Mephistopheles in the Anthropocene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credit: Wikipedia

Fourteen First and Last Sentence Novels

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


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

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

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

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

The Continental Marriage by Bethany Ball

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

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

The Forty Story War by Matt Bell

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

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

Bird by Ellie Eaton

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

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

The Mess by Edan Lepucki

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

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

The Treeline by Isle McElroy

First
Sentence – Last summer the snow didn’t melt.

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

Marfa by Emily Nemens

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

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

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

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

Esoterica by Kathleen Rooney

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

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

Certain of My Books by Martin Seay

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

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

Columbus Circle by Ed Simon

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

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

Heart of Stone by Rufi Thorpe

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

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

Operation Roth: A Novel by Daniel Torday

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

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

Styles for Special Occasions by Dawnie Walton

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

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

Life, A by Teddy Wayne

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

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

About the Contributors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Daring to Eat the Peach: The Nature of Being Possessed

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credit: Wikipedia.

The Lost Art of Not Knowing Something

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

Read More Puritan Poetry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credit: Wikipedia.

Tripping the Late Capitalist Sublime

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credit: Free SVG

Letter from the Collapse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credit: Wikipedia

A Year in Reading: Ed Simon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Conquering Hell

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“You have reason to wonder that you are not already in hell.” —Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (1741)

“For the ones who had a notion, a notion deep inside/that it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.”—Bruce Springsteen, “Badlands” (1978)

Charging only a quarter, Joseph Dorfeuille allowed the curious to view Hell itself—admission was half-price for children. Not far from the Ohio River, amongst the steep hills of the Queen City, and from 1820 to 1867, the Western Museum of Cincinnati promised in an advertisement “Come hither, come hither by night or by day, /there’s plenty to look at and little to pay.” Founded by physician Daniel Drake, known by enthusiasts as the “Ben Franklin of the west,” the institution was modeled after the Wunderkammers, “Wonder Cabinets,” of Europe, displaying shells and rocks, feathers and fossils, pottery shards and arrow heads. Even ornithologist James Audubon was on staff. Only two years after its founding, however, and the trustees forced Drake to resign. In his place Dorfeuille was hired, who rather than assemble materials zoological, archeological, and geological, understood that the public was curious about the “occasional error of nature.” In place of Drake’s edifying scientific exhibits, Dorfeuille mounted skeletons that moved by mechanical apparatus, dancing while an organ grinder played. He featured a diorama of wax figurines depicting the local murderer, Cowan, in the act, while also preserving in formaldehyde the head and heart of Mathias Hoover, a Cincinnati serial killer. And with particular popularity, the director distributed huffs of nitrous oxide after his “lectures.” But no exhibit—even the laughing gas—was quite as popular as “Dorfeuille’s Hall.”


A recreation of characters and scenes from the 14th-century Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s epic religious allegory The Divine Comedy, as well as from the 17th-century British poet John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Molded in beeswax, the hall was mounted by Hiram Powers, who’d eventually become the first celebrated American neo-classical sculptor (Elizabeth Barret Browning would pen a sonnet in honor of his work). Powers was tasked with illustrating our most grotesque visions—it would be among the most talked about exhibits before the Civil War. Powers crafted wax figures of the demon Beelzebub and of fallen arch-rebel himself, Lucifer. Adept in mechanism and sound-effects, his wax statues would shakily move in the darkness while screams emanated. “Visitors…were so intrigued by the realism of the figures that they were constantly touching them for confirmation that they were indeed wax,” writes Andrea Stulman Dennett in Weird and Wonderful: The Dime Museum in America. “To minimize the damage to his sculptures,” she explains, “Dorfeuille had to put an iron grating charged with a mild electrical current.” At the center was the “King of Terrors,” a stock Devil with red horns and pitchfork, smoke swirling about him. Originally Powers played the role, though an automata would after he quit the Western Museum—moving onto a respectable art career in Washington DC and then in Dante’s Florence—after Dorfeuille stiffed him on pay. By 1839, Dorfeuille sold off the Western Museum of Cincinnati, but he took his deteriorating waxworks to New York, where they were latter immolated in a fire, their owner following them into the underworld a few months after. King Entropy awaits us all.

A skeleton at the exit to Dorfeuille’s Hall held aloft a sign with some doggerel on it: “So far we are equal, but once left, /Our mortal weeds of vital spark bereft, /Asunder, father than the poles were driven;/Some sunk in deepest Hell, some raised to highest Heaven,” though highest Heaven was never as pruriently fascinating as deepest Hell. Powers didn’t outfit an exhibit with harp-playing, winged angels and shining halos; no wax figurines of the unassailable, the respectable, the decent. Not that it was ever much different, for people have always been more attracted—in both the neurotic’s fear and the sadist’s delight—with the fires of damnation. We recognized the 700th anniversary of Dante’s The Divine Comedy in September, and while I have no reliable numbers, my hunch is that 10-to-1 more people have read “Inferno” than the remainder about Purgatory and Paradise. Hell is more visual; if asked to envision Heaven we could offer gauzy, sepia-toned cliches about clouds and pearly gates, but if being perfectly honest nothing about it sounds appealing. But Hell. Well, Hell, we can all agree is interesting. The sulphur and shrieks, bitumen and biting, the light that burns eternally but gives off no glow. It all sounds pretty bad. While our curiosity draws us to the grotesque, we also can’t help but be haunted by Hell, traces of its ash smeared across even the most secular mind.

