Ian Nairn and the Art of Seeing a City


It’s not easy to pigeonhole the late English writer Ian Nairn. But after reading his work—and I’ll be focusing here on Nairn’s Paris, originally published in 1968 and just reissued by Notting Hill Editions—you might rightly decide that there’s no need to do so. His rubric doesn’t matter because, whatever kind of writer he is, he follows his own meandering counsel, and the results are consistently brilliant.

We can say this much for Nairn: He’s a classic flaneur, walking through cities, observing finely grained details, taking witty notes; he’s also a sharp architecture critic, slinging the lingo of flying buttresses and the ha-ha with an easy fluency; and he’s even part art historian, or at least a dedicated acolyte, encountering portraits in the Jeu de Pomme that make him “want to sit down and howl.”

These charming qualities, in addition to a breezy cultural disposition that allows him to describe a region’s cafes and restaurants as “less split up into caff and toff,” left me feeling that I had, at least from my across-the-pond perspective, discovered some hidden old-world sage that, in addition to offering a totally pleasant reading experience, might help me see (not really understand but, even better, see) American cities—perhaps even my own—with more generosity and clarity.

The best writing about the urban landscape—from Georg Simmell’s 1903 essay “The Metropolis and Mental Life” to Walter Benjamin’s reflections on Marseille, to Lewis Mumford’s The City in History to Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities—are functional tracts. They mostly tend toward the sociological and, as such, can be intellectually fulfilling—but also a bit dry.

Next to them are those rambunctious travelogues undertaken by writers from Patrick Leigh Fermor to Paul Theroux. Fermor’s account of his peregrinations from Rotterdam to Istanbul in A Time of Gifts, much like Theroux’s most recent Deep South, are so fun they almost qualify as guilty pleasures. But, in the end, they titillate without really asking us to do more than experience the titillation and tell our friends. Not dry, but not hugely fulfilling either.

Nairn manages to both inspire and divert. His immediate allure is his unique interplay of language and observation. The Boulevard Saint-Germain “is full of intellectuals and their audience.” L’Opera is “a declamatory roulade of allegory that would pump a sense of occasion into the limpest libretto.” The Bassin de la Villette—a humble canal basin on the East End of town—elicits the reaction that, “Like many things in France, it looks battered but works well.” An archway on the Rue des Ecoles “is embroidered with posters, inches thick, concert upon manifesto like a cream sauce of the intellect.” And at the Bibliotheque Saint Genevieve, “The roof itself resembles nothing so much as a salad of that spiky kind of French lettuce that discharges all other tastes without imposition and without losing its own identity.” Fun and uncannily accurate, these sort of descriptions offer the perfect lure to the deeper fare within.

Nairn arranges Nairn’s Paris as if it were a guidebook, with hundreds of discrete entries on the city’s landmarks. What qualifies as a worthy landmark, though, is broadly conceived, and tenderly reflective of Nairn’s larger ambition to experience and present the city as a cohesive, living and breathing space. The Louvre, Notre Dame, Versailles, the Eiffel Tower all get begrudging entries, but this is a “guidebook” that deigns to include reflections on squatter communities, suburbs, sewers, camping sites, launderettes, and, my favorite, an electricity substation. More often than not, Nairn, through the sharpness and generosity of his observation, exposes the hidden elegance in these obligatory features of urban space, ones that surround all of us all the time.

He finds one patch of bidonvilles (squatter neighborhoods) to be “a ramshackle muddle of sheds and shacks, roofed with felt and packed with sacking—one even has ‘a vendre’ [for sale] on it.” He notes (thankfully without a hint of irony) that “it does have a basic sense of identity.” As for the substation, he concludes, after a fastidious description of its layout, “the effect, in the hedgeless flat landscape, is overpowering.” Before leaving the scene he observes, “each grid line crackles away softy and the combined chorus of these electric mice is unnerving.” Just as unnerving, you realize, is the sad fact that you have walked through cities for a lifetime and never once stopped to consider such structures as having anything except utilitarian value.

Nairn’s refusal to dice up and single out polished parts of the battered whole leads to a vision of urban space that is democratic, fluid, and, as a result, accommodating to anyone willing to slow down and observe. If you have ever felt the current of a city lure you into its ebb and flow, you were probably not contemplating the major landmarks and browsing the art museum gift shop. Instead, you were, in whatever unassuming way, allowing the city to just be itself as you participated in the quotidian.

Nairn discovers this organic, off-the-center-stage disposition in unexpected places. Say, a passing cop: “The Parisian gendarme is involved, not detached—and I don’t doubt this may mean a readier resort to beating up. But, on the right side of the law and particularly in traffic control, it implies a human experience, not an imperfect imitation of robots.” My favorite entry in the book is about an “Object, corner of rue des Archives and rue des Haudriettes.” He calls it, “the perfect mot juste, humanizing the city, making bearable the worrying fact that seven million people are living in such a very small space.” Of Square Rene Viviani he writes: “This is a marvelous place. No keep-off the-grass…and all that the absence of keep-off-grass implies: children using the place as if it were an adventure rather than an ‘adventure playground.’”

Behind the Viviani, Nairn mentions, almost as an afterthought, the “implacable Gothic artillery” of Notre-Dame lurking beyond.  Avoid it, he seems to suggest, as well as Vincennes, “one of the most bad-tempered collection of buildings in the world,” and Versailles, “an unwanted ugly ducking,” and Fontainebleu, where “even the most hardened traveller may wilt before this limp collection of authoritarian clichés,” and Place du Marche-Notre Dame, “that great lummox at the top of the hill,” and Saint Denis, with an “abbey that growls out at the gloomy little town,” and the staircase at Maisons-Lafitte, which has “an authentic academic chill on it,” and…well, you get the picture. His bitterness is sweet.

Nairn seems happiest when Paris (and its environs) isn’t trying so hard. And so he admires “the slow-spoken honesty” of a suburban church, calls the zoo “one of the best things in Paris, and advises going to Parc Saint Maur and “watching gently and sympathetically.” A small footbridge that no tourist has ever made a special trip to see “is elevated by sheer atmosphere into being one of the most precious bridges in the world.” The Jardin du Luxembourg is not a success because of the formal designs—“the formal parts are disappointing”—but because of the areas interspersed between them: “go anywhere under the trees and the magician city’s trick works again: the space apparently endless, everyone doing what they want and leaving you to do the same, the outside world not shut out but brought to heel, presented in tamed vignettes.”

Imagine being able to derive so much meaning from the space under the trees at a public park. The most remarkable thing about Nairn’s writing is that you realize, after only a few pages, that, in fact, you don’t have to do. You can do it. And then—voila!—the world you see everyday is transformed.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

A Rare and Beautiful Creature: On the Life and Work of Frank Stanford


You have to wonder, when considering Frank Stanford, if poetry isn’t a little like science in that individuals matter only in so far as they resemble other individuals. Stanford’s exclusion from anthologies, his obscurity even to other poets, and the sense that, as one reviewer confessed, “it was difficult to explain where [his] orphic power came from,” all contribute to the myth that Stanford, who killed himself in 1978 (aged 29), eluded recognition because he rose de novo from the same Arkansas red soil into which he fell. The additional fact that, as a physical specimen, Stanford was a latter-day Adonis only enhances the myth of his exceptional nature. “His eyes,” wrote a friend, “were soft to the point of bovine.” His wife, Ginny, an artist, recalled that when she first saw Frank “it was like getting hit on the head with a brick.”

