A Pregnant Pause: Reading About Motherhood

When I found out I was pregnant, the first person I told, besides my husband, was my friend’s mother, Claire, who is a doula. The word “doula” comes from the Greek word for “slave” and refers to a birthing professional who is devoted to the mother—or to both parents,— and ensuring her holistic well-being during the antenatal months, through labor, and into the “fourth trimester.”

Claire insisted on sending me a book. It arrived in the mail a few days later: Birth with Confidence by Rhea Dempsey, another Melbourne-based doula. The subtitle interested me: Savvy Choices for Normal Birth.

A “savvy woman,” the book purported, understood that there was “power in women’s bodies,” and that it was necessary to “be on guard, defensive and second-guessing all the time about what the agendas are for suggesting particular procedures.”

These agendas and procedures, Dempsey continued, ranged from artificial induction of labor, to pharmaceutical pain relief (the infamous epidural), to extraction of the baby with forceps and vacuum induction. The alternative to these various interventions, the author stated, was to embrace birth as an ecstatic experience and revel in the female body’s capacity to produce oxytocin, the “love hormone,” which is essential in the laboring process.

Was I a “savvy woman”? I shut the book, terrified that for some reason, I wasn’t.

Over the following months, Dempsey’s book would sit mostly unread under a pile of other books, all pertaining to pregnancy, labor, and motherhood, that I’ve read in lieu of relying on the scant pamphlets provided me by the Australian medical establishment. Having moved hardly two years ago to this remote corner of the world, with my mother and sisters and friends back in North America or Europe, these books were really all I had.

When Sheila Heti’s novel Motherhood came out in 2018, I immediately read it. I did so because I like her work—I would have read her latest book if it had been called Bicycles or Turnips. But as I followed the main character, nervously flipping a coin and hoping that fate would randomly decide whether she, at 37, should have a baby with her live-in boyfriend, I understood that unlike this narrator, I was not undecided about whether to become a mother. For whatever reason, I never have been. Whereas Heti’s narrator wonders aloud (via her iChing coin-flipping methodology) whether a female artist should have children—
But I don’t care about my genes! Can’t one pass on one’s genes through art?

yes

Do men who don’t procreate receive punishment from the universe?

no
—I, for some inexplicable reason, have always felt that motherhood and creative work will somehow go hand-in-hand for me.

And yet, I still had no idea how to be pregnant. I knew that What to Expect When You’re Expecting was considered the “bible” of pregnancy around the world, so I found a copy. Originally published in 1984 (the year I was born, my mother’s fourth pregnancy, and the only one where she accepted the use of an epidural, as she was 41 years old and the obstetrician basically told her she had to use it), the 530-page tome assumes that the newly-pregnant woman knows nothing, and therefore offers information from multiple angles on every possible topic of concern: vitamins; birthing locations; weight gain; single motherhood; alcohol consumption; preparing for labor; and in the third (and current) edition, a new emphasis on partner communications.

I flipped through it, and somehow found the page on “Emergency Delivery If You’re Alone”—i.e. what to do if your baby decides to come very quickly and you don’t have time to go anywhere and only you and your partner are around. Using an exacto knife, I removed this page from the book and attached it to the refrigerator with a magnet. Step number one: “Try to remain calm. You can do this.”

“I don’t think I would feel comfortable,” my husband said with a pale face when he saw the page. I assured him it was just in case of an emergency.

At 13 weeks of pregnancy, I boarded a plane to Europe. I’d planned the month-long trip before getting pregnant. In Slovenia and then Italy, I promptly ignored all the dietary cautions I’d read in What to Expect and ate raw milk cheese, salami, and crudo at every chance, washing it all down with modest sips of wine.

By the time I got to Berlin, the last stop on the journey, I was finally showing, but not much. But emotionally, I was in a state—I realized that this trip was my last solo hurrah—ever. I blurted out to one friend over Syrian food in Kreuzberg: “I have always wanted to go to Berghein.” Because she’s not a native Berliner, my friend didn’t roll her eyes dramatically, but instead volunteered to meet me there the next day, for a morning rave. At 9 a.m., I arrived to the ugly beige warehouse that houses Berlin’s most notorious nightclub. I waited nervously to be judged by Sven, the legendary guard. He barked at me to remove my sunglasses, then briefly scanned my outfit—I’d worn the black shift dress that another friend had gifted me secondhand, swearing it had gotten her through pregnancy. I was allowed in, and located my friend at the espresso bar downstairs. We danced for hours, completely sober, and I placed my hand on my belly, smiling at the thought of one day telling my child, “I went out dancing when I was pregnant with you!”

As I do on every trip to Berlin, I visited the magazine shop Do You Read Me?!, in Mitte. In their tightly curated book section, I found a series called “Vintage Minis” that prints short works by famous authors on mundane subjects. I purchased one, called Making Babies, by Irish novelist Anne Enright, and read it on the plane back to Australia.

Enright does not make any attempt to provide guidance on pregnancy and motherhood. To the contrary, she herself seems to be fumbling along, and she narrates all of her anxieties, annoyances, discomforts, and elations from the first trimester onward. In the grocery store, Enright battles cravings: “Starvation is no joke, especially when you have been eating all day.” She fears, even becomes convinced, that something is wrong with her baby, it must be deformed, until the first ultrasound proves otherwise. And Enright discovers, as I did, that being pregnant is a discursive state—a woman’s body becomes a blank page, upon which others can project their own morality.

“A pregnant woman is public property,” Enright writes. “I began to feel like a bus with ‘Mammy’ on the front—and the whole world was clambering on. Four women in a restaurant cheered when I ordered dessert. A friend went into a prolonged rage with me, for no reason at all. Everyone’s unconscious was very close to their mouths. Whatever my pregnant body triggered was not social, or political, it was animal and ancient and quite helpless. It was also most unfair.”

The second trimester is a time when hormones charge the body. Reading Enright’s words, I felt very emotional. Everyone was judging me, I felt—judging my body and consumption, already making me out to be a bad mother before the child was born.

Once the baby has arrived, Enright chronicles the months in terms of “Development (the baby)” and “Regression (me),” almost like an advice book that carefully outlines each stage of pregnancy in terms of sleeping, eating, bodily capabilities, etc. We see Enright struggling to hold it all together (her emotions, her career, her marriage) as the baby takes it all in stride. At five months, she goes back to her smoking habit and gets very tipsy whenever possible. At six months, she feels that her life is essentially centered upon literal shit. I, too, gave up smoking when I became pregnant and reading, I started to wonder whether I’d crave cigarettes not long after my baby is born. I also questioned my environmentally driven vision of using cloth diapers.

As time went on, I reverted to the advice books. After all, I was going to have to breastfeed this child and keep it clean and fed, all of which seemed like pretty high-stakes things. A friend lent me her copy of Ina May Gaskin’s Guide to Childbirth, and it became my cornerstone.

Gaskin is a beacon of sanity in a world of hypermedicalized child birthing. After one birth in which a doctor used forceps, followed by a traumatic premature birth on a bus traveling though Nebraska (the baby did not survive), Gaskin became motivated to provide better birth experiences for women. In 1971, she and her husband founded one of the United States’s first outside-hospital birth retreat centers, called The Farm, in Tennessee. Over the decades, Gaskin and her coterie of midwives delivered thousands of births, and she became the foremost expert in natural childbirth. I read her book from cover to cover, absorbing every single one of the birth stories with gusto I usually reserve for binge-watching Netflix.

With confident Ina May by my side, I felt equipped to write my “birth plan,” in which I voiced my intention to avoid, unless medically necessary, every kind of medical intervention ranging from induction to episiotomy to C-section. And I finally felt comfortable telling my doctor that I would not be taking the gestational diabetes test, which involved fasting for 12 hours and drinking a sugary solution, since I had no risk factors and plenty of qualms with the methodology.

At around 20 weeks of pregnancy—halfway through—I remembered that a book called Bringing Up Bebe had been a huge bestseller in the U.S. Being a Francophile, I rushed out to get it. In this 2012 book, Paris-based American journalist Pamela Druckerman offers anthropological insight on French childrearing culture. Every time Druckerman debunked another classically American, overly risk-averse stipulation, whether about pregnancy or childbirth, and cracked the code on what the French were doing, I felt like cheering out loud. Her approach showed expert journalistic slyness and cultural sensitivity—French mothers insisted they didn’t let their babies “cry it out,” but when Druckerman pried more, these mothers explained that they briefly “observed” their babies crying just for a few minutes, before acting. French childrearing was different, I came to think, because it emphasized the well-being of broader society (a child must be well-educated because it’s better for everyone; a child must go to daycare because it’s important to the family as a whole that the mother works) rather than obsessing over a child’s achievements and plotting its entrance to Harvard at six months. Druckerman, I thought, you’re my hero.

Three friends who live in Europe, who were also pregnant, shared photos on social media featuring a nice new hardcover book called The First Forty Days: The Essential Art of Nourishing the New Mother. They seemed excited about it, so I ordered it. The author, Heng Ou, applies her family’s knowledge of traditional Chinese medicine and cooking to postnatal care for the mother. About half the book is recipes, including super food smoothies, bone broths, soups, and stews—apparently, after birthing it is important to warm the body—and I noticed one recipe, in particular, called for Chinese red dates, which according to the author “bestow amazing postpartum benefits.”

I tried to picture myself going to the Asian markets to find these red dates and preparing such a stew. Even without a baby crying on my hip, it seemed like a lot of work. I lay the Forty Days book on the shelf along with my other aspirational cookbooks such as Bar Tartine’s.

At 31 weeks of pregnancy, this stack of books sits neatly on a shelf. I have stopped reading any of them; instead I prefer to delve into the latest Rachel Cusk essay collection and Ben Lerner’s new novel. I’m not sure a book could make me a better mother than I am already destined to be. But at least I do know that I’ll raise a good reader—and maybe one who likes late-night dancing to house music.

Image: Toa Heftiba

Lost in Translation: Classical Arabic Literature

It’s a good time to be an Arab writer. December 18 marks the seventh annual UNESCO World Arabic Language Day, just one of many honors accorded by western elites on their Arab peers. Another came earlier this year when the International Booker—not to be confused with the “Arabic Booker,” a.k.a. the International Prize for Arabic Fiction; as James English observes in The Economy of Prestige, the nature of cultural prizes is to endlessly beget more prizes—had its first Arabic winner in Celestial Bodies, by Omani author Jokha Alharthi and translated by Marilyn Booth. All of this commotion means that publishers are now seeing Arabic titles spike in supply and demand. With conspicuous gestures by enterprising Gulf monarchs, there is now more financial and psychical support than ever for translating Arabic literature into English.
Yet such happy developments tend to bless the province of modern works alone. However well-intentioned their goals, the various prizes, publishers, and pecuniary goods—in short, the institutional boons to translation—are losing sight of Arabic’s great riches: the centuries-old tradition of classical literature, as well as the battle-weary corps of translators bringing it into English, often from beyond the fortified ramparts of university tenure.
There are exceptions, of course. Foremost among them is the Emirati-funded Library of Arabic Literature (LAL), a New York University Press venture that has released more than three dozen works of classical Arabic. For each, scholars use original manuscripts to create a reliable print edition and English translation, in partnership with a board of accomplished Arabists. The books are then published as bilingual hardbacks and English-only paperbacks. Among the tenured, this series bodes a new era of friendly assistance that some have waited entire careers to see. However, the LAL editorial policy of turning away young scholars—with the worthy goal of keeping them from work that doesn’t count for tenure—means that most titles come only from comfortably established professors or translators. This stiff hierarchy finds itself mirrored outside the university, too: journalists and others not affiliated with LAL but who hope to promote classical Arabic literature have had lost potential readers to LAL’s savvy, well-funded publicity team.
But despite the odds, a number of independent translators, most of them young and untenured, have in the last few years taken to small presses with radiant, vigorous English translations. The majority are works of classical Arabic poetry, although in the case of NYU’s David Larsen, the text in question was an 11th-century etymological dictionary called Names of the Lion, translated by Larsen and published as a “chapbook” with Wave Books in 2009 and reprinted in 2017. Larsen has another Wave Books title, Lightning Scenes, of actual Arabic poetry in English.
After a characteristically insightful preface, Larsen surrounds and overwhelms his readers with lexicographical minutiae—a list of more than 400 classical Arabic synonyms for “lion” compiled by Persian grammarian Ibn Khalawayh, plus translator’s footnotes that betray a deep erudition:

al-Rayyas              “The Strutter”al-Jukhdub           “The Great Big [Leaper in the Grass?],” also said of the locustal-`Ajannas          “The Colossus,” also said of a camelal-Sabanda          “The Daredevil,” also said of the leopard, as is al-Sabantaal-Ghadb               “The Scarlet,” said of intense saturation with rednessal-Bay’as               “The Bane,” said of anything that causes harm. God, be He exalted, speaks [in Surat al-`Araf 7:165] of “a doom that is ba’is.”al-Muhis                “Who Causes Folks to Step Along”al-Arqab                “Whose Neck is Massive”

Doing more justice to a classical Arabic tradition obsessed with its own language than many a wispy verse collection could, Larsen’s oddball gamble paid off, netting him the 2018 Harold Morton Landon Translation Award from the Academy of American Poets. With 2020 promising his second classical poetry night for the American Oriental Society, he is clearing the cobwebs from a corner of ancient Arabic literature that English readers never get to see.
But Larsen is a working poet, just like many who grind away at classical Arabic. It’s no shock that they should choose to translate verse rather than something else. Casting an enormous shadow over this new generation of Arabic literary translators, in terms of style and voice, if not in direct tutelage, are the labors of Michael Sells, professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Chicago. For decades, he has rendered the Qur’an, pre-Islamic desert odes, and Islamic Sufi lyric poetry in a way that avoids the archaizing quality of the original, striving instead for “a natural, idiomatic, and contemporary American verse,” as he explains in Desert Tracings. Here, for instance, is his opening to Qur’an 82, “The Tearing”:

When the sky is tornWhen the stars are scatteredWhen the seas are poured forthWhen the tombs are burst openThen a soul will know what it has given              and what it has held back

Spare, ghostly, thrumming with the distance of legend told in light whispers—this is not a classicist’s crib, but instead the ethereal fare one might expect in the pages of River Styx or Tin House. Being aware of this working poet’s sensibility goes a long way toward explaining the shape of translations now being made by young Arabists, and perhaps why some of them have chosen to remain outside academia, where literalizing trots are the preferred tool.
One translator in this camp is Kareem James Abu Zeid. An Egyptian-American with a UC Berkeley Ph.D. and training under the poet CK Williams, Abu Zeid has worked exclusively with modern Arabic up to now, including Songs of Mihyar the Damascene by the Syrian poet Adunis (with Ivan Eubanks, New Directions, 2019). But in 2018, he secured a National Endowment of the Arts grant to translate the mu`allaqat or “hung poems.” These are a group of seven—or 10, depending on the compiler—pre-Islamic desert odes as formative to Arabic as Beowulf was to English.
Channeling a sixth-century Arabian desert zeitgeist in which the grainy details of tribal warfare and harsh landscapes mingle with more expansive themes such as love, betrayal, and hubris, the odes were traditionally grist to the mill of European orientalists like Charles Lyall and Sir William Jones. But in the last century, they got their first working poet’s touch from Sells in Desert Tracings, mentioned above. Abu Zeid moves in a similar direction, rendering them “more poetic and accessible,” as in this passage from the hung poem of Imru’ al-Qays describing the poet’s own horse:

How quickly he moves,charging forward and drawing backas in a single motion, poisedto rush down from on highlike a torrent of stones.His hue: the dark of wine.His back: so slickthe saddle-felt slips from itlike raindrops off rock.

