own form of instantaneous commentary on a literary text, there is a creative act in its own right. Such commentary is the cowriting of a new text, between the reader and the read, as much an act of composition as the initial one. From this vantage point, the Demogorgon is less a mistake than a new being born in the space between intent and misinterpretation. A conjuring appears. So much depends on marginalia.   

In his 1667 epic Paradise Lost, John Milton replicates that transcendent transcription error when he invokes “the dreaded name / Of Demogorgon,” but the blind poet got the marginalia treatment himself in a used copy of his work that I read during my doctoral composition examinations. My copy of William Kerrigan, John Rumrich, and Stephen M. Fallon’s The Complete Poetry and Essential Prose of John Milton has a delightful addition made on its title page. Marginalia by way of doodle, where some bored and anonymous undergraduate, a Placidus in her own right, added a cartoon thought bubble to the 1629 portrait of the young poet posed soberly in his stiff, starched, ribbed collar as if an oyster emerging from a shell, leading the annotator to imagine the author thinking “I am a seahorse, or a snail.” Not my favorite marginalia as it is, that’s reserved for a copy of the Pelican Shakespeare edition of The Merchant of Venice heavily annotated by a reader who’d clearly no previous familiarity with the play. When Shylock gives his celebrated soliloquy, in which he intones, “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” the previous owner approvingly added in the margins “Bring your own BOOYEA!” Whoever got their first taste of The Merchant of Venice from the copy that I now possessed was rightly rooting for Shylock, so much so that when they got to the final act and discovered the moneylender’s heartbreaking forced conversion, they wrote in a corner of the creased and dog-eared page “Aww,” then choosing never to annotate this particular copy again.

Such marginalia greatly enlivened my reading of the play; in part because the weird enthusiasm of the previous owner was innately funny, but not without being equivalently moving. As all marginalia is, those little marks that people make in borderlands of a book, in the margins and on the title page, underlined text and notes scribbled wherever there is a blank space requiring commentary, exegesis, digression, or doodle. They exist as the material result of a reader having grappled with literature. Since the era of literary mechanical reproduction (i.e. print), there has been the risk of all books partaking in a dull uniformity with every other object that shares their particular title; marginalia returns the actual book to its glorious singularity, print is converted back into manuscript as my copy of The Merchant of Venice is individual from all the others in the Pelican Shakespeare series as a result. Marginalia in a used book is an autograph from the reader and not the author, and all the more precious for it. Such scribblings, notations, and glosses, whether commentary on the writing itself, or personal note, or inscrutable cipher known only to its creator, is artifact, evidence, and detritus, the remainder of what’s left over after a fiery mind has immolated the candle of the text. A book bloody with red ink is the result of a struggle between author and reader, it is the spent ash from the immolation of the text, it is evidence of the process – the record of a mind thinking. A pristine book is something yet to be read, but marginalia is the reading itself. Far from the molestation of the pristine object, the writing of marginalia is a form of reverence, a ritual, a sacred act. So rarely do you get the opportunity to write back to authors, whether out of love or hate. Marginalia lets you do it for even the dead ones.

Such reverence for marginalia was hard-won for me; I’m not the sort of reader who took naturally to jotting observations in the corner of a page. When I was growing up, I approached my books with a bibliomaniacal scrupulosity that was marked in its own neuroticism. To prevent the pages of paperbacks from curling around each other in the un-airconditioned summer humidity, I used to take a ruler and make sure that they were perfectly lined up on the edges facing the back of the bookshelf, so that their spines greeting those who might peruse their titles were strung along like crooked teeth. Books were to be gingerly opened, carefully placed, and certainly never allowed to have ink vandalize them. An observer might note that all of this obsessiveness doesn’t have much to do with actually reading; as S. Brent Plate writes in his own reflection on marginalia and the totemistic quality of books at The Los Angeles Review of Books, “this fetishization cannot be sustained.” Graduate school broke me of that affectation, the need to actually ingest the content of a book became more important than treating a copy of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish as if it were the goddamn Book of Kells (which incidentally has its own marginalia). Disciplining and punishing books is precisely what we did in wrestling with the ideas therein; no wonder so many violent metaphors are used in describing the process of reading, whereby we “crack spines” and drench pages in lurid corpuscular red ink.

When I first began writing book reviews several years ago, I still hadn’t quite shaken my previous idolatry of paper and binding. Writing my first published review of a book (it was Colin Dickey’s Afterlives of the Saints considered at The Revealer) and I concocted an elaborate system of color-coded Scotch-tape tabs and enumerated page numbers listed in a document so as to be able to reference portions of the text I might need to paraphrase or quote, all while avoiding anything as gauche as dog-earing or underlining. Untenable is what this system was. Now I struggle with at least the books I’m tasked with reviewing as if Jacob with his nocturnal angel, and the marked, torn, broken books that limp away testify to an event that in some way altered us both. At least evidence that there was an event that we can call reading. Out of interest I checked some of the most recent books that I had to read for my supposedly professional opinion (I don’t do this with novels from the library of course), and my marginalia is a record of my perseverations c.2019. In one I wrote underneath the printed words “seems anemic, feels as untrue as feeling that God can’t be cruel,” and in another I penned “AMERICAN TRAGEDY.” At the very least, the people who purchase the corpses of my volumes read after I’ve deposited them into the book donation bin will be able to psychoanalyze my hypergraphic observations.

Referencing exhibits at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Regenstein Library of the University of Chicago, Plate notes that today is a veritable golden age of the form, even as digital publication would ironically seem to announce its eclipse. The plucky dons of Oxford University even sponsor a Facebook group for the analysis of evocative specimens of the form spotted in the wild. The BBC reports one volume from the Bodleian Library in which a student wrote “I hate these clever Oxford people.” One reader recorded their graffito in the pages of the Labour Party’s response to the EEC with “Why the fuck is this all so boring…” An annotation in a scholarly journal reads “This article is a load of balls.” Much as with the literary Banksy who imagined my Milton dreaming of a beautiful aquatic invertebrate existence, these marginalia have little to do with simply annotating the book, and everything to do with engaging with the text as if they were an interlocutor (as angry as those engagements sometimes are).

What the exhibits, studies, and Oxford group signify is that marginalia has long come out from between the covers as it were. A demonstration of how literary theorists interested in material history—as well as critics concerned with that nebulous collection of attributes that invisibly radiate out from the book proper and which are known as “paratext” (including everything from covers and blurbs to prefaces and reviews—have been academically concerned with marginalia now for a generation. Writing in Early Modern English Marginalia, scholar Katherine Acheson notes that the form is a “record of our complex material, intellectual, emotional, and psychological interactions with the book, and therefore [they present]…a special kind of history of those marvelous things and their readers.” A history of marginalia, from the saucy medieval monks who used manicules to mock their own transcription errors, to the 17th-century mathematician Pierre de Fermat’s unfulfilled promise in a marginalia to have found a proof that no positive integer greater than two can satisfy the equation an + bn = cn (and which awaited three centuries until it was again proven), is as a history of the human mind itself.

Marginalia has gone digital, with projects like The Archeology of Reading in Early Modern Europe (administered jointly between Princeton, Johns Hopkins, and UC London), Annotated Books Online, and repositories of authors from Walt Whitman to Charles Darin and their marginalia available to the historian and the merely curious alike. Harvard’s Widener Library has an online collection allowing anyone to read the annotations of “John Keats, Herman Melville, [and] Hester Lynch Piozzi,” among others. And marginalia has finally earned its indefatigable scholarly champion in the form of H.J. Jackson and her exhaustive study Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books. Jackson surveyed a voluminous amount of material written and read across the century’s books consumed by both the famous and the average, so as to develop a taxonomy of the form. She writes that “Readers’ notes in books are a familiar but unexamined phenomenon. We do not understand it well. We have mixed feelings about it, sometimes quite strong ones, such as shame and disapproval.” Beyond simple note-taking, Jackson discovered that those who annotate their books do it for a variety of reasons, even while those reasons may be “private and idiosyncratic.” Readers address the author, they address an imagined audience, they address posterity and the absolute. They are written to express ecstatic agreement and vociferous disagreement, to interrogate the book as if it were under oath, and to merely express physically the existence of readers themselves in the most potent objects that embody writerly ambition. Jackson observes that “All annotators are readers, but not all readers are annotators. Annotators are readers who write. Annotation combines—synthesizes, I should say—the functions of reading and writing. This fact in itself heights the natural tension between author and reader.”

As enjoyable as anonymous marginalia can be, most of us seem more interested in the annotations of famous writers considering other famous writers, for the obvious reasons. Aspiring seahorse or snail John Milton’s heavily annotated version of Shakespeare’s first folio was recently discovered hiding in plain site at the Free Library of Philadelphia, an identification that may prove invaluable to scholars trying to understand the influence of one genius on another. Then there are Vladimir Nabokov’s drawings within Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, the committed Peabody Museum affiliated amateur entomologist trying to flesh out the segments and exoskeleton of poor Gregor Samsa. Being able to see a fertile brain in flux is one of the exquisite joys of marginalia in the hand of celebrated authors. Writing in his column entitled “Marginalia,” Edgar Allan Poe enthused that in “getting my books, I have been always solicitous of an ample margin…penciling suggested thoughts, agreements and differences of opinion, or brief critical comments in general.” A brilliant writer not alone in that pose. Consider that old curmudgeon Mark Twain’s notation in the margins of his copy of Darwin’s The Voyage of the HMS Beagles Around the World when he wrote “Can any plausible excuse be furnished for the crime of creating the human race?,” presumably whether ex nihilo or by primordial soup. The character of Jack Kerouac as both reader and writer is on display in an edition of his fellow New Englander Henry David Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, pilfered from a Lowell, Mass., library in 1949, a little under a decade until the writing of his most famous book. There Kerouac underlined an observation of Thoreau’s: “The traveler must be born again on the road.”

Ever is the case, for it’s not a coincidence that Thoreau’s language has such evangelical connotations to it. Reading does have something of the religious in it, and not just all of the transcendent hoopla either. With considerations of faith, prayer is not just a matter of the soul, but of the hands as well; reverence not only a subject for the mind, but of the body contorted into kneeling, too; ecstasy fit not only for the spirit, but also as an issue of the body. Such is the same for reading, for even in our supposedly transhumanist digital age there is still the question of how you comport yourself when scanning a page, whether leaning over a desk or sprawled across a couch; of how the book is gripped or carefully opened, of the pencil or pen poised over print. Marginalia can be such a form of material supplication, before the altar of the text’s base physicality. As a method, marginalia remind us that all annotation is allusive, that all literature is connected to everything else, that the reader influences the writer as surely as the other way around, and even if the later has been dead for centuries. Plate writes that margins are “sites of engagement and disagreement: between text and reader and…between author and reader. From Talmudic studies to legal amendments, margins have been the places where texts have been kept alive—alive because they’ve been read and responded to.” Books are otherwise inert things, whereas marginalia turns the moribund page into a seminar, an academy, a disputation, a debate, a temple.

Books are, certainly, often inert things. They can exist as a type of interior decoration, as status symbol, as idol. Think of the unreaderly sentiment parodied by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby, when Nick comes upon the library filled with classics bonded by their uncut pages. There a drunken admirer of Jay Gatsby, wearing “enormous owl-eyed spectacles,” informs Nick “It’s a bona-fide piece of printed matter. It fooled me…It’s a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop, too—didn’t cut the pages. But what do you want? What do you expect?” Certainly not to actually read the books, because they exist not to be interpreted, but admired. “Printed matter” as mere wallpaper. A memorable image of a certain type of crass materialism, of the idolization of the book at the expense of the actual writing, the whole thing drawn to its ultimate logical conclusion. Not only is Gatsby not underlining and marking up his margins, he’s not even going to bother cutting the pages to actually read what’s inside. By contrast, consider the marginalia made by the young poet Sylvia Plath while she was an undergraduate at Smith College first reading The Great Gatsby. Before she’d lived the bulk of her own tragic life—abuse at the hands of her husband, Ted Hughes, and her eventual suicide—Plath read of Daisy Buchanan.

When the narrator leaves Gatsby standing vigil outside of the Buchanan home, his youthful love retiring upstairs with her brutish, privileged, bigoted husband, Nick reflects that “I walked away and left him standing there in the moonlight—watching over nothing.” There in her neat, meticulous, tidy handwriting, Plath recorded nine words in black ink organized into eight lines marked with the caesura of a single hyphen: “knight waiting outside—dragon goes to bed with princess.” Such reading is as if a prayer for intercession, and the physicality of the whole thing is instrumental. Such a method of annotation gives the flesh spirit, reminding us that books are objects—but not entirely. Such is the gravitational power of literature, that every new work alters every other so that the canon as an abstract idea can never be defined, can never be static. Marginalia, as evidence of thought and engagement, is among the synapses of that process. Marginalia is the ash left over, the melted wax of the candle proving that a fire once burnt here.

Image credit: Andrew Measham

A Year in Reading: Ed Simon

My reading year was interrupted by the caesura of an interstate move, as we traded in lobster rolls for Maryland blue crabs, Legal Seafood for Ben’s Chili Bowl, Leonard Bernstein for Duke Ellington, and the shadow of Harvard University Memorial Hall for that of the Capitol dome. Don’t take the last sentence as an obnoxious humble-brag; I didn’t attend Harvard, though I often caught the T near there, as now I regularly commute underneath the Capitol South Metro Station, and that proximity to my “betters” is enough for me to fart a bit higher than my posterior. Now that I’m a proud denizen of the District, as us locals apparently call it, I’m not just a citizen who is constitutionally prohibited from voting for my own congresspeople, but also a resident of America’s unheralded literary capital.

Where else have Americans so often fervently oriented both their dreams and increasingly nightmares? What other hundred square miles (well, with a bite taken out of the bottom of it) has so clearly mapped onto the geography of national aspirations? Who doesn’t basically know the shape of the Mall, the look of the Lincoln Memorial, the feel of the White House? New York is the only other city I’ve lived in to give the same sense of spatial “fame-overload,” as perambulations take you by any number of structures so iconic in their import that you can’t help but develop a continual vertigo.

As with my retrospective last year, I’m going to limit my consideration of books read in 2019 to those I’ve taken out from my local library, whether near Cambridge or in Capitol Hill (also, support your local library). In the interests of dutiful fairness, I’m not mentioning any of the exceptional books that I already reviewed this year. I’m also making one alteration; previously I limited myself to focusing only on novels. This year, with the logic that our social reality is as disturbing and surrealistic as any fabulist gothic, I’ve decided to make an exception for one class of nonfiction by including books on politics. Chief among these was the gorgeous Beautiful Country Burn Again: Democracy, Rebellion, and Revolution by Ben Fountain. Justly celebrated for his brilliant novel Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk, which smashed American idols from militarism to sports-obsession with a deft empathy (not an attribute often associated with smashing), Beautiful Country Burn Again heralds Fountain’s return to journalism.