“Understand, I’m not speaking here only of the sincerely religious,” writes Dinty W. Moore in his irreverent To Hell With It: Of Sin and Sex, Chicken Wings, and Dante’s Entirely Ridiculous, Needlessly Guilt-Inducing Inferno, focusing on his shame-filled Catholic education. “The fable of our flawed souls, the troubling myth of original sin, the looming possibility of eternal damnation clandestinely infects even those of us who think ourselves immune: atheists, agnostics, secularists.” Supposedly only the most zealous lives without doubt, but just as such a pose evidences more anxiety than might be assumed, so too is nobody an atheist all of the time. The pious are haunted by absence and apostates by a presence, but the fear is the same. I don’t believe in a literal Hell, a place of eternal torment where our sins are punished by demons—most of the time. Hell is often on my mind, but unlike Moore I think that occasionally there is intellectual benefit in that which is sulphury (or at least the idea of it). Moore writes about the traumas of “depressive guilt brought on by religious malarkey,” and it would be a cold critic to disagree that belief has been used to oppress, persecute, and inculcate shame. Not just a cold critic, but one incapable of parsing objective reality. But even though he’s right, it’s still hard for me to throw the demon out with the hot coals.

Hell’s tragedy is that those who deserve to go there almost never think that they will, while the pious shame-filled neurotic imagines those flames with scrupulous anxiety. My soul is content if God prepared a place of eternal torment for the EXXON executive who sees climate change as an opportunity to drill for Arctic oil, the banker who gave out high-risk loans with one hand and then foreclosed on a family with the other, the CEO who makes billions getting rich off of slave labor, the racist representative who spreads hate for political gain, the NRA board member unconcerned with the slaughter of the innocent, the A.M. peddlers of hokum and bullshit, the fundamentalist preacher growing rich off his flock’s despair, and the pedophile priest abusing those whom he was entrusted to protect. Here’s an incomplete list of people who don’t belong in Hell—anyone who eats the whole sleeve of Oreos, somebody who keeps on pressing “Still Watching” on the Netflix show that they’re binging, the person who shouts “Jesus Fucking Christ” after they stub their toe, anybody who has spied on their neighbor’s home through Zillow, the Facebook humble-bragger talking about a promotion who keeps hitting “Refresh” for the dopamine rush of digital approval, the awkward subway passengers suddenly fascinated by their feet when a loud panhandler boards, and mastrubators. That so many guilty of the little sins, peccadillos, tics, frailties, and flaws that are universal and make us all gloriously imperfect humans so often feel crippling shame, guilt, and depression over these things is tragic. That my first category of sinners almost never feels those things is even more so.      

Before either Hell or Heaven there was the shadow land of indeterminate conclusions. Neither the ancient Greeks or Jews much delineated out an afterlife. Greek Hades was a grey place, a foggy place, and not particularly pleasant, even if it wasn’t exactly inferno. “Gloomy as night,” is how Alexander Pope describes Hades in his 18th-century translation of Homer’s The Odyssey, a realm populated by “Thin airy shoals of visionary ghosts.” Excepting Elysium—where excellence is more honored than virtue—and everybody has Hades to anticipate, though Homer is content to consign even the glorious to this depressing place. “I’d rather slave on earth for another man,” the hero Achilles tells Odysseus in Robert Fagles’s contemporary translation, “than rule down here over all the breathless dead.” The ancient Jewish conception of an afterlife was originally not much more hopeful, with the Hebrew Scriptures speaking of Sheol, described in Ecclesiastes as a place of “neither deed nor reckoning, neither knowledge nor wisdom.” As smudgy and unfocused as Sheol was, the Bible sometimes draws distinction (and conflation) with a horrific domain known as Gehenna.   

Drawing its name from a dusty valley where pagan child sacrifice had once been practiced, and which became a filthy heap where trash was burnt in a frenzy of ash and dirt, Gehenna is ruled over by Baal and dedicated to the punishment of the wicked. Both the Talmud and the New Testament use the word “Gehenna,” an indication of how, in the first centuries of the Common Era, a comprehensive vision of the afterlife emerged in Judaism and Christianity. Among the Sadducees, who composed the Temple elite, the afterlife was largely defined by absence, but the Pharisees (from whom rabbinic Judaism emerged) shared with early Christians an interest in charting the geography of death, and Gehenna was a highlighted location. (Worth mentioning that the historical Pharisees bear no similarity to the hatchet job performed on them in the Gospels). As it was, Jewish Gehenna would be understood slightly differently from Hell, more akin to Purgatory, a place of finite punishment cleansing the soul of its inequities. Though as the 13th-century Kabbalistic Zohar makes clear, the truly evil are “judged over in this filth… [and] never get released… the fire remains.”

Though both Judaism and Christianity developed a complex vocabulary of Heaven and Hell, it’s not unfair to attribute much of the iconography of perdition to Dante. Writing a generation after Dante’s death, and Giovanni Boccaccio predicted that as regards the Florentine poet’s name “the more it is furbished by time, the more brilliant it will ever be.” Boccaccio’s prediction has been perennially proven correct, with the Victorian critic John Ruskin describing Dante as the “central man of all the world,” and T.S. Eliot arguing that “Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them; there is no third.” All of this might seem a tad Eurocentric, a tad chauvinist, and a tad too focused on Christianity—the apotheosis of Dante into a demigod. Concerning prosody—Dante’s ingenious interlocking rhyme scheme known as terza rima or his ability to describe a “place void of all light, /which bellows like the sea in tempest, /when it is combated by warring winds”—he was brilliant. But acknowledging acumen is different—even Voltaire quipped that more people valorize Dante than read him. And yet (there’s always an “And yet”…), there must be a distinction between the claim that Dante says something vital about the human condition, and the objective fact that in some ways Dante actually invented the human condition (or a version of it). John Casey argues in After Lives: A Guide to Heaven, Hell, & Purgatory that Dante’s was “without doubt the supreme imagining of the afterlife in all [Western] literature,” while Alberto Manguel in The Traveler, the Tower, and the Worm: The Reader as Metaphor claims that his epic has “acquired a permanent and tangible geography in our imagination.”