Sidestepping the familiar Latinisms and plodding cadences, Abu Zeid delivers tight, Creeley-esque lines that quicken long-dead poets back to life. Specialists will groan about yet another translation of what they see as well-worn texts, but this view forgets how novel they are to non-experts. What’s more, the specialists themselves, malnourished by a lack of apparent relevance to society, will reap the fruit of greater public awareness about classical Arabic titles beyond the 1,001 Arabian Nights.
Speaking of that last work, another person to watch is Yasmine Seale, a French-Syrian translator and essayist for venues like Harper’s and The Times Literary Supplement. One of the first women to translate the Nights, in 2018 she put out a dynamic English rendition of Aladdin with Liveright Publishing, an imprint of W.W. Norton. Just as artful but less known are her experiments with the mystical poetry of 13th-century Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi. According to Tentacular Magazine, Seale has teamed up with Robin Moger, a Banipal Prize-winning translator of modern Arabic literature, to workshop poems from The Interpreter of Desires, a collection that uses erotic motifs to express mystical-philosophical doctrine. At the urging of his pupils, Ibn Arabi wrote a preface to clarify the connection.
Regarding their method, Seale and Moger explain: “We each separately begin a translation of the same ode and then send the translations to one another. The second iteration of the ode is written as a response to this translation and sent in turn, and so on, until we are exhausted.” Readers can watch a single poem evolve as Seale and Moger post its several English reincarnations online, such as these lines in Moger’s translation:

if we meet we will partbut in one moment pressing and wrapping we is emphatic
really there is space between useyes do not see itinstead the unity of usin my sparse stuff and your light
by my thin cries loosed I am spied

Perhaps not surprisingly, given such redolent material, Ibn Arabi is yet another figure touched by the poetic vision of Michael Sells. In 2018, he reprised his earlier work Stations of Desire (Ibis, 2000) with a new set of translations from The Interpreter of Desires, called Bewildered (The Post-Apollo Press), with further plans to publish a complete translation plus Arabic edition.
Some up-and-comers have cast their translator’s nets to the other side of the boat, opting for material less common in English. One is Melanie Magidow, Ph.D. alumna of University of Texas at Austin and a freelance Arabic consultant. In 2017, she received an NEA grant to translate the epic Sirat Dhat al-Himma, the longest of its kind and the only one named for a female general, Dhat al-Himma—“She of High Resolve,” a warrior’s honorific; her real name is Fatima—who brawls her way across the Arab-Byzantine borderlands. Readers can find an excerpt published through the University of Iowa. At times the English comes off a bit sclerotic, as when Magidow’s classicizing ear picks up the garble of battle cries:

Mazlum shouted, “You bastard! No matter which sky shades you or which bit of earth upholds you, you are going down!” “No!” Fatima hefted the spear in her hand, and called to Marzuq, “Cover my back, brother!”

But she is more confident in passages of description or narrative:

Fatima kept to herself, riding the horses and learning the arts of war on her own–attack and retreat, lining up for battle, pursuit, defense, and charging. She made weapons from tree branches, leaves, and reeds. Whenever a camel stallion opposed her, she would shout at him and, clinging to the stallion’s mate, she would direct him until he surrendered … By the age of seven, she could fast a full day, repeating to herself the name of Allah. The Bani Tayy began to call her “Shariha the Mystic.”

Another translator whose work enlarges classical Arabic literature’s place in English is Alex Rowell. A Beirut-based journalist and managing editor of Al-Jumhuriya English, Rowell burst onto the scene in 2017 with his debut book, Vintage Humour: The Islamic Wine Poetry of Abu Nuwas (Hurst Publishers). Despite being a household name in the Arab world, the 9th-century poet Abu Nuwas is all but unknown in English. An infamous philanderer, sexual adventurer, mocker of religion, and general free spirit, he’s considered above all to be classical Arabic’s bacchic bard. His wine poems, or khamriyyat, speak of a dissolute Baghdad nightlife where all pleasures can be found:

Why would I go on Hajj as long as                I’m plunged in a wine house, or a pimp’s pad?And even if you could save me from those               How could I be saved from Tiyzanabad?

Unlike most renderings of classical Arabic poetry, Rowell’s English pulls off rhyming couplets (aB-cB-dB-eB, etc.) without sounding trite or stilted, although readers will sense his taste for a bookish register when compared to the other translations seen here. Along with a sharp introduction and helpful notes, Vintage Humour finds a rare balance between poetry and philology that so completely defines the original.
It’s a balance needed right now, at a time when contemporary Arab writers are taking their turn on the world stage, in order to keep the classical tradition from being lost to view. As independent translators strive after the best English voice for lines written a thousand years ago in Arabic, they are also determined to show why those lines matter in the first place.

Image: T Foz

Lessons in Waiting for Yes

1.
I used to be in a band.

We played more than 600 shows in our roughly seven years together. We lasted seven years and 600 shows and three full-length albums and four EPs and two tapes, and dozens upon dozens of sessions, interviews, and videos. We weren’t the best. We weren’t the coolest. We weren’t the hippest. But we were good. We were really fucking good. And we outworked everyone. Beyond any music we ever created, we became most known for that work ethic. We were the Road Dogs, the writers said, the Working Man’s Band, the Hardest Working Group in Rock ‘n’ Roll. Our tires were bald, our heads heavy, our guitars torn to absolute shit.

Yet all of that hard work yielded nothing.

Well, that’s not entirely true. It yielded seven of the greatest years of my life, the majority of which were spent driving around the country, playing my guitar every night, making new friends and fans, seeing old friends and family, watching our small but devout fan base singing words that we wrote right back in our faces, and spreading our beer-soaked gospel in every corner of the country. We got to see our world in a way few people get to see it, and I’ll never suggest anything other than our being amongst the luckiest people on Earth.

But in the end, it resulted in nothing other than fond memories and a lifetime of experiences. As far as tangible returns on our years-long investment, we had nothing to speak of.

And yet here I am, starting at the same point I started at almost a decade ago. Only now, in place of a guitar and a bunch of songs, I am armed with a laptop and a bunch of stories.

I’ve decided to parlay my life and career from (arguably) the hardest industry to break into to break into (arguably) the second-hardest industry to break into. I’ve decided—thanks to a resume whose main body attempts to explain how being a “guitar player” can bring value to your company—to try and get paid doing one of the few things I know I can do well: writing.

Because being a musician—a decade of noes and passes, of agents and managers and labels and distributors and venues and bigger bands and producers telling me (in their kindest boilerplate language) that they’d rather not work with me—wasn’t enough, I’ve decided to have another go at failure in an attempt to start a writing career.

2.

In the 18 months since I gave up on a job search and threw myself headlong into trying to get paid enough to make a living as a writer, I’ve enjoyed a modicum of success. I’ve had a bunch of stories published online via sites great(ish) and (very) small. I’ve written for The New York Times and Catapult. Some publications have paid very, very well. Most have not. Every day, I apply for full-time work as a staff writer. I write and rewrite pitches. I query editors.

But I’m making a living—thanks, no doubt, to relocating from Lower Manhattan to the much less expensive Chapel Hill, N.C.—solely from writing.

There are the good gigs. The thrilling stories and the personal essays I hope to one day publish as a collection. There are the bad gigs. The dreaded listicles and the less-dreaded SEO work that pay the bills more regularly than anything else.

I write about sports and about wine. I write about the local flair of my adopted hometown and about the Italian-American food that is my family’s heritage. I write about my son, 18 months old and nearly half as tall as his mom.

Last summer, I pecked away every morning at a story about him, about her, and about me, and emerged with a 45,000-word manuscript of which I am very proud. I wrote it for myself. I wrote it for my mom, who’s been dead half a decade, and for my family, who are still here. I wrote because I felt that I had a story I had to write. I wrote for all the reasons the half-cocked self-help gurus tell you to write; “Don’t write the story because you want to get published. Write the story because you need to write the story.”

I needed to write that story. But I also wrote it with the intention of selling it to a publisher. Because fuck the self-effacing, pre-failure refrain of writing only to write because the story needs to be written. Because I want this story to be successful and I want it to be read and passed on and, at best, I want it to resonate with people. Because I want to be paid for my work. Because I want the book tour and the trappings that come with some bit of success.

Because I want it to be a book. Not just a manuscript. And I feel not an ounce of shame in saying that.

And it will. Someday. I have little doubt.

But first I have to wade through another cycle of the endless noes and passes, as the 50-plus literary agents whom I’ve queried and the 50-plus more that I’ve yet to query tell me in their kindest boilerplate language that they’d rather not work with me.

And while I recognize that most aspiring writers’ unsuccessful queries number in the dozens, if not the hundreds, and while I’ve already had dozens, if not hundreds of editors pass on my story pitches, it doesn’t take the sting out of the Thanks-But-No-Thanks responses that litter my inbox at present.

3.

It took seven years and 600 shows for the wind to leave my sails as a rock ‘n’ roller. Seven years and 600 shows and three full-length albums and four EPs and two tapes and dozens upon dozens of sessions, interviews, and videos for the noes and the passes and the boilerplate letters to cause me to crumble under the endless weight of denial, under the endless reminder that my music just wasn’t quite good enough.

So I still have some time. I still have hundreds of queries to send and editors to pitch and more manuscripts to write and more people to bug with my endless optimism. And if after seven years, my resolve is destroyed by the noes and the passes and the boilerplate letters, I can always try out for the Mets.

It can’t possibly be harder than trying to write for a living.

Image: Scott Warman

Ten Ways to Live Forever

1.Before ISIS toppled the minaret of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Anbar Province, or threaded the Mosul tombs of Daniel and Jonah with incendiary, Utnapishtim was somewhere in the desert. He was there before the Americans with their hubristic occupation, in some cave while soldiers in Kevlar patrolled the banks of the Tigris, M1 tanks of the Third Infantry rolling toward Baghdad and F-22s of the 101st Airborne cutting across the skies of Karbala. Utnapishtim survived Saddam’s reign, with his mustard gas, torture chambers, and the invasion of Kuwait; he’d seen men burnt alive on Highway 80 by the Americans; he’d endured the brutal war with Iran, when tanks got stuck in the mud of Dezful and Khorramshahr was turned into a city of blood; he was there when the Ba’athists overthrew the Hashemite monarchy.

Utnapishtim lived through the British Mandate of Mesopotamia, when Sir Percy Cox drank G&T’s at the officer’s club; he’d lived when Iraq was a backwater of the Ottomans, and he saw Mamluks, Jalayirids, and Mongols steer their horses across the desert; he witnessed Genghis Khan in Khwarizmi, more centaur than man. He snuck unseen into the Baghdad of the Abbasids, city of gardens and astrolabes, where he discussed Hadith with the humane Mu’tazila and parsed Aristotle with Ibn Sina. Prior to the Islamic Golden Age, Utnapishtim was in Ctesiphon when Yazdegerd III fled as the Arabs marched into the Sasanian Empire, the Zoroastrian mages unable to prevent the course of history (true of all of us). He was there when Trajan marched columns of iron-armored Roman centurions into Parthia, and when Alexander the Great established Seleucid.

Witness to when Cyrus the Great freed the Jews of Babylon, and when Hammurabi’s scribes chiseled the law into stone. Utnapishtim had endured Chaldeans, Babylonians, Assyrians, Akkadians. Our primogeniture, the oldest of men, born in Sumer; as old as cuneiform pressed into wet clay, as old as sunbaked cities and the farming of wheat on the Euphrates’s banks, as old as the words themselves. Enki of the stars and An of the sky, Enlil of the wind and Ninhursag of the mountains molded Sumer, and by the banks of Eden birthed humans like Utnapishtim. Our only refugee of that before-time, the only person to survive when the fickle gods conspired to destroy the world by flood shortly after having created it.

He dwelled when Iraq was Uruk, before civilization’s keystone was set, when the firmament was new. Utnapishtim survived leaders and conquerors, presidents and dictators. Breathing before Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Muqtada al-Sadr, George W. Bush, Saddam Hussein, and the Ayatollah Khomeini; talking before King George V and Kaiser Wilhelm II; walking before Mehmed II, the Abbasid caliphs, and Genghis Khan; older than the Prophet Muhammad; older even than Yazdegerd III, Alexander the Great, Cyrus the Great, Darius II, Sargon of Akkad, and Ashurbanipal. He witnessed the inundation of ziggurats, the collapse of towers, the immolation of temples. For the thousands of reigns he lived through, the kings innumerable and emperors forgotten, only one had ever sought his counsel. Despite being two-thirds divine, a king who would ultimately die like the rest of us; a fearsome ruler named Gilgamesh.

2.The tale of a righteous man visited by a god who warned him of rising waters—who in response builds an ark, venturing forth when a dove that he’s released confirms that dry land has reemerged—may strike you as a story that you’ve heard before. Norman Cohn parses the purpose of these stories, writing in Noah’s Flood: The Genesis Story in Western Thought that “large areas of what used to be Mesopotamia…were frequently devastated by flood. When torrential rain combined with the melting of the snows… the Tigris and Euphrates could burst their banks.” Cohn explains that in “ancient times this phenomenon gave rise to a powerful tradition: it was believed that here had once been a flood so overwhelming that nothing was ever the same again.” But if Genesis focuses on sin and punishment, the anonymously written Epic of Gilgamesh has no moral, save for a brief on why we must die at all (or at least why most of us must).  

Unlike Noah, who even with the antediluvian extremes of 950 years did ultimately die, Utnapishtim was gifted (or cursed) by the gods with immortality. Some other differences with the Bible’s account, for Genesis records nothing of having to fight scorpion-monsters to reach Utnapishtim. Gilgamesh was stricken over the death of his best (and arguably only) friend, Enkidu, the wild man domesticated by the priestess Shamhat with sex and beer (as so many people are). For the ruler of Uruk, Utnapishtim promised something that can’t be purchased in gold, the possibility of Enkidu’s resurrection and Gilgamesh’s immortality. In Stephen Mitchell’s reimagining Gilgamesh: A New English Version, Utnapishtim queries the ruler: “who will assemble/the gods for your sake? Who will convince them/to grant you the eternal life that you seek?”

Utnapishtim tasks Gilgamesh, the man who defeated the mighty ogre Humbaba, that immortality is his if he simply stays awake indefinitely. Despite quasi-divinity, powers temporal and physical, authority and prestige, Gilgamesh can’t defeat slumber. Utnapishtim mocks the king, “Look at this fellow! He wanted to live / forever, but the very moment he sat down, / sleep swirled over him, like a fog.” All of human weakness and desires—our need to eat, our need to shit and piss, our need to fuck—signal that our lot is not that of Utnapishtim or of the gods who created him. Even if you can defeat Humbaba, the Epic of Gilgamesh reminds us, sooner or later you’ll nod off.

