Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Washington, Amis, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Bryan Washington, Martin Amis, and more—that are publishing this week.

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Memorial by Bryan Washington

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Memorial: “In Washington’s debut novel (after the collection Lot), the fractures in a couple’s relationship span from Houston, Tex., to Osaka, Japan. Ben, a day care teacher, lives with his cook boyfriend, Mike, in Houston’s slowly gentrifying Third Ward. When Mike’s mother, Mitsuko, arrives in Houston from Japan with plans to stay at Ben and Mike’s place, awkwardness ensues. Mike has just left for Osaka, to reconnect with his absent and now terminally ill father, and put Ben in charge of entertaining Mitsuko until he gets back. Ben eventually adjusts to having her around, just as he must navigate his changing relationship with his black middle-class family, who have always shied away from Ben’s HIV-positive status and talked around his father’s drinking. Meanwhile, in Osaka, Mike has found his father, Eiju, at the bar he owns, where Eiju has a dedicated assistant and crowd of regulars who have no idea Eiju’s dying or that he has a son. Mike starts working at the bar so he can spend Eiju’s final days with him. Though Mike still grapples with how to feel about Eiju, who made his biggest impact on Mike’s life by abandoning the family, father and son are able to build a tentative relationship. Tender, funny, and heartbreaking, this tale of family, food (Mike cooks for their Venezuelan neighbors; Mitsuko makes Ben congee), and growing apart feels intimate and expansive at the same time. Washington shows readers more of the unforgettable Houston he introduced in his stories, and comfortably expands his range into the setting of Osaka, applying nuance in equal measure to his characters and the places they’re tied to.”

Bonus Links:
Bryan Washington’s Houston Is a City of Multitudes
A Year in Reading: Bryan Washington

Inside Story by Martin Amis

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Inside Story: “Amis (The Zone of Interest) frames his consistently intelligent and compulsively readable ‘novelized autobiography,’ as he calls it, as a guide to writers. Along the way, the author crafts a dynamic series of paeans to three of his heroes—Saul Bellow, who became a kind of father figure; Christopher Hitchens, one of his best friends; and Philip Larkin, his father, Kingsley’s, lifelong friend—amid a wide-ranging survey of his own life. The book opens in 2016 with Amis living in Brooklyn with his wife, writer Isabel Fonseca, contemplating his own mortality, with a meta introduction to his reader (whom he imagines as an aspiring writer), but quickly turns to the lives of Bellow, Hitchens, and Larkin, and, eventually, their deaths: Bellow slips into dementia. Hitchens fights a losing battle with cancer. Larkin dies of cancer as well. Amis also relates the fascinating story of an early love of his, Phoebe Phelps, an enigmatic figure whom he admits was the inspiration for his first novel, The Rachel Papers, and whom he remained obsessed with for decades. There is much else on offer: critical aperçus and insightful digressions on Austen, Conrad, Nabokov, and other writers; an elegant gloss on the history of the modern novel; and opinions on Hitler, the Soviet Union, 9/11, the refugee crisis, and President Trump (‘the high-end bingo caller who occupies pole position in the GOP’). Amis again proves himself to be as savvy a thinker as he is a writer as he applies his insight and curiosity as a novelist to this stylish and genuine account of his development as a writer. The result reaches the heights of his finest work.”

Bonus Links:
Fiction Is Freedom: On Martin Amis
The Arcades Project: Martin Amis’s Guide to Classic Video Games

The Cold Millions by Jess Walter

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Cold Millions: “Walter (Beautiful Ruins) reconstructs the free speech riots of 1909–1910 in Spokane, Wash., in this superb tale of orphaned, train-hopping brothers Gig and Rye Dolan. After their mother dies from tuberculosis, Rye, 16, leaves their childhood home in Montana to join Gig. The brothers spend a year looking for seasonal work, then settle in Spokane, the ‘old Klondike town [that] had grown into a proper city,’ where ‘money flowed straight uphill’ and a $10 pair of gloves is a class-defining luxury. Rye is arrested during a riot and charged with disorderly conduct, and his lawyer introduces him to the sympathetic Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a New Yorker and union organizer who has come to Spokane to advocate for ‘the cold millions with no chance in this world.’ Gig and Rye also meet Ursula the Great, a bawdy vaudevillian who cavorts in corset and stockings with a caged cougar and wins Gig’s heart despite her romantic involvement with a mining boss. The novel’s cast mixes fictional characters and historical figures such as labor lawyer Fred Moore, police chief John Sullivan, and organizers John Walsh and Frank Little, and adds a literary layer to Gig’s self-determination (he travels with a library including White Fang and two volumes of War and Peace, ‘always on the lookout for the rest’). The sum is a splendid postmodern rendition of the social realist novels of the 1930s by Henry Roth, John Steinbeck, and John Dos Passos, updated with strong female characters and executed with pristine prose. This could well be Walter’s best work yet.”

Bonus Links:
Politics Is in Its DNA: On Jess Walter’s ‘The Cold Millions’
A Year in Reading: Jess Walter

The Collected Breece D’J Pancake by Breece D’J Pancake

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Collected Breece D’J Pancake: “In this vibrant collection, Pancake’s quirky, indelible prose is shadowed by the poignancy of his personal history. An intense, artistic misfit from rural West Virginia, Pancake died by suicide in 1979 at age 26, four years before The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake was published. In the front matter, Jayne Ann Phillips claims Pancake produced ‘some of the best short stories written anywhere, at any time,’ and James Alan McPherson notes how Pancake synthesized a Hemingway style with themes and characters inspired by his home state. And, indeed, the stories live up to the hype. Pancake balances muscular precision and economy with rich, evocative detail. In ‘The Mark,’ a struggling couple brushes aside the difficulties of the wife’s pregnancy to take their prize bull, Pride and Promise, to a fair. ‘Fox Hunters’ offers a bracing slice of West Virginia life, complete with junk cars in various stages of repair and an opossum or two. The successful protagonist of ‘The Salvation of Me’ learns that you can’t go home again. In addition to the stories and five fragments, the book includes a lengthy section of Pancake’s letters, which reads like a memoir. With its impressive quantity of annotation and tribute, this omnibus offers Pancake fans a deeper look at the artist and will go a long way to inviting others to join this legion.”

Bonus Link:
American Myth: The Short, Beautiful Life of Breece D’J Pancake

Invisible Ink by Patrick Modiano (translated by Mark Polizzotti)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Invisible Ink: “Nobel laureate Modiano delivers a mesmerizing, enigmatic novel in the vein of many of his best-known works. Like Missing Person, the book is about a private eye—albeit a shabby and halfhearted one—who once briefly worked for the Hutte Detective Agency in Paris, and like Dora Bruder, it centers on the investigation of an unsolved disappearance. But Modiano eschews the political overtones that drove those books, telling instead a story about growing old and the gaps and omissions that make up a life. Jean Eyben looks back on his 20s, when he was assigned to investigate the disappearance of Noëlle Lefebvre. As he searched, he had a series of phantomlike encounters with people whose lives each briefly intersected with Lefebvre’s in the 1960s. Her fate becomes a lifelong obsession, and Eyben recounts the story circuitously, as if remembering it as he writes, which casts an irresistible spell. As Eyben’s search deepens, he wonders whether Lefebvre has some connection to his own life. All of Modiano’s works are variations on a theme, and his newest is no different, but its dreamlike prose and a beguiling structural twist make it a worthy and satisfying addition to his accomplished oeuvre.”

Bonus Links:
Past Imperfect: On Patrick Modiano’s ‘Little Jewel’ and ‘The Black Notebook’
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Mutt: On Patrick Modiano

On Obscenity and Literature

“But implicit in the history of the First Amendment is the rejection of obscenity as utterly without redeeming social importance.” —Associate Justice William J. Brennan Jr., Roth v. United States (1957)

Interviewer: Speaking of blue, you’ve been accused of vulgarity. Mel Brooks: Bullshit! —Playboy (February, 1975)

On a spring evening in 1964 at the Café Au Go Go in Greenwich Village, several undercover officers from the NYPD’s vice squad arrested Lenny Bruce for public obscenity. Both Bruce and the club’s owner Howard Solomon were shouldered out through the crowded club to waiting squad cars, their red and blue lights reflected off of the dirty puddles pooled on the pavement of Bleecker Street. For six months the two men would stand trial, with Bruce’s defense attorney calling on luminaries from James Baldwin to Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer to Bob Dylan, to attest to the stand-up’s right to say whatever he wanted in front of a paying audience. “He was a man with an unsettling sense of humor,” write Ronald K.L. Collins and David M. Skover in The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall and Rise of an American Icon. “Uncompromising, uncanny, unforgettable, and unapologetic…His words crossed the law and those in it is. He became intolerable to people too powerful to ignore. When it was over, not even the First Amendment saved him.” The three-judge tribunal sentenced Bruce to four months punishment in a workhouse. Released on bail, he never served a day of his conviction, overdosing on morphine in his Hollywood Hills bungalow two years later. He wouldn’t receive a posthumous pardon until 2003.

“Perhaps at this point I ought to say a little something about my vocabulary,” Bruce wrote in his (still very funny) How to Talk Dirty and Influence People: An Autobiography. “My conversation, spoken and written, is usually flavored with the jargon of the hipster, the argot of the underworld, and Yiddish.” Alongside jazz, Jewish-American comedy is one of the few uniquely American contributions to world culture, and if that comparison can be drawn further, then Bruce was the equivalent of Dizzy Gillespie or Miles Davis—he was the one who broke it wide open. Moving comedy away from the realm of the Borscht Belt one-liner, Bruce exemplified the emerging paradigm of stand-up as spoken word riff of personal reflections and social commentary, while often being incredibly obscene. The Catskills comedian Henry Youngman may have been inescapably Jewish, but Bruce was unabashedly so. And, as he makes clear, his diction proudly drew from the margins, hearing more truth in the dialect of the ethnic Other than in mainstream politeness, more honesty in the junky’s language than in the platitudes of the square, more righteous confrontation in the bohemian’s obscenity than in the pieties of the status quo. Among the comics of that golden age of stand-up, only Richard Pryor was his equal in bravery and genius, and despite the fact that some of his humor is dated today, books like How to Talk Dirty and Influence People still radiate an excitement that a mere burlesque performer could challenge the hypocrisy and puritanism of a state that would just as soon see James Joyce’s Ulysses and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover banned and their publisher’s hauled to jail as they would actually confront any of the social ills that infected the body politic.

What separates Bruce from any number of subsequent comics is that within his performances there was a fully articulated theory of language. “Take away the right to say the word ‘fuck’ and you take away the right say ‘fuck the government,’” he is reported to have said, and this is clearly and crucially true. That’s one model of obscenity’s utility: its power to lower the high and to raise the low, with vulgarity afforded an almost apocalyptic power of resistance. There is a naivety, however, that runs through the comedian’s work, and that’s that Bruce sometimes doesn’t afford language enough power. In one incendiary performance from the early ’60s, Bruce went through a litany of ethnic slurs for Black people, Jews, Italians, Hispanics, Poles, and the Irish, finally arguing that “it’s the suppression of the word that gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness.” He imagines a scenario whereby the president would introduce members of his cabinet by using those particular words, and concludes that following such a moment those slurs wouldn’t “mean anything anymore, then you could never make some six-year-old black kid cry because somebody called him” that word at school. Bruce’s idealism is almost touching—let it not be doubted that he genuinely believed language could work in this way—but it’s also empirically false. Dying a half-century ago he can’t be faulted for his ignorance on this score, but when we now have a president who basically does what Bruce imagined his hypothetical Commander-in-Chief doing, and I think we can emphatically state that the repetition of such ugliness does nothing to dispel its power.       

Discussions about obscenity often devolve into this bad-faith dichotomy—the prudish schoolmarms with their red-pens painting over anything blue and the brave defenders of free speech pushing the boundaries of acceptable discourse. The former hold that there is a certain power to words that must be tamed, while the later champion the individual right to say what they want to say. When the issue is phrased in such a stark manner, it occludes a more discomforting reality—maybe words are never simply utterances, maybe words can be dangerous, maybe words can enact evil things, and maybe every person has an ultimate freedom to use those words as they see fit (notably a different claim than people should be able to use them without repercussion). Bruce’s theory of language is respectably semiotic, a contention about the arbitrary relationship between signifier and signified, whereby that chain of connection can be severed by simple repetition, as when sense flees from a word said over and over again, whether it’s “potato” or “xylophone.” But he was ultimately wrong (as is all of structural and post-structural linguistics)—language is never exactly arbitrary, it’s not really semiotic. We need theurgy to explain how words work, because in an ineffable and numinous way, words are magic. When it comes to obscenity in particular, whether the sexual or the scatological, the racial or the blasphemous, we’re considering a very specific form of that magic, and while Bruce is correct that a prohibition on slurs would render resistance to oppression all the more difficult, he’s disingenuous in not also admitting that it can provide a means of cruelty in its own right. If you couldn’t say obscenities then a certain prominent tweeter of almost inconceivable power and authority couldn’t deploy them almost hourly against whatever target he sees fit. This is not an argument for censorship, mind you, but it is a plea to be honest in our accounting.

Obscenity as social resistance doesn’t have the same cache it once did, nor is it always interpreted as unassailably progressive (as it was for Bruce and his supporters). In our current season of a supposed Jacobin “cancel culture,” words have been ironically re-enchanted with the spark of danger that was once associated with them. Whether or not those who claim that there is some sort of left McCarthyism policing language are correct, it’s relatively anodyne to acknowledge that right now words are endowed with a significance not seen since Bruce appeared in a Manhattan courtroom. Whatever your own stance on the role that offensiveness plays in civilized society, obscenity can only be theorized through multiple perspectives. Four-letter words inhabit a nexus of society, culture, faith, linguistics, and morality (and the law). A “fuck” is never just a “fuck,” and a shit by any other name wouldn’t smell as pungent. Grammatically, obscenities are often classified as “intensifiers,” that is placeholders that exist to emphasize the emotionality of a given declaration—think of them as oral exclamation marks. Writing in Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, Melissa Mohr explains vulgarity is frequently “important for the connotation it carries and not for its literal meaning.” Such a distinction came into play in 2003 after the Irish singer Bono of U2 was cited by the Federal Communications Commission when upon winning a Golden Globe he exclaimed “fucking brilliant.” The Enforcement Commission of the bureau initially decided that Bono’s f-bomb wasn’t indecent since its use clearly wasn’t in keeping with the sexual definition of the word, a verdict that was later rescinded higher up within the FCC.

“Historically,” Mohr writes, “swearwords have been thought to possess a deeper, more intimate connection to the things they represent than do other words,” and in that regard the pencil-necked nerds at the FCC ironically showed more respect to the dangerous power of fucking then did Bono. If vigor of emotion is all one was looking for in language, any number of milquetoast words would work as well as a vulgarity, and yet obscenity (even if uttered due to a stubbed toe) is clearly doing something a bit more transcendent than more PG terms—for both good and bad. Swearing can’t help but have an incantatory aspect to it; we swear oaths, and we’re specifically forbidden by the Decalogue from taking the Lord’s name in vain. Magnus Ljung includes religious themes in his typology of profanity, offered in Swearing: A Cross-Cultural Linguistic Study, as one of “five major themes that recur in the swearing of the majority of the languages discussed and which are in all likelihood also used in most other languages featuring swearing.” Alongside religious profanity, Ljung recognizes themes according to scatology, sex organs, sexual activities, and family insults. To this, inevitably, must also be offered ethnic slurs. Profanity is by definition profane, dealing with the bloody, pussy, jizzy reality of what it means to be alive (and thus the lowering of the sacred into that oozy realm is part of what blasphemously shocks). Obscenity has a quality of the theological about it, even while religious profanities have declined in their ability to shock an increasingly secular society.

Today a word like “bloody” sounds archaic or Anglophilic, and almost wholly inoffensive, even while it’s (now forgotten) reference to Christ’s wounds would have been scandalous to an audience reared on the King James Bible. This was the problem that confronted television director David Milch, who created the classic HBO western Deadwood. The resultant drama (with dialogue largely composed in iambic pentameter) was noted as having the most per capita profanity of any show to ever air, but in 1870s Dakota most of those swears would have been religious in nature. Since having Al Swearengen (a perfect name if ever there was one) sound like Yosemite Sam would have dulled the shock of his speech, Milch elected to transform his characters’ language into scatological and ethnic slurs, the latter of which still has the ability to upset an audience in a way that “by Christ’s wounds!” simply doesn’t. When Swearengen offers up his own theory of language to A.W. Merrick, who edits Deadwood’s newspaper, he argues that “Just as you owning a print press proves only an interest in the truth, meaning up to a fucking point, slightly more than us others maybe, but short of a fucking anointing or the shouldering of a sacred burden—unless of course the print press was gift of an angel,” he provides a nice synthesis of the blasphemous and the sexual. The majority of copious swears in Deadwood are of the scatological, sexual, or racial sort, and they hit the ear-drum with far more force than denying the divinity of Christ does. When Milch updated the profanity of the 19th century, he knew what would disturb contemporary audiences, and it wasn’t tin-pot sacrilege.  

All of which is to say that while obscenity has a social context, with what’s offensive being beholden to the mores of a particular century, the form itself universally involves the transgression of propriety, with the details merely altered to the conventions of a time and place. As an example, watch the 2005 documentary The Aristocrats directed by magician Penn Jillette, which features dozens of tellings of the almost unspeakably taboo joke of the same name. Long an after-hours joke told by comedians who would try to one-up each other in the degree of profanity offered, Jillette’s film presents several iconic performers giving variations on the sketch. When I saw the film after it came out, the audience was largely primed for the oftentimes extreme sexual and scatological permutations of the joke, but it was the tellings that involved racial slurs and ethnic stereotypes that stunned the other theater goers. It’s the pushing of boundaries in and of itself, rather than the subject in question, that designates something as an obscenity. According to Sigmund Freud in his (weirdly funny) The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious, vulgar humor serves a potent psychological purpose, allowing people “to enjoy undisguised obscenity” that is normally repressed so as to keep “whole complexes of impulses, together with their derivatives, away from consciousness.” Obscenity thus acts as a civilizational pressure valve for humanity’s chthonic impulses.

