Black creativity dances through Oakland, California, like sunlight through stained glass. We all know Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther film was part Wakanda, part Oakland. And we’re not Sorry to Bother You—rap artist and filmmaker Boots Riley’s film was one of the most acclaimed films of 2018. But in a city (or should we say the Town) where the homeless population is 68 percent Black, and gentrification and a wealthy tech industry have made affordable living space hard to find, then how do we keep our most innovative minds here? If Oakland is in the midst of a Black Artistic Renaissance, one fueled by local artists’ interest in technology, science, and science fiction (two Afro-futuristic legends, Ishmael Reed and Jewelle Gomez, live within 25 miles of Oakland), then how do we explore the future while preserving a historical legacy that includes the Black Panthers and social activism?
On Nov. 9, eight artists and writers whose work resounds throughout the city met at the Joyce Gordon Gallery for a conversation about the imagination, culture, and strategies for allowing speculative texts to engage real-world problems.
Roundtable participants included graphic novelist Alan Clark, author of In Search of the Black Panthers (Phantom Electrik, 2017); Jeneé Darden, journalist and author of When a Purple Rose Blooms (Nomadic Press, 2018); Michael James and Hally Bellah-Guther, AfroComicCon co-creators; Vernon Keeve, author of Southern Migrant Mixtape (Nomadic Press, 2018); Raina J. León, author of four books of poetry, including the award-winning Canticle of Idols (2008) and Boogeyman Dawn (Salmon Poetry, 2013); Dera R. Williams, co-author of Mother Wit: Stories of Mothers and Daughters (Mamm Productions, 2010) ; and Yodassa Williams, a writer and producer of the Black Girl Magic Files Storytelling podcast. Ishmael Reed, author of more than 20 books and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and a recipient of the MacArthur Genius Grant, and Dr. Lonny Brooks, an assistant professor at California State East Bay and Co-Principal Investigator for the Long Term and Futures Thinking in Education Project, joined us via email.
The Millions: Do you think Oakland is in the middle of a renaissance?
Ishmael Reed: I think that the trend among young Afro-futurist writers is exciting. Of course, I knew a lot of those people who are now icons, like Sun Ra. George Clinton bought the option to make a movie of my novel Mumbo Jumbo.
Dera Williams: I had this conversation with LaRhonda Crosby-Johnson [author and publisher of Where’s My Tiara]. We came to that conclusion—that there is a renaissance. A lot is happening art wise/literary wise with publishing, reading. This is our time. Back in the 1980s Oakland, there were Black writers and nonprofits, and some of those writers are still around. I always took for granted that there were a lot of creative people in Oakland.
Jeneé Darden: I do. I’m thinking of surrealism. I was born and raised here. It feels surreal because of gentrification. There is also homelessness… Oakland is experiencing part art renaissance, part dystopian Octavia Butler novel. So many new people moved here and are finding a voice here in Oakland. And it’s not perfect but that’s why people came to the Bay. There’s a real art boom. I’m a journalist. I cover this stuff. I cover change—I cover this surreal Octavia Butler science fiction novel.
TM: Ishmael, Dera, and Jeneé are long-term Oakland residents. Do people new to Oakland—who more recently started living or working here—feel the same way?
Raina León: I spend a lot of time walking around the Bay and thinking: where we
will find refuge? How do we recognize we’re living in tumultuous times?
Butler was a prophet in so many ways. I have been in the Bay area for eight years and have organized readings and workshops throughout Oakland. I have definitely felt myself deeply connected for transformation. What does liberty look like for our communities? We’re part of an exciting but not unchallenging struggle for change—we recognize that dialogue isn’t always present. There is this power of renaissance, of artistic awakening. I recently talked with [poet] Tongo Eisen-Martin about building an art school for people of color. In the Bay, there are so many intersections and I’m really excited about the possibility of ideas and futures that can be realized.
Yodassa Williams: I moved here five years ago. My family is Jamaican. I grew up in Ohio and was alienated from my culture. I felt really set apart. I remember growing up and seeing Star Wars’s Lando and Oprah Winfrey and feeling like the love child of Lando and Oprah. [Joyous laughter.] I was raised in a rich storytelling culture. I wasn’t seeing that in the world around me… Moving here five years ago, I felt like it was a homecoming for something I had been looking at for a long time—creativity and entrepreneurialism and upfront conversations about race and discrimination. Oakland has always been a place for people to find opportunities to raise their voice. If I weren’t here, I wouldn’t have found my voice creatively… If there is a Renaissance, I came at the right time.
TM: Michael and Hally started the AfroComic Con, and Alan, you’re a
Do you believe graphic arts and new media are
part of the Oakland’s Renaissance?
Hally Bellah-Guther: We’ve had two AfroComic Cons, and we’re excited to be part of these
endeavors. I was raised mostly in the area, and Oakland seemed desolate
compared to now. But with the Art Murmur Movement, Sorry to Bother You—things are exploding with art and social
movements. We started working on AfroComic Con and our mission is to help keep
alive the beautiful things that are happening.