There’s truth in the romanticized Stanford: He was undoubtedly a rare and beautiful creature. Some critics classify him as a “swamp rat Rimbaud.” But that’s more cool than accurate. He didn’t really know swamps. He knew levee camps, the dark wooded expanse of rural Arkansas, and the gutted mobile homes of the downtrodden. While the id-leakage and surrealist tinge of his work—all of it available in one volume, What About This—hint at Rimbaud, such qualities evoke more a caricature of Rimbaud than the itinerant absinthe addict seeking literary companionship in the metropolis. That kind of quest was one that Stanford, who would have rotted internally at a New York literary gathering, wasn’t eager to undertake. “I don’t give a shit about a lot of the literary goings on I hear about,” he wrote to the poet Alan Dugan, one of his few reliable correspondents. He brushed aside his better-connected contemporaries as overeducated aesthetes “who school up on theories and shit like minnows.”

Others trying to assign Stanford an influence often suggest Walt Whitman. But what poet with any affection for the hurly-burly of everyday life isn’t classified as Whitmanesque? And Whitman, for all his admirable range and tolerance, would have blanched at the slow countrified violence that marked Stanford’s experience (so different than the hot Civil War gore that Whitman confronted) and informed his early works such as The Singing Knives (1972) and Field Talk (1974). Stanford took a class with Miller Williams, but the only thing I find him saying about Williams (father of Lucinda) is, perhaps affectionately, “that SOB Williams.”

And so it seems fair to suggest that the anxiety of influence—a creative necessity for so many poets—may have failed to penetrate the mobile-homed hamlets where Stanford roamed, rambled, mused, and wrote with prolific intensity.

Hidden Water: From the Frank Stanford Archives (2015) offers a lot to support the thesis.  It suggests that Stanford’s primary poetic wellspring was a radically regionalized and isolated Stanford. This febrile volume, which is essentially a controlled chaos of letters, lists, drawings, scraps, photos, and poems (published and unpublished), highlights the kaleidoscopic flow of Stanford’s all-too-brief poetic existence, an existence ultimately marked by innocence that was, as one friend put it, “smuggled out of childhood.”

As the title indicates, water runs strong throughout Stanford’s poems. But what roils beneath it, what seems to never leave the page, is the steamy subculture of country life, the kind of subculture that, if you’ve never known it directly, can be vaguely imagined by driving though L.A. (Lower Alabama), central Mississippi, or Stanford’s rural Arkansas, and peering beyond the tree walls into weed-choked pockets and piles of poverty and decay.

Stanford worked as a land surveyor. He knew this terrain as well as anyone, and it was into that scrambled wilderness that he went when it was time to encounter (to quote Patti Smith on Sam Shepard) “lonely fodder for future work.” Stanford’s friend Steve Stern noted as much, saying that “to see Frank in the streets of Fayetteville, where I knew him, was like meeting Marco Polo back from Cathay.”

Stanford, a southern poet by temperament and geography, surveyed himself into a literary landscape far away from the conventional southern tradition. “I don’t like Tate and Ransom and that crew,” he wrote to Dugan in 1971, referring to two founding members of the Fugitives, a group who would later, as newly fashioned “southern Agrarians,” publish a bombastic literary defense of the south called I’ll Take My Stand (1930).

In another letter to Dugan, probably written while intoxicated (“I was drunk when I wrote that letter,” he once admitted), Stanford ratcheted up the critique. “I say piss on the neo-fugitives…piss on the Southern Review.” These “scalawags” were nothing more than “exploiters of the truth, the black man, the white. There. I know all this but none of it enters my mind when I write my poems. I have no stand when I write. I write about what I know; what is the truth. I know this other stuff is counterfeit, but they will always have the power. Fuck.”

Stanford’s anti-Fugitive rant follows a much longer passage dealing with race. Stanford wrote, “You probably think I am fucked up with my ‘association’ with BLACKS. This is the way I’ve always been. Most of my life was not spent with white people. My experience, I took for granted. I was actually in high school before it dawned on me I was probably only one of the only white boys in the world who had done what I’d done. This was in 63, when my father died. He told me this.”

Only after making the connection between his upbringing and his deep affiliation with black people does Stanford (before pleading with Dugan “please don’t laugh at what I’m saying”), declare with ineffable tenderness: “I knew I was a poet.”

Other letters, photos, and poems confirm that Stanford’s engagement with African-American culture intensified during adulthood and shaped his view of the world. When he wrote about “what I know; what is the truth,” it was knowledge obviously absorbed through daily interactions with people such as Claude, a black man with whom he’d often share a meal of “whiskey and pigs feet” and spend hours, sometimes days, engaged in discussions.

Some of these discussions were more eventful than others. On Jan. 13, 1972, he wrote to Dugan, “Claude and I were talking about when he used to be in jail down in Louisiana [when] someone started shooting. All his children hit the floor. Claude said, ‘sorry about that Frank, some crazy fool’s been shooting that pistol all week.’” The party went on, though. “For the next few weeks we drink, shoot the shit, play dominoes together. We get drunk and talk about years gone by…in our midnight talks, while listening to old music sessions we talk about how close we have (and others near and far) come to death. It is getting to be a big joke: all the stories of pistols and knives.”

Stanford, born in a home for unwed mothers, was immediately put up for adoption. He never knew his biological father and, as perhaps his affection for Mr. Jimbo Reynolds, an older black man for whom he wrote the poem “Blue Yodel of Mr. Jimbo Reynolds,” had long entertained the idea—or fantasy—that he had black parentage.

The connection between Stanford and African-American culture—an inventory of 119 records in Stanford’ collection, thoroughly jazz and old country blues, includes only two white musicians (Stan Getz and Stéphane Grappelli)—in addition to his outright rejection of the Agrarian legacy and his stern poetic solipsism, suggests a reconsideration of the entire idea of a southern literary renaissance. Michael Kreyling, in his classic study Inventing Southern Literature, writes how “Although I’ll Take My Stand has, since its publication, been taken as a kind of sacred text, and its message a kind of revelation, in fact it serves as a script for inventing southern identity through anxiety.” Stanford embraced a southern identity. But he rejected the many-sided anxiety the Agrarians brought to it. (Stern actually hypothesized that “anxiety was wasted on Frank.”)

In this disposition, I would argue, Frank Stanford was not alone. The “southern renaissance” happened, but it started with the Mississippi flood of 1927 (the hidden water of southern literary history), Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lead Belly, and Skip James more than Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, and I’ll Take My Stand.

My favorite photograph in Hidden Water is one of Stanford sitting on the porch with a paperback on his lap (Federico García Lorca). His legs are propped on the railing and his face looks slightly annoyed at being interrupted. Three pairs of shoes surround him, two resting on the railing, one on the porch floor. It’s tempting to see those shoes as a metaphor—the very items that Stanford, in his mysterious “orphic power,” will never fill. But perhaps there’s something else going on in that photo. Perhaps those shoes contain giants who, for far too long, have gone unseen.

Escaping the Waste Land: On Flannery O’Connor and T.S. Eliot

- | 12

Early in her novel Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor describes protagonist Hazel Motes, leader of the Church without Christ, by the silhouette he casts on the sidewalk. “Haze’s shadow,” she writes, “was now behind him and now before him.” It’s a strange way to situate a character — skulking between his shadows — but it’s not unprecedented. In The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot’s narrator refers to “Your shadow at morning striding behind you/Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you.” Coincidence? Nobody can say for certain. But in the rare case of a critic linking O’Connor and Eliot, Sally Fitzgerald (O’Connor’s close friend) wrote that “it was Eliot and his Waste Land who provided for her the first impetus to write such a book as Wise Blood.”

Harold Bloom, the literary critic who thrives on making such connections, famously argued that great writers, burdened by what he called the “anxiety of influence,” subconsciously misread established literary giants to achieve originality. But in this case, O’Connor is not misreading Eliot. She’s answering him. The Waste Land delivers a darkly poetic proposition. Every line relentlessly reiterates the theme that, in the wake of World War One, hope had been leached from life. Existence, in the poem’s assessment, culminates in a word one rueful lover repeats in The Waste Land’s second section: “Nothing . . . Nothing. . . nothing . . .nothing . . .Nothing.”