That
words which are considered obscene are often found in the vocabulary of the
marginalized isn’t incidental, and it recommends spicey language as a site of
resistance. English swearing draws directly from one such point of contact
between our “higher” and our “lower” language. The majority of English swears
have a Germanic origin, as opposed to a more genteel Romance origin (whether
from French or Latin). In keeping with their Teutonic genesis, they tend to
have an abrasive, guttural, jagged quality to their sounds, the better to
convey an onomatopoeic quality. Take a look at the list which comprises comedian
George Carlin’s 1972 bit “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” Four of
them definitely have an Old English etymology, traceable back to the West
Germanic dialect of the Angles, Saxons, Frisians, and Jutes who occupied
Britain in the later centuries of the first millennium. Three of them – the one
that rudely refers to female genitalia, the one that tells you to rudely do
something sexual, and the one that tells you to do that thing to your mother –
may have Latin or Norman origins, though linguists think they’re just as likely
to come from what Medievalists used to call “Anglo-Saxon.” Most of these words
had no obscene connotations in their original context; in Old English the word
for urine is simply “piss,” and the word for feces is “shit.” Nothing dirty
about either word until the eleventh-century Norman invasion of Britain privileged
the French over the English. That stratification, however, gives a certain
gutter enchantment to those old prosaic terms, endowing them with the force of
a swear. Geoffrey Hughes writes in Swearing: A Social History of Foul
Language, Oaths, and Profanities in English that the “Anglo-Saxon element… provides
much more emotional force than does the Normal French of the Latin. Copulating
pandemonium! conveys none of the emotion charge of the native equivalent fucking
hell!”  Invasion, oppression, and
brutality mark those words which we consider to be profane, but they also give
them their filthy enchantments.

What’s clear is that the class connotations of what Bruce called an “argot” can’t be ignored. Swearing is the purview of criminals and travelers, pirates and rebels, highwaymen and drunks. For those lexicographers who assembled lists of English words in the early modern era, swearing, or “canting,” provided an invaluable window into the counter-cultural consciousness. The Irish playwright Richard Head compiled The Canting Academy, or Devil’s Cabinet Opened in 1673, arguably the first full-length English “dictionary,” complied decades before Dr. Johnson’s staider 1755 A Dictionary of the English Language. Decades before Head’s book, and short pamphlets by respectable playwrights from Thomas Dekker to Thomas Middleton similarly illuminated people on the criminal element’s language—other examples that were included as appendices within books, such as Thomas Harman’s A Caveat or Warning for Common Cursitors, go back well into the 16th century. Such “canting guides,” exploring the seamy underbelly of the cockney capital, were prurient pamphlets that illustrated the salty diction of thieves and rogues for the entertainment of the respectable classes. One of the most popular examples was the anonymously edited A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew, first printed in 1698.  Within, readers could learn the definitions of insults from “blobber-lipped” to “jobber-not.” Such dictionaries (that included words like “swindler” and “phony,” which still survive today) drew from the English underclass, with a motley vocabulary made up of words from rough-hewn English, Romani, and ultimately Yiddish, among other origins.

A direct line runs between the vibrant, colorful, and earthy diction of canting to cockney rhyming slang, or the endangered dialect of Polari used for decades by gay men in Great Britain, who lived under the constant threat of state punishment. All of these tongues are “obscene,” but that’s a function of their oppositional status to received language. Nothing is “dirty” about them; they are, rather, rebellions against “proper” speech, “dignified” language, “correct” talking, and they challenge that codified violence implied by the mere existence of the King’s Speech. Their differing purposes, and respective class connotations and authenticity, are illustrated by a joke wherein a hobo asks a nattily dressed businessman for some change. “’Neither a borrower nor a lender be’—that’s William Shakespeare,” says the businessman. “’Fuck you’—that’s David Mamet,” responds the panhandler. A bit of a disservice to the Bard, however, who along with Dekker and Middleton could cant with the best of them. For example, within the folio one will find “bawling, blasphemous, incharitible dog,” “paper fac’d villain,” and “embossed carbuncle,” among such other similarly colorful examples.

An entire history could be written about early instances of noted slurs, which of course necessitates trawling the Oxford English Dictionary for examples of dirty words that appear particularly early. For “shit,” there is a 1585 instance of the word in a Scottish “flyting,” an extemporaneous poetic rhyme-battle held in Middle Scotts, which took place between Patrick Hume and Alexander Montgomerie. The greatest example of the form is the 15th-century Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy, containing the first printed instance of the word “fuck.” In the OED, our good friend the dirty lexicographer Richard Head has the earliest example given in the entry for the word “fuck,” the profanity appearing as a noun in his play Hic et Ubique: or, The Humors of Dublin ,wherein a character says “I did creep in…and there I did see [him] putting the great fuck upon my wife.” And the dictionary reflects the etymological ambiguity concerning the faux-francophone/faux-Virgilian word “dildo,” giving earliest attribution to the playwright Robert Greene in 1590 who in his comedy Never Too Late wrote “Dildido dildido, Oh love, oh love, I feel thy rage rumble below and above.” Swearing might be a radical alternative to received language, but it pulses through literature like a counter-history, a shadow realm of the English tongue’s full capabilities. It is a secret language, the twinned-double of more respectable letters, and it’s unthinkable to understand Geoffrey Chaucer without his scatological jokes or Shakespeare minus his bawdy insults. After all, literature is just as much Charles Bukowski as T.S. Eliot; it’s William S. Burroughs and not just Ezra Pound.

Sometimes those dichotomies about what language is capable of are reconciled within the greatest of literature. A syllabus of the immaculate obscene would include the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, Charles Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Joyce’s Ulysses, Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (smuggled out of a Barnes & Noble by yours truly when I was 16), and Irving Welsh’s Trainspotting. Along with his fellow Scotsman James Kelman, Welsh shows the full potential of obscenity to present an assault on the pieties of the bourgeois, mocking Madison Avenue sophistry when he famously implores the reader to “Choose rotting away, pishing and shiteing yersel in a home, a total fuckin embarrassment tae the selfish, fucked-up brats ye’ve produced. Choose life.” Within the English language, looming above all as the primogeniture of literary smut, is the great British author John Cleland, who in 1748 published our first pornographic novel in Fanny Hill: Or, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, wherein he promised “Truth! stark naked truth, is the word, and I will not so much as take the pains to bestow the strip of a gauze-wrapper on it.” Cleland purposefully wrote Fanny Hill entirely in euphemisms and double entendres, but the lack of dirty words couldn’t conceal the fact that the orgiastic bildungsroman about a middle-age nymphomaniac was seen as unspeakably filthy. The novel has the distinction of being the longest banned work in U.S. history, first prohibited by the Massachusetts Supreme Court in 1821, only to be sold legally after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that its censorship was unconstitutional in 1966. The same year that Bruce was found face-down, naked and dead, in his California bathroom.     

A goddamn unequivocal fucking triumph of the human spirt that any fucking wanker can march up into a public library and check out a copy of Fanny Hill. That liberty is one that was hard fought for, and we should look askance on anyone who’d throw it away too cavalierly. But there is also something disingenuous as dismissing all those who suppressed works like Fanny Hill or Ulysses or Lady Chatterley’s Lover as mere prigs and prudes. A work is never censored because it isn’t powerful; it’s attacked precisely because of that coiled, latent energy that exists within words, none the more so than those that we’ve labeled as forbidden. If the debate over free speech and censorship is drenched in a sticky oil of bad faith, then that slick spills over into all corners. My fellow liberals will mock the conservative perspective that says film or comic books or video games or novels are capable of altering someone into action, sometimes very ugly action—but of course literature is capable of doing this. Why would we read literature otherwise? Why would we create it otherwise? The censor with his black marker in some ways does due service to literature, acknowledging its significance and its uncanny effect. To claim that literature shouldn’t be censored because all literature is safe is not just fallacious, it’s disrespectful. The far more difficult principle is that literature shouldn’t be censored despite the fact that it’s so often dangerous.

Like any grimoire or incantation, obscenity can be used to liberate and to oppress, to free and to enslave, to bring down those in power but also to froth a crowd into the most hideous paroxysms of fascistic violence. So often the moralistic convention holds that “punching down” is never funny, but the dark truth is that it often is. What we do with that reality is the measure of us as people, because obscenity is neither good nor bad, but all power resides within the mouth of who wields it. What we think of as profanity is a rupture within language, a dialectic undermining conventional speech, what the Greeks called an aporia that constitutes the moment that rhetoric breaks down. Obscenity is when language declares war on itself, often with good cause. Writing in Rabelais and His World, the great Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin defined what he called the “carnivalesque,” that is the principle that structured much medieval and Renaissance performance and literature, whereby the “principle of laughter and the carnival spirit on which the grotesque is based destroys…seriousness and all pretense.” Examining the Shrovetide carnivals that inaugurated pre-Reformation Lent, Bakhtin optimistically saw something liberatory in the ribald display of upended hierarchies, where the farting, shitting, pissing, vomiting hilarity of the display rendered authority foolish. “It frees human consciousness,” Bakhtin wrote, “and imagination for new potentialities.”

An uneasy and ambivalent undercurrent threads through Bakhtin’s argument, though. If the carnival allowed for a taste of emancipation, there was also always the possibility that it was just more bread and circus, a way to safely “rebel” without actually challenging the status quo. How much of our fucks and shits are just that, simply the smearing of feces on our playpen walls? Even worse, what happens when the carnival isn’t organized by plucky peasants to mock the bishops and princes, but when the church and state organize those mocking pageants themselves? Bakhtin didn’t quite anticipate the troll, nor did Bruce for that matter. Gershon Legman writes in the standard text Rationale of the Dirty Joke: An Analysis of Sexual Humor that “Under the mask of humor, our society allows infinite aggressions, by everyone and against everyone. In the culminating laugh of the listener or observer…the teller of the joke betrays his hidden hostility.” Can’t you take a joke? Because I was just joking. Legman’s reading of obscenity is crucial—it’s never just innocent, it’s never just nothing, it’s never just words. And it depends on who is saying them, and to whom they’re being said. Because swearing is so intimately tied to the theological, the use of profanity literally takes on the aura of damnation. It’s not that words aren’t dangerous—they are. But that doesn’t mean we must suture our mouths, even as honesty compels us to admit that danger. What we do with this understanding is the process that we call civilization. Because if Lenny Bruce had one unassailable and self-evident observation, it was that “Life is a four-letter word.” How could it be fucking otherwise?

Bonus Link:—Pussy Riot: One Woman’s Vagina Takes on Japan’s Obscenity Laws

Image Credit: Flickr/Jeniffer Moo

Secrets That Hold Us

1.
“I didn’t grow up with my mother,” Mom tells me. We’re sitting on the front verandah looking out at the grass before us wilting in the afternoon sun and the dwarf coconut trees that line one side of the driveway. The coconut fronds dip with the breeze, revealing green-and yellow-husked coconuts. It’s hot on the verandah; the aluminum awning, put there years earlier to shield the sun and rain, traps the late afternoon heat as well.
“I was 12 before I knew my mother,” she says.
 My mother is responding to some transgression of mine, what specifically I don’t remember. Perhaps something I neglected to tell her. There’s a lot we didn’t talk about then and don’t talk about now—a trait I earned honestly, I now know.
To grow up in Jamaica is to hear and know these stories of mothers who have migrated abroad or to Kingston, leaving their children to be raised by another relative. Barrel children, we call them, a term that stems from the fact that the migrating parents often send barrels of food and clothes back home for their children. But this is not my mother’s story.
I am in my 20s then when she tells me about meeting her mother for the first time. My mother was 12, living in Clarendon on the southern side of Jamaica with her father’s twin sisters, a cousin, and three of her father’s other children. She talks about that day as if it’s nothing remarkable: A visitor comes and one of the aunts tells my mother to take the woman to another relative’s house some yards away on a vast tract of land that is subdivided for various relatives. They’re on their way, when my grandaunt call my mother back. It turns out they were watching to see what my mother would do, how long it would take my mother to start quizzing the visitor.
“That’s your mother,” my grandaunt tells her. My mother was a baby when her mother left her there with the aunts, too young to recognize her own mother those 12 years later.
Among her siblings, my mother’s story is not unique. My mother’s father worked with the now-defunct railway service in Jamaica, crossing the country on the east-west train line. I don’t know how or where he met the mothers of his children. But it seems, he collected his offspring and deposited them in Clarendon for his sisters to raise. “I don’t know what arrangement Papa Stanley had with her,” my mother says of her parents.
My mother’s mother—Mother Gwen—raised three boys. “She gave away the girl and kept the boys,” my mother says. In it, I hear the sting of abandonment and the loss of having grown up without a concrete reason for her mother’s absence. It’s years before my mother sees her mother again, and by then she’s an adult with a life far different from that of her mother and the sons her mother kept and raised.
2.
My mother came of age with the generation that ushered in Jamaica’s independence from Britain in 1962, and she lives the Jamaican dream, that of moving off the island for a better life elsewhere. Generation after generation of Jamaicans have moved abroad—some to Panama to help build the canal, some to Cuba to work the sugar cane fields, others to Britain during the Windrush era, and countless others to America. A year after marrying my father in 1967, my parents moved to America for undergraduate studies at Tuskegee University, and later to Urbana, Ill., for my father’s graduate studies. Driven away by the cold, winter’s wrath, snow measured by the feet instead of inches, my parents returned to Jamaica in 1971, with the first of their three daughters. My father settled into a job with a unit of a bauxite company and my mother begans teaching early childhood education, supervising teachers and later teaching at a teachers college.
In 1977, they bought the house they still own—a split-level with a front lawn that slopes down to the street. The house overlooks a valley, where a river once ran. Across the valley is the main road into town and a forested cliff side. We sit on that verandah, my mother and I, looking out as she tells me about this grandmother I hadn’t known about until recently. The openness of the yard, the grass sloping down to the road, contrasts with the family secret she’s held on to for so long.
3.
I am already out of college and in my early 20s when my sisters and I rediscover Mother Gwen. We had, the three of us, come to our separate conclusions that our maternal grandmother had long been dead. I don’t have a specific reason for thinking she was dead—no memory of a funeral, no snippets of a conversation at the back of my mind. But growing up, we made weekly or biweekly trips to visit our relatives in different parts of the island: my paternal grandparents in Anchovy, a small town in the rambling hills that look down on Montego Bay; my maternal grandfather in Kingston; the grandaunts who raised my mother in the woods of Clarendon amidst coffee and cocoa and citrus plants. Now, I suspect that I assumed she had passed on because she was not among the relatives we visited, and unlike my other relatives, I have no specific memory of her—no Christmas or Boxing Day dinners, no visits to her after Easter Sunday services.
Grandma—my father’s mother—I remember clearly. She baked birthday cakes in three different sizes because my sisters and I celebrated our birthdays in back-to-back-to-back months—April, May, and June. My older sister got the largest cake, I got the mid-sized cake, and my younger sister got the smallest cake. Grandma divided money in a similar manner—$20, $10 and $5. Our birth order mattered to her.
I don’t have childhood memories of Mother Gwen, or the sons she raised without my mother. Instead, I have a vague recollection of an unfinished house, a metal drum by the side of the house, and large red and orange colored fish swimming in the makeshift aquarium. I don’t know if the house of my memory and the house where we rediscovered our grandmother are the same but it’s the memory that came to me when we walked into the house that Sunday afternoon and my mother said to her mother, who was slowly going blind, “These are my daughters, your granddaughters.” The specifics of the conversation are lost to me now but I imagine we must have talked with our grandmother and our uncles about our studies, our lives in America. Our uncles gave us trinkets they made or bought to sell—bracelets with the Jamaican colors: black, green and yellow.
Even now, I can see the shock on my sisters’ faces—eyebrows going up, eyes widening, exaggerated blinks. How could we have lived so long, on an island as small as Jamaica, without knowing our mother’s mother still lived?
4.
On the verandah that day, my mother tells me that she feared her brothers, feared they would harm her children in some way. In response, she kept us away. My mother doesn’t give a concrete reason for fearing her brothers but vaguely says something about the differences in their lives, what she had built of her life and what they hadn’t made of theirs—and the possibility that potential jealousy of what she had accomplished would bubble over. Unlike my mother who taught at a teachers college for most of my childhood, her brothers—all Rastafarians—made and sold trinkets in various roadside stalls and markets. But they had feared her return to their lives, thinking that perhaps she’d come to claim what she thought should be hers. Perhaps her brothers said something that gave my mother pause.
Without my sisters and me, my mother drifted in and out of Mother Gwen’s life, not taking us back until we were in our 20s, young adults embarking on our own lives. By the time I rediscovered my grandmother and her sons, it was too late for her to become grandma or her sons to become uncles.
But later in her life, my mother truly became Mother’s Gwen’s daughter, driving some 60 miles every Saturday to Spanish Town—where Mother Gwen lived with the only surviving son—with bags of clean laundry and bags and boxes of grocery: fish, chicken, yam, bread, eggs, pumpkin, thyme, and sometimes a pot of fresh soup. Then she’d call out to Mother Gwen, blind then and a little hard of hearing, before walking into the room where she slept or sat in the doorway to catch the Jamaican breeze. My mother gathered the soiled bed sheets and clothes, hand washed some before she left, and hung them on the line in the back to dry. The rest my mother packed to take home where she washed them, only to exchange them for a newly soiled batch a few days later.
On the few occasions I was there, my uncle hovered, keeping watch over my mother, and when he had me for an audience, he turned the small verandah into a stage and spouted word-for-word Marcus Garvey speeches he has rehearsed, every inflection perfectly placed, his eyes staring straight ahead as if looking at the words scrawled in the air. Thin and wiry, he talked about the occasions on which he’d been invited to recite a Marcus Garvey speech, the opportunities he’d missed to make a career out of this ability of his. Sometimes he talked at length about reasons for a decision or reasons he hasn’t been able to make more of his life—his mother, of course, was the main reason.
Mother Gwen died blind, completely dependent on the daughter she given up.