Michael James: I’m a long-time Oaklander, born and raised. I lived in East Oakland and went to school in Berkeley. It’s nice to see the Renaissance kind of explode with Art Murmur [which showcases Oakland’s arts galleries]. I hear people say, “I came here to express myself through art.” For me, it’s important to see Oakland’s photography, the storytelling, books, and movies made here about Oakland culture. My mom went to school with Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton and other Black Panthers, so I think it’s always been here—people have been telling their stories. With comic book festivals, kids didn’t see images of themselves and felt left out… Growing up, I also didn’t see images of myself. As creators, we do a lot on our own, and a lot has happened in 15 years.
Alan Clark: I’ve been looking at other renaissances in the past and came to these conclusions: Within our culture, we see past eras where a particular personality has been expressed: with Atlanta, it was the “Black Mecca,” D.C. has been called the “Chocolate City.” Each city has a different personality trait, and for Oakland, that personality trait is rebellion… I’m not from here (I lived in Atlanta) but I’ve been studying the Black Panthers and Black migration patterns. So I’m thinking about this term “renaissance”—what specific qualities made the Harlem Renaissance vibrant? The renaissance may be short-lived in the Bay Area because Proposition 10 was defeated and artists cannot afford to live here. If you can’t make something of market value, you cannot exist. And people will make you poor if you decide to challenge this. This is the question: How do we as a Black creative entity survive?
Vernon Keeve: I guess what I feel is hopeful we’re still in the Bay, though rent protections were voted down. I’m nervous about a renaissance—it’s going to take a lot more activism, with artists going to the streets fighting like we’ve never fought before… I’m also studying Great Migrations and the migrations of Black people. How do we tell stories and keep stories alive? I see the ways Black and Brown students get stories from parents and home culture. There are a lot of stories that need to be heard.
TM: People in Oakland seem particularly interested in Afro-futurism. Is it part of our renaissance?
Lonny Brooks: I and this renaissance reflect and share a dream—to ensure that long oppressed racial minority and diverse voices can articulate themselves in the futures imagined… It’s not the color of our skin that matters as much as the articulation and content of the varieties of cultural imaginations, along with the rainbow hues of our queer allies included.
Williams: Most of my art is dedicated to liberating and empowering the mind… For me, Afro-futurism is the hope for African culture to thrive and survive and be part of the future. We have to be able to be agents of change.
Bellah-Guther: Everything you just said is one of our projects with Afro-futurism. I consider myself as a supporter and an ally. We’re trying to make a community where everyone is stronger and not competitive against each other.
James: We want to make sure everyone has a voice. We want to share and make
that happen. This is the only place where you can get this kind of diversity
and inclusion. People have been asking us to take AfroComic Con here, to take
it there, and people have been welcoming and creating new opportunities. We
need the support of everyone. You feel support when you give support.
Darden: With Black Panther, there is a pain when the movie ends. With Wakanda, I
wanted to be there. That movie can
inspire people. You may see more Black scientists because of that film—that’s
what happened with Star Trek. You can
see the hope and the future and this can create change. It is creating change.
Keeve: My dad was in one of the first audiences for the Star Trek show. My father told me, “I went from watching Star Trek to seeing it actually happen.”
You bring up what could happen because of Black
Panther—if we keep writing the Afro-future, we keep having it.
Reed: I think that celebrity Afro-futurists should tour the country with Black astrophysicists and other scientists. The Jim Crow media would have you believe that the only careers open to Black kids are pimping and athletics.
León: We have to create in defiance of our
disappearance. What does it look like for us to thrive? To be marvelous? It’s a
kind of science, a kind of magic—a blending of the two. Our bodies are vessels
for energy. When we write, we reach toward actualization.
Clark: Science fiction writer Octavia Butler does not get her recognition; we gave her dues and recognition too late. But her ideas were from a Black woman’s perspective. And most of what we appreciate of Afro-futurism is a white label of a Black presence in sci-fi. If the characters we applaud and who become part of the Black canon are the creations of white people, then Afro-futurism becomes an appropriation of white-extended thought. So we have nothing. Not even our own imaginations. And we can’t afford where we live… There are more people now than ever who think of themselves as creative. We need to make our own imaginative arts. And we can do better about connecting the Black art community.
TM: Do we have community here?
Keeve: We know some of the same people. I’ve been in the Oakland literary
scene for years, with a reading series, and people actively participate. I
think we should come up with a listserv that connects artists and writers of
color. I want to tear down walls.
Williams: We can do more to
connect Black artists, to write and learn about each other’s events.
Brooks: My colleague Ian Pollock and I created the Minority Reports as a model for forecasting Afro-futures. In our forecasting pedagogy, we ask students from marginalized working-class communities to reimagine their social, media and digital spaces into the year 2054—the imagined year for the film Minority Report.
TM: Any final thoughts about Oakland?
Darden: Oakland is not new! It has always been “in.” This place has been here since Stein said “there is no there there” in the 1930s.
