1.Before ISIS toppled the minaret of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Anbar Province, or threaded the Mosul tombs of Daniel and Jonah with incendiary, Utnapishtim was somewhere in the desert. He was there before the Americans with their hubristic occupation, in some cave while soldiers in Kevlar patrolled the banks of the Tigris, M1 tanks of the Third Infantry rolling toward Baghdad and F-22s of the 101st Airborne cutting across the skies of Karbala. Utnapishtim survived Saddam’s reign, with his mustard gas, torture chambers, and the invasion of Kuwait; he’d seen men burnt alive on Highway 80 by the Americans; he’d endured the brutal war with Iran, when tanks got stuck in the mud of Dezful and Khorramshahr was turned into a city of blood; he was there when the Ba’athists overthrew the Hashemite monarchy.
Utnapishtim lived through the British Mandate of Mesopotamia, when Sir Percy Cox drank G&T’s at the officer’s club; he’d lived when Iraq was a backwater of the Ottomans, and he saw Mamluks, Jalayirids, and Mongols steer their horses across the desert; he witnessed Genghis Khan in Khwarizmi, more centaur than man. He snuck unseen into the Baghdad of the Abbasids, city of gardens and astrolabes, where he discussed Hadith with the humane Mu’tazila and parsed Aristotle with Ibn Sina. Prior to the Islamic Golden Age, Utnapishtim was in Ctesiphon when Yazdegerd III fled as the Arabs marched into the Sasanian Empire, the Zoroastrian mages unable to prevent the course of history (true of all of us). He was there when Trajan marched columns of iron-armored Roman centurions into Parthia, and when Alexander the Great established Seleucid.
Witness to when Cyrus the Great freed the Jews of Babylon, and when Hammurabi’s scribes chiseled the law into stone. Utnapishtim had endured Chaldeans, Babylonians, Assyrians, Akkadians. Our primogeniture, the oldest of men, born in Sumer; as old as cuneiform pressed into wet clay, as old as sunbaked cities and the farming of wheat on the Euphrates’s banks, as old as the words themselves. Enki of the stars and An of the sky, Enlil of the wind and Ninhursag of the mountains molded Sumer, and by the banks of Eden birthed humans like Utnapishtim. Our only refugee of that before-time, the only person to survive when the fickle gods conspired to destroy the world by flood shortly after having created it.
He dwelled when Iraq was Uruk, before civilization’s keystone was set, when the firmament was new. Utnapishtim survived leaders and conquerors, presidents and dictators. Breathing before Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Muqtada al-Sadr, George W. Bush, Saddam Hussein, and the Ayatollah Khomeini; talking before King George V and Kaiser Wilhelm II; walking before Mehmed II, the Abbasid caliphs, and Genghis Khan; older than the Prophet Muhammad; older even than Yazdegerd III, Alexander the Great, Cyrus the Great, Darius II, Sargon of Akkad, and Ashurbanipal. He witnessed the inundation of ziggurats, the collapse of towers, the immolation of temples. For the thousands of reigns he lived through, the kings innumerable and emperors forgotten, only one had ever sought his counsel. Despite being two-thirds divine, a king who would ultimately die like the rest of us; a fearsome ruler named Gilgamesh.
2.The tale of a righteous man visited by a god who warned him of rising waters—who in response builds an ark, venturing forth when a dove that he’s released confirms that dry land has reemerged—may strike you as a story that you’ve heard before. Norman Cohn parses the purpose of these stories, writing in Noah’s Flood: The Genesis Story in Western Thought that “large areas of what used to be Mesopotamia…were frequently devastated by flood. When torrential rain combined with the melting of the snows… the Tigris and Euphrates could burst their banks.” Cohn explains that in “ancient times this phenomenon gave rise to a powerful tradition: it was believed that here had once been a flood so overwhelming that nothing was ever the same again.” But if Genesis focuses on sin and punishment, the anonymously written Epic of Gilgamesh has no moral, save for a brief on why we must die at all (or at least why most of us must).
Unlike Noah, who even with the antediluvian extremes of 950 years did ultimately die, Utnapishtim was gifted (or cursed) by the gods with immortality. Some other differences with the Bible’s account, for Genesis records nothing of having to fight scorpion-monsters to reach Utnapishtim. Gilgamesh was stricken over the death of his best (and arguably only) friend, Enkidu, the wild man domesticated by the priestess Shamhat with sex and beer (as so many people are). For the ruler of Uruk, Utnapishtim promised something that can’t be purchased in gold, the possibility of Enkidu’s resurrection and Gilgamesh’s immortality. In Stephen Mitchell’s reimagining Gilgamesh: A New English Version, Utnapishtim queries the ruler: “who will assemble/the gods for your sake? Who will convince them/to grant you the eternal life that you seek?”
Utnapishtim tasks Gilgamesh, the man who defeated the mighty ogre Humbaba, that immortality is his if he simply stays awake indefinitely. Despite quasi-divinity, powers temporal and physical, authority and prestige, Gilgamesh can’t defeat slumber. Utnapishtim mocks the king, “Look at this fellow! He wanted to live / forever, but the very moment he sat down, / sleep swirled over him, like a fog.” All of human weakness and desires—our need to eat, our need to shit and piss, our need to fuck—signal that our lot is not that of Utnapishtim or of the gods who created him. Even if you can defeat Humbaba, the Epic of Gilgamesh reminds us, sooner or later you’ll nod off.
Finally, Gilgamesh is informed that the only means of living forever is to acquire a magic plant growing at the bottom of all rivers’ sources, which the ruler promptly finds, only to have the wily serpent (at the start of an auspicious career) snatch the fruit away from him. Enkidu’s death has left the king raw and lonely, but Utnapishtim’s example is illusory and dangerous, for it “postpones Gilgamesh’s necessary acceptance until a time when he is more ready for it,” as Mitchell writes. Gilgamesh realizes that immortality is not literal; one does not live forever at the world’s eastern edge, but rather in deeds, memories, and in words. We’re told by less mature voices to rage against the dying of the light, but the earliest story has Gilgamesh confront immortality’s mirage, understanding how “now that I stand / Before you, now that I see who you are, / I can’t fight.”
Ironically, Utnapishtim’s story was forgotten for millennia (if filtered through other myths). “Though it is one of the earliest explorations of these perennial themes,” writes David Damrosch in The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh, “this haunting poem isn’t a timeless classic.” Hidden just as surely as Utnapishtim in his orchard, the influence of The Epic of Gilgamesh is subliminal in our cultural memory. Preserved on a few broken kiln-burnt tablets strewn about the floor of the Akkadian king Ashurbanipal’s library, The Epic of Gilgamesh wasn’t rediscovered until the 19th century by British archeologists. Of that, Utnapishtim’s discourse on eternity occupied only a few lines on the 11th tablet.
Literary historian Michael Schmidt in Gilgamesh: The Life of a Poem describes the epic as constituting “the first road novel, the first trip to hell, the first Deluge.” So much has come after what that nameless scribe wrote; it predates Homer and Virgil, Dante and John Milton, William Shakespeare and Jane Austen, Anne Bradstreet and Emily Dickinson. Even though ignorant of Gilgamesh, they worked and aspired to the same timelessness, for as Schmidt writes, it “prefigures almost every literary tone and trope and suggests all genres, from dramatic to epic, from lament to lyrics and chronicle, that have followed it.”
The Epic of Gilgamesh reminds us that there have been many floods, many apocalypses, many deaths, and virtually nobody has ever come out the other side alive. To live forever may be a myth, yet for our lack of eternity, even after all these millennia, we are still “Wandering, always eastward, in search / of Utnapishtim, whom the gods made immortal.”