5.
Mother Gwen left her daughter but my mother didn’t. For my mother, I think her mother’s absence is like a shroud she can never remove. And I think it’s why she was always there for her children.
I only have two memories of my mother not being with us: once she took a sabbatical from the college where she taught and spent some time in New York. I don’t recall the length of her absence, just that I got sick the very day she left; the helper who was with us fed me tea made from the leaf of a lime tree and cream soda. I’ve never liked either since. The second time—the summer after my older sister graduated from high school—my mother took my sister to New York and left my younger sister and me at home with our father. We’d always traveled together—my sisters, our mother, and I—so this was new. The morning after their departure, after my father had left for work, the phone rang—an operator with a collect call for my mother. In the background, I heard a cousin saying Papa Stanley had died. I didn’t even have to accept the charge for I already knew the message I had to pass on: my mother’s father was dead. Mom returned within the week.
6.
The absence of my mother’s mother lives with me, too; an obsession I cannot shake, a recurring motif that springs from my unconscious into most of my longer pieces of fiction. These days, the recurring theme in my novels is mothers who don’t raise their children. My first novel, River Woman, is about a young woman who loses her son, and whose mother returns to Jamaica after years a broad for her grandson’s funeral. Their reunion is fraught with tension. My second novel, Tea by the Sea, is about another mother who spends 17 years searching for a daughter taken from her at birth.
While I didn’t set out to write my mother’s story, the ideas of abandonment and loss and belonging have crept into my work and remained there, a lurking obsession that I don’t yet seem able to escape. Perhaps, it’s my unconscious attempt to reach under the layers of family stories to discover why my mother holds on to these family secrets and stores them, as if they will be her undoing.
Sometimes I think the secrets my mother holds trap her into bearing responsibility for her father’s transgressions, for the circumstances of her birth. It’s not her burden to carry, and yet she does. I see it in her response to the news of another brother, another of her father’s children, whom she learned about not long before her father’s death. She had known the young man, taught him at school, knew him with a surname different from her own. As she tells it, her father said the young man, now grown, was coming to visit him. Why, my mother asked. “He’s my son.” Even now, years and years later, my mother still hasn’t fully accepted him. She says, “I didn’t know him as a brother,” and recalls his mother naming him as another man’s child—a jacket, in Jamaican terms—as if those circumstances are her brother’s to bear.
As a writer, I can fictionalize the reasons family members hold onto secrets long after they have lost their usefulness. Or they can let them go, setting free the secrets that trap a child into bearing responsibility for a parent’s mistakes.
7.
My mother is nearing 80. Cancer has weakened her body, perhaps lowered her defenses. She invites her brother—the only one of her mother’s three sons still alive—his daughter, and two grandchildren to visit her home. They came on a Sunday in March, the first time in the 42 years my parents owned that house that her visited. She made cupcakes with her grandniece. And when my mother talks of the visit there is joy in her voice.
I imagine them on the verandah looking out at the expanse of green before them: a brother and a sister nearer to the end of their lives than the beginning, both reaching across the years to their memories of the mother who held them together.
Image Credit: Pikist.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Delillo, Danforth, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Don DeLillo, Emily M. Danforth, and more—that are publishing this week.

Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then become a member today.

The Silence by Don DeLillo

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Silence: “DeLillo (Zero K) applies his mastery of dialogue to a spare, contemplative story of a group of New Yorkers and their response to a catastrophic shutdown of the world’s computer systems on the night of the Super Bowl in 2022. While flying back to New York from vacation in Paris, Jim Kripps reads out the plane’s altitude and speed from a screen while his poet wife, Tessa Berens, plumbs her memory for trivial facts and marvels at her ability to recover information without the assistance of a phone. Jim, an everyman whom the author describes as ‘nondescript,’ assumes the worst when the screens suddenly go blank. Their friend Max Stenner, who, with his professor wife, Diane Lucas, and her former student Martin Dekker, anticipate Jim and Tessa’s arrival at their Manhattan apartment to watch the game, is deeply shaken when his own screen goes blank before halftime. Martin entertains Diane by reciting passages from Einstein’s 1912 Manuscript on the Special Theory of Relativity, which lead to alternately profound and tepid discussions of the shutdown, the cause of which remains unexplained even after Tessa and Jim report to the group on surviving their crash landing and a ride through eerie, dark city streets. In the end, readers gain the timely insight that some were born ready for disaster while others remain unequipped. While the work stands out among DeLillo’s short fiction, it feels underpowered when compared to his novels.”
[Bonus Link: Read our own Nick Ripatrazone’s review and Mark O’Connell’s interview with DeLillo.]

Where the Wild Ladies Are by Aoko Matsuda (translated by Polly Barton)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Where the Wild Ladies Are: “Matsuda’s groundbreaking collection (after the novella The Girl Who Is Getting Married) turns traditional Japanese ghost and yōkai stories on their heads by championing wild, complex women. In ‘The Peony Lanterns,’ recently unemployed Shinzaburō gets an eerie visit from two women, Tsuyoko and Yoneko, who try to sell him peony lanterns. Yoneko, the elder of the two, tells Shinzaburō of 30-something Tsuyoko’s tragic life: a motherless daughter with a cruel father, she was forced to leave home before completing high school. Shinzaburō refuses the lanterns, though he gains an epiphany from the women’s unusual sales tactics: ‘nothing terrible would happen if you broke the rules.’ In ‘Quite a Catch,’ a young woman named Shigemi carries on a sexual relationship with the ghost of a woman who was killed by the man she refused to marry. Not all of Matsuda’s stories captivate. ‘Team Sarashina’ is about a group of women who are assigned to various departments in their company and offer their support to flailing coworkers, but it’s too obtuse to get a handle on. Most of Matsuda’s stories, though, hit their mark, particularly her queer, feminist fables, including ‘A Fox’s Life,’ about a woman who passively internalizes sexism in her workplace (‘I’m a girl. I’m just a girl, after all’) until she realizes in middle age that she might be a fox. Matsuda’s subversive revisionist tales are consistently exciting.”

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Plain Bad Heroines: “Danforth’s sumptuous sophomore novel (after The Miseducation of Cameron Post) chronicles the allegedly cursed 1902 memoir The Story of Mary MacLane and its link to the shuttered Brookhants School for Girls in Little Compton, R.I. In the present, Merritt Emmons is reviewing the screenplay adaptation of her book about three students who died at Brookhants in 1902, two of whom were attacked by a swarm of wasps under the watch of principal Libbie Brookhants and her partner Alex Trills, who also met eerie, premature deaths. The dead students had been obsessed with MacLane’s memoir, in which the author invokes the devil to satisfy her desire for women. Merritt has been asked to consult on the film, which features lesbian superstar Harper Harper and subpar but earnest Audrey Wells, who is told by the film’s director that the shoot, on location at Brookhants, will be rigged with spooky events to elicit genuine responses. On set, though, there is very real evidence of haunting. Danforth creates a fantastic sense of dread and champions queer female relationships throughout, delving into Libbie and Alex’s history and how their circumstances doomed them to their fate. Even readers who aren’t fans of horror will appreciate this bighearted story.”

Also on shelves this week: Fugitive Atlas by Khaled Mattawa.

Ten Ways to Save the World

1.              In a purple-walled gallery of the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, you can visit the shrine constructed by Air Force veteran and janitor James Hampton for Jesus Christ’s return. Entitled “Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nation’s Millennium General Assembly,” the altar and its paraphernalia were constructed to serve as temple objects for the messiah, who according to Hampton, based on visions he had of Moses in 1931, the Virgin Mary in 1946, and Adam in 1949, shall arrive in Washington D.C. His father had been a part-time gospel singer and Baptist preacher, but Hampton drew not just from Christianity, but brought Afrocentric folk traditions of his native South Carolina to bear in his composition. Decorated with passages from Daniel and Revelation, Hampton’s thinking (done in secret over 14 years in his Northwest Washington garage) is explicated in his 100-page manifesto St. James: The Book of the 7 Dispensations (dozens of pages are still in an uncracked code). Claiming that he had received a revised version of the Decalogue, Hampton’s notebook declared himself to be “Director, Special Projects for the State of Eternity.” His work is a fugue of word salad, a concerto of pressured speech. A combined staging ground for the incipient millennium—Hampton’s shrine is a triumph.

As if the bejeweled shield of the Urim and the Thummim were constructed not by Levites in ancient Jerusalem, but by a janitor in Mt. Vernon. Exodus and Leviticus give specifications for those liturgical objects of the Jewish Temple—the other-worldly cherubim gilded, their wings touching the hem of infinity huddled over the Ark of the Covenant; the woven brocade curtain with its many-eyed Seraphim rendered in fabric of red and gold; the massive candelabra of the ritual menorah. The materials with which the Jews built their Temple were cedar and sand stone, gold and precious jewels. When God commanded Hampton to build his new shrine, the materials were light-bulbs and aluminum foil, door frames and chair legs, pop cans and cardboard boxes, all held together with glue and tape. The overall effect is, if lacking in gold and cedar, transcendent nonetheless. Hampton’s construction looks almost Mesoamerican, aluminum foil delicately hammered onto carefully measured cardboard altars, names of prophets and patriarchs from Ezekiel to Abraham rendered.

Everyday Hampton would return from his job at the General Services Administration, where he would mop floors and disinfect counters, and for untold hours he’d assiduously sketch out designs based on his dreams, carefully applying foil to wood and cardboard, constructing crowns from trash he’d collected on U Street. What faith would compel this, what belief to see it finished? Nobody knew he was doing it. Hampton would die of stomach cancer in 1964, never married, and with few friends or family. The shrine would be discovered by a landlord angry about late rent. Soon it would come to the attention of reporters, and then the art mavens who thrilled to the discovery of “outsider” art—that is work accomplished by the uneducated, the mentally disturbed, the impoverished, the religiously zealous. “Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nation’s Millennium General Assembly” would be purchased and donated to the Smithsonian (in part through the intercession of artist Robert Rauschenberg) where it would be canonized as the Pieta of American visionary art, outsider art’s Victory of Samothrace. 

Hampton wasn’t an artist though—he was a prophet. He was Elijah and Elisha awaiting Christ in the desert. Daniel Wojcik writes in Outsider Art: Visionary Worlds and Trauma that “apocalyptic visions often have been expressions of popular religiosity, as a form of vernacular religion, existing at a grassroots level apart from the sanction of religious authority.” In that regard Hampton was like so many prophets before him, just working in toilet paper and beer can rather than papyrus—he was Mt. Vernon’s Patmos. Asking if Hampton was mentally ill is the wrong question; it’s irrelevant if he was schizophrenic, bipolar. Etiology only goes so far in deciphering the divine language, and who are we so sure of ourselves to say that the voice in a janitor’s head wasn’t that of the Lord? Greg Bottoms writes in Spiritual American Trash: Portraits from the Margins of Art and Faith that Hampton “knew he was chosen, knew he was a saint, knew he had been granted life, this terrible, beautiful life, to serve God.” Who among us can say that he was wrong? In his workshop, Hampton wrote on a piece of paper “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” There are beautiful and terrifying things hidden in garages all across America; there are messiahs innumerable. Hampton’s shrine is strange, but it is oh so resplendent.

2.              By the time Brother John Nayler genuflected before George Fox, the founder of the Quaker Society of Friends, his tongue had already been bored with a hot iron poker and the letter “B” (for “Blasphemer”) had been branded onto his forehead by civil authorities. The two had not gotten along in the past, arguing over the theological direction of the Quakers, but by 1659 Nayler was significantly broken by their mutual enemies that he was forced to drag himself to Fox’s parlor and to beg forgiveness. Three years had changed the preacher’s circumstances, for it was in imitation of the original Palm Sunday that in 1656 Nayler had triumphantly entered into the sleepy sea-side town of Bristol upon the back of a donkey, the religious significance of the performance inescapable to anyone. A supporter noted in a diary that Nayler’s “name is no more to be called James but Jesus,” while in private writings Fox noted that “James ran out into imaginations… and they raised up a great darkness in the nation.”

At the start of 1656, Nayler was imprisoned, and when Fox visited him in his cell, the latter demanded that the former kiss his foot (belying the Quaker reputation for modesty). “It is my foot,” Fox declared, but Nayler refused. The confidence of a man who reenacted Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem. Guided by the Inner Light that Quakers saw as supplanting even the gospels, Nayler thought of his mission in messianic terms, and organized his vehicle to reflect that. Among the “Valiant Sixty,” itinerant preachers who were too radical even for the Quakers, Nayler was the most revolutionary, condemning slavery, enclosure, and private property. The tragedy of Nayler is that he happened to not actually be the messiah. Before his death, following an assault by a highwayman in 1660, Nayler would write that his “hope is to outlive all wrath and contention, and to wear out all exaltation and cruelty, or whatever is of a nature contrary to itself.” He was 42, beating Christ by almost a decade.

“Why was so much fuss made?” asks Christopher Hill in his classic The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution. “There had been earlier Messiahs—William Franklin, Arise Evans who told the Deputy Recorder of London that he was the Lord his God…Gadbury was the Spouse of Christ, Joan Robins and Mary Adams believed they were about to give birth to Jesus Christ.” Hill’s answer to the question of Nayler’s singularity is charitable, writing that none of the others actually seemed dangerous, since they were merely “holy imbeciles.” The 17th-century, especially around the time of the English civil wars, was an age of blessed insanity, messiahs proliferating like dandelions after a spring shower. There was John Reeve, Laurence Clarkson, and Lodowicke Muggleton, who took turns arguing over which were the two witnesses mentioned in Revelation, and that God had absconded from heaven and the job was now open. Abiezer Cope, prophet of a denomination known as the Ranters, demonstrated that designation in his preaching and writing. One prophet, Thoreau John Tany (who designated himself “King of the Jews”), simply declared “What I have written, I have written,” including the radical message that hell was liberated and damnation abolished. Regarding the here and now, Tany had some similar radical prescriptions, including to “feed the hungry, clothe the naked, oppress none, set free them bounden.”

There have been messianic claimants from first century Judea to contemporary Utah. When St. Peter was still alive there was the Samaritan magician Simon Magus, who used Christianity as magic and could fly, only to be knocked from the sky during a prayer-battle with the apostle. In the third century the Persian prophet Mani founded a religion that fused Christ with the Buddha, that had adherents from Gibraltar to Jinjiang, and a reign that lasted more than a millennium (with its teachings smuggled into Christianity by former adherent St. Augustine). A little before Mani, and a Phrygian prophet named Montanus declared himself an incarnation of the Holy Spirit, along with his consorts Priscilla and Maximillia. Prone to fits of convulsing revelation, Montanus declared “Lo, the man is as a lyre, and I fly over him as a pick.” Most Church Fathers denounced Montanism as rank heresy, but not Tertullian, who despite being the primogeniture of Latin theology, was never renamed “St. Tertullian” because of those enthusiasms. During the Middle Ages, at a time when stereotype might have it that orthodoxy reigned triumphant, and mendicants and messiahs, some whose names aren’t preserved to history and some who amassed thousands of followers, proliferated across Europe. Norman Cohn remarks in The Pursuit of the Millennium that for one eighth-century Gaulish messiah named Aldebert, followers “were convinced that he knew all their sins…and they treasured as miracle-working talismans the nail pairings and hair clippings he distributed among them.” Pretty impressive, but none of us get off work for Aldebert’s birthday.  

More recently, other messiahs include the 18th-century prophetess and mother of the Shakers Anne Lee, the 20th-century founder of the Korean Unification Church Sun Myung Moon (known for his elaborate mass weddings and owning the conservative Washington Times), and the French test car driver Claude Vorilhon who renamed himself Raël and announced that he was the son of an extraterrestrial named Yahweh (more David Bowe’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars then Paul’s epistles). There are as many messiahs as there are people; there are malicious messiahs and benevolent ones, deluded head-cases and tricky confidence men, visionaries of transcendent bliss and sputtering weirdos. What unites all of them is an observation made by Reeve that God speaks to them as “to the hearing of the ear as a man speaks to a friend.” 

3.Hard to identify Elvis Presley’s apotheosis. Could have been the ’68 Comeback Special, decked in black leather warbling “Suspicious Minds” in that snarl-mumble. Elvis’s years in the wilderness precipitated by his manager Col. Tom Parker’s disastrous gambit to have the musician join the army, only to see all of the industry move on from his rockabilly style, now resurrected on a Burbank sound stage. Or maybe it was earlier, on The Milton Berle Show in 1956, performing Big Mama Thorton’s hit “Hound Dog” to a droopy dog, while gyrating on the Hollywood stage, leading a critic for the New York Daily News to opine that Elvis “gave an exhibition that was suggestive and vulgar, tinged with the kind of animalism that should be confined to dives and bordellos.” A fair candidate for that moment of earthly transcendence could be traced back to 1953, when in Sun Records’ dusty Memphis studio Elvis would cover Junior Parker’s “Mystery Train,” crooning out in a voice both shaky and confident over his guitar’s nervous warble “Train I ride, sixteen coaches long/Train I ride, sixteen coaches long/Well that long black train, got my baby and gone.” But in my estimation, and at the risk of sacrilege, Elvis’s ascension happened on Aug. 16, 1977 when he died on the toilet in the private bathroom of his tacky and opulent Graceland estate.

The story of Elvis’s death has the feeling of both apocrypha and accuracy, and like any narrative that comes from that borderland country of the mythic, it contains more truth than the simple facts can impart. His expiration is a uniquely American death, but not an American tragedy, for Elvis was able to get just as much out of this country as the country ever got out of him, and that’s ultimately our true national dream. He grabbed the nation by its throat and its crotch, and with pure libidinal fury was able to incarnate himself as the country. All of the accoutrement—the rhinestone jumpsuits, the karate and the Hawaiian schtick, the deep-fried-peanut-butter-banana-and-bacon-sandwiches, the sheer pill-addicted corpulence—are what make him our messiah. Even the knowing, obvious, and totally mundane observation that he didn’t write his own music misses the point. He wasn’t a creator—he was a conduit. Greil Marcus writes in Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll of the “borders of Elvis Presley’s delight, of his fine young hold on freedom…[in his] touch of fear, of that old weirdness.” That’s the Elvis that saves, the Elvis of “That’s All Right (Mama)” and “Shake, Rattle, and Roll,” those strange hillbilly tracks, that weird chimerical sound—complete theophany then and now.

There’s a punchline quality to that contention about white-trash worshipers at the Church of Elvis, all of those sightings in the Weekly World News, the Las Vegas impersonators of various degrees of girth, the appearance of the singer in the burnt pattern of a tortilla. This is supposedly a faith that takes its pilgrimage to Graceland as if it were zebra-print Golgotha, that visits Tupelo as if it were Nazareth. John Strausbaugh takes an ethnographer’s calipers to Elvism, arguing in E: Reflections on the Birth of the Elvis Faith that Presley has left in his wake a bona fide religion, with its own liturgy, rituals, sacraments, and scripture. He writes that it is a “The fact that outsiders can’t take it seriously may turn out to be its strength and its shield. Maybe by the time Elvism is taken seriously it will have quietly grown too large and well established to be crushed.” There are things less worthy of your worship than Elvis Presley. If we were to think of an incarnation of the United States, of a uniquely American messiah, few candidates would be more all consumingly like the collective nation. In his appetites, his neediness, his yearning, his arrogance, his woundedness, his innocence, his simplicity, his cunning, his coldness, and his warmth, he was the first among Americans. Elvis is somehow both rural and urban, northern and southern, country and rock, male and female, white and black. Our contradictions are reconciled in him. “Elvis lives in us,” Strausbaugh writes, “There is only one King and we know who he is.” We are Elvis and He was us.   

