Here are four notable books of poetry publishing in December. Who is Mary Sue? by Sophie Collins Before the core of this book—a sequence that considers the pristine “Mary Sue,” a female character in fan fiction who often seems to be the “author’s idealized self”—Collins includes a gorgeous prose poem. “Sister, listen to me—tonight our father will pull open the heavy door of our home, walk with his large boots into the kitchen and drop a pig on the table. In the morning, peasants with children and glassy-eyed babies will enter, sniffing at us like animals, noting the absence of a mother who lays out cold plates, white bread.” It is folkloric, surreal, and suggestive of a poet who can channel new energies. In “The Engine” sequence, Collins writes: “On my walks I began to notice more bonfires than ever before. I was reluctant to speculate on a cause, but the hillside fields were plainly covered in scabs.” Sleepless and suffering, the narrator heads into the cold. She gets a tick bite. She finds “an empty shed with unbroken windows,” and sleeps in a dog bed. She dreams of dogs, and awakens to “a mongrel with cataracts” that “stayed looking for a moment before leaving, unhurried.” Somewhere among these dreams, nightmares, and fantasies Collins hits a spiritual longing, a place where bodies are not enough. From “A Course in Miracles”: “Sometimes a divinity is more / than a mortal can stand.” Collins’s debut is inventive, unique, dynamic. Silence, Joy by Thomas Merton In 1940, Merton’s mentor Mark Van Doren sent the monk’s first manuscript to James Laughlin, publisher of New Directions. Thirty Poems was published in 1944, and ever since then New Directions—admirably, and thankfully—has continued to publish Merton’s poetry and prose. Silence, Joy is pocket-sized, but bursting with what made Merton great: he could be simultaneously dark and audaciously sentimental. So many of his lines ring perfectly true, even 50 years after his death. “For me to be a saint means to be myself,” he offers. In “Trappists, Working”: “Now all our saws sing holy sonnets in this world of timber / Where oaks go off like guns, and fall like cataracts, / Pouring their roar into the woods.” I admit to carrying this book around, sneaking glances to keep me honest: “We live in the time of no room, which is the time of the end. The time when everyone is obsessed with lack of time, lack of space, with saving time, conquering space, projecting into time and space the anguish produced within them by the technological furies of size, volume, quantity, speed, number, price, power and acceleration.” We all need a voice like Merton, whose prose-poetic vignettes pair nicely with his sincere lines: “I am earth, earth // Out of my grass heart / Rises the bobwhite. // Out of my nameless weeds / His foolish worship.” Petty Theft by Nicholas Friedman “And so they reveled in self-luminescence, / sneezed lightning through the pitch of bedroom sky / and glowed like faint auroras in their beds.” “Undark,” a poem that memorializes the fate of factory workers poisoned by radium, captures Friedman’s distinctive style: his phrases turn on the porous border between the lush and barren, between the lyric and corroded. “Fear only turns the key on what it knows,” the narrator notes, as one woman “daubed her teeth to spook a lover / in the grin-lit dark.” A few poems in, and I’m already in Friedman’s poetic trust, ready for the switches and swivels of poems like “In Flight”: “the plane quakes suddenly / and dips us like a bobber. A light dings on. / I count the smooth blue seats, doing the math / they’ll use to make a headline out of us.” Dazed, chomping on peanuts, mishearing the flight attendant, the narrator looks out the window: “a river has bunched itself / into omegas, blinding where the sun / moves over them—while here, above all that, / the body shudders, and carries us along.” Friedman extracts the poetic out of the pungent, as in “A Cut Path,” when a couple feels a bit lost on a California trail: “The cows stand frozen / in portrait below, casting their doubts down the slope. / For us, a bit of wishful thinking has made / this hill a mountain, and we are now descending.” A strong, skillful debut. Collected Poems of Robert Bly When asked about Silence in the Snowy Fields (1962), his first collection, Bly said “myth brings up a mystery that the rational mind doesn’t really faze.” Bly’s Collected Poems begins with that volume, and that Midwestern mythos. In “Three Kinds of Pleasures”: “Sometimes, riding in a car, in Wisconsin / Or Illinois, you notice those dark telephone poles / One by one lift themselves out of the fence line / And slowly leap on the gray sky— / And past them, the snowy fields.” The haunting chill of “Hunting Pheasants in a Cornfield”: “What is so strange about a tree alone in an open field? / It is a willow tree. I walk around and around it. / The body is strangely torn, and cannot leave it. / At last I sit down beneath it.” Bly would emerge from his snowbound self for The Light Around the Body (1967), marked by poems of activism and frustration, yet also including introspective pieces like “Melancholia”: “There is a wound on the trunk / Where the branch was torn off. / A wind comes out of it, / Rising, swelling, / Swirling over everything alive.” A decade later, Bly would write to Tomas Tranströmer: “Poems are best when there are incredible mysteries in them.” Bly’s Collected Poems are full of these incredible mysteries, on to his final works, as in “Longing”: “The old man lying in bed writing poems / Feels his brain light up, and he knows / That in some odd way he is approaching heaven. [millions_ad]
“When they ask what [God’s] name is, what shall I tell them?” —Exodus 3:13 “Language is only the instrument of science, and words are but the signs of ideas.” —Dr. Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language (1755) 1. Attar of Nishapur, the 12th-century Persian Sufi, wrote of a pilgrimage of birds. His masterpiece The Conference of the Birds recounts how 30 fowls were led by a tufted, orange hoopoe (wisest of his kind) to find the Simurgh, a type of bird-god or king. So holy is the hoopoe, that the bismillah is etched onto his beak as encouragement to his fellow feathered penitents. From Persia the birds travel to China, in search of the Simurgh, a gigantic eagle-like creature with the face of a man (or sometimes a dog) who has lived for millennia, possesses all knowledge, and like the Phoenix has been immolated only to rise again. In the birds’ desire to see the Simurgh, we understand how we should yearn for Allah: “Do all you can to become a bird of the Way to God; / Do all you can to develop your wings and your feathers,” Attar writes. An esoteric truth is revealed to the loyal hawk, the romantic nightingale, the resplendent peacock, and the stalwart stork. There is no Simurgh awaiting them in some hidden paradise, for the creature’s name is itself a Farsi pun on the phrase “30 birds.” Attar writes that “All things are but masks at God’s beck and call, / They are symbols that instruct us that God is all.” There is no God but us, and we are our own prophets. As a dream vision, The Conference of the Birds appears to be borderline atheistic, but only if you’re oblivious that such mysticism is actually God-intoxicated. And as with all mystical literature, there is (purposefully) something hard to comprehend, though a clue on interpretation when Attar writes that “The shadow and its maker are one and the same, / so get over surfaces and delve into mysteries.” Equivalence of shadow and maker—it’s a moving understanding of what writing is as well, where the very products of our creation are intimations of our souls. My approach to these mysteries, plumbing past the surfaces of appearance, is in an illustration of the epic’s themes done in the characteristic Islamic medium of calligraphy. Alongside the intricate miniatures which defined Persian art, there developed a tradition whereby ingenious calligraphers would present Arabic or Persian sentences in artful arrangements, so that whole sentences would compose the illusion of a representational picture. One such image is nothing but the word “Simurgh” itself, yet the way in which the artist has configured letters like the ascending alif, horizontal jim, rounded dhal, and complex hamzah presents the appearance of a bird rearing with regal countenance—all feather, claw, and beak. A beautiful evocation of Attar’s very lesson itself, for as the avian penitents learn that there is no Simurgh save for their collective body, so, too, do we see that the illusion of the picture we’re presented with is simply an arrangement of letters. Pithy demonstration of the paradox of literature as well. If the Simurgh of The Conference of the Birds is simply composed by the fowl themselves, and if the image of the calligrapher’s art is constituted by letters, might there be a lesson that divinity itself is constructed in the later way? Just as each bird is part of the Simurgh, may each letter be part of God? For as images had been banned, they still can’t help but arise out of these abstracted letters, these symbols imbued with a fiery life. Little wonder that incantations are conveyed through words and that we’re warned not to take the Lord’s name in vain, for it’s letters that both define and give life. A certain conclusion is unassailable: God is an alphabet—God is the alphabet. 2. “Bereshit” is the word by which Genesis is inaugurated, and it’s from that word that the name of the book derives in its original language. No text more explicitly deals with the generative powers of speech than Genesis, and in seeing the Torah as both product of and vehicle for God’s creation, we get closer to the sacredness of the Alphabet. Bereshit begins with the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet—bet—which looks like this: ב. Something about the shape of the abstracted letter reminds me of a tree with a branch hanging out at an angle, appropriate when we consider the subject of the book. There's something unusual in the first letter of the Torah being bet, for why would the word of God not begin with Her first letter of Aleph? Medieval kabbalists, adept in numerology, had an answer: It was to indicate that reality has two levels—the physical and the spiritual, or as Attar called them, the surfaces and the mysteries. But if the surface of the sheep vellum which constitutes a physical Torah is one thing, the actual reality of the letter is another. A deeper truth is conveyed by the mystery of letters themselves, the way in which abstract symbol can make us hallucinate voices in our heads, the way in which entire worlds of imagination can be constructed by dying the skin of dead animals black with ink. We dissuade ourselves against magic too easily, especially since literacy itself is evidence of it. That language is sacred should be an obvious truth. Even as the old verities of holiness are discarded, the unassailable fact that language has a magic is intuited at the level of an eye scanning a page and building universes from nothingness. Jewish sages believed that the alphabet preceded that initial Bereshit; indeed, that was a requirement that letters existed before creation, for how would God’s accomplishment of the latter even be possible without Her access to the former? As the kabbalistic book Sefer Yetsira explains: “Twenty-two letters did [God] engrave and carve, he weighed them and moved them around into different combinations. Through them, he created the soul of every living being and the soul of every word.” 3. Chiseled onto the sandy-red shoulder of a sphinx found at Serabit el-Khadim in the Sinai Peninsula is evidence of the alphabet’s origins that is almost as evocative as the story told in the Sefer Yetsira. As enigmatic as her cousins at Giza or Thebes, the Sinai sphinx is a votive in honor of the Egyptian goddess Hathor, guardian of the desert, and she who protected the turquoise mines which dotted the peninsula and operated for close to eight centuries producing wealth for distant Pharaohs. The Serabit el-Khadim sphinx is only a little under 24 centimeters, more than diminutive enough to find her new home in a British Museum cabinet. Excavated in 1904 by Flinders and Hilda Petrie, founder of Egyptology as a discipline, the little Hathor lioness lay in wait for perhaps 3,800 years, graffiti etched into her side attesting to alphabetic origins. The sphinx was carved by laborers whose language was a Semitic tongue closely related to Hebrew (and indeed some have connected the inscription to the Exodus narrative). In Alpha Beta: How 26 Letters Shaped the Western World, John Man describes how these “Twelve marks suggest links between Egyptian writing and later Semitic letters,” for though what’s recorded at Serabit el-Khadim are glyphs like “an ox-head, an eye, a house, a snake, and water,” what is found on the haunches of Hathor’s sphinx are the abstracted “roots of our own a, b, v, u, m. p, w, and t.” By 1916, Alan Gardiner used the decipherable Egyptian hieroglyphic inscription between the sphinx’s breasts, which read, “Beloved of Hathor, Lady of the Turquoise” to translate the 11 marks on her side, making this one of the earliest examples of a script called “Proto-Sinaitic,” the most ancient instance of alphabetic writing to ever be found. Gardiner hypothesized that this was an alphabetic letter system, arguing that it was either a form of simplified pidgin Egyptian used by the administrators, or that it was a simplified system invented by the workers. By simplifying the process of communication, the alphabet’s purpose was pragmatic, but its implications rank it among the most paradigm-shifting of history. From In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language, Joel M. Hoffman explains that if it’s “easier to learn the tens of hundreds of symbols required for syllabic system than it is to learn the thousands required for a purely logographic system,” than to learn easier still consonantal systems (as both proto-Sinaitic and Hebrew are), as these system “generally require fewer than 30 symbols.” Vowels may be the souls of words, but consonants are their bodies. The former awaited both the Greek alphabet and the diacritical marks of Masoretic Hebrew, but the skeletons of our alphabet were already recorded in homage to the goddess Hathor. Man writes that three features mark the alphabet as crucial in the history of communication: “its uniqueness, its simplicity and its adaptability.” Perhaps even more