Finally, Gilgamesh is informed that the only means of living forever is to acquire a magic plant growing at the bottom of all rivers’ sources, which the ruler promptly finds, only to have the wily serpent (at the start of an auspicious career) snatch the fruit away from him. Enkidu’s death has left the king raw and lonely, but Utnapishtim’s example is illusory and dangerous, for it “postpones Gilgamesh’s necessary acceptance until a time when he is more ready for it,” as Mitchell writes. Gilgamesh realizes that immortality is not literal; one does not live forever at the world’s eastern edge, but rather in deeds, memories, and in words. We’re told by less mature voices to rage against the dying of the light, but the earliest story has Gilgamesh confront immortality’s mirage, understanding how “now that I stand / Before you, now that I see who you are, / I can’t fight.”

Ironically, Utnapishtim’s story was forgotten for millennia (if filtered through other myths). “Though it is one of the earliest explorations of these perennial themes,” writes David Damrosch in The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh, “this haunting poem isn’t a timeless classic.” Hidden just as surely as Utnapishtim in his orchard, the influence of The Epic of Gilgamesh is subliminal in our cultural memory. Preserved on a few broken kiln-burnt tablets strewn about the floor of the Akkadian king Ashurbanipal’s library, The Epic of Gilgamesh wasn’t rediscovered until the 19th century by British archeologists. Of that, Utnapishtim’s discourse on eternity occupied only a few lines on the 11th tablet.

Literary historian Michael Schmidt in Gilgamesh: The Life of a Poem describes the epic as constituting “the first road novel, the first trip to hell, the first Deluge.” So much has come after what that nameless scribe wrote; it predates Homer and Virgil, Dante and John Milton, William Shakespeare and Jane Austen, Anne Bradstreet and Emily Dickinson. Even though ignorant of Gilgamesh, they worked and aspired to the same timelessness, for as Schmidt writes, it “prefigures almost every literary tone and trope and suggests all genres, from dramatic to epic, from lament to lyrics and chronicle, that have followed it.”

The Epic of Gilgamesh reminds us that there have been many floods, many apocalypses, many deaths, and virtually nobody has ever come out the other side alive. To live forever may be a myth, yet for our lack of eternity, even after all these millennia, we are still “Wandering, always eastward, in search / of Utnapishtim, whom the gods made immortal.” 

3.Sex evolved before death. Arguably the former was a prerequisite for the latter. Sexual reproduction, genetic material exchange resulting in a new individual, was first practiced among simple prokaryotes—unicellular organisms lacking membrane and nuclei—about two billion years ago. Birds do it, bees do it, educated fleas do it, and apparently even prokaryotes do it. Such hobbies introduce beneficial genetic variations that the date-night loneliness of asexual reproduction simply doesn’t allow for. When celibate organisms reproduce through mitosis, they’re cloning themselves—the individual is the species. If you squish an asexual prokaryote, there are millions more just like it—death is meaningless; it is fundamentally immortal. But once sex exists, the loss of any one thing can be considered the irretrievable death of something completely unique, no matter how simple it may be. As the old joke at my alma matter has it, “Sex kills. If you want to live forever, go to Carnegie Mellon.”

Immunologist William R. Clark explains in Sex and the Origins of Death that “Obligatory death as a result of senescence—natural aging—may not have come into existence for more than a billion years after life…programmed death seems to have arisen at about the same time that cells began experimenting [with] sex…It may be the ultimate loss of innocence.” From the first orgasm came the first death gasp—at least proverbially. Human culture has subsequently been one long reaction to that reality, debating whether it was a fall or a Felix culpa.

That sex precedes death isn’t just a biological fact, but it has the gloss of theological truth about it as well. Such is the chronology as implied by Genesis; though there was debate as to if Adam and Eve did have sex in Eden, there seemed little doubt that they could have (though St. Augustin said it could only be facilitated through pure rationality, and not fallen passion). That all changes once Utnapishtim’s wily serpent makes a reappearance, and God tells Eve that He will “greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children.” Only three verses later, and God tells Adam that “dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” Sent beyond Eden’s walls to live out their finite days in the desert, their only consolations are sex and death.

Eros and Thanatos endures in the human psyche. Since the 16th century, the French have referred to orgasm as la petite mort, the “little death.” When that phrase first appeared, Europe was in the midst of syphilitic panic. A disease of replacement: silver noses pressed into the viscus putty of a rancid face, and of the tics and mutterings of those who’ve gone insane. Anthropologist Jared Diamond writes in Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies that when syphilis “was first definitely recorded…in 1495, its pustules often covered the body from the head to the knees, caused flesh to fall from people’s faces, and led to death within a few months.” If scolds were looking for the connection between sex and death, syphilis was a ready-made villain. Always a moralizing faith, Christianity was made a bit more so with the arrival of syphilis; in 15th-century Florence the fanatical Dominican Girolamo Savonarola taught that it was God’s punishment for decadent humanism; a generation later and the Protestant Martin Luther would concur with his Catholic forebear.

In Naples they called it the “French disease,” and in Paris it was an Italian one, but epidemiologists have configured it as American, noting its arrival shortly after Christopher Columbus’s return from the Caribbean. Syphilis was an export alongside potatoes and tomatoes; an unwitting revenge for the smallpox introduced into the Western Hemisphere. If modernity signals its own fall, than syphilis was perhaps an indiscriminate punishment, for as historian Roy Porter writes in The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity, syphilis “should be regarded as typical of the new plagues of an age of conquest and turbulence, one spread by international warfare, rising population density…[and] the migrations of soldiers and traders.” Sacrificed immortality was the price that living creatures paid for the possibility of connection, for if eternity was once a biological process, then its opposite was as well.

4.Ponce de Leon looked for immortality in Florida, it’s true. Somewhere near where tourists stroll eroding Miami Beach, soccer moms pick their children up from Broward County strip malls, or hearty adventurers visit Pensacola gator-parks, the conquistador had obsessively searched for the Fountain of Youth. According to (apocryphal) legend, de Leon was fixated on stories told by Native Americans of a mythic source water whose curative properties would restore men to youth—indefinitely. Immortality by water fountain if you will. “Ponce de Leon went down in history as a wishful graybeard seeking eternal youth, like so many Floridians today,” quips Tony Horowitz in A Voyage Long and Strange: On the Trail of Vikings, Conquistadors, Lost Colonists, and Other Adventures in Early America.

Arawak and Taino spoke of a spring named “Bimini,” located everywhere from the Bahamas to the Yucatan. De Leon looked for it in the future Sunshine State, though you’ll note that he did not find it. If you’ve ever visited the Old Town of San Juan, Puerto Rico with its charming, crooked stone streets that meander by colonial buildings painted in pinks and blues, you’ll find that far from achieving immortality, de Leon is buried inside of the white-walled Cathedral of San Juan Bautista. In 1521, somewhere between Florida’s hidden Fountain of Youth and immortality, de Leon found himself in the way of a manchineel poisoned arrow wielded by a Calusa warrior.  

When de Leon envisioned a bubbling creek that could restore him to lost youth (probably better to have just enjoyed the original more), by what mechanism did he see such a thing as working? Chemical or alchemical, natural or supernatural? Horowitz writes that a “Spanish historian later claimed that Ponce de Leon [searched]…as a cure for his impotence,” which gives us an emotional register for the conquistador’s obsession, if not the pharmaceutical specifics. Since no such fountain actually exists, the question of whether it’s magic or science is easier to answer—it’s neither. Or, perhaps, better to think of it as a magical belief about science; the idea that the fountain’s waters have mineralogical or medical properties is fundamentally just a mask for our supernatural inclinations, the fountain not so different from Gilgamesh’s restorative plant.

As early as the fifth century before the Common Era, and Herodotus would declaim in The Histories that the mythic Macrobians living on the Horn of Africa could live as long as 120 years with the assistance of a particularly pure spring. He writes of a “fountain, wherein when they had washed, they found their flesh all glossy and sleek, as if they had bathed in oil—and a scent came from the spring like that of violets…their constant use of the water from it [is] what makes them so long-lived” (gerontologists agree that 120 years seems to be the upper-limit natural expiration date for humans, if free of disease and accident).

Alexander the Great and the imaginary Christian king Prester John, whose realm was supposedly somewhere deep in either pagan Asia or Africa, are associated with the myth. The 14th-century faux-exploration narrative The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, a post-modern picaresque or autofiction written before postmodernism and autofiction were things, claims that a similar spring exists in India, “a beautiful well, whose water has a sweet taste and smell, as if of different kinds of spices.” Some of the author’s accounts of Egypt and China conform to what we know about those places during the Middle Ages, and yet Mandeville’s claims about whole tribes that have Cynocephaly (they’re dog-headed) or of groups of Epiphagi (people with heads in their chests) strain credulity. How are we to trust such a source about the Fountain of Youth?

What these examples should demonstrate is that de Leon had a ready-made script. Not a dissimilar process to how Spanish colonists saw the ancient Greek legend of the Amazons in South America, or the Portuguese fable of the Seven Cities of Cibola in the red-baked American southwest. Theirs was never a process of discovery, but of the endless use and reuse of their own dusty legends. Who knows what Bimini really was? The conquistadors had their imaginings from Herodotus and Mandeville, and they were going to impose such a concept onto America. Immortality, regardless of whether it’s to be found in India, the Horn of Africa, or south Florida, is an obsession. Yet what the obsessive obsesses over tells us more about the obsessed than the obsessee.

5.Virginia Woolf didn’t wish to acquire immortality, far from it. A disservice to Woolf, not to mention the millions of those who suffer from depression, to reduce her 1941 suicide to allegory or symbol. When weighted down with rocks she walked into the Ouse near her East Sussex home, Woolf was not providing us with gloss on life and death. “I am doing what seems the best thing to do,” Woolf writes in the note left for her husband, “I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came.” That, in its straightforwardness, says the most important thing about Wolfe’s suicide—that it was the result of her disease. Depression is not allegory, it is a disease, and oftentimes it kills people. Woolf did, however, supply her thoughts on immortality some 13 years earlier, in one of the greatest meditations ever supplied on the subject, her novel Orlando: A Biography.

Woolf depicts an English courtier born during the reign of the Tudors, who, despite the limitations of having a finite body, is somehow able to will himself (and then herself) into immortality. Orlando may be a subject of Queen Elizabeth I, but by the end of the novel she’s able to fly over her manor house in an airplane. In the interim, the character experiences the Frost Faire of 1608 (when the Thames froze over and merchants plied candied apples and roasted walnuts on its surface), an affair with a beautiful Russian noblewoman, placement in an English embassy in Constantinople, adoption by a group of Roma, and marriage to an eccentric gender nonconforming sea captain with the unimaginably great name of Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine. And then around the age of 30, Orlando transforms from being a man into a woman as she slept one night.

No magic plants or springs, rather a sense that Orlando’s personality is so overabundant that it can’t be constrained through either sexuality or time. “Orlando had become a woman,” Woolf writes simply, “there’s no denying it.” A masterpiece of both temporal and gender ambiguity, in Orlando the author doesn’t desire immortality for herself, but she imagines it for her character, what her biographer Hermione Lee describes in Virginia Woolf as its quality of being a “masterpiece of playful subterfuge.” Unlike Gilgamesh with his overweening bloodlust, or de Leon with his immature obsession, Woolf envisions immortality as a radical, subversive, creative state; as Hill puts it, a “magnificent, surrealist erection.” For Woolf, immortality is better understood as an aesthetic act, living one’s life so fully, with such pure, unmitigated, wondrous agency that the contours of normal years and decades simply must expand to fit our enormity. With relativistic insight Woolf observes that “An hour, once it lodges in the queer element of the human spirit, may be stretched to fifty or a hundred times its clock length; on the other hand, an hour may be accurately represented on the timepiece of the mind by one second,” a phenomenon that she cheekily claims “is less known than it should be and deserves fuller investigation.”

Orlando’s great negative capability is that Woolf describes depression without the novel losing sight of a certain wondrous enchantment. She writes that “At the age of thirty…this young nobleman had not only had every experience that life has to offer, but had seen the worthlessness of them all. Love and ambition, women and poets were all equally vain.” Such emptiness and disinterestedness—the sheer fact of being so tired—is the medium of depression. But the narrative itself is what demonstrates the illusoriness of such emotions, even if in the moment they feel to us to be inviolate. Orlando thinks that they have experienced everything, but have they been to Constantinople? Have they flown over Sussex in a plane? Not yet—and therein lay the rub. Life has a charged abundance, even if brain chemistry and circumstance sometimes deny us that.

Orlando was a roman à clef upon the great love of Woolf’s life—Vita Sackville-West. The character shares Sackville-West’s androgynous beauty, her poetic brilliance, and her aristocratic forbearance. Most of all, Orlando and Sackville-West are united in having lived their lives with such jouissance, with such unbridled life, that death itself seems to indefinitely pause to take them. An existence where we can observe in the Thames “frozen to a depth of some twenty fathoms, a wrecked wherry boat… lying on the bed of the river where it had sunk last autumn, overladen with apples,” the frozen corpse of the saleswoman visible in her blue-lipped magnificence at the bottom. What a strange, terrible, and beautiful thing this life is, that if we were to fully inhabit every single blessed second of it, we’d be as eternal as it were ever possible to be, within the very universe of a moment. How fortunate we are.  

6.On the road from Santiago de Compostela in 1378, the French alchemist Nicholas Flamel and his wife Perenelle met eternity. According to almost certainly fabricated accounts written in the 17th century, the wealthy Parisian bookseller’s study of magic helped him to (among other things) derive the philosopher’s stone, and thus generate the so-called “Elixir of Life,” which granted him immortality. Flamel had journeyed to Spain, that liminal place between east and west, Europe and Africa, Christian, Jewish, and Islamic, under the assumption that some mage could interpret a manuscript he purchased in Paris. Flamel wasn’t so fortunate in finding assistance while actually in Spain, but on the road home a Jewish converso recognized the occult text for what it was—an original copy of the powerful grimoire The Book of Abramelin.

As with all such guides, The Book of Abramelin makes big promises. Within there are “the actual rules to acquire this Divine and Sacred Magic…therein find certain examples and other matters which be none the less useful and profitable unto thee.” It parsed the intricacies of summoning your guardian angel, how to bind demons, and how to walk underwater (which as impressive as it is, doesn’t really match the first two). There are a lot of magic squares scattered throughout. And, of course, there is the recipe for the philosopher’s stone. As with the stories about Flamel himself, The Book of Abramelin seems to be another 17th-century invention. The author is supposedly the German Kabbalist Abraham of Worms, who traveled to Egypt to confer with the reputed mystical master Abramelin himself. “And having written this with mine own hand,” writes the author (since we’re unsure of whose hand penned that line), “I have placed it within this casket, and locked it up, as a most precious treasure; in order that when thou hast arrived at a proper age thou mayest be able to admire, to consider, and to enjoy the marvels.”

No version of the text has been found that predates 1608, and the earliest copies are in German rather than Hebrew; all of which seems to indicate that just as with Flamel, the reputation of The Book of Abramelin is a fantasy borrowing authority from medieval exoticism. A fashionable Hebraism developed during the Italian Renaissance, and quickly spread throughout Europe, so that references to the Kabbalah could impart a degree of authenticity for Christian occultists. Gershom Scholem writes in Alchemy and Kabbalah that the “name of this arcane discipline became a popular catchword in Renaissance and Baroque theosophical and occult circles, having been declared and revered as the guardian of the oldest and highest mystical wisdom of mankind by its fist Christian mediators.” All the greatest stories about Kabbalah may be set in the Middle Ages, but for the Christian occultists who appropriated it, the subject was very much a Renaissance affair.