3.Sex evolved before death. Arguably the former was a prerequisite for the latter. Sexual reproduction, genetic material exchange resulting in a new individual, was first practiced among simple prokaryotes—unicellular organisms lacking membrane and nuclei—about two billion years ago. Birds do it, bees do it, educated fleas do it, and apparently even prokaryotes do it. Such hobbies introduce beneficial genetic variations that the date-night loneliness of asexual reproduction simply doesn’t allow for. When celibate organisms reproduce through mitosis, they’re cloning themselves—the individual is the species. If you squish an asexual prokaryote, there are millions more just like it—death is meaningless; it is fundamentally immortal. But once sex exists, the loss of any one thing can be considered the irretrievable death of something completely unique, no matter how simple it may be. As the old joke at my alma matter has it, “Sex kills. If you want to live forever, go to Carnegie Mellon.”
Immunologist William R. Clark explains in Sex and the Origins of Death that “Obligatory death as a result of senescence—natural aging—may not have come into existence for more than a billion years after life…programmed death seems to have arisen at about the same time that cells began experimenting [with] sex…It may be the ultimate loss of innocence.” From the first orgasm came the first death gasp—at least proverbially. Human culture has subsequently been one long reaction to that reality, debating whether it was a fall or a Felix culpa.
That sex precedes death isn’t just a biological fact, but it has the gloss of theological truth about it as well. Such is the chronology as implied by Genesis; though there was debate as to if Adam and Eve did have sex in Eden, there seemed little doubt that they could have (though St. Augustin said it could only be facilitated through pure rationality, and not fallen passion). That all changes once Utnapishtim’s wily serpent makes a reappearance, and God tells Eve that He will “greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children.” Only three verses later, and God tells Adam that “dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” Sent beyond Eden’s walls to live out their finite days in the desert, their only consolations are sex and death.
Eros and Thanatos endures in the human psyche. Since the 16th century, the French have referred to orgasm as la petite mort, the “little death.” When that phrase first appeared, Europe was in the midst of syphilitic panic. A disease of replacement: silver noses pressed into the viscus putty of a rancid face, and of the tics and mutterings of those who’ve gone insane. Anthropologist Jared Diamond writes in Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies that when syphilis “was first definitely recorded…in 1495, its pustules often covered the body from the head to the knees, caused flesh to fall from people’s faces, and led to death within a few months.” If scolds were looking for the connection between sex and death, syphilis was a ready-made villain. Always a moralizing faith, Christianity was made a bit more so with the arrival of syphilis; in 15th-century Florence the fanatical Dominican Girolamo Savonarola taught that it was God’s punishment for decadent humanism; a generation later and the Protestant Martin Luther would concur with his Catholic forebear.
In Naples they called it the “French disease,” and in Paris it was an Italian one, but epidemiologists have configured it as American, noting its arrival shortly after Christopher Columbus’s return from the Caribbean. Syphilis was an export alongside potatoes and tomatoes; an unwitting revenge for the smallpox introduced into the Western Hemisphere. If modernity signals its own fall, than syphilis was perhaps an indiscriminate punishment, for as historian Roy Porter writes in The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity, syphilis “should be regarded as typical of the new plagues of an age of conquest and turbulence, one spread by international warfare, rising population density…[and] the migrations of soldiers and traders.” Sacrificed immortality was the price that living creatures paid for the possibility of connection, for if eternity was once a biological process, then its opposite was as well.
4.Ponce de Leon looked for immortality in Florida, it’s true. Somewhere near where tourists stroll eroding Miami Beach, soccer moms pick their children up from Broward County strip malls, or hearty adventurers visit Pensacola gator-parks, the conquistador had obsessively searched for the Fountain of Youth. According to (apocryphal) legend, de Leon was fixated on stories told by Native Americans of a mythic source water whose curative properties would restore men to youth—indefinitely. Immortality by water fountain if you will. “Ponce de Leon went down in history as a wishful graybeard seeking eternal youth, like so many Floridians today,” quips Tony Horowitz in A Voyage Long and Strange: On the Trail of Vikings, Conquistadors, Lost Colonists, and Other Adventures in Early America.
Arawak and Taino spoke of a spring named “Bimini,” located everywhere from the Bahamas to the Yucatan. De Leon looked for it in the future Sunshine State, though you’ll note that he did not find it. If you’ve ever visited the Old Town of San Juan, Puerto Rico with its charming, crooked stone streets that meander by colonial buildings painted in pinks and blues, you’ll find that far from achieving immortality, de Leon is buried inside of the white-walled Cathedral of San Juan Bautista. In 1521, somewhere between Florida’s hidden Fountain of Youth and immortality, de Leon found himself in the way of a manchineel poisoned arrow wielded by a Calusa warrior.
When de Leon envisioned a bubbling creek that could restore him to lost youth (probably better to have just enjoyed the original more), by what mechanism did he see such a thing as working? Chemical or alchemical, natural or supernatural? Horowitz writes that a “Spanish historian later claimed that Ponce de Leon [searched]…as a cure for his impotence,” which gives us an emotional register for the conquistador’s obsession, if not the pharmaceutical specifics. Since no such fountain actually exists, the question of whether it’s magic or science is easier to answer—it’s neither. Or, perhaps, better to think of it as a magical belief about science; the idea that the fountain’s waters have mineralogical or medical properties is fundamentally just a mask for our supernatural inclinations, the fountain not so different from Gilgamesh’s restorative plant.
As early as the fifth century before the Common Era, and Herodotus would declaim in The Histories that the mythic Macrobians living on the Horn of Africa could live as long as 120 years with the assistance of a particularly pure spring. He writes of a “fountain, wherein when they had washed, they found their flesh all glossy and sleek, as if they had bathed in oil—and a scent came from the spring like that of violets…their constant use of the water from it [is] what makes them so long-lived” (gerontologists agree that 120 years seems to be the upper-limit natural expiration date for humans, if free of disease and accident).
Alexander the Great and the imaginary Christian king Prester John, whose realm was supposedly somewhere deep in either pagan Asia or Africa, are associated with the myth. The 14th-century faux-exploration narrative The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, a post-modern picaresque or autofiction written before postmodernism and autofiction were things, claims that a similar spring exists in India, “a beautiful well, whose water has a sweet taste and smell, as if of different kinds of spices.” Some of the author’s accounts of Egypt and China conform to what we know about those places during the Middle Ages, and yet Mandeville’s claims about whole tribes that have Cynocephaly (they’re dog-headed) or of groups of Epiphagi (people with heads in their chests) strain credulity. How are we to trust such a source about the Fountain of Youth?
What these examples should demonstrate is that de Leon had a ready-made script. Not a dissimilar process to how Spanish colonists saw the ancient Greek legend of the Amazons in South America, or the Portuguese fable of the Seven Cities of Cibola in the red-baked American southwest. Theirs was never a process of discovery, but of the endless use and reuse of their own dusty legends. Who knows what Bimini really was? The conquistadors had their imaginings from Herodotus and Mandeville, and they were going to impose such a concept onto America. Immortality, regardless of whether it’s to be found in India, the Horn of Africa, or south Florida, is an obsession. Yet what the obsessive obsesses over tells us more about the obsessed than the obsessee.
5.Virginia Woolf didn’t wish to acquire immortality, far from it. A disservice to Woolf, not to mention the millions of those who suffer from depression, to reduce her 1941 suicide to allegory or symbol. When weighted down with rocks she walked into the Ouse near her East Sussex home, Woolf was not providing us with gloss on life and death. “I am doing what seems the best thing to do,” Woolf writes in the note left for her husband, “I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came.” That, in its straightforwardness, says the most important thing about Wolfe’s suicide—that it was the result of her disease. Depression is not allegory, it is a disease, and oftentimes it kills people. Woolf did, however, supply her thoughts on immortality some 13 years earlier, in one of the greatest meditations ever supplied on the subject, her novel Orlando: A Biography.