O’Connor was a Catholic whose literary ambitions hewed to an active faith. For her, nothing could come from nothing. She embraced The Waste Land’s despair but refused to accept its emptiness. In her essay “The Church and the Fiction Writer,” she wrote, “I have heard it said that belief in Christian dogma is a hindrance to the writer, but I myself have found nothing further from the truth. Actually, it frees the storyteller to observe.” This belief — informed by a desire to observe from a Christian angle — compelled her to both absorb the meaningless in Eliot’sThe Waste Land while, at the same time, offering a response. Of Hazel Motes, she once wrote, “His search for a physical home mirrors his search for a spiritual one, and although he finds neither, it is the latter search which saves him from becoming a member of the wasteland and makes him worth 75,000 words.”

In both Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away, O’Connor — as Harold Bloom would expect one to — evokes Eliot’s wasteland by replicating its prominent themes. She transplants the desolate urban iconography of The Waste Land’s to the small rural enclaves of the American South. O’Connor’s southern landscape is the “upsidedown half of the world,” a sad and painful sprawl of land where “each weed that grew out of the gravel looked like a live green nerve.” At times her landscape seems on the verge of exploding into flames and, in least one instance, at the end of The Violent Bear it Away, does just that. But in the midst of this desolation and conflagration she confronts Eliot’s dried-up nothing with a flood of something. Decisively, if jarringly, she proposes a vision — albeit a strange vision (Eliot once said of O’Connor, “She has certainly an uncanny talent of high order but my nerves are just not strong enough to take much of a disturbance”) — of human redemption.

Eliot delivers the ruins. O’Connor preserves them, navigates them, and then, inspired by Catholicism, discovers in them an original form of grace.

Whatever anxiety O’Connor experienced over mimicking Eliot (probably not very much), she didn’t attempt to hide it. In O’Connor’s second (and final) novel, The Violent Bear It Away, the 14-year-old Francis Marion Tarwater receives from his aging uncle, with whom he lives in a countrified wasteland, careful instructions on how to bury his large dead body when he eventually keels over in their isolated abode. After digging what the uncle insisted had to be a proper hole (“I want it ten foot”), Tarwater was then, according to the uncle’s directions, instructed to “prop me with some bricks so I won’t roll into it and don’t let the dogs nudge me over the edge before it’s finished. You better pen up the dogs.” In The Waste Land’s single reference to burial, a soldier home from war in London sees a former comrade walking across London Bridge and asks, “That corpse you planted last year in your garden,/‘Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?” And then: “Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to man/Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again.”

In both instances, in both wastelands, dogs are banished from the graveside. They will not be set loose to complete Antony’s famous order, delivered in Act III, Scene I of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, at Caesar’s funeral, to “let slip the dogs of war.” That act would miss the point in these mirrored wastelands because, as both Eliot and O’Connor suggest, whatever justice is to be attained is, alas, pointless. The body is interred. The play is over. Death is death. Dust is dust. The dogs must be locked away.

Perhaps the only prospect worse than death is, for both authors, eternal earthly life. It’s a prospect that both Eliot and O’Connor symbolize in the form of a shriveled, miniaturized body. The Waste Land opens with an epigraph that declares (in part): “Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi in ampulla pendere.” Translation: “Now I myself with my own eyes saw the Sybil of Cumae hanging in a jar.” According to myth, the Sybil of Cumae asked Apollo for eternal life but, in so doing, forgot to ask for eternal youth. Wish granted, the Sybil ages forever, shrinking to the point that she fits in a glass jar. The image is reliably referenced later in the poem as a symbol of existential hopelessness (“You ought to be ashamed, I said, to look so antique.”)

What worked for Eliot worked for O’Connor. In Wise Blood, Enoch Emery, the trickster sidekick whose friendship Haze Motes rejects, steals a mummified dwarf (displayed in a glass case) from a local museum and delivers it to Sabbath Lily Hawks, the nymph lover of Motes, in a paper sac. Enoch wants Motes, despite his bad attitude, to have the desiccated and shrunken mummy as a “new jesus” symbol for his Church Without Christ. Earlier in the novel, when Enoch first sees the mummy, he approaches it cautiously, after reading a sign on the wall that tells him “he was once as tall as you or me.” As with Eliot’s Sybil, the mummy has diminished in size over time. The scene ends when a mother walks into the museum with two boys, both of who approach the glass and peer at the blackened figure.

O’Connor, again in Wise Blood, practically completes Eliot’s scene for him. In Eliot’s epigraph (which inexplicably switches to Greek), two boys approach the Sybil in the jar (some think this was the inspiration for Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar), just as the boys do in O’Connor’s museum. They ask her, “What do you want?” and the Sybil replies, in true Eliot fashion, “I want to die.” O’Connor grants the Sybil her wish when, after Sabbath showed Motes the mummified new Jesus, he “snatched the shriveled body and threw it against the wall.” Upon impact, “the head popped and the trash inside sprayed in a little cloud of dust.”

Few words are more evocative of The Waste Land than that carefully considered word: dust (a mote of dust). If there is a line that best captures the depth of the poem’s existential terror it comes when the narrator promises, “I will show you fear in a handful of dust” — or, as O’Connor suggests, maybe in the shattered head of a purloined dwarf.

O’Connor’s novels also follow Eliot’s lead on the theme of blindness. The inability to see, partially or completely, pervades The Waste Land. The “hyacinth girl,” from section one, describes a moment of potential romantic happiness when the girl notes of her possible lover, “we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden,/Your arms full and your hair wet.” It’s one of the poem’s only moments of hope. But it’s immediately dashed when the hyacinth girl recalls how, quite suddenly, “I could not speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither/Living nor dead, and I knew nothing.” Later in the same section, the prophetess “Madame Sosostris,” consults her “wicked pack of cards” — is there any hope in there? — and finds a Phoenician sailor with “pearls that were his eyes” as well as a “one-eyed merchant.” The merchant on the tarot card carries something possibly significant on his back, but it turns out to be something for which Madame Sosotris must confess, “I am forbidden to see.” Some prophetess — she’s without foresight.

Sight, or lack thereof, is even more central to inner mechanics of Wise Blood. Hazel Motes, who can see normally when we meet him, eventually blinds himself in an act of spiritual rage. Motes’s antagonist, the preacher Asa Hawks, also sees normally, but fakes blindness as a ruse to foster donations. When naming her characters, O’Connor must have had in mind “seeing like a hawk” and the biblical “why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” (And maybe even King Lear.) Either way, the theme of compromised sight is even in peripheral scenes. When Motes and Sabbath encounter a caged black bear at Tennessee gas station (don’t laugh, I once saw a caged ostrich an east-Texas gas station), we learn that “the bear had only one eye.” Enoch Emery’s landlady was “almost totally blind but moved about by an acute sense of smell.” Sabbath Lily says to her father about Haze, “I like his eyes. They don’t seem to see what he’s looking at, but they keep on looking.”

The similarities continue in other areas as well. They appear when Tarwater is raped in The Violent Bear it Away, and in Tarwater’s sadistic baptism (which results in drowning the feeble initiate). But, in the end, O’Connor isn’t content with simply mimicking Eliot’s hellscape of despair. Instead, she yanks us in the opposite direction — from a ghastly landscape to a strange paradise of redemption. And she does so in a way that, indeed, made her a true original — at once devout, humorous, and spiritual. It is in that last description of Motes’s eyes — “but they keep on looking” — that O’Connor’s faith intervenes, her Catholicism asks to be honored, and she lays an eccentric basis for hope.