Oakland Art Murmur Image: Flickr/Cathrine Lindblom Gunasekara
I started 2018 homeless. I don’t want that to sound more dramatic than it is. I had shelter—cycling between futons, backseats, guest beds, and floors—thanks to the kindness of friends and family. I also had work, eking by without health insurance as a college adjunct, getting paid $1,800 per course for the entire semester. Things are better now. I’m ending the year with my own space, less scarcity, and more books read. Over the last 12 months, I struggled to parse my obligations to writing when it so often felt ill-suited to help myself or anyone else. In the times when I’m stunned by financial challenges or tragedies both foreign and domestic, there is a moment of doubt; a fear that, at this point in my life, at this moment in our collective history, participating in literary discourse is pointless, even irresponsible.
I wrestle with the practicality of addressing disparities with stories. In 2018, I had reason to ask, What does art, what does writing, do? And what does one owe their craft? And how might pursuing a life of art fulfill, or complicate, what one owes others?
These questions led me through some of my favorite books this year. Accepting that art does not exist outside of context, independent of rhetorical situations, the narratives that affected me the most this year are the ones I could most easily tie to the framework of my own experience. The 12 books below helped me read myself in the midst of confusion. These texts provided answers to some of my doubt; they helped me. I selected quotes emblematic of each narrative and its role in my life this year. When I collected these passages together, I noticed a unifying theme joining them in conversation with one another. I hope to contribute to that conversation. In writing, I hope my voice carries to someone who might need it.
We Are Proud to Present A Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, from the German Sudwestafrika, between the Years 1884 – 1915 by Jackie Sibblies Drury (Bloomsbury)
“…And tell us your version / of everything when it isn’t even about you.”
The Secret Life of a Black Aspie: A Memoir by Anand Prahlad (University of Alaska Press)
“People don’t know it, but they are forests and cities of sounds. Of colors and scents. And each forest and each city has its own patterns. […] These patterns are my time, like your time is clocks, hours, and minutes. Seconds and years, and decades and months. My time is the pattern the patterns make.”
Pacha by Nick Hilbourn (Kattywompus Press)
“Like most people,
I’ve fallen down before a mirror
to worship the absence of things, to pray
to the images in my mind. Meaning, being the fragile compass,
I imagine lives somewhere else, in a well that seduces
with the promise of a rope and provides just enough water to survive.”
(from “The Holy Maggots”)
Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls (New Directions)
“And a world is not art.”
Yellow Negroes and Other Imaginary Creatures by Yvan Alagbe (New York Review Comics)
“At the moment I am a shadow. I come in the name of pain, to sharpen my song, the tongue that bleeds.”
“The West does not want to accept its responsibility. There are going to be millions of Africans fleeing war. The population is growing, it’s going to double, there will be more famine, more wars, and more refugees. This is not just about Syria. Are Western leaders hoping that the problem will just resolve itself?”
The Linden Tree by Cesar Aira, translated by Chris Andrews (New Directions)
“…turn back to the past. Not as nostalgia or history, but in a constructive, optimistic, spirit.”
Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed (Scribner)
“It occurred to me that I was borrowing from these systems: Religion, Philosophy, Music, Science, and Painting, and building 1 of my own composed of their elements. […] I had patched something together out of my procedure and the way I taught myself became my style, my art, my process.”
American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes (Penguin)
“I lock your persona in a dream-inducing sleeper hold
While your better selves watch from the bleachers.”
Spit Temple: The Selected Performances of Cecilia Vicuña, edited and translated by Rosa Alcala (Ugly Duckling Press)
“One day I suggested to my desk mate that we change the world. ‘How?’ he asked. By talking, I told him. ‘But how can a conversation change the world?’” (from “The Conversationalists”)
Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell (Riverhead)
“It’s just, I’m stuck. I can see the story perfectly, but sometimes it’s hard to move forward.”
Candide, or Optimism by Voltaire, translated by Theo Cuffe (Penguin)
“‘All this is indispensable’ […] While he was reasoning thus, the sky darkened, the winds blew from the four corners of the earth, and their ship was assailed by the most terrible storm…”
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I don’t know what I’m preparing for. My whole life I’ve considered valuable certain experiences, accomplishments, and knowledge simply because I imagine they’ll be useful to me in the future. I’m beginning to doubt this proposition.
Here’s an example. For the last ten years, I’ve kept a Word document for quotes. Any time I come across a worthy passage, I file it away. By now, the file has grown to over 30,000 words from hundreds of books, articles, poems, and plays. I do this not in the interest of collecting quotable prose or for the benefit of inspiration or encouragement or even insight. What I’m looking for are potential epigraphs.
You see, I love epigraphs. Everything about them. I love the white space surrounding the words. I love the centered text, the dash of the attribution. I love the promise. When I was a kid, they intimidated me with their suggested erudition. I wanted to be the type of person able to quote Shakespeare or Milton or, hell, Stephen King appropriately. I wanted to be the type of writer who understood their own work so well that they could pair it with an apt selection from another writer’s work.
