1.One of the most poignant of all passages in English literature occurs in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, serially published between the years of 1759 and 1767, when its author Laurence Sterne wrote: “████████████████████████████████████ ██████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████” Such is the melancholic shade of the 73rd page of Tristram Shandy, the entirety of the paper taken up with black ink, when the very book itself mourns the death of an innocent but witty parson with the Shakespearean name Yorick. Said black page appears after Yorick went to his doors and “closed them, – and never opened them more,” for it was that “he died… as was generally thought, quite broken hearted.”
Tristam Shandy is more than just an account of its titular character, for as Steven Moore explains in The Novel: An Alternative History 1600-1800, the English writer engaged subjects including “pedantry, pedagogy, language, sex, writing, obsessions… obstetrics, warfare and fortifications, time and memory, birth and death, religion, philosophy, the law, politics, solipsism, habits, chance… sash-windows, chambermaids, maypoles, buttonholes,” ultimately concluding that it would be “simpler to list what it isn’t about.” Sterne’s novel is the sort that spends a substantial portion of its endlessly digressive plot with the narrator describing his own conception and birth. As Tristam says of his story, “Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine; – & they are the life, the soul of reading; – take them out of this book for instance, – you might as well take the book along with them.”
Eighteenth-century critics didn’t always go in for this sort of thing. Dr. Johnson, with poor prescience, said “Nothing odd will do long. Tristam Shandy did not last,” while Voltaire gave it a rather more generous appraisal, calling it “a very unaccountable book; an original.” Common readers were a bit more adventuresome; Moore records that the “sheer novelty of the first two volumes made Tristam Shandy a hit when they were reprinted in London in the early 1760s.” Sterne arguably produced the first “post-modern” novel, long before Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow or David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Central to Tristam Shandy are its typographical eccentricities, which Michael Schmidt in The Novel: A Biography describes: “mock-marbling of the paper, the pointing hands, the expressive asterisks, squiggles, dingbats…the varying lengths of dashes.” None of those are as famous as poor Yorick’s pitch-black page, however.
It’s easy to see Sterne’s black page, its rectangle of darkness, as an oddity, an affectation, an eccentricity, a gimmick. This is woefully inconsiderate to English language’s greatest passage about the blankness of grief. Sober critics have a tendency to mistake playfulness with lack of seriousness, but a reading of Tristram Shandy shows that for all of its strangeness, its scatological prose and its metafictional tricks, Sterne’s goal was always to chart the “mechanism and menstruations in the brain,” as he explained, to describe “what passes in a man’s mind.”
Which is why Tristram Shandy’s infamous black page represents grief more truthfully than the millions of pages that use ink in a more conventional way. Sterne’s prose, or rather the gaping dark absence where prose normally would be, is the closest that he can get to genuinely conveying what loss’s void feels like. What’s clear is that no “reading” or “interpretation” of Yorick’s extinction can actually be proffered, no analysis of any human’s death can be translated into something rationally approachable. Sterne reminds us that grief is not amenable to literary criticism. For anyone that has ever lost someone they loved, seen that person die, you can understand that there is an inability for mere words to be commensurate with the enormity of that absence. Concerning such emotions beyond emotions, when it comes to “meaning,” the most full and accurate portrayal can only ever be a black hole.
2.Black is the most parsimonious of all colors. Color is a question of what it is we’re seeing when contrasted with that which we can’t, and black is the null zero of the latter. Those Manichean symbolic associations that we have with black and white are culturally relative—they are contingent on the arbitrary associations that a people project onto colors. Yet true to the ballet of binary oppositions, they are intractably related, for one could never read black ink on black paper, or its converse. If with feigned synesthesia we could imagine what each color would sound like, I’d suspect that they’d either be all piercing intensity and high pitches, or perhaps low, barely-heard thrum—but I’m unsure which would be which.
Their extremity is what haunts, allowing either only absorption or only
reflection, the two colors reject the russet cool of October and the blue chill
of December, or the May warmth of yellow and the July heat of red. Black and
white are both voids, both absences, both spouses in an absolutism. They are
singularities. Hardly anything is ever truly black, even the night sky awash in
the electromagnetic radiation of all those distant suns. Black and white are
abstractions, they are imagined mathematical potentials, for even the darkest
of shades must by necessity reflect something back. Save for one
thing—the black hole.
As early as 1796 the Frenchman Pierre-Simon Laplace conjectured the existence of objects with a gravitational field so strong that not even light could escape. Laplace, when asked of God, famously told Napoleon that he “had no need for that hypothesis,” but he knew of the black hole’s rapacious hunger. It wouldn’t be until 1916 that another scientist, the German Karl Schwarzschild, would use Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity to surmise the existence of the modern black hole. Physicist Brian Greene explains in The Elegant Universe that Schwarzschild’s calculations implied objects whose “resulting space-time warp is so radical that anything, including light, that gets too close… will be unable to escape its gravitational grip.”
Black holes were first invented as a bit of mathematical book-keeping, a theoretical concept to keep God’s ledger in order. However, as Charles Seife writes in Alpha and Omega: The Search for the Beginning and End of the Universe, though a “black hole is practically invisible, astronomers can infer its presence from the artifacts it has on spacetime itself.” Formed from the tremendous power of a supernova, a blackhole is a lacuna in space and time, the inky corpse of what was once a star, and an impenetrable passage from which no traveler may return.
A black hole is the simplest object in the universe. Even a hydrogen atom is composed of a proton and an electron, but a black hole is simply a singularity and an event horizon. The former is the infinitely dense core of a dead star, the ineffable heart of the darkest thing in existence, and the latter marks the point of no return for any wayward pilgrim. It’s at the singularity itself where the very presuppositions of physics breakdown, where our mathematics tells us that reality has no strictures. Though a black hole may be explained by physics, it’s also paradoxically a negation of physics. Obvious why the black hole would become such a potent metaphor, for physics has surmised the existence of locations for which logic has no dominion. A cosmological incognito if you will, where there be monsters.
God may not play dice with the universe, but as it turns out She is ironic. Stephen Hawking figured that the potent stew of virtual particles predicted by quantum mechanics, general relativity’s great rival in explaining things, meant that at the event horizon of a black hole there would be a slight escape of radiation, as implied by Werner Heisenberg’s infamous uncertainty principle. And so, from Hawking, we learn that though black may be black, nothing is ever totally just that, not even a black hole. Save maybe for death.
3.“Black hole” is the rare physics term that is evocative enough to attract public attention, especially compared to the previous phrase for the concept, “gravitationally collapsed object.” Coined by physicist Robert H. Dicke in the early ’60s, he appropriated it from the infamous dungeon in colonial India that held British prisoners and was known as the “Black Hole of Calcutta.” In Dicke’s mind, that hot, fetid, stinking, torturous hell-hole from which few men could emerge was an apt metaphor for the cosmological singularity that acts as a physical manifestation of Dante’s warning in Inferno to “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”
Dante was a poet, and the word “black hole” is a metaphor, but it’s important to remember that pain and loss go beyond language, they are not abstractions, but very real. That particular Calcutta hole was in actuality an 18-foot by 14-foot cell in the ruins of Ft. William that held 69 Indian and British soldiers upon the fall of that garrison in 1756, when it was taken by the Nawab of Bengal. According to a survivor of the imprisonment, John Zephaniah Howell, the soldiers “raved, fought, prayed, blasphemed, and many then fell exhausted on the floor, where suffocation put an end to their torments.” On the first night 46 of the men died.
What that enclosure in Calcutta signified was its own singularity, where meaning itself had no meaning. In such a context the absence of color becomes indicative of erasure and negation, such darkness signaling nothing. As Lear echoes Parmenides, “Nothing can come of nothing: speak again.” There have been many black holes, on all continents, in all epochs. During the 18th century the slave ships of the Middle Passage were their own hell, where little light was allowed to escape.
In Marcus Redicker’s The Slave Ship: A Human History, the scholar speaks of the “horror-filled lower deck,” a hell of “hot, crowded, miserable circumstances.” A rare contemporary account of the Middle Passage is found in the enslaved Nigerian Olaudah Equiano’s 1789 The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African. Penned the year that French Jacobins stormed the Bastille, Equiano’s account is one of the rare voices of the slave ship to have been recorded and survived, an account of one who has been to a hell that they did not deserve and who yet returned to tell tale of that darkness. Equiano described being “put down under the decks” where he “received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experience in my life: so that, with the loathsomeness of the stench, and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat…I now wished for the last friend, death.”
There’s a risk in using any language, any metaphor, to describe the singularities of suffering endured by humans in such places, a tendency to turn the lives of actual people into fodder for theorizing and abstraction. Philosopher Elaine Scary in The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World argues that much is at “stake in the attempt to invent linguistic structures that will reach and accommodate this area of experience normally so inaccessible to language… a project laden with practical and ethical consequence.” Any attempt to constrain such experience in language, especially if it’s not the author’s experience, runs a risk of limiting those stories. “Black hole” is an affective metaphor to an extent, in that implicit within it is the idea of logic and language breaking down, and yet it’s all the more important to realize that it is ultimately still a metaphor as well, what the Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago described as “the dark infinity.”
David King in The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin’s Russia provides a chilling warning about what happens when humans are reduced to such metaphor, when they are erased. King writes that that the “physical eradication of Stalin’s political opponents at the hands of the secret police was swiftly followed by their obliteration from all forms of pictorial existence.” What’s most disturbing are the primitively doctored photographs, where being able to see the alteration is the very point. These are illusions that don’t exist to trick, but to warn; their purpose is not to make you forget, but rather the opposite, to remind you of those whom you are never to speak of again. Examine the Damnatio memoriae of Akmal Ikramov, first secretary of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan, who was condemned by Stalin and shot. In the archives his portrait was slathered in black paint. The task of memory is to never forget that underneath that mask there was a real face, that Ikramov’s eyes looked out as yours do now.
4.Even if the favored color of the Bolsheviks was red, black has also had its defenders in partisan fashion across the political spectrum, from the Anarchist flag of the left to the black-shirts of Benito Mussolini’s fascist right and the Hugo Boss-designed uniforms of the Nazi SS. Drawing on those halcyon days of the Paris Commune in 1871, anarchist Louis Michel first flew the black flag at a protest. His implications were clear—if a white flag meant surrender, then a black flag meant its opposite. For all who wear the color black certain connotations, sometimes divergent, can be potentially called upon; including authority, judiciousness, piety, purity, and power. Also, black makes you look thinner.
Recently departed fashion designer, creative director for the House of Chanel, and noted Teutonic vampire Karl Lagerfeld once told a Harper’s Baazar reporter that “Black, like white, is the best color,” and I see no reason to dispute that. Famous for his slicked-back powdered white pony-tail, his completely black suits, starched white detachable collars, black sunglasses, and leather riding gloves, Lagerfeld is part of a long tradition of that fabled French design firm. Coco Chanel, as quoted in The Allure of Chanel by Paul Morand and Euan Cameron, explains that “All those gaudy, resuscitated colors shocked me; those reds, those greens, those electric blues.” Chanel explains rather that she “imposed black; it’s still going strong today.”
Black may be the favored monochromatic palette for a certain school of haute couture; think black tie affairs and little black cocktail dresses—but the look is too good to be left to the elite. Black is the color of bohemians, spartan simplicity as a rebellion against square society. Beats were associated with it, they of stereotypical turtlenecks and thick-framed glasses. It’s always been a color for the avant-garde, signifying a certain austere rejection of the superficial cheerfulness of everyday life. Beats like Allen Ginsberg in his epic poem Howl, with its memorable black cover from City Lights Books, may have dragged himself through the streets at dawn burning for that “ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo,” but his friend William S. Burroughs would survey the fashion choices of his black-clad brethren and declare that the Beats were the “movement which launched a million Gaps.”
Appropriated or not, black has always been the color of the outlaw, a venerable genealogy that includes everything from Marlon Brando’s leather jacket in The Wild One to Keanu Reeves’s duster in The Matrix. Fashionable villains too, from Dracula to Darth Vader. That black is the color of rock music, on its wide highway to hell, is a given. There is no imagining goth music without black’s macabre associations, no paying attention to a Marilyn Manson wearing khaki, or the Cure embracing teal. No, black is the color of my true love’s band, for there’s no Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne, or the members of Bauhaus in anything but a monochromatic darkness. When Elvis Presley launched his ’68 comeback he opted for a skin-tight black leather jumpsuit.
Nobody surpasses Johnny Cash though. The country musician is inextricably bound to the color, wearing it as a non-negotiable uniform that expressed radical politics. He sings “I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down, /Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town.” Confessing that he’d “love to wear a rainbow every day,” he swears allegiance to his millennial commitments, promising that he’ll “carry off a little darkness on my back, /’Till things are brighter, I’m the Man in Black.” Elaborating later in Cash: The Autobiography, cowritten with Patrick Carr, he says “I don’t see much reason to change my position today…There’s still plenty of darkness to carry off.”
Cash’s sartorial choices were informed by a Baptist upbringing; his clothes mourned a fallen world, it was the wardrobe of a preacher. Something similar motivates the clothing of a very different prophetic figure, the pragmatist philosopher Cornel West, who famously only wears a black three-piece suit, with matching scarf. In an interview with The New York Times, West calls the suit his “cemetery clothes,” with a preacher’s knowledge that one should never ask for whom the bell tolls, but also with the understanding that in America, the horrifying reality is that a black man may always need to be prepared for his own funeral when up against an unjust state. As he explained, “I am coffin-ready.” West uses his black suit, “my armor” as he calls it, as a fortification.
Black is a liturgical, sacred, divine color. It’s not a mistake that Cash
and West draw from the somber hue of the minister’s attire. Black has often
been associated with orders and clerics; the Benedictines with their black
robes and Roman collared Jesuits; Puritans and austere Quakers, all unified in
little but clothing. Sects as divergent as Hasidic Jews and the Amish are known
for their black hats. In realms of faith, black may as well be its own temple.