importantly, where pictograms are complicated, they’re also indelibly wed to the tongue which first uttered them, whereas alphabets can “with some pushing and shoving, be adapted to all languages.” The alphabet, a Semitic invention born from Egyptian materials for practical ends, “proved wildly successful,” as Hoffman writes, with proto-Sinaitic developing into the Phoenician alphabet and then the Hebrew, which was “used as the basis for the Greek and Latin alphabets, which, in turn, along with Hebrew itself, were destined to form the basis for almost all the world’s alphabets.” Birthed from parsimony, proto-Sinaitic would become the vehicle through which abstraction could be spread. Still, the blurred edges of our letters proclaim their origin in pictures—the prostrate penitent worshipping prayerfully in an “E;” in an “S,” the slithering of the snake who caused the fall. 4. Every single major alphabetic system, save for Korean Hangul developed in the 15th century, can trace its origins back to this scratching on a sphinx. The Phoenicians, a people who spoke a Semitic language, developed one of the first proper alphabets. Michael Rosen, in Alphabetical: How Every Letter Tells a Story, explains that the Phoenicians “used abstract versions of objects to indicate letters: a bifurcated (horned?) sign was an ‘ox’ (in their language ‘aleph’), and on down through the words for ‘house,’ ‘stick,’ ‘door’ and ‘shout’ up to ‘tooth’ and ‘mark.'” The alphabet is universal, applicable in any cultural setting, and yet the immediate context of its creation is of sailors and turquoise miners living in the Bronze Age. An epiphany when some turquoise miner abstracted the intricate pictures of Egyptian hieroglyphics, but used them not for ideas, but rather units of sound. The sea-faring Phoenicians, clad in their Tyrian purple cloth dyed from the mucus of clams, would disseminate the alphabet around Mediterranean ports. It’s the origin of elegant Hebrew, which God used when he struck letters of fire into the tablets at Sinai; the genesis of Arabic’s fluid letters by which Allah dictated the Qur’an. The Greeks adapted the Phoenicians’ invention (as they acknowledge) into which the oral poems of Homer could finally be recorded; the death-obsessed Etruscans whose tongue we still can’t hear appropriated the symbols of Punic sailors, as did the Romans who would stamp those letters on triumphant monuments throughout Europe and Africa in so enduring a way that you’re still reading them now. Languid Ge’ez in Ethiopian gospels, blocky Aramaic written in the tongue of Christ, Brahmic scripts which preserved Dharmic prayers, the mysterious Ogham of Irish druids, the bird-scratch runes of the Norseman, the stolid Cyrillic of the Czars, all derive from that initial alphabet. Even Sequoyah’s 19th-century Cherokee, though a syllabary and not technically an alphabet, draws several of its symbols from a Latin that can be ultimately traced back to the mines of Serabit el-Khadim. Matthew Battles, in Palimpsest: A History of the Written Word, writes how this “great chain of alphabetical evolution collapses in a welter of characters, glyphs, and symbols, mingling in friendly, familial and even erotic enthusiasms of conversant meaning.” We sense familiarity across this family tree of alphabetical systems, how in an English “A” we see the Greek α, or how Hebrew ח evokes the Greek η. But as the French rabbi Marc-Allain Ouknin explains in The Mysteries of the Alphabet, all of our letters were ultimately adapted by the ancient Canaanites from Egyptian pictures, for before there was an “A” there was the head of an ox, before there was “H” there was an enclosure. Ouknin writes that the “history of meaning is the history of forgetting the image, the history of a suppression of the visible.” In the beginning there was not the word, but rather the image. 5. During the 17th century, the German Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kirchner was bedeviled by the question of how image and word negotiated over dominion in the Kingdom of Meaning. Kirchner is an exemplar of the Renaissance; born not quite in time for the Enlightenment, he was fluent in conjecture rather than proof, esoterica rather than science, wonder rather than reason. His was the epistemology not of the laboratory, but of the Wunderkammer. In The Alphabetic Labyrinth: The Alphabet in History and Imagination, art historian Johanna Drucker writes that Kirchner’s studies included that of the “structure of the subterranean world of underground rivers, volcanic lava flow and caves, an exhaustive text on all extant devices for producing light,” and most importantly “compendia of information on China, [and] Egypt.” Kirchner is both the first Egyptologist and first Sinologist, even as his conclusions about both subjects would be proven completely inaccurate in almost all of their details. His 1655 Oedipus Aegyptiacus was both an attempt to decipher the enigmatic symbols on papyri and monuments, as well as a “restoration of the hieroglyphic doctrine,” the secret Hermetic knowledge which the priest associated with the ancients. He concurred with the ancient Neo-Platonist Plotinus, who in his Enneads claimed that the Egyptians did not use letters “which represent sounds and words; instead they use designs of images, each of which stands for a distinct thing … Every incised sign is thus, at once, knowledge, wisdom, a real entity captured in one stroke.” Kirchner thus “translated” an inscription on a 2-millennia-old obelisk which sat in the Villa Celimontana in Rome, explaining that the hieroglyphs should read as “His minister and faithful attendant, the polymorphous Spirit, shows the abundance and wealth of all necessary things.” Not a single word is accurate. For Kirchner, what made both hieroglyphics and Chinese writings so evocative was that they got as close to unmediated reality as possible, that they were not mere depiction, but essence. In The Search for the Perfect Language, Umberto Eco explains that Kirchner’s enthusiasms were mistaken, because his “assumption that every hieroglyph was an ideogram … was an assumption which doomed his enterprise at the outset,” for contrary to his presupposition, neither Mandarin nor ancient Egyptian operated like some sort of baroque rebus. Still, Kirchner’s was a contention that “hieroglyphs all showed something about the natural world,” as Eco writes. Pictograms were as a window unto the world; fallen letters were simply scratches in the sand. Where Kirchner and others faltered was in letting abstraction obscure the concreteness of the alphabet. If you flip an “A” upside down, do you not see the horns of the ox which that letter originally signified? If you turn a “B” on its side, do you not see the rooms of a house? Or in the curvature of a “C” that of the camel’s hump? 6. Iconoclasm explains much of our amnesia about the iconic origins of our letters, but it’s also that which gives the alphabet much of its power. Imagery has been the nucleus of human expression since the first Cro-Magnon woman blew red ochre from her engorged cheeks onto the cave wall at Lascaux so as to trace the outline of her hand. But the shift from pictographic writing to alphabetic inaugurated the reign of abstraction whereby the imagistic forebearers of our letters had to be forgotten. Marc-Alain Ouaknin explains that “Behind each of the letters with which we are so familiar lies a history, changes, mutations based on one or more original forms.” Since Gardiner’s translation of Serabit el-Khadim, there have been a few dozen similar abecedariums found at sites mostly in the Sinai. From those sparse examples, scholars trace the morphology of letters back to their original, when they brewed from that primordial soup of imagery, their original meanings now obscured. From our Latin letters we move back to the indecipherable Etruscan, from those northern Italians we trace to the Greeks, and then the purple-clad Phoenicians, finally arriving at the ancient Semites who crafted the alphabet, finding that the our letters are not a, b, and c, nor alpha, beta, and gamma, or even Aleph, Bet, and Gimmel, but rather their original pictures—an ox, a house, and a camel. Philologists and classicists have identified all of the images from which the 26 letters derive. In proto-Sinaitic, “D” was originally a door. If you flip an “E” on its side you see the arms outstretched above the head of a man in prayer. “I” was originally a hand; the wavy line of “M” still looks like the wave of water which it originally was. “R” still has at its top the head above a body which it originally signified; “U” still looks like that which an oar was placed upon in a boat. Kirchner thought that hieroglyphics were perfect pictures of the real world, but hidden within our own alphabet absconded from the courts of Egypt are the ghostly after-images of the originals. 7. The alphabet spread something more than mere convenience—it spread monotheism. Man argues that the “evolution of the belief in a single god was dependent on an ability to record that belief and make it accessible; and that both recording and accessibility were dependent on the invention of the alphabet.” God made the alphabet possible, and it would seem that the alphabet returned the favor. What first had to be forgotten, however, were the meaning of the letters’ original shapes, for in pictograms there lay the risk of idolatry, of conjuring those old gods who birthed them. At Mt. Sinai, the Lord supposedly used fire to emblazon Moses’ tablets with his commandments, the second of which demands that none shall make any “likeness that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” When writing those letters God very well couldn’t use ones that happened to look like a man, or an ox, or a camel’s hump. Ouaknin conjectures that “iconoclasm required the Jews to purge proto-Sinaitic of images,” for the “birth of the modern alphabet created from abstract characters is linked to the revelation and the receiving of the law.” The rabbi argues that it was “Under the influence of monotheistic expression [that] hieroglyphics began to shed some of its images, resulting in the first attempt of an alphabet.” Accessible abstractions of the alphabets were not a fortuitous coincidence, but rather a demand of the Mosaic covenant, since the newly monotheistic Jews couldn’t worship God if the letters of their writing system evoked falcon-headed Horus, the jackal Anubis, or baboon-faced Thoth with stylus in hand. Man writes that “both new god and new script worked together to forge a new nation and disseminate an idea that would change the world.” A skeptic may observe that the alphabet hardly caused an immediate rash of conversions to monotheism in Greece, Rome, or the north country, as Zeus, Jupiter, and Tyr still reigned amongst their respective peoples. Yet alphabetic writing’s emergence occurred right before a period which the Austrian philosopher Karl Jaspers called “the Axial Age.” Jaspers observed that in the first millennium before the Common Era, there was a surprising synchronicity between radically disparate cultures which nonetheless produced new ways of understanding reality which still had some unifying similarities between each other. Monotheism in the Levant, Greek philosophy, Persian Zoroastrianism, and the Indian Upanishads can all be traced to the Axial Age. For Jaspers, a paradigm shift in consciousness resulted in abstraction. What all of these different methods, approaches, and faiths shared was enshrinement the universal over the particular, the reality which is unseen over the shadows on the cave wall. In The Origin and Goal of History, Jaspers describes the Axial Age as “an interregnum … a pause for liberty, a deep breath bringing the most lucid consciousness.” Jaspers noted the simultaneous emergence of these faiths, but proffered not a full hypothesis as to why. I wonder if the abstractions of the alphabet were not that which incubated the Axial Age? In Moses and Monotheism, Sigmund Freud claimed that this “compulsion to worship a God whom one cannot see … meant that as a sensory perception was given second place to what may be called an abstract idea—a triumph of intellectuality over sensuality.” This triumph of abstraction included not just the prophets Isaiah and Elijah, but the philosophers Parmenides and Heraclitus, and the sages Siddhartha and Zarathustra, all of whose words were made eternal in the alphabet. From the Aegean to the Indus River, the common thread of the Axial Age was alphabetic writing, with the one major exception being China. In The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image, Leonard Shlain observed that the rise of phonetic letters coincided with the disappearance of idol worship in the Levant, writing that the “abstract alphabet encouraged abstract thinking,” a progeny born from the curve and line of the Word. Yet old gods can always be born again, their voices barely heard, yet still present in sacred phoneme, their faces peaking out in the spaces between our letters. 