If I ever wrote a novel, I told myself, about a writer, maybe I could quote Barbara Kingsolver: “A writer’s occupational hazard: I think of eavesdropping as minding my own business.” Or maybe one of Philip Roth’s many memorable passages on the writer’s life, like:
No, one’s story isn’t a skin to be shed — it’s inescapable, one’s body and blood. You go on pumping it out till you die, the story veined with the themes of your life, the ever-recurring story that’s at once your invention and the invention of you.
Or, taking a different tack:
It may look to outsiders like the life of freedom — not on a schedule, in command of yourself, singled out for glory, the choice apparently to write about anything. But once one’s writing, it’s all limits. Bound to a subject. Bound to make sense of it. Bound to make a book of it. If you want to be reminded of your limitations virtually every minute, there’s no better occupation to choose. Your memory, your diction, your intelligence, your sympathies, your observations, your sensations, your understanding — never enough. You find out more about what’s missing in you than you really ought to know. All of you an enclosure you keep trying to break out of. And all the obligations more ferocious for being self-imposed.
In some cases, I’d read something that was so eloquent and succinct, so insightful, I’d be inspired to write something around it, even if I didn’t have anything to go on other than the quote. Aleksander Hemon’s The Lazarus Project is positively riddled with possible epigraphs. Right away, on page two, we get this: “All the lives I could live, all the people I will never know, never will be, they are everywhere. That is all that the world is.” (Recognize that one? If you do, that’s because it has already been used as an epigraph for Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, except McCann changes all of the I’s to we’s.) Then, on the very next page, this: “There has been life before this. Home is where somebody notices when you are no longer there.” A few pages later: “I am just like everybody else, Isador always says, because there is nobody like me in the whole world.” On page 106: “Nobody can control resemblances, any more than you can control echoes.” That one made me want to write about a despotic father and the son who’s trying to avoid following in his footsteps. I didn’t have a great need to write that story, but the quote would have fit it so perfectly I actually have an unfinished draft somewhere in my discarded Word documents.
This is, of course, a stupid way to go about crafting fiction. I learned that lesson. You can’t write something simply because you’ve found the perfect epigraph, the perfect title, the perfect premise –– there has to be a greater need, a desire that you can’t stymie. Charles Baxter once wrote, “Art that is overcontrolled by its meaning may start to go a bit dead.” The same is true of art overcontrolled by anything other than the inexplicable urge to put story to paper. I know this now.
Yet I still collect possible epigraphs. And so far, I have yet to use a single entry from my document at the beginning of a piece of fiction.
Epigraphs, despite what my young mind believed, are more than mere pontification. Writers don’t use them to boast. They are less like some wine and entrée pairing and more like the first lesson in a long class. Writers must teach a reader how to read their book. They must instruct the tone, the pace, the ostensible project of a given work. An epigraph is an opportunity to situate a novel, a story, or an essay, and, more importantly, to orient the reader to the book’s intentions.
To demonstrate the multiple uses of the epigraph, I’d like to discuss a few salient examples. But I’m going to shy away from the classic epigraphs we all know, those of Hemingway, Tolstoy, etc., the kinds regularly found in lists with titles like “The 15 Greatest Epigraphs of All Time,” and talk about some recent books, since those are the ones that have excited (and, in some cases, confounded) me enough to write about the subject in the first place.
A good epigraph establishes the theme, but when it works best it does more than this. A theme can be represented in an infinity of ways, so it is the particular selection of quotation that should do the most work. Philip Roth’s Indignation opens with this section of E.E. Cummings’s “i sing of Olaf glad and big”:
Olaf (upon what were once knees)
does almost ceaselessly repeat
“there is some shit I will not eat”
For a book titled Indignation, this seems a perfect tone with which to begin the novel. Olaf’s a heroic figure, who suffered unrelenting torture and still refused to kill for any reason, which means Roth here is also elevating the narrative of his angry protagonist to heroic status. Marcus Messner is a straight-laced boy in the early 1950s, attending college in rural Ohio. Despite his best efforts, Marcus gets caught up in the moral hypocrisy of American values, winding up getting killed in the Korean War. Marcus and Olaf are, as Cummings wrote, “more brave than me:more blond than you.”
Authors do this kind of thing all the time. They borrow more than just the quoted lines. In Roth’s case, it was Cummings’s moral outrage about American war he wanted aligned with his novel.
Poets claim that we recapture for a moment the self that we were long ago when we enter some house or garden in which we used to live in our youth. But these are most hazardous pilgrimages, which end as often in disappointment as in success. It is in ourselves that we should rather seek to find those fixed places, contemporaneous with different years.
The unknown element in the lives of other people is like that of nature, which each fresh scientific discovery merely reduces but does not abolish.
The theme of Egan’s novel is time and its effects on us –– how we survive or endure, how we perish, how things change, etc. –– a fact established here by quoting the foremost authority on fictive examinations of time, memory, and life gone by. But more than that, Egan is connecting her novel –– which is full of formal daring and partly takes place in the future –– to a canonical author whose own experimentation has now become standard. Like the music industry in her book, the world of literature has changed, maybe not for the worse but irrevocably nonetheless, and Proust’s monumental achievement has become, to most modern readers, an impenetrable and uninteresting work. Egan’s choice of epigraph places her squarely in the same tradition. The Modernism of Proust gave way to the Postmodernism of Egan. Years on, to readers not yet born, A Visit from the Good Squad may seem a hopelessly old-fashioned relic. Such is the power of time.
