The Bacchae and Other Plays (Penguin Classics)

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Most Anticipated: The Great Spring 2024 Preview

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April April 2 Women! In! Peril! by Jessie Ren Marshall [F] For starters, excellent title. This debut short story collection from playwright Marshall spans sex bots and space colonists, wives and divorcées, prodding at the many meanings of womanhood. Short story master Deesha Philyaw, also taken by the book's title, calls this one "incisive! Provocative! And utterly satisfying!" —Sophia M. Stewart The Audacity by Ryan Chapman [F] This sophomore effort, after the darkly sublime absurdity of Riots I have Known, trades in the prison industrial complex for the Silicon Valley scam. Chapman has a sharp eye and a sharper wit, and a book billed as a "bracing satire about the implosion of a Theranos-like company, a collapsing marriage, and a billionaires’ 'philanthropy summit'" promises some good, hard laughs—however bitter they may be—at the expense of the über-rich. —John H. Maher The Obscene Bird of Night by José Donoso, tr. Leonard Mades [F] I first learned about this book from an essay in this publication by Zachary Issenberg, who alternatively calls it Donoso's "masterpiece," "a perfect novel," and "the crowning achievement of the gothic horror genre." He recommends going into the book without knowing too much, but describes it as "a story assembled from the gossip of society’s highs and lows, which revolves and blurs into a series of interlinked nightmares in which people lose their memory, their sex, or even their literal organs." —SMS Globetrotting ed. Duncan Minshull [NF] I'm a big walker, so I won't be able to resist this assemblage of 50 writers—including Edith Wharton, Katharine Mansfield, Helen Garner, and D.H. Lawrence—recounting their various journeys by foot, edited by Minshull, the noted walker-writer-anthologist behind The Vintage Book of Walking (2000) and Where My Feet Fall (2022). —SMS All Things Are Too Small by Becca Rothfeld [NF] Hieronymus Bosch, eat your heart out! The debut book from Rothfeld, nonfiction book critic at the Washington Post, celebrates our appetite for excess in all its material, erotic, and gluttonous glory. Covering such disparate subjects from decluttering to David Cronenberg, Rothfeld looks at the dire cultural—and personal—consequences that come with adopting a minimalist sensibility and denying ourselves pleasure. —Daniella Fishman A Good Happy Girl by Marissa Higgins [F] Higgins, a regular contributor here at The Millions, debuts with a novel of a young woman who is drawn into an intense and all-consuming emotional and sexual relationship with a married lesbian couple. Halle Butler heaps on the praise for this one: “Sometimes I could not believe how easily this book moved from gross-out sadism into genuine sympathy. Totally surprising, totally compelling. I loved it.” —SMS City Limits by Megan Kimble [NF] As a Los Angeleno who is steadily working my way through The Power Broker, this in-depth investigation into the nation's freeways really calls to me. (Did you know Robert Moses couldn't drive?) Kimble channels Caro by locating the human drama behind freeways and failures of urban planning. —SMS We Loved It All by Lydia Millet [NF] Planet Earth is a pretty awesome place to be a human, with its beaches and mountains, sunsets and birdsong, creatures great and small. Millet, a creative director at the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, infuses her novels with climate grief and cautions against extinction, and in this nonfiction meditation, she makes a case for a more harmonious coexistence between our species and everybody else in the natural world. If a nostalgic note of “Auld Lang Syne” trembles in Millet’s title, her personal anecdotes and public examples call for meaningful environmental action from local to global levels. —Nathalie op de Beeck Like Love by Maggie Nelson [NF] The new book from Nelson, one of the most towering public intellectuals alive today, collects 20 years of her work—including essays, profiles, and reviews—that cover disparate subjects, from Prince and Kara Walker to motherhood and queerness. For my fellow Bluets heads, this will be essential reading. —SMS Traces of Enayat by Iman Mersal, tr. Robin Moger [NF] Mersal, one of the preeminent poets of the Arabic-speaking world, recovers the life, work, and legacy of the late Egyptian writer Enayat al-Zayyat in this biographical detective story. Mapping the psyche of al-Zayyat, who died by suicide in 1963, alongside her own, Mersal blends literary mystery and memoir to produce a wholly original portrait of two women writers. —SMS The Letters of Emily Dickinson ed. Cristanne Miller and Domhnall Mitchell [NF] The letters of Emily Dickinson, one of the greatest and most beguiling of American poets, are collected here for the first time in nearly 60 years. Her correspondence not only gives access to her inner life and social world, but reveal her to be quite the prose stylist. "In these letters," says Jericho Brown, "we see the life of a genius unfold." Essential reading for any Dickinson fan. —SMS April 9 Short War by Lily Meyer [F] The debut novel from Meyer, a critic and translator, reckons with the United States' political intervention in South America through the stories of two generations: a young couple who meet in 1970s Santiago, and their American-born child spending a semester Buenos Aires. Meyer is a sharp writer and thinker, and a great translator from the Spanish; I'm looking forward to her fiction debut. —SMS There's Going to Be Trouble by Jen Silverman [F] Silverman's third novel spins a tale of an American woman named Minnow who is drawn into a love affair with a radical French activist—a romance that, unbeknown to her, mirrors a relationship her own draft-dodging father had against the backdrop of the student movements of the 1960s. Teasing out the intersections of passion and politics, There's Going to Be Trouble is "juicy and spirited" and "crackling with excitement," per Jami Attenberg. —SMS Table for One by Yun Ko-eun, tr. Lizzie Buehler [F] I thoroughly enjoyed Yun Ko-eun's 2020 eco-thriller The Disaster Tourist, also translated by Buehler, so I'm excited for her new story collection, which promises her characteristic blend of mundanity and surrealism, all in the name of probing—and poking fun—at the isolation and inanity of modern urban life. —SMS Playboy by Constance Debré, tr. Holly James [NF] The prequel to the much-lauded Love Me Tender, and the first volume in Debré's autobiographical trilogy, Playboy's incisive vignettes explore the author's decision to abandon her marriage and career and pursue the precarious life of a writer, which she once told Chris Kraus was "a bit like Saint Augustine and his conversion." Virginie Despentes is a fan, so I'll be checking this out. —SMS Native Nations by Kathleen DuVal [NF] DuVal's sweeping history of Indigenous North America spans a millennium, beginning with the ancient cities that once covered the continent and ending with Native Americans' continued fight for sovereignty. A study of power, violence, and self-governance, Native Nations is an exciting contribution to a new canon of North American history from an Indigenous perspective, perfect for fans of Ned Blackhawk's The Rediscovery of America. —SMS Personal Score by Ellen van Neerven [NF] I’ve always been interested in books that drill down on a specific topic in such a way that we also learn something unexpected about the world around us. Australian writer Van Neerven's sports memoir is so much more than that, as they explore the relationship between sports and race, gender, and sexuality—as well as the paradox of playing a colonialist sport on Indigenous lands. Two Dollar Radio, which is renowned for its edgy list, is publishing this book, so I know it’s going to blow my mind. —Claire Kirch April 16 The Notebooks of Sonny Rollins by Sonny Rollins [NF] The musings, recollections, and drawings of jazz legend Sonny Rollins are collected in this compilation of his precious notebooks, which he began keeping in 1959, the start of what would become known as his “Bridge Years,” during which he would practice at all hours on the Williamsburg Bridge. Rollins chronicles everything from his daily routine to reflections on music theory and the philosophical underpinnings of his artistry. An indispensable look into the mind and interior life of one of the most celebrated jazz musicians of all time. —DF Henry Henry by Allen Bratton [F] Bratton’s ambitious debut reboots Shakespeare’s Henriad, landing Hal Lancaster, who’s in line to be the 17th Duke of Lancaster, in the alcohol-fueled queer party scene of 2014 London. Hal’s identity as a gay man complicates his aristocratic lineage, and his dalliances with over-the-hill actor Jack Falstaff and promising romance with one Harry Percy, who shares a name with history’s Hotspur, will have English majors keeping score. Don’t expect a rom-com, though. Hal’s fraught relationship with his sexually abusive father, and the fates of two previous gay men from the House of Lancaster, lend gravity to this Bard-inspired take. —NodB Bitter Water Opera by Nicolette Polek [F] Graywolf always publishes books that make me gasp in awe and this debut novel, by the author of the entrancing 2020 story collection Imaginary Museums, sounds like it’s going to keep me awake at night as well. It’s a tale about a young woman who’s lost her way and writes a letter to a long-dead ballet dancer—who then visits her, and sets off a string of strange occurrences. —CK Norma by Sarah Mintz [F] Mintz's debut novel follows the titular widow as she enjoys her newfound freedom by diving headfirst into her surrounds, both IRL and online. Justin Taylor says, "Three days ago I didn’t know Sarah Mintz existed; now I want to know where the hell she’s been all my reading life. (Canada, apparently.)" —SMS What Kingdom by Fine Gråbøl, tr. Martin Aitken [F] A woman in a psychiatric ward dreams of "furniture flickering to life," a "chair that greets you," a "bookshelf that can be thrown on like an apron." This sounds like the moving answer to the otherwise puzzling question, "What if the Kantian concept of ding an sich were a novel?" —JHM Weird Black Girls by Elwin Cotman [F] Cotman, the author of three prior collections of speculative short stories, mines the anxieties of Black life across these seven tales, each of them packed with pop culture references and supernatural conceits. Kelly Link calls Cotman's writing "a tonic to ward off drabness and despair." —SMS Presence by Tracy Cochran [NF] Last year marked my first earnest attempt at learning to live more mindfully in my day-to-day, so I was thrilled when this book serendipitously found its way into my hands. Cochran, a New York-based meditation teacher and Tibetan Buddhist practitioner of 50 years, delivers 20 psycho-biographical chapters on recognizing the importance of the present, no matter how mundane, frustrating, or fortuitous—because ultimately, she says, the present is all we have. —DF Committed by Suzanne Scanlon [NF] Scanlon's memoir uses her own experience of mental illness to explore the enduring trope of the "madwoman," mining the work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Audre Lorde, and others for insights into the long literary tradition of women in psychological distress. The blurbers for this one immediately caught my eye, among them Natasha Trethewey, Amina Cain, and Clancy Martin, who compares Scanlon's work here to that of Marguerite Duras. —SMS Unrooted by Erin Zimmerman [NF] This science memoir explores Zimmerman's journey to botany, a now endangered field. Interwoven with Zimmerman's experiences as a student and a mother is an impassioned argument for botany's continued relevance and importance against the backdrop of climate change—a perfect read for gardeners, plant lovers, or anyone with an affinity for the natural world. —SMS April 23 Reboot by Justin Taylor [F] Extremely online novels, as a rule, have become tiresome. But Taylor has long had a keen eye for subcultural quirks, so it's no surprise that PW's Alan Scherstuhl says that "reading it actually feels like tapping into the internet’s best celeb gossip, fiercest fandom outrages, and wildest conspiratorial rabbit holes." If that's not a recommendation for the Book Twitter–brained reader in you, what is? —JHM Divided Island by Daniela Tarazona, tr. Lizzie Davis and Kevin Gerry Dunn [F] A story of multiple personalities and grief in fragments would be an easy sell even without this nod from Álvaro Enrigue: "I don't think that there is now, in Mexico, a literary mind more original than Daniela Tarazona's." More original than Mario Bellatin, or Cristina Rivera Garza? This we've gotta see. —JHM Prairie, Dresses, Art, Other by Danielle Dutton [NF] Coffee House Press has for years relished its reputation for publishing “experimental” literature, and this collection of short stories and essays about literature and art and the strangeness of our world is right up there with the rest of Coffee House’s edgiest releases. Don’t be fooled by the simple cover art—Dutton’s work is always formally inventive, refreshingly ambitious, and totally brilliant. —CK I Just Keep Talking by Nell Irvin Painter [NF] I first encountered Nell Irvin Painter in graduate school, as I hung out with some Americanists who were her students. Painter was always a dazzling, larger-than-life figure, who just exuded power and brilliance. I am so excited to read this collection of her essays on history, literature, and politics, and how they all intersect. The fact that this collection contains Painter’s artwork is a big bonus. —CK April 30 Real Americans by Rachel Khong [F] The latest novel from Khong, the author of Goodbye, Vitamin, explores class dynamics and the illusory American Dream across generations. It starts out with a love affair between an impoverished Chinese American woman from an immigrant family and an East Coast elite from a wealthy family, before moving us along 21 years: 15-year-old Nick knows that his single mother is hiding something that has to do with his biological father and thus, his identity. C Pam Zhang deems this "a book of rare charm," and Andrew Sean Greer calls it "gorgeous, heartfelt, soaring, philosophical and deft." —CK The Swans of Harlem by Karen Valby [NF] Huge thanks to Bebe Neuwirth for putting this book on my radar (she calls it "fantastic") with additional gratitude to Margo Jefferson for sealing the deal (she calls it "riveting"). Valby's group biography of five Black ballerinas who forever transformed the art form at the height of the Civil Rights movement uncovers the rich and hidden history of Black ballet, spotlighting the trailblazers who paved the way for the Misty Copelands of the world. —SMS Appreciation Post by Tara Ward [NF] Art historian Ward writes toward an art history of Instagram in Appreciation Post, which posits that the app has profoundly shifted our long-established ways of interacting with images. Packed with cultural critique and close reading, the book synthesizes art history, gender studies, and media studies to illuminate the outsize role that images play in all of our lives. —SMS May May 7 Bad Seed by Gabriel Carle, tr. Heather Houde [F] Carle’s English-language debut contains echoes of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’s Son and Mariana Enriquez’s gritty