8. In the Babylonian desert, excavators frequently find small bowls, ringed with Aramaic and designed to capture demons. Molded by magi, the demon bowls are a trap, a harnessing of the magical efficacy of the alphabet. These talismans combined word and image to tame the malignant lesser gods who still stalked the earth, even after God’s supposed victory. Appropriate that God’s alphabet is that which is able to constrain in clay the machinations of erotic Lilith and bestial Asmodeus. One such bowl, which depicts the succubus Lilith at its center as an alluring woman with long hair barely obscuring breasts and genitalia, incants that “60 men who will capture you with copper ropes on your feet and copper shackles on your hands and caste collars of copper upon your temples.” Israeli scholar Naama Vilozny is an expert on the images of demons painted on these bowls by otherwise iconoclastic Jews. In Haaretz, Vilozny says that you “draw the figure you want to get rid of and then you bind it in a depiction and bind it in words.” There is control in the alphabet, not just in trapping demons, but in the ability to capture a concept’s essence. Writing’s theurgic power of writing, where curses against hell are as strong as baked clay. Magic and monotheism need not be strictly separated; a sense of paganism haunts our faith as well as our letters. The psychologist Julian Jaynes, in his The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, posited a controversial hypothesis that human beings were only “conscious” relatively recently, since shortly before the Axial Age. The alphabet perhaps played a role in this development, theoretically eliminating the others gods in favor of the one voice of God, the only voice in your head. But Jaynes explains that the “mind is still haunted by its old unconscious ways; it broods on lost authorities.” Certainly true when a frightened Babylonian places a bowl in the earth to capture those chthonic spirts which threaten us even though their dominion has been abolished. The alphabet facilitated a new magic. Consider that the fourth commandment, which reads “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain,” is not an injunction against blasphemy in the modern sense, for surely the omnipotent can abide obscenity, but that in historical context it specifically meant that you shouldn’t use God’s name to perform magic. To know the letters of someone’s name is to have the ability to control them; there’s a reason that the “angel” whom Jacob wrestles with refuses to be named. The four Hebrew letters which constitute the proper name of God—יהוה—are commonly referred to as the Tetragrammaton, there being no clear sense of what exactly the word would have actually been pronounced as. These letters have a charged power, no mere ink-stain on sheep-skin, for the correct pronunciation was guarded as an occult secret. Hoffman writes that the letters were “chosen not because of the sounds they represent, but because of their symbolic powers in that they were the Hebrew’s magic vowel letters that no other culture had.” The yod, hay, vov, hay of the Tetragrammaton demonstrated both the victory of monotheism, but also the electric power of the alphabet itself. God encoded into the very name, which in turn was the blueprint for our reality. A dangerous thing, these letters, for just as demons could be controlled with their names painted onto the rough surface of a bowl, so, too, could the most adept of mages compel the Creator to their bidding. 9. Incantation is sometimes called prayer, other times poetry, and occasionally the alphabet can substitute for both. As acrostic, alphabetic possibilities have long attracted poets. In Edward Hirsch’s A Poet’s Glossary, he writes about “Abecedarians,” that is, verses where each line begins with the respective letter of the alphabet. As all formal poetry does, the form exploits artificial constraint—in this circumstance, so as to mediate upon the alphabet itself. This is an “ancient form often employed for sacred works”; Hirsch explains how all of the “acrostics in the Hebrew Bible are alphabetical, such as Psalm 119, which consists of twenty-two eight-line stanzas, one for each letter of the Hebrew of the alphabet.” The “completeness of the form,” Hirsch writes, “enacts the idea of total devotion to the law of God.” St. Augustin, the fourth-century Christian theologian, wrote an abecedarian against the Donatist heretics; nearly a millennium later, Chaucer tried his hand at the form as well. Centuries later, the English journalist Alaric Watt wrote his account of the 1789 Hapsburg Siege of Belgrade in alliterative abecedarian: “An Austrian army, awfully arrayed, / Boldly by battery besieged Belgrade. / Cossack commanders cannonading come, / Dealing destruction’s devastating doom.” There are, to the best of my knowledge, no major examples of abecedarian prose. Perhaps somebody will write something soon? Because as Hirsch notes, the form has “powerful associations with prayer,” the rapturous repetition of the alphabet stripping meaning to its bare essence, emptying both penitence and supplication of ego, in favor of the ecstasies of pure sound. Such was the wisdom of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism, who was inspired by the ecstasies of Pietists to return worship to its emotional core. He sought to strip ritual of empty logic and to re-endow it with that lost sense of the glowing sacred. Sometimes prayer need not even be in words, the sacred letters themselves function well enough. The Baal Shem Tov’s honorific means “Master of the Good Name”; he who has brought within the very sinews of his flesh and the synapses of his mind the pulsating power of the Tetragrammaton. So much can depend on four letters. The Baal Shem Tov, or “Besht” as he was often called, lived in the Pale of Settlement, the cold, grey Galician countryside. Drucker writes that the Besht exhorted the “practicing Jew to make of daily life a continual practice of devotion,” whereby “each of the letters which pass one’s lips are ascendant and unite with each other, carrying with them the full glory.” The Besht taught that letters were not incidental; the alphabet itself was necessary for “true unification with the Divinity.” According to Hasidic legend, one Yom Kippur, the Besht led his congregation in their prayers. Towards the back of the synagogue was a simple-minded but pious shepherd boy. The other worshipers, with fingers pressing prayer book open, repeated the words of the Kol Nidre, but the illiterate shepherd could only pretend to mouth along, to follow writing which he could not read. Emotions became rapturous as black-coated men below and women in the balcony above began to sway and shout out the prayers. Finally, overcome with devotion but unable to repeat after the rest of his fellow Jews, the shepherd boy shouted out the only prayer he could: “Aleph. Bet. Gimmel. Daleth …” through the rest of the 18 Hebrew letters. There was an awkward silence in the sanctuary. Embarrassed, the young man explained, “God, that is all I can do. You know what your prayers are. Please arrange them into the correct order.” From the rafters of the shul, decorated with Hebrew letters in blocky black ink, came the very voice of God, leading the entire congregation in the holiest of prayers, repeated from that of the simple shepherd: “Aleph. Bet. Gimmel. Daleth …” And so, in the court of the Baal Shem Tov, in the early 18th century in a synagogue upon the Galician plain, God deigned to teach women and men how to worship once again, in the holiest prayer that there is. The alphabet, repeated truthfully with faith in your soul, is the purest form of prayer. 10. Alphabets are under-theorized. Because it’s so omnipresent, there is a way in which it’s easy to forget the spooky power of 26 symbols. Considering how fundamental to basic functioning it is, we frequently overlook the sheer, transcendent magnificence of the letters which structure our world. Disenchantment, however, need not be our lot, for there is a realization that letters don’t convey reality, but rather that they are reality. Ecstatic to comprehend, the way in which stains on dead tree are the conduit through which all meaning traverses, much like the electrons illuminating our screens. Fundamentally, what I’m arguing for is not just that our alphabet is a means of approaching the divine—no, not just that. God is the alphabet, and the alphabet is God. Heaven is traversed through the alpha and the omega. I argue that the alphabet betrays its origins, for word and image are joined together in symbiosis, no matter how occluded. Just as Kirchner believed hieroglyphics contained reality, so, too, is the alphabet haunted by pictures obscure; as Ouaknin enthuses, it’s in “unearthing the traces of the origin of letters and understanding how they evolved” that provide occult wisdom. Knowing that letters shift back and forth, so that they can return to the images which birthed them, as in the calligraphy which illustrates Attar’s Simurgh, is a demonstration of their fluid nature. Literal though we may misapprehend Egyptian pictograms to be, their abstract progeny in the form of our 26 letters are still haunted by their origins, and we can imbue them with a sense of their birthright now and again. Moreover, the mysteries of the alphabet subconsciously affect us, so that as Battles claims concerning letters since “whether alphabetic or ideographic, they start out as pictures of things,” the better to explain “why writing works for us, and why it has conserved these signs so well over these three millennia.” Nevertheless, the haunting of previous incarnations of letters’ past shapes can’t alone explain their strange power. Only something divine can fully explicate how some marks on Hathor’s hide charts a direct line to the letters you’re reading right now. Perhaps “divine” is a loaded term, what with all of those unfortunate religious connotations; “transcendent” would be just as apt. Questions can certainly be raised about my contentions; I do not wish to be read as airy, but with every letter of my sentences I can’t help but believe that the kabbalists and Gnostics were right—the alphabet constitutes our being. Reality, I believe, can be completely constituted from all 26 letters (give or take). Sift through all of them, and realize that the answer to any question lay between Aleph and Tav, not just as metaphor, but those answers are simply uncovered by finding the proper organization of those letters. The answer to any inquiry, the solution to any problem, the very wisdom that frees, can be discovered simply by finding the correct arrangement of those letters. Underneath the surface of these shapes are indications of their birth, but also that fuller reality just beyond our gaze. Vexation need not follow such an observation, but rather embrace the endless transition between image and word which is the alphabet. We need not pick between letter or picture, there is room enough for both. Xenoglossic is what we should be: fluent in language unknown to our tongues, but rather spoken in our souls. You need only repeat the alphabet as if you’re an illiterate shepherd in the assembly of the Baal Shem Tov. Zealots of the alphabet, with those very letters carved by fire into our hearts. Image: Temple of Hathor remains in Serabit el-Khadim by Einsamer Schütze
The drive north into the oilfield at night showed the faint slopes of buttes ringed in sepia and burnt orange, then a drapery of glittering lights, civilization rising. Semi-trucks blared past the traffic cones and half-built apartments and hotels. I passed a roadside bust of Theodore Roosevelt, a man camp that the feds would soon discover was part of a worldwide Ponzi scheme, and the Wild Bison truck stop. It was fall 2014; I was traveling up North Dakota’s Highway 85 after several months away. I had arranged through a friend's colleague to stay in a spare room at the Dakotaland trailer park, but now I could not find it on a map, nor by my friend’s vague directions to go north of the truck stop and turn right on an unmarked road. What road? The sky was black, the lights of new buildings long past me. Where was the tobacco shop and the post office, the Hi Way Lounge and Hard Ride Saloon and the Ragged Butte Inn? I knew I had gone too far when I hit Route 200, near the first drilling rig I had visited over the summer, and I turned around. Still the old landmarks did not materialize. I imagined that I was hallucinating, driving back and forth into the void, and finally spied a vague turnoff onto a dirt road. An 18-wheeler followed, lights blaring, and the road kicked up dust so thick that it briefly blinded me; ahead, finally, was Dakotaland. In the trailer was a foul-mouthed roughneck from Tuscaloosa who showed me to my room, which had been vacated by a rig worker who was carried out on a stretcher. In the clearness of morning, I saw that they’d built a massive bypass around the highway I used to know, in order to stop oil trucks from barreling through Watford City, population 1,700 before the oil rush. So the old route was gone—I always remembered this when considering how fast the oilfield changed, that one could be gone for less than four months and still lose her way on a road she’d traveled dozens of times before. People often compared the boom here to the California Gold Rush. In the 1840s, New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley sent 24-year-old Bayard Taylor to cover it, prompting him to sail through the Isthmus of Panama to the West Coast and visit a series of mining towns for his book Eldorado: or, Adventures in the Path of Empire. Taylor could have been me observing North Dakota when he grasped the drastic changes that could happen in short order: “When I landed there, a little more than four months before, I found a scattering town of tents and canvas houses … Now, on my last visit, I saw around me an actual metropolis, displaying street after street of well-built edifices, filled with an active and enterprising people, and exhibiting every mark of commercial prosperity.” More than a century and a half later, the largest oil rush in modern U.S. history had transformed western North Dakota’s faded frontier into a crucible of breakneck capitalism. To chronicle such a rush one had to wed journalism and literature and history—to be a lone adventurer traveling to a remote outpost and capturing the greed, struggles and whimsies of the pioneers with nuance, depth and sporadic humor. It was a strange aspiration, perhaps, in the 21st century, where too much journalism is done in a coastal city in front of a computer. My idols, like Taylor, were mostly from bygone eras. Another inspiration was Joe McGinniss. He’d been struggling to match the success of his bestselling debut The Selling of the President in 1968 when the massive discovery of oil in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, set off a pipeline boom that drew hordes of laborers, industrialists and hustlers to the northern frontier. The young writer had followed his hit expose of the Nixon presidential campaign with a novel about a sportswriter and a memoir, both poorly received, and was looking for his next project. He boarded a ferry from Seattle to Alaska in late fall, making friends with a hard-drinking character named Eddie the Basque, and set out to try another genre. McGinniss spun tales of pioneers, gadflies, rangers, and indigenous people in Going to Extremes, writing with decidedly more of an offbeat, absurdist voice than John McPhee did in his own Alaskan account Coming into the Country. The Philadelphia Inquirer hailed McGinniss’s reporting as a grittier, harder-edged take on the topic than the denser, more measured McPhee’s—a portrait of the “‘real’ Alaska.” McGinniss was interested in writing an adventurous frontier story that explored the psychology and culture around the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, ignoring the geopolitics of oil in