James Franco also opens his story collection Palo Alto with a selection from In Search of Lost Time, but the effect is severely diminished in his case. First of all, the quoted passage reads:
There is hardly a single action that we perform in that phase which we would not give anything, in later life, to be able to annul. Whereas what we ought to regret is that we no longer possess the spontaneity which made us perform them. In later life we look at things in a more practical way, in full conformity with the rest of society, but adolescence is the only period in which we learn anything.
Though a fitting passage for a work that focuses on young, troubled California teenagers, there is nothing other than the expressed idea that justifies Franco’s specific use of Proust as opposed to anyone else. And Franco attributes the quotation to Within a Budding Grove, which is the second book in, as Franco has it here, Remembrance of Things Past. Those two translations of the titles are, by now, somewhat obsolete, the titles of older translations. Within a Budding Grove is now usually referred to as In the Shadows of Young Girls in Flower. There is something a tad disingenuous about Franco’s usage here, a more transparently self-conscious attempt to legitimize his stories, something he didn’t need to do. His stories, despite some backlash he’s received, are pretty good.
Some writers are just masters of the epigraph. Thomas Pynchon always knows an evocative way to open his books. His Against the Day is a vast, panoramic novel that features dozens of characters in as many settings. The story begins at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893 and goes until the 1920s, a period of remarkable technological change the world over. Electricity had been commercialized and was becoming commonplace. Tesla was conducting all his experiments. Pynchon reduces all of these pursuits to a wonderfully succinct quote:
It’s always night, or we wouldn’t need light.
–– Thelonious Monk
First of all, have you ever even thought about the universe in this way? That darkness is its default setting? Secondly, have you ever heard a more beautiful and concise explanation for one of the great plights of humanity? We’re afraid of the dark, and the desire for light (both literal and metaphorical) consumes us. Referencing Monk does the opposite of referencing Proust. Pynchon’s working with high theme here, but he’s coming at it with the spirit of a brilliant and erratic jazz artist.
His so-called “beach read,” Inherent Vice takes place at the end of the 1960s, an era that clearly means a lot to Pynchon. Earlier, in Vineland, radicals from the 60s have become either irrelevant eccentrics or have joined the establishment. It’s a strange, mournful meditation on the failures of free love. Inherent Vice takes a similar approach. Doc Sportello is a disinterested P.I. for whom the promise of that optimistic decade offers very little. That optimism is where we begin the novel:
Under the paving-stones, the beach!
–– Graffito, Paris, May 1968
A very pointed reference. Paris in May of 1968, of course, was a hotbed of protest and civic unrest, a time of strikes and occupations, and, for hippies and radicals, a harbinger of the changes to come. Well, Inherent Vice takes place on a beach. No paving-stones need be removed for the beach to appear. Yet the promise of the graffito –– i.e., that beauty and natural life exist under the surface of the establishment –– seems, to Doc Sportello (and us, as readers, in retrospect) a temporary hope that, like fog, will eventually lift and disappear forever. In the end, as Doc literally drives through a deep fog settling in over Los Angeles, he wonders “how many people he knew had been caught out” in the fog or “were indoors fogbound in front of the tube or in bed just falling asleep.” He continues:
Someday…there’d be phones as standard equipment in every car, maybe even dashboard computers. People could exchange names and addresses and life stories and form alumni associations to gather once a year at some bar off a different freeway exit each time, to remember the night they set up a temporary commune to help each other home through the fog.
The fog will lift, and the dream of the 60s will become a memory, murky but present. For Doc, and for us, all he can do is wait “for the fog to burn away, and for something else this time, somehow, to be there instead.”
For many, Inherent Vice was a light novel, a nice little diversion, and it mostly is, but for me it has more straightforward (and dare I say, sentimental?) emotional resonance than many of Pynchon’s earlier novels. And this epigraph is part of its poignancy. Doc’s complicated personal life becomes a panegyric for an entire generation, all in the form of a “beach read.”
Sometimes, though, epigraphs offer a different kind of poignancy Christopher Hitchens’s last collection of essays, Arguably, opens with this:
Live all you can: It’s a mistake not to.
–– Lambert Strether, in The Ambassadors
Hitchens, by the time Arguably was published, had already been diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He knew he was dying. This epigraph stands as Hitchens’s final assertion of his unwavering worldview. Even more retrospectively moving are the epigraphs of Hitch-22, a memoir he wrote before the doctors told him the news. One of these passages is the wonderful, remarkable opening of Hitchens’s friend Richard Dawkins’s book Unweaving the Rainbow:
We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of the Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, who are here.
Though I’m not sure how “ordinary” Hitchens viewed himself (he seems to have thought a great deal of himself), this still seems an uncannily prescient sentiment to be quoted so soon before his diagnosis.