short fiction. This story collection haunting but cheeky, grim but hopeful: a student with HIV tries to avoid temptation while working at a bathhouse; an inebriated friend group witnesses San Juan go up in literal flames; a sexually unfulfilled teen drowns out their impulses by binging TV shows. Puerto Rican writer Luis Negrón calls this “an extraordinary literary debut.” —Liv Albright The Lady Waiting by Magdalena Zyzak [F] Zyzak’s sophomore novel is a nail-biting delight. When Viva, a young Polish émigré, has a chance encounter with an enigmatic gallerist named Bobby, Viva’s life takes a cinematic turn. Turns out, Bobby and her husband have a hidden agenda—they plan to steal a Vermeer, with Viva as their accomplice. Further complicating things is the inevitable love triangle that develops among them. Victor LaValle calls this “a superb accomplishment," and Percival Everett says, "This novel pops—cosmopolitan, sexy, and funny." —LA América del Norte by Nicolás Medina Mora [F] Pitched as a novel that "blends the Latin American traditions of Roberto Bolaño and Fernanda Melchor with the autofiction of U.S. writers like Ben Lerner and Teju Cole," Mora's debut follows a young member of the Mexican elite as he wrestles with questions of race, politics, geography, and immigration. n+1 co-editor Marco Roth calls Mora "the voice of the NAFTA generation, and much more." —SMS How It Works Out by Myriam Lacroix [F] LaCroix's debut novel is the latest in a strong early slate of novels for the Overlook Press in 2024, and follows a lesbian couple as their relationship falls to pieces across a number of possible realities. The increasingly fascinating and troubling potentialities—B-list feminist celebrity, toxic employer-employee tryst, adopting a street urchin, cannibalism as relationship cure—form a compelling image of a complex relationship in multiversal hypotheticals. —JHM Cinema Love by Jiaming Tang [F] Ting's debut novel, which spans two continents and three timelines, follows two gay men in rural China—and, later, New York City's Chinatown—who frequent the Workers' Cinema, a movie theater where queer men cruise for love. Robert Jones, Jr. praises this one as "the unforgettable work of a patient master," and Jessamine Chan calls it "not just an extraordinary debut, but a future classic." —SMS First Love by Lilly Dancyger [NF] Dancyger's essay collection explores the platonic romances that bloom between female friends, giving those bonds the love-story treatment they deserve. Centering each essay around a formative female friendship, and drawing on everything from Anaïs Nin and Sylvia Plath to the "sad girls" of Tumblr, Dancyger probes the myriad meanings and iterations of friendship, love, and womanhood. —SMS See Loss See Also Love by Yukiko Tominaga [F] In this impassioned debut, we follow Kyoko, freshly widowed and left to raise her son alone. Through four vignettes, Kyoko must decide how to raise her multiracial son, whether to remarry or stay husbandless, and how to deal with life in the face of loss. Weike Wang describes this one as “imbued with a wealth of wisdom, exploring the languages of love and family.” —DF The Novices of Lerna by Ángel Bonomini, tr. Jordan Landsman [F] The Novices of Lerna is Landsman's translation debut, and what a way to start out: with a work by an Argentine writer in the tradition of Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares whose work has never been translated into English. Judging by the opening of this short story, also translated by Landsman, Bonomini's novel of a mysterious fellowship at a Swiss university populated by doppelgängers of the protagonist is unlikely to disappoint. —JHM Black Meme by Legacy Russell [NF] Russell, best known for her hit manifesto Glitch Feminism, maps Black visual culture in her latest. Black Meme traces the history of Black imagery from 1900 to the present, from the photograph of Emmett Till published in JET magazine to the footage of Rodney King's beating at the hands of the LAPD, which Russell calls the first viral video. Per Margo Jefferson, "You will be galvanized by Legacy Russell’s analytic brilliance and visceral eloquence." —SMS The Eighth Moon by Jennifer Kabat [NF] Kabat's debut memoir unearths the history of the small Catskills town to which she relocated in 2005. The site of a 19th-century rural populist uprising, and now home to a colorful cast of characters, the Appalachian community becomes a lens through which Kabat explores political, economic, and ecological issues, mining the archives and the work of such writers as Adrienne Rich and Elizabeth Hardwick along the way. —SMS Stories from the Center of the World ed. Jordan Elgrably [F] Many in America hold onto broad, centuries-old misunderstandings of Arab and Muslim life and politics that continue to harm, through both policy and rhetoric, a perpetually embattled and endangered region. With luck, these 25 tales by writers of Middle Eastern and North African origin might open hearts and minds alike. —JHM An Encyclopedia of Gardening for Colored Children by Jamaica Kincaid and Kara Walker [NF] Two of the most brilliant minds on the planet—writer Jamaica Kincaid and visual artist Kara Walker—have teamed up! On a book! About plants! A dream come true. Details on this slim volume are scant—see for yourself—but I'm counting down the minutes till I can read it all the same. —SMS Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov, tr. Angela Rodel [F] I'll be honest: I would pick up this book—by the International Booker Prize–winning author of Time Shelter—for the title alone. But also, the book is billed as a deeply personal meditation on both Communist Bulgaria and Greek myth, so—yep, still picking this one up. —JHM May 14 This Strange Eventful History by Claire Messud [F] I read an ARC of this enthralling fictionalization of Messud’s family history—people wandering the world during much of the 20th century, moving from Algeria to France to North America— and it is quite the story, with a postscript that will smack you on the side of the head and make you re-think everything you just read. I can't recommend this enough. —CK Woodworm by Layla Martinez, tr. Sophie Hughes and Annie McDermott [F] Martinez’s debut novel takes cabin fever to the max in this story of a grandmother,  granddaughter, and their haunted house, set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. As the story unfolds, so do the house’s secrets, the two women must learn to collaborate with the malevolent spirits living among them. Mariana Enriquez says that this "tense, chilling novel tells a story of specters, class war, violence, and loneliness, as naturally as if the witches had dictated this lucid, terrible nightmare to Martínez themselves.” —LA Self Esteem and the End of the World by Luke Healy [NF] Ah, writers writing about writing. A tale as old as time, and often timeworn to boot. But graphic novelists graphically noveling about graphic novels? (Verbing weirds language.) It still feels fresh to me! Enter Healy's tale of "two decades of tragicomic self-discovery" following a protagonist "two years post publication of his latest book" and "grappling with his identity as the world crumbles." —JHM All Fours by Miranda July [F] In excruciating, hilarious detail, All Fours voices the ethically dubious thoughts and deeds of an unnamed 45-year-old artist who’s worried about aging and her capacity for desire. After setting off on a two-week round-trip drive from Los Angeles to New York City, the narrator impulsively checks into a motel 30 miles from her home and only pretends to be traveling. Her flagrant lies, unapologetic indolence, and semi-consummated seduction of a rent-a-car employee set the stage for a liberatory inquisition of heteronorms and queerness. July taps into the perimenopause zeitgeist that animates Jen Beagin’s Big Swiss and Melissa Broder’s Death Valley. —NodB Love Junkie by Robert Plunket [F] When a picture-perfect suburban housewife's life is turned upside down, a chance brush with New York City's gay scene launches her into gainful, albeit unconventional, employment. Set at the dawn of the AIDs epidemic, Mimi Smithers, described as a "modern-day Madame Bovary," goes from planning parties in Westchester to selling used underwear with a Manhattan porn star. As beloved as it is controversial, Plunket's 1992 cult novel will get a much-deserved second life thanks to this reissue by New Directions. (Maybe this will finally galvanize Madonna, who once optioned the film rights, to finally make that movie.) —DF Tomorrowing by Terry Bisson [F] The newest volume in Duke University’s Practices series collects for the first time the late Terry Bisson’s Locus column "This Month in History," which ran for two decades. In it, the iconic "They’re Made Out of Meat" author weaves an alt-history of a world almost parallel to ours, featuring AI presidents, moon mountain hikes, a 196-year-old Walt Disney’s resurrection, and a space pooch on Mars. This one promises to be a pure spectacle of speculative fiction. —DF Chop Fry Watch Learn by Michelle T. King [NF] A large portion of the American populace still confuses Chinese American food with Chinese food. What a delight, then, to discover this culinary history of the worldwide dissemination of that great cuisine—which moonlights as a biography of Chinese cookbook and TV cooking program pioneer Fu Pei-mei. —JHM On the Couch ed. Andrew Blauner [NF] André Aciman, Susie Boyt, Siri Hustvedt, Rivka Galchen, and Colm Tóibín are among the 25 literary luminaries to contribute essays on Freud and his complicated legacy to this lively volume, edited by writer, editor, and literary agent Blauner. Taking tacts both personal and psychoanalytical, these essays paint a fresh, full picture of Freud's life, work, and indelible cultural impact. —SMS Another Word for Love by Carvell Wallace [NF] Wallace is one of the best journalists (and tweeters) working today, so I'm really looking forward to his debut memoir, which chronicles growing up Black and queer in America, and navigating the world through adulthood. One of the best writers working today, Kiese Laymon, calls Another Word for Love as “One of the most soulfully crafted memoirs I’ve ever read. I couldn’t figure out how Carvell Wallace blurred time, region, care, and sexuality into something so different from anything I’ve read before." —SMS The Devil's Best Trick by Randall Sullivan [NF] A cultural history interspersed with memoir and reportage, Sullivan's latest explores our ever-changing understandings of evil and the devil, from Egyptian gods and the Book of Job to the Salem witch trials and Black Mass ceremonies. Mining the work of everyone from Zoraster, Plato, and John Milton to Edgar Allen Poe, Aleister Crowley, and Charles Baudelaire, this sweeping book chronicles evil and the devil in their many forms. --SMS The Book Against Death by Elias Canetti, tr. Peter Filkins [NF] In this newly-translated collection, Nobel laureate Canetti, who once called himself death's "mortal enemy," muses on all that death inevitably touches—from the smallest ant to the Greek gods—and condemns death as a byproduct of war and despots' willingness to use death as a pathway to power. By means of this book's very publication, Canetti somewhat succeeds in staving off death himself, ensuring that his words live on forever. —DF Rise of a Killah by Ghostface Killah [NF] "Why is the sky blue? Why is water wet? Why did Judas rat to the Romans while Jesus slept?" Ghostface Killah has always asked the big questions. Here's another one: Who needs to read a blurb on a literary site to convince them to read Ghost's memoir? —JHM May 21 Exhibit by R.O. Kwon [F] It's been six years since Kwon's debut, The Incendiaries, hit shelves, and based on that book's flinty prose alone, her latest would be worth a read. But it's also a tale of awakening—of its protagonist's latent queerness, and of the "unquiet spirit of an ancestor," that the author herself calls so "shot through with physical longing, queer lust, and kink" that she hopes her parents will never read it. Tantalizing enough for you? —JHM Cecilia by K-Ming Chang [F] Chang, the author of Bestiary, Gods of Want, and Organ Meats, returns with this provocative and oft-surreal novella. While the story is about two childhood friends who became estranged after a bizarre sexual encounter but re-connect a decade later, it’s also an exploration of how the human body and its excretions can be both pleasurable and disgusting. —CK The Great State of West Florida by Kent Wascom [F] The Great State of West Florida is Wascom's latest gothicomic novel set on Florida's apocalyptic coast. A gritty, ominous book filled with doomed Floridians, the passages fly by with sentences that delight in propulsive excess. In the vein of Thomas McGuane's early novels or Brian De Palma's heyday, this stylized, savory, and witty novel wields pulp with care until it blooms into a new strain of American gothic. —Zachary Issenberg Cartoons by Kit Schluter [F] Bursting with Kafkaesque absurdism and a hearty dab of abstraction, Schluter’s Cartoons is an animated vignette of life's minutae. From the ravings of an existential microwave to a pencil that is afraid of paper, Schluter’s episodic outré oozes with animism and uncanniness. A grand addition to City Light’s repertoire, it will serve as a zany reminder of the lengths to which great fiction can stretch. —DF May 28 Lost Writings by Mina Loy, ed. Karla Kelsey [F] In the early 20th century, avant-garde author, visual artist, and gallerist Mina Loy (1882–1966) led an astonishing creative life amid European and American modernist circles; she satirized Futurists, participated in Surrealist performance art, and created paintings and assemblages in addition to writing about her experiences in male-dominated fields of artistic practice. Diligent feminist scholars and art historians have long insisted on her cultural significance, yet the first Loy retrospective wasn’t until 2023. Now Karla Kelsey, a poet and essayist, unveils two never-before-published, autobiographical midcentury manuscripts by Loy, The Child and the Parent and Islands in the Air, written from the 1930s to the 1950s. It's never a bad time to be re-rediscovered. —NodB I'm a Fool to Want You by Camila Sosa Villada, tr. Kit Maude [F] Villada, whose debut novel Bad Girls, also translated by Maude, captured the travesti experience in Argentina, returns with a short story collection that runs the genre gamut from gritty realism and social satire to science fiction and fantasy. The throughline is Villada's boundless imagination, whether she's conjuring the chaos of the Mexican Inquisition or a trans sex worker befriending a down-and-out Billie Holiday. Angie Cruz calls this "one of my favorite short-story collections of all time." —SMS The Editor by Sara B. Franklin [NF] Franklin's tenderly written and meticulously researched biography of Judith Jones—the legendary Knopf editor who worked with such authors as John Updike, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bowen, Anne Tyler, and, perhaps most consequentially, Julia Child—was largely inspired by Franklin's own friendship with Jones in the final years of her life, and draws on a rich trove of interviews and archives. The Editor retrieves Jones from the margins of publishing history and affirms her essential role in shaping the postwar cultural landscape, from fiction to cooking and beyond. —SMS The Book-Makers by Adam