For alchemists and occultists like Paracelsus, Johann Reuchlin, or John Dee, Flamel was an instructive example. Knowledge was supposed to be the road to eternity, as surely as a Parisian scribe could return from Compostela, and perhaps the bookseller was somewhere wandering like the converso who gave him the secret to never dying. Could Flamel be glimpsed, in the court of the occult emperor Rudolf II in red-roofed Prague, discoursing on astronomy with Johannes Keppler and Kabbalah with Rabbi Judah ben Lowe? Would he be found on those curving stones of dark Cambridge with Thomas Vaughan, or among the sun-dappled courtyards of Florence with Giordano Bruno?

In reality, Flamel was moldering underneath the nave of the Church of Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie in the fourth arrondissement. His tombstone now sits in the Musée de Cluny; the year of Flamel’s expiration was 1418. By all actual accounts, he was a loving husband and a successful merchant. Flamel’s fate, in all of its beauty, was the same as everybody’s. The psychoanalyst Marie-Louise von France gives a charitable reading of the Renaissance theorists of immortality, explaining in Alchemy: An Introduction to the Symbolism and Psychology that the desire for this knowledge “was actually the search for an incorruptible essence in man which would survive death, an essential part of the human being which could be preserved.” An accurate definition for poetry.

7.Enoch’s story is recounted across only four lines in Genesis. The King James Version of the Bible sets the cryptic tale of a man who ascended bodily to heaven, presumably having never died and still living immortally somewhere in the astral realm, in just 53 words. Father of Methuselah, who was himself so remarkably long-lived that his name has long been conflated with extreme seniority, Enoch simply never died. We’re told at Genesis 5:24 that “Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him.” Such is the entire explanation of what happened to this man of the seventh generation. What an odd bit of poetry this is. For. God. Took. Him.

Even if the Bible is tight-lipped about Enoch, the copious fan-fic about him (which scholars call “apocrypha”) lacked a similar reticence. From the mystics of antiquity to the occultists of today, Enoch achieved not just immortality but actual apotheosis, seated next to a God who liked him so much that he transformed the mortal into a “lesser Yahweh.” Such is a description of his career change from a pseudographical rabbinic text called 3 Enoch, which is dated to the fifth century after the Common Era. Scholem provides gloss on this unusual book in his Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, writing that “[his] flesh was turned to flame, his veins to fire, his eye-lashes to flashes of lightning, his eye-balls to flaming torches, and who God has placed on a throne next to the throne of glory, received after this heavenly transformation the name Metatron.” There is a venerable occult tradition that holds that Enoch become immortal, was elevated above even the archangels, became the very voice of the Lord, and was given a name that sounds like that of a Transformer.

Enochian literature can be traced back to three apocryphal texts from the first centuries of the Common Era that all elaborated on the terse passage from Genesis. 3 Enoch (also amazingly called The Revelation of Metatron) is joined by the Book of Enoch, written in Ge’ez and still held canonical by the Orthodox Tewahedo Church in Ethiopia, and the Second Book of Enoch which only survives in Old Bulgarian (I’m not making that up). The last book’s alternate title is actually even better than The Revelation of Metatron, it is often referred to as The Book of Secrets. From translator Willis Barnstone’s version of The Book of Secrets, as included in his incredible anthology The Other Bible, Enoch speaks in the first person, telling us that “I know all things and have written them into books concerning the heavens and their end, their plentitude, their armies, and their marching. I have measured and described the stars, their great and countless multitude. What man has seen their revolutions and entrances?”  

Metatron was the amanuenses of God’s thoughts, the librarian of reality who noted all that had, would, or could be done. A scribe as surely as Flamel was—Metatron was a writer. Enoch was the first figure in scripture to ascend to heaven, though he was not the first. Midrash actually records eight people as having achieved immortality this way, including the prophet Elijah who is consumed entirely up into a whirlwind; Sarah, whom is blessed by her grandfather Jacob with “May you live forever and never die;” and Ebed-Melech the Ethiopian who saved the prophet Jeremiah’s life during the Siege of Jerusalem. Catholics believe that the Virgin Mary ascended bodily, though after her death on Earth (a minority claim she was taken while still alive). Christianity more generally teaches that Christ rose to heaven, though he also died first, of course; while Muslims teach that both Muhammad and Jesus ascended.

Immortality, these accounts remind us, is a miracle. Perhaps no more so than with Enoch, for those other examples concern the ascension of prophets and the messiah, but the lowly man of the seventh generation was just some guy. A quiet beauty to the account, for why did Enoch walk with God? What about Enoch was so agreeable to the Lord that He would take him? What cracked beauty is there in a human gifted the ability to see the universe in its resplendence, so that as concerns the stars, Enoch speaks in a voice of awe from the Book of Secrets that “Not even the angels see their number, yet I have recorded all their names.”

8.While writing theater reviews for the Dublin Evening Mail, a 28-year-old graduate of Trinity University named Abraham Stoker would be the unlikely author of a gushing fan letter sent on Valentine’s Day 1876 to an American poet with an address in the distinctly unglamorous locale of Camden, New Jersey. That wasn’t Stoker’s first attempt at writing to Walt Whitman; he’d penned an effusive, borderline-erotic missive some four years earlier but kept the epistle in his desk out of embarrassment, before finally sending the original with a new note of introduction.

“Do not think me cheeky for writing this,” Stoker, who now went by “Bram,” wrote in the new letter, but “I believe you will like it,” he said regarding his original message. Whitman is a “man who can write, as you have written, the most candid words that ever fell from the lips of a mortal man.” For Stoker, only 9 when Leaves of Grass was first printed (and as of then completely unknown in Britain or Ireland), Whitman had “shaken off the shackles and your wings are free.” With a tragic pathos still clear more than a century later, Stoker confesses (which has afforded no shortage of literary gossip) that “I have the shackles on my shoulders still—but I have no wings.”

As obsequious as Renfield, Stoker tells Whitman that “You are a true man, and I would like to be one myself, and so I would be towards you as a brother and as a pupil to his master.” Perhaps he was, as there is something almost vampiric in Whitman’s 1891 revision of his poem “Trickle Drops,” done a year before his death and six before his protégé would publish his most famous novel. “Trickle drops! my blue veins leaving!…drip bleeding drops, / From wounds made to free you when you were prison’d / From my face, from my forehead and lips, / my breast…Stain every page, stain every song I sing, every word I saw, bloody drops,” Whitman enthuses. Stoker’s titular character in Dracula concurs with the American bard: “The blood is the life!”

Strange to think of the consummate rugged individualist with his broad shoulders and his Old Testament beard as influencing Stoker, but as an unconventional bohemian, Whitman may have shared more with Dracula than has been supposed. Biographer Barbara Belford notes in Bram Stoker and the Man Who Was Dracula that “the vampire at times resembles Whitman. Each has long white hair, a heavy moustache, great height and strength, and a leonine bearing.” Perhaps less superficially, “Whitman’s poetry celebrates the voluptuousness of death and the deathlike quality of love.” Whitman, with the gleam of the vampire in his eyes, promises in his preface to Leaves of Grass that the “greatest poet…drags the dead out of their coffins and stands them again on their feet.”

Leaves of Grass is a work that enthuses about immortality, albeit more in the transcendentalist sense than in the vampiric one. “The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,” Whitman writes, “And if there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it…All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses, / And to die is different from what anyone supposed.” Whitman fully expected a metaphysical immortality whereby his very atoms mingle into the streams and stones, the rocks and the rambles. Admittedly a different type of immortality than that surmised by Stoker, yet he borrowed from Whitman the poet’s charged, fully realized, erotic, bohemian persona. The Irishman noted that Whitman was the “quintessential male,” and its hard not to see some of that projection onto Dracula.

The immediate historical influence for Dracula was the 15th-century Wallachian prince Vlad Tepes, more popularly known as the “Impaler” after his favored pastime. Eros and Thanatos again, a bit of sex and death in that nickname. Radu Florescu and Raymond T. McNally note in their classic In Search of Dracula that the “ruler notorious for mass impalements of his enemies…was in fact called Dracula in the fifteenth century, and we found that he even signed his name that way.” From Whitman, Stoker took the transcendent nature of immortality, and from Vlad the blessed violence, bound together in the transgressive, bohemian personality of the aesthete. Literary scholars Joanna Levin and Edward Whitley write in Whitman Among the Bohemians that from the “bohemians to contemporary hipsters, Whitman still commands center stage, providing an ever-magnetic focal point for countercultural self-fashionings,” something that any goth can tell you is true of Dracula as well. As a reader, Stoker is able to comprehend that Whitman’s celebration of immortality must by necessity also have its drawbacks, that the vampiric can’t help but pulse through any conception of life beyond the grave.

With the smallest sprout in mind, Stoker writes that it’s a “strange world, a sad world, a world full of miseries, and woes, and troubles.” Yet we can “all dance to the tune…Bleeding hearts, and dry bones of the churchyard, and tears that burns as they fall—all dance together to the music.” Immortality kindled in the space of human connection, our lives able to exist indefinitely through others. Dracula does this literally, sucking upon the blood of innocents, but we ideally all do it when we ingest the words of others, and respond in kind. Whitman wrote back to Stoker. “I am up and dress’d, and get out every day a little, live here quite lonesome, but hearty, and good spirits.” He concluded the letter with, “Write to me again.”

9.Many lines are on the CV of the biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey: graduate of Trinity College Cambridge with a Ph.D. awarded for his dissertation The Mitochondrial Free Radical Theory of Aging; Fellow of the Gerontological Association of America, Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technology, and the American Aging Institute; adjunct professor at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, and most famously the chief science officer at the California-based Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence. Added to that, under “Skills,” could be “Still Alive.” Don’t knock it as an entry; the vast majority of people who have ever lived can no longer claim the same. De Grey, whose name is almost ridiculously on the nose, would argue that “Still Alive” could be easily translated into “(Effectively) Immortal,” for the researcher claims that death is a terminal illness that will one day be preventable, and that any dismissiveness to that is a case of sublimated religious nostalgia.

He looks the part of an immortal, more prophet than scientist. With a long, tangled, greying auburn beard that is positively druidic, de Grey appears as if he were Merlin or Galahad, some Arthurian immortal. If anything, that epic beard calls to mind those who’ve joined us already—the good, grey bearded ruddy complexioned poet Whitman, and de Leon with his face burnt from the Florida sun with unshorn hair poking out from his metal cap; Enoch’s cascading white mane (or so one imagines) and Utnapishtim’s curled black beard hanging in plaits from his gaunt, severe face.

De Gray has an advantage over all of these men, and that’s that he is still alive (or even exists in the first place). That may, however, be his ultimate disadvantage, for unreality has a type of immortality that biology can’t approach. Of no concern to de Grey, writing alongside Michael Rae in Ending Aging: The Rejuvenation Breakthroughs that Could Reverse Human Aging in Our Lifetime, he argues that his field is “inhibited by the deeply ingrained belief that aging was ‘natural’ and ‘inevitable,’ biogerentologists had set themselves apart from the rest of the biomedical community by allowing themselves to be overawed by the complexity of the phenomenon that they were observing.” Not without some justification, de Grey argues that aging and death are biological problems and thus have biological solutions.

Utnapishtim had his magic plant and de Leon his spring of rejuvenation, but for de Grey immortality was an issue of his “own idea for eliminating intercellular garbage like lipofuscin [combined with]…making mitochondrial mutations harmless…for addressing glycation, amyloid accumulation, cell loss, senescent cells and cancer.” When it comes to the hodgepodge of techno-utopians who fall under the broad term of “transhumanism,” de Grey is positively a traditionalist in that he’s still focused on these meat bags filled with blood, piss, shit, and phlegm. More radical transhumanists have gone digital, arguing that consciousness could be downloaded to computers, the eternal soul an issue of making sure that your files are backed up.

Engineer Ray Kurzweil is one such evangelist for the coming of robot-Jesus, when Artificial Intelligence will be able to assist in the downloading of your mind, and the resurrection of those who’ve already passed before us (through purely material, scientific, technological means of course). He writes in The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology that when that eschaton arrives (always in just a few decades), it will “allow us to transcend these limitations of our biological bodies and brains. We will gain power over our fates. Our mortality will be in our own hands. We will be able to live as long as we want.” Apparently, such a project is easier than halting climate change, or at least the hyper libertarian funders of such transhumanist schemes, from Elon Musk to Peter Thiel, would have you believe such. The desire for immortality is a deeply human one, but with the irony that its achievement would serve to eliminate the human entirely. Ask not for whom the computer chimes, simply upload your soul to the cloud.

10.About two weeks ago from the time of my writing, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi announced that the legislature was “moving forward with an official impeachment inquiry” of Donald J. Trump. Pelosi’s announcement was broadcast on all major networks, on PBS and MSNBC, CNN and (even) FOX. In a vacuum, electromagnetic radiation travels at 186,000 miles per second; Albert Einstein’s theory of special relativity tells us that nothing may go faster. That means that this happy bit of news can be heard as far as 225,327,187,473.16 miles away, and counting, though unfortunately what’s in that space is mostly dust and rock. The closest star system to us is Alpha Centauri, which is a positively minuscule 4.37 light years away, meaning that for any lucky extraterrestrials there Barack Obama is still president.

In EZ Aquarii, they just heard President Obama’s acceptance address in Grant Park; any planets near Procyon will have just been informed of the 2008 financial collapse, and at LPP 944-020 they’re leaning of the invasion of Iraq. At MU Arae they’ve discovered that humans made the puny jump to the Moon (as well as listening to Abbey Road for the first time), HR 4864 just heard Walter Cronkite deliver the sad news about President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and Zeta Virginis is now aware that the Second World War is over. In just a little less than a decade, assuming that such weak electromagnetic waves hadn’t been absorbed by the dust and rock that reigns supreme in interstellar space, Guglielmo Marconi’s first transatlantic radio broadcast of the letter “s” repeatedly tapped out in Morse code would be arriving at K2-18b, a massive “super-earth” exoplanet some 120 light years away.

Earth is surrounded by an electromagnetic halo, our missives in radio and light that grow ever weaker with distance, but which send our thoughts ever further into interstellar space with every passing year. Music, entertainment, news, communication, all of it sent out like so many dandelion spores into the reaches of the black cosmos. The continual thrum of that pulsating meaning—what Whitman could have described as “Out of the cradle endlessly rocking, / Out of the mocking-bird’s throat, the musical shuttle”—a record of our having been here that can never be erased, though it’s ambiguous if there is anyone out there to listen. “O rising stars!” Whitman wrote, “Perhaps… [I] will rise with some of you,” an offering made up in a frequency between 88MHz-108Mhz. There is an immortality, disembodied and ethereal, that does turn to be out in the heavens—just in a form that may have been difficult for Enoch to imagine.

A harder chunk of our finality exists out there as well, the Golden Record included on both of the Voyager 1 and Voyager II spacecraft launched by NASA, which having passed into interstellar space beyond our solar system in respectively 2012 and 2018 are the furthest things that have ever been touched by human hands. Conceived of by the astrophysicist Carl Sagan, the Golden Record is a phonographic LP encoded with both images and a little under six and a half hours of sounds, meant to express our sheer enormity. For any extraterrestrials that should happen to find the record—Voyager 1 is about 40,000 years out from Gliese 445—Sagan and his committee’s record may serve as the only tangible example of our eternity, our only vehicle for immortality. In being able to select the contents of such a canon, Sagan is arguably the most influential human to ever live.