“Dante’s story, then, is both a landscape and a map” writes Manguel. None of the poem’s unfortunates get out, save for one—the author. Midway in the course of life Dante falls into despair, loneliness, alienation, and The Divine Comedy is the record of his descent and escape from those doldrums. Alice K. Turner argues in The History of Hell that Dante was the progenitor of a “durable interior metaphor.” Claiming that the harrowing and ascension that he described can be seen in everything from psychoanalysis to 12-step programs, Turner writes that “this entirely comfortable and pervasive method of modern metaphorical thinking might not exist if Dante had never written.” “Empathy” might not be the first word readers associate with a book sticky with the blood of the damned—”punishment” or even “justice” would figure higher—and yet Dante feels pain for these characters. That aspect of The Divine Comedy is why we’re still talking about it. Turner explains that “Dante was concerned with history, with Florentine politics, with the corruption of the clergy, with the moral position of his contemporaries, and most of all with the state of his own psyche,” while arguing that at a “distance of seven centuries, we can no longer easily appreciate any of these things except the last—Dante is generous with his emotions.” It’s true that for any contemporary reader, concerns with forgotten factions like the Ghibelline and Guelphs, parsing of Thomas Aquinas, or condemnations of this or that obscure pope can seem hermetic. When perusing a heavily glossed and footnoted copy of The Divine Comedy, it’s his intimate perspective that is the most human.

Eliot may have claimed that between Dante and Shakespeare there was no third, but that’s the sort of thing that a self-declared “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion” would say, giving short shrift to that bomb-throwing author of Paradise Lost. Earth can be given over to Shakespeare, but Heaven and Hell belong to Dante and Milton. If The Divine Comedy is the consummate expression of Catholicism, then Milton’s epic is Protestantism’s fullest literary flowering, and yet neither of the two are orthodox. Milton’s depiction of damnation in media res after the rebel angels have been expelled from Heaven and the once beautiful Lucifer has been transformed into Satan, revises our understanding of Hell for the first time since Dante. Much remains recognizable in Milton, even if immaculately portrayed, this “dungeon horrible, on all sides round, /As one great furnace, flames; yet from those flames/No light, but rather darkness visible,” a fallen kingdom defined by “sights of woe, /Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace/And rest can never dwell, hope never comes… but torture without end.” Paradise Lost’s beauty belies the darkness of that sunken pit, for Milton’s brilliance has always been that he acknowledges what’s evocative, what’s magnetic, what’s attractive about Hell, for Lucifer in his intransigence and his obstinacy declares that it is “Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heav’n.” Dante’s Satan is a monster encased in ice, weeping frozen tears as he forever masticates the bodies of Casius, Brutus, and Judas. He is bestial, animalistic, and barely sentient. Nobody would admire him; nobody would want to be Dante’s Satan. Milton’s Lucifer, on the other hand, is a revolutionary who gets all the best lines; certainly, better than God and Christ. As William Empson had it in his vaguely heretical Milton’s God, the “poem is not good in spite of but especially because of its moral confusions.”        

Milton is a “Puritan,” that wooly category of killjoy whom we associate with the Plymouth Pilgrims (though they were technically different), all belt-buckled black hats and shoes, trying to sniff out witches and other people having impure thoughts. As it goes, Milton may have politically been a Puritan, but he was also a unitarian and a materialist, and on the whole a rather cracked Protestant, not least of all because of his Devil’s thinly disguised heroism. Paradise Lost is honest because it exemplifies a principle that we all know, something expressed by Augustine in his Confessions when filching a pear from a Tunisian marketplace like he was Eve in Eden with her apple, admitting that he wasn’t even hungry but he did it because “It was foul and I loved it. I loved my own undoing.” Doing bad things is fun. Puritans ironically seem more apt to admit that clear truism than all of the Panglossian advocates for humanity’s intrinsic good nature, an obvious foolishness. Just try and negotiate a Trader Joe’s parking lot and then tell me that you’re so certain that Original Sin is old-fashioned superstition. Acknowledging sin’s innate attractiveness—our “total depravity” as John Calvin described it in his 16th-century tome The Institutes of Christian Faith—means that detailed descriptions of Hell can sound perverse. At a pulpit in Enfield, Conn., the minister Jonathan Edwards delivered an infamous sermon in 1741 in which he told the assembled that “Your wickedness makes you as it were heavy as lead, and to tend downwards with great weight and pressure towards hell… if God should let you go, you would immediately sink and swiftly descend and plunge into the bottomless gulf” for God abhors all of us, and is ” his wrath… burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing… but to be caste into the fire.” According to Edwards, all women and men are “ten thousand times more abominable in [God’s] eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.” Historians note that while Edwards delivered his sermon, congregants rolled around in the church aisles and stood on the pews, moaning and screaming. All of this is a bit kinky, honestly.   