Since the 2016 election, certain elite publications have taken to reading the tea-leaves of American malaise, going on what some wags have terms “red-neck safaris” so as to better understand the sentiments of those of us who originally come from “flyover country.” Texas-born Fountain understands that the reality is often far more complicated, and he provides a distressing, heart-breaking, poignant month-by-month reading of the election that saw nascent authoritarianism sweep into Washington. “2016 was the year all the crazy parts of America ran amok over the rest,” Fountain writes, “Screens, memes, fake news, Twitter storms, Russian hackers, pussy grabbers, Hillary’s emails, war, the wall, the wolf call of the alt-right, ‘hand’ size, lies upon lies upon lies and moneymoneymoney—the more money, the more likes, is this politics’ iron rule?—they all combined for a billion-dollar stink of an election.”

Disorienting as well as disturbing to read the account of recent history which all of us lived. Fountain has somehow defamiliarized it, however, and the rhetoric of retrospective history strikes us in its sheer nightmarish surrealism. Turning to historical and economic analyses, but filtered through the consciousness of a poet, Fountain’s account isn’t that of other classic campaign works like Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, ’72 or Matt Taibbi’s Spanking the Donkey. Fountain isn’t embedded with any campaign; he doesn’t eat barbecue at Iowa state fairs or whoopie pies in New Hampshire. He’s an observer like the rest of us, and somehow Beautiful Country Burn Again is all the more powerful because of it.

William Carlos Williams wrote that “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” If I can stretch my amendment that allowed for political non-fiction to include poetry as an example therein, holding to the position that poetry may not be factual in the same way as journalism, but it is often more truthful, than the most powerful book on current events that I read this year was Terrance Hayes’s collection American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin.

Because Hayes, currently a professor at New York University and the poetry editor at The New York Times Magazine, was on the faculty of Carnegie Mellon when I got my Masters there, I sometimes like to pretend that I actually know him, though the extent of our discourse was me saying hello to him once on the winding, red-bricked stairwell of Baker Hall. Hayes had a mohawk then; the haircut has changed, but in the meantime, he’s gotten a National Book Critics Circle Award, the TS Elliot Prize, a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and a Macarthur Fellowship. No doubt he’ll one day soon (deservedly) get a position as the Library of Congress’ national Poet Laurette of the United States. When I pretended to know Hayes, he was simply a brilliant poet, but since then he’s announced himself as a potentially canonical one. American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin was in part Hayes’s reaction to the election of you-know-who, but more than that it’s his grappling as a black man with America’s legacy of violent institutional racism. Writing in a poetic form that goes back to Petrarch and defined by Wyatt, Surrey, Shakespeare, and Wordsworth, Hayes intones, “I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison, / Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame.” If it’s true that “Poetry is news that stays news,” as Ezra Pound once claimed, then American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin has distressingly been news for a long time, in 1619, in 1776, in 1860, in 1960, in 2019.

So upside down is our current moment that politics must of course be explored by that engine of empathy which literary critics long ago deigned to call the “Novel.” Some of these considerations are in the form of historical fiction, some through the vagaries of science fiction, but if poetry like Hayes’s is at one pole of human expression then surely the very opposite must be that of dry, government report. That’s the genre chosen by the political scientist Jeffrey Lewis, who moonlights as director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Lewis’s first “novel” is the surprisingly engaging and pants-shittingly terrifying The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States. Borrowing the form, feel, and language of actual governmental documents from the “Warren Commission,” the “9/11 Commission Report”, and the “Mueller Report,” Lewis imagines a series of miscalculations, blunders, strategic missteps, and plain political idiocy (in part due to you-know-who) that leads to a brief nuclear exchange that sees the destruction of Seoul, Tokyo, Yokohama, and the virtual obliteration of North Korea. Added to such horror are the detonation of nuclear warheads over Honolulu, Palm Beach (Mar-a-Lago is a target), Manhattan, and northern Virginia when a missile intended for Washington is a few miles off course. Lewis writes with eerie and prescient verisimilitude that “We present this final report and the recommendations that flow from it mindful that our nation is more divided than ever before, particularly over the question of responsibility for the chain of events that led to the first use of nuclear weapons in more than eight decades—and their first use against the United States of America.” Evoking other examples of “official document” fiction, from Robert Sobel’s textbook from a parallel universe For Want of a Nail: If Burgoyne Had Won at Saratoga and Max Brooks’s pastiche of Studs Terkel’s reporting World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, Lewis novel is among one of the most disturbing I read this year, in part because of its dispassionate, objective tone.

Speculative fiction was also the chosen genre for Leni Zumas’s startling, upsetting, and unnervingly realistic Red Clocks. Yet another representative example of a novel written as part of our ongoing golden age of feminist science fiction, Zumas joins Naomi Alderman, Louise Erdrich and (of course) Margaret Atwood in examining trends regarding reactionary gender relations, reproductive rights, and institutional misogyny by extrapolating out from our current moment to a possible (and believable) near-future. Red Clocks is science fiction for a post-Kavanaugh era, taking place sometime in the next decade or so after Roe v. Wade has been overturned, LGBTQ and single Americans have been denied the right to adopt, and creeping theocratic logic infects even the liberal environs of the Pacific Northwest where the novel is set. The novel is focalized through four major characters: a single high-school teacher and historian approaching middle-age who wants a child but is infertile and is running up against the government’s bans on IVF and adoption by the unmarried; her pregnant teenage student who wants to get an abortion; the wife of one of the teacher’s colleagues who finds herself in a stultifying marriage; and a local midwife with witchy affectations who runs afoul of the increasingly draconian state. One of the strengths of Red Clocks is how deftly it shows the lie that pro-choice politics are anti-pregnancy, and how what lies at the center of any defense of reproductive rights is the freedom to make the best decision for yourself. At the core of Red Clocks is the conviction that women must have their right to bodily autonomy be recognized, and that we don’t have to be living in Gilead to admit that things can get just a little bit worse every day.

If Zumas imagines a not-so-distant future to explore her political themes, then Joshua Furst takes us to the not-so-distant past in Revolutionaries. Evoking recent novels such as Nathan Hill’s The Nix, Furst’s second novel is arguably part of a trend of millennial writers attracted to the political radicalism of the ‘60s and ‘70s, while refusing to simply embrace the mythology of the Woodstock Generation as being the primogeniture of all that is just and free. Revolutionaries is narrated by Fred (ne “Freedom”) Snyder, the put-upon, manipulated, emotionally abused, and often ignored son of notorious countercultural radical Lenny Snyder.

“Call me Fred,” the narrator says, “I hate Freedom. That’s some crap Lenny dreamed up to keep people like you talking about him.” If Revolutionaries were in need of a subtitle, I’d suggest “OK Boomer.” Snyder is a not-so-thinly veiled version of Abbie Hoffman, founder of the Youth International Party (or Yippies), jailed member of the Chicago Seven, and arguably the anarchic spiritual ancestor of the Dirtbag Left. As with Hoffman, Snyder organizes trollish pranks against the establishment, such as raining dollar bills down on the New York Stock Exchange to demonstrate the petty greed of the brokers who scramble after literal change, or in his demonstration against the Pentagon in which a group of warlocks and witches attempts to levitate the massive structure. He’s idealistic, utopian, and committed to freedom, equality, and justice. Snyder is also occasionally cruel, narcissistic, self-indulgent, and unequivocally a terrible father. Revolutionaries neither condemns nor celebrates Snyder, taking him with all of his complexities while asking how any radical is able to be committed equally to both family and their movement.

Recent political history was also the theme of Jennifer duBois’s The Spectators, and as with Furst she excavates the previous decades to give intimations of what the genealogy of our current age might be. The Spectators isn’t interested in hippie hagiography and its discontents, however, preferring rather to toggle between the gritty, dystopian world of New York City in the ’70s when the Bronx was burning and Gerald Ford proverbially told the five boroughs that they could drop dead, and the belle epoque of the mid-’90s when Americans took their first hit of mass marketed infotainment. DuBois’s central, mysterious, almost Gatsby-esque character is Matthew Miller (born Mathias Milgrom), who in the 1993 present of the novel is the host of a day-time talk-show with shades of Jerry Springer. Before his current iteration of peddling shock television—all baby-daddy reveals and Satan-worshiping teens encouraged to brawl in front of a live studio audience—Miller was an idealistic city councilman in New York between the Stonewall uprising and the AIDS pandemic. His ex-lover Semi recollects that Miller “radiated a subtle electricity—something slight and untraceable that kinectified the air around him—and it was easy to mistake this, then, for the particular dynamism of compassion.” Like the actual Springer, Miller was an idealistic, progressive, crusading politician; unlike the actual Springer he was also a closeted gay man. The Spectators’ attention shifts between Semi in the ’70s and ’80s and his publicist Cel in the ’90s, their two stories converging in the novel’s present as Miller faces a reckoning after it has been revealed that a midwestern school shooter was a fan of his show. DuBois writes with a tremendous humanity, a novelistic consciousness whereby she almost magically occupies with equal aplomb both the experience of young gay men on the Lower East Side in the early ’70s and an anxious career woman who grew up dirt-poor in New England. Within The Spectators something else emerges, a portrait of a nation obsessed with violence, spectacle, and ratings, but where sometimes there may still be something noble, since “compassion took work, he always said, and anyone who told you otherwise wasn’t really trying to be good at it.”

Furst and duBois have written historical fiction of a kind, but they’re just two examples of what’s been a growing crescendo of excellent examples of that often-forlorn genre. Like all of the genres that are too often condescended to or ghettoized, historical fiction has been critically disparaged, passed over as the purview of petticoats and carriages. Yet the last few years have seen an explosion of the form, from Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill: A Novel of New York to Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. What these titles share is a sense of playfulness within the dungeon that is history, as well as a reverential imitation of the often-labyrinthine prose of the 18th and 19th centuries. Such historical fiction isn’t written as a palliative for the contemporary moment, but rather as an excavation of our fallen, modern age.

Edward Carey’s achingly melancholic Little takes as its subject Marie Grosholtz, an 18th-century Alsatian peasant girl adopted by an esteemed physician who mentors her in the art and science of making realistic wax sculptures of humans. Marie’s autobiography, exemplary and talented as she is, is still from the perspective of one of us commoners, even as she Zelig-like intersects with the great personages and events of her age. Brief appearances of Enlightenment luminaries punctuate Little (as do Carey’s own delightful line drawings), including cameos by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, Robespierre, Diderot, and Marat, Napoleon and Josephine (and the latter’s pug), and by the very end, as if to demonstrate the sheer scope of her life, a young writer named Charles Dickens. So begins her account that “In the same year that the five-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote his Minuet for Harpsichord, in the precise year when the British captured Pondicherry in India from the French, in the exact year in which the melody for ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ was first published, in that very year, which is to say 1761…was born a certain undersized baby.” By the conclusion of Little, Marie is known by her married name of Madame Tussaud, and while her children encourage her to embrace a new technology invented by Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre, she believes that nothing as ephemeral as photography can replace the warm fleshiness of molded wax.

Across the English Channel from France, and Imogen Hermes Gower describes a fantastic 18th-century world marked by exploration, trade, and mystery, but also by exploitation and cruelty, in her humane and beautiful The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock. Gower’s maximalist door-stopper of a book tells the tale of Jonah Hancock, comfortable merchant and member of London’s rising bourgeoise, who finds himself in possession of a “mermaid” brought back by one of his sailors from the sundry regions of the globe. Hancock’s London is no less enraptured by spectacle than Matthew Miller’s New York, and so the “mermaid” becomes the linchpin of various schemes, even while the bumbling, good-nature, and fundamentally conservative financier finds himself falling in love with Angelica Neal, a courtesan and adept student of the School of Venus, as if a character right out of Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders. London in The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock is described by Gower with almost supernatural precision, “The white-sailed ships strain upon it, and the watermen have gathered their bravado to steer their little crafts away from the bank and race across the current… the winking glass of the Southwark melon farms; the customs house, the tiered spire of St Bride’s the milling square of Seven Dials, and eventually… Soho.” A mermaid of sorts does eventually arrive in Jonah and Angelica’s life, but she is neither symbol nor synecdoche, metaphor or metonymy, but something else, with the whiff of ineffability about her.

Across the Atlantic Ocean from Great Britain, and Esi Edugyan imagines a different 18th-century world, though perhaps no less wondrous, even if similarly marked by exploitation and cruelty in her equally humane and beautiful Washington Black. Since her stunning debut Half-Blood Blues, which imagines the fate of a biracial jazz musician living through the Nazi regime and the Holocaust, the Canadian novelist has become one of the most lyrical interpreters of race, identity, and the troubled legacies of history. Washington Black arrives as one of the greatest fictional accounts of slavery’s too-oft ignored role in the establishment of the “New World,” recalling both Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canada and Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage, if choosing to hew away from those books’ parodic sentiments towards a more baroque, quasi-magical realism.

Edugyan’s titular George Washington Black is born enslaved on the Caribbean island of Barbados, witness to the unspeakable cruelties of a sugar plantation overseen by a British master. When Washington is indentured to the master’s brother, an aspiring scientist with an interest in hot-air balloon transportation, as well as being a secret abolitionist, it provides him with a means of acquiring his freedom, which propels the narrative of Edugyan’s ingenious picaresque. Washington, in a manner that made him more deserving of his name than the man whom his master had ironically christened him after, was “of an ancient faith rooted in the high river lands of Africa, and in that faith that the dead were reborn, whole, back in their homelands, to walk again free.” Washington Black, never content to obscure the evils which marked the emergence of the modern world, also revels in the wide-roaming nature of freedom itself. Edugyan takes her characters from Barbados to Virginia, the Maritime Provinces of Canada, west Africa, the Sahara, and even an aquarium which Washington constructs in London (perhaps Jonah’s mermaid could live there). Throughout Washington Black a tension is brilliantly held: ours is a fallen world which sometimes can still produce such wonders.    

Taking place during the same time period as Washington Black, but a few thousand miles north of sweltering Barbados, is Carys Davies’s minimalist novella West. Pennsylvania farmer Cy Bellman reads an account of giant fossilized bones discovered on the Kentucky frontier, and though the recent accounts of Lewis and Clarke returning from the west tell no tale of massive monsters roaming the American plains and mountains, the gentle widower assumes some remnant of the megafauna must still live beyond the horizon, and so compelled by an obsessive sense of wonder he journeys to find them.

“He paced about every half hour, he took the folded paper from his shirt pocket and smoothed it flat on top of the table and read it again: there no illustrations, but in his mind they resembled a ruined church, or a shipwreck of stone—the monstrous bones, the prodigious tusks, uncovered where they lay, sunk in the salty Kentucky mud,” Davies writes. Bellman’s heart is set on both his dead wife, and the dinosaurs he imagines foraging in a fantastic American west, but he leaves his daughter behind with a long-suffering sister, the young girl both pining for her father’s affections and struggling to survive her approaching adolescence in a young nation not amenable to any weakness. West alternates between the accounts of young Bess, and Cy and his teenage Indian guide as they fruitlessly search for the creatures. As a British author, Davies has an ear for American weirdness that can sometimes elude domestic novelists, and West functions as a parable of lost innocence in the era of bunkum, of medicine shows and tent revivals. Davies writes with the clarity of a fairy-tale, but West never reduces its visceral characters to the level of mere allegory.