Woolf depicts an English courtier born during the reign of the Tudors, who, despite the limitations of having a finite body, is somehow able to will himself (and then herself) into immortality. Orlando may be a subject of Queen Elizabeth I, but by the end of the novel she’s able to fly over her manor house in an airplane. In the interim, the character experiences the Frost Faire of 1608 (when the Thames froze over and merchants plied candied apples and roasted walnuts on its surface), an affair with a beautiful Russian noblewoman, placement in an English embassy in Constantinople, adoption by a group of Roma, and marriage to an eccentric gender nonconforming sea captain with the unimaginably great name of Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine. And then around the age of 30, Orlando transforms from being a man into a woman as she slept one night.
No magic plants or springs, rather a sense that Orlando’s personality is so overabundant that it can’t be constrained through either sexuality or time. “Orlando had become a woman,” Woolf writes simply, “there’s no denying it.” A masterpiece of both temporal and gender ambiguity, in Orlando the author doesn’t desire immortality for herself, but she imagines it for her character, what her biographer Hermione Lee describes in Virginia Woolf as its quality of being a “masterpiece of playful subterfuge.” Unlike Gilgamesh with his overweening bloodlust, or de Leon with his immature obsession, Woolf envisions immortality as a radical, subversive, creative state; as Hill puts it, a “magnificent, surrealist erection.” For Woolf, immortality is better understood as an aesthetic act, living one’s life so fully, with such pure, unmitigated, wondrous agency that the contours of normal years and decades simply must expand to fit our enormity. With relativistic insight Woolf observes that “An hour, once it lodges in the queer element of the human spirit, may be stretched to fifty or a hundred times its clock length; on the other hand, an hour may be accurately represented on the timepiece of the mind by one second,” a phenomenon that she cheekily claims “is less known than it should be and deserves fuller investigation.”
Orlando’s great negative capability is that Woolf describes depression without the novel losing sight of a certain wondrous enchantment. She writes that “At the age of thirty…this young nobleman had not only had every experience that life has to offer, but had seen the worthlessness of them all. Love and ambition, women and poets were all equally vain.” Such emptiness and disinterestedness—the sheer fact of being so tired—is the medium of depression. But the narrative itself is what demonstrates the illusoriness of such emotions, even if in the moment they feel to us to be inviolate. Orlando thinks that they have experienced everything, but have they been to Constantinople? Have they flown over Sussex in a plane? Not yet—and therein lay the rub. Life has a charged abundance, even if brain chemistry and circumstance sometimes deny us that.
Orlando was a roman à clef upon the great love of Woolf’s life—Vita Sackville-West. The character shares Sackville-West’s androgynous beauty, her poetic brilliance, and her aristocratic forbearance. Most of all, Orlando and Sackville-West are united in having lived their lives with such jouissance, with such unbridled life, that death itself seems to indefinitely pause to take them. An existence where we can observe in the Thames “frozen to a depth of some twenty fathoms, a wrecked wherry boat… lying on the bed of the river where it had sunk last autumn, overladen with apples,” the frozen corpse of the saleswoman visible in her blue-lipped magnificence at the bottom. What a strange, terrible, and beautiful thing this life is, that if we were to fully inhabit every single blessed second of it, we’d be as eternal as it were ever possible to be, within the very universe of a moment. How fortunate we are.
6.On the road from Santiago de Compostela in 1378, the French alchemist Nicholas Flamel and his wife Perenelle met eternity. According to almost certainly fabricated accounts written in the 17th century, the wealthy Parisian bookseller’s study of magic helped him to (among other things) derive the philosopher’s stone, and thus generate the so-called “Elixir of Life,” which granted him immortality. Flamel had journeyed to Spain, that liminal place between east and west, Europe and Africa, Christian, Jewish, and Islamic, under the assumption that some mage could interpret a manuscript he purchased in Paris. Flamel wasn’t so fortunate in finding assistance while actually in Spain, but on the road home a Jewish converso recognized the occult text for what it was—an original copy of the powerful grimoire The Book of Abramelin.
As with all such guides, The Book of Abramelin makes big promises. Within there are “the actual rules to acquire this Divine and Sacred Magic…therein find certain examples and other matters which be none the less useful and profitable unto thee.” It parsed the intricacies of summoning your guardian angel, how to bind demons, and how to walk underwater (which as impressive as it is, doesn’t really match the first two). There are a lot of magic squares scattered throughout. And, of course, there is the recipe for the philosopher’s stone. As with the stories about Flamel himself, The Book of Abramelin seems to be another 17th-century invention. The author is supposedly the German Kabbalist Abraham of Worms, who traveled to Egypt to confer with the reputed mystical master Abramelin himself. “And having written this with mine own hand,” writes the author (since we’re unsure of whose hand penned that line), “I have placed it within this casket, and locked it up, as a most precious treasure; in order that when thou hast arrived at a proper age thou mayest be able to admire, to consider, and to enjoy the marvels.”
No version of the text has been found that predates 1608, and the earliest copies are in German rather than Hebrew; all of which seems to indicate that just as with Flamel, the reputation of The Book of Abramelin is a fantasy borrowing authority from medieval exoticism. A fashionable Hebraism developed during the Italian Renaissance, and quickly spread throughout Europe, so that references to the Kabbalah could impart a degree of authenticity for Christian occultists. Gershom Scholem writes in Alchemy and Kabbalah that the “name of this arcane discipline became a popular catchword in Renaissance and Baroque theosophical and occult circles, having been declared and revered as the guardian of the oldest and highest mystical wisdom of mankind by its fist Christian mediators.” All the greatest stories about Kabbalah may be set in the Middle Ages, but for the Christian occultists who appropriated it, the subject was very much a Renaissance affair.
For alchemists and occultists like Paracelsus, Johann Reuchlin, or John Dee, Flamel was an instructive example. Knowledge was supposed to be the road to eternity, as surely as a Parisian scribe could return from Compostela, and perhaps the bookseller was somewhere wandering like the converso who gave him the secret to never dying. Could Flamel be glimpsed, in the court of the occult emperor Rudolf II in red-roofed Prague, discoursing on astronomy with Johannes Keppler and Kabbalah with Rabbi Judah ben Lowe? Would he be found on those curving stones of dark Cambridge with Thomas Vaughan, or among the sun-dappled courtyards of Florence with Giordano Bruno?
In reality, Flamel was moldering underneath the nave of the Church of Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie in the fourth arrondissement. His tombstone now sits in the Musée de Cluny; the year of Flamel’s expiration was 1418. By all actual accounts, he was a loving husband and a successful merchant. Flamel’s fate, in all of its beauty, was the same as everybody’s. The psychoanalyst Marie-Louise von France gives a charitable reading of the Renaissance theorists of immortality, explaining in Alchemy: An Introduction to the Symbolism and Psychology that the desire for this knowledge “was actually the search for an incorruptible essence in man which would survive death, an essential part of the human being which could be preserved.” An accurate definition for poetry.
7.Enoch’s story is recounted across only four lines in Genesis. The King James Version of the Bible sets the cryptic tale of a man who ascended bodily to heaven, presumably having never died and still living immortally somewhere in the astral realm, in just 53 words. Father of Methuselah, who was himself so remarkably long-lived that his name has long been conflated with extreme seniority, Enoch simply never died. We’re told at Genesis 5:24 that “Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him.” Such is the entire explanation of what happened to this man of the seventh generation. What an odd bit of poetry this is. For. God. Took. Him.