Calvinism’s God has always read more like his nemesis, omnipotent enough that He created us, but apparently not so omnipotent that He makes us worthy of salvation. More than a tyrant, He reads as a sadist, but when God is deleted from Calvinism what’s left is only the putrid, jaundiced, rotting corpse of our contemporary world, where nobody knows the value of anything, but only the price of everything. Nothing better expressed the dark American transition to post-Calvinism than our greatest of novels, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; or, the Whale, of which the author wrote to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1851 that “I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb.” Immature exegetes perseverate on what the white whale means, what he is a symbol of. God? Satan? America? That’s the Holy Trinity, though only one of them has ever kept his promises (I’ll let you guess who). It’s both more and less complicated than that; the whale is the terrifying, naked abyss stripped bare of all our presuppositions. In short, he is the world as it actually is, where Hell is all around us. In Moby-Dick, Ishmael listens to the former harpooner Father Mapple’s sermon at the New Bedford, Mass., Whaling Chapel (with its cenotaphs and its massive cetacean bones), and though the sermon is ostensibly on Jonah, it describes a type of Hell. The congregants sing a strange hymn about the “ribs and terrors in the whale/Arched over… a dismal gloom, /While all God’s sun-lit waves rolled by, /And lift me deepening down to doom.” Mapple preaches that despite how sinful the reluctant prophet was, “Jonah does not weep and wail for direct deliverance. He feels that his dreadful punishment is just… And here, shipmates, is true and faithful repentance; not clamorous for pardon, but grateful for punishment.” You’ll go to Hell—or the belly of a whale—and you’ll be happy about it, too.     

Not that this rhetoric is limited to Protestantism, for fire and brimstone come just as often from homily as sermon. James Joyce knew that Catholic priests could chill the blood every bit as much as an evangelical bible thumper, with perhaps no more disturbing a vision of Hell ever offered than in The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. His roman a clef Stephen Dedalus attends a religious retreat, and the visiting priest provides visceral description to the adolescents—buffeted by arrogance and hormones—of what awaits them if they give into temptation, for “Hell is a straight and dark and foul-smelling prison, an abode of demons and lost souls, filled with fire and smoke” where all of the punished are “heaped together in their awful prison… so utterly bound and helpless that… they are not even able to remove from the eye a worm that gnaws it.” Drawing upon the Jansenist Catholicism that migrated from France to Ireland, and the priest’s descriptions of Hell are the equal of anything in Edwards. With barely concealed sadism he intones how amongst the damned the “blood seethes and boils in the veins.. the heart in the breast glowing and bursting, the bowels a red-hot mass of burning pulp, the tender eyes flaming like molten balls.” Sin is spoken of in sensory terms—the taste of gluttony, the touch of lust, the rest of sloth—then so too does the priest give rich description of Hell’s smell. That pit is permeated by the odor of “some foul and putrid corpse that has lain rotting and decomposing… a jelly-like mass of liquid corruption… giving off dense choking fumes of nauseous loathsome decomposition… a huge and rotting human fungus.” Heaven can remain vague, because none of us will ever agree on what it is we actually want. Pleasure is uncertain, but pain is tangibly, deeply, obviously real, and so Hell is always easier to envision.       

After Stephen is convinced to become rigidly austere following that terrifying, he finds himself once again straying. A friend asks if he plans on converting to Protestantism, and Dedalus responds that “I said I had lost the faith… not that I had lost self-respect. What kind of liberation would that be to forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent and to embrace one which is illogical and incoherent?” Funny in the way that Joyce is, and true as well, though it might only make sense to lapsed Catholics who fumble over the newly translated words of the liturgical preface at Mass. Such Catholic atheism, or Catholic agnosticism, or Catholic what-ever-you-want-to-call-it influenced one of the great contemporary depictions of Hell in Stephen Adly Guirgis’s play The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. Guirgis engages an idiom that could be called “bureaucratizing the sacred,” transposing the rigid elements of our society in all of its labyrinthine absurdity onto the transcendent order. Whenever Hell (or Heaven) is depicted as an office, or a waiting room, or a border checkpoint, a prison, a hospital, or a school, that’s bureaucratizing the sacred. In Guirgis’s play, the action takes place in that most arcane of bureaucratic structures, the court system. “In biblical times, Hope was an Oasis in the Desert,” a character says. “In medieval days, a shack free of Plague. Today, Hope is no longer a place for contemplation—litigation being the preferred new order of the day.” The Last Days of Judas Iscariot portrays a trial of its largely silent titular character, held in a courtroom that exists beyond time and space, where expert witnesses include not just Christ and Pontius Pilate, but Sigmund Freud and Mother Teresa as well. True to the mind-bending vagaries of eternity, both God and the Devil exist in a country unimaginably far from us and yet within our very atoms, for as Christ says “Right now, I am in Fallujah. I am in Darfur. I am on Sixty-third and Park… I’m on Lafayette and Astor waiting to hit you for change so I can get high. I’m taking a walk through the Rose Garden with George Bush. I’m helping Donald Rumsfeld get a good night’s sleep… I was in that cave with Osama, and on that plane with Mohamed Atta… And what I want you to know is that your work has barely begun.” Who does the messiah love?—”every last one.” A vision expansive and universalist, and like all great portrayals—including Dante and Milton who most definitely didn’t think you could breach the walls of inferno by drilling into the earth—Hell is entirely a mental place.

“Despair,” Guirgis writes, “is the ultimate development of a pride so great and so stiff-necked that it selects the absolute misery of damnation rather than accepts happiness,” or as Milton famously put it, “The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”  Like all things in the sacred—that vast network of metaphors, allusions, images, allegories, poems, and dreams—the question of “is it real or not?” is entirely nonsensical. Heaven and Hell have always been located in the human mind, along with God and the Devil, but the mind is a vast country, full of strange dreams and unaccounted things. Perdition is an idea that is less than helpful for those who fear (or hope) that there is an actual Hell in the black waters of the Mariana Trench, or in scorched, sunbaked Death Valley, or near a sandy cave next to the Dead Sea. But when we realize that both Hell and Heaven exist in a space beyond up or down, left or right, any of the cardinal directions and towards a dimension both infinitely far away and nearer than our very hearts, then there just might be wisdom. Such is the astuteness of Dante, who with startling psychological realism, records the woeful tale of illicit lovers Paolo Malatesta and Francesca da Rimini, tempted into an adulterous kiss after reading the romance of Lancelot and Guinevere, now caught in a windstorm as they had once tussled in bedsheets. “There is no greater sorrow,” Francesca tells the poet, “Than to be mindful of the happy time/in misery.” Because we often think of sin as simply a matter of broken rules, psychological acuity can be obscured. Drawing from Thomas Aquinas, Dante writes that “Pride, Envy, and Avarice are/the three sparks that have set these hearts on fire,” and the interpretative brilliance of the Seven Deadly Sins is that they explain how an excess of otherwise necessary human impulses can pervert us. Reading about Paolo and Francesca, it’s understandable to doubt that they deserve such punishment—Dante does. But in the stomach-dropping, queasy, nauseous, never-ending uncertainty of their lives, the poet conveys a bit of their inner predicament.    