Any future listeners will be able to hear pianist Glen Gould’s transcendent interpretation of Johan Sebastian Bach’s mathematically perfect Brandenburg Concerto, the mournful cry of blues-singer Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground,” the Bavarian State Orchestra playing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and Chuck Berry absolutely shredding it on “Johnny B. Goode.” Sagan reminisces in Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space that “any alien ship that finds it will have another standard by which to judge us.” Astronomer Jim Bell writes in The Interstellar Age: The Story of the NASA Men and Women Who Flew the Forty-Year Voyager Mission that “If the messages aboard the Voyagers ended up being the last surviving artifacts of our world, they would signify the brighter sigh of human nature…[we] wanted to send out sign of our hopes, not our regrets.” Unless Voyager 1 or 2 should slam into some random star or fall into a hidden blackhole, unless some bit of flotsam should smash it up or some wayward creature should use it for target practice, both probes will continue unimpeded for a very long time. Space being mostly empty, their lifespans will be such that they’re effectively immortal.

Fifty-thousand years from now, after climate change renders us extinct, the interglacial period will end and a new ice age will descend on Earth. In two million years, the coral reefs of the world will have had time to recover from ocean acidification. Sixty million years from now, and the Canadian Rockies will have eroded away. Geologists predict that all of the Earth’s continents will coalesce into a supercontinent 250 million years from now. Five hundred million years in the future they’ll have separated again. A little more than a billion years from now, and stellar fluctuations will increase temperatures so that the oceans will be boiled away. In 1.6 billion years the last of our friends the prokaryotes will most likely be extinct. By 7.59 billion years, the sun will reach its Red Giant phase, and what remains of the Earth will most likely fall into our star. Through all of that, slowly moving along in blackness, will be the Golden Record. “Better was it to go unknown and leave behind you an arch, a potting shed, a wall where peaches ripen, than to burn like a meteor and leave no dust,” Woolf wrote. Voyager, however, leaves dust, no matter how scant.

Our solar system will be dead, but somewhere you’ll still be able to hear Ludwig von Beethoven’s Symphony Number 5 in C Minor. Sagan’s satellite is as if Ashurbanipal’s library was buried in the desert of space. As these things have moved us, perhaps somehow, someway they will move minds that have yet to exist. In a lonely universe, the only immortality is in each other, whomever we may be. Included within the Golden Record are a series of sentences in various languages, including Akkadian. Only 19 seconds into the record, and for billions of years listeners may hear a human speaking in the language of Utnapishtim, delivering the benediction that “May all be very well.”

Images: Mark Tegethoff, Greg Rakozy, Kristopher Roller, Aron Visuals, Ewan Robertson, NASA, Franck V., Drew Graham, Maksym Gryshchenko

The Joys of Reading with a Second Grader

“Why do you only read one book at a time?” my eight-year-old daughter asked me recently.
It isn’t true. I have piles of books stacked around the house, some homework for my writing projects, others written by friends, a few I have the best intentions for but just can’t seem to finish. She’s right, though, that there is usually one book whose call is strongest, and when we read side-by-side for pleasure, that’s the one I grab. I’m a slow reader, so my daughter has time to get attached to my choices. Three years later, she never fails to point out Lisa Ko’s The Leavers in bookstores, like it’s my long-lost friend, which, in a way, it is.
I have limited time to read usually—on the train, if I’m lucky enough to get a seat, or a few pages in bed before my eyelids grow heavy. Anyone who’s ever written a book knows you can accomplish great things via incrementalism, but reading slowly can feel like a grind. This year I’ve been sticking to shortish books that I can fly through. But recently I had some extra time and knew it was my chance to start Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, a multi-generational epic about Koreans living in Japan. I needed a good run of hours to devote to its 497 pages, and finally I had it. My daughter fingered the book’s shiny cover, tracing the mountains and valleys hidden in the folds of the woman’s hanbok.
“I want to read one of your books,” she said, eyeing the shelves in my bedroom.
I looked up, thinking of all the sex and violence housed there, subjects my girl will need to understand eventually, but slowly and carefully and not yet. Then I saw it: the Anne of Green Gables series. Last year I’d asked my mom to ship the books to me. I’d wanted my daughter to have those stories about the plucky red-haired orphan sent to live with a bachelor and his spinster sister on Prince Edward Island. But there’d been no space for them in her bedroom, where every horizontal surface is crowded with Ivy and Bean and Dr. Seuss and Star Wars and Roald Dahl.
“Those ones,” I said to her, pointing at the eight-book series nestled among the other Ms on my shelves. My daughter would need a chair to reach them, and I could see it was this fact—not my personal endorsement of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s classics, frequently and freely offered over the preceding months—that sold her on them.
My aunt gave me Anne of Green Gables, the first in the series, in 1982 (“Hope you enjoy reading this book as much as I did more than 20 years ago!” inscribed on the inside flap), and I remember finding the book one summer afternoon as I lay, bored out of my mind, on the floor of my room. Its green cover seemed to twinkle at me from under the bed. I don’t remember how it ended up there in the first place, but I can hazard a guess.
In the four years since my daughter first learned to read, I’ve been hoping to teach her the joys of reading for pleasure. No one wants to be nagged into enjoying themselves or doing something that’s good for them. Instead, I turn off the TV, grab the dog and a blanket, and make a nest so cozy the FOMO sucks in my daughter. You’d be surprised how often it works. But even for a lifelong reader like me—with the responsibilities of middle age: the emails to send, checkups to schedule, sitters to book, pages to write, and bills to pay—it can be difficult to access anything like joy. Contentedness? Sure. Admiration for an author’s achievement and the gratitude that comes with having your world increased and your knowledge deepened? Of course. But the joy in discovering a book that’s too good to resist? That’s been rare—until I started reading with my daughter.
To a second grader, reading is like throwing confetti in the air and getting back music or diamonds; sometimes, on a bad day, only dust motes. My girl isn’t a purist like her mother. I prefer the book as a physical object, novels preferably, the bound pages humming with secrets. But she’ll read anything: comics and graphic novels, chapter books, e-books on her Kindle (she has one; I don’t), engineering manuals, visual encyclopedias, books her dad and I made for her, stapled-together pages she’s started writing and will likely never finish, stories she’s started on my laptop. In the early days, I thought it all a performance, a child’s idea of what reading was supposed to be. I didn’t know then that pretending (to read, to write, to cook, to dance) was the beginning of the thing itself.
It’s incredible that children are so good at beginnings because so often the difficulty with reading books is surviving the beginning. It’s a huge investment for an adult to make—let alone an 8-year-old—to learn about a whole new set of people and places. Somehow it’s worse if the last book you read was one you loved. You have to start over in completely unfamiliar territory and trust that you will get your bearings, that you will fall in love twice (or three times, or a hundred times) and have fun again.


My daughter opted to read Anne of Green Gables to herself at first, slowly, diligently, but I could see she was starting to get bogged down by its rhapsodic passages. One Sunday, I rounded up the dog and the blanket and I offered to read a few pages to her. She was tired from her morning’s adventures, or she never would have acquiesced. As I read aloud, I grew nervous. I knew she’d be on safe ground once Anne meets her bosom friend, Diana, but first we had to outlast the buggy ride from the train station with Anne’s new guardian, Matthew. What would my city kid make of all this rapture over ponds and blossoms: “a glory of many shifting hues—the most spiritual shadings of crocus and rose and ethereal green”? She would need all the ballast I could muster, and I gave it my all: varying my tone and volume, telegraphing true delight. Still, the journey felt as if it might go on forever, with nothing but a mere mention of Diana’s house on the other side of Barry’s Pond. Even Anne knows it’s a drab name for a pond, so she rechristens it the Lake of Shining Waters. “Yes, that is the right name for it,” she tells Matthew. 

“I know because of the thrill. When I hit on a name that suits exactly it gives me a thrill. Do things ever give you a thrill?” Matthew ruminated.

 So did we. We pondered the word thrill until it almost lost all meaning.
When Matthew starts to point to Green Gables, Anne interrupts him and begs to be allowed to guess which house will be her new home.

They were on the crest of a hill. The sun had set some time since, but the landscape was still clear in the mellow afterlight. To the west a dark church spire rose up against a marigold sky. Below was a little valley and beyond a long, gently-rising slope with snug farmsteads scattered along it. From one to another the child’s eyes darted, eager and wistful. At last they lingered on one away to the left, far back from the road, dimly white with blossoming trees in the twilight of the surrounding woods. Over it, in the stainless southwest sky, a great crystal-white star was shining like a lamp of guidance and promise.

My daughter was rapt, becalmed by the crystal-white star. Now we had it, that swoosh of momentum that carries you past the letters on the page, straight into the heart of a story, like the wave in the painting that lifts the Narnia kids out of England and onto the deck of the Dawn Treader. My daughter and I were both swept up in Anne’s reverie, as charmed by this dreamy orphan as silent Matthew is, as I’d been when I first read the book during the Reagan years. The magic held. We flew to the end of the chapter.
“Keep going or stop here?” I asked.
“Keep going,” she said.
We read five chapters like that, coming to a delicate little cliffhanger, scanning the title of the next chapter (“Anne’s History,” “Marilla Makes Up Her Mind”), deciding to go on.
And then, as often happens on a really good reading day, my daughter rolled over and slipped into a delicious nap.
Now it was my turn. I picked up my copy of Pachinko. The paperback was heavy in my hands. I was more than a little afraid that it would defeat me with its length or its sterling reputation as a must-read 10 years in the making. What if I could only read the same two pages over and over again until I, too, fell asleep? What if I didn’t love it or admire it? Or worse, what if I felt like a failure as a writer? What if I felt like giving up? It had been a rough year, and I wasn’t sure I could handle the disappointment.
But two pages in, here was Hoonie, the beloved and only surviving son of an old fisherman and his wife, “this steady, beating organ” his parents shared. Here was the matchmaker, whose “black flinty eyes darted intelligently,” correctly tallying the family’s fortunes from the stacks of rice on the shelves and chickens in the yard. Here was Hoonie’s mother, salting radish “with a flick of her thick wrist,” careful to guard her emotions. And, at last, here was the promised bride, Yangjin, “the last of four girls and the easiest to unload because she was too young to complain, and she’d had the least to eat.” As I got to the end of each chapter, the novel’s gentle pangs urged me forward, until I forgot my to-do list, forgot myself, forgot everything but the warmth of the sleeping girl next to me. I had my own momentum now, born happily aloft to a land and a time far, far away.

Image: Nong Vang

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

We know that ghosts cannot speak until they have drunk blood; and the spirits which we evoke demand the blood of our hearts.—Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Greek Historical Writing, and Apollo (1908)

Thirteen years ago, when I lived briefly in Glasgow, I made it a habit to regularly attend the theater. An unheralded cultural mecca in its own right, overshadowed by charming, medieval Edinburgh to the east, the post-industrial Scottish capitalI was never lacking in good drama. Also, they let you drink beer during performances. Chief among those plays was a production of Sophocles’s Antigone, the final part of his tragic Theban Cycle, and one of the most theorized and staged of dramas from that Athenian golden age four centuries before the Common Era, now presented in the repurposed 16th-century Tron Church. Director David Levin took the Attic Greek of Sophocles and translated it into the guttural brogue of Lowlands Scotts, and in a strategy now deployed almost universally for any production of a play older than a century, the chitons of the ancient world were replaced with business suits, and the decrees of Creon were presented on television screen, as the action was reimagined not in 441 BCE but in 2007.

Enough to remind me of that headline from The Onion which snarked: “Unconventional Director Sets Shakespeare Play in Time, Place that Shakespeare Intended.” The satirical newspaper implicitly mocks adaptations like Richard Loncraine’s Richard III which imagined the titular character (devilishly performed by Ian McKellen) as a sort of Oswald Mosley-like fascist, and Derek Jarman’s masterful version of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II, which makes a play about the Plantagenet line of succession into a parable about gay rights and the Act Up movement. By contrast, The Onion quips that its imagined “unconventional” staging of The Merchant of Venice is one in which “Swords will replace guns, ducats will be used instead of the American dollar or Japanese yen, and costumes, such as…[the] customary pinstripe suit, general’s uniform, or nudity, will be replaced by garb of the kind worn” in the Renaissance. The dramaturgical perspective behind Levin’s Antigone was definitely what the article parodied; there was nary a contorted dramatic mask to be found, no Greek chorus chanting in dithyrambs, and, as I recall, lots of video projection. The Onion aside, British philosopher Simon Critchley would see no problem with Levin’s artistic decisions, writing in his new book Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us that “each generation has an obligation to reinvent the classics. The ancients need our blood to revise and live among us. By definition, such an act of donation constructs the ancients in our image.”

Antigone, coming from as foreign a culture as it does, still holds our attention for some reason. The story of the titular character—punished by her uncle Creon for daring to defy his command that her brother Polynices’s corpse be left to fester as carrion for the buzzards and worms in the field where he died because he has raised arms against Thebes—would seem to have little to do with Tony Blair’s United Kingdom. When a Glaswegian audience hears Sophocles’s words, however, that “I have nothing but contempt for the kind of governor who is afraid, for whatever reason, to follow the course the he knows is best for the State; and as for the man who sets private friendship above the public welfare—I have no use for him either” a bit more resonance may be heard. Critchley argues that at the core of Greek tragedy is a sublime ambivalence, an engagement with contradiction that classical philosophy can’t abide;as distant as Antigone’s origins may be, its exploration of the conflict between the individual and the state, terrorism and liberation, surveillance and freedom seemed very of the millennium’s first decade. Creon’s countenance of the unthinkable punishment of his niece, to be bricked up behind a wall, was delivered in front of a camera as if George W. Bush announcing the bombing of Iraq from the Oval Office on primetime television. “Evil sometimes seems good / To a man whose mind / A god leads to destruction,” Sophocles wrote. This was a staging for the era of the Iraq War and FOX News, of the Patriot Act and NSA surveillance, and of the coming financial collapse. Less than a year later, and I’d be back in my apartment stateside watching Barack Obama deliver his Grant Park acceptance speech. It was enough to make one think of Antigone’s line: “Our ship of fate, which recent storms have threatened to destroy, has come to harbor at last.” I’m a bad student of the Greeks; I should have known better than to embrace that narcotic hope that pretends tragedy is not the omnipresent condition of humanity.

What could Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus possibly have to say in our current, troubled moment? Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us is Critchley’s attempt to grapple with those disquieting 32 extant plays that whisper to us from an often-fantasized collective past. What survives of Greek tragedy is four less plays than all of those written by Shakespeare; an entire genre of performance for which we have titles referenced by philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, with only those three playwrights’ words enduring, and where often the most we can hope for are a few fragments preserved on some surviving papyri. Critchley emphasizes how little we know about plays like Antigone, or Aeschylus’s Oresteia, or Euripides’s Medea; that classicists often hypothesized that they were born from the Dionysian rituals, or that they focused on satyr psalms, the “song of the goats,” giving tragedy the whiff of the demonic, of the demon Azazel to whom sacrifices of the scapegoat must be made in the Levantine desert.