But maybe my all-time favorite epigraph comes from Michael Chabon’s recent Telegraph Avenue:
Call me Ishmael.
––Ishmael Reed, probably
This is one of the cleverest, funniest, and most arrogant epigraphs I’ve come across in recent years. “Call me Ishmael” is, as we all know, the opening sentence of Moby Dick. Ishmael Reed was a black experimental novelist, author of the classic Mumbo Jumbo, a writer steeped in African American culture not depicted in mainstream art. Chabon’s novel takes place in Oakland and focuses, in part, on race. It is Chabon’s most direct attempt to write a Great American Novel (it even suggests as much on the inside flap of the hardcover), with its grand themes and storied setting, its 12-page-long sentence, its general literariness. By framing his book with an irreverent reference to one of America’s definitive Great American Novels, placed in the mouth of a black writer, Chabon both announces his intention to write a Great book and denounces the entire notion that there can be Great books. How does the supposed greatness of Moby Dick speak to the black experience? What does its language offer them? So here, the most revered sentence in American literature becomes, for a man named Ishmael, a quotidian utterance, a common request. Call me Ishmael. Just another day for Ishmael Reed. And Telegraph Avenue works like that, too. It’s just another day for Archy and Nat, the book’s main characters. Is Telegraph Avenue Chabon’s Moby Dick? His Ulysses? Perhaps. But it’s certainly in conversation with those books; the epigraph makes that much clear.
Epigraphs are, ultimately, like many components of art, in that they can pretty much accomplish anything the writer wants them to. They can support a theme or contradict it. They can prepare readers or mislead them. They can situate a book into its intended company or they can renounce any relationship with the past. And when used effectively, they can be just as vital to a novel’s meaning as the title, the themes, the prose. An epigraph may not make or break a book, but it can certainly enhance its richness.
And, more, they can enhance the richness of the epigraph itself. Because of Michael Chabon, I can never look at Moby Dick’s famous opening the same way again. When I read Cummings’s poem “i sing of Olaf glad and big,” I have a new appreciation for its political implications. Literature is wonderful that way. It isn’t merely the creation of new work; it’s the extension of the art itself. Each new novel, each new story, not only adds to the great well of work, it actually reaches back into the past and changes the static text. It alters how we see the past. The giant conversation of literature knows no restrictions to time or geography, and epigraphs are a big part of it. Writers continuously resurrect the dead, salute the present and, like epigraphs, hint at what’s to come in the future.
Now that I think about it, I realize that all those quotes I’d been saving up over the years finally have a purpose. Since I’ve become a literary critic, I’ve mined my ever-growing document numerous times, not for an epigraph, but as assistance to my analysis of a literary work. I’ve used them to characterize a writer’s style, their recurring motifs or as examples of their insight. These quotations have become extremely useful, invaluable even. In fact, I see my collection as a kind of epigraph to my own career. At first, I didn’t understand their import, but as I lived on (and, appropriately, as I read on), those borrowed words slowly started to announce their purpose, and when I revisit them (like flipping back to the front page of a novel after finishing it), I find they have new meaning to me now. They are the same, but they are different. Like Pynchon writes in Inherent Vice: “What goes around may come around, but it never ends up exactly the same place, you ever notice? Like a record on a turntable, all it takes is one groove’s difference and the universe can be on into a whole ‘nother song.”
Harold Bloom is getting old. The venerable and untiring critic has reached the age of 81, the age Dante thought would allow one to reach the perfection of mind and spirit. Bloom would be the first (and he repeats himself in this, as in all things) to admit that he falls pretty solidly short of this luminosity. The nickname he chose for himself is “Brontosaurus Bardolator Bloom” – an amiable enough monster, as he wryly remarks. He once rather charmingly referred to Leopold Bloom, the wonderfully curious and unpretentious leading man of Ulysses as his “namesake.” In this new volume of criticism, proclaimed to be his last, he rejects the idea of grandly associative names except, of course, for the fortunate few who’ve earned them: Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, Whitman, Wordsworth, and Joyce among them, as well he might. He’s spent most of his life absorbed in their imaginations. The Anatomy of Influence: Literature As A Way Of Life is simultaneously a swan song, mash note, and fever dream.
It’s interesting to see how Bloom frets and struts his hour upon the page. To my mind, Harold Bloom is not so much the judicious patriarch or brazen egomaniac or even a vogon (as one detractor had it) as he is a grandmother – endlessly harried, fiercely loving, and relentlessly worried about the future of his brood. One could say that the bombastic Brontosaurus is really no more than the mother hen of his corner of literary history. He has been known to address his interviewers as “my child,” “my dearies,” and “my little bear.” Every photo of him I’ve ever seen displays the hollow-eyed gaze of a sort of maternal weariness, an insomnia of wondering if the lights are going out and if the house will still be standing when he finally shuffles off the mortal coil.