Even if the Bible is tight-lipped about Enoch, the copious fan-fic about him (which scholars call “apocrypha”) lacked a similar reticence. From the mystics of antiquity to the occultists of today, Enoch achieved not just immortality but actual apotheosis, seated next to a God who liked him so much that he transformed the mortal into a “lesser Yahweh.” Such is a description of his career change from a pseudographical rabbinic text called 3 Enoch, which is dated to the fifth century after the Common Era. Scholem provides gloss on this unusual book in his Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, writing that “[his] flesh was turned to flame, his veins to fire, his eye-lashes to flashes of lightning, his eye-balls to flaming torches, and who God has placed on a throne next to the throne of glory, received after this heavenly transformation the name Metatron.” There is a venerable occult tradition that holds that Enoch become immortal, was elevated above even the archangels, became the very voice of the Lord, and was given a name that sounds like that of a Transformer.
Enochian literature can be traced back to three apocryphal texts from the first centuries of the Common Era that all elaborated on the terse passage from Genesis. 3 Enoch (also amazingly called The Revelation of Metatron) is joined by the Book of Enoch, written in Ge’ez and still held canonical by the Orthodox Tewahedo Church in Ethiopia, and the Second Book of Enoch which only survives in Old Bulgarian (I’m not making that up). The last book’s alternate title is actually even better than The Revelation of Metatron, it is often referred to as The Book of Secrets. From translator Willis Barnstone’s version of The Book of Secrets, as included in his incredible anthology The Other Bible, Enoch speaks in the first person, telling us that “I know all things and have written them into books concerning the heavens and their end, their plentitude, their armies, and their marching. I have measured and described the stars, their great and countless multitude. What man has seen their revolutions and entrances?”
Metatron was the amanuenses of God’s thoughts, the librarian of reality who noted all that had, would, or could be done. A scribe as surely as Flamel was—Metatron was a writer. Enoch was the first figure in scripture to ascend to heaven, though he was not the first. Midrash actually records eight people as having achieved immortality this way, including the prophet Elijah who is consumed entirely up into a whirlwind; Sarah, whom is blessed by her grandfather Jacob with “May you live forever and never die;” and Ebed-Melech the Ethiopian who saved the prophet Jeremiah’s life during the Siege of Jerusalem. Catholics believe that the Virgin Mary ascended bodily, though after her death on Earth (a minority claim she was taken while still alive). Christianity more generally teaches that Christ rose to heaven, though he also died first, of course; while Muslims teach that both Muhammad and Jesus ascended.
Immortality, these accounts remind us, is a miracle. Perhaps no more so than with Enoch, for those other examples concern the ascension of prophets and the messiah, but the lowly man of the seventh generation was just some guy. A quiet beauty to the account, for why did Enoch walk with God? What about Enoch was so agreeable to the Lord that He would take him? What cracked beauty is there in a human gifted the ability to see the universe in its resplendence, so that as concerns the stars, Enoch speaks in a voice of awe from the Book of Secrets that “Not even the angels see their number, yet I have recorded all their names.”
8.While writing theater reviews for the Dublin Evening Mail, a 28-year-old graduate of Trinity University named Abraham Stoker would be the unlikely author of a gushing fan letter sent on Valentine’s Day 1876 to an American poet with an address in the distinctly unglamorous locale of Camden, New Jersey. That wasn’t Stoker’s first attempt at writing to Walt Whitman; he’d penned an effusive, borderline-erotic missive some four years earlier but kept the epistle in his desk out of embarrassment, before finally sending the original with a new note of introduction.
“Do not think me cheeky for writing this,” Stoker, who now went by “Bram,” wrote in the new letter, but “I believe you will like it,” he said regarding his original message. Whitman is a “man who can write, as you have written, the most candid words that ever fell from the lips of a mortal man.” For Stoker, only 9 when Leaves of Grass was first printed (and as of then completely unknown in Britain or Ireland), Whitman had “shaken off the shackles and your wings are free.” With a tragic pathos still clear more than a century later, Stoker confesses (which has afforded no shortage of literary gossip) that “I have the shackles on my shoulders still—but I have no wings.”
As obsequious as Renfield, Stoker tells Whitman that “You are a true man, and I would like to be one myself, and so I would be towards you as a brother and as a pupil to his master.” Perhaps he was, as there is something almost vampiric in Whitman’s 1891 revision of his poem “Trickle Drops,” done a year before his death and six before his protégé would publish his most famous novel. “Trickle drops! my blue veins leaving!…drip bleeding drops, / From wounds made to free you when you were prison’d / From my face, from my forehead and lips, / my breast…Stain every page, stain every song I sing, every word I saw, bloody drops,” Whitman enthuses. Stoker’s titular character in Dracula concurs with the American bard: “The blood is the life!”
Strange to think of the consummate rugged individualist with his broad shoulders and his Old Testament beard as influencing Stoker, but as an unconventional bohemian, Whitman may have shared more with Dracula than has been supposed. Biographer Barbara Belford notes in Bram Stoker and the Man Who Was Dracula that “the vampire at times resembles Whitman. Each has long white hair, a heavy moustache, great height and strength, and a leonine bearing.” Perhaps less superficially, “Whitman’s poetry celebrates the voluptuousness of death and the deathlike quality of love.” Whitman, with the gleam of the vampire in his eyes, promises in his preface to Leaves of Grass that the “greatest poet…drags the dead out of their coffins and stands them again on their feet.”
Leaves of Grass is a work that enthuses about immortality, albeit more in the transcendentalist sense than in the vampiric one. “The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,” Whitman writes, “And if there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it…All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses, / And to die is different from what anyone supposed.” Whitman fully expected a metaphysical immortality whereby his very atoms mingle into the streams and stones, the rocks and the rambles. Admittedly a different type of immortality than that surmised by Stoker, yet he borrowed from Whitman the poet’s charged, fully realized, erotic, bohemian persona. The Irishman noted that Whitman was the “quintessential male,” and its hard not to see some of that projection onto Dracula.
The immediate historical influence for Dracula was the 15th-century Wallachian prince Vlad Tepes, more popularly known as the “Impaler” after his favored pastime. Eros and Thanatos again, a bit of sex and death in that nickname. Radu Florescu and Raymond T. McNally note in their classic In Search of Dracula that the “ruler notorious for mass impalements of his enemies…was in fact called Dracula in the fifteenth century, and we found that he even signed his name that way.” From Whitman, Stoker took the transcendent nature of immortality, and from Vlad the blessed violence, bound together in the transgressive, bohemian personality of the aesthete. Literary scholars Joanna Levin and Edward Whitley write in Whitman Among the Bohemians that from the “bohemians to contemporary hipsters, Whitman still commands center stage, providing an ever-magnetic focal point for countercultural self-fashionings,” something that any goth can tell you is true of Dracula as well. As a reader, Stoker is able to comprehend that Whitman’s celebration of immortality must by necessity also have its drawbacks, that the vampiric can’t help but pulse through any conception of life beyond the grave.
With the smallest sprout in mind, Stoker writes that it’s a “strange world, a sad world, a world full of miseries, and woes, and troubles.” Yet we can “all dance to the tune…Bleeding hearts, and dry bones of the churchyard, and tears that burns as they fall—all dance together to the music.” Immortality kindled in the space of human connection, our lives able to exist indefinitely through others. Dracula does this literally, sucking upon the blood of innocents, but we ideally all do it when we ingest the words of others, and respond in kind. Whitman wrote back to Stoker. “I am up and dress’d, and get out every day a little, live here quite lonesome, but hearty, and good spirits.” He concluded the letter with, “Write to me again.”