the seventies. The Bakken shale was the largest oil discovery since Prudhoe Bay, and I wanted to write a book about this brilliant new microcosm of American greed and striving. (During the year of this essay’s beginning, McGinness passed away from prostate cancer at age 71.) Unlike him and Taylor, I would not embark on a grand journey by sea—instead, I’d drive from my apartment in Minneapolis, stopping for gas near Fargo off Interstate 94, where there would invariably be some shifty-eyed man at the next pump over—probably just out on parole—and know, without saying a word, that he was bound for the oilfield six hours across the state. That look. Freedom, desperation, adventure, meth, money … Then I’d carry on, driving into long and green hollows of feral quiet that ran hundreds of miles. Get out in some smudge of a town like Harvey to fill the tank again—shiver in the eyes of stillness that beamed over that endless expanse—retreat to the car as if to escape forces that would pull a human interloper into the fissures of the earth. Remember this upon arriving at the western flank of the state, where trucks and rigs and men ran roughshod and nature was the trespasser. I was astonished, upon my first trip to the oil hub of Williston, when several people mentioned offhand that they had seen men drag a passed-out woman from the bushes into a van. “What did the police say?” I asked, and they shrugged. It hadn’t occurred to them to call the cops. A Scottish author’s observation of the fortune-seekers in San Francisco during the 1850s could very well have applied to those of the North Dakota oil rush. “The community was composed of isolated individuals, each quite regardless of the good opinion of his neighbors; and, the outside pressure of society being removed, men assumed their natural shape …” wrote J.D. Borthwick in Three Years in California. Then Taylor wrote—as was true in 2014, with oil topping $100 a barrel—that the cost of land, rents, and goods had steadily increased and “there would be before long a crash of speculation. Things, it appeared then, had reached the crisis, and it was pronounced impossible that they could remain stationary.” Some of the great frontier writers were just as interested in striking it rich as the workaday miners around them. Mark Twain grew “smitten with silver fever” in Nevada, but his efforts amounted to little. He and a friend lost their legal claim to a silver mine by not acting in time; then he lost money in mining stock investments. College dropout Jack London departed California for Alaska during the Klondike Gold Rush, braving the White Horse Rapids and 40-below temperatures and roughing it in a cabin on the Stewart River. “I brought nothing back from the Klondike but my scurvy,” he lamented afterwards, with $4.50 worth of gold in his pocket. Being a woman without the brawn for a real oil job, I cashiered at the Wild Bison truck stop for a month at $14 an hour—double the minimum wage at the time but certainly not big oil money, just enough to pay my way reporting a magazine story—and set about documenting the people who came in. I met a Wild Bison customer who wore a low-hanging shirt that exposed an enormous tattoo across his chest that said murder. Another was a bounty hunter from south Texas. A regular was selling waste disposal services from rig to rig after his banking scandal drew the scrutiny of the Securities and Exchange Commission and New York Times. A twitchy hitchhiker with only $30 to his name washed in from Maine. Outsiders, outcasts, hustlers, Americans in extremis. Who else, after all, would be drawn to the frontier? McGinniss described white (and therefore, new) residents in one Alaska town thus: “They were unusual people, the whites of Barrow. They had to be: else why would they have been there? They had come seeking adventure, or high wages, or more frequently, escaping from problems outside. Recently divorced, in many cases. Needing a fresh start, someplace distant … to survive as a white in Barrow, you needed an unusual degree of psychological stability. But to have come to Barrow as a white, in the first place, you already had displayed an extraordinary absence of the same.” I spent about a year total in the oilfield, covering the transformation from raw frontier to civilization. I favored a more investigative approach than the travelogue popular with my predecessors, but above all was wary of the newspaper conventions that had locked me in for the past decade—fine for most stories, but a limitation on the expansive writing needed to capture the story at hand. Frontier writing also had to be written from the first person, though going gonzo was optional. The Southern writer Harry Crews went to cover the Alaskan pipeline boom for Playboy and woke up after a bender to discover a tattoo of a hinge on his arm, but no bounty of liquor or promise of literary infamy could have coaxed me into the tattoo parlor Skinful Pleasure in downtown Williston. Gonzo or not, I had to cultivate many sources during their own benders, as oilfield types were disproportionately heavy drinkers who would not suspend their habits to participate in my book. When I turned my back on one oilfield entrepreneur for a few minutes at a bar, he began insulting the bartender in a drunken rampage and was kicked out. He called me the next day to say he woke up with $600 missing, possibly at the strip club he went to afterwards. But frontier reporting had vastly changed in some respects. For one, the speculative nature of the old gold and oil rushes no longer existed—there was no mass starvation, and few impoverished, penniless miners. Oil companies knew where and how to extract crude with almost total precision. The technological advances of our modern fracking boom meant that an aspiring worker could get an oil job as long as he could pass a drug test, and if he could not, those were easy enough to fake. A Houston roughneck who lived next door to me in Dakotaland once got away with pouring Mountain Dew into a urine test cup to hide his penchant for marijuana. Also, newspapers—print overall, really—no longer played the role they did in hyping past gold and oil booms. Consider how in 1897, an extra edition of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer trumpeted the arrival of a steamer from Alaska loaded with more than a ton of solid gold: GOLD! GOLD! GOLD! GOLD! Sixty-Eight Rich Men on the Steamer Portland. STACKS OF YELLOW METAL! The article celebrated the steamer’s cargo worth $700,000. Thousands rushed to see the boat dock. Newspapers around the country printed stories, spurring a stampede to Alaska by way of Seattle. In the 1970s, a New York Daily News article about the pipeline boom resulted in 6,576 letters and 1,370 phone calls to the pipeline company in one month, according to the Alaskan journalist Dermot Cole. But starting in 2011, it was the screen that propelled people all over America to the North Dakota oilfield. One viewer in Olympia, Washington, saw a news feature on the oil boom during a blur of Jersey Shore episodes. He struggled to find work after being laid off as a graphic artist and had been melting for weeks into a tattered couch in front of the TV, spending his unemployment checks on booze, pizza and ice cream. Gregg Thompson soon packed his belongings and rode the Amtrak 1,100 miles east, eventually finding a job at an oilfield Walmart. He also found a side hustle in filming YouTube videos about life in the oil patch, casting himself as a quirky citizen reporter expounding on everything from slumlords to tumbleweeds. Gregg had the edge because chronicles from out of state journalists were either sensational or generic—the reporters usually spent only a few days on the ground. It is amusing to contemplate how we would have imagined the Klondike Gold Rush or Trans-Alaska Pipeline construction had YouTube been around at the time—the medium is particularly suited to the individualist, unfiltered nature of a boomtown. What if Twain had been roaming Virginia City, Nevada, in the 1860s making online videos, instead of penning tall tales as a reporter for the Territorial Enterprise newspaper? With my notebook and pen, even a laptop perched on the bar, I was too old-school—everybody wanted to be on camera. Even more strikingly, the persona of the swashbuckling male writer had faded. I’d look around the truck stops and bars and oil sites and wonder who the male successors to Taylor, Twain and McGinniss were, but female journalists like me now dominated immersive writing out there. Blaire Briody moved into an RV park one summer to report a book called The New Wild West, even going undercover as a day laborer. Laura Gottesdiener went undercover to work as a waitress at a strip club for a magazine piece; on her first night, one patron beat another to death with a pipe. Sierra Crane Murdoch filed thoughtful, longform dispatches about the oil boom’s effects on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. I waited for the article about a male author going undercover as a roustabout, or the book deal of a male adventurer’s oilfield bar-hopping, but it never came. (Men did documentaries instead.) And in reading the writing of my predecessors, I found no guidance for the annoyances I would face as a woman, such as being turned down by several landlords for a room because a woman was considered a liability in a patriarchal, gender-segregated society. I eventually spent the majority of my oilfield tenure living in a house of all women near Walmart. The speculative bubble that Taylor observed was just as true in North Dakota, and I was on the ground for the long, torturous spiraling of the Bakken’s fortunes as oil prices crashed and OPEC put the squeeze on the U.S. shale industry—the exodus of migrants, the misery, the homelessness, the dreams betrayed. Twain’s exaggerated musings on the California gold rush towns echoed in a later century. “And where are they now?” Twain asked of the old fortune-seekers. “Scattered to the ends of the earth—or prematurely aged and decrepit—or shot or stabbed in street affrays—or dead of disappointed hopes and broken hearts—all gone, or nearly all— victims devoted upon the altar of the golden calf—the noblest holocaust that ever wafted its sacrificial incense heavenward.” I read those words again and again while I was in North Dakota—they were my favorite lines in his book Roughing It—as he talked of this “most splendid population” that had converged on California and then dispersed. Many of the people who industrialized the North Dakota oilfield left for new adventures when the money dried up, bold and noble participants in one of the most fascinating capitalistic experiments of the American 21st century. As oil hit $27 a barrel in January 2016, a 13-year low, it was a wise time to flee the oilfield. When I mention life on the frontier nowadays, having moved to the Washington, D.C., area, some look at me oddly. North Dakota? What’s there? Several colleagues are baffled at why I went out at all; one called it a hellscape. An editor for a major publishing house said several years back that he liked everything about my book proposal but the topic, that I was “intrepid in the extreme in moving … to the shithole (sorry) that North Dakota has become as a result of that shale oil boom,” but it was too dispiriting to read about. Yet after finally publishing my own frontier book this spring, I am sure that the oilfield is where I found myself as a writer, a journalist, an adventurer, just as London concluded that he had found himself in the Klondike. (“You get your true perspective,” he said.) Something about a rush and a collapse, giddy hopes and despair, muddy boots and gritty prairies, has forged my path as a writer more than any of my news reporting jobs over the years. Twain was a failure as a silver miner, and Roughing It is not considered among his best-known books. But he published his books on Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn over the next decade. Taylor established himself as a world traveling writer and diplomat. McGinniss went on to write some of his best-known work, including true-crime book Fatal Vision. The frontier is often just the beginning. Image: Flickr/Tim Evanson
My own experience is that once a story has been written, one has to cross out the beginning and the end. It is there that we authors do most of our lying. —Anton Chekhov 1. A Phone Call from Mom "Do you know what your brother did when he finished reading your novel?" my mother asks. "He WhatsApped me," I answer. "'Just finished your book. Great read'." I reread my brother's exact words from my phone. There is a cheery note in my voice because I've already won this conversation. With this book publication there will be no family drama. We can skip the, "s/he's going to kill you when he reads that" back and forth. "That's not how it went over here," my mother says. "Oh no." "I had to throw him out." "What?" "I couldn't take it anymore." "Because of my novel?" "He was raving mad." "Oy. You sure it wasn't something else?" 2. Selection Is Also for Novelists You might think the agony of what to remove from your work is reserved for nonfiction and memoir writers. True when I do write the occasional nonfiction piece, usually an essay, I agonize if it has anything to do with family. I'm not out to hurt anyone. On a practical level, what do I do? I change names, genders, ages, locations, and other identifying factors, nothing that's not standard. I have also at times left a sibling out of a scene entirely if I can get away with it, to minimize the bruising, if I think there will be any. Mostly, I stick with fiction. And I'm here to tell you it doesn't make the problem disappear. I could write about dragons who play tennis on Mars and I would still undergo family scrutiny and receive comments like, "I know who that head dragon was supposed to be," or "you did a good job of portraying Mom as a fire-breathing tennis champion." Famous writers like Ann Lamott are quoted left, right, and center about people who should have behaved better if they didn't want to be written about. Writers Digest tells us never to write for revenge about our families, to write with compassion, and to be prepared for any reaction. But who talks about when we don't write about our families and they're convinced it's them anyway? Family is knitted into our lives. Getting together with your family for celebrations, gatherings, and holidays are unavoidable. So at least half a dozen times of year, I get drawn into this conversation about whether someone will be upset by my last short piece because obviously, it's about them, even when it isn't. "I was just relaxing in the living room, you know?" my mother continues. "Mmmhmm." "Bang! He's there. You know how he gets." "He's not in my novel. Neither are you," I answer. "I got a mention." "The mother's dead before the novel begins." "You did say the mother was very pretty." [millions_ad] My mother's phone call is nonsensical. This novel is "family-proof" because it's blessedly sibling-free; my heroine is an only child. Not only does it fit the story—there are plenty of other characters to contend with—but it saved me from that dark path many writers have to tread stripped naked and often blindfolded: the path of omission. This hair-raising path has many branches, but "family" is one of the least avoidable routes and "siblings" a prominent sub-section. We often read about writers who work with maps (Google or otherwise) in front of them to depict authenticity in location. There are other, lesser-talked-about sibling maps to navigate. As a writer with five siblings, I have an intimate familiarity with this route. Siblings see themselves in your writing, no matter what. They point out places they are present in your work in paragraphs where you never put them, not even their shadows. You can't imagine what it's like if you've never gone through it. So if this conversation was a nonstarter, why was there strain in my mother's voice? She's 82, but her voice remains the same and since almost 100 percent of our interaction is telephonic (my mother lives in Canada; I live in Israel), I have learned to identify even the slightest change in her intonations over the years. "He marched over here, burst through the door and he starts. He was having a fit. 