Eliot ends his poem with a spiritual assessment of a wasted land that’s so devoid of life (specifically water) that it even dries out any prospect of Christ’s resurrection and, by extension, the rest of humanity. “After the agony in stony places/The shouting and the crying/Prison and palace and reverberation/Of thunder of spring over distant mountains/He who was living is now dead/We who are living are now dying.” To be sure, Motes doesn’t escape death. He dies in the back seat of a cop car. But before his death, after his blindness, as his spiritual vision intensifies towards something, he takes to staging his own crucifixion (wrapping himself in barbed wire and filling his shoes with rocks), and attempts his own conversion experience through a painful form of redemption.

The book ends with Motes’s corpse propped in a chair at the home of his landlady. Her name — evoking the water that never quenched The Waste Land — is Mrs. Flood, and her final observation — that she thinks (with her eyes shut) she sees “a pin point of light” in his dead eye sockets — is the twinkle of hope that you can search for throughout The Waste Land and never find. It is O’Connor’s way of answering, and escaping, The Waste Land. It is her way of resurrecting Motes, and ensuring that his quest for meaning never loses significance.

Image Credit: Wikipedia.

The Physical Book Will Surely Endure: But Will It Endure for the Right Reason?

- | 8

Stefan Zweig — the renowned Viennese writer who, in the 1930s, chose exile over Adolf Hitler — adored his books. As he moved globally among temporary residences, the collection followed, providing an anchor of stability in a world gone adrift. “They are there,” he wrote of his volumes, “waiting and silent.” It was left to him, the avid reader, to grab them, feel them, and make them speak some measure of sense to his unhinged experience.

Books offered Zweig, in part, a predictable form of comfort. “They neither urge, nor press their claims,” he observed. “Mutely they are ranged along the wall…If you direct your glances their way or move your hands over them, they do not call out to you in supplication.” In his thoughtful and often riveting book, The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World, George Prochnik quotes the author describing how it felt to approach a full bookcase: “A hundred names meet your searching glance silently and patiently…humbly awaiting the call and yet blissful to be chosen, to be enjoyed.” No matter where he lived — New York, London, Rio — Zweig maintained access to this form of bibliophilic bliss to the end.

Anyone who relates to such an attraction will understand it as an intellectually unique, often aesthetically sublime, experience. And now, according to two Italian economists, it might also be financially beneficial. As reported by one of the weirder studies undertaken last year (focused only on men between 60 and 96), growing up around books — simply existing in their physical presence — corresponded to higher income over time. “Those [kids 10 or older] with many books,” the authors write, “enjoyed substantially higher returns to their additional education.” The media, as you might imagine, feasted on the news. Headlines went from “Books You Should Read to Get Rich” to “Boys Who Grow Up Around Books Earn Significantly More Money.” Who cares if Bill Bill Gates reads 50 books a year?  Now all you needed to do — according to the new research — was to put on display at least 10 of them. Ka-ching.

Zweig grew up around books — more than 10 — and, incidentally, he became rich. His novels — Amok, Confusion, The Royal Game, to name a few — and biographies — on Marie Antoinette and Erasmus most notably — flew from the shelves. He was the most translated German-language writer before World War II. His 1941 autobiography, The World of Yesterday, was recently translated into English and continues to sell at a brisk pace (not everyone is happy is about that). That’s good for Zweig, his legacy, and his fans.

But there’s a distinction to draw here. The economists who conducted the “books make you wealthier” study were merely confirming the point that cultural capital corresponds to book ownership. It’s a point so obvious it’s almost meaningless. Any family who owns books, and considers books to be even symbolically significant enough to display them, is a family that nurtures the educational ethos required to make money. But none of that concerned Zweig. Zweig courted (and carted) his books not for the cultural capital they represented; he did so for their imaginative fertility, their ready source of escapism, the touchstone they offered to an inner reality. Speaking about a room full of books, he once said, “How good it is there to create and be alone.” Their decorative presence took a back seat to their seminal emotional power. It’s what they did for him — his imagination, his sense of self, his rampant curiosity — that mattered most to Stefan Zweig. The wealth was incidental.

Zweig’s love of books, considered against their supposed wealth-generating capability, presents a compelling dichotomy that’s quite relevant today: Books as remunerative symbols of educational attainment versus books as objects that allow us to drop out and delve inwards. This dichotomy is relevant because, for one, it fundamentally alters the big question everyone keeps asking about the book as a physical object. No longer is it “will the book endure?”  Instead, it’s “why will the book endure?”

Yes the book will endure. Of course the book will endure.  You’ve likely heard a million people rhapsodize about the alluring physicality of books. They’re correct to do so. You’ve also likely heard the news that independent bookstores are making a comeback. This is also as it should be. As an empirical matter, reading on a tablet cannot remotely approach the sensual literary experience offered by an old-fashioned book. The latter is, I’d venture, intrinsically more pleasurable than the former, not unlike the intrinsic difference between high quality toilet paper and the sandpaper stuff used in bus stations. And while it’s true that Socrates expressed grave concern that the written word would erode memory and storytelling, his distinguished descendant, Cicero, had it exactly right when he said, “A room without books is like a body without a soul.”

Of course, a room stuffed to the rafters with books can also be as soulless as a tin can. These days, if our Italian economists are right, books are often nothing more than decoration for social strivers. The fact that cultural capital can evidently be correlated with actual capital is another way of saying that a wall of books has nothing necessarily to do with the literary ambitions of the resident reader. Consider the “books by the foot” trend — that is, the option of purchasing random books in bulk for the singular purpose of showing them off rather than reading them. This commercial genre is exceedingly popular with interior decorators, so much so that, as if to stay a step ahead of the skepticism, bulk book suppliers have specialized by tailoring books for the client’s purported general interests (to make it really seem like this is a library reflecting the owner’s personal literary tastes), while still color-coordinating book covers to match the pillow slips.  In this respect, the purchase and display of books becomes a conspicuous example of what the late French literary critic René Girard, in Mimesis and Theory, calls “external mediation” — the process whereby a person’s displayed tastes and desires influence those of others — resulting in the cheapest and least meaningful form of imitation.

If this is how we’re going to save the book — decorative mimicry — well then, forget it. True believers know that a room with books should accomplish something altogether more subversive and selfishly edifying — that it should foster radical internal mediation rather than decorative inspiration. Books should conspicuously confirm the persistence, in the face of so many competing (and lesser) forms of distraction, of a fierce dedication to promiscuous reading, the kind that requires — a la Zweig — that walls of literature be constantly approached, scanned, and chosen from. And then — the part that we rarely talk about when we talk about books — a roomful of books must be allowed to exact a cost. The thing about a room full of books is that conquering it, living within it as a real reader, treating it as it should be treated, means making sacrifices that deeply effect other human beings — and not always in a good way. The refraction of personal experience, when pursued through a physical book, is ours alone. As Emma in Madame Bovary knew very well, reading was a venue for the most satisfying selfishness. The “reality of experience,” as it’s noted at the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is forged in the smithy of a single soul. When we read we become our own wistful Emma, our own self-absorbed Dedalus. You are with you. That’s it. And people might get annoyed by that.

I had to laugh when I read that being around books makes you more money. At the beginning of 2015, I started a well-paying freelance research gig. On paper, it was ideal: I worked from home, I made my own hours, I kept my day job teaching undergraduates, and the topic was interesting enough. The problem was that my home office, where I was to do my research, contains nearly 2,000 books. Many of them I have yet to read. Just as many I want to read again. After a day and half of working in my office, sitting amid these book-lined walls, I was broken by environment. Their visual allure and the promise of what they contained was too much to ignore as I did my official job. My letter of resignation followed. I remember that when my (dumbfounded) employer responded (he said I was “impetuous” and “foolish”) I was reading Middlemarch. A lot of people around me have paid a price for my choice. But Zweig, I am sure, would have approved.