Smyth [NF] A history of the book told through 18 microbiographies of particularly noteworthy historical personages who made them? If that's not enough to convince you, consider this: the small press is represented here by Nancy Cunard, the punchy and enormously influential founder of Hours Press who romanced both Aldous Huxley and Ezra Pound, knew Hemingway and Joyce and Langston Hughes and William Carlos Williams, and has her own MI5 file. Also, the subject of the binding chapter is named "William Wildgoose." —JHM June June 4 The Future Was Color by Patrick Nathan [F] A gay Hungarian immigrant writing crappy monster movies in the McCarthy-era Hollywood studio system gets swept up by a famous actress and brought to her estate in Malibu to write what he really cares about—and realizes he can never escape his traumatic past. Sunset Boulevard is shaking. —JHM A Cage Went in Search of a Bird [F] This collection brings together a who's who of literary writers—10 of them, to be precise— to write Kafka fanfiction, from Joshua Cohen to Yiyun Li. Then it throws in weirdo screenwriting dynamo Charlie Kaufman, for good measure. A boon for Kafkaheads everywhere. —JHM We Refuse by Kellie Carter Jackson [NF] Jackson, a historian and professor at Wellesley College, explores the past and present of Black resistance to white supremacy, from work stoppages to armed revolt. Paying special attention to acts of resistance by Black women, Jackson attempts to correct the historical record while plotting a path forward. Jelani Cobb describes this "insurgent history" as "unsparing, erudite, and incisive." —SMS Holding It Together by Jessica Calarco [NF] Sociologist Calarco's latest considers how, in lieu of social safety nets, the U.S. has long relied on women's labor, particularly as caregivers, to hold society together. Calarco argues that while other affluent nations cover the costs of care work and direct significant resources toward welfare programs, American women continue to bear the brunt of the unpaid domestic labor that keeps the nation afloat. Anne Helen Petersen calls this "a punch in the gut and a call to action." —SMS Miss May Does Not Exist by Carrie Courogen [NF] A biography of Elaine May—what more is there to say? I cannot wait to read this chronicle of May's life, work, and genius by one of my favorite writers and tweeters. Claire Dederer calls this "the biography Elaine May deserves"—which is to say, as brilliant as she was. —SMS Fire Exit by Morgan Talty [F] Talty, whose gritty story collection Night of the Living Rez was garlanded with awards, weighs the concept of blood quantum—a measure that federally recognized tribes often use to determine Indigenous membership—in his debut novel. Although Talty is a citizen of the Penobscot Indian Nation, his narrator is on the outside looking in, a working-class white man named Charles who grew up on Maine’s Penobscot Reservation with a Native stepfather and friends. Now Charles, across the river from the reservation and separated from his biological daughter, who lives there, ponders his exclusion in a novel that stokes controversy around the terms of belonging. —NodB June 11 The Material by Camille Bordas [F] My high school English teacher, a somewhat dowdy but slyly comical religious brother, had a saying about teaching high school students: "They don't remember the material, but they remember the shtick." Leave it to a well-named novel about stand-up comedy (by the French author of How to Behave in a Crowd) to make you remember both. --SMS Ask Me Again by Clare Sestanovich [F] Sestanovich follows up her debut story collection, Objects of Desire, with a novel exploring a complicated friendship over the years. While Eva and Jamie are seemingly opposites—she's a reserved South Brooklynite, while he's a brash Upper Manhattanite—they bond over their innate curiosity. Their paths ultimately diverge when Eva settles into a conventional career as Jamie channels his rebelliousness into politics. Ask Me Again speaks to anyone who has ever wondered whether going against the grain is in itself a matter of privilege. Jenny Offill calls this "a beautifully observed and deeply philosophical novel, which surprises and delights at every turn." —LA Disordered Attention by Claire Bishop [NF] Across four essays, art historian and critic Bishop diagnoses how digital technology and the attention economy have changed the way we look at art and performance today, identifying trends across the last three decades. A perfect read for fans of Anna Kornbluh's Immediacy, or the Style of Too Late Capitalism (also from Verso). War by Louis-Ferdinand Céline, tr. Charlotte Mandell [F] For years, literary scholars mourned the lost manuscripts of Céline, the acclaimed and reviled French author whose work was stolen from his Paris apartment after he fled to Germany in 1944, fearing punishment for his collaboration with the Nazis. But, with the recent discovery of those fabled manuscripts, War is now seeing the light of day thanks to New Directions (for anglophone readers, at least—the French have enjoyed this one since 2022 courtesy of Gallimard). Adam Gopnik writes of War, "A more intense realization of the horrors of the Great War has never been written." —DF The Uptown Local by Cory Leadbeater [NF] In his debut memoir, Leadbeater revisits the decade he spent working as Joan Didion's personal assistant. While he enjoyed the benefits of working with Didion—her friendship and mentorship, the more glamorous appointments on her social calendar—he was also struggling with depression, addiction, and profound loss. Leadbeater chronicles it all in what Chloé Cooper Jones calls "a beautiful catalog of twin yearnings: to be seen and to disappear; to belong everywhere and nowhere; to go forth and to return home, and—above all else—to love and to be loved." —SMS Out of the Sierra by Victoria Blanco [NF] Blanco weaves storytelling with old-fashioned investigative journalism to spotlight the endurance of Mexico's Rarámuri people, one of the largest Indigenous tribes in North America, in the face of environmental disasters, poverty, and the attempts to erase their language and culture. This is an important book for our times, dealing with pressing issues such as colonialism, migration, climate change, and the broken justice system. —CK Any Person Is the Only Self by Elisa Gabbert [NF] Gabbert is one of my favorite living writers, whether she's deconstructing a poem or tweeting about Seinfeld. Her essays are what I love most, and her newest collection—following 2020's The Unreality of Memory—sees Gabbert in rare form: witty and insightful, clear-eyed and candid. I adored these essays, and I hope (the inevitable success of) this book might augur something an essay-collection renaissance. (Seriously! Publishers! Where are the essay collections!) —SMS Tehrangeles by Porochista Khakpour [F] Khakpour's wit has always been keen, and it's hard to imagine a writer better positioned to take the concept of Shahs of Sunset and make it literary. "Like Little Women on an ayahuasca trip," says Kevin Kwan, "Tehrangeles is delightfully twisted and heartfelt."  —JHM Traveling: On the Path of Joni Mitchell by Ann Powers [NF] The moment I saw this book's title—which comes from the opening (and, as it happens, my favorite) track on Mitchell's 1971 masterpiece Blue—I knew it would be one of my favorite reads of the year. Powers, one of the very best music critics we've got, masterfully guides readers through Mitchell's life and work at a fascinating slant, her approach both sweeping and intimate as she occupies the dual roles of biographer and fan. —SMS All Desire Is a Desire for Being by René Girard, ed. Cynthia L. Haven [NF] I'll be honest—the title alone stirs something primal in me. In honor of Girard's centennial, Penguin Classics is releasing a smartly curated collection of his most poignant—and timely—essays, touching on everything from violence to religion to the nature of desire. Comprising essays selected by the scholar and literary critic Cynthia L. Haven, who is also the author of the first-ever biographical study of Girard, Evolution of Desire, this book is "essential reading for Girard devotees and a perfect entrée for newcomers," per Maria Stepanova. —DF June 18 Craft by Ananda Lima [F] Can you imagine a situation in which interconnected stories about a writer who sleeps with the devil at a Halloween party and can't shake him over the following decades wouldn't compel? Also, in one of the stories, New York City’s Penn Station is an analogue for hell, which is both funny and accurate. —JHM Parade by Rachel Cusk [F] Rachel Cusk has a new novel, her first in three years—the anticipation is self-explanatory. —SMS Little Rot by Akwaeke Emezi [F] Multimedia polymath and gender-norm disrupter Emezi, who just dropped an Afropop EP under the name Akwaeke, examines taboo and trauma in their creative work. This literary thriller opens with an upscale sex party and escalating violence, and although pre-pub descriptions leave much to the imagination (promising “the elite underbelly of a Nigerian city” and “a tangled web of sex and lies and corruption”), Emezi can be counted upon for an ambience of dread and a feverish momentum. —NodB When the Clock Broke by John Ganz [NF] I was having a conversation with multiple brilliant, thoughtful friends the other day, and none of them remembered the year during which the Battle of Waterloo took place. Which is to say that, as a rule, we should all learn our history better. So it behooves us now to listen to John Ganz when he tells us that all the wackadoodle fascist right-wing nonsense we can't seem to shake from our political system has been kicking around since at least the early 1990s. —JHM Night Flyer by Tiya Miles [NF] Miles is one of our greatest living historians and a beautiful writer to boot, as evidenced by her National Book Award–winning book All That She Carried. Her latest is a reckoning with the life and legend of Harriet Tubman, which Miles herself describes as an "impressionistic biography." As in all her work, Miles fleshes out the complexity, humanity, and social and emotional world of her subject. Tubman biographer Catherine Clinton says Miles "continues to captivate readers with her luminous prose, her riveting attention to detail, and her continuing genius to bring the past to life." —SMS God Bless You, Otis Spunkmeyer by Joseph Earl Thomas [F] Thomas's debut novel comes just two years after a powerful memoir of growing up Black, gay, nerdy, and in poverty in 1990s Philadelphia. Here, he returns to themes and settings that in that book, Sink, proved devastating, and throws post-service military trauma into the mix. —JHM June 25 The Garden Against Time by Olivia Laing [NF] I've been a fan of Laing's since The Lonely City, a formative read for a much-younger me (and I'd suspect for many Millions readers), so I'm looking forward to her latest, an inquiry into paradise refracted through the experience of restoring an 18th-century garden at her home the English countryside. As always, her life becomes a springboard for exploring big, thorny ideas (no pun intended)—in this case, the possibilities of gardens and what it means to make paradise on earth. —SMS Cue the Sun! by Emily Nussbaum [NF] Emily Nussbaum is pretty much the reason I started writing. Her 2019 collection of television criticism, I Like to Watch, was something of a Bible for college-aged me (and, in fact, was the first book I ever reviewed), and I've been anxiously awaiting her next book ever since. It's finally arrived, in the form of an utterly devourable cultural history of reality TV. Samantha Irby says, "Only Emily Nussbaum could get me to read, and love, a book about reality TV rather than just watching it," and David Grann remarks, "It’s rare for a book to feel alive, but this one does." —SMS Woman of Interest by Tracy O'Neill [NF] O’Neill's first work of nonfiction—an intimate memoir written with the narrative propulsion of a detective novel—finds her on the hunt for her biological mother, who she worries might be dying somewhere in South Korea. As she uncovers the truth about her enigmatic mother with the help of a private investigator, her journey increasingly becomes one of self-discovery. Chloé Cooper Jones writes that Woman of Interest “solidifies her status as one of our greatest living prose stylists.” —LA Dancing on My Own by Simon Wu [NF] New Yorkers reading this list may have witnessed Wu's artful curation at the Brooklyn Museum, or the Whitney, or the Museum of Modern Art. It makes one wonder how much he curated the order of these excellent, wide-ranging essays, which meld art criticism, personal narrative, and travel writing—and count Cathy Park Hong and Claudia Rankine as fans. —JHM [millions_email]

The Greeks Aren’t Done with Us: Simon Critchley on Tragedy

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We know that ghosts cannot speak until they have drunk blood; and the spirits which we evoke demand the blood of our hearts.—Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Greek Historical Writing, and Apollo (1908) Thirteen years ago, when I lived briefly in Glasgow, I made it a habit to regularly attend the theater. An unheralded cultural mecca in its own right, overshadowed by charming, medieval Edinburgh to the east, the post-industrial Scottish capitalI was never lacking in good drama. Also, they let you drink beer during performances. Chief among those plays was a production of Sophocles’s Antigone, the final part of his tragic Theban Cycle, and one of the most theorized and staged of dramas from that Athenian golden age four centuries before the Common Era, now presented in the repurposed 16th-century Tron Church. Director David Levin took the Attic Greek of Sophocles and translated it into the guttural brogue of Lowlands Scotts, and in a strategy now deployed almost universally for any production of a play older than a century, the chitons of the ancient world were replaced with business suits, and the decrees of Creon were presented on television screen, as the action was reimagined not in 441 BCE but in 2007. Enough to remind me of that headline from The Onion which snarked: “Unconventional Director Sets Shakespeare Play in Time, Place that Shakespeare Intended.” The satirical newspaper implicitly mocks adaptations like Richard Loncraine’s Richard III which imagined the titular character (devilishly performed by Ian McKellen) as a sort of Oswald Mosley-like fascist, and Derek Jarman’s masterful version of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II, which makes a play about the Plantagenet line of succession into a parable about gay rights and the Act Up movement. By contrast, The Onion quips that its imagined “unconventional” staging of The Merchant of Venice is one in which “Swords will replace guns, ducats will be used instead of the American dollar or Japanese yen, and costumes, such as…[the] customary pinstripe suit, general’s uniform, or nudity, will be replaced by garb of the kind worn” in the Renaissance. The dramaturgical perspective behind Levin’s Antigone was definitely what the article parodied; there was nary a contorted dramatic mask to be found, no Greek chorus chanting in dithyrambs, and, as I recall, lots of video projection. The Onion aside, British philosopher Simon Critchley would see no problem with Levin’s artistic decisions, writing in his new book Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us that “each