9.Many lines are on the CV of the biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey: graduate of Trinity College Cambridge with a Ph.D. awarded for his dissertation The Mitochondrial Free Radical Theory of Aging; Fellow of the Gerontological Association of America, Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technology, and the American Aging Institute; adjunct professor at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, and most famously the chief science officer at the California-based Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence. Added to that, under “Skills,” could be “Still Alive.” Don’t knock it as an entry; the vast majority of people who have ever lived can no longer claim the same. De Grey, whose name is almost ridiculously on the nose, would argue that “Still Alive” could be easily translated into “(Effectively) Immortal,” for the researcher claims that death is a terminal illness that will one day be preventable, and that any dismissiveness to that is a case of sublimated religious nostalgia.
He looks the part of an immortal, more prophet than scientist. With a long, tangled, greying auburn beard that is positively druidic, de Grey appears as if he were Merlin or Galahad, some Arthurian immortal. If anything, that epic beard calls to mind those who’ve joined us already—the good, grey bearded ruddy complexioned poet Whitman, and de Leon with his face burnt from the Florida sun with unshorn hair poking out from his metal cap; Enoch’s cascading white mane (or so one imagines) and Utnapishtim’s curled black beard hanging in plaits from his gaunt, severe face.
De Gray has an advantage over all of these men, and that’s that he is still alive (or even exists in the first place). That may, however, be his ultimate disadvantage, for unreality has a type of immortality that biology can’t approach. Of no concern to de Grey, writing alongside Michael Rae in Ending Aging: The Rejuvenation Breakthroughs that Could Reverse Human Aging in Our Lifetime, he argues that his field is “inhibited by the deeply ingrained belief that aging was ‘natural’ and ‘inevitable,’ biogerentologists had set themselves apart from the rest of the biomedical community by allowing themselves to be overawed by the complexity of the phenomenon that they were observing.” Not without some justification, de Grey argues that aging and death are biological problems and thus have biological solutions.
Utnapishtim had his magic plant and de Leon his spring of rejuvenation, but for de Grey immortality was an issue of his “own idea for eliminating intercellular garbage like lipofuscin [combined with]…making mitochondrial mutations harmless…for addressing glycation, amyloid accumulation, cell loss, senescent cells and cancer.” When it comes to the hodgepodge of techno-utopians who fall under the broad term of “transhumanism,” de Grey is positively a traditionalist in that he’s still focused on these meat bags filled with blood, piss, shit, and phlegm. More radical transhumanists have gone digital, arguing that consciousness could be downloaded to computers, the eternal soul an issue of making sure that your files are backed up.
Engineer Ray Kurzweil is one such evangelist for the coming of robot-Jesus, when Artificial Intelligence will be able to assist in the downloading of your mind, and the resurrection of those who’ve already passed before us (through purely material, scientific, technological means of course). He writes in The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology that when that eschaton arrives (always in just a few decades), it will “allow us to transcend these limitations of our biological bodies and brains. We will gain power over our fates. Our mortality will be in our own hands. We will be able to live as long as we want.” Apparently, such a project is easier than halting climate change, or at least the hyper libertarian funders of such transhumanist schemes, from Elon Musk to Peter Thiel, would have you believe such. The desire for immortality is a deeply human one, but with the irony that its achievement would serve to eliminate the human entirely. Ask not for whom the computer chimes, simply upload your soul to the cloud.
10.About two weeks ago from the time of my writing, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi announced that the legislature was “moving forward with an official impeachment inquiry” of Donald J. Trump. Pelosi’s announcement was broadcast on all major networks, on PBS and MSNBC, CNN and (even) FOX. In a vacuum, electromagnetic radiation travels at 186,000 miles per second; Albert Einstein’s theory of special relativity tells us that nothing may go faster. That means that this happy bit of news can be heard as far as 225,327,187,473.16 miles away, and counting, though unfortunately what’s in that space is mostly dust and rock. The closest star system to us is Alpha Centauri, which is a positively minuscule 4.37 light years away, meaning that for any lucky extraterrestrials there Barack Obama is still president.
In EZ Aquarii, they just heard President Obama’s acceptance address in Grant Park; any planets near Procyon will have just been informed of the 2008 financial collapse, and at LPP 944-020 they’re leaning of the invasion of Iraq. At MU Arae they’ve discovered that humans made the puny jump to the Moon (as well as listening to Abbey Road for the first time), HR 4864 just heard Walter Cronkite deliver the sad news about President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and Zeta Virginis is now aware that the Second World War is over. In just a little less than a decade, assuming that such weak electromagnetic waves hadn’t been absorbed by the dust and rock that reigns supreme in interstellar space, Guglielmo Marconi’s first transatlantic radio broadcast of the letter “s” repeatedly tapped out in Morse code would be arriving at K2-18b, a massive “super-earth” exoplanet some 120 light years away.
Earth is surrounded by an electromagnetic halo, our missives in radio and light that grow ever weaker with distance, but which send our thoughts ever further into interstellar space with every passing year. Music, entertainment, news, communication, all of it sent out like so many dandelion spores into the reaches of the black cosmos. The continual thrum of that pulsating meaning—what Whitman could have described as “Out of the cradle endlessly rocking, / Out of the mocking-bird’s throat, the musical shuttle”—a record of our having been here that can never be erased, though it’s ambiguous if there is anyone out there to listen. “O rising stars!” Whitman wrote, “Perhaps… [I] will rise with some of you,” an offering made up in a frequency between 88MHz-108Mhz. There is an immortality, disembodied and ethereal, that does turn to be out in the heavens—just in a form that may have been difficult for Enoch to imagine.
A harder chunk of our finality exists out there as well, the Golden Record included on both of the Voyager 1 and Voyager II spacecraft launched by NASA, which having passed into interstellar space beyond our solar system in respectively 2012 and 2018 are the furthest things that have ever been touched by human hands. Conceived of by the astrophysicist Carl Sagan, the Golden Record is a phonographic LP encoded with both images and a little under six and a half hours of sounds, meant to express our sheer enormity. For any extraterrestrials that should happen to find the record—Voyager 1 is about 40,000 years out from Gliese 445—Sagan and his committee’s record may serve as the only tangible example of our eternity, our only vehicle for immortality. In being able to select the contents of such a canon, Sagan is arguably the most influential human to ever live.
Any future listeners will be able to hear pianist Glen Gould’s transcendent interpretation of Johan Sebastian Bach’s mathematically perfect Brandenburg Concerto, the mournful cry of blues-singer Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground,” the Bavarian State Orchestra playing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and Chuck Berry absolutely shredding it on “Johnny B. Goode.” Sagan reminisces in Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space that “any alien ship that finds it will have another standard by which to judge us.” Astronomer Jim Bell writes in The Interstellar Age: The Story of the NASA Men and Women Who Flew the Forty-Year Voyager Mission that “If the messages aboard the Voyagers ended up being the last surviving artifacts of our world, they would signify the brighter sigh of human nature…[we] wanted to send out sign of our hopes, not our regrets.” Unless Voyager 1 or 2 should slam into some random star or fall into a hidden blackhole, unless some bit of flotsam should smash it up or some wayward creature should use it for target practice, both probes will continue unimpeded for a very long time. Space being mostly empty, their lifespans will be such that they’re effectively immortal.