Sharma Shields tells tale of a different loss of American innocence, not the terra incognita of Manifest Destiny and all that was projected onto an already occupied west, but what the United States did with that land and by proxy all of humanity well into the twentieth-century. Set in the same Pacific Northwest country as Red Clocks, Shields’s novel takes us to the most pertinent Year Zero in human history of 1945, when the United States first unleashed the power of matter, when atomic fission possibly set the world towards the inevitable tragedy of nuclear annihilation. The Cassandra is Shields’s retelling of the ancient Greek myth about a woman condemned to prophesize the future, but to never be believed by those in power.

In Shields’s novel, the role of the oracular Sibylline is played by Mildred Groves, a secretary at the Hanford Research Center on Washington’s Columbia River, an instrumental laboratory in the Manhattan Project. Mildred is preternaturally odd, prone to strange trances, visions, and fits, and with a heartbreaking ability to charitably misinterpret her family’s abuse in a benevolent light, as a means of preserving her fractured psyche. One of the most engaging narrators I encountered in my past year of reading, Mildred is simultaneously innocent and terrifying; Shields performs a deft alchemy that makes her protagonist seem both unreliable and omniscient. The Cassandra is at its heart a book about violence in all of its myriad forms—the violence of the natural world, the violence of emotional abuse, sexual violence, and the annihilating nuclear violence to end all violence. In prose that recalls Patmos, Shields intersperses the narratives with Mildred’s terrifying visions, of “dark forests, wild dogs, long-clawed hags, cottages with candy-coated exteriors belying menacing contents: cages, skeletal remains, a hot stove reeking of burnt flesh, cutting boards strewed with bloodied fingers.” With language that owes so much to the vocabulary of nightmare, The Cassandra is commensurate with the bottled violence of potential nuclear holocaust. What makes the novel all the more terrifying is when you realize that Mildred’s visions are of an event that has yet to happen.

Taylor Jenkins Reid’s titular protagonist in Daisy Jones & the Six is a radically different kind of oracle from Mildred Groves, but an oracle all the same. Reid’s novel is a brilliant and ridiculously entertaining account of a fictional rock band in the ’70s with shades of Fleetwood Mac, with the beautiful, troubled, brilliant Daisy Jones a stand-in for Stevie Nicks, who has “got an incredible voice that she doesn’t cultivate, never takes a lesson.” Written as if it were the transcripts of an MTV Behind the Music-style documentary, Reid’s characters include bandmates, roadies, producers, and family, switching off between perspectives and dramatizing the variability of memory, with effects both poignant and funny. All of the rock and roll stations of the cross are visited—the combustive bandmates, the groupies, the addictions, and the inevitable rehab—but the result is anything but cliched, rather reminding us why we don’t change the dial when something from Rumors comes on the classic rock dial.

The overall effect of Daisy Jones & the Six recalls classic rock journalism, such as Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me: An Uncensored Oral History of Punk, and Reid’s obvious encyclopedic knowledge of the singer-songwriter tradition of that decade, combined with her love of musicians like Fleetwood Mac, Carly Simon, Carol Kane and so on, creates the uncanny familiarity where you almost remember the music of Daisy Jones as if it were real. In a gambit that almost seems like bragging about her incredible talent, Reid includes as an appendix the lyrics to every song on Daisy Jones & the Six’s seminal album. “When you look in the mirror / Take stock of your soul / And when you hear my voice, remember / You ruined me whole.” Just like the white-winged dove you’d swear you heard that track before. To reduce Daisy Jones & the Six to being a mere roman a clef about Stevie Nicks would be an error, because what Reid provides is nothing less than history from an alternative universe, a collaborative, polyvocal, multitudinous rock epic—it’s an experimental masterpiece.  

Ottessa Moshfegh explores self-destruction as well, in My Year of Rest and Relaxation which reads a little as if Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground were written by a terminally depressed, beautiful, wealthy Gen-X orphan living in New York at the turn of the millennium. Moshfegh’s unnamed narrator lives in an Upper East Side penthouse, and ostensibly works as an assistant for a gallery owner downtown, but her days are spent endlessly watching the same discount VHS tapes over and over and moldering away in her hermetically sealed apartment. My Year of Rest and Relaxation’s protagonist reads like an Aubrey Plaza character scripted by Albert Camus, and part of the novel’s freshness and misanthropic joy comes from encountering a woman who embodies all of the existential ennui of those masculine characters of twentieth-century modernism.

Rather than a French Algerian smoking in a café or a Russian dissident wondering what the meaning of life is, Moshfegh’s narrator is a Columbia graduate with model good looks who is able to be as much of an antisocial anti-hero as Camus’s Meursault in The Stranger. “I watched movies and ate animal crackers and took trazodone and Ambien and Nembutal until I fell asleep again. I lost track of time in this way. Days passed. Weeks.” Her narrator suffers from an almost terminal case of sleep irregularity, between insomnia and somnolence, culminating in a performance art piece that in the hands of a lesser author could read as parody, but in Moshfegh’s novel becomes a metaphysical exploration. My Year of Rest and Relaxation, by giving us a woman who can behave as badly as a man, has its own type of transgressive power. But to reduce it to a Ghostbusters reboot of a J.G. Ballard novel is to miss that My Year of Rest and Relaxation, not in spite of but because of the jaded affect, is a potent novel about depression and grief.

Cofounder of the site N+1 and brother to the LGBTQ activist, political commentator, and Russian dissident Masha Gessen, Keith Gessen’s A Terrible Country explores the chimerical Russia of the last decade. The novel is categorizable among the same tradition that led to fiction by first-generation Russian immigrants to the United States who arrived right before the fall of the Berlin Wall, such as in Gary Shteyngart’s The Russian Debutants Handbook or Ellen Litman’s The Last Chicken in America. Gessen’s novel is similar to those precursors in that the nation actually under scrutiny in the title is arguably the United States. A Terrible Country focuses on New York comparative literature graduate student Andrei Kaplan, who has absconded to the Moscow of his youth as dissertation funding begins to dry up, ostensibly to assist his shady oligarch-adjacent brother Dima in the care of their grandmother with dementia.

“My parents and my brother and I left the Soviet Union in 1981,” Andrei says, “I was six and Dima was sixteen, and that made all the difference. I became an American, whereas Dima remained essentially Russian.” The differences between those two cultures, as with Shteyngart and Litman’s writing, is the tension of A Terrible Country; the novel reading as a sort of fictional companion piece to journalist Peter Pomerantsev’s chilling Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia. Set during the 2008 financial collapse, Gessen’s novel traces the gloaming period between the dawn of the Soviet Union’s collapse and the current midnight of Vladimir Putin. In A Terrible Country Putin’s regime is not yet exactly a “regime,” the authoritarian tendencies of the former KGB officer still tangibly “Western” if you’re drunk and squinting, but one of the things Gessen does so well is dramatize the myopia of the individual before history. “I pictured myself protesting the Putin regime in the morning, playing hockey in the afternoon, and keeping my grandmother company in the evening,” Andrei says, though of course the reality of history is that it rarely keeps to our neat schedules.

No novel from the past few years quite so clearly provides a map of the terrain of national divisions, and what it means to simply try and lives life for yourself and your family in light of those divisions, as much as Lydia Kiesling’s first novel The Golden State. Former editor for The Millions, Kiesling’s novel is an engaging, empathetic, and honest exploration of the stresses of motherhood, professional life, family, and regional identity. Much to the benefit of this beautiful novel, The Golden State relegates current events to the role that they actually play in our lives, as a distant vibrational hum, even when those events can and do have profound personal effects on us. New mother Daphne is a low-level administrator for an Islamic studies program at a school that appears very much like UC-Berkeley, while her Turkish husband has been denied reentry into the United States after harassment by the Department of Homeland Security. While her husband attempts to disentangle his visa situation (while Daphne wonders how hard he is really trying), she absconds with her daughter Honey from San Francisco to her grandparent’s former home of Altavista located deep within the dusty, brown interior of the state. The Golden State explores a California not often revealed to outsiders; it’s not the brie and merlot set of the Bay area, nor the quinoa and avocado bowl folks of L.A., but a different place entirely, accessed through “nearly four hundred miles of road, leading up to the high desert.”

Altavista bears more similarity to Idaho or Nevada than Palo Alto or Malibu, a place beyond the “top of Donner Pass and some kind of geological divide, [where] suddenly the forest are gone and the land is brown and stretching out for miles and miles.” Daphne’s interactions with the locals, specifically a woman named Cindy who is a leader in a quixotic secession movement not dissimilar to right-wing survivalist militias, provides a perspective on national splits more potent than the typical “bubble” discourse favored by the aforementioned major newspapers. The Golden State is the most accurate portrayal of the red-state/blue-state dichotomy published since the election of you-know-who, and all without mentioning you-know-who. Kiesling’s portrayal of that split never pretends it isn’t real, there is no rapprochement or understanding with Cindy, but there is an awareness that none of us are as sheltered as the New York Times editorial page pretends. A denizen of San Francisco can be totally aware of what lay off 400 miles down the road. What’s even more crucial in Kiesling’s novel is the wisdom that politics is always personal, that more than what appears on 24-hour news it’s expressed in the fear of a wife waiting for her husband’s safe-return, or in a mother’s tender love for her daughter.

For reasons not even totally clear to myself, I’d always thought that successful, local restaurants providing accessible food to a large number of people could be material for a great American tragedy. When I lived in small-town eastern Pennsylvania, there was a regional chain of restaurants, only three or four of them, owned by these Greek brothers. The food was basically Applebee’s redux, but I was obsessed with the chain, not least of which because I thought there must be so much drama between the siblings; who got to manage which restaurants, vying for the affection of their immigrant parents, even arguing over the composition of the slick, laminated menus—for so much depends on the jalapeño poppers. Lillian Li basically wrote that novel for me, transposed from the Lehigh Valley to suburban Washington, D.C., with a sports bar replaced with a once high-end Chinese restaurant undergoing increasingly hard times.

Complicated family arrangements are at the heart of Li’s engrossing Number One Chinese Restaurant, a novel which peels back the jade-green curtain at the institution which is the mid-century Chinese-American eatery to provide an epic narrated by a chorus. Manager Jimmy Han, prodigal son of the Beijing Duck House, hopes to close the restaurant down in favor of opening an elegant, hipper location on the Potomac waterfront, but he’s set between the machinations of his perfectionist, professional brother Johnny, his calculating mother, and the underworld figure “Uncle” Pang whose investments had saved the restaurant since its founding. Johnny’s restaurant, to his disdain, is a place of “gaudy, overstuffed décor,” defined by a “deep, matte red colored everything, from the upholstered chairs to the floral carpet to the Chinese knots hanging off the lantern lightning, their tassels low enough to graze the heads of taller customers.” Rockville, Maryland’s Beijing Duck House is the sort of restaurant omnipresent at one time, the affordable, quasi-sophisticated repository of Yankified Mandarin cuisine, all chop suey, and egg foo young, moo goo gai pan, and of course the crispy, greasy, delicious duck which gives the establishment its name. Li interrogates questions of ethnic identity and food, class and food, and family drama and food.  What elevates Number One Chinese Restaurant to greatness is that Li never forgets the humanity of these characters, from the long-repressed love of the elderly kitchen staff to Johnny’s vices and hubris.

Patrick deWitt knows that family is complicated in French Exit: A Tragedy of Manners, which bears less similarity to Number One Chinese Restaurant than it does a novelization of Charles Addams’s The New Yorker cartoons, or as if a Wes Anderson movie produced by Tim Burton. Author of the under-heralded (though filmed!) post-modern western The Sisters Brothers, deWitt is a master minimalist for whom every comma is cutting, every semicolon a scythe. French Exit initially takes place in a seemingly timeless Upper East Side, all jackets with crests and loafers, inhabited by the wealthy widow Frances Price, a “moneyed, striking woman of sixty-five years, easing her hands into black calfskin gloves on the steps of a brownstone” and her adult son Malcolm, “looking his usual broody and unkempt self,” who become Parisian expats after their wealth evaporates. Joining the Prices is Frances’s cat Small Frank, whom she (correctly) maintains is the reincarnation of her despised husband. Frances would seem to be a role made for Jessica Walter, even as Wikipedia dutifully informs me that Michelle Pfeiffer has been cast in the adaptation being developed by deWitt himself. French Exit is a delicious mint-flavored green-pastel macaron of a novel, with just a hint of sweet arsenic.   

A benefit to being a nonfiction essayist reading and reviewing novels is that there is a degree or personal distance that you can affect to avoid pangs of professional jealousy which sometimes accompany reading great writing, and which any honest scribbler would have to cop to. When I read something as tender as The Golden State, as astute as A Terrible Country, as innovative as My Year of Rest and Relaxation, or as wondrous as Washington Black, I can console my envious conscience with the mantra that “Well, I’m not a novelist.” With K. Chess’s mind-blowing, psychedelic Famous Men Who Never Lived I can’t quite do that, because her narrative conceit is so brilliant, it’s so good, that I can’t help feeling jealousy at having not conceived of the story first.

Famous Men Who Never Lived gives account of Hel and Vikram, two refugees from a parallel universe who alongside thousands of others are in exile in our own reality (or at least a version which seems nearly similar) after their world was destroyed, living in a New York City that diverged in the earliest years of the twentieth-century. These refugees between universes remembered their “world history… the rumors about forced labor at America Unida’s hidden education camps, about what the Power Brothers in Ceylon had done in the jungles to city-dwelling elites. And she’d remembered the KomSos clearing the shtetls of the Pale from east to west.” As with those dislocated by history in her world, Hel and Vikram are dislocated from the very idea of history itself, where you must “Leave what you own behind.” The result is a novel with not just a clever science fiction conceit, but also one which is a moving meditation on loss and dislocation. Hel comes to believe that the point of divergence involved Ezra Sleight, who died in childhood in our universe but grew to be a popular science fiction author in her and Vikram’s reality, with the later an expert on his The Pyronauts. Chess’s ingenious nesting stories recall Emily St. John Mandel’s similar speculative fiction masterpiece Station Eleven, with Famous Men Who Never Lived giving voice to the dislocations of exile, whether in our world or between our worlds. What Chess accomplishes is nothing less than a demonstration of how literature creates new universes, while expressing that which is consistent for humans regardless of which reality we may be living in.  

Ten Ways to Live Forever

1.Before ISIS toppled the minaret of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Anbar Province, or threaded the Mosul tombs of Daniel and Jonah with incendiary, Utnapishtim was somewhere in the desert. He was there before the Americans with their hubristic occupation, in some cave while soldiers in Kevlar patrolled the banks of the Tigris, M1 tanks of the Third Infantry rolling toward Baghdad and F-22s of the 101st Airborne cutting across the skies of Karbala. Utnapishtim survived Saddam’s reign, with his mustard gas, torture chambers, and the invasion of Kuwait; he’d seen men burnt alive on Highway 80 by the Americans; he’d endured the brutal war with Iran, when tanks got stuck in the mud of Dezful and Khorramshahr was turned into a city of blood; he was there when the Ba’athists overthrew the Hashemite monarchy.