5.Deep in the Finsterwalde, the “Dark Forest” of northwestern Switzerland, not far from Zurich, there is a hermitage whose origins go back to the ninth century. Maintained by Benedictine monks, the monastery was founded by St. Meinard. The saint lived his life committed to solitude, to dwelling in the space between words that can stretch to an infinity, a black space that still radiates its own light. In his vocation as a hermit, where he would find the monastery known (and still known) as the Einsiedeln Abbey, he had a single companion gifted to him by the Abbes Hildegard of Zurich—a carved, wooden statue of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Christ, who was himself clutching a small bird as if it was his play companion.
For more than a millennium, that figure, known as the “Lady of Einsiden,” has been visited by millions of pilgrims, as the humble anchorage has grown into a complex of ornate, gilded baroque buildings. These seekers are drawn to her gentle countenance, an eerie verisimilitude projecting some kind of interiority within her walnut head. She has survived both the degradations of entropy and Reformation, and is still a conduit for those who travel to witness that material evidence of that silent world beyond. Our Lady of Einsiden is only a few feet tall; her clothing is variable, sometimes wearing the celestial, cosmic blue of the Virgin, other times in resplendent gold, but the crown of heaven is always upon her brow. One aspect of her remains unchanging, however, and that’s that both her and Christ are painted black.
In 1799, during a restoration of the monastery, it was argued, in the words of one of the workers, that the Virgin’s “color is not attributable to a painter.” Deciding that a dose of revisionism was needed alongside restoration, the conclusion of restorer Johann Adam Fuetscher was that the Mary’s black skin was the result of the “smoke of the lights of the hanging lamps which for so many centuries always burned in the Holy Chapel of Einsideln.”
Fuetscher decided to repaint the statue, but when visitors saw the new Virgin they were outraged, and demanded she be returned to her original color, which has remained her hue for more than 200 years. Our Lady of Einsideln was not alone; depictions of Mary with dark skin can be found the width and breadth of the continent, from the famed Black Madonna of Czestochowa in Poland to Our Lady of Dublin in the Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church; in the Sicilian town of Tindari, to the frigid environs of Lunds Domkyrka Lund Cathedral in Sweden. Depending on how one identifies the statues, there are arguably 500 medieval examples of the Virgin Mary depicted with dark skin.
Recently art historians have admitted that the hundreds of Black Madonnas are probably intentionally so, but there is still debate as to why she is so often that color. One possibility is that the statues are an attempt at realism, that European artists saw no compunctions about rendering the Virgin and Christ with an accurate skin-tone for Jews living in the Levant. Perhaps basing such renderings upon the accounts of pilgrims and crusaders who’d returned from the Holy Land, these craftsmen depicted the Mother of God with a face that wasn’t necessarily a mirror of their own.
Scholar Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum has her own interpretation of these carvings in her study Black Madonnas: Feminism, Religion, and Politics in Italy. For Birnbaum, the statues may represent a multicultural awareness among those who made them, but they also have a deep archetypal significance. She writes that “Black is the color of the earth and of the ancient color of regeneration, a matter of perception, imagination, and beliefs often not conscious, a phenomenon suggested in people’s continuing to call a madonna black even after the image had been whitened by the church.”
China Galland in Longing for Darkness: Tara and the Black Madonna, her account of global pilgrimage from California to Nepal, asks if there was in the “blackness of the Virgin a thread of connection to Tara, Kali, or Durga, or was its mere coincidence?” These are goddesses, which as Galland writes, have a blackness that is “almost luminous,” beings of a “beneficent and redeeming dark.” Whatever the motivations of those who made the statues, it’s clear that they intended to depict them exactly as they appear now, candle smoke and incense besides. At the il Santuario della Madonna del Tindari in Sicily there is a celebrated Virgin Mary with dark skin. And just to dispel any hypothesis that her color is an accident, restorers in 1990 found inscribed upon her base a quotation from Song of Songs 1:5, when the Queen of Sheba declares to Solomon: “I am black but beautiful.”
6.Very different deities of darkness would come to adorn the walls of the suburban Madrid house that the Spanish painter Francisco Goya moved to 200 years ago, in the dusk of the Napoleonic conflicts (when Laplace had dismissed God). Already an old man, and deaf for decades, Goya would affix murals in thick, black oil to the plaster walls of his villa, a collection intended for an audience of one. As his biographer Robert Hughes would note in Goya, the so-called black paintings “revealed an aspect of Goya even more extreme, bizarre, and imposing” than the violent depictions of the Peninsular War for which he was famous. The black paintings were made for Goya’s eyes only. He was a man who’d witnessed the barbarity of war and inquisition, and now in his convalescence he chose to make representations of witches’ sabbaths and goat-headed Baphomet overseeing a Black Mass, of Judith in the seconds after she decapitated Holofernes, and of twisted, toothless, grinning old men. And, though now it hangs in the Museo del Prado, it was painted originally on the back wall of the first story of the Quinta del Sordo next to one window and perpendicular to another, was his terrifying depiction of a fearsome Saturn devouring his own young.
In the hands of Goya, the myth of the Titan who cannibalized his progeny is
rendered in stark, literal, horrifying reality. For Goya there is no forgetting
the implications of what that story implies, his Chronos appears as shaggy,
wild-eyed, orangish monstrosity; matted, bestial white hair falls uncombed from
his head, and past his scrawny shoulders. Saturn is angular, jutting bones and
knobby kneecaps, as if hunger has forced him to this unthinkable act. His eyes
are wide, and though wild, they’re somehow scared, dwelling in the darkness of
I wonder if that’s part of Goya’s intent, using this pagan theme to express something of Catholic guilt and death-obsession, that intuitive awareness of original sin. It makes sense to me that Saturn is the scared one; scared of what he’s capable of, scared of what he’s done. Clutching in both hands the dismembered body of a son, whose features and size are recognizably human, Chronos grips his child like a hoagie, his son’s right arm already devoured and his head in Saturn’s stomach, with the Titan biting directly into the final remaining hand. Appropriately enough for what is, after all, an act of deicide, the sacrificed god hangs in a cruciform position. A fringe of blood spills out from inside. His corpse has a pink flush to it, like a medium rare hamburger. That’s the horror of Chronos—of time—emerging from this undifferentiated darkness. When considering our final hour, time has a way of rendering the abstraction of a body into the literalism of meat. Saturn Devouring His Son hung in Goya’s dining room.
His later paintings may be the most striking evocation of blackness, but the
shade haunted Goya his entire life. His print The Sleep of Reason Produces
Monsters, made two decades before those murals in the Quinta del
Sordo, is a cross-hatched study of the somber tones, of black and grey.
Goya draws himself, head down on a desk containing the artist’s implements, and
above him fly the specters of his nocturnal imagination, bats and owls flapping
their wings in the ceaseless drone that is the soundtrack of our subconscious
irrationalities, of the blackness that defines that minor form of extinction we
7.The blackness of sleep both promises and threatens erasure. In that strange state of non-being there is an intimation of what it could mean to be dead. Telling that darkness is the most applicable metaphor when describing both death and sleep, for the bed or the coffin. Sigmund Freud famously said of his subject in The Interpretation of Dreams that they were the “royal road to the unconscious.” Even the laws of time and space seem voided within that nocturnal kingdom, where friends long dead come to speak with us, where hidden rooms are discovered in the dark confines of homes we’ve known our entire lives. Dreams are a singularity of sorts, but there is that more restful slumber that’s nothing but a calm blackness.
This reciprocal comparison between sleep and death is such a cliché precisely because it’s so obvious, from the configuration of our actual physical repose to our imagining of what the experiences might share with one another. Edmund Spenser in the Faerie Queene writing “For next to Death is Sleepe to be compared;” his contemporary the poet Thomas Sackville referring to sleep as the “Cousin of Death;” the immaculate Thomas Browne writing that sleep is the “Brother of Death;” and more than a century later Percy Shelley waxing “How wonderful is Death, Death and his brother Sleep!”
Without focusing too much on how the two have moved closer to one another on the family tree, what seems to unify tenor and vehicle in the metaphorical comparisons between sleep and death is this quality of blackness, non-existence of color the same as non-existence. Both imply a certain radical freedom, for in dreams everyone has an independence, at least for a few hours. Consider that in our own society, where our totalizing system is the consumerism which controls our every waking moment, that the only place where you won’t see anything designed by humans (other than yourself) is in dreams, at least until Amazon finds a way to beam advertisements directly into our skulls.
Then there is Shakespeare, who speaks of sleep as the “ape of death,” who in Hamlet’s monologue writes of the “sleep of death,” and in the Scottish play calls sleep “death’s counterfeit.” If centuries have a general disposition, then my beloved 17th century was a golden age of morbidity when the ars Moriendi of the “good death” was celebrated by essayists like Browne and Robert Burton in the magisterial Anatomy of Melancholy. In my own reading and writing there are few essayists whom I love more, or try to emulate more, than the good Dr. Browne. That under-read writer and physician, he who both coined the terms “literary” and “medical,” among much else besides, wrote one of the most moving and wondrous tracts about faith and skepticism in his 1642 Religio Medici. Browne writes “Sleep is a death, /O make me try, /By sleeping, what it is to die:/And as gently lay my head/On my grave, as now my bed.” Maybe it resonates with me because when I was (mostly) younger, I’d sometimes lay on my back and pretend that I was in my coffin. I still can only sleep in pitch blackness.
8.Far easier to imagine that upon death you go someplace not unlike here, in either direction, or into the life of some future person yet unborn. Far harder to imagine non-existence, that state of being nothing, so that the most accessible way that it can be envisioned is as a field of black, as being the view when you close your eyes. That’s simply blackness as a metaphor, another inexact and thus incorrect portrayal of something fundamentally unknowable. In trying to conceive of non-existence, blackness is all that’s accessible, and yet it’s a blackness where the very power of metaphor ceases to make sense, where language itself breaks down as if it were the laws of physics at the dark heart of the singularity.
In the Talmud, at Brachot 57b, the sages tell us that “Sleep is 1/60th of death,” and this equation has always struck me as just about right. It begs certain questions though: is the sleep that is 1/60th of death those evenings when we have a pyrotechnic, psychedelic panoply of colors before us in the form of surrealistic dreams, or is it the sleep we have that is blacker than midnight, devoid of any being, of any semblance of our waking identities? This would seem to me to be the very point on which all questions of skepticism and faith must hang. That sleep, that strangest of activities, for which neurologists still have no clear answers as to its necessities (though we do know that it is), is a missive from the future grave, a seven-hour slice of death, seems obvious to me. So strange that we mock the “irrationalities” of ages past, when so instrumental to our own lives is something as otherworldly as sleep, when we die for a third of our day and return from realms of non-being to bore our friends with accounts of our dreams.
When we use the darkness of repose as metaphor for death, we brush against the extremity of naked reality and the limitations of our own language. In imagining non-existence as a field of undifferentiated black, we may trick ourselves into experiencing what it would be to no longer be here, but that’s a fallacy. Black is still a thing. Less than encouraging, this inability to conceive of that reality, which may be why deep down all of us, whether we’re to admit it or not, are pretty sure that we’ll never die, or at least not completely. And yet the blackness of non-existence disturbs, how couldn’t it? Epicurus wrote as an argument against fear of our own mortality that “Death… is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.”
Maybe that’s a palliative to some people, but it’s never been to me. More of
sophistry than wisdom in the formulation, for it eludes the psychology of being
terrified at the thought of our own non-existence. Stoics and Epicureans have
sometimes asked why we’re afraid of the non-existence of death, since we’ve
already experienced the non-existence before we’re born? When I think back to
the years before 1984, I don’t have a sense of an undifferentiated blackness,
rather I have a sense of…. well…. nothing. That’s not exactly
consoling to me. Maybe this is the height of egocentricity, but hasn’t anyone
ever looked at photographs of your family from before you’re born, and felt a
bit of the uncanny about it? Asking for a friend.
In 1714, the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz asked in the Monadology “Why is there something rather than nothing,” and that remains the rub. For Martin Heidegger in the 20th century, that issue remained the “fundamental question of metaphysics.” I proffer no solution to it here, only to notice that when confronted with the enormity of non-existence, prudence forces us to admit the equivalently disturbing question of existence. Physicist Max Delbrück in Mind from Matter: An Essay on Evolutionary Epistemology quotes his colleague Niels Bohr, the father of quantum theory, as having once said that the “hallmark of any deep truth [is] that its negation is also a deep truth.” Certainly, the case with existence and non-existence, equally profound and equally disquieting. If we’re to apply colors to either, I can’t help but see oppositional white and black, with an ambiguity to which is which.
9.If there can be a standard picture of God, I suspect that for most people it is a variation on the bearded, old man in the sky trope, sort of a more avuncular version of Michelangelo’s rendering from the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Such is an embodied deity, of dimensions in length, breadth, and width, and also such is the Lord as defined through that modern heresy of literalism. The ancients were often more sophisticated than both our fundamentalists and our atheists (as connected as black and white). Older methods of speaking about something as intractable as God were too often pass over in silence, with an awareness that to limit God to mere existence was to limit too much.
In that silence there was the ever-heavy blossom of blackness, the all-encompassing field of darkness that contains every mystery to which there aren’t even any questions. Solzhenitsyn observed that “even blackness [can]… partake of the heavens.” Not even blackness, but especially blackness, for dark is the night. Theologians call this way of speaking about God “apophasis.” For those who embrace apophatic language, there is an acknowledgement that a clear definition of the divine is impossible, so that it is better to dwell in sacred, uncertainties. This experience of God can often be a blackness in itself, what St. John of the Cross spoke of in his 1577 Spanish poem “The Dark Night of the Soul.” Content with how an absence can often be more holy than an image, the saint emphasized that such a dark night is “lovelier than the dawn.” A profound equality in undifferentiated blackness, in that darkness where features, even of God, are obscured. Maybe the question of whether or not God is real is as nonsensical as those issues of non-existence and death; maybe the question itself doesn’t make any sense, understanding rather that God isn’t just black. God is blackness.