4.              A hideous slaughter followed those settlers as they drove deep into the continent. On that western desert, where the lurid sun’s bloodletting upon the burnt horizon signaled the end of each scalding day, a medicine man and prophet of the Paiute people had a vision. In a trance, Wodziwob received an oracular missive, that “within a few moons there was to be a great upheaval or earthquake… he whites would be swallowed up, while the Indians would be saved.” Wodziwob would be the John the Baptist to a new movement, for though he would die in 1872, the ritual practice that he taught—the Ghost Dance—would become a rebellion against the genocidal policy of the U.S. Government. For Wodziwob, the Ghost Dance was an affirmation, but it has also been remembered as a doomed moment. “To invoke the Ghost Dance has been to call up an image of indigenous spirituality by turns militant, desperate, and futile,” writes Louis S. Warren in God’s Red Son: The Ghost Dance Religion and the Making of Modern America, “a beautiful dream that died.” But a dream that was enduring. 

While in a coma precipitated by scarlet fever, during a solar eclipse, on New Year’s Day of 1889, a Northern Paiute Native American who worked on a Carson City, Nevada, ranch and was known as Jack Wilson by his coworkers and as Wovoka to his own people, fell into a mystical vision not unlike Wodziwob’s. Wovoka met many of his dead family members, he saw the prairie that exists beyond that which we can see, and he held counsel with Jesus Christ. Wovoka was taught the Ghost Dance, and learned what Sioux Chief Lame Deer would preach, that “the people…could dance a new world into being.” When Wovoka returned he could control the weather, he was able to compel hail from the sky, he could form ice with his hands on the most sweltering of days. The Ghost Dance would spread throughout the western United States, embraced by the Paiute, the Dakota, and the Lakota. Lame Deer said that the Ghost Dance would roll up the earth “like a carpet with all the white man’s ugly things—the stinking new animals, sheep and pigs, the fences, the telegraph poles, the mines and factories. Underneath would be the wonderful old-new world.”

A messiah is simultaneously the most conservative and most radical, preaching a return to a perfected world that never existed but also the overturning of everything of this world, of the jaundiced status quo. The Ghost Dance married the innate strangeness of Christianity to the familiarity of native religion, and like both it provided a blueprint for how to overthrow the fallen things. Like all true religion, the Ghost Dance was incredibly dangerous. That was certainly the view of the U.S. Army and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which saw an apocalyptic faith as a danger to white settler-colonials and their indomitable, zombie-like push to the Pacific. Manifest Destiny couldn’t abide by the hopefulness of a revival as simultaneously joyful and terrifying as the Ghost Dance, and so an inevitable confrontation awaited.   

The Miniconjou Lakota people, forced into the Pine Ridge Reservation by 1890, were seen as particularly rebellious, in part because their leader Spotted Elk was an adherent. As a pretext concerning Lakota resistance to disarmament, the army opened fire on gathered Miniconjou, and more than 150 people (mostly women and children) would be slaughtered during the Wounded Knee Massacre. As surely as the Romans threw Christians to the lions and Cossacks rampaged through the Jewish shtetls of eastern Europe, so too were the initiates of the Ghost Dance persecuted, murdered, and martyred by the U.S. Government. Warren writes that the massacre “has come to stand in for the entire history of the religion, as if the hopes of all of its devoted followers began and ended in that fatal ravine.” Wounded Knee was the Calvary of the Ghost Dance faith, but if Calvary has any meaning it’s that crucified messiahs have a tendency not to remain dead. In 1973 a contingent of Oglala Lakota and members of the American Indian Movement occupied Wounded Knee, and the activist Mary Brave Beard defiantly performed the Ghost Dance, again.   

5.             Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson arrived in the United States via Paris, via Berlin, and ultimately via Kiev. He immigrated to New York on the eve of America’s entry into the Second World War, and in that interim six million Jews were immolated in Hitler’s ovens—well over half of all the Jews in the world. Becoming Lubavitch Chief Rebbe in 1950, Schneerson was a refugee from a broken Europe that had devoured itself. Schneerson’s denomination of Hasidism had emerged after the vicious Cossack-led pogroms that punctuated life in 17th-century eastern Europe, when many Jews turned towards the sect’s founder, the Baal Shem Tov. His proper name was Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, and his title (often shortened to “Besht”) meant “Master of the Good Name,” for the Baal Shem Tov incorporated Kabbalah into a pietistic movement that enshrined emotion over reason, feeling over logic, experience over philosophy. David Bial writes in Hasidism: A New History that the Besht espoused “a new method of ecstatic joy and a new social structure,” a fervency that lit a candle against persecution’s darkness.

When Schneerson convened a gathering of Lubavitchers in a Brooklyn synagogue for Purim in 1953,  a black cloud enveloped the Soviet Union. Joseph Stalin was beginning to target Jews whom he implicated in “The Doctor’s Plot,” an invented accusation that Jewish physicians were poisoning Soviet leadership. The state propaganda organ Pravda denounced these supposed members of a “Jewish bourgeois-nationalist organization… The filthy face of this Zionist spy organization, covering up their vicious actions under the mask of charity.” Four gulags were constructed in Siberia, with the understanding that Russian Jews would be deported and perhaps exterminated. Less than a decade after Hitler’s suicide, and Schneerson would look out into the congregation of swaying black-hatted Lubavitchers, and would see a people labeled for extinction.

And so on that evening, Schneerson explicated on the finer points of Talmudic exegesis, on questions of why evil happens in the world, and what man and G-d’s role is in containing that wickedness. Witnesses said that the very countenance of the rabbi was transformed, as he declared that he would speak the words of the living G-d. Enraptured in contemplation, Schneerson connected the Persian courtier Haman’s war against the Jews and Stalin’s upcoming campaign, he invoked G-d’s justice and mercy, and implored the divine to intervene and prevent the Soviet dictator from completing that which Hitler had begun. The Rebbe denounced Stalin as the “evil one,” and as he shouted it was said that his face transformed into a “holy fire.”

Two days later Moscow State Radio announced that Stalin had fallen ill and died. The exact moment of his expiration was when a group of Lubavitch Jews had prayed that G-d would still the hand of the tyrant and punish his iniquities. Several weeks later, and Soviet leadership would admit that the Doctor’s Plot was a government rouse invented by Stalin, and they exonerated all of those who’d been punished as a result of baseless accusations. By the waning days of the Soviet Union, the Lubavitcher Rebbe would address crowds gathered in Red Square by telescreen while the Red Army Band performed Hasidic songs. “Was this not the victory of the Messiah over the dark forces of the evil empire, believers asked?” writes Samuel Heilman and Menachem Friedman in The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

The Mashiach (“anointed one” in Hebrew) is neither the Son of G-d nor the incarnate G-d, and his goal is arguably more that of liberation than salvation (whatever either term means). Just as Christianity has had many pseudo-messiahs, so is Jewish history littered with figures whom some believers saw as the anointed one (Christianity is merely the most successful of these offshoots). During the Second Jewish-Roman War of the second century, the military commander Simon bar Kokhba was lauded as the messiah, even as his defeat led to Jewish exile from the Holy Land. During the 17th century, the Ottoman Jew Sabbatai Zevi amassed a huge following of devotees who believed him the messiah come to subvert and overthrow the strictures of religious law itself. Zevi was defeated by the Ottomans not through crucifixion, but through conversion (which is much more dispiriting). A century later, and the Polish libertine Jacob Frank would declare that the French Revolution was the apocalypse, that Christianity and Judaism must be synthesized, and that he was the messiah. Compared to them, the Rebbe was positively orthodox (in all senses of the word). He also never claimed to be the messiah.

What all share is the sense that to exist is to be in exile. That is the fundamental lesson and gift of Judaism, born from the particularities of Jewish suffering. Diaspora is not just a political condition, or a social one; diaspora is an existential state. We are all marooned from our proper divinity, shattered off from G-d’s being—alone, disparate, isolated, alienated, atomized, solipsistic. If there is to be any redemption it’s in suturing up those shards, collecting those bits of light cleaved off from the body of G-d when He dwelled in resplendent fullness before the tragedy of creation. Such is the story of going home but never reaching that destination, yet continuing nevertheless. What gives this suffering such beauty, what redeems the brokenness of G-d, is the sense that it’s that very shattering that imbues all of us with holiness. What the German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin explains in On the Concept of History as the sacred reality that holds that “every second was the narrow gate, through which the Messiah could enter.”

6.When the Living God landed at Palisadoes Airport in Kingston, Jamaica, on April 21, 1966, he couldn’t immediately disembark from his Ethiopian Airlines flight from Addis Ababa. More than 100,000 people had gathered at the airport, the air thick with the sticky, sweet smell of ganja, the airstrip so overwhelmed with worshipers come to greet the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Elect of God, Power of the Trinity, of the House of Solomon, Amhara Branch, noble Ras Tafari Makonnen, that there was a fear the plane itself might tip over. The Ethiopian Emperor, incarnation of Jah and the second coming of Christ, remained in the plane for a few minutes until a local religious leader, the drummer Ras Mortimer Planno, was allowed to organize the emperor’s descent.

Finally, after several tense minutes, the crowd pulled back long enough for the emperor to disembark onto the tarmac, the first time that Selassie would set foot on the fertile soil of Jamaica, a land distant from the Ethiopia that he’d ruled over for 36 years (excluding from 1936 to 1941 when his home country was occupied by the Italian fascists). Jamaica was where he’d first been acknowledged as the messianic promise of the African diaspora. A year after his visit, while being interviewed by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Selassie was asked what he made of the claims of his status. “I told them clearly that I am a man,” he said, “that I am mortal…and that they should never make a mistake in assuming or pretending that a human being is emanated from a deity.” The thing with being a messiah, though, is that it does not depend on the consent of the worshiped whether or not they’re to be adored.

Syncretic and born from the Caribbean experience, and practiced from Kingstown, Jamaica, to Brixton, London, Rastafarianism is a mélange of Christian, Jewish, and uniquely African symbols and beliefs, with its own novel rhetoric concerning oppression and liberation. Popularized throughout the West because of the indelible catchiness of reggae, with its distinctive muted third beat, and the charisma of the musician Bob Marley who was the faith’s most famous ambassador, Rastafarianism is sometime offensively reduced in peoples’ minds to dreadlocks and spliff smoke. Ennis Barrington Edmonds places the faith’s true influence in its proper context, writing in Rastafari: From Outcasts to Culture Bearers that “the movement has spread around the world, especially among oppressed people of African origins… [among those] suffering some form of oppression and marginalization.”

Central to the narrative of Rastafarianism is the reluctant messiah Selassie, a life-long member of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. Selassie’s reign had been prophesized by the Jamaican Protestant evangelist Leonard Howell’s claim that the crowning of an independent Black king in an Africa dominated by European colonialism would mark the dawn of a messianic dispensation. A disciple of Black nationalist Marcus Garvey, whom Howell met when both lived in Harlem, the minister read Psalm 68:31’s injunction that “Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God” as being fulfilled in Selassie’s coronation. Some sense of this reverence is imparted by a Rastafarian named Reuben in Emily Robeteau’s Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora who explained that “Ethiopia was never conquered by outside forces. Ethiopia was the only independent country on the continent of Africa…a holy place.” Sacred Ethiopia, the land where the Ark of the Covenant was preserved. 

That the actual Selassie neither embraced Rastafarianism, nor was particularly benevolent in his own rule, and was indeed deposed by a revolutionary Marxist junta, is of no accounting.  Rather what threads through Rastafarianism is what Robeateu describes as a “defiant, anticolonialist mind-set, a spirit of protest… and a notion that Africa is the spiritual home to which they are destined to return.” Selassie’s biography bore no similarity to residents in the Trenchtown slum of Kingstown where the veneration of a distant African king began, but his name served as rebellion against all agents of Babylon in the hopes of a new Zion. Rastafarianism found in Selassie the messiah who was needed, and in their faith there is a proud way of spiritually repudiating the horrors of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. What their example reminds us of is that a powerful people have no need of a messiah, that he rather always dwells amongst the dispossessed, regardless of what his name is.

7.Among the Persian Sufis there is no blasphemy in staining your prayer rug red with shiraz. Popular throughout Iran and into central Asia, where the faith of Zoroaster and Mani had both once been dominant, Sufism drew upon those earlier mystical and poetic traditions and incorporated them into Islam. The faith of the dervishes, the piety of the wali, the Sufi tradition is that of Persian miniatures painted in stunning, colorful detail, of the poetry of Rumi and Hafez. Often shrouded in rough woolen coats and felt caps, the Sufi practice a mystical version of faith that’s not dissimilar to Jewish kabbalah or Christian hermeticism, an inner path that the 20th-century writer Aldous Huxley called the “perennial philosophy.” As with other antinomian faiths, the Sufis often skirt the line of what’s acceptable and what’s forbidden, seeing in heresy intimations of a deep respect for the divine.

A central poetic topoi of Sufi practice is what’s called shath, that is deliberately shocking utterances that exist to shake believers out of pious complacency, to awaken within them that which is subversive about God. One master of the form was Mansour al-Hallaj, born to Persian speaking parents (with a Zoroastrian grandfather) in the ninth century during the Abbasid Caliphate. Where most Sufi masters were content to keep their secrets preserved for initiates, al-Hallaj crafted a movement democratized for the mass of Muslims, while also generating a specialized language for speaking of esoteric truths, expressed in “antithesis, breaking down language into prepositional units, and paradox,” as Husayn ibn Mansur writes in Hallaj: Poems of a Sufi Martyr. Al-Hallaj’s knowledge and piety were deep—he had memorized the Koran by the age of 12 and he prostrated himself before a replica of Mecca’s Kaaba in his Baghdad garden—but so was his commitment to the radicalism of shath. When asked where Allah was, he once replied that the Lord was within his turban; on another occasion he answered that question by saying that God was under his cloak. Finally in 922, borrowing one of the 99 names of God, he declared “I am the Truth.”

The generally tolerant Abbasids decided that something should be done about al-Hallaj, and so he was tied to a post along the Tigris River, repeatedly punched in the face, lashed several times, decapitated, and finally his headless body was hung over the water. His last words were “Akbar al-Hallaj” —“Al-Hallaj is great.” An honorific normally offered for God, but for this self-declared heretical messiah his name and that of the Lord were synonyms. What’s sacrilegious about this might seem clear, save for that al-Hallaj’s Islamic piety was such that he interpreted such a claim as the natural culmination of Tawhid, the strictness of Islamic monotheism pushed to its logical conclusion—there is but one God, and everything is God, and we are all in God. Idries Shah explains the tragic failure of interpretation among religious authorities in The Sufis, writing that the “attempt to express a certain relationship in language not prepared for it causes the expression to be misunderstood.”  The court, as is obvious, did not agree.

If imagining yourself as the messiah could get you decapitated by the 10th century Abbasids, then in 20th-century Michigan it only got you institutionalized. Al-Hallaj implied that he was the messiah, but for the psychiatric patients in Milton Rokeach’s 1964 study The Three Christs of Ypsilanti each thought that they were the authentic messiah (with much displeasure ensuing when they meet). Based on three years of observation at the Ypsilanti State Hospital starting in 1959, Rokeach treated this trinity of paranoid schizophrenics. Initially Rokeach thought that the meeting of the Christs would disavow them all of their delusions, that the law of logical non-contradiction might mean anything to a psychotic. But the messiahs were steadfast in their faith—each was singular and the others were imposters. Then Rokeach and his graduate students introduced fake messages from other divine beings, in a gambit that the psychiatrist apologized for two decades later and would most definitely land him before an ethics board today. Finally Rokeach grants them the right to their insanities, each of the Christs of Ypsilanti continuing in their merry madness. “It’s only when a man doesn’t feel that he’s a man,” Rokeach concludes, “that he has to be a god.”

Maybe. Or maybe the true madness of the Michigan messiahs was that each thought themselves the singular God. They weren’t in error that each of them were the messiah, they were in error by denying that truth in their fellow patients. Al-Hallaj would have understood, declaring before his executioner that “all that matters for the ecstatic is that the Unique shall reduce him to Unity.” The Christs may have benefited more by Sufi treatment than psychotherapy. Clyde Benson, Joseph Cassel, and Leon Gabor all thought themselves to be God, but al-Hallaj knew that he was (and that You reading this are as well). Those three men may have been crazy, but al-Hallaj was a master of what the Buddhist teacher Wes Nisker calls “crazy wisdom.” In his guidebook The Essential Crazy Wisdom, he celebrates the sacraments of “clowns, jesters, tricksters, and holy fools,” who understand that “we live in a world of many illusions, that the emperor has no clothes, and that much of human belief and behavior is ritualized nonsense.” By contrast, the initiate in crazy wisdom, whether gnostic saint of Kabbalist rabbi, Sufi master or Zen monk, prods at false piety to reveal deeper truths underneath. “I saw my Lord with the eye of the heart,” al-Hallaj wrote in one poem, “I asked, ‘Who are You?’/He replied, ‘You.’”

8. “Bob” is the least-likely looking messiah. With his generic handsomeness, his executive hair-cut dyed black and tightly parted on the left, the avuncular pipe that jauntily sticks out of his tight smile, “Bob” looks like a stock image of a 1950’s pater familias (his name is always spelled with quotation marks). Like a clip-art version of Mad Men’s Don Draper, or Utah Sen. Mitt Romney. “Bob” is also not real (which may or may not distinguish him from other messiahs), but rather the central figure in the parody Church of the Sub-Genius. Supposedly a traveling salesman, J.R. “Bob” Dobbs had a vision of JHVH-1 (the central God in the church) in a homemade television set, and he then went on the road to evangelize. Founded by countercultural slacker heroes Ivan Stang and Philo Drummond in 1979 (though each claims that “Bob” was the actual primogeniture), the Church of the SubGenius is a veritable font of crazy wisdom, promoting the anarchist practice of “culture jamming” and parody in the promulgation of a faith where it’s not exactly clear what’s serious and what isn’t.