Fifty-thousand years from now, after climate change renders us extinct, the interglacial period will end and a new ice age will descend on Earth. In two million years, the coral reefs of the world will have had time to recover from ocean acidification. Sixty million years from now, and the Canadian Rockies will have eroded away. Geologists predict that all of the Earth’s continents will coalesce into a supercontinent 250 million years from now. Five hundred million years in the future they’ll have separated again. A little more than a billion years from now, and stellar fluctuations will increase temperatures so that the oceans will be boiled away. In 1.6 billion years the last of our friends the prokaryotes will most likely be extinct. By 7.59 billion years, the sun will reach its Red Giant phase, and what remains of the Earth will most likely fall into our star. Through all of that, slowly moving along in blackness, will be the Golden Record. “Better was it to go unknown and leave behind you an arch, a potting shed, a wall where peaches ripen, than to burn like a meteor and leave no dust,” Woolf wrote. Voyager, however, leaves dust, no matter how scant.
Our solar system will be dead, but somewhere you’ll still be able to hear Ludwig von Beethoven’s Symphony Number 5 in C Minor. Sagan’s satellite is as if Ashurbanipal’s library was buried in the desert of space. As these things have moved us, perhaps somehow, someway they will move minds that have yet to exist. In a lonely universe, the only immortality is in each other, whomever we may be. Included within the Golden Record are a series of sentences in various languages, including Akkadian. Only 19 seconds into the record, and for billions of years listeners may hear a human speaking in the language of Utnapishtim, delivering the benediction that “May all be very well.”
I’ve recently noticed a spate of work by Asian-American authors in epistolary form.
Correlation is not causation, and there may be nothing to this trend other than a cluster of coincidence. But historically, the Asian-American story has been ignored, erased, overlooked. Asians in America have worked in government, grown the nation’s food, healed the sick, fought in wars, built the very infrastructure of the transcontinental railroad, yet too often we’re pushed out of the picture, seen as perpetual foreigners, regardless of how much history we have with this country.
Asian Americans have our own experiences of racism, experiences that often get lost or minimized by the model minority stereotype. We want to have our stories heard but not fall into the trap of competing in an “Oppression Olympics” with other minorities. Our stories are distinct, and thus the idea of a letter as storytelling vessel is a tantalizing one. At its simplest, a Dear Someone letter demands to be read, as is the case with this one, in which former New York Times editor Michael Luo addresses the racist woman who told him and his family to “go back to China.”
The word epistle comes from the Latin espistula: letter. The first epistolary novel is thought to be Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister, published anonymously in 1684. Epistolary literature often utilizes multi-character correspondence or varied documents (think: Bram Stoker’s Dracula) to drive action and deepen characterization, including the brilliant use of the email form in Maria Semple’s novel Where’d You Go Bernadette.
The following works are epistolary in a singular way. They all take the form of a Dear Someone letter, a one-way correspondence that illustrates the simultaneous power and powerlessness of the epistle as literary form. That is, the Dear Someone letter already has a clear reader in mind. But if that intended reader will actually read the epistle is not in the author’s power.
No Good, Very Bad Asian is an epistolary novel by Leland Cheuk, “authored” by stand-up comedian and reality star Sirius Lee—divorced dad, the no good, very bad Asian of the title—to his 7-year old daughter Maryann. The letter becomes a vehicle to fill his daughter (and the reader) in on his backstory, and through his voice, provide a portrait of a guy trying and hoping to be a better person while often failing and lying to himself. It is funny but also sad, and runs at a kind of breakneck speed through different stages of comedy and a disillusioned man’s life. The incidents of subtle and not-so-subtle racism (such as everyone thinking he’s a different Asian comic) are swept away by the breezy tone, yet we can feel the hurt linger, in an experience many can relate to.
The Millions: Why did you choose to write this novel as a letter?
Leland Cheuk: I felt like I had to give the reader some sort of emotional hook into Sirius’s life story. For better or worse, bringing the reader in as part of Sirius’s family was my way of doing it. In an earlier draft, it was just written as a comedian’s memoir but there are so many brilliant comedian memoirs from real comedians—why wouldn’t the reader just pick up Born Standing Up by Steve Martin or Lenny Bruce’s How to Talk Dirty and Influence People instead?
TM: Do you think, given that a spate of Asian-American novels have used this form recently, that there’s something particularly Asian-American, immigrant, diasporic about the form itself?
LC: It’s very possible. I read as many Asian-American novels as I can, but I can’t say I’m an authority on the category. I do think that the epistolary form speaks to a certain failure to communicate between generations due to cultural and language barriers that can easily be attached to the Asian-American experience.
A letter is one-way communication. In the case of my book, it’s communication that comes too late, after the point when either party can do anything about their estrangement. The irony in the book is that while Sirius’s failure to connect with his parents is related to their cultural and language gaps, Sirius’s failure to connect with his daughter has more to do with his own mistakes.
TM: Did you consciously create a character —“no good very bad” Asian who goes against basically all Asian stereotypes?
LC: I’d say some of the choices were very conscious. I didn’t want Sirius, for instance, to go to a good college and come from a life of privilege hard won by high-achieving immigrant parents, which is my background. I’m not gonna lie: I’m pretty good at math. I just tried to make Sirius’s life—and rise to and fall from fame—plausible within the pop culture of the last two decades. And that naturally required him to not be the “good Asian” who might be your doctor or accountant.
TM: What was your idea or inspiration for the book. Any other writers influence you?
LC: I started the book so long ago, I’m not even sure I remember. I’ve always been a fan of stand-up and my other writing is often comedic. Stand-up is a perfect art form to use to explore themes of identity and self. There are very few other endeavors where you’re standing in front of a crowd and receiving a judgment for what you look like and what you say every 10 to 15 seconds. Perhaps I could have written a similar book about being a famous Asian-American male model. I’m influenced by a lot of writers, but with this book, I was going for what authors like Paul Beatty and Mat Johnson go for in their novels.
Vietnamese American Ocean Vuong’s novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is also written as a letter: “Dear Ma,” it starts; the first chapter was also published in The New Yorker as a personal history titled “A Letter to My Mother That She Will Never Read.” Vuong told Lithub of his choice to use a letter:
Because I knew I did not want to write a 600-page tome, the epistolary mode allowed me the quick detours and returns, while still retaining the vital urgency and vulnerability of a direct address. In this way, the voice, the letter itself, became the main plot, the digressions in memory, cultural investigations, and vignettes its tributaries. And the whale, ever fleeting, out of reach, and finally impossible, is the mother’s readership of the letter.
Yiyun Li’s memoiristic collection of essays, Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, is a straightforward address to readers—and takes its title from a line in Katherine Mansfield’s notebooks. The essays, which span topics like reading, writing, and science, circle around a difficult period in Li’s life, ruminating on the sometimes unremitting darkness she feels, but also why she wants to continue writing: that “the books one writes—past and present and future—are they not trying to say the same thing: Dear friend, from my life I write to you in your life? What a long way it is from one life to another, yet why write if not for that distance, if thinks can be let go, every before replaced by an after.”
Ali Wong’s ribald, humorous memoir, Dear Girls, is addressed to her daughters who are still too young to read and understand the book. Wong’s first book, it has a kind of literary flair that separates it from her stand-up—and from those comedian memoirs that are a stand-up act reformatted into a book. It’s a perfect pairing with No Good, Very Bad Asian, covering some of the same ground, including the idea of a parent wanting to give her children a fuller, more complex idea of who they are as individuals. Also, Wong is a wonderful writer. I was fascinated to read in The New York Times that she tests new jokes in front of live audiences by using a robotic “monotone voice where there’s almost zero performance in there, to see if the material holds up.” This is similar to the writer’s internal process: Does this sound right? Does this sound wrong? Wong looks to see if the crowd laughs despite her emotionless delivery. “Sometimes, I have a joke I know is funny, but I haven’t found the right word, and when I do find it, it’s so satisfying.”