10. On an ivory wall within the National Gallery, in Andrew Mellon’s palace constructed within this gleaming white city, there is a painting made late in life by Mark Rothko entitled Black on Grey. Measuring some 80 inches by 69.1 inches, the canvas is much taller than the average man, and true to its informal title it is given over to only two colors—a dark black on top fading into a dusty lunar grey below. Few among Rothko’s contemporaries in his abstract expressionist circle, that movement that moved the capital of the art world from Paris to New York, had quite the sublimity of color as he did. Jackson Pollock certainly had the kinetic frenzy of the drip, Willem de Kooning the connection to something still figurative in his pastel swirl. But Rothko, he had a panoply of color, from his nuclear oranges and reds to those arctic blues and pacific greens, what he described to Selden Rodman in Conversations with Artists as a desire to express “basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom.”
Black on Grey looks a bit like what I imagine it would be to survey the infinity of space from the emptiness of the moon’s surface. These paintings towards the end of the artist’s life, made before he committed suicide by barbiturate and razor blade in his East 69th Street studio, took an increasingly melancholic hue. Perhaps Rothko experienced what his friend the poet Frank O’Hara had written about as the “darkness I inhabit in the midst of sterile millions.” Rothko confirmed that his black paintings were, as with Goya, fundamentally about death.
In a coffee-table book, Rothko’s work can look like something from a paint
sample catalog. It does no justice compared to standing before the images
themselves, of what Rothko described as the phenomenon of how “people break
down and cry when confronted with my pictures.” For Rothko, such reactions were
a type of communion, these spectators were “having the same religious experience
I had when I painted them.” When you stand before Black on Grey, when
it’s taken out from the sterile confines of the art history book or the
reductions of digital reproduction, you’re confronted with a blackness that
dominates your vision, as seeing with your eyes closed, as experiencing death,
as standing in the empty Holy of Holies and seeing God.
With a giant field of black, the most elemental abstraction that could be
imagined, this Jewish mystic most fully practiced the stricture to not make any
graven image. He paradoxically arrived at the most accurate portrayal of God
ever committed to paint. For all of their oppositions, both Infinity and
Nothing become identical, being the same shade of deep and beautiful black, so
that any differences between them are rendered moot.
Image credit: Unsplash/David Jorre.
Lost somewhere in the storage room of my childhood home is a videotape of me, at 8, surrounded by the colorful scraps of a Christmas morning. Off camera, you hear holiday music and conversation. On camera, center frame, dressed in sweater and jeans, I sit in a fugue state, picking aimlessly at the plastic of a packaged action figure. I stare at my hands. I stare at the carpet. Separated from the present moment, intently searching for something that isn’t there in front of me. My mother asks what’s wrong. I shake my head, as if in a dream. A minute later, she asks again, as if speaking to a shy puppy: What’s the matter? The one-sided dialogue between earnest mother and mute son continues for another minute. Then, as if exhausted, the home video cuts to another, cheerier scene from that December morning in 1990.
For most of my adult life, this brief snippet of film has been the defining image of melancholy: that intense—and, truth be told, intensely pleasurable—disposition caught halfway between nostalgia and depression. It’s a disposition I’ve carried with me throughout my life, and in those brief moments on that home video it’s captured, like low-definition footage of some mysterious woodland beast. What, exactly, is that little Zak thinking? What is he feeling? Says Webster: “a depression of spirits.” Says Oxford: “a feeling of pensive sadness, typically with no obvious cause.”
Then there’s Robert Burton’s seminal (and exhausting) tome, The Anatomy of Melancholy, with a definition so lengthy, so convoluted, so comprehensive and contradictory that it requires 1,382 pages. It’s a book I discovered only a few years ago, during a (yes, melancholic) walk among the shelves of a local bookstore. Recently, like one of Burton’s melancholic scholars, I took it upon myself to finally sit down with his Anatomy as a way to better understand, to reconnect with, the boy in that home video—and the man he’d become. Ignorant of the book’s contents aside from its umbrella theme and its bricklike heft, I assumed somewhere in these pages would be a passage that could illuminate my own experiences.
Look to the past, history’s great teachers tell us. And yet I learned, perhaps too quickly, that one doesn’t approach this encyclopedic book with such utilitarian intentions. You’d be just as well-served planning a trip to Asia using The Travels of Sir John Mandeville as your guidebook. Burton cautions his reader as much in his lengthy introduction, written under the name of Democritus Junior (the fictional descendent of a melancholy philosopher and coeval of Socrates):
Yet one caution let me give by the way to my present or future reader, who is actually melancholy, that he read not the symptoms or prognostics in this following tract, lest by applying that which he reads to himself, aggravating, appropriating things generally spoken to his own person (as melancholy men for the most part do), he trouble or hurt himself, and get in conclusion more harm than good.
If you, like me, are looking to read The Anatomy to self-diagnose, to cross-check Burton’s list of symptoms with your own, don’t bother. You’re melancholy. In fact, as Burton suggests, we’re all melancholy in one way or another. And I imagine he’d find our 21st century just as rife with melancholy as his own 17th-century world.
“The tower of Babel never yielded such confusion of tongues,” Burton writes, “as the chaos of melancholy doth variety of symptoms.” Nevertheless, Burton takes it upon himself to bring some order to these symptoms and causes in the first partition of The Anatomy, and it was with a great amount of curiosity and glee, along with a muted feeling of dread, that I combed through these hundreds of pages in search of myself.
To begin with is my lifelong love of perhaps that most emblematic form of melancholy recreation: reading. All too often in my childhood, I’d escape from the company of my peers with books: comic anthologies, movie novelizations, children’s magazines. I’d tuck myself into corners and live in other worlds while the real one continued just out of earshot. As a college student, I passed on parties for the private corners of library stacks and department buildings. As an adult, I’m never so deliciously alone as I am with an open book in a crowded coffee shop or subway car.
Burton was onto this. Over the span of several dozen pages, he bemoans the “misery of scholarship” and the dangers of “overmuch story” as a fertile ground for melancholy. No wonder, then, that in imagining myself reading in public spaces, I often recall a line of concern expressed by another mother of a melancholy youth: Queen Gertrude, who, spying on her son in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, remarks: “But look where sadly the poor wretch comes / reading.”
To complicate matters, Burton lists reading as one of the possible ways to alleviate melancholy spirts:
Who is he that is now wholly overcome with idleness, or otherwise involved in a labyrinth of worldly cares, troubles, and discontents, that will not be much lightened in his mind by reading of some enticing story, true or feigned…For what a world of books offers itself, in all subjects, arts and sciences, to the sweet content and capacity of the reader!
Scattered throughout Burton’s tome are other pieces of myself, as a child and as an adult. I come across these passages like a patient who’s uncovered a psychiatrist’s notes, written in an archaic tongue and encompassing years of 50-minute private confessions.
The paranoia the socially shy feel in the company of their peers: “If two talk together, discourse, whisper, jest, or tell a tale in general, he thinks presently they mean him, applies all to himself.”
The overcompensation of one’s melancholy disposition with laughter and good cheer: “Humorous they are beyond all measure, sometimes profusely laughing, extraordinarily merry, and then again weeping without a cause…groaning, sighing, pensive, sad, almost distracted…”
The walks of my everyday life (around the neighborhood of my youth, in empty spaces after the departures of family and friends, through parks and city streets with just my thoughts and my earbuds): “But the most pleasant of all outward pastimes is that of Aretaeus, deambulatio per amoena loca [strolling through pleasant scenery], to make a petty progress…”
The envy of others’ well-earned success: “He tortures himself if his equal, friend, neighbor, be preferred, commended, do well; …and no greater pain can come to him than to hear of another man’s well-doing; ‘tis a dagger at his heart…”
And above all, the ever-present sorrow and rumination: an “inseparable companion…as all writers witness, a common symptom, a continual, and still without any evident cause…grieving still, but why they cannot tell.”
Burton devotes half of the third part of his Anatomy to melancholy’s relationship with love. And who among us would disagree that love—whether a one-night stand or a multi-decade marriage—isn’t tinged with its own special sort of sweet sadness?
Both in the closet and now long out of it, I’ve been convinced of the connection between homosexuality and melancholy. The sadness that comes from being strange, different, set off at an unwanted remove from the rest of society. The inward-facing anger at being forced into a specific sort of solitude one doesn’t necessarily want. The secret life lived wholly in the mind because it can’t be borne into reality without consequences.
There’s little homosexuality in Burton’s book (a scant mention of sodomy among sexually frustrated monks; the heroic love between Achilles and Patroclus), but still much I can relate to when it comes to the subject of longing, of unrequited (and requited) love, of lust and jealousy as a part of the melancholic lover’s disposition. And while a proud, open life can do much to alleviate the dangers of sexual and emotional repression, I’m not entirely sure the melancholy disappears so quickly. We carry our queer melancholy with us, everywhere, and all our future loves and relationships are tainted (or, perhaps, blessed) by this baggage.
Of cures for melancholy, Burton has much to say in the second partition of The Anatomy. Over several hundred pages, we’re drawn through ancient and early-modern methods for purging, curing, and alleviating one’s black moods. Confessing to a friend. Massaging one’s body with oils of chamomile and roses. Inducing vomit with laurel and sea onion. Eating early. Undergoing surgical procedures with knives and hot irons.
There’s nothing in these pages, however, of the cures I’ve experimented with over the years in an effort to purge myself of my perpetual gloom: the after-work therapy sessions, the late-night Google searches, the chat forums and inspirational blogs. And the pills: medications that Burton’s cadre of physicians and scholars, with all their talk of hellebore and leeches, could never have imagined. Ours is a modern world where there is, it seems, “a pill for that.” In such a world, of what uses are Burton’s medieval cures? (How quaint, how curious, how funny, I think as I put down The Anatomy to swallow my daily 40 milligrams of Prozac.)
But to cure myself entirely of my melancholy disposition? To cut it out of my body and keep it in a jar where I could observe it at a safe remove? I’ve long since given up on that project—not out of defeat but rather out of a strange sense of respect. Temper it? Yes. Keep it in check so it doesn’t interfere with everyday life? Of course. But to rip it out of my brain entirely? Alas, those roots run too deep. Take away my melancholy and you take away my very identity.
The New York Review of Books edition of The Anatomy of Melancholy I carried around with me like a millstone this spring is notable for two reasons. The first is the introduction by the always-insightful William H. Gass, who shares Burton’s love of language, of the uncanny effects of words piled on words piled on words, of sentences which achieve “the tone of a tirade that, in the midst of its fury, smiles at itself.”
The second is the front cover, a detail of a 17th-century vanitas painting by Philippe de Champaigne featuring a skull the color of leather and an hourglass caught in the middle of its span—appropriate reminders of life’s ephemerality, of the ever-present realities of death and the passing of time. And yet it’s an inaccurate representation. Look at the entirety of the tableau online and you’ll see what’s missing from this detail is a tulip, positioned to the left of the skull, its petals almost on fire with color. As any practicing melancholic will tell you, there’s sadness and anxiety in our outlook on life. But there’s also beauty. Always, on some level, beauty. And the well-lived life of a melancholic recognizes all three of these aspects—beauty, death, time—as working in concert.
This is melancholy’s truth: It is both blessing and curse, boon and bane. Inside that little boy’s head all those years ago, inside mine right now and forever, is an ever-persistent struggle between sweet and sour, joy and sorrow. A temperament that, according to Burton, has room for both “a thousand miseries” and “sweet music,” for “a thousand ugly shapes” and “rare beauties.”
Had I only had Burton’s words to share with my mother back then on that Christmas morning. Had I only been old enough, wise enough, to tell her we all, in one way or another, live with private melancholies. That the most enlightened among us have a respect for our long-anatomized disposition. That some of us, much to Burton’s consternation, wouldn’t live life any other way.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) is an exhaustive dissection of the physical, mental, and behavioral causes of an epidemic disease, a massive project that also manages to anatomize the folly of the author who undertook it. In The Anatomy, Burton provides specific suggestions to mitigate melancholy through one’s diet, “the mother of diseases, let the father be what he will.”
This so-called “Robert Burton Diet” is as relevant today as it was in the 17th century, for who among us can claim to be entirely free of the melancholic affliction? Atkins, South Beach, Microbiome, Paleo: all these faddish regimens might slim you down, but can they regulate your humours? I think not.
Therefore, without further ado, I give you the Robert Burton Diet.
Only those with strong constitutions should partake of beef, which engenders “gross melancholy blood.” If you must, find a cow from Portugal to eat, preferably one that is gelded or, alternatively, an old sad one that has “been tired out with labor.”
Pork is also off the menu, especially for those who “live at ease” or are otherwise “unsound of body or mind” — that is, most of us. But it’s so moist! Precisely the problem. Pork is too moist and “full of humours,” which upset sensitive stomachs and could bring on the dreaded “quartan ague,” which recurs every 72 hours.
Need we even mention goats? These “rammish,” bearded beasts clearly “breed rank and filthy substance.” For goat-lovers, a kid is best, the younger, cuter, more tender, and less rammish the better.
“All venison,” pleasant meat though it may be, “is melancholy, and begets bad blood.” Should you decide to treat yourself, break out those bows or rifles, because hunted deer is supposedly better than store-bought for those of melancholic disposition.
Anything is preferable to hare, a “black meat, melancholy, and hard of digestion” that breeds incubus and “causeth fearful dreams.” (Burton doesn’t say whether these nightmares will be worse if you kill the rabbit yourself.)
And what of heads, feet, bowels, brains, entrails, marrow, fat, blood, skins, inward parts (heart, liver, spleen, etc.)? Sure, if you want to keep moping around forever, dig in.
OK, so meat is pretty much verboten. Perhaps we should look elsewhere in the animal kingdom for sustenance?