“Bob” preaches a doctrine of resistance against JHVH-1 (or Jehovah 1), the demiurge who seems as if a cross between Yahweh and a Lovecraftian elder god. JHVH-1 intended for “Bob” to encourage a pragmatic, utilitarian message about the benefits of a work ethic, but contra his square appearance, the messiah preferred to advocate that his followers pursue a quality known as slack. Never clearly defined (though its connotations are obvious), slack is to the Church of the SubGenius what the Tao is to Taoism or the Word is to Christianity, both the font of all reality and that which gives life meaning. Converts to the faith include luminaries like the underground cartoonist Robert Crumb, Pee-wee Herman Show creator Paul Reubens, founder of the Talking Heads David Byrne, and of course Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh. If there is any commandment that most resonates with the emotional tenor of the church, it’s in “Bob’s” holy commandment that says “Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke.”

The Church of the SubGenius is oftentimes compared to another parody religion that finds its origins from an identical hippie milieu, though first appearing almost two decades before in 1963, known by the ominous name of Discordianism. Drawing from Hellenic paganism, Discordianism holds as one of its central axioms in the Principia Discordia (written by founders Greg Hill and Kerry Wendell Thornley under the pseudonyms of Malaclypse the Younger and Omar Khayyam Ravenhurst) that the “Aneristic Principle is that of apparent order; the Eristic Principle is that of apparent disorder. Both order and disorder are man made concepts and are artificial divisions of pure chaos, which is a level deeper than is the level of distinction making.” Where other mythological systems see chaos as being tamed and subdued during ages primeval, the pious Discordian understands that disorder and disharmony remain the motivating structure of reality. To that end, the satirical elements—its faux scripture, its faux mythology, and its faux hierarchy—are paradoxically faithful enactments of its central metaphysics.

For those of a conspiratorial bent, Thornley first conceived of the movement after leaving the Marine Corps, and he was an associate of Lee Harvey Oswald. It sounds a little like one of the baroque plots in Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea’s The Illuminatus! Trilogy. A compendium of occult and conspiratorial lore whose narrative complexity recalls James Joyce or Thomas Pynchon, The Illuminatus! Trilogy was an attempt to produce for Discordianism what Dante crafted for Catholicism or John Milton for Protestantism: a work of literature commensurate with theology. Stang and Drummond, it should be said, were avid readers of The Illuminatus! Trilogy. “There are periods of history when the visions of madmen and dope fiends are a better guide to reality than the common-sense interpretation of data available to the so-called normal mind,” writes Wilson. “This is one such period, if you haven’t noticed already.” And how.

Inventing religions and messiahs wasn’t merely an activity for 20th-century pot smokers. Fearing the uncovering of the Christ who isn’t actually there can be seen as early as the 10th century, when the Iranian war-lord Abu Tahir al-Jannabi wrote about a supposed tract that referenced the “three imposters,” an atheistic denunciation of Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad. This equal opportunity apostasy, attacking all three children of Abraham, haunted monotheism over the subsequent millennium, as the infernal manuscript was attributed to several different figures. In the 13th century, Pope Gregory IX said that the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II had authored such a work (the latter denied it). Within Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th-century The Decameron there is reference to the “three imposters,” and in the 17th century, Sir Thomas Browne attributed the Italian Protestant refugee Bernardino Orchino with having composed a manifesto against the major monotheistic faiths.

What’s telling is that everyone feared the specter of atheism, but no actual text existed. They were scared of a possibility without an actuality, terrified of a dead God who was still alive. It wouldn’t be until the 18th century that writing would actually be supplied in the form of the French authored anonymous pamphlet of 1719 Treatise of the Three Imposters. That work, going through several different editions over the next century, drew on the naturalistic philosophy of Benedict Spinoza and Thomas Hobbes to argue against the supernatural status of religion. Its author, possibly the bibliographer Prosper Marchand, argued that the “attributes of the Deity are so far beyond the grasp of limited reason, that man must become a God himself before he can comprehend them.” One imagines that the prophets of the Church of the SubGenius and Discordianism, inventors of gods and messiahs aplenty, would concur. “Just because some jackass is an atheist doesn’t mean that his prophets and gods are any less false,” preaches “Bob” in The Book of the SubGenius.

9.The glistening promise of white-flecked SPAM coated in greasy aspic as it slips out from it’s corrugated blue can, plopping onto a metal plate with a satisfying thud. A pack of Lucky Strikes, with its red circle in a field of white, crinkle of foil framing a raggedly opened end, sprinkle of loose tobacco at the bottom as a last cigarette is fingered out. Heinz Baked Beans, sweet in their tomato gravy, the yellow label with its picture of a keystone slick with the juice from within. Coca-Cola—of course Coca-Cola—its ornate calligraphy on a cherry red can, the saccharine nose pinch within. Products of American capitalism, the greatest and most all-encompassing faith of the modern world, left behind on the Vanuatuan island of Tanna by American servicemen during the Second World War.

More than 1,000 miles northwest from Australia, Tanna was home to airstrips and naval bases, and for the local Melanesians, the 300,000 GIs housed on their island indelibly marked their lives. Certainly the first time most had seen the descent of airplanes from the blue of the sky, the first time most had seen jangling Jeeps careening over the paths of Tanna’s rainforests, the first time most had seen Naval destroyers on the pristine Pacific horizon. Building upon a previous cult that had caused trouble for the jointly administered colonial British-French Condominium, the Melanesians claimed that the precious cargo of the Americans could be accessed through the intercession of a messiah known as John Frum—believed to have possibly been a serviceman who’d introduced himself as “John from Georgia.”

Today the John Frum cult still exists in Tanna. A typical service can include the rising of the flags of the United States, the Marine Corps, and the state of Georgia, while shirtless youths with “USA” painted on their chests march with faux-riffles made out of sticks (other “cargo cults” are more Anglophilic, with one worshiping Prince Philip). Anthropologists first noted the emergence of the John Frum religion in the immediate departure of the Americans, with Melanesians apparently constructing landing strips and air traffic control towers from bamboo, speaking into left-over tin cans as if they were radio controls, all to attract back the quasi-divine Americans and their precious “cargo.” Anthropologist Holger Jebens in After the Cult: Perceptions of Other and Self in West New Britain (Papua New Guinea) describes “cargo cults” as having as their central goal the acquisition of “industrially manufactured Western goods brought by ship or aeroplane, which, from the Melanesian point of view, are likely to have represented a materialization of the superior and initially secret power of the whites.” In this interpretation, the recreated ritual objects molded from bamboo and leaves are offerings to John Frum so that he will return from the heavenly realm of America bearing precious cargo.

If all this sounds sort of dodgy, than you’ve reason to feel uncomfortable. More recently, some anthropologists have questioned the utility of the phrase “cargo cult,” and the interpretation of the function of those practices. Much of the previous model, mired in the discipline’s own racist origins, posits the Melanesians and their beliefs as “primitive,” with all of the attendant connotations to that word. In the introduction to Beyond Primitivism: Indigenous Religious Traditions and Modernity, Jacob K. Olupona writes that some scholars have defined the relationship between ourselves and the Vanuatuans by “challenging the notion that there is a fundamental difference between modernity and indigenous beliefs.” Easy for an anthropologist espying the bamboo landing field and assuming that what was being enacted was a type of magical conspicuous consumption, a yearning on the part of the Melanesians to take part in our own self-evidently superior culture. The only thing that’s actually self-evident in such a view, however, is a parochial and supremacist positioning that gives little credit to unique religious practices. Better to borrow the idea of allegory in interpreting the “cargo cults,” both the role which that way of thinking may impact the symbolism of their rituals, but also what those practices could reflect about our own culture.

Peter Worsley writes in The Trumpet Shall Sound: A Study of “Cargo” Cults in Melanesia that “a very large part of world history could be subsumed under the rubric of religious heresies, enthusiastic creeds and utopias,” and this seems accurate. So much of prurient focus is preoccupied with the material faith. Consequently there is a judgment of the John Frum religion as being superficial. Easy for those of us who’ve never been hungry to look down on praying for food, easy for those with access to medicine to pretend that materialism is a vice. Mock praying for SPAM at your own peril; compared to salvation, I at least know what the former is. Christ’s first miracle in the Gospel of John, after all, was the production of loaves and fishes, a prime instance of generating cargo. John Frum, whether he is real or not, is a radical figure, for while a cursory glance at his cult might seem that what he promises is capitalism, it’s actually the exact opposite. For those who pray to John Frum are not asking for work, or labor, or a Protestant work ethic, but rather delivery from bondage; they are asking to be shepherded into a post-scarcity world. John Frum is not intended to deliver us to capitalism, but rather to deliver us from it. John Frum is not an American, but he is from that more perfect America that exists only in the Melanesian spirit.   

10.On Easter of 1300, within the red Romanesque walls of the Cistercian monastery of Chiaravelle, a group of Umiliati Sisters were convened by Maifreda da Pirovano at the grave of the Milanese noblewoman Guglielma. Having passed two decades before, the mysterious Guglielma was possibly the daughter of King Premysl Otakar I of Bohemia, having come to Lombardy with her son following her husband’s death. Wandering the Italian countryside as a beguine, Guglielma preached an idiosyncratic gospel, claiming that she was an incarnation of the Holy Spirit, and that her passing would incur the third historical dispensation, destroying the patriarchal Roman Catholic Church in favor of a final covenant to be administered through women. If Christ was the new Adam come to overturn the Fall, then his bride was Guglielma, the new Eve, who rectified the inequities of the old order and whose saving grace came for humanity, but particularly for women.

Now a gathering of nuns convened at her inauspicious shrine, in robes of ashen gray and scapulars of white. There Maifreda would perform a Mass, transubstantiating the wafer and wine into the body and blood of Christ. The Guglielmites would elect Maifreda the first Pope of their Church. Five hundred years after the supposed election of the apocryphal Pope Joan, and this obscure order of women praying to a Milanese aristocrat would confirm Maifreda as the Holy Mother of their faith. That same year the Inquisition would execute 30 Guglielmites—including la Papessa. “The Spirit blows where it will and you hear the sound of it,” preached Maifreda, “but you know now whence it comes or whither it goes.”

Maifreda was to Guglielma as Paul was to Christ: apostle, theologian, defender, founder. She was the great explicator of the “true God and true human in the female sex…Our Lady is the Holy Spirit.” Strongly influenced by a heretical strain of Franciscans influenced by the Sicilian mystic Joachim of Fiore, Maifreda held that covenantal history could be divided tripartite, with the first era of Law and God the Father, the second of Grace and Christ the Son, and the third and coming age of Love and the Daughter known as the Holy Spirit. Barbara Newman writes in From Virile Woman to WomanChrist: Studies in Medieval Religion and Literature that after Guglielma’s “ascension the Holy Spirit would found a new Church, superseding the corrupt institution in Rome.” For Guglielma’s followers, drawn initially from the aristocrats of Milan but increasingly popular among more lowly women, these doctrines allowed for self-definition and resistance against both Church and society. Guglielma was a messiah and she arrived for women, and her prophet was Maifreda.

Writing of Guglielma, Newman says that “According to one witness… she had come in the form of a woman because if she had been male, she would have been killed like Christ, and the whole world would have perished.” In a manner she was killed, some 20 years after her death when her bones were disinterred from Chiaravelle, and they were placed on the pyre where Maifreda would be burnt alongside two of her followers. Pope Boniface VIII would not abide another claimant to the papal throne—especially from a woman. But even while Maifreda would be immolated, the woman to whom she gave the full measure of sacred devotion would endure, albeit at the margins. Within a century Guglielma would be repurposed into St. Guglielma, a pious woman whom suffered under the false accusation of heresy, and who was noted as particularly helpful in interceding against migraines. But her subversive import wasn’t entirely dampened over the generations. When the Renaissance Florentine painter Bonifacio Bembo was commissioned to paint an altarpiece around 1445 in honor of the Council of Florence (an unsuccessful attempt at rapprochement between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches) he depicted God crowning Christ and the Holy Spirit. Christ appears as can be expected, but the Holy Spirit has Guglielma’s face.

Maifreda survived in her own hidden way as well, and also through the helpful intercession of Bembo. The altar that he crafted had been commissioned by members of the powerful Visconti family, leaders in Milan’s anti-papal Ghibelline party, and they also requested the artist to produce 15 decks of Tarot cards. The so-called Visconti-Sforza deck, the oldest surviving example of the form, doesn’t exist in any complete set, having been broken up and distributed to various museums. Several of these cards would enter the collection of the American banker J.P. Morgan, where they’d be stored in his Italianate lower Manhattan mansion. A visitor can see cards from the Visconti-Sforza deck that include the fool in his jester’s cap and mottled pants, the skeletal visage of death, and most mysterious of all, il Papesa—the female Pope. Bembo depicts a regal woman, in ash-gray robes and white scapular, the papal tiara upon her head. In the 1960s, the scholar Gertrude Moakley observed that the female pope’s distinctive dress indicates her order: she was an Umilati. Maifreda herself was first cousins with a Visconti, the family preserving the memory of the female pope in Tarot. On Madison Avenue you can see a messiah who for centuries was shuffled between any number of other figures, never sure of when she might be dealt again. Messiahs are like that, often hidden—and frequently resurrected.  

Bonus Links:—Ten Ways to Live ForeverTen Ways to Change Your GodTen Ways to Look at the Color Black

Image Credit: Wikipedia.

A Liturgy of Language: On Don DeLillo’s ‘The Silence’

1. “Man has every right to be anxious about his fate so long as he feels himself to be lost and lonely in the midst of the mass of created things.” — Père Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Hymn of the Universe 

In the opening chapter of The Silence, the new novel by Don DeLillo, Jim Kripps and Tessa Berens are flying home. Turbulence will come soon; the plane will go down. But first there is a steadiness: “Here, in the air, much of what the couple said to each other seemed to be a function of some automated process, remarks generated by the nature of airline travel itself. None of the ramblings of people in rooms, in restaurants, where major motion is stilled by gravity, talk free-floating.” All of their speech echoes the novel’s opening line: “Words, sentences, numbers, distance to destination.” DeLillo’s liturgy has always been one of language.

2.“I think my work has always been informed by mystery; the final answer, if there is one at all, is outside the book. My books are open-ended. I would say that mystery in general rather than the occult is something that weaves in and out of my work. I can’t tell you where it came from or what it leads to. Possibly it is the natural product of a Catholic upbringing.” — DeLillo, Rolling Stone interview (1988)

The Catholic kid from the Bronx. The son of immigrants from Abruzzo. The student who maybe slept through his four years at Cardinal Hayes, but who then went to the Jesuits at Fordham, where they taught him “to be a failed ascetic.” 

One of my former editors at America magazine, the Jesuit review, told me that he and DeLillo shared a professor at Fordham, and he’d gotten a peek at DeLillo’s term papers. At Fordham, DeLillo would have read Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the French Jesuit paleontologist whose theological views of evolution—past and future—later permeated DeLillo’s novels. Teilhard’s influence comes first with Gary Harkness, the running back turned desert monastic in End Zone. Harkness’s fever-stricken body seems to become fully spirit at the end of the novel, but the Jesuit’s presence arrives more explicitly in the Teilhardian titled Point Omega.

3.“I studied the work of Teilhard de Chardin…He went to China, an outlaw priest, China, Mongolia, digging for bones…He said that human thought is alive, it circulates. And the sphere of collective human thought, this is approaching the final term, the last flare.” 

***

“Father Teilhard knew this, the omega point. A leap out of our biology. Ask yourself this question. Do we have to be human forever? Consciousness is exhausted. Back now to inorganic matter. This is what we want. We want to be stones in a field.” 

— Point Omega

DeLillo has said that for a Catholic, “nothing is too important to discuss or think about, because he’s raised with the idea that he will die any minute now and that if he doesn’t live his life in a certain way this death is simply an introduction to an eternity of pain. This removes a hesitation that a writer might otherwise feel when he’s approaching important subjects, eternal subjects. I think for a Catholic these things are part of ordinary life.”

The Silence, from start to finish, feels like an overcast book—a night book, taking place on that holy day of the Super Bowl. Friends—Martin, Diane, and Max—are watching the spectacle of the game, until the “images onscreen began to shake.” The disruption “formed abstract patterns that dissolved into a rhythmic pulse, a series of elementary units that seemed to thrust forward and then recede.” DeLillo avoids conflagrations; his end of the world is an absence of sound. A pulled plug. A flipped switch.

Why should we expect more from him? From the world?

4.“All pessimistic representations of the earth’s last days—whether in terms of cosmic catastrophe, biological disruptions or simply arrested growth or senility—have this in common: that they take the characteristics and conditions of our individual and elemental ends and extend them without correction to life as a whole.” — Père Teilhard, The Phenomenon of Man

DeLillo’s characters have lost their faith. They are anatheist—they seek faith after faith. “The important thing about the paranoia in my characters,” DeLillo has said, “is that it operates a form of religious awe. It’s something old, a leftover from some forgotten part of the soul.” 

The characters watching the Super Bowl together are left with nothing without the game. Max, bored, speaks in contemporary tongues: “Ground game, ground game, crowd chanting, stadium rocking.” The silence surrounds them outside. No cars, trucks, or traffic. The characters wonder: “Is everyone at home or in darkened bars and social clubs, trying to watch the game? Think of the many millions of blank screens. Try to imagine the disabled phones.” 

It recalls lines from Wyatt in DeLillo’s play, The Day Room: “I used to imagine, listening to a ballgame, as a kid, on the radio, that when I turned the radio off, in the seventh inning, say, with two out, men on first and third, that everything sort of shut down at that point. It simply stopped.”

When our power goes out at home, we soon wonder: are we the only ones? There must be others. There’s comfort in that idea. 

5.“The more one reflects on this eventuality….one comes to the conclusion that the great enigma presented to our minds by the phenomenon of man is not so much how life could ever have been kindled on earth as how it could ever be extinguished on earth without finding some continuance elsewhere.” — Père Teilhard, Hymn of the Universe 

The game off, the silence surrounding them in the apartment, Diane quotes a line from Finnegans Wake, “a book I’ve been reading on and off, here and there, for what seems like forever”: “Ere the sockson looked at the dure.” 

Outside, people “began to appear in the streets, warily at first and then in a spirit of release, walking, looking, wondering, women and men, an incidental cluster of adolescents, all escorting each other through the mass insomnia of this inconceivable time.” 

The end will take us all by surprise, but that there will be an end is not surprising. DeLillo is the laureate of this unsettling truth.