'So that's it! He says. That's the reason. Now I know.'" My mother was yelling now too. She was yelling about my brother's yelling. I should explain that they live on the same long street, at opposite ends. My brother and his family are as frequent visitors as me and my family are infrequent. My mother is in full-on brother imitation now: "I just finished reading Gila's book. That's why I never got that job! It was Abba's ex-wife." "What? What job?" I jump in. "You wouldn't remember," my mother says in her own voice now. "There's nothing in the book about any job." "I know how he thinks." To be clear, I have never met my father's ex-wife. I've never even seen a photograph of her. There isn't one that I know of and I'm not interested if there is. There were no children from my father's first marriage, which, let's face it, was 62 years ago! I don't even know if his ex-wife is alive, given that my father's 82—it's impossible to say, seeing as I don't know her current last name or her maiden name. And the father in my novel has a similar background to my father's but he's not my father. In my novel, the father is a mechanic who can "fix anything and is often found under the body of a car." My father is afraid the microwave will explode if he pushes the wrong button. He waits for my mother to come home and heat things up. He's no more a mechanic than he is an elephant trainer. And if, heaven forbid, he is ever found under the body of a car, I'm afraid an ambulance would be required. It was his geographical and genetic background I used for my novel, a mere shadow of him. I was so careful omitting any reference in this latest fiction novel to any siblings, I thought I was in the clear. Sorry, Mom. As a mother, daughter, sister, wife, neighbor, the selection process for a writer can be agonizing. I remember with my first novel, I couldn't shake the comments that the overbearing husband in my story must be my real husband. They came from neighbors and friends. It was over the top. A couple of them even called him by the name of the husband in the novel at a party. He was an excellent sport about it. So, does the omission process matter? Is all of that self-scrutiny worthwhile if people will believe whatever they want to believe, anyway? I think it does. You know what you've written and the people you've written about know, too. My husband could laugh off the teasing because he knew I wasn't writing about him. The struggle with omission doesn't just end with people. Location is yet another muddy area. If anywhere you live is identified as your actual neighborhood, things might get sticky. You worry your neighbors might dislike any literary dirty-laundry hanging. If you live in Israel, that issue can be amplified 10 times over. Do I have to include an equal number of Jewish and Arab characters? (Interestingly, as a Canadian, I never felt guilty about omission if every character was a Jewish Canadian.) Yet as an Israeli writer, I am highly conscious of which type of Israelis are present and which are not. What I've learned so far is not to let these insecurities steer me off course. I draw a lot on the words of Flannery O'Connor. She describes writers as "seekers of the real, but the realism of each novelist will depend on his view of the ultimate reaches of reality." I need to omit only inasmuch as I am not destroying the reality I want to convey to the reader. That's how I fulfill my part of the deal as the writer; the readers will have to choose what parts they wish to play on their own. Image: Flickr/Pedro Ribeiro Simões
In 1856, an obscure-ish writer, frustrated by the non-recognition of his newest self-published oeuvre, took matters into his own hands. He sent copies of his book of poems, unsolicited, to the literary luminaries of his day. One luminary, Ralph Waldo Emerson, replied with a polite thank-you note. "‘I greet you at the beginning of a great career.’ —Ralph Waldo Emerson” was quickly appended—in blingy gold letters—to the back of this book. This is widely considered to be the first book blurb in the English language, as we’ve documented on the site before. Without it, perhaps Walt Whitman and his Leaves of Grass might have stayed obscure forever (Emerson, however, objected to this manipulation of his private correspondence). Besides poetic genius, Whitman had the marketing instinct of a P.T. Barnum; of course, today we think of him as an American bard, but at the time, he also penned his own blurbable reviews, anointing himself the "American bard at last!" pulling off what Jerome Loving, in his biography Emerson, Whitman, and the American Muse, viewed "as a slick promotion scheme, done by a man with little sense of propriety." Blurbs, the quoted testimonials of a book's virtues by other authors, are now so ubiquitous, readers expect them, first-time authors stress about getting them, booksellers base orders on them. A blank back cover today would probably look like a production mistake. But while readers heft books in their hands and scrutinize the praise, it should be noted that blurbs are not ad copy written by some copywriter; they are ad copy written by a fellow author. "Ad copy" might be a bit harsh, but maybe not. The "flap copy," the wordage on the inside flap of the cover of a hard cover, is written by the publishers, to tell potential readers what the book is about but also, of course, to spur a purchase. Blurbs are also there for promotional purposes only, their bias similarly implicit. "Why is this even a book?" I saw in a book review for a tepid memoir that I read in galleys and enthusiastically thought the same thing about. But such an honest negative assessment is not going to make it as a blurb, nor does an author's effusive praise guarantee that the book has been read. Random people I interviewed for this piece didn't know what blurbs were—when I asked about their persuasiveness/necessity, most said they thought they were necessary, but then I realized they were referring to the "flap copy" on the inside cover. Most readers I spoke to casually, including my niece, a college student who can't leave a bookstore without at least 50 pounds of books, seemed pretty agnostic-to-meh about blurbs and mostly ignored them while browsing. My spouse worked as an editorial assistant at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux in the time before email and the internet, and much of his workday was spent sleuthing ways to get books to authors, sort of like how the court server jumps out from behind the potted plant with the summons. Now, it's so easy to get ahold of people, manuscripts and bound galleys are flying. It's not uncommon for well-known writers to receive more than a book a day "for which we hope you will comment," i.e., blurb. I've seen friends' apartments made small with towers of books, academic colleagues have to do a systems dump, rejected blurb requests piled outside their offices next to a big FREE sign. To put another way, there are around 600,000 to a million new books published per year (depending on what statistics you want to use) but it's clear this creates a beast that constantly needs to be fed blurbs, which need to be gotten fresh every time; Rick Simonson, a bookseller at Elliott Bay Books, told me about a publisher using "a nice Susan Sontag quote for John Berger long after she'd passed away"—and that wasn't super effective. Nor, he said, was using general all-purpose blurbs. A book needs a blurb and a good one. Feed me, Seymour! The publishing industry thus runs on the fuel of free writer labor from authors often unrelated to the publishing house—i.e., unlike the flap copy writer who is paid by said publisher, the blurbing author is contributing to the book but is not the one getting published and paid, all because some guy made a funny promotional jacket for his book in 1905. As a writer whose last novel came out more than a decade ago, I feel like I am Rip Van Winkle-ishly stepping back into a world that has utterly changed—a new industry of independent publicists, the rise of social media—because of the speed at which things happen, short attention spans, distraction from other forms of media, the insta-data of Amazon algorithms, and just as the Grinch would say: noise, noise, noise. Before I parse the motivational civic/karmic duty of blurbing, let me take you through a blurb process, at least mine. They fall into roughly three categories. The ideal: the editor (or author) emails or calls to ask if I'd be interested. If I say yes, she promptly gets me the manuscript, gives me a deadline a few months in the future. I get a big thank you when I turn it in, and months later, the published book arrives with my blurb on it. It's kind of cool. The okay: usually a smaller indie press wants a blurb for the book and the ARC (advanced readers copy); being less organized/staffed, they give me the impossible deadline of a week. I will do the blurb but have already missed the first deadline, so there are bad feelings and disappointment already attached to the project. The terrible: the editor calls and if I assent, informs me they need the blurb right away, like in a day or two. That tells me they are getting closer to publication date and panicking because the author doesn't have enough blurbs or the hoped-for famous blurbers fell through, so they are asking a novelist who hasn't published a novel in a decade—i.e., I am being called from the B- or C-list bench (it makes it worse when they effuse—"You would be such a get"—I'm not Jodi Picoult), then exhorted to blurb really fast, and that's irritating on all fronts and often burdensome. These requests are also historically the ones most likely to end up with my blurb not being used, either because of disorganization or maybe a last-minute famous person came through. Add to the spiritual trouble if I don't even get a copy of the book I went to a lot of trouble to blurb. The value of the labor of blurbing is not as trifling as the word "blurb" would suggest. Thomas Mann opined that writers are those for whom writing is more difficult than for other people. I worked for years in research at a big investment bank, and even while needing to express in mathematics how the price/equity values of one company versus another made it a buy/sell/hold, I couldn't bear to leave a dangling participle or a superfluous comma for a dependent clause. Reading a book to blurb is of course much more fun. I find writing blurbs, like writing student recommendation letters, to be a joyful and simultaneously fraught task. Primarily, it's nice to be asked, it's a joyful thing to have a book come out, it also feels a bit like a civic duty to expend whatever social capital one has (it's free!) to help another author along. The fraught part has to do with the scarcest of resources for all of us: time to do our own work. See, I'm not an ad-copy writer, but I must write a squib that will make the book sound exciting, not give up any spoilers, explain what the book is about in a dozen words, and most importantly avoid blurb clichés—"passionate, heartbreaking"—because those would signal insincerity and thereby make the blurb and all my hard work useless. In other words, I have to deploy some of my best writing chops for a blurb. I am not alone. Poetry books need blurbs, too, and poets have an attentional relationship to language that makes blurb writing even more fraught. Poet Adrienne Su tells me, "I read the whole book and think about it a long time, and it's still a struggle not to sound generic. Being a poet—at least, being in the majority of poets, who aren't famous—involves too many sacrifices to put your name on anything without care." Further, a nuclear arms race in blurbing is building. Besides the plain blurb, there is now the "pre-blurb" that goes onto the advance readers copy and is used as a kind of literary chum to attract more blurbs. There's even a pre-pre-blurb for a manuscript to wear when it goes out to the market. That's a lot of blurbs for one book making it through the system. Yet what's up with the blurb writers? Who is the Author Lorax who speaks for them? Back when my physician father still held out hope that of his four children, I would be the one to become a doctor, I questioned the ridiculousness of the days and days of no sleep during internship and how it didn't make any sense, for the interns or for their patients. The best he could come up with was that he did it, so I, and other young doctors-to-be should, too. An unconvincing blurb is not the equivalent of a fatal drug interaction prescribed by an overtired intern. But without examination, the beast grows and needs more food more frequently, and is anyone keeping track of what's happening? At what point will