generation has an obligation to reinvent the classics. The ancients need our blood to revise and live among us. By definition, such an act of donation constructs the ancients in our image.” Antigone, coming from as foreign a culture as it does, still holds our attention for some reason. The story of the titular character—punished by her uncle Creon for daring to defy his command that her brother Polynices’s corpse be left to fester as carrion for the buzzards and worms in the field where he died because he has raised arms against Thebes—would seem to have little to do with Tony Blair’s United Kingdom. When a Glaswegian audience hears Sophocles’s words, however, that “I have nothing but contempt for the kind of governor who is afraid, for whatever reason, to follow the course the he knows is best for the State; and as for the man who sets private friendship above the public welfare—I have no use for him either” a bit more resonance may be heard. Critchley argues that at the core of Greek tragedy is a sublime ambivalence, an engagement with contradiction that classical philosophy can’t abide;as distant as Antigone’s origins may be, its exploration of the conflict between the individual and the state, terrorism and liberation, surveillance and freedom seemed very of the millennium’s first decade. Creon’s countenance of the unthinkable punishment of his niece, to be bricked up behind a wall, was delivered in front of a camera as if George W. Bush announcing the bombing of Iraq from the Oval Office on primetime television. “Evil sometimes seems good / To a man whose mind / A god leads to destruction,” Sophocles wrote. This was a staging for the era of the Iraq War and FOX News, of the Patriot Act and NSA surveillance, and of the coming financial collapse. Less than a year later, and I’d be back in my apartment stateside watching Barack Obama deliver his Grant Park acceptance speech. It was enough to make one think of Antigone’s line: “Our ship of fate, which recent storms have threatened to destroy, has come to harbor at last.” I’m a bad student of the Greeks; I should have known better than to embrace that narcotic hope that pretends tragedy is not the omnipresent condition of humanity. What could Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus possibly have to say in our current, troubled moment? Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us is Critchley’s attempt to grapple with those disquieting 32 extant plays that whisper to us from an often-fantasized collective past. What survives of Greek tragedy is four less plays than all of those written by Shakespeare; an entire genre of performance for which we have titles referenced by philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, with only those three playwrights’ words enduring, and where often the most we can hope for are a few fragments preserved on some surviving papyri. Critchley emphasizes how little we know about plays like Antigone, or Aeschylus’s Oresteia, or Euripides’s Medea; that classicists often hypothesized that they were born from the Dionysian rituals, or that they focused on satyr psalms, the “song of the goats,” giving tragedy the whiff of the demonic, of the demon Azazel to whom sacrifices of the scapegoat must be made in the Levantine desert. Beyond even tragedy’s origin, which ancient Greek writers themselves disagreed about, we’re unsure exactly how productions were staged or who attended. What we do have are those surviving 32 plays themselves and the horrific narratives they recount—Oedipus blinded in grief over the patricide and incest that he unknowingly committed but prophetically ensured because of his hubris; Medea slaughtering her children as a revenge on the unfaithfulness of her husband; Pentheus ripped apart by her frenzied Maenads in ecstatic thrall to Dionysius because the Theban ruler couldn’t countenance the power of irrationality. “There are at least thirteen nouns in Attic Greek for words describing grief, lamentation, and mourning,” Critchley writes about the ancients; our “lack of vocabulary when it comes to the phenomenon of death speaks volumes about who we are.” Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us is Critchley’s attempt to give us a bit of their vocabulary of excessive lamentation so as to better approach our predicament. Readers shouldn’t mistake Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us as a conservative defense of the canon; this is no paean to the superior understanding of the ancients, nor is its highfalutin' self-help. Critchley’s book isn’t Better Living Through Euripides. Easy to misread the (admittedly not great) title as an advertisement for a book selling the snake-oil of traditionalist cultural literacy, that exercise in habitus that confuses familiarity with the “Great Books” as a type of wisdom. Rather, Critchley explores the Greek tragedies in all of their strange glory, as an exercise in aesthetic rupture, where the works of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides configure a different type of space that renders a potent critique against oppressive logic. His task is thus the “very opposite of any and all kinds of cultural conservatism.” Critchley sees the plays not as museum pieces, or as simple means of demonstrating that you went to a college with diplomas written in Latin, but rather as a “subversive traditionalism” that helps us to critique “ever more egregious forms of cultural stupefaction that arise from being blinded by the myopia of the present.” This is all much larger than either celebrating or denouncing the syllabi of St. John’s College; Critchley has no concern for boring questions about “Western Civilization” or “Defending the Canon,” rather he rightly sees the tragedies as an occasion to deconstruct those idols of our current age—of the market, of society, of law, of religion, of state. He convincingly argues that any honest radical can’t afford to ignore the past, and something primal and chthonic calls to us from those 32 extant plays, for “We might think we are through with the past, but the past isn’t through with us.” Critchley explains that the contemporary world, perhaps even more so than when I watched Antigone in Glasgow, is a “confusing, noisy place, defined by endless war, rage, grief, ever-growing inequality. We undergo a gnawing moral and political uncertainty in a world of ambiguity.” Our moment, the philosopher claims, is a “tragicomedy defined by war, corruption, vanity, and greed,” for if my Antigone was of its moment, then Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us could only have been written after 2016. That year, and the characters it ushered into our national consciousness, can seem a particular type of American tragedy, but Critchley’s view (even while haunted by a certain hubristic figure with a predilection for the misspelled tweet) is more expansive than that. In his capable analysis, Critchley argues that tragedy exists as a mode of representing this chaos; a type of thinking at home with inconsistency, ambiguity, contradiction, and complexity. It’s those qualities that have made the form suspicious to philosophers. Plato considered literature in several of his dialogues, concluding in Gorgias that the “effect of speech upon the structure of the soul / Is as the structure of drugs over the nature of bodies” (he wasn’t wrong), and famously having his puppet Socrates argue in The Republic that the just city-state would ban poets and poetry from their affairs for the aforementioned reason. Plato’s disgruntled student Aristotle was more generous to tragedy, content rather to categorize and explain its effects in Poetics, explaining that performance is the “imitation of an action that is serious, and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself…with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions.” Aristotle’s view has historically been interpreted as a defense of literature in opposition to Plato, whereby that which the later found so dangerous—the passions and emotions roiled by drama—were now justified as a sort of emotional pressure gauge that helped audiences purge their otherwise potentially destructive emotions. By the 19th century a philosopher like Friedrich Nietzsche would anticipate Critchley (though the latter might chaff at that claim) when he exonerated tragedy as more than mere moral instruction, coming closer to Plato’s claim about literature’s dangers while ecstatically embracing that reality. According to Nietzsche, tragedy existed in the tension between “Apollonian” and “Dionysian” poles; the first implies rationality, order, beauty, logic, and truth; the second signifies the realm of chaos, irrationality, ecstasy, and intoxication. Nietzsche writes in The Birth of Tragedy that the form “sits in sublime rapture amidst this abundance of life, suffering and delight, listening to a far-off, melancholy song…whose names are Delusion, Will, Woe.” For the German philologist that’s a recommendation, to “join me in my faith in this Dionysiac life and the rebirth of tragedy.” [millions_ad] As a thinker, Critchley Agonistes is well equipped in joining these predecessors in systematizing what he argues is the unsystematizable. Faculty at the New School for Social Research,and coeditor for The New York Times philosophy column “The Stone” (to which I have contributed), Critchley has proven himself an apt scholar who engages the wider conversation. Not a popularizer per se, for Critchley’s goal isn’t the composition of listicles enumerating whacky facts about Hegel, but a philosopher in the truest sense of being one who goes into the Agora and grapples with the circumstances of meaning as they manifest in the punk rock venue, at the soccer stadium, and in the movie theater. Unlike most of his countrymen who recline in the discipline, Critchley is a British scholar who embraces what’s called “continental philosophy,” rejecting the arid, logical formulations of analytical thought in favor of the Parisian profundities of thinkers like Jacques Derrida, Emanuel Levinas, and Martin Heidegger. Critchley has written tomes with titles like The Ethics of Deconstruction: Derrida and Levinas and Ethics-Politics-Subjectivity: Essays on Derrida, Levinas, & Contemporary French Thought, but he’s also examined soccer in What We Think About When We Think About Football (he’s a Liverpool fan) and in Bowie he analyzed, well, Bowie. Add to that his provocative take on religion in Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology and on death in The Book of Dead Philosophers (which consists of short entries enumerating the sometimes bizarre ways in which philosophers died, from jumping into a volcano to love potion poisoning) and Critchley has announced himself as one of the most psychedelically mind-expanding of people to earn their lucre by explaining Schopenhauer and Wittgenstein to undergraduates.   What makes Critchley such an engaging thinker about the subjects he examines is both his grounding in continental philosophy (which asks questions about being, love, death, and eternity, as opposed to its analytical cousin content to enumerate all the definitions of the word “is”) and his unpretentious roots in working class Hertfordshire, studying at the glass-and-concrete University of Essex as opposed to tony Oxbridge. Thus, when Critchley writes that “there is an ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry,” it seems pretty clear that he’s a secret agent working for the latter against the former. He rejects syllogism for stanza and embraces poetics in all of its multitudinous and glorious contradictions. The central argument of Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us is that the form “invites its audience to look at such disjunctions between two or more claims to truth, justice, or whatever without immediately seeking a unifying ground or reconciling the phenomena into a higher unity.” What makes Antigone so devastating is that the title character’s familial obligation justifies the burial of her brother, but the interests of the state validates Creon’s prohibition of that same burial. The tragedy arises in the irreconcilable conflict of two right things, with Critchley explaining that Greek drama “presents a conflictually constituted world defined by ambiguity, duplicity, uncertainty, and unknowability, a world that cannot be rendered rationally fully intelligible through some metaphysical first principles or set of principles, axioms, tables of categories, or whatever.” This is the central argument: that the “experience of tragedy poses a most serious objection to that invention we call philosophy.” More accurately, Critchley argues that tragedy’s comfort with discomfort, its consistent embrace of inconsistency, its ordered representation of disorder, positions the genre as a type of radical critique of philosophy, a genre that expresses the anarchic rhetoric of the sophists, rather than their killjoy critic Socrates and his dour student Plato. As a refresher, the sophists were the itinerant and sometimes fantastically successful rhetoricians who taught Greek politicians a type of disorganized philosophy that, according to Socrates, had no concern with the truth, but only with what was convincing. Socrates supposedly placed “Truth” at the core of his dialectical method, and, ever since, the discipline has taken up the mantle of “a psychic and political existence at one with itself, which can be linked to ideas of self-mastery, self-legislation, autonomy, and autarchy, and which inform the modern jargon of authenticity.” Tragedy is defined by none of those things; where philosophy strives for order and harmony, tragedy dwells in chaos and division; where syllogism strives to eliminate all contradiction as irrational, poetry understands that it’s in the complexity of inconsistency, confusion, and even hypocrisy that we all dwell. Sophistry and tragedy, to the recommendation of both, are intimately connected; both being methods commensurate with the dark realities of what it means to be alive. Critchley claims that “tragedy articulates a philosophical view that challenges the authority of philosophy by giving voice to what is contradictory about us, what is constricted about us, what is precarious about us, and what is limited about us.” Philosophy is all arid formulations, dry syllogisms, contrived Gedankenexperiments; tragedy is the knowledge that nothing of the enormity of what it means to be alive can be circumscribed by mere seminar argument. “Tragedy slows things down by confronting us with what we do not know about ourselves,” Critchley writes. If metaphysics is contained by the formulations of the classroom, then the bloody stage provides a more accurate intimation of death and life. By being in opposition to philosophy, tragedy is against systems. It becomes both opposite and antidote to the narcotic fantasy that everything will be alright. Perhaps coming to terms with his own discipline, Critchley argues that “it is necessary to try and think theatrically and not just philosophically.” Tragedy, he argues, provides an opportunity to transcend myths of progress and comforts of order, to rather ecstatically enter a different space, an often dark, brutal, and subterranean place, but one which demonstrates the artifice of our self-regard. A word conspicuous in its absence from Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us is that of the “sacred.” If there is any critical drawback to Critchley’s