Don’t even think about fowl, especially those morally suspect avian creatures flying in from Northern Europe and Russia: “Though these be fair in feathers, pleasant in taste, and have a good outside, like hypocrites, white in plumes, and soft, their flesh is hard, black, unwholesome, dangerous, melancholy meat.” If there’s one thing I can’t abide eating, it’s a dissembling bird.
The Burton Diet doesn’t sound great so far, but maybe fish will provide us with sumptuous delights…
Easy on the seafood, which yields “little and humorous nutriment.” You don’t want to end up like the Carthusian monks, who are “subject to more melancholy than any other Order” because of their fish-eating and solitary living.
Though classical opinion varies widely, Burton is willing to roll the dice on lobster, crab, and lampreys, quoting Paulus Jovius’s opinion that none speak against the latter but inepti [fools] and scrupulosi [the scrupulous].” Far be it from me to gainsay Burton, but after Googling an image of a lamprey, I wouldn’t eat one.
I know what you’re all dying to ask: Can I eat carp? Unfortunately, for once Burton doesn’t have the answer. Who would have thought that this lowly fish could stump one of the most learned minds in Europe? “Carp is a fish of which I know not what to determine,” Burton admits with an air of melancholy resignation.
Depressed yet? Well, nothing cheers one up quite like milk and cookies, but only if it’s asses’ milk washing down those chocolate chips. Every other milk increases melancholy.
And cheese-lovers beware, because the older, stronger, and harder cheeses are especially troublesome for the melancholic. If you’re hankering for a slice, make it Banbury, which Shakespeare lovers will instantly recognize from this memorable burn delivered to Slender in The Merry Wives of Windsor: “You Banbury cheese!”
Denied as we are most meats, fish, and dairy products, perhaps adherents of the Burton Diet can compensate with fruit?
Fruits “infect the blood, and putrefy it.” (Though apples, along with pearmains and sweetings, are “good against melancholy.”)
Are leafy greens and garnishes similarly infectious?
Herbs, Roots, Vegetables, and Spices:
Cucumbers, melons and gourds are “disallowed,” but cabbage is the worst, causing troublesome dreams and bringing “heaviness to the soul.” (I always knew there was a scientific reason I hated it.) Moreover, before eating what Horace calls “bloodless meals,” recall what the great Roman poet said of such demeaning feasts:
Their lives, that each such herbs, must needs be short,
And ’tis a fearful thing to report,
That men should feed on such a kind of meat
Which very juments [beasts of burden] would refuse to eat.
Oh, and no peas either, whether eaten properly with a fork or gauchely with a knife.
Parsnips and potatoes barely make the cut, but I hope you like your food bland, because garlic and onions send “gross fumes to the brain” and “make men mad.” Pepper, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, dates, oil, vinegar, mustard, and sugar are out, as are all sweet, “sharp and sour things.”
Surely Burton would allow us some salt? He’s not a monster after all.
Alas, salt and salt-meats, being “great procurers of this disease [melancholy],” should be avoided. We need only look at those Egyptian priests who abstained from salt so “that their souls might be free from perturbations” to see the folly of our ways.
Those “perturbations” are starting to sound preferable to a life of deprivation. At any rate, give me unlimited bread and a cold one and I’ll make do.
Bread and Beer:
Hallelujah! On the controversial subject of bread, Burton proves less dogmatic than some gluten-free advocates. While warning of the “melancholy juice and wind” bread can produce, he nonetheless appears to endorse oaten loaves.
A pint isn’t great for the melancholy — a cup of cold wine is more salubrious — though imbibing black Bohemian beer, a “monstrous drink, like the River Styxx,” has an “especial virtue against melancholy” if the drinker is accustomed to such waters as plied by the ferryman Charon.
And what of all those treats not mentioned by Burton? Can we eat those?
Watch the master puncture some more dreams:
To these noxious simples we may reduce an infinite number of compound, artificial, made dishes, of which our cooks afford us a great variety, as tailors do fashions in our apparel. Such are puddings stuffed with blood…baked meats, soused indurate meats, fired and boiled, buttered meats, condite, powdered, and over-dried; all cakes, simnels, buns cracknels made with butter, spice, etc. fritters, pancakes, pies, sausages, and those several sauces, sharp or over-sweet…[that] do generally engender gross humours, fill the stomach with crudities, and all those inward parts with obstructions.
I’ll see you in hell, Burton.
The Burton Diet seems excessively restrictive, if not sadistic, but we should remember that Burton, despite his obsessive nature, is also a flexible thinker. “There is no rule so general as not to admit of some exception,” and as for diets, Burton allows that “custom doth alter nature itself.” After all, the Emperor Montezuma ate “man’s flesh raw and roasted” and Mithridates trained himself to drink poison, so how bad could some soused indurate meats be?
If we are used to certain foods, or if we particularly delight in them, then abstaining from them would mean we choose to live in “mere tyranny [to] the strict rules of physic.” And that, presumably, would only increase our melancholy.
So treat yourself to the incubus-breeding hare, to that hypocritical bird, and to that confounding carp. It would be infinitely sad, and a folly, not to.
Image Credit: Flickr/asbruff
On July 17, I walked down the hill from my office to the train station at the end of the work day. It was one of those days when all of the news was bad. The airliner had been shot down with 298 people because some monstrous clown, some flak jacket-clad cretin with a weapon bigger than his brain, had picked the wrong dot on the radar screen. Israel had invaded Gaza; the preceding day’s New York Times showed the mangled doll’s body of a little boy on a beach. I am not normally a person who is unduly affected by the news, mostly because to date I have had the good fortune not to be the news. Events happen swiftly and far away and are immediately knitted into the infinite scarred and knobby human carpet, forgotten by people who are lucky enough not to get knitted up with them. But that was a day when the news was bad enough, and coming fast enough, and seemed so dictated by stupidity and malevolence and bad luck, that it occasioned one of those low, dark, what-is-the-fucking-point afternoons that even people who enjoy a supremely placid existence can sometimes experience.
It’s now hard to recapture the profound sense of dejection I had as I crossed over the moribund little creek that bounds the campus where I work. But I don’t think I will ever forget the moment, as I considered what shit things are–what everloving, unjust, miserable shit–when I had what I can only think of as a religious experience for the reading unbeliever. Instead of Mary or Jesus or anybody, I suddenly thought only of Anthony Powell, whose beautiful Dance to the Music of Time I was then rereading, and felt an overwhelming sense that this is really all we get–that if everything else is taken away, the beauty of someone’s vision of the world is our meager but abiding solace for being in the world.
Powell himself understood the feeling, I think, when he concluded his masterpiece with a passage from Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy:
I hear new news every day, and those ordinary rumours of war, plagues, fires, inundations, thefts, murders, massacres, meteors, comets, spectrums, prodigies, apparitions, or towns taken, cities besieged, in France, Germany, Turkey, Persia, Poland, etc., daily musters and preparations, and suchlike, which these tempestuous times afford, battles fought, so many men slain, monomachies, shipwrecks, piracies, and sea-fights, peace, leagues, strategems, and fresh alarms.
What had I been feeling that day, but the fatigue of those ordinary rumors, those massacres and meteors and fresh alarms?
Days later I read the poet Edward Hirsch on the loss of his son, and found a solemn counter to my religious experience: “People are irreplaceable, and art, no matter how good, doesn’t replace them. It took this tragedy for me to feel that.” A revelation like mine is undoubtedly a luxury of unruffled circumstance, like not being the news. But after working my way through Dance to the Music of Time, and then through Michael Barber’s biography of Powell, I do feel that there was something appropriate about the vision of St. Anthony that visited me that dark afternoon.
The great Islamic historian Marshall Hodgson, who began the magisterial Venture of Islam and expired at 46 before he could complete it, inscribed a theory of humanity in an essay about his mentor, the Viennese Orientalist Gustave von Grunebaum. According to Hodgson, a fiercely devout Quaker, the beauty of whose ideas was often obscured somewhat by the thickets of his prose, people fell into three camps. There were the militaristic ones, “those who look to glory, to honor—to a noble death. Such will rather see Plataea destroyed altogether than yield to Thebes.” Then there was the “Party of Culture.” For these people, “a greater tragedy than the defeat of Athens at Syracuse was the powder explosion in the Parthenon.” Finally, there was the “Party of Justice,” the party which, “from Hebrew times on, has felt the community tainted by a single act of iniquity.” Hodgson believed that the Culture people were interested in justice and fairness only so much as those things were “the natural functions of a highly cultivated human being.” But the Justice people were the ones for whom “the essential is the citizen, the son of Israel, the individual soul—however stupid, however narrow-perspectived he may be.”
Although, like everything Hodgson wrote, it takes a few turns with the essay to understand what he’s talking about, I don’t think I’ve read a more apt division of the main strains of human temperament. I’ve never recognized myself so fully, at any rate; I’m the Party of Culture all the way–I like heritage preservation, elegant talkers, and people who stand to the right on escalators. The good guys, the ones who never turn away from a homeless person, the ones who get out the vote and speak truth to power and read the news and do something about it, those are the Justice guys. (The Military guys are the stand-your-ground types.) And for us Culture people, us shallow feelers, those for whom profound religious sentiment and unconditional love of fellow man are elusive, for whom exquisite artistic expression represents the pinnacle of human achievement, Anthony Powell is an ideal patron saint.
Powell, of whom one critic said there was “no pity and very little indignation,” is remembered by some for snobbishness and bloodlessness and conservatism–he “blamed the ‘tiresome Edwardian Liberalism'” of Forster and the Bloomsbury Group “for the sorry state, as he saw it, of the modern world.” In this he differed from his friend George Orwell, a Party of Justice man if ever one there was (artists are not always Party of Culture people–consider Dostoevsky, O’Connor, Gaudi). Powell’s unofficial biographer, Michael Barber, quoted Julian Symons in describing the way that Powell and the journalist Malcolm Muggeridge would lure Orwell into “wild flights of political fancy” over their regular lunches, goading him to express opinions they found absurd, e.g., that the Labour Government should “try to convert the British electorate to the idea that they should accept a lower standard of living in order to get rid of the evils of colonialism.”
Powell wasn’t a Culture man only because he married a wife with a title and lived in a house with a drive. While he was known as an unrepentant Tory who admired Margaret Thatcher and disdained reflexive bearded leftists, his books indicate that his artistic politics were always more deeply felt than his mundane ones–that people with humor and style and humanity would always be greater allies than anyone who simply occupied the same end of the political spectrum. And the novels of Dance are overwhelmed with evidence of his supreme reverence for art. The way his narrator Jenkins sees the Belgian allies with whom he works, in the context of a Flemish painting. Or his long, playful, intense, cherished conversations about books and music and paintings with his friends Barnby and Moreland and Maclintick. Powell’s deeply-felt devotion to the meaning and importance and self-fulfilling majesty of art was manifest in his lifelong interest in the written and visual art of yesteryear and, most of all, in his own gargantuan series of books. “Art is the true adjudicator,” he once wrote, “in its complicated relationship with taste.”
And Powell’s art, like his taste, was impeccable. There’s really no better company than these novels (Marjorie Hakala contributed a nice writeup of their virtues to The Millions a couple of years ago). Philip Toynbee accused Powell of “immense circumlocutory facetiousness,” but I think his sentences are perfect. Writing about Powell invites block quotes–like this one, Jenkins’s description of his wife’s enormous family:
There is something overpowering, even a trifle sinister about very large families, the individual members of which often possess in excess the characteristics commonly attributed to “only” children: misanthropy: neurasthenia: an inability to adapt themselves: all the traits held to be the result of a lonely upbringing. The corporate life of large families can be lived with severity, even barbarity, of a kind unknown in smaller related communities: these savageries and distillations of egoism often rendered even less tolerable if sentimentalised outside the family circle.
Even his short descriptions, the one-offs, are magnificent. Here’s Sunny Farebrother, one of the recurring characters in the books:
There was a suggestion of madness in the way he shot out his sentences; not the kind of madness that was raving, nor even, in the ordinary sense, dangerous; but a warning that no proper mechanism existed for operating normal controls.
The comic aspect of Powell’s novels is often emphasized; Evelyn Waugh famously blurbed Powell as a comedic Proust. And Powell is enormously funny, although in his books humor and profundity shared the same territory:
Another long silence fell, one of those protracted abstinences from all conversation so characteristic of army Messes–British ones, at least–during which, as every moment passes, you feel someone is on the point of giving voice to a startling utterance, yet, for no particular reason, that utterance is always left pending, for ever choked back, incapable, from inner necessity, of being finally brought to birth. An old tin alarm-clock ticked away noisily on the dresser, emphasising the speedy passing of mortal life.
Contemporary book culture roils with arguments about whether it is parochial or pointless to record only the narrow worlds occupied by a small group of homogeneous writers. A recent comment on an essay at this site asserted, “Any time an author seems more than willing to adorn his or her work with the trappings of a [modern] period piece, I begin to wonder just what kind of artistic ambition he or she has.” Reading Powell, you see the intrinsic possibilities of writing about a life that you are more or less living, even if to some people that life seems narrow and unsympathetic. In fairness, this is mostly because Powell was operating within an echelon of talent that renders arguments about parochialism totally irrelevant, and this is obviously an echelon to which very few people can aspire.
In Dance to the Music of Time, most people are privileged Etonians or wannabees, power-mad or at least ruthlessly pragmatic. The artists and leftists are delightful or zany, but not really sympathetic, and rarely good. But Powell makes all of these characters beautiful in his rendering; they, and the complicated dance they perform, assume a sanctified quality, like a leper cleansed by Jesus:
Afterwards, that dinner in the Grill seemed to partake of the nature of a ritual feast, a rite from which the four of us emerged to take up new positions in the formal dance with which human life is concerned. At the time, its charm seemed to reside in a difference from the usual run of things. Certainly the chief attraction of the projected visit would be absence of all previous plan. But, in a sense, nothing in life is planned–or everything is–because in the dance every step is ultimately the corollary of the step before; the consequence of being the kind of person one chances to be.