it be deemed ridiculous, at the pre-pre-pre-pre-blurb stage? And who will be doing it? Who are these authors, the blurbers? Many are simply friends of the author with the forthcoming book. There are generous authors who blurb a lot of strangers, but, given time constraints, don't read the books terribly carefully. Then there are the super-generous authors who take many hours of reading and writing to craft a blurb; these fastidious authors are driven by a pride in their blurb work. I also read the books in their entirety, but I'm driven more by fear there'd be some literary Rickroll inside the book, precisely at the place I'd skimmed. Or I'd call it "a gripping tale of World War I" when it was actually a novel about World War II, and my mistake will be public as long as the book is in print—you get the gist. But for either kind of generous stranger-blurber, time is a problem. Some people might run out their lifespan if they actually read every book they blurbed. Gary Shteyngart is the Joyce Carol Oates of blurbing, but he's quite candid in telling me that he does not carefully read every word or even finish the books he's been asked to blurb, but avers anyone who does "should be given medals and grants." Yet other authors feel it's part of the social contract to read every word before providing a blurb—but there's no ethical guidelines about this at all. Some readers feel that having an author's friend or teacher blurb (e.g., they can see the name come up again in the acknowledgments) is cheating, reflecting a perception that blurbs should be somehow pure, unbiased endorsements for a work. They might be interested in the story of an author who told me that he'd been thrilled to secure the promise of a blurb from a famous writer—who then, because he was a busy and famous, asked the author to Walt Whitmanishly write the blurb himself and he'd affix his name upon it. These readers who presume purity do not realize that blurbing is largely driven by connections and that blurbers may gush about a "book of the century" while merely operating within the loose confines of "if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." Some people say if an author blurbs too much, this reduces the "value" of the blurb. Shteyngart good-naturedly tells me I can call him a "blurb whore." But I think of it more in terms of overblurbers and underblurbers. The overblurber is generally just a generous person who wants to help other writers; most overblurbers I spoke to had clearly set standards for commitments: e.g., student work, authors of color, underappreciated authors and presses, which all but guarantees a heavy blurbing schedule. The underblurber, however, can be an author with some social capital who could help other authors with a blurb but pointedly refuses, even for what I would call a slam dunk case, e.g., a student—often because he blurbs "up" but never "down." It's a free country, but I also give up my seat on the subway for the elderly even though I am not contractually obliged to. In general, I will say that blurbs are a blight on the publishing industry, both for people seeking blurbs and the writers asked to blurb. I'm thinking of the swath of time and productivity of editors, agents, publicists, writers being sucked into the blurb machine. And while it can drive sales, as it's meant to, it doesn't necessarily do readers a favor. When I am asked to blurb, I don't spend a lot of time thinking, "Is this book worth the readers' money?" Even if I wrote an honest blurb—"Save your money and buy some Raymond Carver instead of this lukewarm imitative collection"—the publisher isn't going to use my PSA. On the other hand, when I genuinely love an author's work, or even if it's problematic, or not fully formed, or I just hope to see more in the future, blurbing is a material way to donate my time to help a fellow writer eke out a living, especially if they are a debut author and/or publishing with a small press. Novelist Chris Castellani goes so far to say he thinks of it as "a sacred act—you are putting your name on a work of art, and your name will forever be associated with that work. So it's a big responsibility." But he has also encountered the downside of acting as a cog in the grinding wheel of the blurb factory, "which is why I have to say I do get frustrated when I write one, and I get barely a thank you from the author or the editor. It's a certain kind of entitlement"—one that many writers find difficult. Newly minted MacArthur fellow Kelly Link, who runs Small Beer Press with her husband Gavin Grant, has insights from both sides: "As a writer who has greatly benefitted from the word of mouth that pre-publication blurbs can provide, as an editor and publisher who hopefully sends out galleys of books that I adore to writers that I adore in the hopes that they will have the time to read and say something, as a reader who is sent far too many excellent books in galleys and feels both an obligation and a feeling of dread because of the tight deadlines that blurbing often requires ... it’s immensely gratifying to be given the chance to read new writers, and to have a chance to say something about how much I’ve loved their work. But it’s also impossible to keep up." Viet Thanh Nguyen is Shteyngart-level generous with his blurbs, but I asked him, as an academic, fiction and nonfiction writer, contributor for the New York Times op-ed page and others, a mentor, a in-demand speaker, a parent, etc., how he does it all, especially as he makes the commitment to read through every book he has agreed to blurb. Blurbing time indeed cuts into artist production time: "I get very little of my own reading done, which is to say books that I think will help me with my own writing. This is distressing to me." Besides the macro effect on the literary output of those luminaries who are called upon to blurb, there is another aspect invisible to readers in the game of blurbs: The playing field is highly skewed toward certain subsets of writers: people who know people, people who live in New York and actively participate in its literary/publishing scene. Also, graduates of MFA programs, as they have well-known writers as faculty to ask for blurbs, this baked-in aspect of MFA programs (which themselves have hierarchies) becomes a system of exclusion in itself. And people who have powerful agents and editors of course have many more avenues of access. This uneven system is mired in issues of race and class and thus can be part of a self-perpetuating cycle that is deleterious—and invisibly so—for the less well off, the less connected, and those far away from the city. Kelly Link, who is a delightful presence on twitter (@HasZombiesInIt, also @SmallBeerPress), tells me that even for books she loved in galleys, she often couldn't make the blurbing deadline, and "I’m much happier just recommending books to readers on Twitter when they [Twitter followers] ask for something to read and tell me the sort of thing that they like." Maybe readers (and publishers) could declare not an end, but maybe an armistice, in the arms race of blurbing. I, for one, would rather have another Kelly Link short story instead of a blurb. The writer Geraldine Brooks, herself a generous blurber, said, "I stopped asking for blurbs after my first novel, preferring just to go with pull quotes from reviews about previous books"—clearly, her career has not been hampered by this restraint. Of course, the system can't change overnight. Bookseller Pamela Klinger-Horn of Excelsior Bay Books and Valley Bookseller says that bookselling "is such a tough market that anything helps. I don't see blurbs going away anytime soon." As an author, however, I can make decisions about my book. Will I have the courage to lessen the load for my brethren and go through publication blurb-less? Would my publisher even let me? Image: iStock
A little less than 50 miles from Krakow, at the confluence of the Vistula and Sola rivers, there is a town of slightly under 50,000 inhabitants named Oświęcim. The official tourist site for Oświęcim describes the city as being “attractive and friendly.” Image searches bring up Victorian buildings the color of yellow-frosted wedding cakes, and of modest public fountains; red-tiled homes and blue-steepled churches. There is a castle and a newly built hockey arena. Oświęcim would be simply another Polish town on a map, all diacriticals and consonants, were it not for its more famous German name—Auschwitz. Everyday people wake up under goose feather duvets, go to work in fluorescent-lit offices, buy pierogis and kielbasa, prepare halupki, and go to bed in Auschwitz. Women and men are born in Auschwitz, live in Auschwitz, marry, make love, and raise children in Auschwitz. People walk schnauzers and retrievers in Auschwitz—every day. Here, at the null point of humanity, in the shadow of that factory of death, people live normal lives. Amidst an empire of fire, ash, and Zyklon B. A mechanized, industrial hell on earth derived its name from this town. Theodor Adorno opined in his 1951 “Cultural Criticism and Society” that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Here, in the dark presence of gas chamber and crematorium, there are no doubt women and men who pass their time reading Czeslaw Milosz or Wislawa Szymborska, oblivious to the philosopher’s injunction. If you are to read that observation as optimism—that even in the midst of such trauma, such horror and evil, the music still plays—then you misunderstand me. Nor am I condemning those who live in Oświęcim, who’ve had no choice in being born there. Their lives are not an affront; I do not impugn to them an assumed lack of respect concerning this absence-haunted place. Such as it is to exist amidst the enormity of sacred stillness, a quiet that can only ever result from tremendous horror. The lives of Oświęcim’s citizens are simply lives like any other. Whatever the ethics of poetry after Auschwitz, the fact remains that there can’t help but still be verse—and waking, and working, and sleeping, and living. This has nothing to do with the perseverance of life in the face of unspeakable trauma; rather, it’s to understand that quotidian existence simply continues after Auschwitz—that very rupture in the space-time continuum of what it means to be a human—because there is no other choice. In Auschwitz we understand a bit about how the gravitational pull of trauma warps and alters space and place, and a true consideration of that singularity must also admit how demon-haunted other corners of our fallen world are, how blood-splattered and ghost inflected the very Earth itself is. What makes Auschwitz such an incomparable evil is not that it’s so very different from the rest of the world, but that it is even more like the world than all of the rest of the world already is. In that perverse way, Auschwitz is the most truthful of places. Judaism’s genius is that it understands how trauma permeates place. Auschwitz may be the exemplar for this praxis of suffering, but Jewish history is arguably a recounting of cyclical hatreds, all the way back to Pharaoh. Such an elemental, irrational hatred as anti-Semitism is very deep within the metaphysic of the West, seemingly in the marrow of its bones and drawn with mother’s milk, so much so that anyone truly surprised by its resurgence is either disingenuous or not paying attention. The Tanakh is a litany of those who’ve tried to destroy the Jews—the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Romans. Such is this basic narrative reoccurrence that it almost makes one concur that there is something to the concept of chosenness, but as the old Jewish joke goes, “Couldn’t G-d choose someone else sometime?” But if Judaism is a recounting of trauma (and perseverance in spite of said trauma), it’s also a religion of place, and what it means to live separate from particular places. The Tanakh itself recounts exile as the human condition. Before the MS St. Louis was turned back from Havana, from Miami, from Halifax and returned to the dark heart of Nazi Germany; before millions of Jews boarded Hamburg ships that were New York-bound; before the survivors of Czarist pogroms found succor in Hapsburg lands; before the expelled Sephardim of the Reconquista; before the Romans burned Jerusalem during Simon bar-Kokhba’s failed rebellion, and before the destruction of the second Temple; before the attempted genocide of Haman in Persia, and before the Babylonian Exile of the Judeans; before even the Assyrians scattered the 10 tribes of the Israelites; exile was at the core of the Jewish experience. The earliest reference to Israel is the Merneptah Stele, chiseled in Egypt some 12 centuries before Jesus Christ, predating the oldest extant scripture. There, at the bottom of an account of Pharaonic victories against adversaries, some nameless Egyptian scribe wrote, “Israel is laid waste and his seed is not.” The first reference to the Hebrews is how there are no longer any Hebrews. Exile and diaspora are the twin curses and gifts of the Jews; exile an individual condition and diaspora a collective one. This is the story of Abraham going into Egypt, of Moses being a “stranger in a strange land,” of being by the “rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept when we remembered Zion.” Even the earliest story of Genesis is one of exile, of being kept from the Promised Land by the flaming swords of Seraphim with their eyeball-covered wings and their fiery tongue of perverse ecstasy. Even now that a state which claims to speak on behalf of and in defense of Jewry governs from an undivided Holy City (with all the attendant geopolitical ramifications) the traditional Pesach injunction remains “Next year in Jerusalem!” for, there is a wisdom in understanding that the spoken Jerusalem is not the real Jerusalem. Such is the itinerary of Ahasuerus, the so-called “Wandering Jew,” who was a feature of Christian folklore; an immortal from the lifetime of Christ condemned to wander the world until the Second Coming. Yet a sense of dislocation, of fallenness, should be central to all understandings of what it means to be human. Judaism merely keeps that awareness front and center. One should always have bags packed since you never know when you might suddenly have to leave. Exile is, of course, intimately tied to the idea of place; for in being an exilic one is acknowledging that there is a place in which you feel you should be, but that which you are not. Such a condition only exists if there is an acknowledged home to which you are no longer privy. A useful distinction between what humanistic geographers call “place” in contrast to “space.” Far from obvious synonyms, the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan in his classic Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience explains that “‘Space’ is more abstract than ‘place.’ What begins as undifferentiated space becomes place as we begin to know it better and endow it with value.” Hard to ever build a place when you’re always on the road, though—when your bag always needs to be packed for that moment’s notice. Part of what Jewish history teaches us is the incommensurate difficulty of actually being able to turn space into place. The horrors that have been experienced over millennia are a genealogy of how trauma can transform place and space back and forth into each other. A dusty alleyway in the shadow of Herod’s Temple can be a place where one cooks lentils in olive oil and drinks wine from earthen clay pots, but that same place can very quickly be transformed into an abstract space once it’s been violated by the violence which sees family members’ blood spilled on those same dusty streets. If trauma is the crucible that can transform place into space, then the exile which results from that trauma counterintuitively transforms space back into place. When one is a wandering Jew with no country, then one is forced to make the whole world into one's country. Such is the true origin of humanism, of the Persian poet Kahlil Gibran’s contention that “The universe is my country and the human family is my tribe,” or the American radical Thomas Paine’s mantra that “The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren, to do good is my religion,” with neither of these men themselves being Jewish. Such perspective is the true gift of chosenness. Zion becomes that which you carry within you. Again, the spoken Jerusalem cannot be the true Jerusalem. This embrace of diaspora is an embrace of a humanism, which engendered a suspicion in stupid little anti-Semites like Joseph Stalin, who slurred the Jews as “rootless cosmopolitans,” not understanding that there is the most solemn strength in that very rootlessness. Today, the inheritors of that brutal myopia use the word “globalist” instead, but the same rank provincialism is still displayed. Judaism’s cosmopolitanism was born from trauma, for in the biblical age the faith was supremely concrete, the locus of worship projected onto a few square miles occupied on the Temple Mount. Yet the destruction of that sanctuary necessitated that a new Temple be found, one built in text and inscribed in memory and taken from place to new place. What results is a type of abstraction, if not the very invention of abstraction. God no longer dwells in the Holy of Holies, but rather in the scroll of the Torah, in the very imagination itself. Literary critic George Steiner has identified a hatred of abstraction as the ultimate origin of anti-Semitism. In his contribution to Berel Lang’s anthology Writing and the Holocaust, Steiner argues that people “fear most those who demand of us a self-transcendence, a surpassing of our natural and common limits of being. Our hate and fear are the more intense precisely because we know the absolute rightness, the ultimate desirability of the demand.” Across his career, in novels like The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H., and in books such as In Bluebeard’s Castle, Steiner has claimed that it’s precisely Judaism’s humanistic abstraction that engenders such perennial, if irrational, anti-Semitism. In that later book, he claims that there are three dispensations, “Monotheism at Sinai, primitive Christianity, [and] messianic socialism” where Western culture was presented with “’the claims of the ideal.” Steiner argues that these are “three stages, profoundly interrelated, through which Western consciousness is forced to experience the blackmail of transcendence.” Western culture has been presented with three totalizing abstractions that have a Judaic origin; abstractions that are born from the traumas of dislocation and that reject the idolatrous specificity of place in favor of the universalism of space. These tripartite covenants are represented by Moses, Christ, and Karl Marx, and Steiner sees in the rejection of the idealized utopian promise which each figure represents the origin of this pernicious and enduring hatred. For Steiner, anti-Semitism is at the very core of the Western metaphysic, irreducible to other varieties of white supremacy. Telling that the fascism which so often directs its rage against Jews is of the “Blut und Boden” variety, the “Blood and Soil” mythos which elevates a few miles of land and the superficial phenotypical commonalties between arbitrarily linked groups of people into an idol. Naive faiths that turn ooze and mud into the locus of belief, rejecting the rootlessness which praises the Temple that is all of creation. When such rhetoric as that of these fascists rears up again, it’s no surprise to see a resurgence of that primordial bigotry, for those that speak of blood and soil have no compunctions about staining the latter with the former. For American Jews, this has historically been more difficult to see. Historian Lila Corwin Berman asks in The Washington Post if we should have ever “believed in American exceptionalism, even just for Jews, when all around us was evidence of the limitations and ravages of that exceptionalism?” Berman asks an important question, one which gets to the heart of a paradoxical and complicated issue. America has long been imagined as a New Israel, even a New Eden, where our national civic religion is a strangely Hebraic branch of heretical Protestantism. Rhetoric from the 17th-century Puritan divine John Winthrop as delivered aboard the ship Arbela has long been enshrined in American consciousness, that we shall be as a “city on a hill.” Though Winthrop was alluding to the Book of Matthew, American faith is often written in that Hebraic idiom, where the “New World” is dreamt of as a “land of milk and honey,” a place where the New Jerusalem may dwell and where history is brushed aside in the regenerative millennialism of the continent itself. In Exile and Kingdom: History and Apocalypse in the Puritan Migration to America, the Israeli historian Avihu Zakai explains that there were two biblical templates for early American understandings of colonization: “the Genesis type, which is a peaceful religious migration based … upon God’s promise to his chosen nation that he will appoint a place for them,” and the “Exodus type, which is a judgmental crisis and apocalyptic migration, marking the ultimate necessity of God’s chosen people to depart.” Zakai has argued that those models have organized American self-understanding, where that initial migration of Puritans to America is as the Jews in the wilderness, imagining the push to the western frontier as a version of the Hebrews coming into Canaan. This subconscious philo-Semitism, which appropriates scriptural narrative and idiom, is arguably that which sets this nation’s experience regarding the Jews as being so different from that of Europe, and it goes somewhat toward an explanation of the national “exceptionality” that Berman rightly interrogates. Christendom has historically defined itself as being that which is not Jewish, yet that particular metaphysic is not foregrounded in American self-definition. If anything, the Jewish narrative as transposed onto American experience was an inoculation against the same sort of anti-Semitism that defined Jewish life in Europe. Despite the anti-Semitism that marks the nation’s history, alongside every other form of race hatred and bigotry, this was still the country where President George Washington could with right celebration write to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, in 1790 that the “children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land [will] continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.” Washington’s language consciously echoed that of the prophet Micah, where the spoken Jerusalem would be uttered in an American tongue. America as New Zion, however, has encoded within its own calamities, for divorced from the moorings of the faith which inaugurated it, the model remains dangerously embraced: this myth of America as empty, promised land awaiting settlement. In his classic study Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth, Henry Nash Smith wrote that one of the “most persistent generalizations … is the notion that our society has been shaped by the pull of a vacant continent drawing population westward through the passes of the Alleghenies, across the Mississippi Valley, over the high plains and mountains of the Far West to the Pacific Coast.” The tragedy was that the land was far from vacant, and how place would be defined in the Alleghenies, the Mississippi Valley, the Far West, and the Pacific Coast would be through a similar type of amnesia as that which allows the citizens of Oświęcim to buy their groceries and go to work every day. Anti-Semitism may not have been the central organizing metaphysic of America, but the loathsome and genocidal ethos of what the historian Richard Drinnon termed “the metaphysics of Indian-hating” was. Colonization was not a simple process of transforming abstracted space into place as settlers burnt a line across North America all the way to the Pacific; rather it was an exercise in trauma—in genocide and ethnic cleansing. We may ask ourselves how it is that the people of Oświęcim can live their lives in the shadow of a death factory, and yet in America we do a near equivalent. My own charming little corner of Massachusetts was witness to the almost gothic horror of the 17th-century Pequot War, and of King Philip’s War, which per capita remain among some of the most violent in American history—we live our lives on top of those mass graves. Historian Timothy Snyder in Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning explains how Adolf Hitler’s expansionist and eliminationist nightmare of Lebensraum was directly inspired by American Manifest Destiny, writing that for the dictator, “the exemplary land empire was the United States of America,” for this country’s example “led Hitler to the American dream.” The current president may similarly speak of himself as a descendant of those who “tamed a continent,” but never forget that those settlers wrote their scriptures in blood. Any uncomplicated celebration of how America has been good for the Jews must keep that aforementioned metaphysic in mind. So much of the mythopoesis of America is that this was always a land of refugee, the resting place for the Mother of Exiles. As true as some particulars of that myth may be, Lady Liberty’s torch can obscure as much as it can illuminate, for it would be very dangerous to pretend that America’s shores are a place where history had somehow stopped. Philo-Semitism can easily curdle into its near twin, and the American metaphysic is not so distant from the Christendom that birthed it. Anti-Semitism has re-emerged as poisonous fascist ideologies thrive from Budapest to Brasilia. Only the profoundly near-sighted could pretend that America—especially at this current moment—is immune from hatred of the “rootless cosmopolitans.” From the first arrival of Sephardic conversos to New Amsterdam in the 17th century until today, and the worst pogrom in American history happened last month in Pittsburgh, a half mile from where I grew up. As my fellow Pittsburgher Jacob Bacharach wrote in Truthdig following the Tree of Life massacre, “they are coming for Jews, for my people, coming for us again.” The corner of Wilkins and Shady is a few blocks from where I went to elementary school; it’s where I waited for the 74A when I was too lazy to continue my walk home from the stores in Squirrel Hill; it’s across the street from Chatham’s campus where I went to summer camp. This is a place that I love, and continue to love, and now it is the site of the worst pogrom in American Jewry’s four-century history. We ground ourselves in place, but there is always the threat of it being converted back into space, so better to carry those Jerusalems in our hearts. I draw an inspiration from the sacred condition of exile, from the undefined ideology of Diapsorism. Just as it’s impossible and still necessary to write over the trauma of place with a liturgy of mundane life, so, too, do I often see my own identity as being an exilic within exile, distant Jewish roots defining me as such in the eyes of the anti-Semite. I’m supremely cognizant of Jean Paul Sartre’s observation in Anti-Semite and Jew that “Jew is the man whom other men consider a Jew.” If we go by that definition, then I can show you a litany of emails in response to my political writings where the increasingly not anonymous anti-Semites of the world very much consider me to be a Jew. John Proctor declares in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, “it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life!” Just as I would never overwrite my own surname, so, too, would I never overwrite the trauma of place. Shira Telushkin, in a remarkable piece for Tablet, explains how in Jewish burial the bodies of those who are martyred in the practice of the faith are buried in the same state as when they were murdered, for “their blood cannot be forgotten, simply scrubbed away and disposed of. It must be honored, collected, and buried.” For this ultimately is what we must do: We must honor the blood of the dead, honor the trauma of these places, because rupture is preserved to remind us of God’s broken covenant, of America’s broken covenant. There must not be an exorcism of these ghosts of place; rather, there is no choice but to live with them. Moving from place to place, we carry that imagined Jerusalem within us, we carry that imagined America within us, warmed by the utopian lamp of the Mother of Exiles more than we ever could be by the disappointing reality of the actual one. Image: Tree of Life memorial; official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks
Out this week: All the Lives We Never Lived by Anuradha Roy; Come with Me by Helen Schulman; The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose; Hazards of Time Travel by Joyce Carol Oates; and Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants by Mathias Énard. For more on these and other new titles, go read our most recent book preview.