argument, it seems to be in the hesitancy, or the outright denial, that what he claims in his book has anything to do with something quite so wooly as the noumenal. Critchley gives ample space to argue that, “Tragedy is not some Dionysian celebration of the power of ritual and the triumph of myth over reason,” yet a full grappling with his argument seems to imply the opposite. The argument that tragedy stages contradiction is one that is convincing, but those sublime contradictions are very much under the Empire of Irrationality’s jurisdiction. Critchley is critical of those that look at ancient tragedy and “imagine that the spectators…were in some sort of prerational, ritualistic stupor, some intoxicated, drunken dumbfounded state,” but I suppose much of our interpretation depends on how we understand ritual, religion, stupor, and intoxication. His claims are invested in an understanding of the Greeks as not being fundamentally that different from us, writing that “there is a lamentable tendency to exoticize Attic tragedy,” but maybe what’s actually called for is a defamiliarization of our own culture, an embrace of the irrational weirdness at the core of what it means to be alive 2019, where everything that is solid melts into air (to paraphrase Marx). Aeschylus knew the score well; “Hades, ruler of the nether sphere, / Exactest auditor of human kind, / Graved on the tablet of his mind,” as he describes the prince of this world in Eumenides. Critchley, I’d venture, is of Dionysius’s party but doesn’t know it. All that is argued in Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us points towards an awareness, however sublimated, of the dark beating heart within the undead cadaver’s chest. “To resist Dionysius is to repress the elemental in one’s own nature,” writes the classicist E.R. Dodds in his seminal The Greeks and the Irrational, “the punishment is the sudden complete collapse of the inward dykes when the elemental breaks through…and civilization vanishes.” Absolutely correct that tragedy is in opposition to philosophy; where the latter offers assurances that reason can see us through, the former knows that it’s never that simple. The abyss is patient and deep, and no amount of analysis, of interpretation, of calculation, of polling can totally account for the hateful tragic pulse of our fellow humans. Nietzsche writes “what changes come upon the weary desert of our culture, so darkly described, when it is touched by…Dionysius! A storm seizes everything decrepit, rotten, broken, stunted; shrouds it in a whirling red cloud of dusty and carries it into the air like a vulture.” If any place best exemplifies that experience, and this moment, it’s Euripides’s The Bacchae, to which Critchley devotes precious little attention. That play depicts the arrival of that ambiguous god Dionysius to Thebes, as his followers thrill to the divine and irrational ecstasies that he promises. It ends with a crowd of those followers, the Maenads, mistaking the ruler Pentheus for a sacrificial goat and pulling him apart, his bones from their sockets, his organs from their cavities. Until his murder, Pentheus simultaneously manifested a repressed thrill towards the Dionysian fervor and a deficiency in taking the threat of such uncontained emotion seriously. “Cleverness is not wisdom,” Euripides writes, “And not to think mortal thoughts is to see few days.” If any didactic import comes from The Bacchae, it’s to give the devil as an adversary his due, for irrationality has more power than the clever among us might think. Circling around the claims of Critchley’s book is our current political situation, alluded to but never engaged outright. In one sense, that’s for the best; those demons’ names are uttered endlessly all day anyhow. It’s desirable to at least have one place where you need not read about them. But in another manner, fully intuiting the Dionysian import of tragedy becomes all the more crucial when we think about what that dark god portends in our season of rising authoritarianism. “Tragedy is democracy turning itself into a spectacle,” and anyone with Twitter will concur with that observation of Critchley’s. Even more important is Critchley’s argument about those mystic chords of memory connecting us to a past that we continually reinvent; the brilliance of his claim about why the Greeks matter to us now, removing the stuffiness of anything as prosaic as canonicity, is that tragedy encapsulates the way in which bloody trauma can vibrate through the millennia and control us as surely as the ancients believed fate controlled humans. Critchley writes that “Tragedy is full of ghosts, ancient and modern, and the line separating the living from the dead is continually blurred. This means that in tragedy the dead don’t stay dead and the living are not fully alive.” We can’t ignore the Greeks, because the Greeks aren’t done with us. If there is anything that hampers us as we attempt to extricate the Dionysian revelers in our midst, it’s that many don’t acknowledge the base, chthonic power of such irrationality, and they refuse to see how violence, hate, and blood define our history in the most horrific of ways. To believe that progress, justice, and rationality are guaranteed, that they don’t require a fight commensurate with their worthiness, is to let a hubris fester in our souls and to court further tragedy among our citizens. [millions_email] What Medea or The Persians do is allow us to safely access the Luciferian powers of irrationality. They present a more accurate portrayal of humanity, based as we are in bloodiness and barbarism, than the palliatives offered by Plato in The Republic with his philosopher kings. Within that space of the theater, Critchley claims that at its best it “somehow allows us to become ecstatically stretched out into another time and space, another way of experiencing things and the world.” Far from the anemic moralizing of Aristotelian catharsis—and Critchley emphasizes just how ambiguous that word actually is—that is too often interpreted as referring to a regurgitative didacticism, tragedy actually makes a new world by demolishing and replacing our world, if only briefly. “If one allows oneself to be completely involved in what is happening onstage,” Critchley writes, “one enters a unique space that provides an unparalleled experience of sensory and cognitive intensity that is impossible to express purely in concepts.” I recall seeing a production of Shakespeare’s Othello at London’s National Theatre in 2013, directed by Nicholas Hytner and starring Adrian Lester as the cursed Moor and Rory Kinear as a reptilian Iago. Dr. Johnson wrote that Othello’s murder of Desdemona was the single most horrifying scene in drama, and I concur; the play remains the equal of anything by Aeschylus or Euripides in its tragic import. When I watched Lester play the role, lingering over the dying body of his faithful wife, whispering “What noise is this? Not dead—not yet quite dead?” I thought of many things. I thought about how Shakespeare’s play reflects the hideous things that men do to women, and the hideous things that the majority do to the marginalized. I thought about how jealousy noxiously fills every corner, no matter how small, like some sort of poison gas. And I thought about how unchecked malignancy can shatter our souls. But mostly what I thought wasn’t in any words, but was better expressed by Lester’s anguished cry as he confronted the evil he’d done. If tragedy allows for an audience to occasionally leave our normal space and time, then certainly I felt like I was joined with those thousand other spectators on that summer night at South Bank’s Olivier Theatre. The audience’s silence after Othello’s keening subsided was as still as the space between atoms, as empty as the gap between people.

Ten Ways to Change Your God

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“Well, it may be the devil or it may be the LordBut you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” —Bob Dylan (1979) 1.Walking Cambridge’s Trinity Lane in 1894, Bertrand Russell had an epiphany concerning the ontological proof for God’s existence, becoming the unlikely convert effected by logical argumentation. In Russell’s essay “Why I Became a Philosopher,” included in Amelie Oksenberg Rorty’s anthology The Many Faces of Philosophy: Reflections from Plato to Arendt, the logician explains how his ruminations turned to fervor, writing that “I had gone out to buy a tin of tobacco; on my way back, I suddenly threw it up in the air, and exclaimed as I caught it: ‘Great Scott, the ontological argument is sound.’” An atheist had a brief conversion—of a sort. Not exactly Saul being confronted with the light that (quoting Euripides’s The Bacchae) told him “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks,” or Augustin in his Confessions recounting that after a ghostly young voice told him to “Take up and read!”, he turned to Paul’s epistles. Russell’s conversion was a bit more abstract—of the head rather than the heart. In his flat-cap, tweed jacket, and herring-bone bowtie, he was converted not by the Holy Spirit, but by a deductive syllogism. Envision the co-author of Principia Mathematica, which rigorously reduced all of mathematics to logic, suddenly being moved by the spirit. Derived by the medieval monk Anselm of Canterbury in his 1078 Proslogion, the ontological argument holds that since existence must be a property of perfection, and God is a priori defined as a perfect being, than quod erat demonstrandum: God must exist. Russell explains this metaphysical trick in his Nobel Prize-winning History of Western Philosophy: a “Being who possesses all other perfections is better if He exists than if He does not, from which it follows that if he does not He is not the best possible Being.” From Aquinas to Rene Descartes, there is a venerable history of attempting to prove the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent deity, though as Nathan Schneider writes in God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet, these arguments are “taught, argued about, and forgotten, sometimes saving a person’s particular faith, sometimes eroding it, and usually neither.” In defense of Anselm, nobody in the 11th century doubted God’s existence, and such proofs weren’t designed to convince, but rather to glory in divinity. As a subsequent defense, his proof has endured in a manner that other proofs haven’t. Cosmology and evolution have overturned most others, making them seem primitive to the point of adorableness, but Anselm endures. Still, the syllogism can’t help but seem like a bit of a magic trick, defining God into existence rather than establishing even what type of God we’re to believe in. Critics of Anselm maintain that existence isn’t a property in the same way that other qualities are. We can imagine all sorts of characters with all sorts of qualities, but that doesn't mean that they have to exist. Defenders of Anselm would claim that God isn’t like any other character, since a perfect thing that doesn’t exist can’t be said to be a perfect thing, and God is a perfect thing Critics of that would say that it’s possible to conceive of a perfect city, but that doesn’t mean you can buy an Amtrak ticket there, nor would a benevolent God allow Penn Station to look as it does. As the puzzle-writer (and theist) Martin Gardner notes in his delightful The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener, “I agree with the vast majority of thinkers who see the proof as no more than linguistic sleight-of-hand.” Eventually Russell’s new faith diffused like incense from a swinging thurible. If philosophy got Russell into this mess, then it also got him out. Russell explains that Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason would “demolish all the purely intellectual proofs of the existence of God.” But what faith had Russell gained on Trinity Lane? It wasn’t a belief in God whom that street was named after, nor was it the Lord of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. What Russell’s faith was in, had always been in, and would always be in, was the power of reason, and in that he was unwavering. David Hume, another of Russell’s antecedents, wrote in his 1739 A Treatise of Human Nature that “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” We’re going to believe what we’re going to (dis)believe, and we’ll concoct the reasons for it later. For his part, late in life, Russell was asked how he’d respond if upon death he was brought before God’s throne, and asked why he had dared not to believe? Russell said that he’d answer “Not enough evidence!” 2.According to mercurial family lore, when my paternal grandmother’s grandfather, August Hansmann, boarded a New York-bound steamship two years after the American Civil War and one year before his native Hanover would be subsumed into Prussia, he brought along with him a copy of the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, denounced when it was printed in 1677 as “a book forged in hell…by the devil himself.” Like Spinoza, Hansmann was a Jew who lived among gentiles, and like Spinoza, he understood that being Other in a narrative not written by yourself had tragic consequences. Born illegitimate, Hansmann was raised Jewish even though his father was Christian; a man who understood how being two things sometimes meant that you were seen as nothing, he also knew the strange freedom of how dictated faith is no faith at all. Similarly, Spinoza was a Sephardic Jew of converso background whose Portuguese ancestors practiced their Judaism in secret until Dutch freedom allowed them to reinvent their hidden faiths. Hansmann encountered Spinoza’s celebration of religious liberty, “where everyone’s judgement is free and unshackled, where each may worship God as his conscience dictates, and where freedom is esteemed before all things.” For the pious lens grinder, content to work by the tulip-lined canals of red-brick Amsterdam, religious truth can only be discovered without shackles, divinity only visible if you’re not compelled by Church or State. When the Jews of Spain and Portugal were forced to convert to Catholicism, many secretly practiced the mitzvoth, venerating the Sabbath, abjuring treyf, and kissing mezuzah’s surreptitiously concealed within the ceramic blue slipper of the Virgin. As scholar Karen Armstrong notes in The Battle for God, these were people who “had been forced to assimilate to a…culture that did not resonate with their inner selves.” When finally able to practice their religion in Holland, many of them then discovered that the Judaism of the rabbis was not the same Judaism that they’d imagined, and so they chose to be something else, something completely new —neither Jewish or Christian, but rather nothing. Armstrong writes that such persecution ironically led to the “first declarations of secularism and atheism in Europe.” Many of those slurred as swinish Marranos found it more honest to live by the dictates of their own reason. Spinoza was the most famous, condemned by his synagogue for writing things like “I say that all things are in God and move in God,” holding that nature is equivalent with the Lord, so that either nothing is God or everything is. Such pantheism is what made some condemn Spinoza as an atheist, and others such as Russell later describe him as a “God-intoxicated man” who saw holiness in every fallen leaf and gurgling creek, his very name, whether “Baruch” or “Benedict” meaning “blessed.” Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, in Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave us Modernity, asks if he can “be considered…a Jewish thinker?” She argues that his universalism derives from the Mosaic covenant, the monotheism of the Shema extended so that God is Everything. As a result, he is the primogeniture for a certain type of rational, secular, progressive, liberal, humane contemporaneity. On that steamer crossing the Atlantic, Hansmann may have read that “freedom [can] be granted without prejudice…but also that without such freedom, piety cannot flourish.” My great-great grandfather lived his life as a Jew, but the attraction he saw in Spinoza was that each individual could decide for themselves whether to be Jew, Catholic, Protestant, or nothing. Hansmann worked as a peddler on the Lower East Side, until the Homestead Act enticed him to Iowa, where he married a Huguenot woman who bore him 10 children, while he worked as a trader among the Native Americans. He refused to raise his children in any religion—Jewish or Protestant—preferring rather that they should decide upon reaching adulthood. And so, a union was made between the Jewish and the Low Church Protestant, rejecting both baptism and bris, so that my grandmother born on the frontier had absolutely no religion at all. That such things are even possible—to be of no religion—is due in no small part to Spinoza’s sacrifice, his congregation having excommunicated him by extinguishing each individual light in the synagogue until the assembled dwelled in darkness. From that expulsion, Spinoza was expected to find refuge among the Protestants—but he didn’t. I’ve a photo from the early years of the 20th century: August Hansmann surrounded by his secular, stolid, midwestern progeny, himself siting in the center with a thick black beard, and a kippah barely visible upon his head. 3.A long line of Spinoza’s ancestors, and my great-great-grandfather’s ancestors, would have concluded Pesach evenings with a “Next year in Jerusalem,” praying for the reestablishment of the Temple destroyed by the Romans in the first century. Less known than the equally exuberant and plaintive Passover declaration is that, for a brief period in the fourth century, it seemed that the Temple might actually be restored, ironically by Rome’s last pagan emperor. Born in Constantinople only six years after the Council of Nicaea convened there to define what exactly a Christian was, Julian the Apostate would mount a failed revolution. His uncle was Rome’s first Christian emperor who conquered by the cross and who turned his Rome over to Christ. Julian was of a different perspective, seeing in the resurrection of Apollo and Dionysius, Jupiter and Athena, the rejuvenation of Rome. He bid his time until military success foisted him onto the throne, and then Julian revealed himself as an initiate into those Eleusinian Mysteries, a celebrant of Persephone and Demeter who greeted the morning sun and prayed for the bounty of the earth, quoted in W. Heinemann’s The Works of the Emperor Julian as having written “I feel awe of the gods, I love, I revere, I venerate them.” In Julian’s panegyrics, one can smell the burning thyme and sage, feel the hot wax from votive candles, spy the blue moonlight filtered through pine trees in a midnight cedar grove. If Plutarch recorded the very heavens had once declared “the great god Pan is dead,” then Julian prayed for his return; if the oracles at Delphi and the Sibyllines had been silenced by the Nazarene, then the emperor wanted the divinations of those prophets to operate once again. Julian wanted this paganism to be a new faith, an organized, unified, consolidated religion that bore as much similarity to the cohesion of the Christian Church as it did to the rag-tag collection of rituals and superstitions that had defined previous Roman beliefs. Classicist Robin Lane Fox makes clear in Pagans and Christians that this wasn’t simple nostalgia. Fox explains that those who returned to paganism normally did so with “an accompanying philosophy” and that apostasy “always lead to a favor for some systematic belief.” The emperor’s conversion was a turning back combined with a the reformer’s desire for regeneration. In paganism, Julian approached origin, genesis, birth—less conversion than a return to what you should have been, but was denied. Julian the Apostate endures as cipher—duplicitous reactionary who’d see Christian Rome turn back, or tolerant visionary who theologically elevated paganism? Christian thinkers had long commandeered classical philosophy, now pagan thinkers were able to apply the same analytical standards to their own beliefs, developing theology as sophisticated as that of Christianity. The American rake and raconteur Gore Vidal repurposed the emperor as a queer hero of liberalism in his unusual 1964 novel Julian, having his protagonist humanely exclaim that “Truth is where ever man has glimpsed divinity.” Where some had seen those intimations in Golgotha’s sacrifice, the Apostate saw them in the oracles of Chaldea or the groves of Athena. Far from banning the new faith, Julian declared that “By the gods I do not want the Galileans to be killed or beaten unjustly nor to suffer any other ill.” Julian was rather interested in monopolistic trust-busting, and in part that included funding the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple that would have been destroyed by the emperor’s ancestors. The building of a Third Temple would be terminated when, as a Roman witness to the construction attempts wrote, “fearful balls of fire [broke]…out near the foundations…till the workmen, after repeated scorchings, could approach no more.” The Christians attributed the disaster to God; the Jews and Romans to the Christians. The desire for a pagan Rome would similarly end with Julian’s defeat on the battle fields of Persia, an emperor who longed to see old gods born again now forced to declare that “You have won, Galilean.” Hard to reverse an eclipse, and so, we supplicate on another mournful and deferred day—“Next year at Delphi.” [millions_ad] 4.The titular character in Julian claims that “academics everywhere are forever attacking one another.” During the fourth century, the academic debates were theological, all of those schisms and heresies, excommunications and counter-excommunications between exotic groups with names like the Monophysites and the Chalcedonians, the Arians and the Trinitarians. By the middle of Vidal’s 20th century, such disputations were just as rancorous, but theology was now subsumed into politics. Vidal’s own politics were strange, broadly left but with a sympathy afforded to the anti-establishmentarians of any ideological persuasion. Vidal is most celebrated for calling the conservative founder of the National Review William F. Buckley a “crypto-Nazi” during a debate on ABC News scheduled to coincide with the 1968 Democratic convention; even the pyrotechnic rainbow of early television was unable to conceal the pure hatred between those two prep school grads. If the earliest years of Christianity saw bishops and monks moving between ever nuanced theological positions, than the 20th century was an era of political conversion, liberals becoming conservatives and conservatives becoming liberals, with Buckley’s magazine a fascinating case study in political apostasy. Buckley’s politics were cradle-to-grave Republican conservatism, even as he garnered a reputation for expelling acolytes of both Ayn Rand and John Birch from the movement as if he was a medieval bishop overseeing a synod (they’ve long since found a way back in). Entering public life with his 1951 God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of “Academic Freedom,” Buckley understood better than most how ideology is theology by another name (even as I personally revile his politics). Into this midst, National Review was the stodgy, tweedy vanguard of the reactionary intelligentsia, defining a conservative as “someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so.” The problem with a manifesto that defines itself entirely by anti-progress is that such a doctrine can be rather nebulous, and so many of the bright young things Buckley hired for the National Review, such as Joan Didion and Garry Wills, found themselves moving to the left. Such were the subtleties of conversion that Wills could be both the author of Confessions of a Conservative and a journalist placed on Richard Nixon’s infamous “enemies list.” As people become harder of hearing and their bone-density decreases, movement from the left to the right does seem the more predictable narrative. For every Gary Wills, there’s a Norman Podhoretz, an Irving Kristol, a David Horowitz, a Christopher Hitchens. Leave it to the arm-chair Freudians to ascertain what Oedipal complex made those men of the left move towards the Big Daddy of right-wing politics, but what’s interesting are the ways in which they refashioned conservatism in a specifically leftist manner. Their migration was not from milquetoast Democratic liberalism, for they’d indeed been far to the left, several of them self-described Trotskyites. And as the Aztecs who became Catholic kept secretly worshiping their old gods, or as basilicas were built atop temples to Mithras, so too did those doctrines of “permanent revolution” find themselves smuggled into neoconservatism. If politics is but religion by another means, than it’s the ideological conversion that strikes us as most scandalous. We’ve largely ceded the ground on the sacred—what could be less provocative than abandoning Presbyterianism for Methodism? But politics, that’s the thing that keeps us fuming for holy war, and we’re as titillated by stories of conversion as our ancestors were in tales of heresy and schism. Psychologist Daniel Oppenheimer observes, in Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century, that “belief is complicated, contingent, multi-determined. But do we really know it? Do we feel it?” Strange to think that Elizabeth Warren was once a Republican, and the man whom she will beat for the presidency was once a Democrat, but such are the vagaries of God and man, whether at Yale or anywhere else. 5.For all their differences, Buckley and Vidal could at least agree on the martini. Buckley would write in 1977 that a “dry martini even at night is a straightforward invitation for instant relief from the vicissitudes of a long day,” and Vidal in his novel Kalki published a year later would rhapsodize about the “martini’s first comforting haze.” On the left or on the right, one thing WASPs concurred about (and though Buckley was technically Catholic he had the soul of an Episcopalian) was the cocktail hour. I’ve no idea if the two had been drinking before their infamous sparring on ABC, though the insults, homophobia, and violent threats make me suspicious.   Better that they’d have followed the path of conversion that another prep school boy who moved in their social circles named John Cheever did: When on April 9, 1975 his brother checked him into New York’s Smithers Alcoholic Rehabilitation Unit, he never took another drink. Cheever had lived up to the alcoholic reputation of two American tribes—High Church Protestants and Low Church writers. From the former he inherited both the genes and an affection for gin and scotch on a Westchester porch watching the trains from Grand Central thunder Upstate, and from the later he took the Dionysian myth that conflates the muse with ethanol, pining for inspiration but settling for vomiting in an Iowa City barroom. Cheever was one of the finest short story writers of the 20th century, his prose as crystalline and perfect as a martini. Such was the company of those other addicts, of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe. Cheever’s story “The Swimmer” is one of the most perfect distillations of how alcoholism will sneak up on a person, and he avoids the laudatory denials you see in a lesser writer like Charles Bukowski. With the repressed self-awareness that is the mocking curse of all true alcoholics, Cheever would write in his diary some two decades before he got sober that “When the beginnings of self-destruction enter the heart it seems no bigger than a grain of sand,” no doubt understanding how a single drink is too many since a dozen is never enough. His daughter Susan Cheever, herself a recovering alcoholic, notes in Drinking in America: Our Secret History that “My father’s drinking had destroyed his body, but it had also distorted his character—his soul. The restoration of one man through the simple measure of not drinking was revelatory.” The ancients called them spirits for a reason, and in their rejection there is a conversion of a very literal sort. Cheever—along with his friend Raymond Carver—is the happy exception to the fallacy that finds romance in the gutter-death of literary genius, and he got sober by doing the hard work of Alcoholics Anonymous. The central text of that organization was compiled by Bill W., the founder of AA; its title is technically Alcoholics Anonymous, but members informally call it “The Big Book.” Past the uninspired yellow-and-blue cover of that tome, Cheever would have read stories where he’d have “found so many areas where we overlapped—not all the deeds, but the feelings of remorse and hopelessness. I learned that alcoholism isn’t a sin, it’s a disease.” And yet the treatment of that disease was akin to a spiritual transformation. A tired debate whether Alcoholics Anonymous is scripture or not, but I’d argue that anything that so fully transforms the countenance of a person can’t but be a conversion, for as the Big Book says, “We talked of intolerance, while we were intolerant ourselves. We missed the reality and the beauty of the forest because we were diverted by the ugliness of some of its trees.” I once was lost, and now I’m found, so on and so forth. When Cheever died, he had seven sober years—and they made all the difference. 