6.“Man came silently into the world.” — Père Teilhard, The Phenomenon of Man

DeLillo knows we will also leave the world in silence.

Bonus Links:—End Zones: On Football, Sports Scandals, and Don DeLilloThe Novel Still Exists: The Millions Interviews Don DeLilloFaith in Appearances: Don DeLillo’s ‘The Angel Esmeralda’Oil Plumes and White Noise: On Rereading DeLillo

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Messud, Boland, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Claire Messud, Eavan Boland, and more—that are publishing this week.

Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then become a member today.

Kant’s Little Prussian Head and Other Reasons Why I Write by Claire Messud

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Kant’s Little Prussian Head and Other Reasons Why I Write: “In this moving and evocative essay collection, novelist Messud (The Burning Girl) reflects on family, art, and why she writes. Her essays conjure up an itinerant 1970s childhood—moving from the U.S. to Sydney, Australia; visits with her maternal grandmother in Toronto; and summers with her paternal grandparents in Toulon, France. She illuminates the two women who shaped her—her fiercely traditional French Catholic ‘spinster aunt,’ and her mother, discontented with having given up career for family. Reflecting on family vacation trips to the world’s incipient hot spots—in Ethiopia, Guatemala, and Sri Lanka, among others—she discovers that regardless of differing ideas or ‘strangenesses of culture… always at the heart are the ordinary people, and there is just life, being lived’—good preparation for becoming a novelist, she says. Art, she writes, has the power ‘to alter our interior selves,’ and she offers nuanced appreciations of, among others, Camus, like her father a Frenchman born in colonial Algeria; Valeria Luiselli, who tries to find new ways to ‘document’ the present; and Marlene Dumas, a figurative painter ‘driven by gesture, and serendipity… and by the confluence of diverse inspirations.’ These intimate, contemplative and probing essays reveal Messud’s rich inner life and generosity of spirit.”

Ramifications by Daniel Saldaña París (translated by Christina MacSweeney)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Ramifications: “In Mexican writer París’s strange and elegant latest (after Among Strange Victims), the unnamed narrator toggles between past and present from the confines of his bed, contemplating his childhood, his father’s death, his relationship with his older sister, and the disappearance of their mother. The despondent narrator claims to never leave his bed and holds onto the self-absorption of his childhood, when he cultivated an ‘egocentric theocracy’ and felt he was god’s ‘favorite human being.’ He was 10 when his mother, Teresa, walked out on the family in 1994, and afterward the narrator grew closer to his sister, Mariana, while obsessively searching for the letter Teresa had left their father. As an adult, the narrator finally discovers the letter, along with another sent from Chiapas, each of which only brings him more angst and confusion, as he remembers the rumors about her activity that circulated when he was a child (did his mother join the Zapatistas in the jungles of Chiapas? Was she a murderer?), causing his social life to crumble as he spent hours in a closet he calls his ‘Zero Luminosity Capsule.’ Along the way, París brilliantly explores memory, masculinity, and familial drama in equal measure. The result is an affecting account of arrested development.”

The Lost Shtetl by Max Gross

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Lost Shtetl: “Gross’s lively and imaginative debut novel (after the memoir The Mensch Handbook) portrays a Jewish village in eastern Poland that’s been isolated throughout the 20th century. The residents of Kreskol survive pogroms and the hateful superstitions of Christian neighbors (‘For generations the priests had said that we poisoned drinking wells…. Or, alternatively, that we used the blood of Christian children in our matzahs, depending on which priest you consulted’), and remain unaware of modern technology and culture. Outside contact is limited to occasional visits from a Roma caravan until a recently divorced Kreskol woman runs away, her ex-husband follows, and baker’s apprentice Yankel Lewinkopf is sent by the rabbi to find them. Traveling with the Roma, Yankel reaches the city of Smolskie, where his confusion and strange behavior land him in a mental ward. Doctors think Yankel may be delusional when he talks about his village, while Yankel has an equally hard time believing the doctors who tell him about the Holocaust. Finally, Yankel is helicoptered back home, accompanied by officials and reporters, and Kreskol must contend with its new fame and all the attendant complications. The narrator, a present-day villager, is well versed in Jewish traditions and human foibles, alternately reminiscent of early Isaac Bashevis Singer and a Catskills comedian. Gross’s entertaining, sometimes disquieting tale delivers laugh-out-loud moments and deep insight on human foolishness, resilience, and faith.”

The Blind Light by Stuart Evers

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Blind Light: “This engrossing tale from Evers (Your Father Sends His Love) revolves around two men, Drum Moore and Jim Carter, who meet in 1959 at a civil defense base known as Doom Town, where they work on nuclear war simulations. The men’s friendship begins during a game of cards and extends over five decades as they each marry and have children. In the 1970s, they arrange to live on adjacent properties and share a bunker in event of nuclear war. Over the course of this long setup in which the families are brought together, Evers explores the lives of Drum’s wife, Gwen, and their children, Nate and Anneka. Gwen’s ache is palpable on the page as she considers an affair with a writer. Anneka, meanwhile, leaves home in her late teens in 1980, following an incident involving James’s son in the bunker, which Drum tries to make her believe was a dream. Later, Nate, now in his 20s, has relationships with men and women. Evers’s narrative strategy often asks readers to recalibrate and fill in the gaps—divorces and other pivotal events happen off-page—but the effort is worthwhile. With its slow burn, Evers’s vivid, perceptive chronicle of secrets and desperation satisfies.”

Also on shelves this week: Fractures by Carlos Andrés Gómez and The Historians by Eavan Boland.

Bonus Links:
A Year in Reading: Claire Messud (2015)
A Year in Reading: Claire Messud (2013)

A Fraternity of Dreamers

“There is no syllable one can speak that is not filled with tenderness and terror, that is not, in one of those languages, the mighty name of a god.” —Jorge Luis Borges, “The Library of Babel” (1941)

“Witness Mr. Henry Bemis, a charter member in the fraternity of dreamers. A bookish little man whose passion is the printed page…He’ll have a world all to himself…without anyone.” —Rod Serling, “Time Enough at Last,” The Twilight Zone (1959)

 When entering a huge library—whether its rows of books are organized under a triumphant dome, or they’re encased within some sort of vaguely Scandinavian structure that’s all glass and light, or they simply line dusty back corridors—I must confess that I’m often overwhelmed with a massive surge of anxiety. One must be clear about the nature of this fear—it’s not from some innate dislike of libraries, the opposite actually. The nature of my trepidation is very exact, though as far as I know there’s no English word for it (it seems like some sort of sentiment that the Germans might have an untranslatable phrase for). This fear concerns the manner in which the enormity of a library’s collection forces me to confront the sheer magnitude of all that I don’t know, all that I will never know, all that I can never know. When walking into the red-brick modernist hanger of the British Library, which houses all of those brittle books within a futuristic glass cube that looks like a robot’s heart, or the neo-classical Library of Congress with its green patina roof, or Pittsburgh’s large granite Carnegie Library main branch smoked dark with decades of mill exhaust and kept guard by a bronze statue of William Shakespeare, my existential angst is the same. If I start to roughly estimate the number of books per row, the number of rows per room, the number of rooms per floor, my readerly existential angst can become severe. This symptom can even be present in smaller libraries; I felt it alike in the small-town library of Washington, Penn., on Lincoln Avenue and in the single room of the Southeast Library of Washington D.C. on Pennsylvania Avenue. Intrinsic to my fear are those intimations of mortality whereby even a comparatively small collection must make me confront the fact that in a limited and hopefully not-too-short life I will never be able to read even a substantial fraction of that which has been written. All those novels, poems, and plays; all those sentiments, thoughts, emotions, dreams, wishes, aspirations, desires, and connections—completely inaccessible because of the sheer fact of finitude.

Another clarification should be in order—my fear isn’t the same as worrying that I’ll be found out for having never read any number of classical or canonical books (or those of the pop, paper-back variety either). There’s a scene in David Lodge’s classic and delicious campus satire Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses in which a group of academics play a particularly cruel game, as academics are apt to do, that asks participants to name a venerable book they’re expected to have read but have never opened. Higher point-values are awarded the more canonical a text is; what the neophytes don’t understand is that the trick is to mention something standard enough that they still can get the points for having not read it (like Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy) but not so standard that they’ll look like an idiot for having never read it. One character—a recently hired English professor—is foolish enough to admit that he skipped Hamlet in high school. The other academics are stunned into silence. His character is later denied tenure. So, at the risk of making the same error, I’ll lay it out and admit to any number of books that the rest of you have probably read, but that I only have a glancing Wikipedia familiarity with: Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, Don DeLillo’s White Noise, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. I’ve never read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which is ridiculous and embarrassing, and I feel bad about it. I’ve also never read Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, though I don’t feel bad about that (however I’m wary that I’ve not read the vast bulk of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books). Some of those previously mentioned books I want to read, others I don’t; concerning the later category, some of those titles make me feel bad about my resistance to them, others I haven’t thought twice about (I’ll let you guess individual titles’ statuses).

I offer this contrition only as a means of demonstrating that my aforementioned fear goes beyond simply imposter syndrome. There are any number of reasons why we wish we’d read certain things, and that we feel attendant moroseness for not having done so—the social stigma of admitting such things, a feeling of not being educated enough or worldly enough, the simple fact that there might be stuff that we’d like to read, but inclination, will power, or simply time has gotten in the way. The anxiety that libraries can sometimes give me is of a wholly more cosmic nature, for something ineffable affects my sense of self when I realize that the majority of human interaction, expression, and creativity shall forever be unavailable to me. Not only is it impossible for me to read the entirety of literature, it’s impossible to approach even a fraction of it—a fraction of a fraction of it. Some several blocks from where I now write is the Library of Congress, the largest collection in the world, which according to its website contains 38 million books (that’s excluding other printed material from posters to pamphlets). If somebody read a book a day, which of course depends on the length of the book, it would take somebody about 104,109 years and change to read everything within that venerable institution (ignoring the fact that about half-a-million to a million new titles are published every year in English alone, and that I was also too unconcerned to factor in leap years).

If you’re budgeting your time, may I suggest the British Library, which though it has a much larger collection of other textual ephemera, has a more manageable 13,950,000 books, which would take you a breezy 38,291 years to get through. If you’re of a totalizing personality, according to Google engineers from a 2010 study estimating the number of books ever written, you’ll have to wade through 129 million volumes of varying quality. That would take you 353,425 years to read. Of course this ignores all of that which has been written but not bound within a book—all of the jottings, the graffiti, the listings, the diaries, the text messages, the letters, and the aborted novels for which the authors have wisely or unwisely hit “Delete.” Were some hearty and vociferous reader to consume one percent of all that’s ever been written—one percent of that one percent—and then one percent of that one percent—they’d be the single most well-read individual to ever live. When we reach the sheer scale of how much human beings have expressed, have written, we enter the realm of metaphors that call for comparisons to grains of sand on the beach or stars in our galaxy. We depart the realm of literary criticism and enter that of cosmology. No wonder we require curated reading lists.

For myself, there’s an unhealthy compulsion towards completism in the attendant tsuris over all that I’ll never be able to read. Perhaps there is something stereotypically masculine in the desire to conquer all of those unread worlds, something toxic in that need. After all, in those moment’s of readerly ennui there’s little desire for the experience, little need for quality, only that desire to cross titles off of some imagined list. Assume it were even possible to read all that has been thought and said, whether sweetness and light or bile and heft, and consider what purpose that accomplishment would even have. Vaguely nihilistic the endeavor would be, reminding me of that old apocryphal story about the conqueror, recounted by everyone from the 16th-century theologian John Calvin to Hans Gruber in Die Hard, that “Alexander the Great…wept, as well indeed he might, because there were no more world’s to conquer,” as the version of that anecdote is written in Washington Irving’s 1835 collection Salmagundi: Or, The Whim-whams and Opinions of Launcelot Langstaff, Esq. and Others. Poor Alexander of Macedon, son of Philip, educated in the Athenian Lyceum by Aristotle, and witness to bejeweled Indian war-elephants bathing themselves on the banks of the Indus and the lapis lazuli encrusted Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the gleaming, white pyramids at Cheops and the massive gates of Persepolis. Alexander’s map of the world was dyed red as his complete possession—he’d conquered everything that there was to be conquered. And so, following the poisoning of his lover Hephaestion, he holed up in Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian palace, and he binged for days. Then he died. An irony though, for Alexander hadn’t conquered, or even been to all the corners of the world. He’d never sat on black sand beaches in Hokkaido with the Ainu, he’d never drank ox-blood with the Masai or hunted the giant Moa with the Maori, nor had he been on a walkabout in the Dreamtime with the Anangu Pitjantjatjara or stood atop Ohio’s Great Serpent Mound or seen the grimacing stone-heads of the Olmec. What myopia, what arrogance, what hubris—not to conquer the world, but to think that you had. Humility is warranted whether you’re before the World or the Library.

Alexander’s name is forever associated not just with martial ambitions, but with voluminous reading lists and never-ending syllabi as well, due to the library in the Egyptian city to which he gave his name, what historian Roy MacLeod describes in The Library of Alexandria: Centre of Learning in the Ancient World as “unprecedented in kingly purpose, certainly unique in scope and scale…destined to be far more ambitious [an] undertaking than a mere repository of scrolls.” The celebrated Library of Alexandria, the contents of which are famously lost to history, supposedly confiscated every book from each ship that came past the lighthouse of the city, had its scribes make a copy of the original, and then returned the counterfeit to the owners. This bit of bibliophilic chicanery was instrumental to the mission of the institution—the Library of Alexandria wasn’t just a repository of legal and religious documents, nor even a collection of foundational national literary works, but supposedly an assembly that in its totality would match all of the knowledge in the world, whether from Greece and Egypt, Persia and India. Matthew Battles writes in Library: An Unquiet History that Alexandria was “the first library with universal aspirations; with its community of scholars, it became a prototype of the university of the modern era.” Alexander’s library yearned for completism as much as its namesake had yearned to control all parts of the world; the academy signified a new, quixotic emotion—the desire to read, know, and understand everything. By virtue of it being such a smaller world at the time (at least as far as any of the librarians working there knew) such an aspiration was even theoretically possible.

“The library of Alexandria was comprehensive, embracing books of all sort from everywhere, and it was public, open to anyone with fitting scholarly or literary qualifications,” writes Lionel Casson in Libraries in the Ancient World. The structure overseen by the Ptolemaic Dynasty, who were Alexander’s progeny, was much more of a wonder of the ancient world than the Lighthouse in the city’s harbor. Within its walls, whose appearance is unclear to us, Aristophanes of Byzantium was the first critic to divide poetry into lines, 70 Jews convened by Ptolemy II translated the Hebrew Torah into the Greek Septuagint, and the geographer Eratosthenes correctly calculated the circumference of the Earth. Part of the allure of Alexandria, especially to any bibliophile in this fraternity of dreamers, is the fact that the vast bulk of what was kept there is entirely lost to history. Her card catalogue may have included lost classical works like Aristotle’s second book of Poetics on comedy (a plot point in Umberto Eco’s medieval noir The Name of the Rose), Protagoras’s essay “On the Gods,” the prophetic books of the Sibyllines, Cato the Elder’s seven-book history of Rome, the tragedies of the rhetorician Cicero, and even the comic mock-epic Magrites supposedly written by Homer.

More than the specter of all that has been lost, Alexandria has become synonymous with the folly of anti-intellectualism, as its destruction (variously, and often erroneously, attributed to Romans, Christians, and Muslims) is a handy and dramatic narrative to illustrate the eclipse of antiquity. Let’s keep some perspective though—let’s crunch some numbers again. According to Robin Lane Fox in The Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian the “biggest library…was said to have grown to nearly 500,000 volumes.” Certainly not a collection to scoff at, but Alexander’s library, which drew from the furthest occident to the farthest orient, has only a sixth of all the books in the Library of Congress’s Asian Collection; Harvard University’s Widener Library has 15 times as many books (and that’s not including the entire system); the National Library of Iran, housed not far from where Alexander himself died, has 30 times the volumes than did that ancient collection. The number of books held by the Library of Alexandria would have been perfectly respectable in the collection of a small midwestern liberal arts college. By contrast, according to physicist Barak Shoshany on a Quora question, if the 5 zettabytes of the Internet were to be printed, then the resultant stack of books would have to fit on a shelf “4×10114×1011 km or about 0.04 light years thick,” the last volume floating somewhere near the Oort Cloud. Substantially larger shelves would be needed, it goes without saying, than whatever was kept in the storerooms of Alexandria with that cool Mediterranean breeze curling the edges of those papyri.

To read all of those scrolls, codices, and papyri at Alexandria would take our intrepid ideal reader a measly 1,370 years to get through. More conservative historians estimate that the Library of Alexandria may have housed only 40,000 books—if that is the case, then it would take you a little more than a century to read (if you’re still breezing through a book a day). That’s theoretically the lifetime of someone gifted with just a bit of longevity. All of this numeric stuff misses the point, though. It’s all just baseball card collecting, because what the Library of Alexandria represented—accurately or not—was the dream that it might actually be possible to know everything worth knowing. But since the emergence of modernity some half-millennia ago, and the subsequent fracturing of disciplines into ever more finely tuned fields of study, it’s been demonstrated just how much of a fantasy that goal is. There’s a certain disposition that’s the intellectual equivalent of Alexander, and our culture has long celebrated that personality type—the Renaissance Man (and it always seems gendered thus). Just as there was always another land to be conquered over the next mountain range, pushing through the Kush and the Himalayan foothills, so too does the Renaissance Man have some new type of knowledge to master, say geophysics or the conjugation of Akkadian verbs. Nobody except for Internet cranks or precocious and delusional autodidacts actually believes in complete mastery of all fields of knowledge anymore; by contrast, for all that’s negative about graduate education, one clear and unironic benefit is that it taught me the immensity and totality of all of the things that I don’t know.

Alexandria’s destruction speaks to an unmistakable romance about that which we’ll never be able to read, but it also practically says something about a subset of universal completism—our ability to read everything that has survived from a given historical period. By definition it’s impossible to actually read all of classical literature, since the bulk of it is no longer available, but to read all of Greek and Roman writing which survives—that is doable. It’s been estimated that less than one percent of classical literature has survived to the modern day, with Western cultural history sometimes reading as a story of both luck and monks equally preserving that inheritance. It would certainly be possible for any literate individual to read all of Aristophanes’s plays, all of Plato’s dialogues, all of Juvenal’s epigrams.  Harvard University Press’s venerable Loeb Classical Library, preserving Greek and Latin literature in their distinctive minimalist green and red covered volumes, currently has 530 titles available for purchase. Though it doesn’t encompass all that survives from the classical period, it comes close. An intrepid and dogged reader would be able to get through them, realistically, in a few years (comprehension is another matter).