And yet Powell’s novels have been accused of a certain parochialism since their publication. As Terry Teachout put it, “Even his most ardent admirers have been known to suggest on occasion that Dance might be too closely tied to the facts of Powell’s own life to flourish as a fully independent work of art.” (Heaven knows what these admirers, among them Philip Larkin, would have made of Karl Ove Knausgaard.) But even when writing about highly specific milieux, Powell manages to touch upon the universal. Describing the inside-baseball world of mid-century London writing and publishing, he conveys an impression of some age-old aesthetes’ fraternity; you can imagine the Flemish painters sitting around the bar and shitting on one another using similar rhetorical codes.
“I expect you have heard of a writer called St John Clarke,” she said, almost as soon as she had sat down. This supposition, expressed by some of my friends, would have been a method of introducing St John Clarke’s name within a form of words intended to indicate that in their eyes, no doubt equally in my own, St John Clarke did not grade as a sufficiently eminent literary figure for serious persons like ourselves ever to have heard of him. The phrase would convey no sense of enquiry; merely a scarcely perceptible compliment, a very minor demonstration of mutual self-esteem.
(I especially like this one: “Shernmaker represented literary criticism in a more eminent form. Indeed one of his goals was to establish finally that the Critic, not the Author, was paramount. He tended to offer guarded encouragement, tempered with veiled threats, to young writers….”)
It’s a world that doesn’t seem so remote, in its backbiting and intrigue, from literary communities today, although I don’t want to overextend that comparison. Imagine if a new war was announced tomorrow–another new war, I should say, the kind that was called a war–and Keith Gessen and Chad Harbach and everyone else with a magazine or a book immediately signed up and began training in mobile laundry units and fighter planes, and about a quarter of them died. Imagine if the rockets started falling on Brooklyn, and the two halves of some couple about town were killed in one night, in two different dive bars:
As in musical chairs, the piano stops suddenly, someone is left without a seat, petrified for all time in their attitude of that particular moment. The balance-sheet is struck there and then, a matter of luck whether its calculations have much bearing, one way or the other, on the commerce conducted.
If the squabbles and anxieties of artistic types are timeless, the world that Powell describes–the particular texture of its massacres and meteors and fresh alarms–is specific to its historical moment, and his depictions the more valuable for it.
There are certain conditions, totally unique to themselves, that seem to last an eternity even while they have finite beginnings and ends. Pregnancy is one. Twelve-volume novels series are another. Both have the effect of coloring your whole sense of things and self for the time that you are in them. Who was I this summer? I was pregnant, and I was re-reading the twelve-volume masterpiece of Anthony Powell. I am still one of those things, although only for another seven weeks. I am sure that pregnancy contributed to my blue spell that July afternoon, when I felt sad that things were bad, and Anthony Powell appeared and told me I couldn’t do anything about it but read novels and count my blessings.
They say when you give birth you feel bereft, even lonely, as one stage ends and another begins. The taciturn but cherished companion you carried around for nine months becomes a separate, sometimes hostile being with complex demands. Finishing Dance to the Music of Time likewise required an adjustment; it left me feeling lonely. But at least I can always go back to the novels, make a pilgrimage the shrine of St. Anthony–succor of us who like things to be beautiful, even when they are not good.
Meet Scott Hanford Stossel, an accomplished man in his mid-40s with two young kids, a solid marriage, and a job as editor of a prestigious magazine. A graduate of Harvard, Stossel is popular among his friends and admired by colleagues. At the same time, and to a pathological degree, he is a man riddled with angst. And, for him, it has ever been thus.
Since he was two, Stossel recalls being a “twitchy bundle of phobias, fears, and neuroses.” He was a head-banging, tantrum-throwing toddler. On school days, his parents pried him, screaming bloody hell, out of the car and into the classroom. At age 10 he met the psychiatrist who would treat him for the next 25 years. Seventh grade brought a full-on melt down necessitating Thorazine. Over the years, he’s endured a Job-like onslaught of phobias including fears of vomiting and fainting, of flying, of heights, of germs, and, curiously, cheese.
Life for Scott Stossel has been a gauntlet of morbid what-ifs: what if I pass out, lose control of my bowels, bolt from the podium in the midst of a speech?
To keep such mayhem at bay, he’s medicated himself with bourbon, scotch, gin, and vodka. By prescription, he has taken Klonopin, Xanax, Ativan, Imipramine, Wellbutrin, Nardil, Thorazine, Zoloft, Effexor, Paxil, and Propranolol, among others. “A living repository of all the pharmacological trends in anxiety treatment of the last half century,” is how the author describes himself.
Then, of course, there were therapies. He’s undergone psychodynamic psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, rational emotive therapy, exposure therapy, hypnosis, meditation, biofeedback, role-playing, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, acupuncture, yoga, and meditation. One doctor tried, a la Clockwork Orange, to help him conquer his terror of vomiting by administering a nausea-inducing drug.
So Stossel enlisted his talent as a writer. “Maybe by tunneling into my anxiety for this book I can also tunnel out the other side,” he hopes. Did he make it? Not quite, “My anxiety remains as unhealed wound.” But while My Age of Anxiety has apparently fallen short of its intended therapeutic goals, it is — for the rest of us — a meticulously researched cultural and scientific biography of a mental affliction featuring the author as one very, very hard case.
Illness memoirs satisfy two human imperatives. The first is voyeurism. Sick-lit, as it’s been called, incites a kind of literary rubber-necking. We’re drawn to tales of once-behaved cells ravaging organs, of accidents that crumple the bones, of strokes that lead us to mistake our spouses for headgear. In most of these stories, the author emerges scarred but wiser. Illness narratives also foster readers’ identification with the afflicted. This can be invaluable to people suffering from the same condition. They want to know they are not alone. They want to prepare for the worst, to cope in better ways, to learn more about their illness.
The illness memoir thrives on gory detail. My Age of Anxiety is no exception; Stossel even frets that he’s gone overboard. “I worry that the book, with its revelations of anxiety and struggle, will be a litany of Too Much Information, a violation of basic standards of decorum and restraint.” That’s understandable, but such intimacies are needed; they nourish the reader’s empathy for the sufferer. And when the malady happens to be unbounded anxiety — a syndrome of outsize reactions to threats that aren’t really there — we can learn a lot about the author: his vulnerabilities, the kinds of certainties he craves, and the morbid reaches of his imagination.
On the lighter side, anxiety can be funny. It is the stuff of frantic shtick, stand-up comedy, and Woody Allen. Depression, by contrast, makes darkness visible. It thrives on isolation and rumination; its muse is Ingmar Bergman. As for psychosis, it’s just too alien to be amusing.
Here is Andrew Solomon in Noonday Demon, his memoir cum biography of depression:
Depression is the flaw in love. To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who can despair at what we lose, and depression is the mechanism of that despair.
Here is William Styron, author of Darkness Visible, his memoir of depression:
My brain had begun to endure its familiar siege: panic and dislocation, and a sense that my thought processes were being engulfed by a toxic and unnameable tide that obliterated any enjoyable response to the living world.
Here is Stossel:
As is so often the case with irritable bowel syndrome, it was at precisely the moment I passed beyond Easily Accessible Bathroom Range that my clogged plumbing came unglued. Sprinting back to the house where I was staying, I was several times convinced that I would not make it and –teeth gritted, sweating voluminously — was reduced to evaluating various bushes and storage sheds along the way for their potential as ersatz outhouses. Imagining what might ensue if a Secret Service agent were to happen upon me crouched in the shrubbery lent a kind of panicked, otherworldly strength to my efforts at self-possession.
A Secret Service agent? Evidence of paranoia? No. This incident, it turns out, took place on the Hyannisport property of the Kennedy family. Over a decade ago, Stossel had spent time with the Kennedys as he researched a biography of Sargent Shriver. The episode continues, bordering on slapstick. When Stossel reached the bathroom, he “flung” himself onto the toilet (“my relief was extravagant,” he writes, “almost metaphysical”). Then all hell breaks loose. The toilet malfunctions, spewing sewage about the room and on his clothes. Our humble narrator strips, and, as he sprints to his room clad only in a bathroom towel tied at the waist, encounters JFK Jr. in the hallway. The latter is unfazed.
Stossel portrays his own ordeals with good humor, but he treats his family soberly. A. Chester Hanford, dean of students at Harvard College from 1927 to 1947 was always “nervous,” says Stossel, his great-grandson. The future dean told his young wife that he half-hoped to be drafted for combat during WWI as “dodging bullets on a battlefield would certainly be less wrenching than having to lecture undergraduates.” (Notably, as Stossel points out, anxious people are much better at handing fear — real threats — than they are at managing imaginary dangers; in fact, they often do a better of it than normal folks.)
When Dean Hanford turned 50, he cracked. The deaths of colleagues in World War II and the demise of his best friend weighed on him. Flagellated by self-doubt, given to fits of uncontrollable weeping, and, finally, suicidal, he entered McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. Until his death almost 30 years later Hanford would undergo many hospitalizations. Other relatives bore the curse. Stossel’s mother, the granddaughter of the dean, was perpetually high strung; his sister has been treated with a range of anti-anxiety medications.
“Does my heredity doom me to a similar downhill spiral [as my great-grandfather] if I am subjected to too much stress?” Stossel wonders. And does it endanger his children? “For Maren and Nathaniel — May You Be Spared,” he writes in the dedication. Already, however, there are signs. His small son has serious separation-anxiety. His eight-year old daughter, like her father and grandmother before her, is saddled with an obsessive fear of vomiting. “Have I — despite my decades of therapy, my hard-won personal and scholarly knowledge of anxiety, my wife’s and my informed efforts at inoculating our children against it — bequeathed to Maren my disorder, as my mother bequeathed it to me?” the author asks. The answer resides in the nature of anxiety itself.
Anxiety is the descendant of fear, our most primitive emotion. The arousal system instantly mobilizes organisms to defend against threat and, like any biological system, it can go awry. In so-called generalized anxiety disorder, a person exists in a chronic state of vigilance, ready to flee if need be. (Or, in the words of Freud, “Atrophied remnants of innate preparedness [as is] so well-developed in other animals.”) Individuals who suffer panic attacks feel as if they are suffocating. Presumably, specific neural mechanisms are hypersensitive and triggered by elevated but otherwise benign concentrations of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream (from situations such as rapid breathing or discomfort at being in a crowd) as pending asphyxiation.
Stossel suffered not only from these conditions but also from social phobia wherein a person is fearful of interacting with strangers lest he be rejected or humiliated by them. Some evolutionary theorists trace this glitch to the demands of hierarchical societies. That is, one had better be attuned to what others think of them or risk upsetting the social order of the tribe. As for the author, he suspects that that his social phobia has caused him to be a nice person. “[I]t may be that my anxiety lends me an inhibition and a social sensitivity that makes me more attuned to other people.”
Stossel’s own therapist dismissed the natural-functions-gone-wild hypothesis of clinical anxiety and put his money on existential crises as its engine. We grow old and die; lose loved ones; risk failure and humiliation; search unrequitedly for love and meaning. Anxiety is the shield we use to ward off the sadness and pain these inevitabilities bring, he tells Stossel. If he is right, the question then becomes why only some of us come undone in the face of these looming prospects.
For answers, Stossel is partial to the laboratory. He likes neuroscientists’ explanations of anxiety as excessive “neuronal firing rates in the amygdala and locus coeruleus.” The psychopharmacologists’ view of anxiety as the “inhibition of the glutamate system,” and geneticists’ errant “single-nucleotide polymorphisms” rightly strike him as “scientific and more convincing” than his therapist’s existential account. But they also raised questions:
Can my anxiety really be boiled down to how effectively gated my chloride ion channels are or to the speed of neuronal firing in my amygdala? Well, yes, at some level it can. Rates of neuronal firing in the amygdala correlate quite directly with the felt experience of anxiety. But to say that my anxiety is reducible to the ions in my amygdala is as limiting as saying that my personality or my soul is reducible to the molecules that make up my brain cells or to the genes that underwrote them.
“Shouldn’t this be liberating?” Stossel asks. “If being anxious is genetically encoded, a medical disease, and not a failure of character or will, how can we be blamed, shamed, or stigmatized for it? Eventually, he snapped out of this reductionistic reverie, reminding himself that “The same building blocks of nucleotides, genes, neurons, and neurotransmitters that make up my anxiety also make up my personality.” And his was a personality that accepted challenges, honored commitments, and excelled academically and professionally.
Finally, anxious habits can be learned. Here, the author’s mother taught a master class. This proper Mayflower descendant was chronically terrified of vomiting. Through her own doom-mongering and over-protectiveness, she inspired the author to spin out worst-case scenarios. Perhaps this is why Stossel holds such great store by the great Stoic Epictetus, who observed that “People are not disturbed by things but by the view they take of them.” From a young age, his mother taught him to take the dimmest possible one.
Though he treats her sympathetically — like his great grandfather, she is a tormented soul — he credits her with reducing him and his sister to “states of neurotic dependency.” His physician father, a depressive drinker, contributed the author’s boyhood shame (“You twerp, you pathetic little twerp”). Said a therapist from his adolescent days whom Stossel tracked down, “Your parents — an anxious, overprotective mother and emotionally absent father– were a classically anxiety-producing combination.”
“Thus me,” Stossel pronounces, “a mixture of Jewish and WASP pathology — a neurotic and histrionic Jew suppressed inside a neurotic and repressed WASP. No wonder I am anxious: I’m like Woody Allen trapped in John Calvin.”
So, what is anxiety? Stossel’s answer risks sounding evasive, but in the context of his rich book, is true and inevitable. It “is at once a function of biology and philosophy, body and mind, instinct and reason, personality and culture,” he concludes. “In computer terms, it’s both a hardware problem (I’m wired badly) and a software problem (I run faulty logic programs that make me think anxious thoughts).”