6. Conversion narratives are the most human of tales, for the drama of redemption is an internal one, played out between the protagonist and his demons. Certain tropes—the pleasure, the perdition, the contrition, the repentance, the salvation. Augustine understood that we do bad things because bad things are fun—otherwise why would he write in Confessions “Lord, grant me chastity—but not yet.” What readers thrill to are the details, the rake’s regress from dens of iniquity, from gambling, drinking, and whoring to some new-found piety. For Cheever’s Yankee ancestors, the New England Puritans in whose stead we’ve uneasily dwelled for the past four centuries, “election” was not a matter of personal choice, but rather grace imparted onto the unworthy human. Easy to see some issues of utility here, for when accumulation of wealth is read as evidence of God’s grace, and it’s also emphasized that the individual has no role in his own salvation, the inevitable result is spiritual disenchantment and marginalization. By the middle of the 18th century, some five generations after the first Pilgrim’s slipper graced Plymouth Rock, the Congregationalist pastors of New England attempted to suture the doubts of their flocks, coming up with “half-way covenants” and jeremiads against backsliding so as to preserve God’s bounty. Into that increasingly secular society would come an English preacher with a thick Gloucester accent named George Whitfield, who first arrived in the New World in 1738. Technically an Anglican priest, Whitfield was a confidant of George Wesley, the father of Methodism, and from that “hot” faith the preacher would draw a new vocabulary, dispelling John Calvin’s chill with the exhortation that sinners must be born again. Crowds of thousands were compelled to repent, for “Come poor, lost, undone sinner, come just as you are to Christ.” On the Eastern seaboard, the Englishman would preach from Salem to Savannah, more than 10,000 times, drawing massive crowds, even impressing that old blasphemer Benjamin Franklin at one Philadelphia revival (the scientist even donated money). Such was the rhetorical style of what’s called the Great Awakening, when colonial Americans abandoned the staid sermons of the previous century in favor of this shaking, quaking, splitting, fitting preaching. Whitfield and Spinoza shared nothing in temperament, and yet one could imagine that the later might smile at the liberty that “established fractious sectarianism as its essential character,” as John Howard Smith writes in The First Great Awakening: Redefining Religion in American, 1725-1775. Whitfield welcomed worshippers into a massive tent—conversion as a means towards dignity and agency. So ecumenical was Whitfield’s evangelization that enslaved people came in droves to his revivals, those in bondage welcomed as subjects in Christ’s kingdom. Such was the esteem in which the reverend was held that upon his passing in 1770 a black poet from Cambridge named Phyllis Wheatly would regard the “happy saint” as a man whom “in strains of eloquence refin’d/[did] Inflame the heart, and captivate the mind.” Whitfield’s religious charity, it should be said, was limited. He bemoaned the mistreatment of the enslaved, while he simultaneously advocated for the economic benefits of that very institution. Can we tighten this line. As different as they were, Whitfield and Malcolm X were both children of this strange Zion that allows such reinvention. Malcolm X writes in a gospel of both American pragmatism and American power, saying that “I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it’s for or against…I am for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.” Conversion can be a means of seizing power; conversion can be a means of reinvention. Activist Audre Lorde famously wrote that “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” and for a young Harlem ex-con born Malcolm Little, the Christianity of Wheatly and Whitfield would very much seem to be the domain of the plantation’s manor, so that conversion to a slave religion is no conversion at all. Mocking the very pieties of the society that Whitfield preached in, Malcolm X would declare “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock—Plymouth Rock landed on us.” Malcolm X’s life was an on-going narrative of conversion, of the desire to transform marginalization into power. As quoted by Alex Haley in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the political leader said “I have no mercy or compassion in me for a society that will crush people, and then penalize them for not being able to stand up.” Transformation defined his rejection of Christianity, his membership in the Nation of Islam, and then finally his conversion to orthodox Sunni Islam. Such is true even in the rejection of his surname for the free-floating signifier of “X,” identity transformed into a type of stark, almost algebraic, abstraction. If America is a land of conversion narratives, than The Autobiography of Malcolm X is ironically one of the most American. Though as Saladin Ambar reminds us in Malcolm X at Oxford Union, his “conversion was indeed religious, but it was also political,” with all which that implies. 7.It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an apostate in possession of a brilliant spiritual mind, must be in want of a religion. If none of the religions that already exist will do, then it becomes her prerogative to invent a better one and convert to that. Critic Harold Bloom writes in The American Religion that “the religious imagination, and the American Religion, in its fullest formulations, is judged to be an imaginative triumph.” America has always been the land of religious invention, for when consciences are not compelled, the result is a brilliant multitude of schisms, sects, denominations, cults, and communes. In his Essays, the French Renaissance genius Michel de Montaigne quipped that “Man is certainly stark mad; he cannot make a worm, and yet he makes gods by the dozens.” Who, however, if given the choice between a worm or a god, would ever possibly pick the former? For America is a gene splicing laboratory of mythology, an in vitro fertilization clinic of faith, and we birth gods by the scores. Consider Noble Drew Ali, born Timothy Drew in 1886 to former North Carolina slaves who lived amongst the Cherokee. Ali compiled into the Holy Koran of the Moorish Science Temple of America a series of ruminations, meditations, and revelations he had concerning what he called the “Moorish” origins of African-Americans. Drawing freely from Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and the free-floating occultism popular in 19th-century America, Ali became one of the first founders of an Afrocentric faith in the United States, his movement the original spiritual home to Wallace Fard Muhammad, founder of the Nation of Islam. Ali writes that the “fallen sons and daughters of the Asiatic Nation of North America need to learn to love instead of hate; and to know of their higher self and lower self. This is the uniting of the Holy Koran of Mecca for teaching and instructing all Moorish Americans.” Ali drew heavily from mystical traditions, combining his own idiosyncratic interpretations of Islam alongside Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism. Such theurgy was popular in the 19th century, a melancholic era when the almost million dead from Antietam and Gettysburg called out to the living, who responded with séance and Ouija Board. Historian Drew Gilpin Faust recounts in The Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War that “Many bereaved Americans…unwilling to wait until their own deaths reunited them with lost kin…turned eagerly to the more immediate promises of spiritualism.” The 19th century saw mass conversions to a type of magic, a pseudo-empirical faith whose sacraments were technological—the photographing of ghostly ectoplasm, or the receipt of telegraphs from beyond the veil of perception. Spiritualism wasn’t merely a general term for this phenomenon, but the name of an actual organized denomination (one that still exists). Drawing from 18th-century occultists like Emanuel Swedenborg and Franz Mesmer, the first Spiritualists emerged out of the rich soil of upstate New York, the “Burned Over District” of the Second Great Awakening (sequel to Whitfield’s First). Such beliefs held that the dead were still among us, closer than our very breath, and that spirits could interact with the inert matter of our world, souls intermingled before the very atoms of our being. Peter Manseau writes in The Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud, Photography, and the Man Who Captured Lincoln’s Ghost, that “It was a time when rapidly increasing scientific knowledge was regarded not as the enemy of supernatural obsessions, but an encouragement…Electricity had given credence to notions of invisible energies…The telegraph had made communication possible over staggering distances, which raised hopes of receiving messages from the great beyond.” Among the important founders of the movement were the Fox Sisters of Hydesville, N.Y.; three siblings whom in 1848 claimed that they’d been contacted by spirits, including one named “Mr. Splitfoot,” who communicated in raps, knocks, and clicks. Decades later, Margaret Fox would admit that it was a hoax, since a “great many people when they hear the rapping imagine at once that the spirits are touching them. It is a very common delusion.” Despite the seeming credulity of the movement’s adherents, Spiritualists were crucial reformers, with leaders like Cora L.V. Scott and Paschal Beverly Randolph embracing abolitionism, temperance, civil rights, suffragism, and labor rights. When the cause is good, perhaps it doesn’t matter which god’s vestments you wear. And of course the great American convert to a religion of his own devising is Joseph Smith. America’s dizzying diversity of faith confused young Smith, who asked “Who of all these parties are right, and how shall I know?” From the same upstate environs as the Fox Sisters, Smith was weened on a stew of evangelicalism and occultism, a child of the Second Great Awakening, who in those flinty woods of New York dreamt of finding shining golden tablets left by angels. Writing in No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, scholar Fawn M. Brodie notes that for the New England and New York ancestors of Smith there was a “contempt for the established church which had permeated the Revolution, which had made the federal government completely secular, and which was in the end to divorce the church from the government of every state.” Smith rather made America itself his invented religion. Stephen Prothero writes in American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Hero that there is a tendency of “Americans to make their nation sacred—to view its citizens as God’s chosen people.” Yet it was only Smith’s Mormons who so completely literalized such a view, for the Book of Mormon describes this as “a land which is choice above all other lands.” The effect was electrifying; Brodie writes: “In the New World’s freedom the church had disintegrated, its ceremonies had changed, and its stature had declined.” What remained was a vacuum in which individual minds could dream of new faiths. Spinoza would recognize such independence, his thin face framed by his curled wig, reflected back from the polished glow of one of Moroni’s tablets excavated from the cold ground of Palmyra, N.Y. [millions_email] 8.“In the beginning there was the Tao, and the Tao was God,” reads John 1:1 as translated in the Chinese Version Union bible commissioned by several Protestant denomination between 1890 and 1919. Appropriating the word “Tao” makes an intuitive sense, arguably closer to the Neo-Platonist language of “Logos” as the term is rendered in the koine Greek, than to the rather confusing terminology of “the Word” as it’s often translated in English. Read cynically, this bible could be seen as a disingenuous use of Chinese terminology so as to make Christianity feel less foreign and more inviting, a Western wolf in Mandarin robes. More charitably, such syncretism could be interpreted as an attempt to find the universal core between those two religions, a way of honoring truth regardless of language. Conversion not between faiths, but above them. Perhaps naïve, but such a position might imply that conversion isn’t even a possibility, that all which is needed in the way of ecumenicism is to place the right words with the right concepts. The earliest synthesis between Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Christianity is traceable to the seventh century. At the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, Gansu Province, a cache called the Jingjiao Documents penned during the Tang Dynasty and attributed to the students of a Syrian monk named Alopen were rediscovered in 1907. Alopen was a representative of that massive eastern branch of Christianity slurred by medieval European Catholics as being “Nestorian,” after the bishop who precipitated their schism at a fifth-century church council (the theological differences are arcane, complicated, and for our purposes unimportant). During those years of late antiquity, European Christendom was a backwater; before the turn of the first millennium the Catholicus of Baghdad would have been a far more important cleric than the Pope was, for as scholar Philip Jenkins explains in The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia—and How it Died, the “particular shape of Christianity with which we are familiar is a radical departure from what was for well over a millennium the historical norm…For most of its history, Christianity was a tricontinental religion, with power representations in Europe, Africa, and Asia.” In 635, Alopen was an evangelist to a pluralistic civilization that had a history that went back millennia. His mission was neither colonial nor mercantile, and as a religious scholar he had to make Christianity appealing to a populace content with their beliefs. And so, Alopen converted the Chinese by first converting Christianity. As with the translators of the Chinese Version Union bible, Alopen borrowed Taoist and Buddhist concepts, configuring the Logos of John as the Tao, sin as karma, heaven as nirvana, and Christ as an enlightened Bodhisattva. Sinologist Martin Palmer, writing in The Jesus Sutras: Rediscovering the Lost Scrolls of Taoist Christianity, argues that Alopen avoided “what many missionaries have tried to do—namely, make people adapt to a Western mind-set.” Rather, Alopen took “seriously the spiritual concerns of China.” Alopen was successful enough that some 150 years after his arrival, a limestone stele was engraved in both Mandarin and Syriac celebrating the history of Chinese Christianity. With a massive cross at the top of the Xi’an stele, it announced itself as a “Memorial of the Propagation in China of the Luminous Religion from Rome.” During a period of anti-Buddhist persecution in the ninth century, when all “foreign” religions were banned, the stele was buried, and by 986 a visiting monk reported that “Christianity is extinct in China.” Like Smith uncovering his golden tablets, workers in 1625 excavated the Xi’an stele, and recognizing it as Christian sent for Jesuits who were then operating as missionaries to the Ming Court. Portuguese priest Alvaro Semedo, known to the court as Xie Wulu, saw the stele as evidence of Christian continuity; other clergy were disturbed that the monument was from a sect that the Church itself had deemed heretical 1,000 years before. German Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kirchner supplied a Latin translation of the stele, enthusing in his China Illustrata that Xi’an’s rediscovery happened by God’s will “at this time when the preaching of the faith by way of the Jesuits pervaded China, so that old and new testimonies…would go forth…and so the truth of the Gospel would be clear to everyone.” But was it so clear, this strange gospel of the Tao? Much of Kircher’s book was based on his colleague Fr. Mateo Ricci’s accounts of the Ming Court. Ricci had taken to wearing the robes of a Confucian scholar, borrowing from both Confucius and Lao-Tzu in arguing that Catholicism was a form of those older religions. The Dominicans and Franciscans in China were disturbed by these accommodations, and by 1645 (some 35 years after Ricci had died) the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ruled against the Jesuits (though this was a process that went back and forth). Maybe there is something fallacious in simply pretending all religions are secretly the same. Prothero writes in God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World, that we often have “followed scholars and sages down the rabbit hole into a fantasy world in which all gods are one.” Catholicism is not Taoism, and that’s to the integrity of both. But Ricci’s attitude was a bold one, and in considering different beliefs, he was arguably a forerunner of pluralistic tolerance. We risk abandoning something beautiful if we reject the unity that Alopen and Ricci worked for, because perhaps there is a flexibility to conversion, a delightful promiscuity to faith. Examining one of the Chinese water-colors of Ricci, resplendent in the heavenly blue silk of the panling lanshan with a regal, heavy, black putou on his head, a Roman inquisitor may have feared who exactly was converting whom.   9.In the painting, Sir Francis Dashwood —11th Baron le Despencer and Great Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1762 to 1763—is depicted as if he was St. Francis of Assisi. Kneeling in brown robes, the aristocrat is a penitent in some rocky grove, a hazy blue-grey sfumato marking the countryside visible through a gap in the stones. In the corner is a silver platter, grapes and cherries tumbled onto the soil of this pastoral chapel, as if to remind the viewer of life’s mutability, “Vanity of vanity” and all the rest of it. Some tome—perhaps The Bible?