“There are those… who, undoubtedly, do not feel personally touched by the scourge of Dante, [or] by the ashen pall of Augustine,” writes Moore, and while I wouldn’t say that I’m so irreverent that I’m willing to lustily eat a rare hamburger on Good Friday without worrying a bit, I will admit that if I make a visit to Five Guys after forgetting that it’s Holy Week I don’t fret too much. A privilege to play with the idea of Hell without fearing it (at least too much), but the concept still has some oomph in it. Returning to an earlier observation, Hell must be the language with which we think about that which divides us, estranges us, alienates us, not for when we despair at having eaten a bit too much or sleeping in on the weekend. If anything, that Puritanical rugged individualism that so defines American culture whether we’ve opted into it or not—You need to be up by 5a.m.! You have to be a productive worker! You must avoid any real joy except for the curated experience chosen for you by algorithm!—is the true wage of sin. In opposition, I lustily and gluttonously and slothfully advocate for eating a bit too much, laughing a bit too loud, and sleeping a bit too long. Preachers once told us that to be alive was a sin, but that was never it at all. Now we have pundits and TED talk lecturers forcing us to weigh our souls instead, but there’s no shame in knowing that the road rises to meet us, in feeling the wind at our back and the warmth of the sun or the cool rain upon our faces. Shame and guilt are utilitarian, but they belong on the other side. Notable that the idea of Hell developed contemporaneously with that of Heaven, and if it wasn’t for the former, then what would we ever struggle against? “Without contraries there is no progression,” writes the poet and prophet William Blake in his 1793 The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. “Attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate are necessary to human existence.” Whether temporary or eternal, finite or infinite, a place of extreme punishment implied another for reward. There’s no Heaven unless there is also Hell, and both places are much closer than might be supposed.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Drizzly November in My Soul

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Because Robert Burton used astrology to forecast the date of his death with exact accuracy—January 25, 1640—even some skeptics in that credulous age suspected that he may have assisted the prediction’s veracity. To accuse anyone of suicide was a slander; for Burton’s contemporaries such a death was an unpardonable offense. A half-century later, and the antiquary John Aubrey noted in his 1681 Brief Lives that ”tis whispered that… [Burton] ended his days in that chamber by hanging himself.” There are compelling reasons to think this inaccurate. Burton would not have been buried in consecrated ground had he been a suicide—though, of course, it’s possible that friends may have covered for him. Others point to the historian Anthony Wood, who described Burton as “very merry, facete, and lively,” though seemingly happy people do kill themselves. And finally, there’s the observation that within his massive, beguiling, strange, and beautiful The Anatomy of Melancholy, first printed in 1621, Burton rejected suicide—even while writing with understanding about those who are victim of it. As it actually is, the circumstances of Burton’s death remain a mystery, just as self-destruction frequently is, even as etiology has replaced astrology, as psychiatry has supplanted humoral theory.

That such a rumor spread at Christ Church, where Burton had worked for years in the library, compiling his vast study of depression, is not surprising. So identified was Burton with his subject—called “history’s greatest champion of the melancholy cause” by Andrew Solomon in The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression—that his readers simply expected such a death. Within The Anatomy of Melancholy Burton gives overview of Greek and Roman biothanatos, while still condemning it. And yet Burton empathetically concludes that “In such sort doth the torture and extremity of his misery torment him, that he can take no pleasure in his life, but is in a manner enforced to offer violence unto himself, to be freed from his present insufferable pains.” Burton was also frank about his own suffering. White Kennett would write in his 1728

A Register and Chronicle Ecclesiastical and Civil that “I have heard that nothing at last could make… [Burton] laugh, but going down to the Bridge-foot in Oxford, and hearing the bargemen scold and storm and swear at one another, at which he would set his Hands to his sides and laugh most profusely.” Such a man, it was imagined, was the sort who may have dreamed of wading into that cold water in the years when the rivers of England still froze over, walking out into infinity until he felt nothing. Who is to say? We don’t have a complete record of Burton’s thoughts, especially not in his last moments (we don’t have those things for anybody), but The Anatomy of Melancholy is as comprehensive a record as possible, a palliative for author and reader, an attempt to reason through the darkness together.