Image: David Pennington
This essay is taken from the preface of Exquisite Masochism, published by Johns Hopkins University Press.
How do novelists describe sex and still maintain a respectable distance from pornography? As a formal plotting technique, marriage offers respectable cover for the secretive impulses of sex. As readers, we no longer have to worry about what will happen to a character once she marries; we know what she’s in for on her wedding night. Likewise, waves, oceans, blooms, and illuminations mark the sexual act within the respectable novel and allow a writer to refer to sexual action without realistically describing the act itself. Descriptive haze lets a reader experience sex’s capacity to dislocate personal experience. It alerts us to the fact of sex’s occurrence, and it absolves the writer of a particular kind of obscenity, one that comes of naming things as they are. More than this, though, fuzzy metaphor locates the description of sex as internal to a character. By describing a sexual act as a bloom or a wave, an author is not describing something in the external world. Instead, she is focusing on the internal register of sexual act — on orgasm and its felt experience, on seduction and its bodily effects. Metaphor, in other words, provides protection for writing about the internal experience of sex.
In the 19th and early-20th centuries, writers began to challenge metaphor’s reign in the novelistic depiction of sex. English novelists took to new strategies — drawn in part from the threats posed to embedded, domestic Englishness by cosmopolitan, financial power — to hint at sexual impropriety, perversion, and danger. Novels by authors like Emily Brontë , Anthony Trollope, Thomas Hardy, and modernist outlier D.H. Lawrence reimagined the marriage plot as sex found clearer and clearer representation in its pages, in states that, paradoxically, fell on the periphery of marriage: engagement, adultery, and widowhood. These novelists forged a representational shift in the ways books described sex, from descriptive hermeneutics to descriptive clarity — from the description of Tess Durbeyfield’s “mobile, peony mouth” to Connie Chatterley’s blossom-covered pudendum.
A specific kind of erotic scene is repeated, in different ways, across some of the central works of Victorian fiction: these are scenes of “exquisite masochism.” Such scenes feature powerful women and submissive men, often take place in highly aestheticized environments, and work as vehicles for the respectable novel’s sexual content. They stop or dislocate progress in romantic developments by taking genital sex off the representational table in favor of masochistic embraces: they are squeaky wheels in the marriage plot. These are highly charged scenes — scenes of sustained stasis, where plot and character drop out, description thickens, and a glance, gesture, or object takes on heightened relational significance. And recognizing these moments as scenes — in novels across the long 19th century — helps us see how the novel understands sex. These scenes take place across a wide variety of novels: consider the volatile tableaux inaugurated by characters as varied in their powers as the imperious Edith Dombey in Dombey and Son, the attractive, but mercenary, Rosamond Vincy in Middlemarch, and the voracious Lucy Westerna in Dracula. Despite their differences, these characters have one thing in common: they persistently disturb the de-sexualizing, companionable impulses traditionally thought to be central to the conventional marriage plot, and they do so by orchestrating scenes that depend upon their heightened sexual allure.
A long history of Foucauldian criticism has found sex where it didn’t appear to be represented; I am interested in reading nongenital sex as central to Victorian erotic life. Withholding sex, in the Victorian novel, is a perverse way of having it. In a novelistic milieu where illegitimacy or adultery can be the motives for serious tragedy, a fully developed sexual life presents a frightening threat. By describing erotic life in ways that avoid depicting sexual intercourse in favor of nongenital tension or intensity, novelists can render the frisson of sexual desire without the attendant plot risks. Novelists harness potentially disruptive elements — like sexual desire, sexual power reversals, and illegitimate pleasure — and put them to work in the service of, not just as a challenge to, marriage ideology. These novels often demonstrate an investment in the sexual power of characters, but they also keep these characters from any explicitly sexual connections that would muck up their novels’ respectably plotted, core marriages. Instead of presenting characters with a single frightening consequence to illicit sex — a baby or a disease — exquisite masochism disperses physicality throughout the scene, minimizing sex’s risk while accentuating its thrill.
There are a number of ways to recognize these scenes: primarily, they lie at the intersection of novel form and aesthetics. Often, they are filled with “exquisite” things, objects carefully chosen, painstakingly refined and delicate. These objects, and their relationships to the bodies and other objects around them, are precisely drawn — there’s a sensory scaffold that holds the whole thing together. Such scenes feel like vignettes, staged and managed for the consumption of a viewer (for the reader? the characters? a little of both?). The “staged” feeling comes, in part, from the sense that plot and action cease in these moments, freezing characters in statuesque attitudes, giving the reader an impression of a tableau vivant rendered in prose. Additionally, characters may be described as seeming like living statues, frozen in an attitude — static but humming with pulsing life beneath their inviolate exteriors. In a single novel, a scene like this might stand out and might trouble or resist interpretation: What is this passage doing here? But, by noticing the ways such moments appear in multiple novels across a wide historical period, one begins to see how they work as a type of scene, as a group of like scenes. And these scenes, taken together, demonstrate how, even before its clear representation on the page, the description of masochistic sex — that is, a description of an action that might not seem like sex at all — is essential to 19th-century plots about love and marriage.
A character’s feelings, too, can be “exquisite,” with a narrator, or the character herself, describing pleasure and pain mingling into a new, unsettling sensation. This experience often tips the character into an experience of fulsomeness — exquisite feelings are also intense, keen, potent, overpowering. These descriptions suggest that a character’s available sensorium is shut down, obliterated by the force of the experience she is having. In other words, “exquisite” scenes are a way of presenting passion’s power in novel form. But “exquisite” things and feelings aren’t necessarily salutary or good. Instead, they are finely wrought, and the intensity smuggled into the minute attention to detail in such scenes reflects the asymptotic relationship to pain that they depict.
To understand the elements of the masochistic scene, consider one of the strangest moments in a very strange novel, when Wuthering Heights’s observant servant, Nelly Dean, comes upon Heathcliff, staring, it seems, at Catherine the Elder’s ghost:
Now, I perceived he was not looking at the wall; for when I regarded him alone, it seemed exactly that he gazed at something within two yards’ distance. And whatever it was, it communicated, apparently, both pleasure and pain in exquisite extremes: at least the anguished, yet raptured, expression of his countenance suggested that idea. The fancied object was not fixed, either: his eyes pursued it with unwearied diligence, and, even in speaking to me, were never weaned away. I vainly reminded him of his protracted abstinence from food: if he stirred to touch anything in compliance with my entreaties, if he stretched his hand out to get a piece of bread, his fingers clenched before they reached it, and remained on the table, forgetful of their aim.
Jettison for a moment the question at the heart of this brief passage (does Heathcliff see the dead woman’s ghost?) and focus instead on the physical scene it describes. Nelly perceives (or thinks she perceives) Heathcliff’s horror written on his face. But Nelly sees something other than horror there: rapture. Rapture and anguish, in equal portions, freeze Heathcliff in his attitude, staring at someone who may or may not be there, chilling his body so intensely that even a grasp for food fails. “Pleasure and pain in exquisite extremes” — here, the author describes a man moving — his hands “clench,” rigid, before they reach food — toward a starving death. Brontë’s inclusion of “exquisite” imagines there might be some kind of aesthetic satisfaction — or consummation — in Heathcliff’s experience. In all of its meanings, “exquisite” develops precision and cultivation so extremely that they can tip from pleasure into pain, from beauty into fastidiousness into horror.
Pain and pleasure: they are two feelings that, in mundane experience, seem thoroughly opposed. But when Brontë modifies them with this crucial word — “exquisite” — they mean something a bit different, something that confuses the senses because pleasure and pain blend into something new, something a little closer to erotic sensation.