Beyond even tragedy’s origin, which ancient Greek writers themselves disagreed about, we’re unsure exactly how productions were staged or who attended. What we do have are those surviving 32 plays themselves and the horrific narratives they recount—Oedipus blinded in grief over the patricide and incest that he unknowingly committed but prophetically ensured because of his hubris; Medea slaughtering her children as a revenge on the unfaithfulness of her husband; Pentheus ripped apart by her frenzied Maenads in ecstatic thrall to Dionysius because the Theban ruler couldn’t countenance the power of irrationality. “There are at least thirteen nouns in Attic Greek for words describing grief, lamentation, and mourning,” Critchley writes about the ancients; our “lack of vocabulary when it comes to the phenomenon of death speaks volumes about who we are.” Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us is Critchley’s attempt to give us a bit of their vocabulary of excessive lamentation so as to better approach our predicament.

Readers shouldn’t mistake Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us as a conservative defense of the canon; this is no paean to the superior understanding of the ancients, nor is its highfalutin’ self-help. Critchley’s book isn’t Better Living Through Euripides. Easy to misread the (admittedly not great) title as an advertisement for a book selling the snake-oil of traditionalist cultural literacy, that exercise in habitus that confuses familiarity with the “Great Books” as a type of wisdom. Rather, Critchley explores the Greek tragedies in all of their strange glory, as an exercise in aesthetic rupture, where the works of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides configure a different type of space that renders a potent critique against oppressive logic. His task is thus the “very opposite of any and all kinds of cultural conservatism.” Critchley sees the plays not as museum pieces, or as simple means of demonstrating that you went to a college with diplomas written in Latin, but rather as a “subversive traditionalism” that helps us to critique “ever more egregious forms of cultural stupefaction that arise from being blinded by the myopia of the present.” This is all much larger than either celebrating or denouncing the syllabi of St. John’s College; Critchley has no concern for boring questions about “Western Civilization” or “Defending the Canon,” rather he rightly sees the tragedies as an occasion to deconstruct those idols of our current age—of the market, of society, of law, of religion, of state. He convincingly argues that any honest radical can’t afford to ignore the past, and something primal and chthonic calls to us from those 32 extant plays, for “We might think we are through with the past, but the past isn’t through with us.”

Critchley explains that the contemporary world, perhaps even more so than when I watched Antigone in Glasgow, is a “confusing, noisy place, defined by endless war, rage, grief, ever-growing inequality. We undergo a gnawing moral and political uncertainty in a world of ambiguity.” Our moment, the philosopher claims, is a “tragicomedy defined by war, corruption, vanity, and greed,” for if my Antigone was of its moment, then Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us could only have been written after 2016. That year, and the characters it ushered into our national consciousness, can seem a particular type of American tragedy, but Critchley’s view (even while haunted by a certain hubristic figure with a predilection for the misspelled tweet) is more expansive than that. In his capable analysis, Critchley argues that tragedy exists as a mode of representing this chaos; a type of thinking at home with inconsistency, ambiguity, contradiction, and complexity. It’s those qualities that have made the form suspicious to philosophers.

Plato considered literature in several of his dialogues, concluding in Gorgias that the “effect of speech upon the structure of the soul / Is as the structure of drugs over the nature of bodies” (he wasn’t wrong), and famously having his puppet Socrates argue in The Republic that the just city-state would ban poets and poetry from their affairs for the aforementioned reason. Plato’s disgruntled student Aristotle was more generous to tragedy, content rather to categorize and explain its effects in Poetics, explaining that performance is the “imitation of an action that is serious, and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself…with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions.” Aristotle’s view has historically been interpreted as a defense of literature in opposition to Plato, whereby that which the later found so dangerous—the passions and emotions roiled by drama—were now justified as a sort of emotional pressure gauge that helped audiences purge their otherwise potentially destructive emotions. By the 19th century a philosopher like Friedrich Nietzsche would anticipate Critchley (though the latter might chaff at that claim) when he exonerated tragedy as more than mere moral instruction, coming closer to Plato’s claim about literature’s dangers while ecstatically embracing that reality. According to Nietzsche, tragedy existed in the tension between “Apollonian” and “Dionysian” poles; the first implies rationality, order, beauty, logic, and truth; the second signifies the realm of chaos, irrationality, ecstasy, and intoxication. Nietzsche writes in The Birth of Tragedy that the form “sits in sublime rapture amidst this abundance of life, suffering and delight, listening to a far-off, melancholy song…whose names are Delusion, Will, Woe.” For the German philologist that’s a recommendation, to “join me in my faith in this Dionysiac life and the rebirth of tragedy.”

As a thinker, Critchley Agonistes is well equipped in joining these predecessors in systematizing what he argues is the unsystematizable. Faculty at the New School for Social Research,and coeditor for The New York Times philosophy column “The Stone” (to which I have contributed), Critchley has proven himself an apt scholar who engages the wider conversation. Not a popularizer per se, for Critchley’s goal isn’t the composition of listicles enumerating whacky facts about Hegel, but a philosopher in the truest sense of being one who goes into the Agora and grapples with the circumstances of meaning as they manifest in the punk rock venue, at the soccer stadium, and in the movie theater. Unlike most of his countrymen who recline in the discipline, Critchley is a British scholar who embraces what’s called “continental philosophy,” rejecting the arid, logical formulations of analytical thought in favor of the Parisian profundities of thinkers like Jacques Derrida, Emanuel Levinas, and Martin Heidegger. Critchley has written tomes with titles like The Ethics of Deconstruction: Derrida and Levinas and Ethics-Politics-Subjectivity: Essays on Derrida, Levinas, & Contemporary French Thought, but he’s also examined soccer in What We Think About When We Think About Football (he’s a Liverpool fan) and in Bowie he analyzed, well, Bowie. Add to that his provocative take on religion in Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology and on death in The Book of Dead Philosophers (which consists of short entries enumerating the sometimes bizarre ways in which philosophers died, from jumping into a volcano to love potion poisoning) and Critchley has announced himself as one of the most psychedelically mind-expanding of people to earn their lucre by explaining Schopenhauer and Wittgenstein to undergraduates.  

What makes Critchley such an engaging thinker about the subjects he examines is both his grounding in continental philosophy (which asks questions about being, love, death, and eternity, as opposed to its analytical cousin content to enumerate all the definitions of the word “is”) and his unpretentious roots in working class Hertfordshire, studying at the glass-and-concrete University of Essex as opposed to tony Oxbridge. Thus, when Critchley writes that “there is an ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry,” it seems pretty clear that he’s a secret agent working for the latter against the former. He rejects syllogism for stanza and embraces poetics in all of its multitudinous and glorious contradictions. The central argument of Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us is that the form “invites its audience to look at such disjunctions between two or more claims to truth, justice, or whatever without immediately seeking a unifying ground or reconciling the phenomena into a higher unity.” What makes Antigone so devastating is that the title character’s familial obligation justifies the burial of her brother, but the interests of the state validates Creon’s prohibition of that same burial. The tragedy arises in the irreconcilable conflict of two right things, with Critchley explaining that Greek drama “presents a conflictually constituted world defined by ambiguity, duplicity, uncertainty, and unknowability, a world that cannot be rendered rationally fully intelligible through some metaphysical first principles or set of principles, axioms, tables of categories, or whatever.”

This is the central argument: that the “experience of tragedy poses a most serious objection to that invention we call philosophy.” More accurately, Critchley argues that tragedy’s comfort with discomfort, its consistent embrace of inconsistency, its ordered representation of disorder, positions the genre as a type of radical critique of philosophy, a genre that expresses the anarchic rhetoric of the sophists, rather than their killjoy critic Socrates and his dour student Plato. As a refresher, the sophists were the itinerant and sometimes fantastically successful rhetoricians who taught Greek politicians a type of disorganized philosophy that, according to Socrates, had no concern with the truth, but only with what was convincing. Socrates supposedly placed “Truth” at the core of his dialectical method, and, ever since, the discipline has taken up the mantle of “a psychic and political existence at one with itself, which can be linked to ideas of self-mastery, self-legislation, autonomy, and autarchy, and which inform the modern jargon of authenticity.” Tragedy is defined by none of those things; where philosophy strives for order and harmony, tragedy dwells in chaos and division; where syllogism strives to eliminate all contradiction as irrational, poetry understands that it’s in the complexity of inconsistency, confusion, and even hypocrisy that we all dwell. Sophistry and tragedy, to the recommendation of both, are intimately connected; both being methods commensurate with the dark realities of what it means to be alive. Critchley claims that “tragedy articulates a philosophical view that challenges the authority of philosophy by giving voice to what is contradictory about us, what is constricted about us, what is precarious about us, and what is limited about us.”

Philosophy is all arid formulations, dry syllogisms, contrived Gedankenexperiments; tragedy is the knowledge that nothing of the enormity of what it means to be alive can be circumscribed by mere seminar argument. “Tragedy slows things down by confronting us with what we do not know about ourselves,” Critchley writes. If metaphysics is contained by the formulations of the classroom, then the bloody stage provides a more accurate intimation of death and life. By being in opposition to philosophy, tragedy is against systems. It becomes both opposite and antidote to the narcotic fantasy that everything will be alright. Perhaps coming to terms with his own discipline, Critchley argues that “it is necessary to try and think theatrically and not just philosophically.” Tragedy, he argues, provides an opportunity to transcend myths of progress and comforts of order, to rather ecstatically enter a different space, an often dark, brutal, and subterranean place, but one which demonstrates the artifice of our self-regard.

A word conspicuous in its absence from Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us is that of the “sacred.” If there is any critical drawback to Critchley’s argument, it seems to be in the hesitancy, or the outright denial, that what he claims in his book has anything to do with something quite so wooly as the noumenal. Critchley gives ample space to argue that, “Tragedy is not some Dionysian celebration of the power of ritual and the triumph of myth over reason,” yet a full grappling with his argument seems to imply the opposite. The argument that tragedy stages contradiction is one that is convincing, but those sublime contradictions are very much under the Empire of Irrationality’s jurisdiction. Critchley is critical of those that look at ancient tragedy and “imagine that the spectators…were in some sort of prerational, ritualistic stupor, some intoxicated, drunken dumbfounded state,” but I suppose much of our interpretation depends on how we understand ritual, religion, stupor, and intoxication.

His claims are invested in an understanding of the Greeks as not being fundamentally that different from us, writing that “there is a lamentable tendency to exoticize Attic tragedy,” but maybe what’s actually called for is a defamiliarization of our own culture, an embrace of the irrational weirdness at the core of what it means to be alive 2019, where everything that is solid melts into air (to paraphrase Marx). Aeschylus knew the score well; “Hades, ruler of the nether sphere, / Exactest auditor of human kind, / Graved on the tablet of his mind,” as he describes the prince of this world in Eumenides. Critchley, I’d venture, is of Dionysius’s party but doesn’t know it. All that is argued in Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us points towards an awareness, however sublimated, of the dark beating heart within the undead cadaver’s chest. “To resist Dionysius is to repress the elemental in one’s own nature,” writes the classicist E.R. Dodds in his seminal The Greeks and the Irrational, “the punishment is the sudden complete collapse of the inward dykes when the elemental breaks through…and civilization vanishes.”

Absolutely correct that tragedy is in opposition to philosophy; where the latter offers assurances that reason can see us through, the former knows that it’s never that simple. The abyss is patient and deep, and no amount of analysis, of interpretation, of calculation, of polling can totally account for the hateful tragic pulse of our fellow humans. Nietzsche writes “what changes come upon the weary desert of our culture, so darkly described, when it is touched by…Dionysius! A storm seizes everything decrepit, rotten, broken, stunted; shrouds it in a whirling red cloud of dusty and carries it into the air like a vulture.” If any place best exemplifies that experience, and this moment, it’s Euripides’s The Bacchae, to which Critchley devotes precious little attention. That play depicts the arrival of that ambiguous god Dionysius to Thebes, as his followers thrill to the divine and irrational ecstasies that he promises. It ends with a crowd of those followers, the Maenads, mistaking the ruler Pentheus for a sacrificial goat and pulling him apart, his bones from their sockets, his organs from their cavities. Until his murder, Pentheus simultaneously manifested a repressed thrill towards the Dionysian fervor and a deficiency in taking the threat of such uncontained emotion seriously. “Cleverness is not wisdom,” Euripides writes, “And not to think mortal thoughts is to see few days.” If any didactic import comes from The Bacchae, it’s to give the devil as an adversary his due, for irrationality has more power than the clever among us might think.

Circling around the claims of Critchley’s book is our current political situation, alluded to but never engaged outright. In one sense, that’s for the best; those demons’ names are uttered endlessly all day anyhow. It’s desirable to at least have one place where you need not read about them. But in another manner, fully intuiting the Dionysian import of tragedy becomes all the more crucial when we think about what that dark god portends in our season of rising authoritarianism. “Tragedy is democracy turning itself into a spectacle,” and anyone with Twitter will concur with that observation of Critchley’s. Even more important is Critchley’s argument about those mystic chords of memory connecting us to a past that we continually reinvent; the brilliance of his claim about why the Greeks matter to us now, removing the stuffiness of anything as prosaic as canonicity, is that tragedy encapsulates the way in which bloody trauma can vibrate through the millennia and control us as surely as the ancients believed fate controlled humans. Critchley writes that “Tragedy is full of ghosts, ancient and modern, and the line separating the living from the dead is continually blurred. This means that in tragedy the dead don’t stay dead and the living are not fully alive.” We can’t ignore the Greeks, because the Greeks aren’t done with us. If there is anything that hampers us as we attempt to extricate the Dionysian revelers in our midst, it’s that many don’t acknowledge the base, chthonic power of such irrationality, and they refuse to see how violence, hate, and blood define our history in the most horrific of ways. To believe that progress, justice, and rationality are guaranteed, that they don’t require a fight commensurate with their worthiness, is to let a hubris fester in our souls and to court further tragedy among our citizens.

What Medea or The Persians do is allow us to safely access the Luciferian powers of irrationality. They present a more accurate portrayal of humanity, based as we are in bloodiness and barbarism, than the palliatives offered by Plato in The Republic with his philosopher kings. Within that space of the theater, Critchley claims that at its best it “somehow allows us to become ecstatically stretched out into another time and space, another way of experiencing things and the world.” Far from the anemic moralizing of Aristotelian catharsis—and Critchley emphasizes just how ambiguous that word actually is—that is too often interpreted as referring to a regurgitative didacticism, tragedy actually makes a new world by demolishing and replacing our world, if only briefly. “If one allows oneself to be completely involved in what is happening onstage,” Critchley writes, “one enters a unique space that provides an unparalleled experience of sensory and cognitive intensity that is impossible to express purely in concepts.” I recall seeing a production of Shakespeare’s Othello at London’s National Theatre in 2013, directed by Nicholas Hytner and starring Adrian Lester as the cursed Moor and Rory Kinear as a reptilian Iago. Dr. Johnson wrote that Othello’s murder of Desdemona was the single most horrifying scene in drama, and I concur; the play remains the equal of anything by Aeschylus or Euripides in its tragic import.

When I watched Lester play the role, lingering over the dying body of his faithful wife, whispering “What noise is this? Not dead—not yet quite dead?” I thought of many things. I thought about how Shakespeare’s play reflects the hideous things that men do to women, and the hideous things that the majority do to the marginalized. I thought about how jealousy noxiously fills every corner, no matter how small, like some sort of poison gas. And I thought about how unchecked malignancy can shatter our souls. But mostly what I thought wasn’t in any words, but was better expressed by Lester’s anguished cry as he confronted the evil he’d done. If tragedy allows for an audience to occasionally leave our normal space and time, then certainly I felt like I was joined with those thousand other spectators on that summer night at South Bank’s Olivier Theatre. The audience’s silence after Othello’s keening subsided was as still as the space between atoms, as empty as the gap between people.