Utnapishtim lived through the British Mandate of Mesopotamia, when Sir Percy Cox drank G&T’s at the officer’s club; he’d lived when Iraq was a backwater of the Ottomans, and he saw Mamluks, Jalayirids, and Mongols steer their horses across the desert; he witnessed Genghis Khan in Khwarizmi, more centaur than man. He snuck unseen into the Baghdad of the Abbasids, city of gardens and astrolabes, where he discussed Hadith with the humane Mu’tazila and parsed Aristotle with Ibn Sina. Prior to the Islamic Golden Age, Utnapishtim was in Ctesiphon when Yazdegerd III fled as the Arabs marched into the Sasanian Empire, the Zoroastrian mages unable to prevent the course of history (true of all of us). He was there when Trajan marched columns of iron-armored Roman centurions into Parthia, and when Alexander the Great established Seleucid.

Witness to when Cyrus the Great freed the Jews of Babylon, and when Hammurabi’s scribes chiseled the law into stone. Utnapishtim had endured Chaldeans, Babylonians, Assyrians, Akkadians. Our primogeniture, the oldest of men, born in Sumer; as old as cuneiform pressed into wet clay, as old as sunbaked cities and the farming of wheat on the Euphrates’s banks, as old as the words themselves. Enki of the stars and An of the sky, Enlil of the wind and Ninhursag of the mountains molded Sumer, and by the banks of Eden birthed humans like Utnapishtim. Our only refugee of that before-time, the only person to survive when the fickle gods conspired to destroy the world by flood shortly after having created it.

He dwelled when Iraq was Uruk, before civilization’s keystone was set, when the firmament was new. Utnapishtim survived leaders and conquerors, presidents and dictators. Breathing before Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Muqtada al-Sadr, George W. Bush, Saddam Hussein, and the Ayatollah Khomeini; talking before King George V and Kaiser Wilhelm II; walking before Mehmed II, the Abbasid caliphs, and Genghis Khan; older than the Prophet Muhammad; older even than Yazdegerd III, Alexander the Great, Cyrus the Great, Darius II, Sargon of Akkad, and Ashurbanipal. He witnessed the inundation of ziggurats, the collapse of towers, the immolation of temples. For the thousands of reigns he lived through, the kings innumerable and emperors forgotten, only one had ever sought his counsel. Despite being two-thirds divine, a king who would ultimately die like the rest of us; a fearsome ruler named Gilgamesh.

2.The tale of a righteous man visited by a god who warned him of rising waters—who in response builds an ark, venturing forth when a dove that he’s released confirms that dry land has reemerged—may strike you as a story that you’ve heard before. Norman Cohn parses the purpose of these stories, writing in Noah’s Flood: The Genesis Story in Western Thought that “large areas of what used to be Mesopotamia…were frequently devastated by flood. When torrential rain combined with the melting of the snows… the Tigris and Euphrates could burst their banks.” Cohn explains that in “ancient times this phenomenon gave rise to a powerful tradition: it was believed that here had once been a flood so overwhelming that nothing was ever the same again.” But if Genesis focuses on sin and punishment, the anonymously written Epic of Gilgamesh has no moral, save for a brief on why we must die at all (or at least why most of us must).  

Unlike Noah, who even with the antediluvian extremes of 950 years did ultimately die, Utnapishtim was gifted (or cursed) by the gods with immortality. Some other differences with the Bible’s account, for Genesis records nothing of having to fight scorpion-monsters to reach Utnapishtim. Gilgamesh was stricken over the death of his best (and arguably only) friend, Enkidu, the wild man domesticated by the priestess Shamhat with sex and beer (as so many people are). For the ruler of Uruk, Utnapishtim promised something that can’t be purchased in gold, the possibility of Enkidu’s resurrection and Gilgamesh’s immortality. In Stephen Mitchell’s reimagining Gilgamesh: A New English Version, Utnapishtim queries the ruler: “who will assemble/the gods for your sake? Who will convince them/to grant you the eternal life that you seek?”

Utnapishtim tasks Gilgamesh, the man who defeated the mighty ogre Humbaba, that immortality is his if he simply stays awake indefinitely. Despite quasi-divinity, powers temporal and physical, authority and prestige, Gilgamesh can’t defeat slumber. Utnapishtim mocks the king, “Look at this fellow! He wanted to live / forever, but the very moment he sat down, / sleep swirled over him, like a fog.” All of human weakness and desires—our need to eat, our need to shit and piss, our need to fuck—signal that our lot is not that of Utnapishtim or of the gods who created him. Even if you can defeat Humbaba, the Epic of Gilgamesh reminds us, sooner or later you’ll nod off.

Finally, Gilgamesh is informed that the only means of living forever is to acquire a magic plant growing at the bottom of all rivers’ sources, which the ruler promptly finds, only to have the wily serpent (at the start of an auspicious career) snatch the fruit away from him. Enkidu’s death has left the king raw and lonely, but Utnapishtim’s example is illusory and dangerous, for it “postpones Gilgamesh’s necessary acceptance until a time when he is more ready for it,” as Mitchell writes. Gilgamesh realizes that immortality is not literal; one does not live forever at the world’s eastern edge, but rather in deeds, memories, and in words. We’re told by less mature voices to rage against the dying of the light, but the earliest story has Gilgamesh confront immortality’s mirage, understanding how “now that I stand / Before you, now that I see who you are, / I can’t fight.”

Ironically, Utnapishtim’s story was forgotten for millennia (if filtered through other myths). “Though it is one of the earliest explorations of these perennial themes,” writes David Damrosch in The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh, “this haunting poem isn’t a timeless classic.” Hidden just as surely as Utnapishtim in his orchard, the influence of The Epic of Gilgamesh is subliminal in our cultural memory. Preserved on a few broken kiln-burnt tablets strewn about the floor of the Akkadian king Ashurbanipal’s library, The Epic of Gilgamesh wasn’t rediscovered until the 19th century by British archeologists. Of that, Utnapishtim’s discourse on eternity occupied only a few lines on the 11th tablet.

Literary historian Michael Schmidt in Gilgamesh: The Life of a Poem describes the epic as constituting “the first road novel, the first trip to hell, the first Deluge.” So much has come after what that nameless scribe wrote; it predates Homer and Virgil, Dante and John Milton, William Shakespeare and Jane Austen, Anne Bradstreet and Emily Dickinson. Even though ignorant of Gilgamesh, they worked and aspired to the same timelessness, for as Schmidt writes, it “prefigures almost every literary tone and trope and suggests all genres, from dramatic to epic, from lament to lyrics and chronicle, that have followed it.”

The Epic of Gilgamesh reminds us that there have been many floods, many apocalypses, many deaths, and virtually nobody has ever come out the other side alive. To live forever may be a myth, yet for our lack of eternity, even after all these millennia, we are still “Wandering, always eastward, in search / of Utnapishtim, whom the gods made immortal.” 

3.Sex evolved before death. Arguably the former was a prerequisite for the latter. Sexual reproduction, genetic material exchange resulting in a new individual, was first practiced among simple prokaryotes—unicellular organisms lacking membrane and nuclei—about two billion years ago. Birds do it, bees do it, educated fleas do it, and apparently even prokaryotes do it. Such hobbies introduce beneficial genetic variations that the date-night loneliness of asexual reproduction simply doesn’t allow for. When celibate organisms reproduce through mitosis, they’re cloning themselves—the individual is the species. If you squish an asexual prokaryote, there are millions more just like it—death is meaningless; it is fundamentally immortal. But once sex exists, the loss of any one thing can be considered the irretrievable death of something completely unique, no matter how simple it may be. As the old joke at my alma matter has it, “Sex kills. If you want to live forever, go to Carnegie Mellon.”

Immunologist William R. Clark explains in Sex and the Origins of Death that “Obligatory death as a result of senescence—natural aging—may not have come into existence for more than a billion years after life…programmed death seems to have arisen at about the same time that cells began experimenting [with] sex…It may be the ultimate loss of innocence.” From the first orgasm came the first death gasp—at least proverbially. Human culture has subsequently been one long reaction to that reality, debating whether it was a fall or a Felix culpa.

That sex precedes death isn’t just a biological fact, but it has the gloss of theological truth about it as well. Such is the chronology as implied by Genesis; though there was debate as to if Adam and Eve did have sex in Eden, there seemed little doubt that they could have (though St. Augustin said it could only be facilitated through pure rationality, and not fallen passion). That all changes once Utnapishtim’s wily serpent makes a reappearance, and God tells Eve that He will “greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children.” Only three verses later, and God tells Adam that “dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” Sent beyond Eden’s walls to live out their finite days in the desert, their only consolations are sex and death.

Eros and Thanatos endures in the human psyche. Since the 16th century, the French have referred to orgasm as la petite mort, the “little death.” When that phrase first appeared, Europe was in the midst of syphilitic panic. A disease of replacement: silver noses pressed into the viscus putty of a rancid face, and of the tics and mutterings of those who’ve gone insane. Anthropologist Jared Diamond writes in Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies that when syphilis “was first definitely recorded…in 1495, its pustules often covered the body from the head to the knees, caused flesh to fall from people’s faces, and led to death within a few months.” If scolds were looking for the connection between sex and death, syphilis was a ready-made villain. Always a moralizing faith, Christianity was made a bit more so with the arrival of syphilis; in 15th-century Florence the fanatical Dominican Girolamo Savonarola taught that it was God’s punishment for decadent humanism; a generation later and the Protestant Martin Luther would concur with his Catholic forebear.

In Naples they called it the “French disease,” and in Paris it was an Italian one, but epidemiologists have configured it as American, noting its arrival shortly after Christopher Columbus’s return from the Caribbean. Syphilis was an export alongside potatoes and tomatoes; an unwitting revenge for the smallpox introduced into the Western Hemisphere. If modernity signals its own fall, than syphilis was perhaps an indiscriminate punishment, for as historian Roy Porter writes in The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity, syphilis “should be regarded as typical of the new plagues of an age of conquest and turbulence, one spread by international warfare, rising population density…[and] the migrations of soldiers and traders.” Sacrificed immortality was the price that living creatures paid for the possibility of connection, for if eternity was once a biological process, then its opposite was as well.

4.Ponce de Leon looked for immortality in Florida, it’s true. Somewhere near where tourists stroll eroding Miami Beach, soccer moms pick their children up from Broward County strip malls, or hearty adventurers visit Pensacola gator-parks, the conquistador had obsessively searched for the Fountain of Youth. According to (apocryphal) legend, de Leon was fixated on stories told by Native Americans of a mythic source water whose curative properties would restore men to youth—indefinitely. Immortality by water fountain if you will. “Ponce de Leon went down in history as a wishful graybeard seeking eternal youth, like so many Floridians today,” quips Tony Horowitz in A Voyage Long and Strange: On the Trail of Vikings, Conquistadors, Lost Colonists, and Other Adventures in Early America.

Arawak and Taino spoke of a spring named “Bimini,” located everywhere from the Bahamas to the Yucatan. De Leon looked for it in the future Sunshine State, though you’ll note that he did not find it. If you’ve ever visited the Old Town of San Juan, Puerto Rico with its charming, crooked stone streets that meander by colonial buildings painted in pinks and blues, you’ll find that far from achieving immortality, de Leon is buried inside of the white-walled Cathedral of San Juan Bautista. In 1521, somewhere between Florida’s hidden Fountain of Youth and immortality, de Leon found himself in the way of a manchineel poisoned arrow wielded by a Calusa warrior.  

When de Leon envisioned a bubbling creek that could restore him to lost youth (probably better to have just enjoyed the original more), by what mechanism did he see such a thing as working? Chemical or alchemical, natural or supernatural? Horowitz writes that a “Spanish historian later claimed that Ponce de Leon [searched]…as a cure for his impotence,” which gives us an emotional register for the conquistador’s obsession, if not the pharmaceutical specifics. Since no such fountain actually exists, the question of whether it’s magic or science is easier to answer—it’s neither. Or, perhaps, better to think of it as a magical belief about science; the idea that the fountain’s waters have mineralogical or medical properties is fundamentally just a mask for our supernatural inclinations, the fountain not so different from Gilgamesh’s restorative plant.

As early as the fifth century before the Common Era, and Herodotus would declaim in The Histories that the mythic Macrobians living on the Horn of Africa could live as long as 120 years with the assistance of a particularly pure spring. He writes of a “fountain, wherein when they had washed, they found their flesh all glossy and sleek, as if they had bathed in oil—and a scent came from the spring like that of violets…their constant use of the water from it [is] what makes them so long-lived” (gerontologists agree that 120 years seems to be the upper-limit natural expiration date for humans, if free of disease and accident).

Alexander the Great and the imaginary Christian king Prester John, whose realm was supposedly somewhere deep in either pagan Asia or Africa, are associated with the myth. The 14th-century faux-exploration narrative The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, a post-modern picaresque or autofiction written before postmodernism and autofiction were things, claims that a similar spring exists in India, “a beautiful well, whose water has a sweet taste and smell, as if of different kinds of spices.” Some of the author’s accounts of Egypt and China conform to what we know about those places during the Middle Ages, and yet Mandeville’s claims about whole tribes that have Cynocephaly (they’re dog-headed) or of groups of Epiphagi (people with heads in their chests) strain credulity. How are we to trust such a source about the Fountain of Youth?

What these examples should demonstrate is that de Leon had a ready-made script. Not a dissimilar process to how Spanish colonists saw the ancient Greek legend of the Amazons in South America, or the Portuguese fable of the Seven Cities of Cibola in the red-baked American southwest. Theirs was never a process of discovery, but of the endless use and reuse of their own dusty legends. Who knows what Bimini really was? The conquistadors had their imaginings from Herodotus and Mandeville, and they were going to impose such a concept onto America. Immortality, regardless of whether it’s to be found in India, the Horn of Africa, or south Florida, is an obsession. Yet what the obsessive obsesses over tells us more about the obsessed than the obsessee.

5.Virginia Woolf didn’t wish to acquire immortality, far from it. A disservice to Woolf, not to mention the millions of those who suffer from depression, to reduce her 1941 suicide to allegory or symbol. When weighted down with rocks she walked into the Ouse near her East Sussex home, Woolf was not providing us with gloss on life and death. “I am doing what seems the best thing to do,” Woolf writes in the note left for her husband, “I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came.” That, in its straightforwardness, says the most important thing about Wolfe’s suicide—that it was the result of her disease. Depression is not allegory, it is a disease, and oftentimes it kills people. Woolf did, however, supply her thoughts on immortality some 13 years earlier, in one of the greatest meditations ever supplied on the subject, her novel Orlando: A Biography.