Writers toil for years to squeeze even an ounce of their soul into their work, but when it comes to the acknowledgements page, they happily bow before convention. It’s rare to find an author’s note that isn’t a list of names paired with phrases of gratitude, each paragraph rising in pitch as if announcing the next rank in a hierarchy of angels, rarer still to find one that quietly captures the full agony and ecstasy of its author’s being. On the final page of Some Trick, her first collection of short stories, Helen DeWitt writes: Over the years visitors to my blog (paperpools.blogspot.de) have generously helped me live to fight another day. While The Last Samurai was out of print buyers of secondhand copies would send donations to the beleaguered author. More recently two dedicated readers have been thinking of ways to approach the challenge in a less haphazard manner; anyone who would like to be involved should contact me at [email protected] to be put in touch. Some context: In 2000, when DeWitt was 43, her acclaimed debut The Last Samurai came out with Miramax Books. It was a victory after years of setbacks and menial jobs, but also the lone highlight in what became her long praying mantis courtship with the publishing industry, which began with a war over the novel’s typesetting and led to two suicide attempts. After Miramax Books went bankrupt, The Last Samurai fell into contractual purgatory, and DeWitt’s subsequent novels were either delayed for a decade (Lightning Rods), pulled due to technical challenges (Your Name Here) or deemed unpublishable. The familiar ivy of poverty re-encircled her life, even as critical appreciation for both Lightning Rods and The Last Samurai continued to grow; the latter was recently a broad consensus pick for the 21st century’s most canonical novel. And so here is one our foremost authors, poor but nonetheless foremost, inviting her readers not just to send her a few bucks (which she does later in the note), but to get involved in a project that is, presumably then, more elaborate than direct donation, that involves joining a dedicated network of DeWitt supporters, and to do so by writing said foremost author at her personal email account. Can you imagine any of the Didions, Franzens, Ferrantes or Bolaños whom she beat out in the canon rankings extending that request to the world? Even less rarified authors would be warned off by an inkling that this was a thing one simply does not do. DeWitt can ignore that inkling in part because she’s made a public persona out of questioning its merits, especially when it comes to what she calls “normative publishing.” In her interviews, wielding the sort of rationalism more commonly associated with economists, tech entrepreneurs and utilitarians, she picks apart the industry’s conventions, like the puritanical separation of authors and type-setters, the unwillingness to experiment with new revenue models, especially ones perfected by the art world, and even the norm of meetings editors in cafés, where table space is too limited for spreading out one’s papers. My favorite of her frustrations is how when she met with prospective agents she couldn’t get them to agree to squeeze as much marketing juice as possible from any future suicides she attempted. “If I could have sold off a suicide attempt,” she said in a 2008 interview, “I would have had more time for reading Spinoza.” Duh. It’s not surprising, then, that she might try out unusual methods of financing. I can imagine her calculating out Spinoza time wasted from extraneous emails vs. Spinoza time gained from projected extra income (naturally I’d like to message her and ask what the scheme is all about, except then I remember my own income and have to admit that I’d be tipping the scales toward time wasted). But even a positive net expected value wouldn’t account for the note. To put such an entreaty out in the world requires something rarer than strict rationality; it requires, in large amounts and in equal measure, optimism and desperation. If DeWitt were merely desperate, she wouldn’t be the sort of person who burned bridges over type-setting; she’d write The Last Samurai derivatives and own a brownstone in Brooklyn. If she were merely an optimist, she would have accepted her lot and put her faith in posterity. Put the two together and you get one of our best writers leveraging her stature and her inbox for what is in all likelihood a moonshot of a fundraising scheme. You also get what defines her fiction, even more so than the two themes most often used to describe it, genius and making ends meet. True, The Last Samurai begins with Sibylla, a single mother, earning scraps as a freelancer while teaching her son Ludo to speak a dozen languages and do advanced math, but what gives the novel its wheels is Ludo growing up to have the same need and daring as his creator. At 11 years old, he disobeys his mother and sets out to identify and meet his biological father, a travel writer named Val Peters. When he figures out that Peters is a mediocrity, Ludo is disappointed, but he doesn’t despair. He simply reasons that he should let Peters down easy and find someone better, and begins showing up at the doors of various impressive men, armed with a con man’s set of ruses and an appraising eye. Ludo is, to quote another of DeWitt’s stories, a “go-getter … that quintessential American thing to be,” an archetype that reappears throughout her fiction. DeWitt’s characters don’t suffer from boredom, midlife crises, existential dread or a surplus of time. They engage with the world, and, like DeWitt, they do so with unusual requests and ingenious proposals. In “My Heart Belongs to Bertie,” Peter, a highly successful fiction writer, wants to work with a mathematically literate editor for his next book, and he worries that his agent, Jim, won’t find one through the usual auction process. Struggling to convince Jim why this matters so much, Peter makes an unheard of but seemingly foolproof proposal: He offers an 85 percent commission, or roughly half a million dollars, in exchange for Jim finding him the right editor. “As ours is a business relationship,” he explains, “... it is entirely reasonable for me to determine my own ends and offer financial compensation to you for the inconvenience of promoting them.” Jim, though, brushes him off, making “a number of friendly American remarks” about being happy with the standard commission, friendly yet in a way that implies he has taken offense. In her fiction DeWitt gets to be clear-sighted about how and why ingenious proposals fail, not without some irony: “Climbers” explores the pitfalls of dedicated readers trying to help an author they love. Peter Dijkstra, a reclusive Dutch writer, receives a series of emails from American literary types, utterly out of the blue, suggesting that a famous American writer is willing to give Dijkstra his apartment and all his things, out of respect for the European’s genius. It’s a strange and sudden altruism, born out of a New York loft-party conversation, but one that Dijkstra, pondering his debts, wants to talk advantage of, if only he can figure out how: “The fact that a fame-kissed young American would happily hand over all his worldly goods did not make it socially straightforward to write asking for a gift of 20,000 euros.” He doesn’t know how to survey, at a distance, the terrain of his admirers’ enthusiasm. Can he ask for a lifetime supply of cigarettes? Too shocking. A subscription to the Vienna Philharmonic? “An American … would see [such a gift] as too finely tuned.” Just how fully would the American writer move out of his apartment? “He could not think of any sentences that would ascertain the position in a socially acceptable fashion.” The difficulty of ascertaining other people’s positions, and of conveying one’s own, is where many of these ingenious proposals run into trouble. DeWitt describes the problem more explicitly in “Sexual Codes of the Europeans,” a story that opens with a guidebook of systems developed in five cities for indicating certain sexual preferences. In Bilbao, for instance, people set out items on café tables to indicate the material in or upon which they wish to make love, whether sand or milk or acacia blossom honey. In Stuttgart, people leave out plastic figurines indicating a preference for a uniformed stranger, whether a Canadian Mountie or an Air Singapore stewardess. The practice is explained as arising from a scarcity of language: The words for sexual practices and preferences are not included in a book for travelers, nor are the words that would accompany the speech acts of requesting a practice, expressing a preference. Perhaps you think: yes, but the words and speech acts must be known to the natives! If you buy a book in your own country you will find words for practices. You will not find an account of the speech acts in which the words may be deployed. The scarcity, it seems, is not one of vocabulary but one of speech acts. More specifically, there is a scarcity of socially acceptable speech acts, or speech acts that carry only the precise information that one wishes to convey, with no surplus or remainder. When Peter offers 85 percent of the sale of his book in exchange for the right editor, what a robot or an economist might hear as a simple exchange sounds to Jim like a purely figurative hyperbole that politely says, “I’m worried you’re not going to do a good job.” Naturally, Jim is offended, as would be the airline employees who saw you walking around in your “I Prefer Sex With Air Singapore Stewardesses” T-shirt. As would be most literary agents when they realize you see them as the kind of person who would peddle their client’s suicide. To have a preference or proposal, even one justified by reason, is not enough. If the proposal is at all strange, one must also invent a sufficiently dexterous speech act, capable of slipping past the alarm system of prejudice, taboo and convention that protects us. Perhaps it’s this idea that led DeWitt to write “The Wrong Stuff,” the essay she published in the LARB to accompany Some Trick. If her author’s note is the strangest example of its genre, “The Wrong Stuff” holds the crown among those now equally ubiquitous things, half artist statement and half college essay, used to publicize new fiction releases. It begins with a question Hans Ulrich Obrist, the renowned artistic director for Serpentine Galleries, posed to Zadie Smith, about whether she has any unrealized literary projects. DeWitt envies the question: I could have explained that I had a hundred-odd unrealized projects immured on my hard drive, projects of which agents had said No Publisher Will Allow, projects that could change the face of 21st-century fiction. Projects that were not even books, so no agent or editor would know what to do with them. I would need a week to set out materials on tables, tack papers to walls, and talk nonstop. Having dangled this prize, DeWitt offers the requisite humility: If that’s how the industry works, there could be thousands of authors with stalled century-changing projects. If any of these hypothetical projects were ever realized, she suggests, it will be because their hypothetical creators will have had a chance meeting with a well-financed visionary like, hypothetically, Hans Ulrich Obrist. But of course, one of those authors is DeWitt and those projects exist in her hard drive and surely a few LARB readers are connected to Obrist. The essay is an elaborate speech act to convey what cannot be said directly: I have art that is too wild and expensive for New Directions, I’m running out of time, someone please give me the resources to make it. From various interviews one can piece together the problem: The projects she dreams of realizing need the help of graphic designers and computer programmers, individuals who need to be paid, but publishers won’t sign a contract until they see an almost fully realized book. Thus the elaborate plea, which, needless to say, our society doesn’t know how to readily parse, not coming from a 61-year-old writer, certainly not a woman. “The Wrong Stuff” sank to the bottom of the internet without a sound, without even inciting some jerk to call out claims which, coming from any other author, would seem outlandish. At least that might have started a conversation. What makes it all the more depressing is that this plea could so easily have been unnecessary. One can imagine The Last Samurai propelling DeWitt into the same liberating echelon that Infinite Jest or Gödel, Escher and Bach (equally long, unorthodox and surprisingly popular works) propelled David Foster Wallace and Douglas Hofstadter, two famously inflexible writers who found forgiving editors in Michael Pietsch and Bill Kessel (who let Hofstadter do his own type-setting). Even Jonathan Safran Foer got to write Tree of Codes. One can imagine DeWitt getting a MacArthur “genius” grant, rather than setting the world record for torturously coy equivocations on a writer’s intellect (“Helen DeWitt’s great subject is genius … she may just be one herself ...” “If we wanted to call Helen DeWitt a genius ...” “She is one of those writers who seems to demand the description genius”). One can imagine how differently her rationalism and casual attitude toward suicide marketing would be coded and received if it came from a Peter DeWitt, rather than a Helen. Or one can simply imagine a world such that when one of our best writers says she has projects that will change literature immured in her hard drive, we do better than plugging our ears, waiting until she’s dead, and giving our descendants the joy of opening her laptop and asking how we let this happen. If DeWitt wants to give our descendants a hint, she can set her login password to a line of Proust: “So it is that a well-read man will at once begin to yawn with boredom when anyone speaks to him of a new ‘good book,’ because he imagines a sort of composite of all the good books that he has read and knows already …” How to convince you that there are new books, new languages, new speech acts, new ways of living or doing business, new textures upon which to make love? This is the true engineering feat of DeWitt’s writing. Its ambition is not merely refilling spent canisters of frisson. Proust speaks of jaded readers as an analogy for his own jaded attitude toward young girls, renewed by a milkmaid, but the analogy seems flawed—youthful beauty, like a party with guest list or a bull market, sells itself. We’re so susceptible to certain easy charms that economists warn investors against ever thinking “this time is different.” This time, beauty won’t come to bore me. This time, the party will be bacchanalia. This time, the bubble won’t burst. Yet there are moments when this time really is different. Once in a rare while, some new pleasure or pain or art, one that pales doe-eyed youth or owning real estate, reveals life to be richer and more expansive than you knew it to be. These strange gems are not ones you find where you go panning for novelty. By definition, they exist beyond what you know, so your powers of induction cannot guide you to them. The best you can do, the only thing you can do, is sustain the belief that all of life is yet to be amassed within your composite existence. This might comfort the patient and the lazy, but it’s also the tragic aspect of DeWitt’s work and life. No matter how ingenious their proposals, how elaborate their speech acts, or how airtight their arguments become, her characters struggle to surmount a latent, animal skepticism. And so does she. I’ve read most of DeWitt’s interviews from the past decade or more. Through them I can track all the subtle refinements to her theory of publishing’s failures and possibilities, all the way to “The Wrong Stuff,” succinct and dazzling. But what are all those refinements worth, and who are they for? In the end, it’s all one plea, endlessly repeated to those who, if they don’t already, probably never will: Believe me. Image: Wikimedia Commons