Books Should Send Us Into Therapy: On The Paradox of Bibliotherapy

- | 8

As an advocate for both books and therapy, I determined, upon first hearing the word “bibliotherapy,” that this might be my bespoke profession. I go to group therapy. I read a lot of novels. I’m constantly recommending novels to my group. Members struggling with various problems typically don’t count on me to empathize through personal experience. They count on me for book recommendations. Your adult son is an expat in Europe and is exploring his sexuality? See Caleb Crain’s Necessary Errors. You feel alienated from your wealthy family but drawn to nagging spiritual questions about existence? Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer is for you. Gutted by the loss of a loved one? You could do worse than James Agee’s A Death in the Family (Men’s therapy group, by the way).

The concept of bibliotherapy — a word coined in 1916 — long teetered on the edge of trendiness. But lately it has tilted toward truth. The highbrow media has weighed in favorably — consider Ceridwen Dovey’s much discussed New Yorker profile on The School of Life’s bibliotherapy team. And then the books: Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, Andy Miller’s The Year of Reading Dangerously, William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education and, perhaps most notably, The Novel Cure by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin. Each book, to varying degrees, suggests connections between reading and happiness. A Google Scholar’s worth of criticism — my obscure favorite being Keith Oatley’s “Why Fiction May Be Twice as True as Fact: Fiction as Cognitive and Emotional Simulation” (pdf) — has lent the idea scholarly heft. To be clear: nobody is arguing that reading books is a substitute for the medication required to treat acute mental illness. But the notion that novels might have a genuine therapeutic benefit for certain kinds of spiritual ailments seems legit.

If we concede that books can be therapeutic, then it seems appropriate to explore the potential pitfalls of asking literature to serve that cause. Of initial concern is the inherent presumptuousness of the endeavor. When I advise my fellow group therapy members — whom I know as intimately as I know anyone, if intimacy is defined by the sharing of anxiety, fear, and grief — what they should read, the assumption is that I’m able to divine how my interpretation of a novel will intersect with their predicted interpretations of the same novel. If reception theory tells us anything, it’s that this kind of interpretive foretelling, especially when refracted through the radically subjectivity of a novel, is a matter of great uncertainty, and maybe even an implicit form of lit bullying (“What? You didn’t pick up on that theme? What’s the matter with you?).

Plus, novels don’t work this way. They aren’t narrative prescriptions. Even when done badly, novels are artistic expressions necessarily unmoored from reality, expressions that ultimately depend on idiosyncratic characters who act, think, and feel, thereby becoming emotionally, psychologically, intellectually, and even physically embodied — quite differently — in every reader’s mind. Yes, The Great Gatsby has universal appeal. But there’s a unique Gatsby for every reader who has passed eyes over the book. (Maybe even Donald Trump has one: “not great, not great; an overrated loser.”) Given the tenuousness and variability of this personal act of translation, it’s hard not to wonder: How could anyone expect to intuit how anyone else might react to certain characters in certain settings under certain circumstances?

In The Novel Cure, Berthoud and Elderkin aren’t hampered by this question. They match personal contemporary ailments with common literary themes as if they were complementary puzzle pieces. They do so under the assumption that the mere presence of a literary counterpart to a contemporary dilemma automatically imbues a novel with therapeutic agency. They advise that a person dealing with adultery in real life might want to read Madame Bovary. Or that someone who struggles to reach orgasm should read Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Does this kind of advice make any sense?

Consider the adultery example. How can Berthoud and Elderkin assess exactly how novelistic adultery will be translated into thoughts and feelings about something as deeply contextualized as real life adultery? How can they assess if it will be translated at all? Think of all the possible reactions. Use your imagination. A contemporary cuckold could go off the rails at any juncture in the Bovary narrative. He could become so immensely interested in Gustave Flaubert’s intimately detailed portrait of 19th-century provincial life, and the people in it, that he eventually finds the cuckolding theme a distraction, finishes the novel, quits his high paying job, and commits himself to a graduate program in French social history. Books have driven people to do stranger things. Sure it’s unlikely, but my point is this: Telling someone precisely what to take from a novel, based on the superficiality of a shared event, isn’t therapeutic. It’s fascist. A repression of a more genuine response.

More interesting would be to reverse the bibliotherapeutic premise altogether. Instead of asking “what’s wrong with you?” and assigning a book, assign a book and ask “what’s wrong with you?” When I lend books to friends outside of therapy, this strategy (upon reflection) is basically what I’m testing. I’m not trying to solve a person’s problem. I’m trying, in a way, to create one. I want to shake someone out of complacency. Great novels (and sometimes not so great ones) jar us, often unexpectedly. Ever have a novel sneak upon you and kick you in the gut, leaving you staring into space, dazed by an epiphany? Yes. Novels do this. They present obstacles that elicit the catharsis (from katharo, which means clearing obstacles) we didn’t think we needed. We should allow books to cause more trouble in our lives.

But the sanguine bibliotherapeutic mission will have none of that. Its premise is to take down obstacles and march us towards happiness. Proof is how easily this genre of therapy veers into self-help territory. The New York Public Library’s “Bibliotherapy” page suggests that readers check out David Brooks’s The Road to Character, Cheryl Strayed’s Brave Enough, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. These books are assuredly smart books by smart writers, all of whom I admire. But the goal of this type of book is to help readers find some kind of stability. There’s obviously nothing wrong with that. But the problem from the perspective of literary fiction is that such “self-improvement” books seek to tamp down the very human emotions that literature dines out on: fear, insecurity, vulnerability, and the willingness to take strange paths to strange places. Imagine reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment without being at least little off kilter. You’d shut the book the moment Raskolnikov committed his murder. Being moved by fiction means being willing to be led astray a little. It helps if your rules are not ordinary.

It also seems prudent to wonder how the bibliotherapeutic pharmacy would bottle up the work of certain writers. Would it do so in a way that excludes literary genius? Almost assuredly it would. Cormac McCarthy, whom many critics consider one of the greatest writers ever — appears three times in The Novel Cure. Predictably, The Road is mentioned as a way to (a) gain insight into fatherhood and (b) achieve brevity of expression. That’s it — all talk of apocalypse and the survival instinct as integral influences on human morality is brushed aside. Inexplicably, Blood Meridian is listed as a book that sheds light on the challenge of going cold turkey. I have no idea here. None. But I do know that if you are a reader who grasps the totality of McCarthy’s work, your literary soul, as Cormac might put it, is drowning in a cesspool of roiling bile.

Because here is what bibliotherapy, as it’s now defined, has no use for: darkness. Real darkness. McCarthy’s greatest literary accomplishment is arguably Suttree, the culmination of a series of “Tennessee novels” that dealt in chilling forms of deviance — incest, necrophilia, self-imposed social alienation — that, on every page, sully the reader’s sense of decency. McCarthy’s greatest narrative accomplishment was likely No Country for Old Men, a blood splattered thriller that features a psychopath who kills random innocent people with a captive bolt pistol. These works, much like the work of Henry Miller (none of whose sex-fueled books get mentioned in The Novel Cure), aestheticize evil — in this case violence and misogynistic sex — into brilliant forms of literary beauty. They are tremendously important and profoundly gorgeous books, albeit in very disturbing ways. They are more likely to send you into therapy than practice it.