“Burton’s book has attracted a dedicated rather than a widespread readership,” writes Mary Ann Lund in Aeon, “its complicated branching structure, its Latin quotations and its note-crammed margins resist easy reading.” Though clearly indebted to the humanism of Erasmus and Montaigne, The Anatomy of Melancholy is one of those books that’s almost post-modern before modernity, like the novel
Tristram Shandy (Laurence Sterne shamelessly plagiarized from Burton). The book is encyclopedic but open-ended, erudite but curious, expansive but granular, poignant but funny; never doctrinaire, never judgmental, never orthodox, but gleefully self-referential even while contemplating sadness. Burton combed history, poetry, theology, travelogue, philosophy, and medicine for case studies, across five editions during his lifetime (and a sixth based on posthumous notes) in three separate sections printed as a folio that ballooned to half-a-million words. In the first section he enumerates accounts of melancholia, in the second he offers up cures (from drinking coffee to eating spiced ram’s brain), and in the third Burton presents taxonomies of insanity, including love madness and religious mania. The contemporary edition from the New York Review of Books Classics series is 1,382 pages long. Within those digressive, branching, labyrinthine passages Burton considers King Louis XI of France’s madness whereby everything had the stink of shit about it, an Italian baker from Ferrara who believed that he’d been transformed into butter, and the therapeutic effects of music on elephants. Lund explains how subsequent editions, rather than cutting verbiage, fully indulged Burton’s favored rhetorical conceit of concierges, whereby words are piled upon words in imitation of the manic mind, a quality that has both endeared and frustrated his readers. And yet as William H. Gass observes in his introduction to the NYRBC edition, “the words themselves are magical; you cannot have too many of them; they are like spices brought back from countries so far away they’re even out of sight of seas; words that roll… words even more exotic, redolent, or chewy.”

Sales of Burton’s monumental work, which readers felt free to dip in and out of rather than reading cover-to-cover, easily outsold Shakespeare’s folio, though by the Enlightenment his acclaim had dimmed, the work interpreted as a poorly organized baroque grotesquerie based in outmoded theories. During the optimistic 18th century, The Anatomy of Melancholy had not a single printing. Despite that, it still had readers, including Benjamin Franklin and Dr. Johnson, who told Boswell that it was the “only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise.” Romantics were naturally drawn to it; both Samuel Taylor Coleridge and John Keats had underlined copies, with the latter drawing the plot for his vampiric
Lamia from Burton. In the 20th century, the existentialists saw something modern in Burton, with Samuel Becket a lover of the book. The Canadian physician William Osler, a founder of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, thought it the greatest medical text by a layman, and was instrumental both in increased interest as well as the bibliographic tabulation of Burton’s personal library at Oxford. Despite the pedigree of his fans, Burton hasn’t had a wide readership for centuries, as The Anatomy of Melancholy has never been easy. An assemblage of disparate phenomena, a hodgepodge of unusual examples, a commonplace book of arcane quote and complicated exegesis, none of which is structured in a straightforward way, with Burton himself apologizing that “I had not time to lick it into form, as a bear doth her young ones,” though as it became even more formless over the next two decades that would belie his protestation.               

The Anatomy of Melancholy feels unfinished, just like life; it’s contradictory, just like a person; and it encompasses both wonder and sadness, just like a mind. On its quadricentenary it’s abundantly worthwhile to spend some time with Burton, because though he can’t speak of neurotransmitters, he does speak of the soul; though he can’t diagnose, he can understand; though he can’t prescribe, he can sympathize. Beyond just depression, Burton considers ailments like anxiety, obsessions, delusions, and compulsions, Sufferers “conceive all extremes, contrarieties and contradictions, and that in infinite varieties.” To paraphrase Tolstoy, the happy are all the same, but Burton’s depressives are gloriously different. “The Tower of Babel never yielded such confusion of tongues, as this chaos of melancholy doth variety of symptoms.” The second thing that is important to note is that Burton distinguishes between everyday emotions—the occasional blues if you will—from the more punishing. He explains that “miseries encompass our life,” that everyone suffers grief, loss, sorrow, pain, and disappointment, and that it would be “ridiculous for any mortal man to look for a perpetual tenor of happiness.” If somebody is suffering from physical pain or a loved one’s death, grief and sadness are rational; for a person facing economic ruin or an uncertain future, anxiety makes sense, but a “melancholic fears without a cause…this torment procures them and all extremity of bitterness.” For those whose humors are balanced, grief is the result of some outside torment, for the melancholic grief is itself the torment. Furthermore, as Burton makes clear, this disposition is not a moral failing but a disease, and he often makes suggestions for treatments (while just as soon allowing that he could be entirely wrong in his prescriptions). “What can’t be cured must be endured,” Burton notes. In the depressive canon of the late Renaissance, Burton would be joined by Thomas Browne with his similarly digressive, though much shorter, Religio Medici, wherein he writes, “The heart of man is the place the devil dwells in; I sometimes feel hell within myself;” John Donne’s sickbed, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, where he concludes that “Man, who is the noblest part of the earth, melts so away as if he were a statue, not of earth, but of snow;” and, of course, Shakespeare’s famed soliloquy from Hamlet that wonders if “by a sleep to say we end/The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks/That flesh is heir to.” And that’s just relatively High Church Englishmen; with a broader scope you’d include the Catholic Frenchman Blaise Pascal, whom in his Pensées defines man as that who is “equally incapable of seeing the nothingness out of which he was drawn and the infinite in which he is engulfed,” and the 15th-century Florentine Neo-Platonist Marsilio Ficino who wrote in his 1489 The Book of Life that the condition was “conducive to judgment and wisdom,” entitling one chapter “Why the Melancholic Are Intelligent.” None of them, however, is as all-encompassing as Burton, as honest about his own emotions and as sympathetic to his fellow sufferers. Within his book’s prologue, entitled “Democritus Junior to His Readers,” ironically written under a pseudonym adapted from the pre-Socratic thinker known as the “laughing philosopher,” Burton explains that “I had a heavy heart and an ugly head, a kind of imposture in my head, which I was very desirous to be unladen of,” and so his scribbling would act as therapy.