Woolf depicts an English courtier born during the reign of the Tudors, who, despite the limitations of having a finite body, is somehow able to will himself (and then herself) into immortality. Orlando may be a subject of Queen Elizabeth I, but by the end of the novel she’s able to fly over her manor house in an airplane. In the interim, the character experiences the Frost Faire of 1608 (when the Thames froze over and merchants plied candied apples and roasted walnuts on its surface), an affair with a beautiful Russian noblewoman, placement in an English embassy in Constantinople, adoption by a group of Roma, and marriage to an eccentric gender nonconforming sea captain with the unimaginably great name of Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine. And then around the age of 30, Orlando transforms from being a man into a woman as she slept one night.

No magic plants or springs, rather a sense that Orlando’s personality is so overabundant that it can’t be constrained through either sexuality or time. “Orlando had become a woman,” Woolf writes simply, “there’s no denying it.” A masterpiece of both temporal and gender ambiguity, in Orlando the author doesn’t desire immortality for herself, but she imagines it for her character, what her biographer Hermione Lee describes in Virginia Woolf as its quality of being a “masterpiece of playful subterfuge.” Unlike Gilgamesh with his overweening bloodlust, or de Leon with his immature obsession, Woolf envisions immortality as a radical, subversive, creative state; as Hill puts it, a “magnificent, surrealist erection.” For Woolf, immortality is better understood as an aesthetic act, living one’s life so fully, with such pure, unmitigated, wondrous agency that the contours of normal years and decades simply must expand to fit our enormity. With relativistic insight Woolf observes that “An hour, once it lodges in the queer element of the human spirit, may be stretched to fifty or a hundred times its clock length; on the other hand, an hour may be accurately represented on the timepiece of the mind by one second,” a phenomenon that she cheekily claims “is less known than it should be and deserves fuller investigation.”

Orlando’s great negative capability is that Woolf describes depression without the novel losing sight of a certain wondrous enchantment. She writes that “At the age of thirty…this young nobleman had not only had every experience that life has to offer, but had seen the worthlessness of them all. Love and ambition, women and poets were all equally vain.” Such emptiness and disinterestedness—the sheer fact of being so tired—is the medium of depression. But the narrative itself is what demonstrates the illusoriness of such emotions, even if in the moment they feel to us to be inviolate. Orlando thinks that they have experienced everything, but have they been to Constantinople? Have they flown over Sussex in a plane? Not yet—and therein lay the rub. Life has a charged abundance, even if brain chemistry and circumstance sometimes deny us that.

Orlando was a roman à clef upon the great love of Woolf’s life—Vita Sackville-West. The character shares Sackville-West’s androgynous beauty, her poetic brilliance, and her aristocratic forbearance. Most of all, Orlando and Sackville-West are united in having lived their lives with such jouissance, with such unbridled life, that death itself seems to indefinitely pause to take them. An existence where we can observe in the Thames “frozen to a depth of some twenty fathoms, a wrecked wherry boat… lying on the bed of the river where it had sunk last autumn, overladen with apples,” the frozen corpse of the saleswoman visible in her blue-lipped magnificence at the bottom. What a strange, terrible, and beautiful thing this life is, that if we were to fully inhabit every single blessed second of it, we’d be as eternal as it were ever possible to be, within the very universe of a moment. How fortunate we are.  

6.On the road from Santiago de Compostela in 1378, the French alchemist Nicholas Flamel and his wife Perenelle met eternity. According to almost certainly fabricated accounts written in the 17th century, the wealthy Parisian bookseller’s study of magic helped him to (among other things) derive the philosopher’s stone, and thus generate the so-called “Elixir of Life,” which granted him immortality. Flamel had journeyed to Spain, that liminal place between east and west, Europe and Africa, Christian, Jewish, and Islamic, under the assumption that some mage could interpret a manuscript he purchased in Paris. Flamel wasn’t so fortunate in finding assistance while actually in Spain, but on the road home a Jewish converso recognized the occult text for what it was—an original copy of the powerful grimoire The Book of Abramelin.

As with all such guides, The Book of Abramelin makes big promises. Within there are “the actual rules to acquire this Divine and Sacred Magic…therein find certain examples and other matters which be none the less useful and profitable unto thee.” It parsed the intricacies of summoning your guardian angel, how to bind demons, and how to walk underwater (which as impressive as it is, doesn’t really match the first two). There are a lot of magic squares scattered throughout. And, of course, there is the recipe for the philosopher’s stone. As with the stories about Flamel himself, The Book of Abramelin seems to be another 17th-century invention. The author is supposedly the German Kabbalist Abraham of Worms, who traveled to Egypt to confer with the reputed mystical master Abramelin himself. “And having written this with mine own hand,” writes the author (since we’re unsure of whose hand penned that line), “I have placed it within this casket, and locked it up, as a most precious treasure; in order that when thou hast arrived at a proper age thou mayest be able to admire, to consider, and to enjoy the marvels.”

No version of the text has been found that predates 1608, and the earliest copies are in German rather than Hebrew; all of which seems to indicate that just as with Flamel, the reputation of The Book of Abramelin is a fantasy borrowing authority from medieval exoticism. A fashionable Hebraism developed during the Italian Renaissance, and quickly spread throughout Europe, so that references to the Kabbalah could impart a degree of authenticity for Christian occultists. Gershom Scholem writes in Alchemy and Kabbalah that the “name of this arcane discipline became a popular catchword in Renaissance and Baroque theosophical and occult circles, having been declared and revered as the guardian of the oldest and highest mystical wisdom of mankind by its fist Christian mediators.” All the greatest stories about Kabbalah may be set in the Middle Ages, but for the Christian occultists who appropriated it, the subject was very much a Renaissance affair.

For alchemists and occultists like Paracelsus, Johann Reuchlin, or John Dee, Flamel was an instructive example. Knowledge was supposed to be the road to eternity, as surely as a Parisian scribe could return from Compostela, and perhaps the bookseller was somewhere wandering like the converso who gave him the secret to never dying. Could Flamel be glimpsed, in the court of the occult emperor Rudolf II in red-roofed Prague, discoursing on astronomy with Johannes Keppler and Kabbalah with Rabbi Judah ben Lowe? Would he be found on those curving stones of dark Cambridge with Thomas Vaughan, or among the sun-dappled courtyards of Florence with Giordano Bruno?

In reality, Flamel was moldering underneath the nave of the Church of Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie in the fourth arrondissement. His tombstone now sits in the Musée de Cluny; the year of Flamel’s expiration was 1418. By all actual accounts, he was a loving husband and a successful merchant. Flamel’s fate, in all of its beauty, was the same as everybody’s. The psychoanalyst Marie-Louise von France gives a charitable reading of the Renaissance theorists of immortality, explaining in Alchemy: An Introduction to the Symbolism and Psychology that the desire for this knowledge “was actually the search for an incorruptible essence in man which would survive death, an essential part of the human being which could be preserved.” An accurate definition for poetry.

7.Enoch’s story is recounted across only four lines in Genesis. The King James Version of the Bible sets the cryptic tale of a man who ascended bodily to heaven, presumably having never died and still living immortally somewhere in the astral realm, in just 53 words. Father of Methuselah, who was himself so remarkably long-lived that his name has long been conflated with extreme seniority, Enoch simply never died. We’re told at Genesis 5:24 that “Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him.” Such is the entire explanation of what happened to this man of the seventh generation. What an odd bit of poetry this is. For. God. Took. Him.

Even if the Bible is tight-lipped about Enoch, the copious fan-fic about him (which scholars call “apocrypha”) lacked a similar reticence. From the mystics of antiquity to the occultists of today, Enoch achieved not just immortality but actual apotheosis, seated next to a God who liked him so much that he transformed the mortal into a “lesser Yahweh.” Such is a description of his career change from a pseudographical rabbinic text called 3 Enoch, which is dated to the fifth century after the Common Era. Scholem provides gloss on this unusual book in his Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, writing that “[his] flesh was turned to flame, his veins to fire, his eye-lashes to flashes of lightning, his eye-balls to flaming torches, and who God has placed on a throne next to the throne of glory, received after this heavenly transformation the name Metatron.” There is a venerable occult tradition that holds that Enoch become immortal, was elevated above even the archangels, became the very voice of the Lord, and was given a name that sounds like that of a Transformer.

Enochian literature can be traced back to three apocryphal texts from the first centuries of the Common Era that all elaborated on the terse passage from Genesis. 3 Enoch (also amazingly called The Revelation of Metatron) is joined by the Book of Enoch, written in Ge’ez and still held canonical by the Orthodox Tewahedo Church in Ethiopia, and the Second Book of Enoch which only survives in Old Bulgarian (I’m not making that up). The last book’s alternate title is actually even better than The Revelation of Metatron, it is often referred to as The Book of Secrets. From translator Willis Barnstone’s version of The Book of Secrets, as included in his incredible anthology The Other Bible, Enoch speaks in the first person, telling us that “I know all things and have written them into books concerning the heavens and their end, their plentitude, their armies, and their marching. I have measured and described the stars, their great and countless multitude. What man has seen their revolutions and entrances?”  

Metatron was the amanuenses of God’s thoughts, the librarian of reality who noted all that had, would, or could be done. A scribe as surely as Flamel was—Metatron was a writer. Enoch was the first figure in scripture to ascend to heaven, though he was not the first. Midrash actually records eight people as having achieved immortality this way, including the prophet Elijah who is consumed entirely up into a whirlwind; Sarah, whom is blessed by her grandfather Jacob with “May you live forever and never die;” and Ebed-Melech the Ethiopian who saved the prophet Jeremiah’s life during the Siege of Jerusalem. Catholics believe that the Virgin Mary ascended bodily, though after her death on Earth (a minority claim she was taken while still alive). Christianity more generally teaches that Christ rose to heaven, though he also died first, of course; while Muslims teach that both Muhammad and Jesus ascended.

Immortality, these accounts remind us, is a miracle. Perhaps no more so than with Enoch, for those other examples concern the ascension of prophets and the messiah, but the lowly man of the seventh generation was just some guy. A quiet beauty to the account, for why did Enoch walk with God? What about Enoch was so agreeable to the Lord that He would take him? What cracked beauty is there in a human gifted the ability to see the universe in its resplendence, so that as concerns the stars, Enoch speaks in a voice of awe from the Book of Secrets that “Not even the angels see their number, yet I have recorded all their names.”

8.While writing theater reviews for the Dublin Evening Mail, a 28-year-old graduate of Trinity University named Abraham Stoker would be the unlikely author of a gushing fan letter sent on Valentine’s Day 1876 to an American poet with an address in the distinctly unglamorous locale of Camden, New Jersey. That wasn’t Stoker’s first attempt at writing to Walt Whitman; he’d penned an effusive, borderline-erotic missive some four years earlier but kept the epistle in his desk out of embarrassment, before finally sending the original with a new note of introduction.

“Do not think me cheeky for writing this,” Stoker, who now went by “Bram,” wrote in the new letter, but “I believe you will like it,” he said regarding his original message. Whitman is a “man who can write, as you have written, the most candid words that ever fell from the lips of a mortal man.” For Stoker, only 9 when Leaves of Grass was first printed (and as of then completely unknown in Britain or Ireland), Whitman had “shaken off the shackles and your wings are free.” With a tragic pathos still clear more than a century later, Stoker confesses (which has afforded no shortage of literary gossip) that “I have the shackles on my shoulders still—but I have no wings.”

As obsequious as Renfield, Stoker tells Whitman that “You are a true man, and I would like to be one myself, and so I would be towards you as a brother and as a pupil to his master.” Perhaps he was, as there is something almost vampiric in Whitman’s 1891 revision of his poem “Trickle Drops,” done a year before his death and six before his protégé would publish his most famous novel. “Trickle drops! my blue veins leaving!…drip bleeding drops, / From wounds made to free you when you were prison’d / From my face, from my forehead and lips, / my breast…Stain every page, stain every song I sing, every word I saw, bloody drops,” Whitman enthuses. Stoker’s titular character in Dracula concurs with the American bard: “The blood is the life!”

Strange to think of the consummate rugged individualist with his broad shoulders and his Old Testament beard as influencing Stoker, but as an unconventional bohemian, Whitman may have shared more with Dracula than has been supposed. Biographer Barbara Belford notes in Bram Stoker and the Man Who Was Dracula that “the vampire at times resembles Whitman. Each has long white hair, a heavy moustache, great height and strength, and a leonine bearing.” Perhaps less superficially, “Whitman’s poetry celebrates the voluptuousness of death and the deathlike quality of love.” Whitman, with the gleam of the vampire in his eyes, promises in his preface to Leaves of Grass that the “greatest poet…drags the dead out of their coffins and stands them again on their feet.”

Leaves of Grass is a work that enthuses about immortality, albeit more in the transcendentalist sense than in the vampiric one. “The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,” Whitman writes, “And if there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it…All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses, / And to die is different from what anyone supposed.” Whitman fully expected a metaphysical immortality whereby his very atoms mingle into the streams and stones, the rocks and the rambles. Admittedly a different type of immortality than that surmised by Stoker, yet he borrowed from Whitman the poet’s charged, fully realized, erotic, bohemian persona. The Irishman noted that Whitman was the “quintessential male,” and its hard not to see some of that projection onto Dracula.

The immediate historical influence for Dracula was the 15th-century Wallachian prince Vlad Tepes, more popularly known as the “Impaler” after his favored pastime. Eros and Thanatos again, a bit of sex and death in that nickname. Radu Florescu and Raymond T. McNally note in their classic In Search of Dracula that the “ruler notorious for mass impalements of his enemies…was in fact called Dracula in the fifteenth century, and we found that he even signed his name that way.” From Whitman, Stoker took the transcendent nature of immortality, and from Vlad the blessed violence, bound together in the transgressive, bohemian personality of the aesthete. Literary scholars Joanna Levin and Edward Whitley write in Whitman Among the Bohemians that from the “bohemians to contemporary hipsters, Whitman still commands center stage, providing an ever-magnetic focal point for countercultural self-fashionings,” something that any goth can tell you is true of Dracula as well. As a reader, Stoker is able to comprehend that Whitman’s celebration of immortality must by necessity also have its drawbacks, that the vampiric can’t help but pulse through any conception of life beyond the grave.

With the smallest sprout in mind, Stoker writes that it’s a “strange world, a sad world, a world full of miseries, and woes, and troubles.” Yet we can “all dance to the tune…Bleeding hearts, and dry bones of the churchyard, and tears that burns as they fall—all dance together to the music.” Immortality kindled in the space of human connection, our lives able to exist indefinitely through others. Dracula does this literally, sucking upon the blood of innocents, but we ideally all do it when we ingest the words of others, and respond in kind. Whitman wrote back to Stoker. “I am up and dress’d, and get out every day a little, live here quite lonesome, but hearty, and good spirits.” He concluded the letter with, “Write to me again.”

9.Many lines are on the CV of the biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey: graduate of Trinity College Cambridge with a Ph.D. awarded for his dissertation The Mitochondrial Free Radical Theory of Aging; Fellow of the Gerontological Association of America, Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technology, and the American Aging Institute; adjunct professor at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, and most famously the chief science officer at the California-based Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence. Added to that, under “Skills,” could be “Still Alive.” Don’t knock it as an entry; the vast majority of people who have ever lived can no longer claim the same. De Grey, whose name is almost ridiculously on the nose, would argue that “Still Alive” could be easily translated into “(Effectively) Immortal,” for the researcher claims that death is a terminal illness that will one day be preventable, and that any dismissiveness to that is a case of sublimated religious nostalgia.