If you need to budget your time, all of Anglo-Saxon writing that survives, that which didn’t get sewn into the back-binding of some inherited English psalm book or found itself as kindling in the 16th century when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, is contained across some four major poetic manuscripts, though 100 more general manuscripts endure. The time period that I’m a specialist in, which now goes by the inelegant name of the “early modern period” but which everybody else calls the “Renaissance,” is arguably marked as the first time period for which no scholar would be capable of reading every primary source that endures. Beneficiary of relative proximity to our own time, and a preponderance of titles gestated through the printing press, it would be impossible for anyone to read everything produced in those centuries. For every William Shakespeare play, there are hundreds of yellowing political pamphlets about groups with names like “Muggletonians;” for every John Milton poem, a multitude of religious sermons on subjects like double predestination. You have to be judicious in what you choose to read, since one day you’ll be dead. This reality should be instrumental in any culture wars détente—canons exist as a function of pragmatism.   

The canon thus functions as a kind of short-cut to completism (if you want to read through all of the Penguin Classics editions with their iconic black covers and their little avian symbol on the cover, that’s a meager 1,800 titles to get through). Alexandria’s delusion about gathering all of that which has been written, and perhaps educating oneself from that corpus, drips down through the history of Western civilization. We’ve had no shortage of Renaissance Men who, even if they hadn’t read every book ever written, perhaps at least roughly know where all of them could be found in the card catalogue. Aristotle was a polymath who not only knew the location of those works, but credibly wrote many of them (albeit all that remains are student lecture notes), arguably the founder of fields as diverse as literary criticism to dentistry. In the Renaissance, whereby it could be assumed that the attendant Renaissance Man would be most celebrated, there was a preponderance of those for whom it was claimed that they had mastered all disciplines that could be mastered (and were familiar with the attendant literature review). Leonardo da Vinci, Blaise Pascal, Athanasius Kircher, Isaac Newton, and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz have all been configured as Renaissance Men, their writings respectively encompassing not just art, mathematics, theology, physics, and philosophy, but also aeronautics, gambling, sinology, occultism, and diplomacy as well.

Stateside both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson (a printer and a book collector) are classified as such, and more recently figures as varied as Nikola Tesla and Noam Chomsky are sometimes understood as transdisciplinary polymaths (albeit ones for whom it would be impossible to have read all that can be read, even if it appears as such). Hard to disentangle the canonization of such figures from the social impulse to be “well read,” but in the more intangible and metaphysical sense, beyond wanting to seem smart because you want to seem smart, the icon of the Renaissance Man can’t help but appeal to that completism, that desire for immortality that is prodded by the anxiety that libraries inculcate in me. My patron saint of polymaths is the 17th-century German Jesuit Kircher, beloved by fabulists from Eco to Jorge Louis Borges, for his writings that encompassed everything from mathematics to hieroglyphic translation. Paula Findlen writes in the introduction to her anthology Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything that he was the “greatest polymath of an encyclopedic age,” yet when his rival Renaissance Man Leibnitz first dipped into the voluminous mass of Kirchermania he remarked that the priest “understands nothing.”

Really, though, that’s true of all people. I’ve got a PhD and I can’t tell you how lightbulbs work (unless they fit into Puritan theology somehow). Kircher’s translations of Egyptian were almost completely and utterly incorrect. As was much of what else he wrote on, from minerology to Chinese history. He may have had an all-encompassing understanding of all human knowledge during that time period, but Kircher wasn’t right very often. That’s alright, the same criticism could be leveled at his interlocutor Leibnitz. Same as it ever was, and applicable to all of us. We’re not so innocent anymore, the death of the Renaissance Man is like the death of God (or of a god). The sheer amount of that which is written, the sheer number of disciplines that exist to explain every facet of existence, should disavow us of the idea that there’s any way to be well-educated beyond the most perfunctory meaning of that phrase. In that gulf between our desire to know and the poverty of our actual understanding are any number of mythic figures who somehow close that gap; troubled figures from Icarus to Dr. Faustus who demonstrate the hubris of wishing to read every book, to understand every idea. A term should exist for the anxiety that those examples embody, the quacking fear before the enormity of all that we don’t know. Perhaps the readerly dilemma, or even textual anxiety.

A full accounting of the nature of this emotion compels me to admit that it goes beyond simply fearing that I’ll never be able to read all of the books in existence, or in some ideal library, or if I’m being honest even in my own library. The will towards completism alone is not the only attribute of textual anxiety, for a not dissimilar queasiness can accompany related (though less grandiose) activities than the desire to read all books that were ever written. To whit—sometimes I’ll look at the ever-expanding pile of books that I’m to read, including volumes that I must read (for reviews or articles) and those that I want to read, and I’m paralyzed by that ever-growing paper cairn. Such debilitation isn’t helpful; the procrastinator’s curse is that it’s a personality defect that’s the equivalent of emotional quicksand. To this foolish inclination towards completism—desiring everything and thus acquiring nothing—I sometimes use Francis Bacon’s claim from his essays of 1625 that “Some books should be tasted, some devoured, but only a few should be chewed and digested thoroughly,” as a type of mantra against textual anxiety, and it mostly works. Perhaps I should learn to cross-stitch it as a prayer to display amongst my books, which even if I haven’t read all of them, they’ve at least been opened (mostly).

But textual anxiety manifests itself in a far weirder way, one that I think gets to the core of what makes the emotion so disquieting. When I’m reading some book that I happen to be enjoying, some random novel picked up from the library or purchased at an airport to pass the time, but not the works that I perennially turn toward—Walt Whitman and John Milton, John Donne and Emily Dickinson—I’m sometimes struck with a profound melancholy born from the fact that I shall never read these sentences again. Like meeting a friendly stranger who somehow indelibly marks your life by the tangible reality of their being, but whom will return to anonymity. Then it occurs to me that even those things I do read again and again, Leaves of Grass and Paradise Lost, I will one day also read for the last time. What such textual anxiety trades in, like all things of humanity, is my fear of finality, of extinction, of death. That’s at the center of this, isn’t it? The simultaneous fear of there being no more worlds to conquer and the fear that the world never can be conquered. Such consummation, the obsession with having it all, evidences a rather immature countenance.

It’s that Alexandrian imperative, but if there is somebody wiser and better to emulate it’s the old cynic Diogenes of Sinope, the philosophical vagabond who spent his days living in an Athenian pot. Laertius reports in Lives of the Eminent Philosophers that “When [Diogenes] was sunning himself…Alexander came and stood over him and said: ‘Ask me for anything you want.’ To which he replied, ‘Stand out of my light.’” And so, the man with everything was devoid of things to give to the man with nothing. Something indicative of that when it comes to this fear that there are things you’ll never be able to read, things you’ll never be able to know. The point, Diogenes seems to be saying, is to enjoy the goddamn light. Everything in that. I recall once admitting my fear about all that I don’t know, all of those books that I’ll never open, to a far wiser former professor of mine. This was long before I understood that an education is knowing what you don’t know, understanding that there are things you will never know, and worshiping at the altar of your own sublime ignorance. When I explained this anxiety of all of these rows and rows of books to never be opened, she was confused. She said “Don’t you see? That just means that you’ll never run out of things to read.” Real joy, it would seem, comes in the agency to choose, for if you were able to somehow give your attention equally to everything than you’d suffer the omniscient imprisonment that only God is cursed with. The rest of us are blessed with the endless, regenerative, confusing, glorious, hidden multiplicity of experience in discrete portions. Laertius writes “Alexander is reported to have said ‘Had I not been Alexander, I should have liked to be Diogenes.”

Image Credit: Wikipedia.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Alam, Klay, French, Kafka, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Rumaan Alam, Phil Klay, Tana French, and more—that are publishing this week.

Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then become a member today.

Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Leave the World Behind: “In Alam’s spectacular and ominous latest (after That Kind of Mother), a family’s idyllic summer retreat coincides with global catastrophe. Amanda and Clay, married white Brooklynites with two children, rent a secluded house in the Hamptons for a summer vacation. Their ‘illusion of ownership’ is shattered when the house’s proprietors, G.H. and Ruth, an African American couple in their 60s, show up unannounced from New York City. Widespread blackouts have hit the East Coast, and G.H. and Ruth are seeking refuge in the beach house they’ve rented out. The returned owners are greeted with polite suspicion and simmering resentment: ‘It was torture, a home invasion without rape or guns,’ thinks Amanda. G.H. and Ruth, in turn, can’t help but wish their renters gone (‘G. H.’s familiar old fridge yielded nothing but surprise. He’d not have filled it with such things’). But over a couple days, they form an uneasy collective as a series of strange and increasingly menacing events herald cataclysmic change, from migrating herds of deer to the thunder of military jets roaring overhead. The omniscient narrator occasionally zooms out to provide snapshots of the wider chaotic world that are effective in their brevity. Though information is scarce, the signs of impending collapse—ecological and geopolitical—have been glaringly visible to the characters all along: ‘No one could plead ignorance that was not willful.’ This illuminating social novel offers piercing commentary on race, class and the luxurious mirage of safety, adding up to an all-too-plausible apocalyptic vision.”
The Lost Writings by Franz Kafka (translated by Michael Hofmann)
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Lost Writings: “This delightful collection features dozens of untitled fragments, false starts, and unfinished work by Kafka, found and chosen by biographer Stach. In mostly untitled pieces, ranging from a few lines to a couple of pages, readers will find aphorisms (‘to a real angler no fish is ever really lost’), meditations on the myth of Prometheus and the eighth wonder of the world, fables about a loaf of bread that can’t be cut, a description of a shop without a front door, a mysterious chess game, an egg containing a misbegotten bird, and short works that anticipate some of Kafka’s masterpieces, including The Metamorphosis. Also on view are the kind of bureaucratic fever dreams associated with Kafka, along with mordant statements on mortality (‘You are forever speaking of death, and not dying’). Opening sentences such as ‘I was allowed to set foot in a strange garden’ and ‘The city resembles the sun,’ make the reader’s pulse heighten with the thrill of entering the space of great literature. This offers precisely the kind of fare Kafka enthusiasts would hope for from the legendary writer’s archives.”
Missionaries by Phil Klay

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Missionaries: “Klay’s ambitious debut novel (after the National Book Award–winning collection Redeployment) plunges the reader into war-torn Colombia, where allegiances are uncertain and tremendous violence is an everyday reality. The story follows the four characters: there is Abelito, a Colombian forcibly conscripted into a militia commanded by the infamous terrorist Jefferson, and who hopes to save the woman he loves from his murderous commandants. American journalist Lisette Marigny, meanwhile, is embedded in Afghanistan until she is dispatched to Bógota to report on gang activity, only to be kidnapped by guerrillas. En route from the Middle East is Mason, an Iraq War veteran and Special Forces medic reassigned to fight paramilitary narcos in Colombia, which he naively imagines will be a ‘good war.’ He befriends Juan Pablo, a weary commando who frets at being little more than a common mercenary and reflects on his early ambition to join the priesthood. Through these four protagonists, Klay unravels the complexity of interventionist American operations abroad, from Kabul to Medellín. While the novel suffers from a surfeit of tedious subplots and can feel overwhelmed by Klay’s exhaustive research, the prose is consistently staggering, whether in the characters’ moments of self-reflection or unflinching descriptions of brutality (‘A chainsaw appeared, and suddenly everyone who had watched, confused and amazed… knew what was about to happen’). Even though the whole thing doesn’t quite tie together, it’s quite a ride.”

Bright and Dangerous Objects by Anneliese Mackintosh

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Bright and Dangerous Objects: “British writer Mackintosh’s powerful U.S. debut explores a woman’s struggle between her desire to join a Mars resettlement program and stay on Earth to start a family. At the start of the novel, Solvig Dean, 37, is out stargazing with her boyfriend, James, on a scenic cliff in Cornwall. The opening line of dialogue (‘‘It’s incredible,’ I tell James. ‘I’m sitting here with you, but I’m looking light-years away’’) sets the tone for what follows: Solvig is an ambitious dreamer, while the plans of James, a tattoo artist, extend to nurturing a sourdough starter for the rest of his life. Solvig, a deep-sea diver for the oil industry, working 10-hour shifts on the ocean floor and away from home for months at a time, loves James, but she’s restless on land and in their relationship. After James tells Solvig about the Mars Project, Solvig is captivated by the prospect, but conflicted. With graceful prose and elegant metaphors, Mackintosh connects Solvig’s search for herself and desire for balance with her process of coming to terms with the loss of her mother. Solvig’s difficult choice is further informed by Mackintosh’s brilliant weaving in of a history of women in space. When Solvig finally makes her choice, the reader is left breathless, astounded by her courage. This is a deeply moving story about love, loss, and the strength it takes for women to realize their dreams.”

Cuyahoga by Pete Beatty

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Cuyahoga: “Beatty’s inspired debut is an American tall tale in the 19th-century oral tradition. Living legend Big Son has wrestled forests and rivers into submission. But in Ohio City in 1837, he meets his greatest challenge to date when his true love, Cloe Inches, refuses to be his bride until he proves himself as a provider. He finds work building a bridge across the Cuyahoga River that will connect Cleveland with its rival, Ohio City. But after the bridge collapses, so, too, do Big Son’s fortunes. It is up to his brother, Medium Son, called Meed, to restore his reputation by creating an almanac of Big Son’s legendary feats. Meed, however, covets Cloe and is secretly jealous of the attention his older brother receives. Throw in a dandyish rival for Cloe’s affection and a gunpowder-toting demonstrator, and the stage is set for the biggest Big Son tale of all time. Narrated by Meed in a colloquial voice (about Big: ‘I do believe I could make a decent merchant for him as a foremost spirit of the times’), Beatty’s novel has echoes of Matthew Sharpe’s Jamestown and Hugh Nissenson’s The Tree of Life, employing language that thrusts the reader fully into the tumult of life on the American frontier. Like Big Son himself, this novel is an American original.”

The Searcher by Tana French

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Searcher: “After 25 years as a Chicago cop, Cal Hooper, the protagonist of this superb standalone from Edgar winner French (The Witch Elm), decided he needed a change. So he moved to a village in the West of Ireland, ‘no bigger than the little end of nothing,’ where people leave their doors unlocked. After three months, his prosaic new life ends when he’s sought out by 12-year-old Trey Reddy, who has learned of Hooper’s former profession. Trey fears something bad has happened to his 19-year-old brother, Brendan, who hasn’t been seen in about six months. Because their mother, Sheila, is convinced Brendan took off on his own, Trey hasn’t gone to the police, though the boy’s certain his brother wouldn’t have done that. Despite Hooper’s cynicism (‘Anyone could do anything,’ he thinks), he agrees to look into the matter, starting with questioning Sheila. The more Hooper digs, the more he finds that his new community conceals dark secrets. Insightful characterizations, even of minor figures, and a devastating reveal help make this a standout. Crime fiction fans won’t want to miss this one.”

Also on shelves this week: The Hole by Hiroko Oyamada (translated by David Boyd).

Stories in Formaldehyde: The Strange Pleasures of Taxonomizing Plot

Somewhere within the storerooms of London’s staid, gray-faced Tate Gallery (for it’s currently no longer on exhibit) is an 1834 painting by J.M.W. Turner entitled “The Golden Bough.” Rendered in that painter’s characteristic sfumato of smeared light and smoky color, Turner’s composition depicts a scene from Virgil’s epic Aeneid wherein the hero is commanded by that seventh-century-old prophetic crone, the Sibyl of Cumae, to make an offering of a golden bough from a sacred tree growing upon the shores of crystalline blue Lake Avernus to the goddess Prosperina, if he wishes to descend to Hades and see the shadow of his departed father. “Obscure they went through dreary shades, that led/Along the waste dominions of the dead,” translated John Dryden in 1697, using his favored totemistic Augustinian rhyming couplets, as Aeneas descends further into the Underworld, its entrance a few miles west of Naples. As imagined by Turner, the area around the volcanic lake is pleasant, if sinister; bucolic, if eerie; pastoral, if unsettling. A dapple of light marks the portal whereby pilgrims journey into perdition; in the distance tall, slender trees topped with a cap of branches jut up throughout the landscape. A columned temple is nestled within the scrubby hills overlooking the field. The Sibyl stands with a scythe so that the vegetable sacrifice can be harvested, postlapsarian snakes slither throughout, and the Fates revel in mummery near hell’s doorway. Rather than severe tones of blood red and sulfurous black, earthy red and cadaverous green: Turner opted to depict Avernus in soft blues and greys, and the result is all the more disquieting. Here, the viewer might think, is what the passage between life and death must look like—muted, temperate, serene, barely even noticeable from one transition to the next.

As with the best of Turner’s paintings, with his eye to color the visual equivalent of perfect pitch, it is the texture of hues that renders, if not some didactic message about his subject, a general emotional sense, a sentiment hard to describe and registering at a pitch that can be barely heard and yet alters one’s feelings in the moment. Such was the sense conveyed by the Scottish folklorist James George Frazer who borrowed the artist’s title for his landmark 1890 study The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion, describing on his first page how the painting is “suffused with the golden glow of imagination in which the divine mind of Turner steeped and transfigured even the fairest natural landscape.” This scene, Frazer enthuses, “is a dream-like vision of the little woodland…[where] Dian herself might still linger by this lonely shore, still haunt these woodlands wild.” An influential remnant of a supremely Victorian enthusiasm for providing quasi-scientific gloss to the categorization of mythology, Frazer’s study provided taxonomy of classical myth so as to find certain similarities, the better to provide a grand, unified theory of ancient religion (or what Edward Casaubon in George Elliot’s Middlemarch, written two decades before, might call The Key to All Mythologies). First viewing Turner’s canvas, and the rationalist Frazer was moved by the painting’s mysteriousness, the way in which the pool blue sky and the shining hellmouth trade in nothing as literal as mere symbolism, but wherein the textured physicality—the roughness of the hill and the ominous haze of the clouds, dusk’s implied screaming cicadas and the cool of the evening—conveys an ineffable feeling. Despite pretensions to an analysis more logical, Frazer intimates the numinous (for, how couldn’t he?). “Who does not know Turner’s picture of the Golden Bough?” he writes.