True Fake Fact: Donald Trump Is Andrew Jackson

Sometimes we open a book hoping to learn one thing and wind up getting bushwhacked by something completely unrelated and unexpected. I’m having that unnerving experience right now with Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America.

I started reading the book as research for a nonfiction book I’m writing about a man who was born into a slave-owning family in Virginia during the Civil War and died at the age of 92 at the peak of the Cold War. I was looking for insights into the origins and evolution of Virginia’s (and America’s) class system and, specifically, for evidence supporting my long-held belief that the United States never was and never will be a classless society.

Though Isenberg has solid credentials—she wrote the well-received Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr, coauthored Madison and Jefferson, and teaches American history at Louisiana State University—I’ll admit I approached White Trash with some trepidation. That “400-Year Untold History” claim in the subtitle smelled of over-reach, and the early chapters failed to convince me that my nose was malfunctioning. Then I came to chapter five, “Andrew Jackson’s Cracker Country: The Squatter as Common Man.” After a meandering description of the landless, uncouth “crackers and squatters” who led the young republic’s expansion beyond the Appalachian Mountains, Isenberg comes to her central character: Andrew Jackson, Old Hickory, the raw-boned Tennessee scrapper and warrior who would become the seventh president of the United States. Isenberg’s sketch of Jackson opens hot and quickly catches fire: “Ferocious in his resentments, driven to wreak revenge against his enemies, he often acted without deliberation and justified his behavior as a law unto himself…Jackson’s personality was a crucial part of his democratic appeal as well as the animosity he provoked. He was not admired for statesmanlike qualities, which he lacked in abundance in comparison to his highly educated rivals…His supporters adored his rough edges…Using violent means if necessary, and acting without legal authority, Jackson was arguably the political heir of the cracker and squatter.”

That was when the gong went off. It was impossible to miss. Isenberg was not merely sketching Andrew Jackson; she was, chapter and verse, sketching the personal and political biography of…Donald Trump. As I continued reading, I found myself subconsciously substituting Trump’s name for Jackson’s, and other players in our contemporary political shitshow for the 19th-century actors in the Jacksonian soap opera. The parallels were so precise they were spooky. Here, with italics marking my mental edits, was what I read:

“Trump’s was a career built on sheer will and utter impulse…Controversy, large and small, seemed to follow the man. Because Trump had relatively little experience holding political offices, his run for the presidency drew even more than the normal amount of attention to his personal character. A biography written for campaign purposes…focused on his volatile emotions. He certainly lacked the education and polite breeding of his presidential predecessors.”

At this point, a suspicion sprang to life. Could it be that Isenberg was writing a cleverly coded takedown of Donald Trump? But I soon learned that this was nearly impossible because White Trash was published five months before the 2016 election, when just about no one, least of all Hillary Clinton and The New York Times, thought Donald Trump had a snowball’s chance of winning the presidency. So Isenberg was not writing in code. The uncanny parallels between our seventh and 45th presidents are the fruit of deep scholarly research. They are actual facts. Isenberg continues, again with my italics:
Prominent critics insisted on a congressional investigation. The powerful Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, demanded the president’s censure. Trump damned the established legal authorities…Confirmed rumors circulated that Trump had threatened to cut off the ears of some senators because they had dared to investigate—and humiliate—him on the national stage.
Of course, both besieged presidents had their defenders:
Trump’s nomination provoked “sneers and derision from the myrmidons of power at Washington,” wrote one avid Trump man, who decried “the degeneracy of American feeling in that swamp.” Trump wasn’t a government minion or a pampered courtier, and thus his unpolished and un-statesmanlike ways were an advantage. In 2019, in a speech before Congress, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky used this kind of language to reproach members of the House for investigating Trump’s activities…The men and women censuring Trump, whom the Kentucky senator mocked as the “young sweet-smelling and powdered beau of the town,” were out of their league. With this clever turn of phrase, McConnell recast Trump’s foes as coastal elites, the classic enemies of flyover country.
Just when I started thinking it was time to get some sex into this parallel-universe narrative, Isenberg obliged: “The candidate’s private life came under equal scrutiny. His irregular marriage became scandalous fodder during the election of 2016…In the ever-expanding script detailing Trump’s misdeeds, adultery was just one more example of his uncontrolled passions. Having affairs with porn stars and then paying them hush money belonged to the standard profile of the backwoods aggressor who refused to believe the law applied to him…He simply took what he wanted, and was even willing to, by his own admission, ‘grab them by the pussy.’”

Even staggering ignorance of international affairs was seen as a virtue by these presidents’ supporters, as Isenberg notes: “If his lack of diplomatic experience made him ‘homebred,’ this meant he was less contaminated than former ambassador to the Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch by foreign ideas or courtly pomp. The class comparison could not be ignored: Hillary Clinton had been a first lady and a secretary of state, while Trump was ‘sprung from a common family,’ and had written nothing to brag about. Instinctive action was privileged over unproductive thought.”

That “common family” claim required a little more massaging in Trump’s case than in Jackson’s, and Trump’s minions have been happy to oblige. “Partisans of Trump claimed that he was from backwoods stock,” Isenberg writes. “This was untrue. Trump was born into an elite New York real-estate family, and though he had briefly been a resident of Queens, that five-bedroom Tudor had been abandoned long ago in favor of Trump Tower.”

It’s likely that Trump, like Jackson before him, has brought lasting changes to the American scene. As Isenberg puts it: “Trump’s candidacy changed the nature of democratic politics. One political commentator noted that Trump’s reign ushered in the ‘game of brag.’ Another observer concluded that a new kind of ‘tweeting country politician’ had arisen, who could tweet for hours before having finally ‘exhausted the fountain of his panegyric on President Trump.’”

As I reached the end of chapter five in White Trash, I dimly remembered hearing that Donald Trump is a big fan of Old Hickory. A little digging reminded me that early in his presidency, in March 2017, Trump had visited Jackson’s estate, the Hermitage, near Nashville to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Jackson’s birth. In one of his keener readings of history, Trump declared, “I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War.” Hard to fact-check that whopper because Jackson died 16 years before the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter. No matter. Trump added that he admires Jackson—and he has Jackson’s portrait on the wall in the Oval Office—because he was “a very tough person” with a “big heart.” Tell that to the 150 human beings Jackson owned at the time of his death, some of whom he hunted down personally when they tried to escape from bondage. Or tell that to the thousands of Native Americans and black slaves who perished during Jackson’s enforced relocation known as the Trail of Tears, an act of genocide by any other name.

But let’s not get bogged down with true facts when the world is bursting with so many fake facts. And let’s not lose sight of the completely unexpected lesson in Isenberg’s book. The republic survived Andrew Jackson—and Andrew Johnson, Warren Harding, Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. Surely it will survive Donald Trump? We might get the answer to that question sooner than anyone expected, shortly before the swearing in of President Pence.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Kill Your Idols: On the Violence of Experimental Literature

In a recent lecture on innovative writing, Myung Mi Kim argued that any artistic experiment is inherently violent, as the artist is dismantling an inherited tradition in order to make way for the new. For many writers, innovation does indeed contain destruction in its very definition. After all, the experimental text cannot exist in the same space as the conventions that restrict its meaning, stifle its performativity, and deny its legitimacy.


Three recent books remind us that an experiment, though it challenges elements of a familiar literary heritage, does not have to sacrifice unity of voice and vision. Karla Kelsey’s forthcoming Blood Feather, Kenji Liu’s Monsters I Have Been, and Grace Talusan’s The Body Papers skillfully dismantle received forms to offer alternative ways of creating meaning and coherence from human experience. Though vastly different in style and scope, these three innovative texts share a commitment to a unity of concept, presenting us with larger questions about the politics of language that ultimately guide and focus the generative violence of the experiment. In their hands, innovation becomes an exercise in precision, as well as a legitimate danger. As Liu writes, “The under
state / swarms our / documents. Our / lungs.”

Monsters I Have Been opens with an articulation of the artistic goals and the parameters of an invented poetic form called “frankenpo.” Liu writes in the form’s definition: “to create a new poetic text by collecting, disaggregating, randomizing, rearranging, recombining, erasing, and reanimating one or more chosen bodies of text, for the purpose of divining or revealing new meanings often at odds with the original texts.” As the book unfolds, the constraints and freedoms of “frankenpo” serve to unify the book’s wild flights of the imagination, as Monsters I Have Been reads as an extended exploration of the possibilities inherent in this specific literary form.

In many ways, it is the intense focus of Liu’s experiment that brings his discoveries into sharp relief. Culling text from a variety of sources, which range from screenplays to New York Times articles, feminist theory, and U.S. presidential executive orders, Liu shows us beauty and danger contained within the same turns of phrase, which can house both violence and redemption, light and unspeakable darkness. The poems in Monsters I Have Been call attention to the remarkable disconnect between language and the real world toward which it constantly gestures. At the same time, Liu frames this disconnect, the inherent arbitrariness of the signifier, as a source of agency for the creative practitioner.

Liu writes, for example, in “Thus I Have Heard,” “We are visas / in a national / drowning. / Each of us an executive / decision, pursuant to clay. / Each a subsection
 of protocol / and yet.” Here Liu reconfigures language from unspecified source texts, reminding us that intent not only shapes outcome with respect to the words we use, but also that intent can bring to light the beauty that resides just beneath the surface of a seemingly unremarkable text. For Liu, the same language can carry revelation and violence, enlightenment and oppression.

What’s more, he shows us the myriad ways that language is illuminated by conversation, dialogue, and juxtaposition. In many ways, the personae contained within Monsters I Have Been are strengthened and refined by conversation, as proximity brings a single voice into clearer focus. He writes, for instance, in “As the light diminishes again,” “To fit the average, we come / as animals, with a pocket map / of the sky and nothing under. // How the ragged hairpiece gapes / open and declares teeth.” This poem utilizes found text from Judith Butler’s theoretical writings as well as the Heart Sutra. Approached with that in mind, the poem becomes a space for dialogue in which one texture of language complicates, and calls into question, the other. As Liu himself asks, “What masks / What power”?

Much like Liu’s book, Talusan’s recent memoir, The Body Papers, reveals (and renegotiates) the politics inherent in language. Yet Talusan takes this kind of experimentation in a new direction, pairing text with found images as she investigates the authority, reverence, and doubt that we invest in various types of cultural documents. The artifacts that inhabit The Body Papers range from canceled passports to immigration forms to family photographs. As the book unfolds, these politically charged and authoritative documents are positioned in service of personal narrative, a gesture that proves as innovative as it is subversive. The hierarchies that we impose upon types of language are provocatively reversed. Talusan summons the authority of official documents, journalistic photographs, and the various traces of governmental power to further a personal narrative of risk, family ties, and discovery.

Talusan’s daring reversal of these power structures comes through most visibly in her depiction of the journey of her emigration to the United States from Manila with her parents and siblings. Describing the obstacles her parents encountered as they applied for citizenship, she writes, “I was terrified. I had never thought about how meaningful U.S. citizenship was until I was told I didn’t have it. With a shuffle of papers, life as I knew it could be lost. I am still astounded by how meaningful these papers are, how they are pasted onto our bodies and determine where and how we can move through the world.” This powerful narrative, in which the narrator realizes the precarity of what she had remembered as a joyful childhood, is spliced with images of a canceled Philippine passport and a character reference in support of an application for United States citizenship.

In many ways, the images included in The Body Papers complicate and enrich the narrative proper. By pairing this section with these specific documents, for example, Talusan evokes the stateless and liminal status of her younger self. Yet at the same time, she provocatively claims the authority and power of these documents for own narrative, a reversal of the ways in which we often shape and reshape personal narrative in the service of government procedure.

This investment in revealing and challenging the authority placed in government documents unifies a gorgeously capacious narrative. Talusan writes, for example: “Without physical proof, I started to question whether I had even written [the letters]—a psychological pattern that I think is intertwined with the immigrant experience.” As this powerful memoir unfolds, however, Talusan challenges the artificial divide culture has created between objective and subjective types of language, laying claim to both in prose as deeply felt as it is precise and sharply focused.

Kelsey’s Blood Feather, like the work of Liu and Talsuan, utilizes experimental language in service of social justice. This book-length poem, inspired by a rich store of archival material associated with women’s history, manifests as three dramatic monologues spoken by different personae. The whole of the archive is subsumed into the voices of these richly imagined narrators, with Kelsey drawing from texts that include Aristotle, Pina Bausch, Julian Beck, Richard Brody, Cheiro, and many other writers, philosophers, cinematographers, and thinkers. By challenging the fiction of the single speaker in such a way, Kelsey gestures at voice as a social construct, calling into question the myriad ways culture presupposes that ownership over language is even possible.

It is the unity of voice, remarkable given the scope and range of archival material represented in this volume, that renders Kesley’s text as sharply focused as Talusan’s narrative memoir and Liu’s extended exploration of a single form. As the book unfolds, this unity of voice and vision is revealed as integral to the poem’s deeply philosophical meaning. For Kelsey, the self, the single spoken voice, contains multitudes. She shows us, through her sharply focused experimentation, that the boundary between individual and community is porous and indistinct. She writes, for example, in Blood Feather:
the aesthetic problem of
form exists essentially and simultaneously as
a moral problem writes Deren in
An Anagram of Ideas on Art
and so how to perform an
ethical relation to the footage of

a flood mobile homes uprooted a
man in a canoe paddling after
his lowing cow the film then
cutting to the tremor of a
hand-held camera actress gagged and bound
to the bed how to punctuate
Here the speaker reflects on the ethical problems inherent in representation. If the boundary between self and other remains blurry, Kelsey asks us to consider where cultural appropriation begins when attempting to depict one’s own perceptions. In many ways, the philosophical quality of Kelsey’s poetry is in itself subversive, as she uses the artistic repertoire of poetry to claim agency over a predominantly masculine philosophical tradition. In doing so, she reminds us that despite the rigid binary distinctions that circulate within culture, alterity inevitably resides within the subject, who is a world unto herself.

If innovation is in itself a destructive gesture, can that generative violence be placed in service of activism and advocacy through language? Kelsey, Talusan, and Liu show us that the precision of the experiment constitutes its power. In each of these three collections, this dismantling of convention is placed in service of a specific philosophical question, the work an inquiry into what is possible when specific rules associated with language are renegotiated. Here, language is wielded as veiled threat, as provocative reversal, as gloriously shattered syntactic convention. Yet it is this space between words that allows us to see the light.

Image credit: Annie Spratt

King, God, Smart-Ass Author: Reconsidering Metafiction

“Whoever is in charge here?” -Daffy Duck, Merrie Melodies (1953)

Like all of us, Daffy Duck was perennially put upon by his Creator. The sputtering, stuttering, rageful water fowl’s life was a morass of indignity, embarrassment, anxiety, and existential horror. Despite all of the humiliation Daffy had to contend with, the aquatic bird was perfectly willing to shake his wings at the unfair universe. As expertly delivered by voice artist Mel Blanc, Daffy could honk “Who is responsible for this? I demand that you show yourself!” In animator Chuck Jones’s brilliant and classic 1953 episode of Merrie Melodies titled “Duck Amuck,” he presents Daffy as a veritable Everyduck, a sinner in the hands of a smart-assed illustrator. “Duck Amuck” has remained a canonical episode in the Warner Brothers cartoon catalog, its postmodern, metafictional experimentation heralded for its daring and cheekiness. Any account of what critics very loosely term “postmodern literature”—with its playfulness, its self-referentiality, and it’s breaking of the fourth wall—that considers Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov, and Paul Auster but not Jones is only telling part of the metafictional story.  Not for nothing, but two decades ago, “Duck Amuck” was added to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as an enduring piece of American culture.