In 2004, the World Health Organization conducted a mental health survey of 18 countries including the U.S., China, the Netherlands, and Italy. It found anxiety disorders to be the most common form of mental condition on earth. According to a 2009 report called “In the Face of Fear,” England’s Mental Health Foundation, anxiety has been detected at “record levels.” Does this mean that we really do live in an age of anxiety.
And if so, why? After all, ours is an age of unprecedented material prosperity and well-being in the industrialized West. Life expectancies are, for the most part, long and growing. On the other hand, progress, itself, may be the culprit. For all their glories, growth of the market economy, increases in geographic and class mobility, the spread of democratic values and freedoms, carry their own perils — namely, panoply of choices. Within bounds, we are relatively free to choose where we live, whom we marry, and what we aim to be.
Finally, we are now quicker to pathologize the vagaries of everyday life. And, in trigger-happy hands, the official psychiatric manual can be a set of diagnoses in search of patients.
It’s hard to know. “There is no magical anxiety meter that can transcend the cultural particularities of place and time to objectively measure levels of anxiety,” the author wisely observes. What we do know is that some relatively fixed proportion of humanity has always been more anxious than others. Authoritative voices, observers and sufferers both, attest to this. Hippocrates (anxiety as “worries exaggerated in fancy”), Robert Burton, author of the magisterial The Anatomy of Melancholy in 1621, Charles Darwin (for years was too agoraphobic to leave the house), Søren Kierkegaard (he dubbed anxiety the “terrible torture” of Grand Inquisitor), Thomas Jefferson (posthumously diagnosed as a social phobic), Sigmund Freud (observer), Virginia Woolf (sufferer), William James (observer and sufferer), Mahatma Gandhi (public speaking), Barbra Streisand (crippling stage fright), and, last but not least, Donny Osmond, spokesperson for the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
A different conception of anxiety — more a cultural affliction than a clinical scourge — was forged in the post WWII period. In his 1947 epic book-length poem called The Age of Anxiety, W.H. Auden described man as “unattached as tumbleweeds,” on a quest to find substance and identity in an increasingly industrialized world. The poem inspired Leonard Bernstein to write a symphony and Jerome Robbins to produce a ballet. A year later, historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. proclaimed Western man looks “upon our epoch as a time of troubles, an age of anxiety…our familiar ideas and institutions vanish as we reach for them, like shadows in the falling dusk.”
This existential angst, some historians suggests, embodied a consciousness that led to America’s tranquilizer culture. In 1955, Carter Products began marketing Miltown for nerves, tension, and, insomnia, but the company was pessimistic that psychiatrists would prescribe it. Freud was ascendant in American psychiatry at the time and theory dictated that treating specific symptoms was of little clinical value. Be it depression, anxiety, or psychosis — all clinical presentations were taken to be interchangeable markers of deeper psychodynamic misfortunes. Still, Miltown was somewhat safer than barbiturates (e.g., Seconal, Nembutal, and Amytal) currently in use. The latter were highly addictive, produced brutal withdrawal syndrome, and were lethal if a person accidentally took just one too many.
To the manufacturer’s great surprise, Miltown became the best-selling drug ever marketed in the country. It was the first lifestyle drug for the stressed-out, can-do corporate man and his put-upon spouse as well as for celebrities. The comedian Milton Berle, for example, introduced himself as “Miltown Berle.”
Researchers were excited too. Miltown (along with Thorazine, a novel anti-psychotic introduced in the U.S. in the mid-’50s) contributed to a wholesale transformation of the way we think about mental illness. It meant that mental illness was brought on by deranged brain biology, not by Oedipal dramas, and thus corrected with medicine.
Soon, though, there was trouble in paradise. By the late 1950s, Miltown, too, revealed itself to be habit-forming. As sales began to fall off, Valium-type drugs, a class of tranquilizer called benzodiazepines, rushed in to fill the vacuum. But, as before, chemical infatuation gave rise to disenchantment. In the mid seventies the FDA had amassed reports of benzodiazepine dependence and withdrawal. Prozac, too, once kicked off a revolution. But within a few years of its release in 1988, Prozac (which also gained FDA approval to treat panic disorder) lost its luster.
Now, the golden age of psychopharmaceuticals is drawing to a close. Most of the major drug firms have curtailed or shuttered their drug discovery labs. The pipeline to the FDA is running dry. Despite this depressing picture, psychiatrists are optimistic that new approaches will eventually prove fruitful — the question is how soon.
In the meantime, current medications — which continue to be prescribed in record volumes — are often extremely helpful. Psychological and behavioral therapies are indispensible too. Some patients do very well and even the author found some relief, but not nearly enough.
And what of the writing cure? “[I]n finishing this book, albeit a book that dwells at great length on my helplessness and inefficacy, maybe I am demonstrating a form of efficacy, perseverance, productivity — and yes, resilience,” Stossel writes. Indeed, he’s done all those things and more. He’s produced an excellent synthesis of reportage, research, and personal revelation. We are the beneficiaries of his self-imposed therapy. But the patient-author still ails, not being able, he says, to “escape my anxiety or be cured of it.”
Yet with a condition so encompassing and of such long standing, could he ever strip the “real” him from his disease? From the beginning, fear and Stossel were born twins. One wonders if he would ache for that phantom creature if, somehow, it were excised.
I can no longer remember the precise distinction between the uncertainty principle and the observer principle, but one way or another, I’ve started to detect a feedback loop involving the Year in Reading series and the reading life it purports to document. When I dashed off my first entry, in 2005 (can that be right?), it was purely in the spirit of a report. But by 2012, even in January, February, and March, I found myself picking up a given book and asking: Is this a contender for the series? Is there any chance this is going to be the best thing I read this year? And if not, back onto the shelves it went.
As a consequence, of the 50-odd books I finished this year, at least half ended up being terrific. And the arbitrary cap I set for myself annually (Okay, I’m going to stick to writing about eight books. Fine, a dozen. Fifteen.) has proven harder than ever to enforce. I haven’t bothered to count the number of titles below, because, frankly, I just don’t want to know how far over my own limit I am. Let me just say, by way of apology, that this was a really, really good year in reading.
Probably my favorite thing I read was part one of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle — which bodes well, because five more volumes are on their way into English. Knausgaard’s been described as a Nordic Proust, and that more or less captures the book’s scope and its candid thefts from the author’s own life. It’s not a perfect comparison, of course; the suburban Norway where Knausgaard came of age in the ’80s can’t touch the Faubourg St.-Germain for social complexity, nor is Knausgaard’s prose — even in Don Bartlett’s lucid translation — as refined as Proust’s. But both authors, in vivisecting their own consciousness, alter the reader’s. A key word in My Struggle is “presence,” and after reading a few pages of Knausgaard’s descriptions of snow and soap, corpses and copses, you look up and find your own world pressing its presence urgently upon you, a messenger with an envelope you’ll never quite manage to unseal.
But then, it’s hard to give the laurels to Knausgaard, because this was also the year I read László Krasznahorkai’s The Melancholy of Resistance and Clarice Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart. I’d started the former several times over the years, only to put it down again. (I blame the absence of paragraph breaks.) But I finished it this summer over four long nights, preparing to interview the author, and found it to be one of the great novels of the last quarter-century — like a MittelEuropean Moby-Dick. Near to the Wild Heart, meanwhile, is a Portuguese Mrs. Dalloway, as written by Peter Handke. I’m still not exactly sure what all happens to Lispector’s semi-feral heroine, but the writing is just exquisite. It kills me that Lispector was in her early 20s when she wrote this…and that it took me so long to discover her. She’s one of those writers who changes dramatically from book to book, but I look forward to reading everything of hers I can get my hands on. If you want to give her a try, start with this Modernist masterpiece.
Speaking of Modernist masterpieces…the Microscripts of Robert Walser are now out in paperback. I’m crazy about Walser’s early novel Jakob von Gunten, but have struggled with his short stories (many of which would today be called “short shorts”). All those quicksilver shifts of tone and intellect, compressed into the small space of a paragraph or two; all those discrete paragraphs, jam-packed together in a 4 x 8 inch book like roommates in a railroad apartment. The gorgeous new edition of the Microscripts, by contrast, surrounds each text with white space, and pairs it with a facsimile of its original, which somehow gives Walser’s sentences room to breathe…and to beguile. I was similarly entranced by Andrey Bely’s 1916 opus Petersburg back in the winter. I always read something Russian when it’s snowing, and I picked this up thinking to polish it off in a couple of weeks. Instead, it took me a couple of months. Bely’s symbolist prose, in many respects, is probably untranslatable, and his atmospherics are so relentless that the plot keeps disappearing behind them. But somehow, that comes to seem like the book’s whole point: to distill and bottle the phantasmagoric atmosphere of its titular city.
Another classic I loved this year was William Faulkner’s Sanctuary. Critics tend to treat this one as a disreputable entry in the Yoknapatawpha oeuvre…a liquored-up uncle trying to crash a party already full of liquored-up uncles. But one of the book’s supreme pleasures is seeing Faulkner turn his mature method (and he never wrote better than he did in 1929, ’30, ’31) to the kind of luridly pulpy material that would later surround him in Hollywood. Temple Drake, the kidnapped and forcibly debauched coed at the heart of the novel, is no one’s idea of a feminist icon. But she’s a flesh-and-blood character, and when she quakes in terror, we do, too.
…And is it too early to start filing Roberto Bolaño under “classics?” The well of posthumous Bolaño fiction has finally, I gather, run dry, and I expected to resent late trickles like The Secret of Evil. Instead, I found myself totally delighted, as ever, by this writer’s sui generis sensibility. A 15-page synopsis of a zombie movie, or of a dream about a zombie movie? Yes, please — provided Bolaño’s doing the dreaming.
This was a good year for new fiction, too. I was really taken with Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk, not least because it’s about damn time somebody wrote a novel about the Iraq War. Kevin Powers and David Abrams would soon join Fountain on the G.W.O.T. bookshelf. Unlike them, though, Fountain has never served in the armed forces and so it’s an act of ethical daring for him to imagine himself into the head of Specialist Billy Lynn, the book’s hero. Equally ballsy, I think, is the book’s formal dare: with one exception, it’s written in a relentlessly forward-moving present tense. I usually find this sort of thing to be a cop-out, as if the writer couldn’t be bothered to find a form other than Transcribed Screenplay, but Fountain treats realtime as a challenge, rather than an excuse. And he pulls it off. In short, he’s one of our best and bravest writers.
So is Zadie Smith. Critics seemed to chafe at the avant-garde ambitions of her new novel, NW. But I’m not sure those ambitions would have registered as such, had her essay, “Two Paths for the Novel,” much ballyhooed in 2008, not seemed to presage an avant-garde turn. It’s equally easy to make the case for NW as a novel of psychological realism. Its formal experimentation is light, easy to follow, and really pretty old-school (see: Mallarmé, Joyce). More unsettling, and more sneakily experimental, is the book’s approach to character. Smith’s protagonists, Leah, Natalie, and Felix, are incomplete, metamorphic, works in progress (as is their author). And it freaks them out. The book’s temperament, then, is anxious, pained, repressed – an obverse to the ebullience of White Teeth. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a step forward.
I also got around to some older contemporary lit this year. Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead had been on my list since our Best of the Millennium project, and I now understand why so many people voted for it. The explicitly religious subject matter — the novel comprises the letters of an elderly priest — may put some readers off, but Robinson’s eloquent embrace of faith doesn’t banish doubt and mystery; it foregrounds them. Or as her narrator puts it:
I have wandered to the limits of my understanding any number of times, out into that desolation, that Horeb, that Kansas, and I’ve scared myself, too, a good many times, leaving all landmarks behind me, or so it seemed. And it has been among the true pleasures of my life.
Salvation is nowhere to be found in Slow Fade, Rudolph Wurlitzer’s early-80s novel of the movie business. Neither, come to think of it, is pleasure…unless it’s the pleasure of Wurlitzer’s bone-clean prose. But Slow Fade struck me nonetheless as a great introduction to this neglected writer. And speaking of neglected: what ever happened to Mark Costello? Okay, fine, there are at least two Mark Costellos; I mean the one who was David Foster Wallace’s college roommate. His secret service sendup, Big If, was nominated for a National Book Award in 2002, and though it isn’t exactly a complete novel — it’s missing an ending, and rarely even descends into scene– Costello’s one of the funniest and brightest turners of phrase this side of…well, this side of Wallace. His long riff on the novel’s eponymous video game is like an existentialist parable rewritten by George Saunders, and is on its own worth the price of admission. I want a new Costello novel, and I want it now.
But real art takes as long as it takes, and half the time we’re not ready to recognize it when it comes. That’s one of the lessons of the best work of nonfiction I read this year, Lawrence Weschler’s Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, a biography of the artist Robert Irwin. I’ve read a lot of Weschler, but this book, his first, may be his best. And whether your particular field of endeavor is painting or writing or delivering the mail, Irwin’s story will teach you to see it in a new way. On the journalism side, I was also vastly impressed by Dave Cullen’s Columbine, notwithstanding his misinformed blurb for the Anthony Shadid book (“If Marquez [sic] had explored nonfiction…” Um…). Here, the attraction’s not so much the writing but the reporting, the way Cullen extends journalistic objectivity to both victims and killers. The back half of the book feels like a long, vivid nightmare, but one returns to sanity with the same feeling Weschler and Irwin keep urging on us: the wonder that there is anything at all.
I’d also recommend Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel, about Henry James. Like Janet Malcolm’s little books on Chekhov and Gertrude Stein, it’s an approachable blend of biography, criticism, and travelogue. Its charms will be less considerable, and its insights less penetrating, to anyone who hasn’t read Portrait of a Lady, to which Gorra’s book is keyed. But for readers looking to spend more time with the Master, or just to see what the fuss is about, Gorra’s book is the equivalent of a good undergraduate seminar. And you know who else is a good critic? Jonathan Lethem. While his novels get much of the attention, Lethem’s been steadily carving out a niche for himself as a polymorphous culture freak. His 2011 collection The Ecstasy of Influence doesn’t spare us his squibs and blog posts (and commentary on those squibs and blog posts), and for that reason I was prepared to hate it. Weirdly, though, it works, adding up to a warts-and-all portrait of the artist. And if you like your essays more polished, check out the long James Brown profile two-thirds of the way through.