Across denominations, countries, and continents, the contemplation of a fashionable melancholia was encouraged, with even Burton confessing to sometimes enjoying such abjection as a “most delightsome humor, to be alone, dwell alone, walk alone, meditate, lie in bed whole days, dreaming awake as it were.” Noga Arikha explains in The Public Domain Review that melancholia could be seen as “good if one believed that a capacity for strong passions was the mark of a fine soul that recognized beauty and goodness… the source of sonnets, the harbinger of creativity,” while Darin M. McMahon notes in Happiness: A History that this is a “phenomenon that would have a long and robust future: the glamorization of intellectual despair.” A direct line can be drawn from the goth teen smoking clove cigarettes in a Midwestern high school parking lot through the Beats in their Manhattan lofts eating hash brownies and masturbating to William Blake through to the Left Bank existentialists parsing meaninglessness in the post-war haze and the Lost Generation writers typing on Remingtons in Parisian cafes back to the Decadents and Symbolists quaffing absinthe and the Romantics dreaming opium reveries until interrupted by the person from Porlock through to Burton, and Browne, and Donne, and Shakespeare, and Pascal and Ficino and every other partisan of depression. As Burton notes, “melancholy men of all others are most witty.”

More than a pose, however, and even if Burton agreed that melancholy could sometimes be romanticized, he never lost sight of its cost. Tabulating the price of anxious scrupulosity, Burton notes that “Our conscience, which is a great ledger book, wherein are written all our offences…grinds our souls with the remembrance of some precedent sins, makes us reflect upon, accuse and condemn ourselves.” In the millennium before Burton there were contrary perspectives concerning melancholy. It was interpreted by theologians as a sin—an indolent sloth called acedia—as opposed to the position of doctors who diagnosed it as an imbalance of elemental substances called humors. One thing that Burton is clear on was that melancholy wasn’t simply feeling down. To be melancholy isn’t to be “dull, sad, sour, lumpish, ill disposed, solitary, any way moved or displeased,” Burton writes, and that clarification is still helpful. For those blessed with a brain chemistry that doesn’t incline them towards darkness, depression might seem an issue of will power, something that can be fixed with a multivitamin and a treadmill. Reading Burton is a way to remind oneself—even as he maintained erroneous physiological explanations—that depression isn’t a personal failing. And it’s certainly not a sin. McMahon explains that by “reengaging with the classical tradition to treat excessive sadness and melancholia as an aberration or disease—not just the natural effect of original sin—Renaissance medicine opened the way toward thinking about means to cure it.”

That was a possibility more than anything, for the rudiments of mental health were still mired in superstition. Such an emotion was identified with an overabundance of black bile in the spleen, and a deficit of yellow bile, blood, and phlegm, a condition associated with a dry coldness, so that some of that metaphorical import still survives today. Arikha writes in Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours how the “experiences of joy, pain, anguish, and fear each had their temperature, their match in some sort of stuff in the body whose motion modulated the emotion.” In a broader way, however, there is something to be said in how the humors emphasized embodiment, the way it acknowledged how much of the emotional was in the physical. We now know that melancholy isn’t caused by problems with our humors, but rather in our neurotransmitters—I am not cutely implying that this is equivalent, accurate science is the only way that pharmacologists have been able to develop the medicine that saves so many of our lives. Yet there is an enduring wisdom in knowing that this is a malady due to something coursing in your veins, whatever you call it. “We change language, habits, laws, customs, manners,” writes Burton, “but not diseases, not the symptoms of folly and madness, they are still the same.”    

Depressives have always existed because there have always been those of us who have a serotonin and dopamine deficiency, even if we’re not lacking in yellow bile, blood, and phlegm. How culture interprets mental illness is entirely another thing, though. As Burton’s popularity demonstrates, there was a surprising lack of stigma around melancholy. In an abstract way, during the 17th century this a reaction to how eternal verities no longer seemed so eternal. Gass explains that “people were lifting their heads from canonical books to look boldly around, and what they saw first were errors, plentiful as leaves. Delight and despair took turns managing their moods.” Even while The Anatomy of Melancholy used Galen’s humoral theory that dominated medicine since the second century, the English surgeon William Harvey was developing his book Anatomical Account of the Motion of the Heart and Blood, which would dispel the basis for the four bodily humors (it would take two more centuries to die). There were more practical reasons for melancholy as well. On the continent, the Thirty Years War started three years before Burton’s book was completed and would end in 1648, eight years after he died. As many as 12 million people perished, a death rate that dwarfed all previous European wars, with one out of five people on the continent dead. Writing in the early ’20s, Burton’s native England was headed towards inevitable civil war, disunion clear in the political and religious polarization. By its conclusion, 200,000 people were dead, fully 2.5 percent of the population. By comparison, that would be as if 12 million contemporary Americans were killed. Disease could be just as deadly as the New Model Army; over the course of Burton’s life the bubonic plague broke out in 1603, 1625, and 1636, with close to 1000,000 deaths. Depression can come from an imbalance within the body, but sometimes insanity is also a sane reaction to an insane world. You still have to bear it, however.     

Burton is good humored, he may even have been jovial from time to time, but he’s resolutely a partisan of the sighing angels. Not that Burton didn’t advocate for treatment, even while he emphasized his own inexpertness. Solomon explained that Burton recommends “marigold, dandelion, ash, willow, tamarisk, roses, violets, sweet apples, wine, tobacco, syrup of poppy, featherfew, Saint’-John’s-wort…and the wearing of a ring made from the right forefoot of an ass.” We are, it should be said, fortunate to have refined our prescriptions. Despite the fact that Americans hunger for painkillers both helpful and deadly, The Anatomy of Melancholy isn’t a particularly American book. If the English malady is glum dampness, then the American affliction is plucky sociopathic optimism. A can-do-attitude, pulling-ones-self-up-from-the-bootstraps, rugged individualism, grit, determination, cheeriness. We were once inundated by snake oil salesmen and medicine men, now we have self-help authors and motivational speakers. A nation where everybody can be a winner in seven easy steps and there are keys to a new car under ever guest’s seat. “Americans are a ‘positive’ people,” writes Barbara Ehrenreich in Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America, this “is our reputation as well as our self-image…we are upbeat, cheerful, optimistic, and shallow.” Some crucial points: optimism is not equivalent with happiness, and if anything, it’s a mask when we lack the latter. That’s not bearing it—that’s deluding ourselves.