The good news for bibliotherapy is that there are too many hardcore fiction readers who know all too well that concerted reading enhances the quality of their lives. A single book might destabilize, tottering you into emotional turmoil. But books — collectively consumed through the steady focus of serious reading — undoubtedly have for many readers a comforting, even therapeutic, effect. This brand of bibliotherapy, a brand born of ongoing submission to great literature — not unlike traditional therapy — does not necessarily seek to solve specific problems. (In my group therapy, members have been dealing with the same unresolved issues for years. We define each other by them.) Instead, what evolves through both consistent reading and therapy is a deep, even profound, understanding of the dramas that underscore the challenges of being human in the modern world.

So, despite my concerns, I remain a believer in bibliotherapy. But its goal should not necessarily be to make us feel better. It should be to make us feel more, to feel deeper, to feel more honestly. In this respect, quality literature, no matter what the subject matter, slows the world down for us, gives us time to place a microscope over its defining events, and urges us to ask, what’s going on here, what does it mean, why do I care, and how do I feel? That might not qualify as formal therapy, but it’s a good place to start.

Image Credit: Pixabay.

Shape Beneath Color: The Impressionistic Wonders of ‘To the Lighthouse’

- | 2

 Ekphrasis is an aesthetic notion the meaning of which has shifted over time. The literary critic Christopher Benfey once described it as “writing inspired by a painting.” This definition works well enough for me. Not only is Benfey’s interpretation usable, but it’s consistent with how writers often interpret literary inspiration. “I learn as much as painters about how to write as I do from writers,” Ernest Hemingway said. And James Baldwin: “painters have often taught writers how to see.”

The ekphrastic impulse also includes film. Richard Ellmann compared Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” to “the moving cinema-like eye which homes in on a detail, then springs back to survey a panorama.” Not to be overlooked is the photographic snapshot, exemplified by John Dos Passos’s 51 “Camera’s Eye” sections interspersed throughout the U.S.A. trilogy, usually to freeze a kinetic urban moment (one that, in certain editions, was illustrated with a Reginald Marsh drawing.)

I suppose the spirit of ekphrasis informs almost every modern novel. But few manifest the practice more explicitly than Virginia’s Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Set on the Scottish Isle of Skye, built around a young boy’s desire to sail to the local lighthouse, and ultimately defined by a piercing exploration into the adults around him, To the Lighthouse relies on a modernist aesthetic deeply indebted to impressionistic painting.

Scholars and critics have already explored Woolf’s relationship with impressionism from many angles. We know a lot, for instance, about how Woolf shared an impressionistic aesthetic with her contemporaries, how her background might have inclined her toward impressionism, how her impressionism may have informed her feminism, how her impressionistic strategies were honed in early short stories, and how her impressionistic memory was visual. But the impressionist impulse seems to always come from afar, from the context of her life and art. Less understood is how impressionism provides a guide into the inner workings of the novel itself. The text instead of the context.

Woolf routinely blurs her scenes into an impressionistic haze. She describes Mr. Carmichael, a poet visiting the house on the Ile of Skye, as a person “sunk…in a grey-green somnolence which embraced them all” (evocative of some of Claude Monet’s Rouen Cathedral paintings). A former painter’s influence was powerful enough to insure that future painters who visited the Ramsey summer compound (such as Lily Briscoe) only made pictures that were “green and grey, with lemon-coloured sailing-boats and pink women on the beach” (see Monet’s Regattas at Argenteuil). As Mrs. Ramsey entertains her son James in the kitchen (he’s upset about not going to the lighthouse), Woolf observes “how life, being made up of little separate incidents which one lived one by one, became curled and whole like a wave which bore one up with it and threw one down with it, there, with a dash on the beach.” The image — memories being transmuted into a wave — provides an implicit suggestion that nothing in the natural world mimics an impressionist painting more accurately than the ocean crashing into a mayhem of foam (see Monet’s “Storm at Belle Ile” or, although pre-impressionistic, Gustave Courbet’s “The Wave”). Repeatedly, Woolf advances the impressionistic theme that, as she notes about Lily’s much tortured painting in progress, “beneath the color there was the shape.”

It’s hard to imagine a better description of the genre.

I’ve read To the Lighthouse twice, both before and after my introduction to ekphrasis. After is much better. And not just because of the expected benefits that come from rereading. An overt awareness of Woolf’s impressionistic focus allows one to appreciate what visual art accomplishes within the contours of Woolf’s ambition. Speaking in general terms, impressionism becomes a scrim behind which Woolf hauls her novel into ever-deeper psychological territory — territory that literature had heretofore mostly avoided. In Woolf’s hands, impressionism permits the interior life to float through the narrative like black ink in a basin of water, creating slowly shifting forms rather than hard lines, which seems about right if the goal is to explore the amorphous nature of the inner self.

Art historians identify impressionism’s defining feature as light. But Woolf stresses distance. Impressionistic space — be it in the form of big skies, hovering churches, fields of haystacks, or an expanse of lily pads — becomes the capacious room for Woolf’s largest questions. Fearlessly, she plunks these queries into the novel like stones in a pond, confident that the ripple effects won’t displace too much: Is it good, is it bad, is it right or wrong?…What does one live for?…What does it all mean?…What is the meaning of life?…What am I?…Who knows what we are, what we feel? 

In most contexts, these overwrought queries would ring hyperbolic. Instead, they resonate at a distant remove from the grimy details of everyday life, as well as beneath Woolf’s protective but soft gauze of color. In so doing, these big questions collectively orient the reader toward meaning beyond the characters. Instead of seeming indulgent, they guide us towards complicated psychic truths that are both integral to the self but transcendent to it. Not incidentally, this strategy of gentle abstraction may help explain why Woolf had ambiguous feelings about James Joyce’s Ulysses — where the entirety of Dublin comes at you in a fire hose of detail 00 but approved of Whitman’s poems, with all that careful and rhythmic homing in and springing back.

Woolf’s debt to impressionism culminates in the eventual trip to the lighthouse (it only took 10 years to get there!). James’s sister Cam watches the shore recede from her comfortable perch on the boat. As the lines around hard objects fade, she enters a frame of mind capable of confronting the big questions that Woolf presents. “[T]he lawn and the terrace and the house,” writes Woolf, “were smoothed away now and peace dwelt there.” Later, with the distance between Cam and the shore having increased, with even more dingy detail “smoothed away” by the solace of space, Cam concludes that the people on the blurry shore “were free like smoke, were free to come and go like ghosts. They have no suffering there.” Cam’s is hardly a random observation. It’s indicative of a mind liberated by distance, a mind primed by abstraction to invite queries into phenomenon bearing on the inner self and, again, what lies beyond it. Have you ever, during a moment of turmoil, looked up to seek a breath of resolution? Yeah.

Woolf harnesses this impressionistic power to direct her psychological investigations into even minor figures such as William Bankes. Observing the jerky movements of a hen, Bankes, worries, as one well might, that “the pulp had gone out of” his friendship with Mr. Ramsey. Then he looks up and outward “at some far sand dunes.” It is, by most standards, an utterly innocuous gesture. But, as Woolf explains, “in this dumb colloquy with the sand dunes he maintained that his affection for Ramsey had in no way diminished.”

It’s a small realization — one of millions that make us whom we are — and it couldn’t have happened under Bankes’s nose, but only in the “acuteness and reality laid up across the bay among the sandhills.” Staring at a humble hen, for reasons we’re invited to ponder, flattened Bankes’s insight into his friendship status with Mr. Ramsey. But when he looked across the bay he was “alive to things which would not have struck him had not those sandhills revealed to him the body of his friendship.” Who knew the position of your head carried such significance? This phenomenon we are also invited to ponder.