As for his method and his taste, it might be summed up in a bit of his critical mythology. For Bloom, especially when starting from his breakthrough 1973 essay “The Anxiety of Influence,” the issue at hand has always been the nature of literary influence. The idea is that a poet wants to begin to create though at first he feels threatened and anxious that a stronger, precursor poet has already said what he wanted to say before he had the chance to say it himself. The influence of the precursor is overwhelming in its inspiration and the poet begins to copy the voice or style or philosophy of the precursor poet, causing an anxiety over the poet’s struggle for identity, for individuality.
The agon, a word rooted in the competition between Greek tragedians, is when the poet is struggling to overthrow this contaminating power. The way this is accomplished is through a Lucretian clinamen, or unpredictable swerve from the precursors’ dominance. The result is sublimity; the rapture of a distinct, powerful, and utterly strange new voice which appears. The readers discover themselves, always themselves, as an inscrutable interiority always deepening and widening, as they read through the panoply of what Bloom unabashedly calls genius. He is fond of citing Emerson on this: “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts, they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.”
The contention would seem to be on what authority, of course, Bloom would be able to decide that one writer has sufficiently influenced or superseded another, and on what grounds. There does not seem to be an objective answer to this, given that interpreting interpretations is a tricky business at best. It doesn’t matter as much as it might, though – criticism can falter when it decides on its own that it contains the last word on any text. History is a long record on the folly of this. A plethora of meanings, an opening up of new avenues of discovery, a startling juxtaposition is plenty to grow on. Bloom, to his credit, is aware of this: “opponents accuse me of espousing an ‘aesthetic ideology,’ but I follow Kant in believing that the aesthetic demands deep subjectivity and is beyond the reach of ideology.” Subjectivity never ends.
Bloom’s position does not, and should not, mean you discriminate between superior and inferior cultural productions. History can’t – and shouldn’t – be avoided in criticism, and Bloom errs in his cantankerous avoidance of historicism, but if societies do in fact write books, the minds who craft them certainly do not come to us mass produced. In his Genius: A Mosaic of A Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds (sort of a choice anthology of favorite poets, novelists, and playwrights), he remarks that “there were many neurotic spinsters in 19th Century Amherst, but there was only one Emily Dickinson.” It may be best for politics and cultural production as such to be considered an ingredient of the soup and not the sum total of the soup itself.
What sets him off, as he rather irritatingly tends to repeat here and elsewhere, is what he calls “The School of Resentment” – the Marxist, Feminist, Post-Colonial, Deconstructionist methods of approaching a text. His use of a Nietzschean concept is telling, both for what he accuses and how he accuses it. For Bloom, this culture theory approach trivializes the power of imagination, absurdly reducing it to circumstances of gender or class stature or ethnicity. It’s interesting how this kind of gripe has been heard before, usually from some self-righteous idiot who bemoans the lowering of America’s mental and spiritual standards while preening on Fox News or scribbling another paranoid, myopic screed for some Moral Majority book club, the better to pay off his gambling debts and mistresses. Bloom’s not a conservative, at least as far as politics go, and the distinction is worth remembering. If the new frontier for political affiliation is cultural and taste-based vindictiveness (Starbucks vs. Wal-Mart, Fox vs. CNN, The Noble Canon vs. Gangsta Rap), and it is well-argued that it was the right wing who created the mess in the first place, then it pays to see a believer in the canon remind us that despite “the war for America’s soul,” good little boys and girls are not going to be saved by reading their Bible and their Emerson to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and merrily stride towards a Manifest Destiny:
It is scary to reread the final volume of Gibbon these days because the fate of the Roman Empire seems an outline…Dark influences from the American past congregate among us still. If we are a democracy, what are we to make of the palpable elements of plutocracy, oligarchy, and mounting theocracy that rule our state? How do we address the self-inflicted catastrophes that devastate our natural environment? So large is our malaise that no single writer can encompass it. We have no Emerson or Whitman among us…I did not consciously realize this then, but my meditation upon poetic influence now seems to me also an attempt to forge a weapon against the gathering storm of ideology that soon would sweep away many of my students.
It’s very penetratingly said that Bloom’s canon is sometimes low on non-Western voices. Bloom is pretty bombastic in what he loves and why he loves it, and he can’t go at least a page or two without pumping out another reference to Shakespeare and how the Bard’s omnivorous consciousness almost overshadows the book he’s analyzing. Bloom likes to mingle his views with those of the lords of language, and good for him. Proximity, however, is not approximation. I don’t think a writer can decide for themselves who their authentic precursor is; there’s way too much bubbling around in the stew of the creative mind to locate such an inspiration.
If an interested reader takes inventory of Bloom’s school for the ages, there are indeed plenty of Dead White Men (and Women) to be found, but there are also more than a few interestingly subversive texts to be found. I discovered Ishmael Reed’s searing Mumbo Jumbo on this recommendation and I doubt very much that it was chosen as an encroachment of European cultural hegemony. Same goes for Bloom’s “20th Century Sublime,” which includes The Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, the concluding ten minutes of which is hard to see as anything but hilariously anarchic satire on whatever is patriotic and pious in western history. The same could be said of Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, for that matter. The list also includes Charlie Parker’s Parker’s Mood, Bud Powell’s Un Poco Loco, and the “Byron The Light Bulb” sequence from Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. I mention these not to engage in academic tit-for-tat, but to emphasize the inherently idiosyncratic nature of all criticism. His indignation is incandescent. Bloom celebrates what he is moved by, what outrages and delights him, what “ravishes his heart away.”