—lay open slightly beyond the nobleman’s gaze, and with hand to breast, Dashwood contemplates what looks like a crucifix. But something is amiss in this portrait painted by Dashwood’s friend, that great notary of 18th-century foibles William Hogarth. The crucifix—it’s not Christ on the cross, but a miniature nude woman with her head thrown back. Suddenly the prurient grin on the stubbly face of Dashwood makes more sense. If you happen to be an expert on 18th-century French pornography, you might notice that it’s not the gospels that lay open on cracked spine next to Dashwood, but a copy of Nicolas Chorier’s Elegantiae Latini sermonis; were you familiar with the intricacies of Westminster politics in the 1760s, you may have observed that rather than a golden, crescent halo above the baron’s head, it’s actually a cartoon of the Earl of Sandwich in lunar profile. Already raised in the anti-Catholic environment of British high society, Dashwood’s disdain for religion was incubated during his roguish youth while on his fashionable Grand Tour of the continent—he was expelled from the Papal States. In the anonymously written 1779 Nocturnal Revels, a two-volume account of prostitution in London, the author claims that Dashwood “on his return to England, thought that a burlesque institution in the name of St. Francis, would mark the absurdity of such Societies; and in lieu of the austerities and abstemiousness there practiced, substitute convivial gaiety, unrestrained hilarity, and social felicity.” To house his “Franciscans,” Dashwood purchased a former Cistercian Abby in Buckinghamshire that overlooked the Thames, and in dazzling stain-glass had inscribed above its entrance the famous slogan from the Abby of Thelema in Francois Rabelais’s 15th-century classic Gargantua and Pantagruel—“Do What Thou Wilt.” Its grounds were decorated with statues of Dionysius—Julian the Apostate’s revenge—and the gothic novelist (and son of a Prime Minister) Horace Walpole wrote that the “practice was rigorously pagan: Bacchus and Venus were the deities to whom they almost publicly sacrificed; and the nymphs and the hogsheads that were laid in against the festivals of this new church.” Within those gothic stone walls, Dashwood’s compatriots very much did do what they would, replacing sacramental wine with liquor, the host with feasting, and the Mass with their orgies. The Monks of Medenham Abby, founded upon a Walpurgis Night in 1752, initiated occasional worshipers including the respected jurist Robert Vansittart, John Montague 4th Earl of Sandwich, the physician Benjamin Edward Bates II, the parliamentarian George Bubb Dodington, and in 1758 they hosted a colonial scientist named Benjamin Franklin (fresh from a Whitfield revival no doubt). Such gatherings were not uncommon among the bored upper classes of European society; Black Masses were popular among French aristocrats into the 17th century, and in Britain punkish dens of obscenity like Dashwood’s were known as “Hell-Fire Clubs.” Evelyn Lord writes in her history The Hellfire Clubs: Sex, Satanism and Secret Societies that long before Dashwood ever convened his monks, London had been “abuzz with rumors of highborn Devil-worshipers who mocked the established Church and religion, and allegedly supped with Satan,” with the apparently non-Satanic members of Parliament pushing for anti-blasphemy legislation. That’s the thing with blasphemy though—there’s no Black Mass without first the Mass, no Satan without God. Irreverent, impious, and scandalous though Dashwood may have been, such activities paradoxically confirm faith. Lord writes that the “hell-fire clubs represented an enduring fascination with the forbidden fruit offered by the Devil…But the members of these clubs faced a dilemma: if they believed in Satan and hell-fire, did they by implications believe in a supernatural being, called God, and a place called Heaven?” Should the sacred hold no charged power, were relics simply bits of rag and bone, than there would be no electricity in their debasement; were a crucifix meaningless, than there would be no purpose in rendering it pornographic. A blasphemous conversion, it turns out, may just be another type of conversion.   Geoffrey Ashe argues in The Hell-Fire Clubs: Sex, Rakes and Libertines that Thelema is an antinomian ethic that can be traced from Rabelais through the Hell-Fire Clubs onto today. He writes that such a history is “strange and unsettling. It discloses scenes of pleasure and laughter, and also some of the extremist horrors ever conceived. It introduces us to cults of the Natural, the Supernatural; to magic, black and otherwise.” Dashwood’s confraternity encompasses figures as diverse as the Marquis de Sade, the notorious occultist Aleister Crowley (who had Rabelais’s motto carved above the entrance to his own monastery in Sicily), and LSD evangelist Timothy Leary. Fear not the blasphemer, for such is merely a cracked prophet of the Lord. As Master Crowley himself wrote in Aceldama: A Place to Bury Strangers, “I was in the death struggle with self: God and Satan fought for my soul those three long hours. God conquered – now I have only one doubt left—which of the twain was God?”   10.When the Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, lily of the Mohawks and the sainted maiden of the Iroquois village of Kahnawake, laid her head upon her death-bed one chill spring in 1680, it was said that the disfiguring small-pox scars she’d contracted vanished from her beautiful corpse. There in the dread wilderness of New France, where spring snows fall blue and deep and the horizon is marked with warm smoke from maple long-houses and fallen acorns are soggy under moccasin slippers, America’s indigenous saint would die. A witness recorded that Tekakwitha’s face “suddenly changed about a quarter of an hour after her death, and became in a moment so beautiful.” A fellow nun records that the evening of the saint’s death, she heard a loud knock at her door, and Tekakwitha’s voice saying “I’ve come to say good-bye; I’m on my way to heaven." Tekakwitha’s short decades were difficult, as they must by necessity be for anyone who becomes a saint. She was victim of a world collapsing in on itself, of the political, social, economic, and ecological calamities precipitated by the arrival of the very people whose faith she would convert to, one hand holding a bible and a crucifix, the other a gun—all of them covered in the invisible killing virus. Despite it being the religion of the invaders, Tekakwitha had visions of the Virgin and desired conversion, and so she journeyed over frozen Quebec ground to the village of the “Black Robes” who taught that foreign faith. When Tekakwitha met with the Jesuits, they told the Iroquois woman not of the Tao, nor did they speak of heaven, rather they chanted a hymn of Karonhià:ke, the realm from which the father of all things did send his only son to die. Of her own accord, Tekakwitha meditated on the words of the Jesuits, her confessor Fr. Cholonec recording that she finally said “I have deliberated enough,” and she willingly went to the baptismal font. She has for the past three-centuries been America’s indigenous saint, a symbol of Christ reborn on this land, the woman of two cultures whom William T. Vollman describes in his novel Fathers and Crows as “Tekakwitha…praying besides the Cross of maple wood she had made.” Much controversy follows such conversions: are we to read Tekakwitha—who endures as a symbol of syncretism between Christianity and indigenous spirituality—as a victim? As a willing penitent? As some cross between the two? In his novel Beautiful Losers, the Canadian poet, novelist, and songwriter Leonard Cohen says of Tekakwitha that a “saint does not dissolve the chaos.” Tekakwitha is not a dialectic to resolve the contradictions between the Catholic and the Iroquois, the French and the Mohawk. She is not an allegory, a parable, a metaphor, or an example—she is Tekakwitha, a woman. If we are to draw any allegorizing lesson from her example, it must be this—conversion, like death, is something that is finally done alone. Who can we be to parse her reasons for embracing that faith, just as how can we fully inhabit the decisions of Julian, or Spinoza, or Hansmann, or Ricci? Nothing can be more intimate, or sometimes more surprising, than the turn of a soul, the conversion of a woman or man. We aren’t known to one another; we’re finally known only to God—though it’s impossible to say which one. When Tekakwitha’s appearance changed, was this an indication of saintliness? Of her true form? Of the beatified face when it looks upon the creator-god Ha-wen-ni-yu? All that can be said of conversion is that it’s never final, we’re always in the process of being changed, and pray that it’s possible to alter our broken world in return. Converts, like saints, do not reconcile the chaos, they exist amidst it. In hagiography, we find not solution, but mystery—as sacred and holy as footprints on a virgin Canadian snow, finally to be erased as the day turns to night. Image credit: Unsplash/Diana Vargas.

We Should All Be Reading Ancient Poetry Right Now

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In 1942, the classicist Edith Hamilton acknowledged the “dark spots” which encroach upon the worlds of Greek myth. Reading ancient poetry today makes you realize how those dark spots have grown. They may be sinister, but like black holes, they suck you in. They are timely reminders of the continuing power of classical verse. There is nothing like ancient poetry for making you reassess your priorities. Homer, Virgil, and Ovid can make you feel small and insignificant, but those feelings tend to pass and are worth enduring for the clarity they bring to the bigger picture. If you only let them in, the poets of ancient Greece and Rome can bring the kind of life you are living and person you want to be into sharper focus. They are surprisingly adept at cutting through the noise of modern life. Ovid captures the zeitgeist better than any contemporary writer I know. It’s remarkable, considering he died in the early first century, but his words have taken on new significance in the past few years. Where his Metamorphoses once seemed strange and fantastical, with their stories of girls turning into trees and sculptures transforming into living flesh, they now read like an entree to conversations of human fluidity. A young man named Actaeon is out hunting when he stumbles upon the goddess Diana bathing. In her fury, the deity turns him into a stag. Unable to feel at home in his former palace or the woods with other animals—“shame impeded one route and fear the other”—Actaeon is torn apart by his hunting dogs and sense of displacement. There has never been a better description of what it’s like to be uncomfortable in your own skin. Other characters in the Metamorphoses are more fortunate. They change form to better manifest who they really are. The anguish of Actaeon suggests to me that escapism shouldn’t be the primary reason for reading ancient poetry today. For sure, there’s diversion and joy to be found in the drinking poems of Horace—nunc est bibendum!—or the Cyclops-haunted adventures of Odysseus. Virgil even provides a lively debate on the virtues of the countryside relative to the city. Perfect for the daily commute. But it’s when the poets turn to their struggles and political angst that their voices feel most modern. Read them not for escapism but for the reverse: They found the words to express the dark spots we’re still facing today. [millions_ad] Long before the birth of Ovid, in the fifth century B.C., the Greek tragedians put the human condition under the microscope. No flaw or contradiction went unexplored. In his Bacchae, the poet Euripides let the tension play out between our inner wildness and outer sense of propriety. Is it better to suppress your desires or give free rein to curiosity? In the play, the reputation of a king is on the line. Put yourself in his shoes and you realize the stakes now feel somehow higher. Anyone today can suffer public humiliation for making the wrong choice. Let yourself go at your peril. The Greek poets understood that extreme situations bring out the best and worst in us. That’s why they liked to present their characters with impossible choices. Sophocles’s Antigone, the inspiration for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction winner, Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, forces its protagonist to choose between obeying the law of her uncle and the authority of the gods. In choosing to bury her late brother, who died an alleged traitor, Antigone honored divine law. She has gone down in history as one of the great political protestors. When I try to express the sense of unease I feel over politics today, though, it’s the Roman poets I turn to first. Rome of the late first century B.C. was not so very different from the White House or Westminster. The rise of Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great, and populist politics which threatened the status quo was far from universally embraced. The Latin poet Catullus, best known for his passionate poems to his lover Lesbia, grappled with a new question: How do you react to a people-pleaser without feeding his ego? At first, he recommends nonchalance: I have absolutely no desire to want to please you, Caesar, Nor to know the smallest thing about you. And if that doesn’t work? Turn up the temperature without losing your humor. Not even the fact that Caesar was a friend of his father prevented Catullus from branding him a “shameless, grasping gambler” and worse in acerbic verse. His message got through. Caesar was offended by the poems. He forgave their author. I defy anyone to read a book of Roman polemics and resist nodding along to at least some of them. At their best, the works of the ancient poets read like social commentary of our own times. They brim with uncomfortable but necessary home truths and highlight what really matters. A surge in translations of classical texts in recent years has brought the ancient poets even closer to us, the language no longer a barrier to our understanding. I’d wager that an hour spent in their company would reveal more about the realities of our world than a thousand scrolls of Twitter or Instagram ever could. Image: Flickr/Balcon del Mundo