Finally, a confession: I did something crazy this year. I blew half of a freelancing check on the complete, seven-volume edition of William T. Vollmann’s 3,000 page essay on violence, Rising Up and Rising Down. (What can I say? It was either that or diapers for my children.) I remain deeply conflicted about my fascination with Vollmann. I know there’s an obvious case to be made that he’s not a good writer. I also think he might be a great one. To my surprise, given its length, RURD is one of his more carefully crafted books. In its learned monomania, it reminds me of Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. To a contemporary audience, its style of argumentation may feel bizarre; I keep thinking of an archaeologist sitting at a table, sweeping a pile of sand from one hand to the other, waiting for artifacts to emerge in the middle. But when Vollmann arrives, after many divagations, at a point, you don’t feel like you understand; you feel like you’ve lived it. (For this reason, I cannot imagine the 700-page abridged version making any sense at all.) And if Violence seems like too broad a subject, consider this: it’s a head-fake. The essay’s really about Everything.
Or so it seems to me at present; I’m only two volumes in. RURD is destined, probably, to join The Book of Disquiet and The Arcades Project and The Making of Americans as one of those books I read and read and never finish. But I’m grateful to the weird pressure of A Year in Reading for giving me the impetus to start.
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In the fall of 2009, I left the United States to spend a school year teaching English in China. There were many things to do before leaving, but one of the more pleasurable was choosing which books would see me through the year. When my friend Ellen suggested taking Anthony Powell’s series A Dance to the Music of Time, I felt a click, the sort you feel when someone suggests a thing and you realize that is exactly what you intended to do all along. I packed the whole series and spent the next nine months living in China but letting a great deal of my imaginative life take place in mid-20th-century England.
For those who haven’t heard about the series or seen its tantalizing spines lined up on some bookstore shelf, Dance is a sequence of 12 novels, generally published as four volumes of three novels each. The series takes its name from a 17th-century painting by the French artist Nicholas Poussin, which depicts the four seasons as nymphs dancing in a circle while a winged Father Time plays for them on the harp. (The American editions of the books, published by the University of Chicago Press, use Poussin’s artwork and put one of the nymphs on the spine of each volume, so that when lined up the four volumes create an eye-catching work of art on one’s shelf.) The books take place in England over the course of nearly 60 years, starting between the World Wars and ending in the 1970s.
Various people have claimed that Dance is the definitive work of the British 20th century. The whole series is one entry on the Modern Library’s list of the 100 best novels of the century, which is a bit of a cheat, although there’s no good way to select one novel from the set. Evelyn Waugh called the books “more realistic than A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, to which it is often compared, and much funnier.” (Surely, if Waugh had tried, he could have come up with a more ringing endorsement than “funnier than Proust.”)
In any case, the books were a great success in both Britain and America upon their publication, but heaps of praise from people like Evelyn Waugh do not always secure a devoted, continuing readership once a book is no longer new. And these books deserve a continuing readership. They are masterful, they are deeply artful — and they are also rather fun. They contain a wealth of comedy, closely observed as the best serious work but with an additional twist that makes for a startled laugh when you suddenly realize what’s going on. They deserve to be popular. They deserve to be widely read and loved. These are the first books I can recall reading as an adult that made me want to go join the official society of fans of the author. Those who love these books love them for a lifetime; they are so rich and so pleasurable that they bear revisiting over the years as the reader grows alongside the characters and finds new ways to understand the story. And yet, in point of fact, nobody I know has read them, though I know a couple people who have been meaning to get around to it. And so I am taking to the Internet to make my own case for Powell to anyone out there who is in search of a new reading project as I was, or who simply needs something to read on these winter days.
Without further ado, then, seven reasons why these books deserve to be read:
Reason #1: They are unique.
This series is really a comic epic, and a fictional memoir of a person’s social life. It is a British social novel scaled way, way up.
A quick setup before going further: These books are narrated by Nick Jenkins. He shares a remarkable number of biographical details with one Mr. Anthony Powell, but we’ll take him on his own terms. Nick starts by telling us about his school days (outside sources say the school is Eton, though the text never indicates this) and university life (outside sources, Oxford, ditto) in the late 1910s to early ’20s, and the story continues through marriage, career, military service in the Second World War, and subsequent middle to old age in and around the London literary scene.
Nick is the only person who appears in every novel in the series, but he is not very keen on telling us much about himself. What he recounts are stories about social interactions at school, in the military, and in a roughly defined community of London literati, rather than stories about himself going to school, being an officer, and working as a writer. Nick is more likely to tell us what someone else appeared to be thinking than what he himself was thinking. His own marriage is sketched in the lightest possible lines, his children only hinted at. “It is difficult to talk about one’s wife,” he says, and so he doesn’t do it. He turns his considerable powers of understanding on other people instead — on other people, and on books.
Reason #2: They’re playfully, livably literary.
Nick is the kind of narrator who behaves as if he is actually writing the books; he serves as our author, rather than a conversation partner or a character into whose head we are allowed access. This works particularly well because the character is a writer. He doesn’t tell us the titles of any of his novels, though; the only book of his we’re allowed to know about is a scholarly work on Robert Burton, the author of The Anatomy of Melancholy, and that is included because it plays into his pattern of relating life to books. Nick shares what lines or ideas from other writers are playing through his head but not what stories he’s thinking up himself, rather in the way he is much more likely to recount a conversation with someone else than a solitary train of thought.
For the bookish amongst us — a category that surely includes nearly everybody willing to pick up these books — this kind of thought process will look rather endearingly familiar. As such it’s a comforting way in to the bigger stuff in the novels, the Second World War chief among them. Nick has a handful of attempted conversations about literature while in the army, the bulk of which fail so spectacularly that I laughed out loud while reading. There’s a fellow soldier who has a book of Kipling secreted away but is barely able to say anything about it. At the opposite end of the spectrum there’s David Pennistone, who though “capable, even brilliant, at explaining philosophic niceties or the minutiae of official dialectic, was entirely unable to present a clear narrative of his own daily life, past or present.” That’s obviously a problem not shared by our fearless narrator, but Nick and Pennistone are a kind of kindred spirit nevertheless and their conversations, however brief, are a relief from the military absurdity surrounding them.
Nick himself introduces literature into a lot of conversations that have nothing to do with literature, and it seldom works — as he comments after one of these conversations, “I was impressed for the ten thousandth time by the fact that literature illuminates life only for those to whom books are a necessity. Books are unconvertible assets, to be passed on only to those who possess them already.” The last scene of The Military Philosophers (the ninth book) is an end-of-war service at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Nick spends the whole time thinking about the poetry and song lyrics used in the service. The older he gets, the more his reading informs what he tells us of his life, especially Burton. The last novel takes place in the late 1960s and early ’70s, but is suffused with concepts and stories from the 17th century.
Reason #3: Do you like England? These books are completely, uniquely, and ineluctably English.
Apart from a trip to France in the first book, some time in Ireland in the third volume, and an interlude in Venice in Temporary Kings (the 11th book), the entire series takes place in England. I think it’s fair to assume our narrator never crosses the Atlantic (though Powell himself traveled rather extensively). The foreigners in the novels, who include French, Polish, Swedish, Norwegian, American, and a prince from a never-named Balkan country are seen through English eyes, and there’s a lot to be perceived about the British characters in the way they think and talk about these foreigners. I suspect Powell understood America somewhat better than his narrator, who comes across as rather naive on the subject — there’s a charming conversation at one point about Americans who are descended from signers of the Declaration of Independence, and it makes American social strata sound as arcane as those of ancient Mesopotamia. As a boy who’s just finished school, Nick spends a short time in France, and he seems a little surprised that the Norwegian and the Swede he meets there don’t get along, being from such similar cultures. The novels are not parochial — Nick is educated and observant — but they come from a very definite cultural perspective.
I should not neglect to mention that Powell, though he spent his life in England, came from a very old Welsh family, whose name he preferred to pronounce in the traditional fashion (rhyming with “noel”). He gave Nick a Welsh name as well, but any influence of Wales in the text is so subtle as to be invisible to this American reader. England pervades every bit of the books, though perhaps most notably the humor:
Reason #4: They are wonderfully funny.
Dance is certainly a comedy, but it can’t afford to be a classical comedy with happy endings for all. In any work covering such a vast period of time, there will inevitably be many deaths to read about. As it happens, that time includes the Second World War, and there are some deaths that occur right out of the blue while the story is occupying itself with social matters. These are sometimes ridiculous, but never ridiculed; sometimes tragic, but never eulogized. There’s no denial of tragedy, in other words, but Nick manages to acknowledge it and then move on to tell us about the next social occasion.
He doesn’t laugh out loud at what he sees going on around him. He doesn’t tend to tell the reader that someone is funny, and no one ever says he’s funny either. But he is, terrifically so. The humor is dry, sidelong, sneaky.
The trick is to notice that Powell doesn’t take the social world he’s describing very seriously. It would be easier to notice this if the books didn’t look like they should themselves be taken very seriously indeed, if they were less hefty and classical — the Poussin nymphs on the American editions are beautiful but a little intimidating. If you can forget about them for a while and get into the small-paperback spirit of reading, you can appreciate the absurdity of this little exchange, where Nick and his former head of house from Eton are conversing in a library and a boy comes by to ask the teacher a question:
We were interrupted at this moment by a very small boy, who had come to stand close by where we were talking. It would be truer to say we were inhibited by his presence, because no direct interruption took place. Dispelling about him an aura of immense, if not wholly convincing goodness, his intention was evidently to accost Le Bas in short course, at the same time ostentatiously to avoid any implication that he could be so lacking in good manners as to break into a conversation or attempt to overhear it. . . .
‘What do you want?’
‘I can wait, sir.’
This assurance that his own hopes were wholly unimportant, that Youth was prepared to waste valuable time indefinitely while Age span out its senile conference, did not in the least impress Le Bas, too conversant with the ways of boys not to be for ever on his guard.
Is that too dry for an introduction? If so, perhaps I should mention that there is also a butler who gets attacked by a monkey.
Powell’s portrayal of servants is quite funny, actually. At the time when these books were being written, P.G. Wodehouse was already making virtuosic use of the comic possibilities of the English serving class, most famously in the form of the hyper-competent Jeeves. Powell cut against the Wodehouse grain by making his servant characters only middling in competence and by having them intrude in the life of the household at the most inconvenient times, highlighting the strangeness of two entirely different categories of person living in a house together. The aforementioned butler works for an upper-class Communist, who doesn’t want a butler or really believe in having butlers, but can’t manage his enormous house without one, and there’s a sadly droll tone to their interactions.
The funniest novels are those in Volume 3, the war volume, possibly from a need to counterbalance the effect of the war on the narrative, possibly because the military is just so rich in comic possibilities:
The General turned savagely on Gwatkin, who had fallen into a kind of trance, but now started agonisingly to life again.
“No porridge, sir.”
General Liddament pondered this assertion for some seconds in resentful silence. He seemed to be considering porridge in all its aspects, bad as well as good. At last he came out with an unequivocal moral judgment.
“There ought to be porridge,” he said.
Reason #5: There is a judicious amount of world history.
By this I mostly mean World War II. Nick is just old enough when the war starts that he’s more of a military bureaucrat than a soldier, so none of these books is a War Novel in the customary mold. That said, it made me feel more powerfully about the London Blitz than anything, fiction or nonfiction, has ever done before.
In the war volumes, the humor is a little broader, with fewer subtle verbal jabs at social gatherings and more caricatures of superior officers (such as the two colonels named Eric and Derrick). And, as one would expect, the bad things that happen are far more serious. Nick, being who and what he is, gives us these things — the party hit by a bomb, the deaths that come out of the blue — without very much comment. There’s a section in The Military Philosophers where he says, “I was briefly in tears,” and I found it the most poignant bit of fiction I’d read for a very long time. Mostly, though, he continues to portray his life by way of the people with whom he surrounds himself, and to cope with uncertainty, discomfort, and death by finding comfort in the literary and intellectual.
Others, of course, respond to the war in very different ways, for instance,
Reason #6: Widmerpool.
Kenneth Widmerpool is one of only two characters besides Nick who appear in both the first novel of the series and the last. When he is first introduced, he’s a boy at the same school as Nick, a little older than our narrator, and his defining attribute is “the wrong kind of overcoat,” which “was only remarkable in itself as a vehicle for the comment it aroused, insomuch that an element in Widmerpool himself had proved indigestible to the community.”
This indigestibility serves Widmerpool surprisingly well. Possessed of no virtues but ambition, he is almost always able to convince his superiors that he’s especially worth promoting, rather than especially repulsive. Throughout the 12 novels, he turns up like a bad apple, and nearly every time he does so, his social or professional or military status has increased. “It was Widmerpool” is the most frequently repeated line in the books. Widmerpool himself may be the most deeply realized shallow person in English writing. His sense of his own importance, and his ability to force others to treat him as important, propel him to stations he does not deserve and cannot capably fulfill, and he is just competent enough to keep rising up in the world. Nick is none too pleased to be thrown together with Widmerpool so often, but he maintains his characteristic detachment on the matter. A different writer might treat the contrast between the two men as a moral one, but in Dance it is almost entirely aesthetic, and it is all the richer for it. The two of them, writer and bureaucrat, meet and part and re-meet over the course of the dance with an inevitability that is somehow both wearying and wonderful.
Reason #7: The books are both discreet and entertainingly frank.
The romantic relationships in this series are an utter mess. Almost everyone who gets married gets divorced, usually sooner rather than later; there’s infidelity all over the place; there is voyeurism and necrophilia and people showing up in the nude at surprising times. But it’s not lurid, simply because of the manner of writing. Nick tells us about a few sexual encounters before his own marriage, and he does so in a way that leaves no real doubt what’s going on but that includes no description whatsoever. The love scenes divert their gaze away from physical details and instead are all about character, behavior, and the degree to which people’s emotions are engaged (and whether they’re engaged equally, which they almost never are).