His argument in The Golden Bough was that religions originated as primitive fertility cults, dedicated to the idea of sacrifice and resurrection, and that from this fundamentally magical worldview would evolve more sophisticated religions, to finally be supplanted by secular science. The other argument from The Golden Baugh is implicit in the book’s very existence—that structure can be ascertained within the messy morass of disparate myths. To make this argument he drew from sources as diverse as Virgil to the Nootka people of British Columbia, classifying, categorizing, and organizing data as surely as a biologist preserving specimens in a jar of formaldehyde. And like Charles Darwin measuring finch beaks, or Thomas Huxley pinning butterflies to wood blocks, Frazer believed that diversity was a mask for similarity.

As reductionist as his arguments are, and as disputed as his conclusions may be, Frazer’s influence was outsize among anthropologists, folklorists, writers, and especially literary critics, who thrilled to the idea that some sort of unity could be found in the chaotic variety of narratives that constitute world mythology. “I am a plain practical man,” Frazer writes, “not one of your theorists and splitters of hairs and choppers of logic,” and while it’s true that The Golden Bough evidences a more imaginative disposition, it still takes part in that old quixotic desire to find some Grand Unified Theory of Narrative. While Frazer’s beat was myth, he was still a reporter in stories, and percolating like a counter-rhythm within discussion of narrative is that old desire, the yearning to find the exact number of plots that it is possible to tell. Frazer, for all that was innovative about his thought, was neither the first nor the last to treat stories like animals in a genus, narratives as if creatures in a phylum.

That grand tradition claims there are only 36 stories that can be told, or seven, or four. Maybe there is really only one tale, the story of wanting something and not getting it, which is after all the contour of this story itself—the strange endurance of the sentiment that all narrative can be easily classifiable into a circumscribed, finite, and relatively small number of possibilities. While I’ve got my skepticism about such an endeavor—seeing those suggested systems as erasing the particularity of stories, of occluding what makes them unique in favor of mutilating them into some Procrustean Bed—I’d be remiss not to confess that I also find these theories immensely pleasing. There is something to be said about the cool rectilinear logic that claims any story, from Middlemarch to Fifty Shades of Grey, Citizen Kane to Gremlins 2, can be stripped down to its raw schematics and analyzed as fundamental, universal, eternal plots that have existed before Gilgamesh’s cuneiform was wedged into wet clay.

Christopher Booker claims in The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories that “wherever men and women have told stories, all over the world, the stories emerging to their imaginations have tended to take shape in remarkably similar ways,” differences in culture, language, or faith be damned. With some shading, Booker uses the archetypal psychoanalysis of Carl Jung to claim that every single narrative, whether in epic or novel, film or comic, can be slotted into 1) overcoming the monster (Beowulf, George Lucas’s Star Wars), 2) rags to riches (Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Horatio Alger stories), 3) the quest (Homer’s The Odyssey, Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark), 4) voyage and return (The Ramayana, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit), 5) comedy (William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski), 6) tragedy (Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde) or 7) rebirth (Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, Harold Ramis’s Groundhog Day).

That all of these parenthetically referenced works are, of course, astoundingly different from each other in character, setting, and most of all language, is irrelevant to Booker’s theory. While allowing for more subtlety than my potted overview would allow, Booker still concludes that “there are indeed a small number of plots which are so fundamental to the way we tell stories that it is virtually impossible for any storyteller ever entirely to break away from them.” Such a claim is necessary to Booker’s contention that these narratives are deeply nestled in our collective unconscious, a repository of themes, symbols, and archetypes that are “our basic genetic inheritance,” which he then proffers as an explanation for why humans tell stories at all.

The Seven Basic Plots, published in 2004 after 34 years of labor, is the sort of critical work that doesn’t appear much anymore. Audacious to the point of impudence, ambitious to the level of crack-pottery, Booker’s theory seems more at home in a seminar held by Frazer than in contemporary English departments more apt to discuss gender, race, and class in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice than they are the Orphic themes of rebirth as manifested in that same novel. Being the sort of writer who both denied anthropogenic climate change and defended asbestos (for real), Booker had the conservative’s permanent sense of paranoid aggrievement concerning the treatment of his perspectives. So, let me be clear—contra Booker’s own sentiments, I don’t think that the theories in The Seven Basic Plots are ignored by literary critics because of some sort of politically correct conspiracy of silence; I think that they’re ignored because they’re not actually terribly correct or useful. When figuring out the genealogical lineage of several different species of Galapagos Island finches, similarity becomes a coherent arbiter; however, difference is more important when thinking through what makes exemplary literature exemplary. Genre, and by proxy plot, is frequently more an issue of marketing than anything. That’s not to say that questions of genre have no place in literary criticism, but they are normally the least interesting (“What makes this gothic novel gothic?”). No stranger to such thinking himself, author Kurt Vonnegut may have solved the enigma with the most basic of monomyths elucidated—“man falls into hole, man gets out of hole.”

Booker isn’t after marketing, however, he’s after the key to all mythologies. Like Frazer before him, he won’t be the last critic enraptured by the idea of a Periodic Table of Plots, capable of explaining both Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment as well as Weekend at Bernie’s, and he won’t be the last. If you wish to blame somebody for this line of thinking, as with most disciplines of human endeavor from ethics to dentistry, look to Aristotle as the culprit. The philosopher’s “four conflicts,” man against himself, man against man, man against nature, and man against the gods, have long been a convenient means of categorizing plots. The allure of there being a limited number of plots is that it makes both reading and writing theoretically easier. The denizens of high culture literary criticism have embraced the concept periodically, as surely as those producing paperbacks promising that a hit book can be easily plotted out from a limited tool kit. Georges Polti, of Providence Rhode Island and later Paris France, wrote The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations in 1895, claiming that all stories could be categorized in that number of scenarios, including plots of “Crime pursued by vengeance” and “Murderous adultery.” “Thirty-six situations only!” Polti enthuses. “There is to me, something tantalizing about the assertion.” Polti’s book has long been popular as a sort of lo-fi randomizer for generating stories, and its legacy lives on in works like Ronald B. Tobias’s 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them and Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s A Writer’s Guide to Characterization: Archetypes, Heroic Journeys, and Other Elements of Dynamic Character Development.

There is also a less pulpy, tonier history surrounding the thinking that everything can be brewed down to a handful of elemental plots. My attitude concerning such thinking was a bit glib earlier, as there is something to be said about the utility in this thinking, and indeed entire academic disciplines have grown from that assumption. Folklorists use a classification system called the “Aarne-Thompson-Uther Index,” where a multitude of plot-types are given numbers (“Cinderella” is 510A, for example), which can be useful to trace the ways in which stories have evolved and altered over both distance and time. Unlike Polti’s 36 plots, Tobias’s 20, or Booker’s seven, Stith Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk-Literature goes to six volumes of folk tales, fairy tales, legends, and myths, but the basic idea is the same: plots exist in a finite number (including “Transformation: man to animal” and “Magic strength resides in hair”). As with the system of classification invented by Francis James Child in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, or the Roud Folk Song Index, the Aarne-Thompson Uther Index is more than just a bit of shell collecting, but rather a system of categorization that helps folklorists make sense of the diversity of oral literature, with scholar Alan Dundes enthusing that the system was among the “most valuable tools in the professional folklorist’s arsenal of aids for analysis.” Morphological approaches define the discipline known as “narrative theory,” which draws from a similar theoretical inclination as that of the ATU Index. All of these methodologies share a commitment to understanding literature less through issues of grammar, syntax, and diction, and more in terms of plot and story. For those who read with an eye towards narrative, there is frequently an inclination, sentiment, or hunch that all stories and novels, films and television shows, epics and lyrics, comics and plays, can have their fat, gristle, and tallow boiled away to leave just the broth and a plot that’s as clean as a bone.

A faith that was popular among the Russian Formalists, sometimes incongruously known as the Prague School (after where many of them, as Soviet exiles, happened to settle), including Roman Jacobson, Viktor Shklovsky, and Vladimir Propp, the last of whom wrote Morphology of the Folktale, reducing those stories to a narrative abstraction that literally looks like mathematics. A similar movement was that of French structuralism, as exemplified by its founder the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, and as later practiced by the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss and the literary critic Roland Barth. In the Anglophone world, with the exception of some departments that are enraptured to narratology, literary criticism has often focused on the evisceration of a text with the scalpel of close reading rather than the measurement of plot with the calipers of taxonomy. Arguably that’s led to the American critical predilection towards “literary” fiction over genre fiction, the rejection of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and romance as being unserious in favor of all of those beautifully crafted stories in The New Yorker where the climax is the main character looking out the window, sighing, and taking a sip of coffee, while realizing that she was never happy, not really.

There are exceptions to the critical valorization in language over plot, however, none more so than in the once mighty but now passé writings of Canadian theorist Northrop Frye. Few scholars in the English-speaking world were more responsible for that once enthusiastic embrace of taxonomic criticism than this United Church of Christ minister and professor at Toronto’s Victoria College. Frye was enraptured to the psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s theories of how fundamental archetypes structure our collective unconscious, and he believed that a similar approach could be applied to narrative, that a limited number of plots structured our way of thinking and approaching stories. In works like Fearful Symmetry on William Blake, and his all-encompassing Anatomy of Criticism, Frye elucidated a complex, baroque, and elegant system of categorizing stories, the better to interpret them properly. “What if criticism is a science as well as an art?” Frye asked, wishing to approach literature like a taxonomist, as if novels were a multitude of plants and animals just awaiting Linnaean classification. For those who read individual poems or novels as exemplary texts, explaining what makes them work, Frye would say that they’re missing the totality of what literature is. “Criticism seems to be badly in need of a coordinating principle,” he writes, “a central hypothesis which, like the theory of evolution in biology, will see the phenomena it deals with as part of a whole.”

Frye argued that this was to be accomplished by identifying that which was universal in narrative, where works could be rendered of their unique flesh down into their skeletons, which we would then find to be myths and archetypes. From this anodyne observation, Frye spun out a complex classification system for all Western literature, one where he identifies the exact archetypes that define poetry and prose, where he flings about terms like “centripidal” and “centrifugal” to interpret individual texts, and where phrases like the “kerygmatic mode” are casually used.  Anatomy of Criticism is true to its title; Frye carves up the cadaver of literature and arrives at an admittedly intoxicating theory of everything. “Physics is an organized body of knowledge about nature, and a student of it says that he is learning physics, not nature,” Frye writes. “Art, like nature, has to be distinguished from the systematic study of it, which is criticism.” In Frye’s physics, there are five “modes” of literature, including the mythic, romantic, high mimetic, low mimetic, and ironic; these are then cross listed with tragic, comic, and thematic forms; what are then derived are genres with names like the dionysian, the elegiac, the aristophanic, and so on. Later in the book he supplies a complex theory of symbolism, a methodology concerning imagery based on the Platonic Great Chain of Being, and a thorough taxonomy of genre. In what’s always struck me as one of the odder (if ingenious) parts of Anatomy of Criticism, Frye ties genres specifically to certain seasons, so that comedy is a spring form, romance belongs to the summer, autumn is a time of tragedy, and winter births irony. How one reads books from those tropical places where seasons neatly divide between rainy or not speaks to a particular chauvinism on the Canadian’s part.

For most viewers of public television, however, their introduction to the “There-are-only-so-many-stories” conceit wasn’t Frye, but rather a Sarah Lawrence College professor who was the titular subject of journalist Bill Moyers’s 1988 PBS documentary Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth. Drawing largely from his 1949 study The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell became the unlikely star of the series that promulgated his theory of the “monomyth,” the idea that a single-story threads through world mythology and is often focused on what he termed “the hero’s journey.” Viewers were drawn to Campbell’s airy insights about the relationship between Akkadian mythology and Star Wars (a film which George Lucas admitted was heavily influenced by the folklorist’s ideas), and his vaguely countercultural pronouncement that one should “Follow your bliss!,” despite his own right-wing politics (which according to some critics could run the gamut between polite Reaganism to fascist sympathizing). Both Frye and Campbell exhibited a wide learning, but arguably only the former’s was particularly deep. With an aura of crunchy tweediness, Campbell seemed like the sort of professor who would talk to students about the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam in an office which smells of patchouli, a threadbare oriental rug on the dusty floor, knick-knacks assembled while studying in India and Japan, and a collapsing bookshelf jammed with underlined paperback copies of Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer above his desk. Campbell, in short, looked like what we expect a liberal arts teacher to look like, and for some of his critics (like Dundes who called him an “non-expert” and an “amateur”) that gave him an unearned authority.

But what an authority he constructed, the hero with only one theory to explain everything! Drawing from Jung, Frazer, and all the rest of the usual suspects, Campbell argued in his most famous book that broad archetypes structure all narrative, wherein a “hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” Whether Luke Skywalker venturing out from Tatooine or Gilgamesh leaving Ur, the song remains the same, Campbell says. Gathering material from the ancient near east and Bronze Age Ireland, the India of the Mahabharata and Hollywood screen plays, Campbell claimed that his monomyth was the skeleton key to all narrative, a story whose parsing could furthermore lead to understanding, wisdom, and self-fulfillment among those who are hip to its intricacies. The Hero with a Thousand Faces naturally flattered the pretensions of some artists and writers, what with its implications that they were conduits connected directly to the collective unconsciousness. Much as with Freud and the legions of literary critics who applied his theories to novels and film, if Campbell works well in interpreting lots of movies, it’s because those directors (from Lucas to Stanley Kubrick) happened to be reading him. The monomyth can begin to feel like the critical equivalent of the intelligent design advocate who knows God exists, because why else would we have been given noses on which to so conveniently hold our glasses?

Campbell’s politics, and indeed that of his theory, are ambivalent. His comparative approach superficially seems like the pluralistic, multicultural, ecumenical perspective of the Sarah Lawrence professor that he was, but at the same time the flattening of all stories into this one monomyth does profound violence to the particularity of myths innumerable. There is a direct line between Campbell and the mythos-laden mantras of poet Robert Bly and his Iron John: A Book About Men, the tome that launched a thousand drum circles of suburban dads trying to engage their naturalistic masculinity in vaguely homoerotic forest rituals, or of Canadian psychotherapist/alt-right apologist Jordan Peterson who functions as basically a Dollar Store version of the earlier folklorist. Because myths are so seemingly elemental, mysterious telegrams from the ancient past, whose logic seems imprinted into our unconscious, it’s hard not to see the attraction of a Campbell. And yet whenever someone starts talking about “mythos” it inevitably can start to feel like you’re potentially in the presence of a weirdo who practices “rune magik,” unironically wonders if they’re an ubermensch, and has an uncomfortably racist Google search history. We think of the myth as the purview of the hippie, but it’s just as often the provenance of the jackbooted authoritarian, for Campbell’s writings fit comfortably with a particularly reactionary view of life, which should fit uncomfortably with the rest of us. “Marx teaches us to blame society for our frailties, Freud teaches us to blame our parents,” Campbell wrote in the posthumously published Pathways to Bliss, but the “only place to look for blame is within: you didn’t have the guts to bring up your full moon and live the life that was your potential.” Yeah, that’s exactly it. People can’t afford healthcare or get a job because they didn’t bring up their full moon…

The problem is that if you take Campbell too seriously then everything begins to look like it was written by Campbell. To wit, the monomyth is supposed to go through successive stages, from the hero’s origin in an ordinary world where he receives a “call to adventure,” to being assisted by a mentor who leads him through a “guarded threshold” where he is tested on a “road of trials,” to finally facing his ultimate ordeal. After achieving success, the hero returns to the ordinary world wiser and better, improving the lives of others through the rewards that have been bestowed upon him. The itinerary is more complex than this in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, but this should be enough to convey that Campbell’s schema is general enough that it can be applied to anything, but particular enough that it gives the illusion of rigor. Think of Jesus Christ, called to be the messiah and assisted by John the Baptist, tempted by Satan in the desert, and after coming into Jerusalem facing torture at the hands of the Romans, before his crucifixion and harrowing of hell, only to be resurrected with the promise of universal human salvation. Now, think of Jeff Lebowski, called to be the Dude and assisted by Walter Sobchak, tempted by Jackie Treehorn, battling the nihilists, only to return in time for the bowling finals. Other than speaking deep into the souls of millions of people, it should be uncontroversial to say that the gospels and the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski are only the same story in the most glaringly of superficial ways, and yet the quasi-conspiratorial theory of the monomyth promises secret knowledge that says that they are.    

But here’s the thing—stories aren’t hydrogen, plots aren’t oxygen, narratives aren’t carbon. You can’t reduce the infinity of human experience into a Periodic Table, except in the most perfunctory of ways. To pretend that the tools of classification are the same as the insights of interpretation is to grind the Himalayas into Iowa, it’s to cut so much from the bone that the only meal you’re left with is that of a skeleton. When all things are reduced to monomyth, the enthusiast can’t recognize the exemplary, the unique, the individual, the subjective, the idiosyncratic, because some individual plot doesn’t have a magical wizard shepherding the hero to the underworld, or whatever. It’s to deny the possibility of some new story, of some innovation in narrative, its to spurn the Holy Grail of uniqueness. Still, some sympathy must be offered as to why these models appeal to us, of how archetypal literary criticism appeals to our inner stamp collectors. With apologies to Voltaire, if narrative didn’t exist it would be necessary to invent it—and everything else too. The reasons why archetypal criticism is so appealing are legion—they impose a unity on chaos, provides a useful measure of how narratives work, and give the initiate the sense that they have knowledge that is applicable to everything from The Odyssey to Transformers.

But a type of critical madness lay in the idolatry of confusing methodological models for the particularity of actual stories. Booker writes of stories that are “Rags to Riches,” but that reductionism is an anemic replacement for inhabiting Pip’s mind when he pines for Estella in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations; he classifies Bram Stoker’s Dracula as being about “Overcoming the Monster,” but that simplification is at the expense of that purple masterpiece’s paranoia, its horror, its hunger, its sexiness. There are no stories except for in the details. To forget that narratives are infinite is a slur against them; it’s the blasphemy of pretending that every person is the same as every other. For in a warped way, there is but one monomyth, but it’s not what the stamp collectors say it is. In all of their variety, diversity, and multiplicity, every tale is a creation myth because every tale is created. From the raw material of life is generated something new, and in that regard we’re not all living variations of the same story, we’re all living within the same story.  

Bonus Links:—The Purpose of Plot: An Argument with MyselfThe Million Basic PlotsOn Not Going Out of the House: Thoughts About Plotlessness

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.