He looks the part of an immortal, more prophet than scientist. With a long, tangled, greying auburn beard that is positively druidic, de Grey appears as if he were Merlin or Galahad, some Arthurian immortal. If anything, that epic beard calls to mind those who’ve joined us already—the good, grey bearded ruddy complexioned poet Whitman, and de Leon with his face burnt from the Florida sun with unshorn hair poking out from his metal cap; Enoch’s cascading white mane (or so one imagines) and Utnapishtim’s curled black beard hanging in plaits from his gaunt, severe face.

De Gray has an advantage over all of these men, and that’s that he is still alive (or even exists in the first place). That may, however, be his ultimate disadvantage, for unreality has a type of immortality that biology can’t approach. Of no concern to de Grey, writing alongside Michael Rae in Ending Aging: The Rejuvenation Breakthroughs that Could Reverse Human Aging in Our Lifetime, he argues that his field is “inhibited by the deeply ingrained belief that aging was ‘natural’ and ‘inevitable,’ biogerentologists had set themselves apart from the rest of the biomedical community by allowing themselves to be overawed by the complexity of the phenomenon that they were observing.” Not without some justification, de Grey argues that aging and death are biological problems and thus have biological solutions.

Utnapishtim had his magic plant and de Leon his spring of rejuvenation, but for de Grey immortality was an issue of his “own idea for eliminating intercellular garbage like lipofuscin [combined with]…making mitochondrial mutations harmless…for addressing glycation, amyloid accumulation, cell loss, senescent cells and cancer.” When it comes to the hodgepodge of techno-utopians who fall under the broad term of “transhumanism,” de Grey is positively a traditionalist in that he’s still focused on these meat bags filled with blood, piss, shit, and phlegm. More radical transhumanists have gone digital, arguing that consciousness could be downloaded to computers, the eternal soul an issue of making sure that your files are backed up.

Engineer Ray Kurzweil is one such evangelist for the coming of robot-Jesus, when Artificial Intelligence will be able to assist in the downloading of your mind, and the resurrection of those who’ve already passed before us (through purely material, scientific, technological means of course). He writes in The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology that when that eschaton arrives (always in just a few decades), it will “allow us to transcend these limitations of our biological bodies and brains. We will gain power over our fates. Our mortality will be in our own hands. We will be able to live as long as we want.” Apparently, such a project is easier than halting climate change, or at least the hyper libertarian funders of such transhumanist schemes, from Elon Musk to Peter Thiel, would have you believe such. The desire for immortality is a deeply human one, but with the irony that its achievement would serve to eliminate the human entirely. Ask not for whom the computer chimes, simply upload your soul to the cloud.

10.About two weeks ago from the time of my writing, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi announced that the legislature was “moving forward with an official impeachment inquiry” of Donald J. Trump. Pelosi’s announcement was broadcast on all major networks, on PBS and MSNBC, CNN and (even) FOX. In a vacuum, electromagnetic radiation travels at 186,000 miles per second; Albert Einstein’s theory of special relativity tells us that nothing may go faster. That means that this happy bit of news can be heard as far as 225,327,187,473.16 miles away, and counting, though unfortunately what’s in that space is mostly dust and rock. The closest star system to us is Alpha Centauri, which is a positively minuscule 4.37 light years away, meaning that for any lucky extraterrestrials there Barack Obama is still president.

In EZ Aquarii, they just heard President Obama’s acceptance address in Grant Park; any planets near Procyon will have just been informed of the 2008 financial collapse, and at LPP 944-020 they’re leaning of the invasion of Iraq. At MU Arae they’ve discovered that humans made the puny jump to the Moon (as well as listening to Abbey Road for the first time), HR 4864 just heard Walter Cronkite deliver the sad news about President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and Zeta Virginis is now aware that the Second World War is over. In just a little less than a decade, assuming that such weak electromagnetic waves hadn’t been absorbed by the dust and rock that reigns supreme in interstellar space, Guglielmo Marconi’s first transatlantic radio broadcast of the letter “s” repeatedly tapped out in Morse code would be arriving at K2-18b, a massive “super-earth” exoplanet some 120 light years away.

Earth is surrounded by an electromagnetic halo, our missives in radio and light that grow ever weaker with distance, but which send our thoughts ever further into interstellar space with every passing year. Music, entertainment, news, communication, all of it sent out like so many dandelion spores into the reaches of the black cosmos. The continual thrum of that pulsating meaning—what Whitman could have described as “Out of the cradle endlessly rocking, / Out of the mocking-bird’s throat, the musical shuttle”—a record of our having been here that can never be erased, though it’s ambiguous if there is anyone out there to listen. “O rising stars!” Whitman wrote, “Perhaps… [I] will rise with some of you,” an offering made up in a frequency between 88MHz-108Mhz. There is an immortality, disembodied and ethereal, that does turn to be out in the heavens—just in a form that may have been difficult for Enoch to imagine.

A harder chunk of our finality exists out there as well, the Golden Record included on both of the Voyager 1 and Voyager II spacecraft launched by NASA, which having passed into interstellar space beyond our solar system in respectively 2012 and 2018 are the furthest things that have ever been touched by human hands. Conceived of by the astrophysicist Carl Sagan, the Golden Record is a phonographic LP encoded with both images and a little under six and a half hours of sounds, meant to express our sheer enormity. For any extraterrestrials that should happen to find the record—Voyager 1 is about 40,000 years out from Gliese 445—Sagan and his committee’s record may serve as the only tangible example of our eternity, our only vehicle for immortality. In being able to select the contents of such a canon, Sagan is arguably the most influential human to ever live.

Any future listeners will be able to hear pianist Glen Gould’s transcendent interpretation of Johan Sebastian Bach’s mathematically perfect Brandenburg Concerto, the mournful cry of blues-singer Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground,” the Bavarian State Orchestra playing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and Chuck Berry absolutely shredding it on “Johnny B. Goode.” Sagan reminisces in Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space that “any alien ship that finds it will have another standard by which to judge us.” Astronomer Jim Bell writes in The Interstellar Age: The Story of the NASA Men and Women Who Flew the Forty-Year Voyager Mission that “If the messages aboard the Voyagers ended up being the last surviving artifacts of our world, they would signify the brighter sigh of human nature…[we] wanted to send out sign of our hopes, not our regrets.” Unless Voyager 1 or 2 should slam into some random star or fall into a hidden blackhole, unless some bit of flotsam should smash it up or some wayward creature should use it for target practice, both probes will continue unimpeded for a very long time. Space being mostly empty, their lifespans will be such that they’re effectively immortal.

Fifty-thousand years from now, after climate change renders us extinct, the interglacial period will end and a new ice age will descend on Earth. In two million years, the coral reefs of the world will have had time to recover from ocean acidification. Sixty million years from now, and the Canadian Rockies will have eroded away. Geologists predict that all of the Earth’s continents will coalesce into a supercontinent 250 million years from now. Five hundred million years in the future they’ll have separated again. A little more than a billion years from now, and stellar fluctuations will increase temperatures so that the oceans will be boiled away. In 1.6 billion years the last of our friends the prokaryotes will most likely be extinct. By 7.59 billion years, the sun will reach its Red Giant phase, and what remains of the Earth will most likely fall into our star. Through all of that, slowly moving along in blackness, will be the Golden Record. “Better was it to go unknown and leave behind you an arch, a potting shed, a wall where peaches ripen, than to burn like a meteor and leave no dust,” Woolf wrote. Voyager, however, leaves dust, no matter how scant.

Our solar system will be dead, but somewhere you’ll still be able to hear Ludwig von Beethoven’s Symphony Number 5 in C Minor. Sagan’s satellite is as if Ashurbanipal’s library was buried in the desert of space. As these things have moved us, perhaps somehow, someway they will move minds that have yet to exist. In a lonely universe, the only immortality is in each other, whomever we may be. Included within the Golden Record are a series of sentences in various languages, including Akkadian. Only 19 seconds into the record, and for billions of years listeners may hear a human speaking in the language of Utnapishtim, delivering the benediction that “May all be very well.”

Images: Mark Tegethoff, Greg Rakozy, Kristopher Roller, Aron Visuals, Ewan Robertson, NASA, Franck V., Drew Graham, Maksym Gryshchenko

The Greeks Aren’t Done with Us: Simon Critchley on Tragedy

We know that ghosts cannot speak until they have drunk blood; and the spirits which we evoke demand the blood of our hearts.—Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Greek Historical Writing, and Apollo (1908)

Thirteen years ago, when I lived briefly in Glasgow, I made it a habit to regularly attend the theater. An unheralded cultural mecca in its own right, overshadowed by charming, medieval Edinburgh to the east, the post-industrial Scottish capitalI was never lacking in good drama. Also, they let you drink beer during performances. Chief among those plays was a production of Sophocles’s Antigone, the final part of his tragic Theban Cycle, and one of the most theorized and staged of dramas from that Athenian golden age four centuries before the Common Era, now presented in the repurposed 16th-century Tron Church. Director David Levin took the Attic Greek of Sophocles and translated it into the guttural brogue of Lowlands Scotts, and in a strategy now deployed almost universally for any production of a play older than a century, the chitons of the ancient world were replaced with business suits, and the decrees of Creon were presented on television screen, as the action was reimagined not in 441 BCE but in 2007.

Enough to remind me of that headline from The Onion which snarked: “Unconventional Director Sets Shakespeare Play in Time, Place that Shakespeare Intended.” The satirical newspaper implicitly mocks adaptations like Richard Loncraine’s Richard III which imagined the titular character (devilishly performed by Ian McKellen) as a sort of Oswald Mosley-like fascist, and Derek Jarman’s masterful version of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II, which makes a play about the Plantagenet line of succession into a parable about gay rights and the Act Up movement. By contrast, The Onion quips that its imagined “unconventional” staging of The Merchant of Venice is one in which “Swords will replace guns, ducats will be used instead of the American dollar or Japanese yen, and costumes, such as…[the] customary pinstripe suit, general’s uniform, or nudity, will be replaced by garb of the kind worn” in the Renaissance. The dramaturgical perspective behind Levin’s Antigone was definitely what the article parodied; there was nary a contorted dramatic mask to be found, no Greek chorus chanting in dithyrambs, and, as I recall, lots of video projection. The Onion aside, British philosopher Simon Critchley would see no problem with Levin’s artistic decisions, writing in his new book Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us that “each generation has an obligation to reinvent the classics. The ancients need our blood to revise and live among us. By definition, such an act of donation constructs the ancients in our image.”

Antigone, coming from as foreign a culture as it does, still holds our attention for some reason. The story of the titular character—punished by her uncle Creon for daring to defy his command that her brother Polynices’s corpse be left to fester as carrion for the buzzards and worms in the field where he died because he has raised arms against Thebes—would seem to have little to do with Tony Blair’s United Kingdom. When a Glaswegian audience hears Sophocles’s words, however, that “I have nothing but contempt for the kind of governor who is afraid, for whatever reason, to follow the course the he knows is best for the State; and as for the man who sets private friendship above the public welfare—I have no use for him either” a bit more resonance may be heard. Critchley argues that at the core of Greek tragedy is a sublime ambivalence, an engagement with contradiction that classical philosophy can’t abide;as distant as Antigone’s origins may be, its exploration of the conflict between the individual and the state, terrorism and liberation, surveillance and freedom seemed very of the millennium’s first decade. Creon’s countenance of the unthinkable punishment of his niece, to be bricked up behind a wall, was delivered in front of a camera as if George W. Bush announcing the bombing of Iraq from the Oval Office on primetime television. “Evil sometimes seems good / To a man whose mind / A god leads to destruction,” Sophocles wrote. This was a staging for the era of the Iraq War and FOX News, of the Patriot Act and NSA surveillance, and of the coming financial collapse. Less than a year later, and I’d be back in my apartment stateside watching Barack Obama deliver his Grant Park acceptance speech. It was enough to make one think of Antigone’s line: “Our ship of fate, which recent storms have threatened to destroy, has come to harbor at last.” I’m a bad student of the Greeks; I should have known better than to embrace that narcotic hope that pretends tragedy is not the omnipresent condition of humanity.

What could Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus possibly have to say in our current, troubled moment? Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us is Critchley’s attempt to grapple with those disquieting 32 extant plays that whisper to us from an often-fantasized collective past. What survives of Greek tragedy is four less plays than all of those written by Shakespeare; an entire genre of performance for which we have titles referenced by philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, with only those three playwrights’ words enduring, and where often the most we can hope for are a few fragments preserved on some surviving papyri. Critchley emphasizes how little we know about plays like Antigone, or Aeschylus’s Oresteia, or Euripides’s Medea; that classicists often hypothesized that they were born from the Dionysian rituals, or that they focused on satyr psalms, the “song of the goats,” giving tragedy the whiff of the demonic, of the demon Azazel to whom sacrifices of the scapegoat must be made in the Levantine desert.

Beyond even tragedy’s origin, which ancient Greek writers themselves disagreed about, we’re unsure exactly how productions were staged or who attended. What we do have are those surviving 32 plays themselves and the horrific narratives they recount—Oedipus blinded in grief over the patricide and incest that he unknowingly committed but prophetically ensured because of his hubris; Medea slaughtering her children as a revenge on the unfaithfulness of her husband; Pentheus ripped apart by her frenzied Maenads in ecstatic thrall to Dionysius because the Theban ruler couldn’t countenance the power of irrationality. “There are at least thirteen nouns in Attic Greek for words describing grief, lamentation, and mourning,” Critchley writes about the ancients; our “lack of vocabulary when it comes to the phenomenon of death speaks volumes about who we are.” Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us is Critchley’s attempt to give us a bit of their vocabulary of excessive lamentation so as to better approach our predicament.

Readers shouldn’t mistake Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us as a conservative defense of the canon; this is no paean to the superior understanding of the ancients, nor is its highfalutin’ self-help. Critchley’s book isn’t Better Living Through Euripides. Easy to misread the (admittedly not great) title as an advertisement for a book selling the snake-oil of traditionalist cultural literacy, that exercise in habitus that confuses familiarity with the “Great Books” as a type of wisdom. Rather, Critchley explores the Greek tragedies in all of their strange glory, as an exercise in aesthetic rupture, where the works of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides configure a different type of space that renders a potent critique against oppressive logic. His task is thus the “very opposite of any and all kinds of cultural conservatism.” Critchley sees the plays not as museum pieces, or as simple means of demonstrating that you went to a college with diplomas written in Latin, but rather as a “subversive traditionalism” that helps us to critique “ever more egregious forms of cultural stupefaction that arise from being blinded by the myopia of the present.” This is all much larger than either celebrating or denouncing the syllabi of St. John’s College; Critchley has no concern for boring questions about “Western Civilization” or “Defending the Canon,” rather he rightly sees the tragedies as an occasion to deconstruct those idols of our current age—of the market, of society, of law, of religion, of state. He convincingly argues that any honest radical can’t afford to ignore the past, and something primal and chthonic calls to us from those 32 extant plays, for “We might think we are through with the past, but the past isn’t through with us.”