In the novel’s penultimate scene, Lily stands in grass near the shoreline and watches the sailboat slice its way to the lighthouse. As the space grows between her and the crew, which includes Mr. Ramsey, she suddenly laments how “she could not reach him.” Earlier in the day, the chronically insecure but brainy Ramsay was fishing for a compliment from Lily but Lily — for reasons she couldn’t explain to herself — refused to oblige. But as she watched “the boat now flatten itself on the water and shoot off across the bay,” she changed her mind. “The sympathy she had not given him weighed her down.” To alleviate her guilt, to now reach out to Mr. Ramsey, Lily “dipped into the blue paint.” As Woolf notes, she reached for art because “the problem of space remained.” So the gap between them — which Woolf describes “a fine gauze which held things” — needed to be closed. But, significantly, only painting had the power to do that.

And not just any painting:
Beautiful and bright it should be on the surface, feathery and evanescent, one color melting into another like the colours on a butterfly’s wing; but beneath the fabric must be clamped together with bolts of iron. It was to be a thing you could ruffle with your breath; and a thing you could not dislodge with a team of horses.
This gorgeous but impossible aesthetic highlights the novel’s ultimate and most moving ekphrastic moment. Woolf slyly transfers the novel’s grand literary challenge to Lily’s painting. Lily even more slyly transfers her artistic challenge to the crew heading to the lighthouse. The crew guilelessly makes it to the lighthouse and, mission accomplished, as waves crash around them, gain insight into themselves. And the reader is left in an impressionistic blur that somehow clarifies more than it obscures.

Getting Meta about Mules: Faulkner and the Fine Art of Slowing Down

- | 1

In high school I had to read a lot of William Faulkner. An ambitious literature teacher fresh from Davidson College introduced us to The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, and Light in August in a single semester. Of course it was torture, subjecting the linear teenage mind to such non-linear narration, but something about Faulkner stuck, and one day on winter break, as a storm dropped a thin blanket of snow on Atlanta, I picked up The Reivers.

Suddenly Faulkner changed. So accessible. So clear. So page-turning. I would later read critics who breezily called the Pulitzer Prize-winning book lighthearted, narratively simple, and, for these reasons, atypical Faulkner (“affectingly wistful,” Jonathan Yardley wrote). It was, as they say today, a fun read, maybe (it was implied) too much so for a heavyweight such as the bard from Oxford.

But later in life I returned to Faulkner much in the way you return to the music of your youth. And on closer inspection it struck me that nothing about The Reivers was simple. In fact, the book, a thematic wolf in sheep’s clothing, was (and remains) one of the weightiest road-trip novels ever written. The Reivers, in essence, gets very meta about movement.

The OdysseyOn the RoadZen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance — these books capture long-duration mobility as a backdrop to drama. But in The Reivers, movement itself is the drama, not to mention the quickening pulse of Yoknapatawpha, a place where, the closer you look, the more the characters materialize by gathering moss.

The book opens with a mobility upgrade. Boon Hoggenbeck steals (reives — it’s a Scottish term) Lucius Priest’s grandfather’s car so he can drive from Jefferson to Memphis to visit a prostitute named Miss Corrie. Before Boon departs, Lucius, aged 11, convinces him to bring him along for the ride. En route, they discover that Ned McCaslin, a black man who tends to Lucius’s grandfather’s horses, is hiding in the back seat. As the car fills with characters, The Reivers indeed becomes affectingly wistful, with Huck Finnish coming-of-age excitement leavening the trip.

Matters become a little heavier in Memphis. Boon drops Lucius at Miss Reba’s brothel and goes searching for his “girlfriend.” Ned, in the plot’s pivotal scene, secretly barters the stolen car — the first car in Yoknawpatapha County (where it’s 1905) — for a horse — “Coppermine” — he plans to train up and race hard at a local track (under the new nom de guerre “Lightening”). With the proceeds, Ned vows to buy back the vehicle and allow the dividends to speak to his considerable equine expertise.

Critics have long characterized The Reviers as a soft critique of modernization. It’s certainly that. Horses and mules haul so many themes around Faulkner’s novels that it seems appropriate for him to grant the beasts an 11-hour paean (this was his last novel), which he does by favorably juxtaposing the car’s defects with the horse’s reliability.

One example stands out. Midway to Memphis, Priest’s hijacked car gets stuck in a mud hole. The men struggle to wedge it out with iron bars and a plank of wood, but the vehicle — “so huge and so immobile” — proves to be “too fixed and foundational.” Defeated, Boon pays the mud hole’s owners a few bucks to have the car dislodged by a couple of mules, animals he later describes as “already obsolete before they were born.”

What follows is as arresting as anything Faulkner ever wrote. In an instant, the car morphs from an icon of progress into a “mechanical toy rated in power and strength by the dozens of horses.” It’s no longer a shiny symbol of a modernizing South, but an instant fossil, something you’d discover in layers of bedrock, an object that’s “helpless and impotent in the almost infantile clutch of a few inches of the temporary confederation of two mild and specific elements — earth and water.” The horse, an animal Faulkner deeply understood, triumphs over the car.

But Faulkner is hunting more substantial game here. He’s after the very morality of movement itself. In Western thought, the link between movement and morality is by no means self-evident or routinely explored. But to migrate, by definition, is to go astray. And to go astray is to err — to be errant — and, in turn, to be flawed, or at least radically open to its possibilities. The Reivers honors this definition, allowing movement to constitute error — personal, historical, collective error — as well as make possible its upshot: redemption.

But error comes first. After the travelers are disengaged from the mud hole, they eat fried chicken and ham and assess the near future. “When we crossed Hell Creek,” Boon explains, “we crossed Rubicon” and “set the bridge on fire.” They feel the frisson of liberation: “the very land itself seemed to have changed…the air was very urban.” Only automotive power — such a novelty in 1905 — allows them to barter the past for a future characterized by “the mechanized, the mobilized, the inescapable destiny of America.”

But such liberation comes at a cost. When the trio eventually finds the main road to Memphis — “running string straight into distance” — the world they once knew blurs into confusion. The geography outside the gunmetal doors — “the Sabbath afternoon, workless, the cotton and corn growing unvexed now, the mules themselves sabbatical and idle in the pastures” — becomes lost to Lucius, who recalls, “I couldn’t look at it…I was too busy, too concentrated.” Hurdling through space in metallic containment quietly erodes a sense of place and the integrity such a feeling nurtures. “It was Virtue who had given up, relinquished us to Non-virtue,” Lucius remembers thinking as the car kicked up dust. “The country itself was gone.”

And then they stop at Miss Reba’s. “You’ll like it,” Boon tells Lucius.

Lucius doesn’t like it. Lucius is horrified. His experiences at the brothel culminate in a coming-of-age sequence that includes a badly cut hand, copious tears, and the tectonic realization that “I knew too much, had seen too much; I was a child no longer now; innocence and childhood were forever lost, forever gone from me.”

But what never leaves Lucius is the potential for redemption. Redemption in The Reivers is embodied in the noble form of the horse. The relationship that Lucius and Ned develop with Lightening — the bartered horse that Lucius eventually rides in two mile-long circles — restores “the country itself” to a non-automotive pace and routine. It’s on the sweaty back of Lightening — a horse maintained with mechanical precision by Ned — that Lucius transcends his fate and recovers his virtue.

The Reivers ends with this moving restoration. On the way to the race, Ned and Lucius must load Lightening onto a train car. Once in the container, the “horse’s hot ammoniac reek…and the steady murmur of Ned’s voice” blend into something “concentrated” and ineffable. Lucius, a nervous wreck about the race, says he “actually realized not only how Lightening’s and my fate were now one, but that the two of us together carried that of the rest of us, too, certainly Boon’s and Ned’s, since on us depended under what conditions they could go back home.”