Homosexuality, incidentally, gets a rather interesting treatment in these novels. Early on — this would be in the 1920s and ’30s — it’s hinted at much more subtly than the hints of what’s happening in those love scenes. As time goes on there are clearer hints, often in the form of rumors that turn out to be true perhaps half the time, though there are also a couple scenes where a walk-on character is casually identified as a lesbian. In the post-WWII novels, the word “queer” is introduced, apparently in the process of taking on its new meaning. (There’s a conversation in Temporary Kings that illustrates this very well, where someone asks Nick if a mutual acquaintance is “queer:” “Is he?” “Homosexual?” “Of course.” “I don’t think so. I don’t think he’s very normal either.”) The word and the concept then move into the mainstream of the narrative until there are, in Hearing Secret Harmonies (the final book), an acknowledged male couple, an occult community where everyone is expected to have sex with everyone else for ritual purposes, and a number of offhand references to off-screen gay characters that don’t seem to surprise anyone.
Overall, the effect is that of a narrator with a strong sense of personal privacy but a very mild sense of shame. Like Melville’s Ishmael, he may choose to look away but he never flinches.
If you are not convinced…
If none of this has persuaded you that you need to read 12 British novels right now, here is what I recommend. Get hold of Volume 2 or a copy of the last novel in it, The Kindly Ones. Read the first chapter. It takes place in 1914, earlier than the rest of the saga, and it is the most self-contained bit of the series. If you don’t have the time or the will to read all 12 novels, this one chapter gives you some of the best they have to offer; I can’t imagine a better account of the start of World War I from a domestic, English point of view. If you think you don’t have the time or the will, this chapter might convince you it’s really not such a daunting task, and that this is a story and a voice worth settling down with for the long haul.
The Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton (1621): This is a dense, digressive, wonderfully learned, quasi-autobiographical, quasi-psychological exploded encyclopedia of all things melancholic and otherwise—a mishmash of case studies (a man who thought he was turned to glass), citations from contradictory ancient and modern authorities (c. 1620), quotations from the Bible, essays on geography and climatology, observations on the deficiencies of the Catholic Church, recommendations of study as a cure for melancholy (and then reflections on study as a cause of melancholy), a utopia. Burton described his Anatomy as: “a rhapsody of rags gathered together from several dung-hills, excrements of authors, toys and fopperies confusedly tumbled out, without art, invention, judgement, wit, learning, harsh, raw, rude, phantastical, absurd, insolent, indiscreet, ill-composed, indigested, vain, scurrile, idle, dull, and dry…” Indeed, such it is, and for this intellectually dense disorder, the book can be baffling and dizzy-making (esp. if you read the NYRB edition, the most readily available, which has very close-set type and does not translate all of Burton’s Latin). Burton’s long, loose, Latinate sentences can also be rough going. But it is very much worth a try. Burton is an endearingly humble narrator who, while he calls himself an ignorant smatterer, might teach you to accept the incurable madness— melancholy— fallenness—of humankind.
Paradise Lost, John Milton (1667): With Milton, Latinate syntax is again at the heart of the difficulty: Milton reverses the normal order of words and clauses (Yoda-ish, only more complex). Milton’s blank verse epic is also long (“No one ever wished it longer,” Samuel Johnson once remarked), as well as being one of the most richly allusive works in the language–and these allusions are sometimes crucial to making sense of the dramatic action of the poem and the nature and motivations of its characters (Adam, Eve, Satan, God the Father, Jesus, assorted angels—the story of Paradise Lost is the story of the fall of man (more or less) as reported in the first book of the Old Testament, Genesis). Milton drew his references from classical literature, philosophy, history, and myth, as well as contemporary (i.e. C17th) politics, theology, and religious debates, and so for those determined to get at the very marrow of Milton, Merritt Y. Hughes’ Complete Poems and Prose, the definitive scholarly edition, is the best choice for its excellent, extensive footnotes (not endnotes, which are irritating and slow reading immeasurably). However, Milton’s poetry can stand on its own: listening to Milton read aloud by a talented reader, the convoluted syntax comes to seem almost natural, and the grandeur of Milton’s blank verse shines forth. If you can’t find a Milton marathon in your neighborhood, try English classical actor Anton Lesser’s audiobook recording. Illustrated editions of the poem can also be illuminating: Gustave Doré and William Blake’s illustrations are the best (and there’s a $10 Dover edition of the Doré illustrations). As an additional warm-up, you might consider reading “Happy Birthday, Milton“, by New York Times columnist and legendary Milton scholar Stanley Fish.
A Tale of A Tub, Jonathan Swift (1684-1710): Swift may have sat across the aisle from Milton (Swift was a Church of England priest who supported the monarchy; Milton, a fervently committed dissenter who supported the English Revolution), but for the difficulty of their literary work and for the passion of their commitments to opposed theologies, they have a certain improbable correlation. The sources of difficulty in Swift’s Tale, however, are somewhat different from those of Paradise Lost. Swift’s prose style is pretty straightforward as 18th century prose styles go, though it may take a while to get used to sentences that might begin with phrases like “So that…,” occasional syntactic inversions, occasional paragraph-length sentences, and (in some editions) capitalization of common nouns (quite common in early modern English–Milton’s as well). The most marked difficulty with Swift is that the issues, persons, and events he continually alludes to were very much of his particular historical moment, an age defined by the sort of party politics and culture wars we know too well, but that are hard to get a grasp on at 300 years remove. With an edition that has decent footnotes, you should be able to orient yourself pretty well. And what’s more, the finer points of late 17th and early 18th century political squabbles are not the main event in any case: the Tale is a primarily a satire of “Modern” writing—writing produced by the (then) new class of professional writers whom many educated and aristocratic readers came to despise (akin to the way certain publications have denigrated bloggers and blogging). These Grub Streeters were paid (oh, how distasteful!) and had not necessarily gone to Oxford or Cambridge, and might not have read Aristotle or Horace, and didn’t necessarily care about the classics or classical rules of art. All of this was deeply distressing to Swift. The persona that Swift assumes in the Tale is a parody of one of the worst of these Grub Street hacks (and I’ve read them—they often are dreadful and crazy and bad—though not always). Swift’s hack is perpetually distracted and self-absorbed and, as we discover by degrees, quite probably insane.
The work that this unreliable narrator promises in the title page—A Tale of a Tub—is what seems at first a pretty straightforward allegory of the history of the Christian church and its breaking into Catholicism, Anglicanism, and dissenting Protestantism. But the hack is continually interrupting this tale to hold forth on a variety of increasingly bizarre subjects: his own ill health, his poverty, “the use and improvement of madness,” the other books he is going to write soon (“A general history of Ears,” “A Modest Defense of the Proceedings of the Rabble in all Ages”). As you near the end, it feels like the whole world is being sucked down by the ferocious energy of the satire: the Church of England, Jesus, and even Swift himself, who seems to enjoy occupying the subjectivity of his madman a bit too much. Swift claimed that the Tale was designed “to expose the Abuses and Corruptions in Learning and Religion.” That it does—but there’s very little left standing when all’s exposed. In the realm of satire, this has my vote for the greatest of them all (but I, invasive narrator that I am, must admit that I’m hardly impartial as a one-time graduate student of eighteenth-century literature).
How to describe Cyril Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave: It is one of those books – like The Anatomy of Melancholy, The Compleat Angler, Minima Moralia, A Tale of a Tub, Urne Buriall – that defies all conventions of genre and, thereby, easy description. Though I have concerned myself much with the academic question of what it means to defy genre classification, I have no easy or convincing answer. By my reckoning, genreless literary works take into themselves aspects of various different disciplines (aesthetic criticism, philosophy, memoir and recollection, in the case of The Unquiet Grave) or genres (Moby-Dick is part “straight” narrative, part allegory, part encyclopedia (the Cetology chapter), part common-place book (the extended collection of quotations concerning whales at the beginning), part drama (the chapters that are laid out like acts in a play, complete with stage directions), part impressionistic quasi-philosophic meditation (“The Masthead” and “The Whiteness of the Whale” chapters)).The difference between a book like Moby-Dick and a book like The Unquiet Grave, is that Melville’s book has a master genre (it is still, at the end of the day, in spite of all of its formal experimentation, unquestionably a novel), whereas Connolly’s book, along the lines of Burton’s Anatomy, Adorno’s Minima Moralia, Wittgenstein’s Culture and Value, Sir Thomas Browne’s Urne Buriall – is, as a reading experience, something more akin to being submerged in the psyche and/or intellect of its author. These books are odd mixes of opinion, quotation, recollection, personal philosophy, and meditation, and all have – some more than others – a fragmentary or aphoristic style of composition that can at times verge on the hallucinatory. And perhaps ‘hallucinatory’ is the wrong word – the sensation that the reading of Connolly’s book induces is (and here I speculate) something more like being possessed for a while by the thoughts, the thought-patterns, rhythms, and favorite authors of someone else. The closest approximation of this sensation that I have found elsewhere is in the reading of private notebooks and unbound papers: Here, a fragmentary transcription of a conversation at a party; there, a formal letter to a parent; there, again, a diaristic meditation on the fear of marriage. All is produced of the same brain, in the same hand, and this common origin is the sole tie that binds the disparate sheaf.And yet, however similar the sensation of rifling through an author’s private papers may at times be to the reading of a book like The Unquiet Grave, a crucial difference remains: A book like Connolly’s performs what manuscript papers actually do. Connolly and his ilk turn the casual essay-istic style of the notebook into art. They refine, polish, and uplift the fragmentary, meandering private style: They make it palatable, even beautiful. Private writing, when it is really and truly private, is not necessarily charmingly haphazard: Almost inevitably, it slips into the unendurably dull, the defeatingly self-obsessed, the clumsy, sloppy, and rough. It is hard going. There are occasional pleasures to be had, gems of wit and observation here and there, to be sure, but these are the exception and not the rule.The beauty, the strange beauty, of The Unquiet Grave and its cousins lies in its elevation of notebook style – that quirky yet potentially enchanting melange of squib, meditation, quotation, anecdote, and philosophical monologue – to high art. The casual, associative meandering that stands in place of traditional chronology- and logic-driven narrative techniques creates the illusion that what we read was actually just dashed off casually in snatches of free time, while the quality of the thought, and the quality of the prose belies this informal, nonchalance of organization.Below are a few choice excerpts from The Unquiet Grave, by Palinurus (Connolly’s authorial pseudonym for this “experiment in self-dismantling”; the pilot of Aeneas’ boat who fell asleep at the rudder, fell into the sea, and was drowned; Palinurus was a sacrifice taken by Neptune; he died – though he didn’t know it – so the rest could arrive safely at Avernus).In their variety and strangeness, these passages (I hope) will give something of an introduction to the book:”Cowardice in living: without health and courage we cannot face the present or the germ of the future in the present, and we take refuge in evasion. Evasion through comfort, through society, through acquisitiveness, through the book-bed-bath defense system, above all through the past, the flight to the romantic womb of history, into primitive myth-making. The refusal to include the great mass-movements of the twentieth century in our art or our myth will drive us to take refuge in the past; in surrealism, magic, primitive religions, or eighteenth-century wonderlands. We fly to Mediterranean womb-pockets and dream-islands, into dead controversies and ancient hermetic bric-a-brac, like a child who sits hugging his toys and who screams with rage when told to put on his boots.””The Vegetable Conspiracy: Man is now on his guard against insect parasites; against liver-flukes, termites, Colorado beetles, but has he given thought to the possibility that he has been selected as the target of vegetable attack, marked down by the vine, hop, juniper, and tobacco plant, tea-leaf and coffee-berry for destruction? What converts these Jesuits of the gastric juices make, – and how cleverly they retain them. Which smoker considers the menace of the weed spreading in his garden, which drunkard reads the warning of the ivy round the oak?”From a brief set of descriptions of pets entitled “Graves of the Lemurs”:”Polyp. Most gifted of lemurs, who hated aeroplanes in the sky, on the screen, and even on the wireless. How he would have hated this war! He could play in the snow or swim in a river or conduct himself in a night-club; he judged human beings by their voices; biting some, purring over others, while for one or two well-seasoned old ladies he would brandish a black prickle-studded penis, shaped like a eucalyptus seed. Using his tail as an aerial, he would lollop through long grass to welcome his owners, embracing them with little cries and offering them a lustration from his purple tongue and currycomb teeth. His manners were of some spoiled young Maharajah, his intelligence not inferior, his heart all delicacy, – women, gin and muscats were his only weaknesses. Alas, he died of pneumonia while we scolded him for coughing, and with him vanished the sea-purple cicada kingdom of calanque and stone-pine and the concept of life as an arrogant private dream shared by two.””When once we have discovered how pain and suffering diminish the personality, and how joy alone increases it, then the morbid attraction which is felt for evil, pain, and abnormality will have lost its power. Why do we reward our men of genius, our suicides, our madmen, and the generally maladjusted with the melancholy honours of a posthumous curiosity? Because we know that it is our society which has condemned these men to death, and which is guilty because out of its own ignorance and malformation it has persecuted those who were potential saviours; smiters of the rock who might have touched the spring of healing and brought us back into harmony with ourselves.Somehow, then, and without going mad, we must learn from these madmen to reconcile fanaticism with serenity. Each one, taken alone, is disastrous, yet except through the integration of these two opposites there is no great art and no profound happiness – and what else is worth having? For nothing can be accomplished without fanaticism, and without serenity nothing can be enjoyed. Perfection of form or increase of knowledge, pursuit of fame or service to the community, love of God or god of Love, – we must select the Illusion which appeals to our temperament, and embrace it with passion, if we want to be happy. This is the farewell autumn precept with which Palinurus takes leave of his fast-fading nightmare.”