Bardolatry, “the least religious of all religions,” is Bloom’s great love. The first half of the book is taken up with the idea of “Shakespeare the founder.” Shakespeare is the omnivorous, omniscient one: his creative capacity is boundless and subsumes everything which comes before or after it. In a previous work, Bloom even makes the provocative if dubious claim that he “invented the human.” He hasn’t changed his mind. Bloom sketches the various places where the Bard is to be found in all manner of literature, and in Bloom he is never out of sight. He often quotes Giambattista Vico’s saying that “we know only what we ourselves have made” but in the end, Shakespeare has made everything for us. Shakespeare the person is unable to be found within his created works, so thoroughly has he subsumed himself into his personalities: Iago, Lear, Othello, Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, Ariel, just to name a few.
Bloom is obsessed with one character above all: the Prince of Denmark. Hamlet is the wildest, “supremely outrageous,” most coruscating intelligence to be found anywhere in the work. His special book length study on the topic is entitled Hamlet: Poem Unlimited, and it’s not unlimited for nothing. Hamlet is a character who destroys everything in his path, composing cognitive splendors of almost nihilistic intensity, he is mad but “mad north-northwest.” Bloom can’t get enough of him – he links him with Paradise Lost’s Lucifer, for one, and wonders what it would be like if he had Edmund or Iago to contend with onstage. The Dane’s instantaneous cognition and meta-cognition is enough to send Bloom awhirl. The Lucifer comparison is apt in many ways, though one gets the feeling that his Oedipal theory of poetic influence is based on such prodigious and intimidating reading (he’s said to be able to read several hundred pages an hour) that it’s exhausting to keep up. He once mentioned that his only attempt at therapy resulted in his therapist explaining that he was being paid by the hour to listen to lectures on the proper way to read Freud. If that isn’t the mark of a true literary man, I don’t know what is.
The second half of the book deals with the pervading influence of Emerson as the mind of America, and Walt Whitman as its poet. Whitman’s influence is with us as deeply as Emerson’s was with him. Who hasn’t been touched by his rhetoric? It might be fair to say that for American poetry Whitman’s own debt to Emerson is appropriate: “I was simmering, simmering, simmering, Emerson brought me to boil.” Bloom tracks his vision through several of the most celebrated poets of the past 50 years, some struggling to throw off Whitman’s influence and coming into their own, some being transformed in digesting it – D.H. Lawrence, Wallace Stevens, Mark Strand, John Ashbery, A.R. Ammons, Charles Wright, and – especially – Hart Crane. Crane has been with Bloom since he encountered his work in the Bronx Public Library, at ten years old, and has stayed with him ever since. He claims to have memorized “nearly all” of Crane’s poetry and insists upon memorizing in general as much as one can so as to possess the poems yourself. When he writes about the words which have left him in awe for seventy years, the resonance is palpable – “Perhaps his truest vista is comprised by the final four stanzas of the ‘Proem’”:
O harp and altar, of the fury fused,
(How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!)
Terrific threshold of the prophet’s pledge,
Prayer of pariah, and the lover’s cry-
Again, the traffic lights that skim thy swift
Unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars,
Beading thy path- condense eternity:
And we have seen night lifted in thine arms.
Under thy shadow by the piers I waited;
Only in darkness is thy shadow clear.
The City’s fiery parcels all undone,
Already snow submerges an iron year…
O sleepless as the river under thee,
Vaulting the sea, the prairies’ dreaming sod,
Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend
And of the curveship lend a myth to God.
Poor Harold has been fighting and fretting over the fate of the canon for nearly a century. I don’t think it’s quite so dire. I’ve yet to meet a passionate reader who doesn’t love any or all of his Western Canon: Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, Blake, Dickens, Austen, Wilde, Whitman, Proust, Joyce, and Beckett – to name merely a few – are all doing pretty well, thank you. He needn’t despair. We are still eating and drinking well of what Bloom passionately recommends. A little political correctness doesn’t stop the fact that aesthetic splendor, cognitive power, and imaginative daring still matter. If anything, it might change the way that it matters in the larger social sphere. There is always a Whitman or an Emerson yet to emerge, even in what he grimly terms “our evening land.” Any fan of his can thank him for suggesting language and stories newer and fresher and duly more strange than a lifetime of reading could grasp. Bloom reads Wallace Stevens writing of Whitman “walking along a ruddy shore./ He is singing and chanting the things that are a part of him,/ the worlds that are and will be,/ death and day./ Nothing is final, he chants. No man shall see the end./ His beard is of fire and his staff is a leaping flame.” If that can be enough for him (and he seems to think it might be) then may he contentedly sink into our common plot for a long, well-deserved rest. There will always be plenty of anxiety to go around.