Critchley explains that the contemporary world, perhaps even more so than when I watched Antigone in Glasgow, is a “confusing, noisy place, defined by endless war, rage, grief, ever-growing inequality. We undergo a gnawing moral and political uncertainty in a world of ambiguity.” Our moment, the philosopher claims, is a “tragicomedy defined by war, corruption, vanity, and greed,” for if my Antigone was of its moment, then Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us could only have been written after 2016. That year, and the characters it ushered into our national consciousness, can seem a particular type of American tragedy, but Critchley’s view (even while haunted by a certain hubristic figure with a predilection for the misspelled tweet) is more expansive than that. In his capable analysis, Critchley argues that tragedy exists as a mode of representing this chaos; a type of thinking at home with inconsistency, ambiguity, contradiction, and complexity. It’s those qualities that have made the form suspicious to philosophers.

Plato considered literature in several of his dialogues, concluding in Gorgias that the “effect of speech upon the structure of the soul / Is as the structure of drugs over the nature of bodies” (he wasn’t wrong), and famously having his puppet Socrates argue in The Republic that the just city-state would ban poets and poetry from their affairs for the aforementioned reason. Plato’s disgruntled student Aristotle was more generous to tragedy, content rather to categorize and explain its effects in Poetics, explaining that performance is the “imitation of an action that is serious, and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself…with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions.” Aristotle’s view has historically been interpreted as a defense of literature in opposition to Plato, whereby that which the later found so dangerous—the passions and emotions roiled by drama—were now justified as a sort of emotional pressure gauge that helped audiences purge their otherwise potentially destructive emotions. By the 19th century a philosopher like Friedrich Nietzsche would anticipate Critchley (though the latter might chaff at that claim) when he exonerated tragedy as more than mere moral instruction, coming closer to Plato’s claim about literature’s dangers while ecstatically embracing that reality. According to Nietzsche, tragedy existed in the tension between “Apollonian” and “Dionysian” poles; the first implies rationality, order, beauty, logic, and truth; the second signifies the realm of chaos, irrationality, ecstasy, and intoxication. Nietzsche writes in The Birth of Tragedy that the form “sits in sublime rapture amidst this abundance of life, suffering and delight, listening to a far-off, melancholy song…whose names are Delusion, Will, Woe.” For the German philologist that’s a recommendation, to “join me in my faith in this Dionysiac life and the rebirth of tragedy.”

As a thinker, Critchley Agonistes is well equipped in joining these predecessors in systematizing what he argues is the unsystematizable. Faculty at the New School for Social Research,and coeditor for The New York Times philosophy column “The Stone” (to which I have contributed), Critchley has proven himself an apt scholar who engages the wider conversation. Not a popularizer per se, for Critchley’s goal isn’t the composition of listicles enumerating whacky facts about Hegel, but a philosopher in the truest sense of being one who goes into the Agora and grapples with the circumstances of meaning as they manifest in the punk rock venue, at the soccer stadium, and in the movie theater. Unlike most of his countrymen who recline in the discipline, Critchley is a British scholar who embraces what’s called “continental philosophy,” rejecting the arid, logical formulations of analytical thought in favor of the Parisian profundities of thinkers like Jacques Derrida, Emanuel Levinas, and Martin Heidegger. Critchley has written tomes with titles like The Ethics of Deconstruction: Derrida and Levinas and Ethics-Politics-Subjectivity: Essays on Derrida, Levinas, & Contemporary French Thought, but he’s also examined soccer in What We Think About When We Think About Football (he’s a Liverpool fan) and in Bowie he analyzed, well, Bowie. Add to that his provocative take on religion in Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology and on death in The Book of Dead Philosophers (which consists of short entries enumerating the sometimes bizarre ways in which philosophers died, from jumping into a volcano to love potion poisoning) and Critchley has announced himself as one of the most psychedelically mind-expanding of people to earn their lucre by explaining Schopenhauer and Wittgenstein to undergraduates.  

What makes Critchley such an engaging thinker about the subjects he examines is both his grounding in continental philosophy (which asks questions about being, love, death, and eternity, as opposed to its analytical cousin content to enumerate all the definitions of the word “is”) and his unpretentious roots in working class Hertfordshire, studying at the glass-and-concrete University of Essex as opposed to tony Oxbridge. Thus, when Critchley writes that “there is an ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry,” it seems pretty clear that he’s a secret agent working for the latter against the former. He rejects syllogism for stanza and embraces poetics in all of its multitudinous and glorious contradictions. The central argument of Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us is that the form “invites its audience to look at such disjunctions between two or more claims to truth, justice, or whatever without immediately seeking a unifying ground or reconciling the phenomena into a higher unity.” What makes Antigone so devastating is that the title character’s familial obligation justifies the burial of her brother, but the interests of the state validates Creon’s prohibition of that same burial. The tragedy arises in the irreconcilable conflict of two right things, with Critchley explaining that Greek drama “presents a conflictually constituted world defined by ambiguity, duplicity, uncertainty, and unknowability, a world that cannot be rendered rationally fully intelligible through some metaphysical first principles or set of principles, axioms, tables of categories, or whatever.”

This is the central argument: that the “experience of tragedy poses a most serious objection to that invention we call philosophy.” More accurately, Critchley argues that tragedy’s comfort with discomfort, its consistent embrace of inconsistency, its ordered representation of disorder, positions the genre as a type of radical critique of philosophy, a genre that expresses the anarchic rhetoric of the sophists, rather than their killjoy critic Socrates and his dour student Plato. As a refresher, the sophists were the itinerant and sometimes fantastically successful rhetoricians who taught Greek politicians a type of disorganized philosophy that, according to Socrates, had no concern with the truth, but only with what was convincing. Socrates supposedly placed “Truth” at the core of his dialectical method, and, ever since, the discipline has taken up the mantle of “a psychic and political existence at one with itself, which can be linked to ideas of self-mastery, self-legislation, autonomy, and autarchy, and which inform the modern jargon of authenticity.” Tragedy is defined by none of those things; where philosophy strives for order and harmony, tragedy dwells in chaos and division; where syllogism strives to eliminate all contradiction as irrational, poetry understands that it’s in the complexity of inconsistency, confusion, and even hypocrisy that we all dwell. Sophistry and tragedy, to the recommendation of both, are intimately connected; both being methods commensurate with the dark realities of what it means to be alive. Critchley claims that “tragedy articulates a philosophical view that challenges the authority of philosophy by giving voice to what is contradictory about us, what is constricted about us, what is precarious about us, and what is limited about us.”

Philosophy is all arid formulations, dry syllogisms, contrived Gedankenexperiments; tragedy is the knowledge that nothing of the enormity of what it means to be alive can be circumscribed by mere seminar argument. “Tragedy slows things down by confronting us with what we do not know about ourselves,” Critchley writes. If metaphysics is contained by the formulations of the classroom, then the bloody stage provides a more accurate intimation of death and life. By being in opposition to philosophy, tragedy is against systems. It becomes both opposite and antidote to the narcotic fantasy that everything will be alright. Perhaps coming to terms with his own discipline, Critchley argues that “it is necessary to try and think theatrically and not just philosophically.” Tragedy, he argues, provides an opportunity to transcend myths of progress and comforts of order, to rather ecstatically enter a different space, an often dark, brutal, and subterranean place, but one which demonstrates the artifice of our self-regard.

A word conspicuous in its absence from Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us is that of the “sacred.” If there is any critical drawback to Critchley’s argument, it seems to be in the hesitancy, or the outright denial, that what he claims in his book has anything to do with something quite so wooly as the noumenal. Critchley gives ample space to argue that, “Tragedy is not some Dionysian celebration of the power of ritual and the triumph of myth over reason,” yet a full grappling with his argument seems to imply the opposite. The argument that tragedy stages contradiction is one that is convincing, but those sublime contradictions are very much under the Empire of Irrationality’s jurisdiction. Critchley is critical of those that look at ancient tragedy and “imagine that the spectators…were in some sort of prerational, ritualistic stupor, some intoxicated, drunken dumbfounded state,” but I suppose much of our interpretation depends on how we understand ritual, religion, stupor, and intoxication.

His claims are invested in an understanding of the Greeks as not being fundamentally that different from us, writing that “there is a lamentable tendency to exoticize Attic tragedy,” but maybe what’s actually called for is a defamiliarization of our own culture, an embrace of the irrational weirdness at the core of what it means to be alive 2019, where everything that is solid melts into air (to paraphrase Marx). Aeschylus knew the score well; “Hades, ruler of the nether sphere, / Exactest auditor of human kind, / Graved on the tablet of his mind,” as he describes the prince of this world in Eumenides. Critchley, I’d venture, is of Dionysius’s party but doesn’t know it. All that is argued in Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us points towards an awareness, however sublimated, of the dark beating heart within the undead cadaver’s chest. “To resist Dionysius is to repress the elemental in one’s own nature,” writes the classicist E.R. Dodds in his seminal The Greeks and the Irrational, “the punishment is the sudden complete collapse of the inward dykes when the elemental breaks through…and civilization vanishes.”

Absolutely correct that tragedy is in opposition to philosophy; where the latter offers assurances that reason can see us through, the former knows that it’s never that simple. The abyss is patient and deep, and no amount of analysis, of interpretation, of calculation, of polling can totally account for the hateful tragic pulse of our fellow humans. Nietzsche writes “what changes come upon the weary desert of our culture, so darkly described, when it is touched by…Dionysius! A storm seizes everything decrepit, rotten, broken, stunted; shrouds it in a whirling red cloud of dusty and carries it into the air like a vulture.” If any place best exemplifies that experience, and this moment, it’s Euripides’s The Bacchae, to which Critchley devotes precious little attention. That play depicts the arrival of that ambiguous god Dionysius to Thebes, as his followers thrill to the divine and irrational ecstasies that he promises. It ends with a crowd of those followers, the Maenads, mistaking the ruler Pentheus for a sacrificial goat and pulling him apart, his bones from their sockets, his organs from their cavities. Until his murder, Pentheus simultaneously manifested a repressed thrill towards the Dionysian fervor and a deficiency in taking the threat of such uncontained emotion seriously. “Cleverness is not wisdom,” Euripides writes, “And not to think mortal thoughts is to see few days.” If any didactic import comes from The Bacchae, it’s to give the devil as an adversary his due, for irrationality has more power than the clever among us might think.

Circling around the claims of Critchley’s book is our current political situation, alluded to but never engaged outright. In one sense, that’s for the best; those demons’ names are uttered endlessly all day anyhow. It’s desirable to at least have one place where you need not read about them. But in another manner, fully intuiting the Dionysian import of tragedy becomes all the more crucial when we think about what that dark god portends in our season of rising authoritarianism. “Tragedy is democracy turning itself into a spectacle,” and anyone with Twitter will concur with that observation of Critchley’s. Even more important is Critchley’s argument about those mystic chords of memory connecting us to a past that we continually reinvent; the brilliance of his claim about why the Greeks matter to us now, removing the stuffiness of anything as prosaic as canonicity, is that tragedy encapsulates the way in which bloody trauma can vibrate through the millennia and control us as surely as the ancients believed fate controlled humans. Critchley writes that “Tragedy is full of ghosts, ancient and modern, and the line separating the living from the dead is continually blurred. This means that in tragedy the dead don’t stay dead and the living are not fully alive.” We can’t ignore the Greeks, because the Greeks aren’t done with us. If there is anything that hampers us as we attempt to extricate the Dionysian revelers in our midst, it’s that many don’t acknowledge the base, chthonic power of such irrationality, and they refuse to see how violence, hate, and blood define our history in the most horrific of ways. To believe that progress, justice, and rationality are guaranteed, that they don’t require a fight commensurate with their worthiness, is to let a hubris fester in our souls and to court further tragedy among our citizens.

What Medea or The Persians do is allow us to safely access the Luciferian powers of irrationality. They present a more accurate portrayal of humanity, based as we are in bloodiness and barbarism, than the palliatives offered by Plato in The Republic with his philosopher kings. Within that space of the theater, Critchley claims that at its best it “somehow allows us to become ecstatically stretched out into another time and space, another way of experiencing things and the world.” Far from the anemic moralizing of Aristotelian catharsis—and Critchley emphasizes just how ambiguous that word actually is—that is too often interpreted as referring to a regurgitative didacticism, tragedy actually makes a new world by demolishing and replacing our world, if only briefly. “If one allows oneself to be completely involved in what is happening onstage,” Critchley writes, “one enters a unique space that provides an unparalleled experience of sensory and cognitive intensity that is impossible to express purely in concepts.” I recall seeing a production of Shakespeare’s Othello at London’s National Theatre in 2013, directed by Nicholas Hytner and starring Adrian Lester as the cursed Moor and Rory Kinear as a reptilian Iago. Dr. Johnson wrote that Othello’s murder of Desdemona was the single most horrifying scene in drama, and I concur; the play remains the equal of anything by Aeschylus or Euripides in its tragic import.

When I watched Lester play the role, lingering over the dying body of his faithful wife, whispering “What noise is this? Not dead—not yet quite dead?” I thought of many things. I thought about how Shakespeare’s play reflects the hideous things that men do to women, and the hideous things that the majority do to the marginalized. I thought about how jealousy noxiously fills every corner, no matter how small, like some sort of poison gas. And I thought about how unchecked malignancy can shatter our souls. But mostly what I thought wasn’t in any words, but was better expressed by Lester’s anguished cry as he confronted the evil he’d done. If tragedy allows for an audience to occasionally leave our normal space and time, then certainly I felt like I was joined with those thousand other spectators on that summer night at South Bank’s Olivier Theatre. The audience’s silence after Othello’s keening subsided was as still as the space between atoms, as empty as the gap between people.

King, God, Smart-Ass Author: Reconsidering Metafiction

“Whoever is in charge here?” -Daffy Duck, Merrie Melodies (1953)

Like all of us, Daffy Duck was perennially put upon by his Creator. The sputtering, stuttering, rageful water fowl’s life was a morass of indignity, embarrassment, anxiety, and existential horror. Despite all of the humiliation Daffy had to contend with, the aquatic bird was perfectly willing to shake his wings at the unfair universe. As expertly delivered by voice artist Mel Blanc, Daffy could honk “Who is responsible for this? I demand that you show yourself!” In animator Chuck Jones’s brilliant and classic 1953 episode of Merrie Melodies titled “Duck Amuck,” he presents Daffy as a veritable Everyduck, a sinner in the hands of a smart-assed illustrator. “Duck Amuck” has remained a canonical episode in the Warner Brothers cartoon catalog, its postmodern, metafictional experimentation heralded for its daring and cheekiness. Any account of what critics very loosely term “postmodern literature”—with its playfulness, its self-referentiality, and it’s breaking of the fourth wall—that considers Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov, and Paul Auster but not Jones is only telling part of the metafictional story.  Not for nothing, but two decades ago, “Duck Amuck” was added to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as an enduring piece of American culture.