We weren’t always like this; we have our counter-melody to faux-positivity, from those dour Puritans to Herman Melville writing of the “damp drizzly November in my soul.” But could anyone imagine Abraham Lincoln being elected today, who as a young lawyer in 1841, would write that “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on earth?” Now, with the ascendancy of the all-seeing Smiley Face, we’ve categorized talk like that as weakness, even if we don’t admit what we’re doing. Our 16th president had a melancholic understanding that grappled with wisdom, what Roy Porter in Flesh in the Age of Reason: The Modern Foundations of Body and Soul phrased as “Melancholy and spleen, those stigmata of true scholarly dedication.” An ability to see the world as it is. Not just as some cankered, jaundiced, diseased thing, but how in the contrast of highs and lows there is a sense of how ecstatically beautiful this life is, even in its prosaic mundanity. Solomon writes that “I love my depression. I do not love experiencing my depression.” He explains that the “opposite of depression is not happiness but vitality,” and ignorance of this distinction bolsters the cult of positivity. Therapy is honest, unsparing, difficult, and painful. Self-help just tells you what you want to hear. Norman Vincent Peale wrote in Stay Alive All Your Life that the “dynamic and positive attitude is a strong magnetic force which, by its very nature, attracts good results.” This, quite clearly, is unmitigated bullshit. Instead of Dale Carnegie, we need Donne; rather than Eckhart Tolle we could use Browne; let’s replace Tony Robbins with Robert Burton.  

Because, dear reader, if you haven’t noticed, we’re not at a happy point in history. America’s cheery cult of optimism is finally folding under the onslaught of the pandemic, political extremism, economic collapse, and the ever-rising mercury. If you’re the sort who’d be chemically glum even in paradise, then if you’ve already been to hell, you might have a bit of extra knowledge folks could benefit from. Stanley Fish explains in Self-Consuming Artifacts: The Experience of Seventeenth Century Literature how “sober discourse itself is an impossibility given the world,” and that for Burton “nothing—no person, place, object idea—can maintain its integrity in the context of an all-embracing madness.” Gass is even more blunt on the score: “When the mind enters a madhouse…however sane it was when it went in, and however hard it struggles to remain sane while there, it can only make the ambient madness more monstrous, more absurd, more bizarrely laughable by its efforts to be rational.” Burton speaks to our epoch, for depression is both real and there are legitimate reasons to be depressed. As he writes, melancholy is an “epidemical disease,” now more than ever. Burton’s prescriptions, from tincture of marigold to stewed offal, seem suspect—save for one. With the whole world an asylum, Burton advocates for awareness. There are risks to such hair-of-the-dog though. “All poets are mad,” Burton writes, the affliction of “excellent Poets, Prophets, &c,” and I suspect, dear reader, that you too may be in that “etcetera.” Depression, along with addiction, is the writer’s disease. Sylvia Plath, James Baldwin, David Foster Wallace, Ann Sexton, Arthur Rimbaud, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson, and so on—all wrestled with the noon-day demon. Many of them died because of it, at least in one way or another. There is no shame here, only sadness that some couldn’t be around with us a bit longer, and the genuine, deep, and loving request that you, dear reader, stick around here. As for Burton, he was committed to the principle that “I write of melancholy, by being busy to avoid melancholy,” and it often worked. He gives the most poignant expression to that black veil that shrouds the mind, the caul of the soul that afflicts some from time to time. If writers are prone to depression, then Burton’s tome was an attempt to write himself out of it, to “satisfy and please myself, make a Utopia of mine own, a New Atlantis, a poetical commonwealth of mine own.” We’re lucky that he did, because even if it’s not the only thing—even if it’s not always the best of things—there is something sacred in that. No matter how occluded, know that somebody else understands what you’re feeling.

So, blessed is Burton and duloxetine, therapy and sertraline, writing and citalopram, empathy and fluoxetine, compassion and escitalopram. Blessed are those who ask for help, those who are unable to ask for help, those who ask if somebody else needs help. Blessed are those who struggle everyday and blessed are those who feel that they no longer can, and blessed are those who get better. Blessed are those who hold the hands of anyone suffering. Blessed is understanding—and being seen—for what Burton offers you is the observation that he sees you, the reader. “I would help others, out of a fellow-feeling,” he writes. Because Robert Burton often felt worthless; as if he was walking at the bottom of the chill Thames. Sometimes it felt like his skull was filled with water-soaked-wool and his eyes pulsated, vision clouded over with gauzy darkness; he knew of listing heaviness and the futility of opening the door, of getting dressed, of leaving the bed, of how often the window of care shrunk to a pinpoint of nothingness, so that he could feel no more than that. This strange book studded with classical allusion and scriptural quotation, historical anecdote and metaphysical speculation—who was it for? He wrote for the person who has had the tab for this article open on their computer for days, but has no energy to read; for the woman who hasn’t showered in weeks and the man who can’t bring himself to go outside. “Thou thyself art the subject of my discourse,” Burton writes. His purpose was one thing—to convey that you have never been alone. Not then, not now, not ever.