Lucius and Lightening, when the first ride begins, careen down the track “as though bolted together.” With that unification, all characters return home the wiser, knowing, as Grandpa Priest would soon tell Lucius, “nothing is forgotten.”

Today, more than 50 years after The Reivers was published, a cottage industry exists to teach us to slow down and simplify the hectic pace of contemporary life. Think Shop Class as Soul Craft, You are Not a Gadget, or Last Child in the Woods. It’s easy to dismiss this genre of literature as a wistful — that word—blend of nostalgia and self-help. Reading The Reivers though, saps the impulse to mock. Although Boon is quick to note to that “if all the human race ever stops moving at the same instant, the surface of the earth will seize,” he also learns that slowing life down enough to watching mules on sabbatical can save your soul from the perils of speed.

Aphrodisiacal Footnotes and the Impotence of History

- | 5

The only footnotes worth reading these days are the ones written by David Foster Wallace. Wallace made the marginalized fine print purr with energy. The typical Wallace footnote is something of a trick. It begins with what appear to be functional intentions before morphing into a linguistic stunt delivered with a sweet mixture of wit and tenderness. When it’s over (and that
can take a while — sometimes pages in 7-pt font), a single Wallace footnote creates shockwaves that reduce the dominant text, no matter how brilliant, to an afterthought.

I’m speculating here, but I’m fairly certain those footnotes probably got Wallace laid. A lot. D.T. Max’s recent (and wonderful) biography is littered with anecdotes documenting the writer’s opportunistic carnality. We learn, for one, that on a fall afternoon, making his way across the
quadrangle of Amherst College, Wallace turned to a friend and noted how “the smell of cunt was in the air.” Seriously. Cunt. Here was this off-the-charts brilliant man, a charming wordsmith who used words such as priapic and supperate as if they were the stuff of bathroom graffiti, reducing garden-variety lust to a word so juvenile in its offensiveness that most decent folk just refer to it, under duress, as “the c-word.”

Say what you will about propriety, but such language bespeaks drive. My introductory claim here is thus that Wallace’s success with women — however fleeting and detached and cold — had something to do with those footnotes. Again, I’m aware that this sounds sort of ridiculous. But think about, as a reader, how a truly good footnote can rivet you to the page and transport you to an exotic fantasyland. It’s the verbal equivalent of wink and a nod, a secret invitation to look under the hood. Wallace footnotes are an exclusive invitation to connect over something more exciting than whatever’s happening above, at that moment, in the conventional living room of common text where words make small talk. It is, alas, an aphrodisiac.

I’m a professional historian. I’m indoctrinated, not to mention professionally obligated, to wonk out on footnotes. But, after two years of studying Wallace’s trail of gems, I’ve stopped reading historical footnotes. Comparatively speaking, they’re beyond painful, about as sexy as grandma jeans, and — as a direct result — a collective foreshadowing of my profession’s slow demise. I don’t mean to sound dramatic here. But I do mean to be clear and confessional and might as well get to it:

I’ve not only stopped reading historical footnotes but, due to Wallace’s footnotes, I’ve stopped reading all academic history. Having been seduced by a real writer’s footnotes, I just can’t do it anymore. I’m well aware that there are very sensible and sober reasons for including historical footnotes, especially when you are writing about, as they are in the current issue of The American Historical Review, “the contingencies of postcolonial history-writing.” I get it. But the critical if reductive fact of the matter is that no historian in the history of writing history was writing history in order to get laid. And that’s ultimately why, I’m afraid, we’re history. Our time has come.

For me, an inveterate novel reader, this conclusion has been marinating for a while. Many novels that I’ve been reading over the past few years — Hilary Mantel notwithstanding — generally express a lingering hostility toward my profession, or at least hostility to what the profession
refuses to aspire to: telling accurate and relevant and entertaining stories about the past with such skill that readers want to sleep with you.

My reading journal alone brims with novelistic expressions of scorn for my trade. There’s Bud’s plea to Lit to cease talking about the past in Charles Frazier’s Nightwoods. He says, “Come on, fuck this shit. What do you care about history? I thought we were friends.” Or there’s Don DeLillo’s time-obsessed narrator in Point Omega, declaring, “An eight-hundred-page biography is nothing more than dead conjecture.” Or consider Julian Barnes’s character Finn, the precocious kid in The Sense of an Ending who, to further stoke the awe of his peers, utters oracular portents such as, “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.” (And then he gets laid.) Add to the mix Alistair MacLeod’s No Great Mischief, in which Macaulay, the great historian of England, is casually dismissed as a guy “who just made it up after the event.” Such is the novelistic respect for historical thought and writing.

The disparagement of my profession in the pages of modern fiction doesn’t bother me at all. It shouldn’t. It can’t. It’s pretty accurate, for one. For another, it’s ultimately a kids’ gloves treatment. It doesn’t come remotely close to capturing the remarkable depth of the historian’s unmatched capacity to ask questions that evoke drool and then answer them with coma-inducing prose. I’m not exaggerating here. A professional historian (not like those successful amateurs who we simply hate for actually getting people to read history) can drag you into verbal ennui faster than an instruction manual for an Ikea bunk bed. The sad thing is that we were trained to do this. Indeed, we’re creative people dulled by the arbitrary and pinheaded imperatives of professional achievement. The sexy stimulus of storytelling has been leached out of us by comp exams and dissertation writing and Turabian. Wallace, who was smart enough to drop out of a PhD program in philosophy to keep his literary voice untainted, can write a footnote that makes you want to have sex. The historian can write about sex in a way that makes you want to read the footnotes. Who are you banking on for the future?

Thing is, we’re all — historians and novelists and essayists and poets — just weaving yarns. This is our common quest. Still, there’s something about the radically different conventions of narration and permissible flexibility of voice between professional historical writing and other forms of storytelling that turns out to be fatal for the future of history. Good novels make you want to seduce and frolic and celebrate and indulge. Good works of academic history to make you want to drink a vial of hemlock. Which is another way of saying that if novelists wanted to really go after professional historians they could mock us even higher up the ivory tower than we’ve already situated ourselves. Frankly, they should. We’ve earned our marginalization. We’ve practically begged for it: mock us.

Chances are we’ll be too far up to hear you. In fact, it’s almost as if we’ve purposely gone against the grain of what works narratively, detaching ourselves from hoi polloi while posing as their champions. In the nineteenth-century you had historians like Frances Parkman telling heroic and tragic tales about explorers and adventures and nation building and Indian fighting. It was exceptional stuff (even if it was exceptionalism at its worst). If a professional historian wrote like Parkman today he’d be vilified for his attention to simple-minded storytelling and failure to analyze, to deconstruct, to complicate, to . . . ugh! . . .contextualize. Today, all the drive to be sexy has been neutralized by context. F. Scott wrote to win over Zelda. Historians write for tenure. It has been more than 70 years since Walter Benjamin, in his classic essay “The Storyteller,” lamented how “Less and less frequently do we encounter people with the ability to tell a tale properly.” He complained. “It is as if something that seemed inalienable to us, the securest among our possessions, were taken from us: the ability to exchange experiences.” He must have had historians in mind.

Here’s what I would suggest that every young PhD student in history currently begin doing (besides preparing yourself for not getting a job): a) skim works of history but study novels; b) never use the words complicate, contexualize, limn, framework, or rich (as in “The driving analytic motivation is to alternately complicate and contextualize the prevalent effort to limn the rich territory between fiction and fact.”); and c) read Wallace’s footnotes, paying attention to how beautifully he’s trying to seduce you. In essence, no matter what your topic is, no matter how obscure or geeky or peripheral, write as if you were telling a story to win over a romantic interest. To be blunt: write as if you were trying to get laid. You most likely won’t, but at least you will have left behind something useful.

Image via Nick Douglass/Flickr