Throughout the episode, Jones depicts increasingly absurd metafictional scenarios involving Daffy’s sublime suffering. Jones first imagines Daffy as a swordsman in a Three Musketeers parody, only to have him wander into a shining, white abyss as the French Renaissance background fades away. “Look Mac,” Daffy asks, never one to let ontological terror impinge on his sense of personal justice, “what’s going on here?” Jones wrenches the poor bird from the musketeer scenery to the blinding whiteness of the nothing-place, then to a bucolic pastoral, and finally to a paradisiacal Hawaiian beach. Daffy’s admirable sense of his own integrity remains intact, even throughout his torture. Pushed through multiple parallel universes, wrenched, torn, and jostled through several different realities, Daffy shouts “All right wise guy, where am I?”  

But eventually not even his own sense of identity is allowed to continue unaffected, as the God-animator turns him into a country-western singer who can only produce jarring sound effects from his guitar, or as a transcendent paintbrush recolors Daffy blue. At one point the animator’s pencil impinges into Daffy’s world, erasing him, negating him, making him nothing. Daffy’s very being, his continued existence depends on the whims of a cruel and capricious God; his is in the world of Shakespeare’s King Lear, where the Duke of Gloucester utters his plaintive cry, “As flies are to wanton boys are we to th’ gods; / They kill us for their sport.” Or at least they erase us. Finally, like Job before the whirlwind, Daffy implores, “Who is responsible for this? I demand that you show yourself!” As the view pans upward, into that transcendent realm of paper and ink where the animator-God dwells, it’s revealed to be none other than the trickster par excellence, Bugs Bunny. “Ain’t I a stinker?” the Lord saith.

Creation, it should be said, is not accomplished without a certain amount of violence. According to one perspective, we can think of Daffy’s tussling with Bugs as being a variation on that venerable old Aristotelian narrative conflict of “Man against God.” If older literature was focused on the agon (as the Greeks put it) between a human and a deity, and modernist literature concerned itself with the conflict that resulted as people had to confront the reality of no God, then the wisdom goes that our postmodern moment is fascinated with the idea of a fictional character searching out his or her creator. According to narrative theorists, that branch of literary study that concerns itself with the structure and organization of story and plot (not synonyms incidentally), such metafictional affectations are technically called metalepsis. H. Porter Abbot in his invaluable The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative explains that such tales involve a “violation of narrative levels” when a “storyworld, is invaded by an entity or entities from another narrative level.”

Metalepsis can be radical in its execution, as when an “extradiegetic narrator” (that means somebody from outside the story entirely) enters into the narrative, as in those narratives where an “’author appears and starts quarreling with one of the characters,” Abbot writes. We’ll see that there are precedents for that sort of thing, but whether interpreted as gimmick or deep reflection on the idea of literature, the conceit that has a narrator enter into the narrative as if theophany is most often associated with something called, not always helpfully, “postmodernism.” Whatever that much-maligned term might mean, in popular parlance it has an association with self-referentiality, recursiveness, and metafictional playfulness (even if readers might find cleverness such as that exhausting). The term might as well be thought of as referring to our historical preponderance of literature that knows that it is literature.

With just a bit of British disdain in his critique, The New Yorker literary critic James Wood writes in his pithy and helpful How Fiction Works that “postmodern novelists… like to remind us of the metafictionality of all things.” Think of the crop of experimental novelists and short story writers from the ’60s, such as John Barth in his Lost in the Funhouse, where one story is to be cut out and turned into an actual Moebius strip; Robert Coover in the classic and disturbing short story “The Babysitter,” in which a variety of potential realities and parallel histories exist simultaneously in the most mundane of suburban contexts; and John Fowles in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, in which the author also supplies multiple “forking paths” to the story and where the omniscient narrator occasionally appears as a character in the book. Added to this could be works where the actual first-person author themselves becomes a character, such as Auster’s New York Trilogy, or Philip Roth’s Operation Shylock (among other works where he appears as a character). Not always just as a character, but as the Creator, for if the French philosopher Roland Barthes killed off the idea of such a figure in his seminal 1967 essay “The Death of the Author,” then much of the period’s literature resurrected Him. Wood notes, perhaps in response to Barthes, that “A certain kind of postmodern novelist…is always lecturing us: ‘Remember, this character is just a character. I invented him.’” Metafiction is when fiction thinks about itself.

Confirming Wood’s observation, Fowles’s narrator writes in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, “This story I am telling is all imagination. These characters I create never existed outside my own mind…the novelist stands next to God. He may not know all, yet he tries to pretend that he does.” Metafictional literature like this is supposed to interrogate the idea of the author, the idea of the reader, the very idea of narrative. When the first line to Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler,” it has been signaled that the narrative you’re entering is supposed to be different from those weighty tomes of realism that supposedly dominated in previous centuries. If metalepsis is a favored gambit of our experimental novelists, then it’s certainly omnipresent in our pop culture as well, beyond just “Duck Amuck.”

A list of sitcoms that indulge the conceit includes 30 Rock, Community, Scrubs, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The final example, which after all was already an experimental narrative about a wholesome kid from West Philly named Will played by a wholesome rapper from West Philly named Will Smith, was a font of avant-garde fourth-wall breaking deserving of Luigi Pirandello or Bertolt Brecht. Prime instances would include the season five episodes “Will’s Misery,” which depicts Carlton running through the live studio audience, and “Same Game, Next Season,” in which Will asks “If we so rich, why we can’t afford no ceiling,” with the camera panning up to show the rafters and lights of the soundstage. Abbot writes that metafiction asks “to what extent do narrative conventions come between us and the world?” which in its playfulness is exactly what The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is doing, forcing its audience to consider how “they act as invisible constructors of what we think is true, shaping the world to match our assumptions.”

Sitcoms like these are doing what Barth, Fowles, and Coover are doing—they’re asking us to examine the strange artificiality of fiction, this illusion in which we’re asked by a hidden author to hallucinate and enter a reality that isn’t really there. Both audience and narrator are strange, abstracted constructs; their literal corollaries of reader and writer aren’t much more comprehensible. When we read a third-person omniscient narrator, it would be natural to ask “Who exactly is supposed to be recounting this story?” Metafiction is that which does ask that question. It’s the same question that the writers of The Office confront us with when we wonder, “Who exactly is collecting all of that documentary footage over those nine seasons?”

Far from being simply a postmodern trick, metalepsis as a conceit and the metafiction that results have centuries’ worth of examples. Interactions between creator and created, and certainly author and audience, have a far more extensive history than both a handful of tony novelists from the middle of the 20th century and the back catalog of Nick at Nite. For those whose definition of the novel doesn’t consider anything written before 1945, it might come as a shock that all of the tricks we associate with metafiction thread so deep into history that realist literature can seem the exception rather than the rule. This is obvious in drama; the aforementioned theater term “breaking the fourth wall” attests to the endurance of metalepsis in literature. As a phrase, it goes back to Molière in the 17th century, referring to when characters in a drama acknowledge their audience, when they “break” the invisible wall that separates the action of the stage from that of the observers in their seats. If Molière coined the term, it’s certainly older than even him. In all of those asides in Shakespeare—such as that opening monologue of Richard III when the title villain informs all of us who are joining him on his descent into perdition that “Now is the winter of our discontent”—we’re, in some sense, to understand ourselves as being characters in the action of the play itself.  

As unnatural as Shakespearean asides may seem, they don’t have the same sheer metaleptic import of metafictional drama from the avant-garde theater of the 20th century. Pirandello’s classic experimental play Six Characters in Search of an Author is illustrative here, a high-concept work in which unfinished and unnamed characters arrive at a Pirandello production asking their creator to more fully flesh them out. As a character named the Father explains, the “author who created us alive no longer wished…materially to put us into a work of art. And this was a real crime.” A real crime because to be a fictional character means that you cannot die, even though “The man, the writer, the instrument of the creation will die, but his creation does not die.” An immaculate creation outliving its creator, more blessed than the world that is forever cursed to be ruled over by its God. But first Pirandello’s unfortunates must compel their God to grant them existence; they need a “fecundating matrix, a fantasy which could rise and nourish them: make them live forever!” If this seems abstract, you should know that such metaleptic tricks were staged long before Pirandello, and Shakespeare for that matter. Henry Medwall’s 1497 Fulgens and Lucrece, the first secular play in the entire English canon, has two characters initially named “A” and “B” who argue about a play only to have it revealed that the work in question is actually Medwall’s, which the audience is currently watching. More than a century later, and metafictional poses were still explored by dramatists, a prime and delightful example being Shakespeare’s younger contemporary and sometimes-collaborator Francis Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle. In that Jacobean play of 1607, deploying a conceit worthy of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, Beaumont imagines the production of a play-within-a-play entitled The London Merchant. In the first act, two characters climb the stage from the audience, one simply called “Citizen” and the other “Wife,” and begin to heckle and critique The London Merchant, and its perceived unfairness to the rapidly ascending commercial class. The Knight of the Burning Pestle allows the audience to strike back, the Citizen cheekily telling the actor reading the prologue, “Boy, let my wife and I have a couple of stools / and then begin; and let the grocer do rare / things.”

Historical metalepsis can also be seen in what are called “frame tales,” that is, stories-within-stories that nestle narratives together like Russian dolls. Think of the overreaching narrative of Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th-century The Canterbury Tales with its pilgrims telling each other their stories as they make their way to the shrine of Thomas Becket, or of Scheherazade recounting her life-saving anthology to her murderous husband in One Thousand and One Nights, as compiled from folktales during the Islamic Golden Age from the eighth to 14th centuries. Abbot describes frame tales by explaining that “As you move to the outer edges of a narrative, you may find that it is embedded in another narrative.” Popular in medieval Europe, and finding their structure from Arabic and Indian sources that go back much further, frame tales are basically unified anthologies where an overreaching narrative supplies its own meta-story. Think of Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th-century Decameron, in which seven women and three men each tell 10 stories to pass the time while they’re holed up in a villa outside of Florence to await the passage of the Black Death through the city. The 100 resulting stories are ribald, earthy, and sexy, but present through all of their telling is an awareness of the tellers, this narrative about a group of young Florentines in claustrophobic, if elegant, quarantine. “The power of the pen,” one of Boccaccio’s characters says on their eighth day in exile, “is far greater than those people suppose who have not proved it by experience.” Great enough, it would seem, to create a massive sprawling world with so many stories in it. “In my father’s book,” the character would seem to be saying of his creator Boccaccio, “there are many mansions.”

As metaleptic as frame tales might be, a reader will note that Chaucer doesn’t hitch up for that long slog into Canterbury himself, nor does Boccaccio find himself eating melon and prosciutto while quaffing chianti with his aristocrats in The Decameron. But it would be a mistake to assume that older literature lacks examples of the “harder” forms of metalepsis, that writing before the 20th century is devoid of the Author-God appearing to her characters as if God on Sinai. So-called “pre-modern” literature is replete with whimsical experimentation that would seem at home in Nabokov or Calvino; audiences directly addressed on stage and books speaking as themselves to their readers, authors appearing in narratives as creators, and fictions announcing their fictionality.

Miguel de Cervantes’s 17th-century Don Quixote plays with issues of representation and artificiality when the titular character and his trusty squire, Sancho Panza, visit a print shop that is producing copies of the very book you are reading, the errant knight and his sidekick then endeavoring to prove that it is an inferior plagiarism of the real thing. Cervantes’s narrator reflects at an earlier point in the novel about the novel itself, enthusing that “we now enjoy in this age of ours, so poor in light entertainment, not only the charm of his veracious history, but also of the tales and episodes contained in it which are, in a measure, no less pleasing, ingenious, and truthful, than the history itself.” Thus Cervantes, in what is often considered the first novel, can lay claim to being the primogeniture of both realism and metafictionality.

Following Don Quixote’s example could be added other metafictional works that long precede “postmodernism,” including Laurence Sterne’s 18th-century The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, where the physical book takes time to mourn the death of a central character (when an all-black page is printed); the Polish count Jan Potocki’s underread late-18th-century The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, with not just its fantastic caste of Iberian necromancers, kabbalists, and occultists, but its intricate frame structure and forking paths (not least of which include reference to the book that you’re reading); James Hogg’s Satanic masterpiece The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, in which the author himself makes an appearance; and Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, in which the characters remark on how it feels as if they’re in a gothic novel (or perhaps a parody of one). Long before Barthes killed the Author, writers were conflating themselves as creator with the Creator. As Sterne notes, “The thing is this. That of all the several ways of beginning a book which are now in practice throughout the known world, I am confident my own way of doing it is the best—I’m sure it is the most religious—for I begin with writing the first sentence—and trusting to Almighty God for the second.”

Sterne’s sentiment provides evidence as to why metafiction is so alluring and enduring, despite its minimization by some critics who dismiss it as mere trick while obscuring its long history. What makes metalepsis such an intellectually attractive conceit goes beyond simply that it makes us question how literature and reality interact, but rather what it implies about the Author whom Sterne gestures toward—“Almighty God.” The author of Tristram Shandy understood, as all adept priests of metafiction do (whether explicitly or implicitly), that at its core, metalepsis is theological. In questioning and confusing issues of characters and writers, narrators and readers, actors and audience, metafiction experiments with the very idea of creation. Some metafiction privileges the author as being the supreme-God of the fiction, as in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and some castes its lot with the characters, as in The Knight of the Burning Pestle. Some metafiction is “softer” in its deployment, allowing the characters within a narrative to give us stories-within-stories; other is “harder” in how emphatic it is about the artifice and illusion of fiction, as in Jones’s sublime cartoon. What all of them share however, is an understanding that fiction is a strange thing, an illusion whereby whether we’re gods or penitents, we’re all privy to a world spun from something as ephemeral as letters and breath. Wood asks, “Is there a way in which all of us are fictional characters, parented by life and written by ourselves?” And the metaphysicians of metafiction answer in the affirmative.

As a final axiom, to join my claim that metafiction is when literature thinks about itself and that metalepsis has a far longer history than is often surmised, I’d finally argue that because all fiction—all literature—is artifice, that all of it is in some sense metafiction. What defines fiction, what makes it different from other forms of language, is that quality of metalepsis. Even if not explicitly stated, the differing realms of reality implied by the very existence of fiction imply something of the meta. Abbot writes “World-making is so much a part of most narratives that some narrative scholars have begun to include it as a defining feature of narrative,” and of that I heartily concur. Even our scripture is metafictional, for what else are we to call the Bible in which Moses is both author and character, and where his death itself is depicted? In metafiction perspective is confused, writer turns to reader, narrator to character, creator to creation. No more apt a description of metafiction, of fiction, of life than that which is offered by Prospero at the conclusion of The Tempest: “Our revels now are ended. These our actors, / As I foretold you, were all spirits and / Are melted into air, into thin air.” For Prospero, the “great globe itself…all which it inherit, shall dissolve / And, like this insubstantial pageant faded…We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.” Nothingness before and nothingness after, but with everything in between, just like the universe circumscribed by the cover of a book. Metafiction has always defined literature; we’ve always been characters in a novel that somebody else is writing.