“Exquisiteness” forges a connection between the realms of aesthetics and the realms of sensation, connecting the keenness of precise description to a different kind of keenness, the needling, sharp remnant of a discomfiting sensory experience. It implicitly connects taste and display to erotic desire. The confluence of these intense feelings — in precisely these words and in words quite similar to these — is one of ways the Victorian novel manifests sex and desire in its pages. In a number of key British novels, in a number of central scenes, these two opposed feelings occur at once, and, when they do, they create tension, excitement, and confusion in the characters that experience them. These twinned feelings appear in scenes across a wide variety of novels.
The novel used these scenes to work through ideas about the relationship between aesthetics and romance, and the relationship between romance and social life, and, further, to formally navigate the sex scene before modernism made it explicit. By alloying “exquisite pleasure” with “exquisite pain,” novelists found a new way to symbolize sex on the page. Joined together into an “exquisite masochism” — a pleasure that comes from pain, a pain that comes from pleasure — such scenes show how the novel demonstrated sex’s dislocating and thrilling effects, even without clearly representing sex itself.
The masochistic scenes at the center of this discussion rely on tightly ordered, almost scripted, interactions. Thus, they stand out from their surrounding texts with remarkable clarity. We can read them and not mistake them for descriptions of an ocean or a flower. These are scenes about people, and about their bodily interactions. Further, the zone of sexual experience these scenes describe is quite different from that described merely metaphorically. Once we notice the way masochism makes the sex scene obvious and once we see these scenes as reproduced over many novels, the contours of sex’s relation to the novel’s wider project becomes sharper. Exquisite masochism gives us access to the social effects of sex on novel form. I’m not suggesting that all intense scenes are masochistic, nor am I claiming that masochistic scenes alone can be described in scenic terms. Instead, exquisite masochism gives us a clear way to see spatial or aesthetic descriptions as signs of erotic connection. There’s often something inchoate in these scenes — an atmosphere, a feeling — scenes that don’t seem to contribute directly to plot or character development, scenes that appear to block or evade interpretation — what happens, for instance, when we read Heathcliff’s embraces with Catherine the Elder as sex scenes rather than just as signs of sex that happens off stage? But this approach develops one way of thinking about a much broader question in novel criticism: How do novelists represent vital worlds, and what things — what places, bodies, and plots — give those worlds their life?
Was Anita Brookner a vampire? She died last month at age 87, the author of two dozen novels, from A Start in Life (published in the United States as The Debut) to Strangers. Her author photo remained unchanged over the three decades she was publishing her novels, like a vampire’s might. In it she looks pale, ladylike, alert, carefully coiffed — hard to pin down in terms of age or date. Her teeth aren’t showing, the better to nip the unsuspecting reader.
Brookner’s novels are inhabited by middle-class types, solitary and stoic. As some readers have noted, nothing much happens in these books; people go to the shop, they return to their quiet flats, they eat a little, they make tea, they think. Sometimes they visit the hairdresser or a museum. Sometimes someone dies, and there’s a quiet funeral. Conversations are economical and frequently unemotional. Sadness puffs around like a gas. But these are men and women holding white-knuckled to the ledge above “the abyss that waits for all of us,” as a character puts it in Latecomers. Below the placid surfaces lie exile, adultery, unrequited love, loss, amorphous fear, and dread. Nobody does depression quite so elegantly. Buffeted and baffled by life, her characters’ strength is in their stasis.
Like one of her white-knuckled heroes, at first look Brookner may seem static as well. Her novels were produced at regular intervals — slim and attractive, with nary a word out of place. In them all excess is gross, whether verbal or sentimental or gastronomic. In Dolly, the title character inspires repulsion in the narrator, Jane, with her flesh and her open sexual need. Jane watches in half-horrified fascination as Dolly, like several other Brookner creations, runs away with the story, the freak who doesn’t fit easily into Jane’s tiny, tidy world.
Brookner harbored some fondness for her freaks; it’s not easy to find what publishers call “comparables” for Brookner, either. When her masterpiece Hotel du Lac, a novel about an Englishwoman recovering in Switzerland from an affair, won the 1984 Booker Prize against 10-1 odds, some puzzlement ensued. Who was this writer, and how should she be categorized? In Look at Me, Frances, a solitary researcher half-hoping for friendship, tells us, “problems of human behaviour still continue to baffle us, but at least in the Library we have them properly filed.”
The sometimes cursory Frances might file Brookner with early-20th-century novelists. Like the Edwardians, Brookner’s characters are privately concerned with class and sex and money, whether or not they admit it. Their childhoods revolve in their heads. Like E.M. Forster’s people, hers are trying to work out how to connect. Like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Ramsay, they tell life to “stand still here,” even as it rushes past them. Like T.S. Eliot, they look hard at time: how to fill it, how to get more of it, how to find their way back to a lost, foggy, genteel era. Like Samuel Beckett’s men, they wait.
But it’s a mistake to see Brookner as a throwback from an earlier age. Look again, and you’ll see the way Brookner quietly muscles Modernist themes beyond their limits. Her characters aren’t sure they want to “only connect,” or to wait for life to turn up. Like any good vampire, Brookner feeds on her literary antecedents, picking their bones; she uses them to build her own structures, subtly questioning the tropes of the psychological novel of yesteryear. She one-ups Woolf’s and James Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness, showing us minds at war with their owners: In Look at Me, lonely Frances — feeling her life paling before that of a powerfully attractive couple — observes “somewhere, intruding helplessly and to no avail into my consciousness, the anger of the underdog, plotting bloody revolution, plotting revenge.” Rather than submerging us inside consciousness à la Mrs. Dalloway or Ulysses, Brookner is always outside her people, just at their backs — an intruder tuning us into their thoughts at a slight remove, whether in first- or third-person narration. She can see them, but they can’t see her. Uneasy but unaware they’re being observed, they reveal themselves fully.
As the intruder draws near, Brookner’s wit reveals itself. She appears to observe her troubled characters from neutral territory, all the while inviting us to see the claustrophobic patterns they’ve woven of their own lives. Like petit-point embroidery, the details are hypnotic, the product of intensely focused skill. (The physical details shine, too; Brookner was a professor of art history as well as a novelist, and it shows. Her interiors and clothing and features are always finely described.) Brookner’s characters are aesthetes who often turn to museums and galleries for help, though she reminds us in Making Things Better that “art [is] indifferent to whatever requirements [we] might bring to the matter.” But Brookner’s own highly-wrought art isn’t quite indifferent to us. Read closely enough, and you’ll feel it watching you, too.
If you’re not alert, you can miss these elements of Brookner’s work. And if you’re not alert, she doesn’t want you as a reader. There’s a velvet ruthlessness to Brookner: Keep up, she seems to say, while she slips into French for a page, or discusses paintings you feel you ought to know. But the flip side of ruthlessness is trust. She trusts her readers to know what she means. Occasionally we can feel her eyes flick towards us, the same way she looks at her characters: You see, don’t you? We end up wanting to please her, a very neat trick on a novelist’s part.
We on Team Brookner also end up trusting her entirely. You mainline her books one after the other, infected by her intense sensibility before you realize it. You can fall drowsily into her closed worlds and curl up in them. Remain vigilant and you’ll recognize her power, though it will still wind up seducing you. Bram Stoker described his Dracula as having “a mighty brain, a leaning beyond compare, and a heart that knew no fear and no remorse.” Brookner’s friend Julian Barnes wrote that she was not at all one of her lonely heroines, despite what male critics have decided: “She was witty, glitteringly intelligent, reserved, and unknowable beyond the point she herself had already decided upon.” In her deft hands, Brookner’s characters face oblivion as bravely as they can; our task is face their author just as bravely, baring our necks.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.