Throughout the episode, Jones depicts increasingly absurd metafictional scenarios involving Daffy’s sublime suffering. Jones first imagines Daffy as a swordsman in a Three Musketeers parody, only to have him wander into a shining, white abyss as the French Renaissance background fades away. “Look Mac,” Daffy asks, never one to let ontological terror impinge on his sense of personal justice, “what’s going on here?” Jones wrenches the poor bird from the musketeer scenery to the blinding whiteness of the nothing-place, then to a bucolic pastoral, and finally to a paradisiacal Hawaiian beach. Daffy’s admirable sense of his own integrity remains intact, even throughout his torture. Pushed through multiple parallel universes, wrenched, torn, and jostled through several different realities, Daffy shouts “All right wise guy, where am I?”  

But eventually not even his own sense of identity is allowed to continue unaffected, as the God-animator turns him into a country-western singer who can only produce jarring sound effects from his guitar, or as a transcendent paintbrush recolors Daffy blue. At one point the animator’s pencil impinges into Daffy’s world, erasing him, negating him, making him nothing. Daffy’s very being, his continued existence depends on the whims of a cruel and capricious God; his is in the world of Shakespeare’s King Lear, where the Duke of Gloucester utters his plaintive cry, “As flies are to wanton boys are we to th’ gods; / They kill us for their sport.” Or at least they erase us. Finally, like Job before the whirlwind, Daffy implores, “Who is responsible for this? I demand that you show yourself!” As the view pans upward, into that transcendent realm of paper and ink where the animator-God dwells, it’s revealed to be none other than the trickster par excellence, Bugs Bunny. “Ain’t I a stinker?” the Lord saith.

Creation, it should be said, is not accomplished without a certain amount of violence. According to one perspective, we can think of Daffy’s tussling with Bugs as being a variation on that venerable old Aristotelian narrative conflict of “Man against God.” If older literature was focused on the agon (as the Greeks put it) between a human and a deity, and modernist literature concerned itself with the conflict that resulted as people had to confront the reality of no God, then the wisdom goes that our postmodern moment is fascinated with the idea of a fictional character searching out his or her creator. According to narrative theorists, that branch of literary study that concerns itself with the structure and organization of story and plot (not synonyms incidentally), such metafictional affectations are technically called metalepsis. H. Porter Abbot in his invaluable The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative explains that such tales involve a “violation of narrative levels” when a “storyworld, is invaded by an entity or entities from another narrative level.”

Metalepsis can be radical in its execution, as when an “extradiegetic narrator” (that means somebody from outside the story entirely) enters into the narrative, as in those narratives where an “’author appears and starts quarreling with one of the characters,” Abbot writes. We’ll see that there are precedents for that sort of thing, but whether interpreted as gimmick or deep reflection on the idea of literature, the conceit that has a narrator enter into the narrative as if theophany is most often associated with something called, not always helpfully, “postmodernism.” Whatever that much-maligned term might mean, in popular parlance it has an association with self-referentiality, recursiveness, and metafictional playfulness (even if readers might find cleverness such as that exhausting). The term might as well be thought of as referring to our historical preponderance of literature that knows that it is literature.

With just a bit of British disdain in his critique, The New Yorker literary critic James Wood writes in his pithy and helpful How Fiction Works that “postmodern novelists… like to remind us of the metafictionality of all things.” Think of the crop of experimental novelists and short story writers from the ’60s, such as John Barth in his Lost in the Funhouse, where one story is to be cut out and turned into an actual Moebius strip; Robert Coover in the classic and disturbing short story “The Babysitter,” in which a variety of potential realities and parallel histories exist simultaneously in the most mundane of suburban contexts; and John Fowles in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, in which the author also supplies multiple “forking paths” to the story and where the omniscient narrator occasionally appears as a character in the book. Added to this could be works where the actual first-person author themselves becomes a character, such as Auster’s New York Trilogy, or Philip Roth’s Operation Shylock (among other works where he appears as a character). Not always just as a character, but as the Creator, for if the French philosopher Roland Barthes killed off the idea of such a figure in his seminal 1967 essay “The Death of the Author,” then much of the period’s literature resurrected Him. Wood notes, perhaps in response to Barthes, that “A certain kind of postmodern novelist…is always lecturing us: ‘Remember, this character is just a character. I invented him.’” Metafiction is when fiction thinks about itself.

Confirming Wood’s observation, Fowles’s narrator writes in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, “This story I am telling is all imagination. These characters I create never existed outside my own mind…the novelist stands next to God. He may not know all, yet he tries to pretend that he does.” Metafictional literature like this is supposed to interrogate the idea of the author, the idea of the reader, the very idea of narrative. When the first line to Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler,” it has been signaled that the narrative you’re entering is supposed to be different from those weighty tomes of realism that supposedly dominated in previous centuries. If metalepsis is a favored gambit of our experimental novelists, then it’s certainly omnipresent in our pop culture as well, beyond just “Duck Amuck.”

A list of sitcoms that indulge the conceit includes 30 Rock, Community, Scrubs, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The final example, which after all was already an experimental narrative about a wholesome kid from West Philly named Will played by a wholesome rapper from West Philly named Will Smith, was a font of avant-garde fourth-wall breaking deserving of Luigi Pirandello or Bertolt Brecht. Prime instances would include the season five episodes “Will’s Misery,” which depicts Carlton running through the live studio audience, and “Same Game, Next Season,” in which Will asks “If we so rich, why we can’t afford no ceiling,” with the camera panning up to show the rafters and lights of the soundstage. Abbot writes that metafiction asks “to what extent do narrative conventions come between us and the world?” which in its playfulness is exactly what The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is doing, forcing its audience to consider how “they act as invisible constructors of what we think is true, shaping the world to match our assumptions.”

Sitcoms like these are doing what Barth, Fowles, and Coover are doing—they’re asking us to examine the strange artificiality of fiction, this illusion in which we’re asked by a hidden author to hallucinate and enter a reality that isn’t really there. Both audience and narrator are strange, abstracted constructs; their literal corollaries of reader and writer aren’t much more comprehensible. When we read a third-person omniscient narrator, it would be natural to ask “Who exactly is supposed to be recounting this story?” Metafiction is that which does ask that question. It’s the same question that the writers of The Office confront us with when we wonder, “Who exactly is collecting all of that documentary footage over those nine seasons?”

Far from being simply a postmodern trick, metalepsis as a conceit and the metafiction that results have centuries’ worth of examples. Interactions between creator and created, and certainly author and audience, have a far more extensive history than both a handful of tony novelists from the middle of the 20th century and the back catalog of Nick at Nite. For those whose definition of the novel doesn’t consider anything written before 1945, it might come as a shock that all of the tricks we associate with metafiction thread so deep into history that realist literature can seem the exception rather than the rule. This is obvious in drama; the aforementioned theater term “breaking the fourth wall” attests to the endurance of metalepsis in literature. As a phrase, it goes back to Molière in the 17th century, referring to when characters in a drama acknowledge their audience, when they “break” the invisible wall that separates the action of the stage from that of the observers in their seats. If Molière coined the term, it’s certainly older than even him. In all of those asides in Shakespeare—such as that opening monologue of Richard III when the title villain informs all of us who are joining him on his descent into perdition that “Now is the winter of our discontent”—we’re, in some sense, to understand ourselves as being characters in the action of the play itself.  

As unnatural as Shakespearean asides may seem, they don’t have the same sheer metaleptic import of metafictional drama from the avant-garde theater of the 20th century. Pirandello’s classic experimental play Six Characters in Search of an Author is illustrative here, a high-concept work in which unfinished and unnamed characters arrive at a Pirandello production asking their creator to more fully flesh them out. As a character named the Father explains, the “author who created us alive no longer wished…materially to put us into a work of art. And this was a real crime.” A real crime because to be a fictional character means that you cannot die, even though “The man, the writer, the instrument of the creation will die, but his creation does not die.” An immaculate creation outliving its creator, more blessed than the world that is forever cursed to be ruled over by its God. But first Pirandello’s unfortunates must compel their God to grant them existence; they need a “fecundating matrix, a fantasy which could rise and nourish them: make them live forever!” If this seems abstract, you should know that such metaleptic tricks were staged long before Pirandello, and Shakespeare for that matter. Henry Medwall’s 1497 Fulgens and Lucrece, the first secular play in the entire English canon, has two characters initially named “A” and “B” who argue about a play only to have it revealed that the work in question is actually Medwall’s, which the audience is currently watching. More than a century later, and metafictional poses were still explored by dramatists, a prime and delightful example being Shakespeare’s younger contemporary and sometimes-collaborator Francis Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle. In that Jacobean play of 1607, deploying a conceit worthy of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, Beaumont imagines the production of a play-within-a-play entitled The London Merchant. In the first act, two characters climb the stage from the audience, one simply called “Citizen” and the other “Wife,” and begin to heckle and critique The London Merchant, and its perceived unfairness to the rapidly ascending commercial class. The Knight of the Burning Pestle allows the audience to strike back, the Citizen cheekily telling the actor reading the prologue, “Boy, let my wife and I have a couple of stools / and then begin; and let the grocer do rare / things.”

Historical metalepsis can also be seen in what are called “frame tales,” that is, stories-within-stories that nestle narratives together like Russian dolls. Think of the overreaching narrative of Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th-century The Canterbury Tales with its pilgrims telling each other their stories as they make their way to the shrine of Thomas Becket, or of Scheherazade recounting her life-saving anthology to her murderous husband in One Thousand and One Nights, as compiled from folktales during the Islamic Golden Age from the eighth to 14th centuries. Abbot describes frame tales by explaining that “As you move to the outer edges of a narrative, you may find that it is embedded in another narrative.” Popular in medieval Europe, and finding their structure from Arabic and Indian sources that go back much further, frame tales are basically unified anthologies where an overreaching narrative supplies its own meta-story. Think of Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th-century Decameron, in which seven women and three men each tell 10 stories to pass the time while they’re holed up in a villa outside of Florence to await the passage of the Black Death through the city. The 100 resulting stories are ribald, earthy, and sexy, but present through all of their telling is an awareness of the tellers, this narrative about a group of young Florentines in claustrophobic, if elegant, quarantine. “The power of the pen,” one of Boccaccio’s characters says on their eighth day in exile, “is far greater than those people suppose who have not proved it by experience.” Great enough, it would seem, to create a massive sprawling world with so many stories in it. “In my father’s book,” the character would seem to be saying of his creator Boccaccio, “there are many mansions.”

As metaleptic as frame tales might be, a reader will note that Chaucer doesn’t hitch up for that long slog into Canterbury himself, nor does Boccaccio find himself eating melon and prosciutto while quaffing chianti with his aristocrats in The Decameron. But it would be a mistake to assume that older literature lacks examples of the “harder” forms of metalepsis, that writing before the 20th century is devoid of the Author-God appearing to her characters as if God on Sinai. So-called “pre-modern” literature is replete with whimsical experimentation that would seem at home in Nabokov or Calvino; audiences directly addressed on stage and books speaking as themselves to their readers, authors appearing in narratives as creators, and fictions announcing their fictionality.

Miguel de Cervantes’s 17th-century Don Quixote plays with issues of representation and artificiality when the titular character and his trusty squire, Sancho Panza, visit a print shop that is producing copies of the very book you are reading, the errant knight and his sidekick then endeavoring to prove that it is an inferior plagiarism of the real thing. Cervantes’s narrator reflects at an earlier point in the novel about the novel itself, enthusing that “we now enjoy in this age of ours, so poor in light entertainment, not only the charm of his veracious history, but also of the tales and episodes contained in it which are, in a measure, no less pleasing, ingenious, and truthful, than the history itself.” Thus Cervantes, in what is often considered the first novel, can lay claim to being the primogeniture of both realism and metafictionality.

Following Don Quixote’s example could be added other metafictional works that long precede “postmodernism,” including Laurence Sterne’s 18th-century The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, where the physical book takes time to mourn the death of a central character (when an all-black page is printed); the Polish count Jan Potocki’s underread late-18th-century The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, with not just its fantastic caste of Iberian necromancers, kabbalists, and occultists, but its intricate frame structure and forking paths (not least of which include reference to the book that you’re reading); James Hogg’s Satanic masterpiece The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, in which the author himself makes an appearance; and Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, in which the characters remark on how it feels as if they’re in a gothic novel (or perhaps a parody of one). Long before Barthes killed the Author, writers were conflating themselves as creator with the Creator. As Sterne notes, “The thing is this. That of all the several ways of beginning a book which are now in practice throughout the known world, I am confident my own way of doing it is the best—I’m sure it is the most religious—for I begin with writing the first sentence—and trusting to Almighty God for the second.”

Sterne’s sentiment provides evidence as to why metafiction is so alluring and enduring, despite its minimization by some critics who dismiss it as mere trick while obscuring its long history. What makes metalepsis such an intellectually attractive conceit goes beyond simply that it makes us question how literature and reality interact, but rather what it implies about the Author whom Sterne gestures toward—“Almighty God.” The author of Tristram Shandy understood, as all adept priests of metafiction do (whether explicitly or implicitly), that at its core, metalepsis is theological. In questioning and confusing issues of characters and writers, narrators and readers, actors and audience, metafiction experiments with the very idea of creation. Some metafiction privileges the author as being the supreme-God of the fiction, as in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and some castes its lot with the characters, as in The Knight of the Burning Pestle. Some metafiction is “softer” in its deployment, allowing the characters within a narrative to give us stories-within-stories; other is “harder” in how emphatic it is about the artifice and illusion of fiction, as in Jones’s sublime cartoon. What all of them share however, is an understanding that fiction is a strange thing, an illusion whereby whether we’re gods or penitents, we’re all privy to a world spun from something as ephemeral as letters and breath. Wood asks, “Is there a way in which all of us are fictional characters, parented by life and written by ourselves?” And the metaphysicians of metafiction answer in the affirmative.

As a final axiom, to join my claim that metafiction is when literature thinks about itself and that metalepsis has a far longer history than is often surmised, I’d finally argue that because all fiction—all literature—is artifice, that all of it is in some sense metafiction. What defines fiction, what makes it different from other forms of language, is that quality of metalepsis. Even if not explicitly stated, the differing realms of reality implied by the very existence of fiction imply something of the meta. Abbot writes “World-making is so much a part of most narratives that some narrative scholars have begun to include it as a defining feature of narrative,” and of that I heartily concur. Even our scripture is metafictional, for what else are we to call the Bible in which Moses is both author and character, and where his death itself is depicted? In metafiction perspective is confused, writer turns to reader, narrator to character, creator to creation. No more apt a description of metafiction, of fiction, of life than that which is offered by Prospero at the conclusion of The Tempest: “Our revels now are ended. These our actors, / As I foretold you, were all spirits and / Are melted into air, into thin air.” For Prospero, the “great globe itself…all which it inherit, shall dissolve / And, like this insubstantial pageant faded…We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.” Nothingness before and nothingness after, but with everything in between, just like the universe circumscribed by the cover of a book. Metafiction has always defined literature; we’ve always been characters in a novel that somebody else is writing.

On Body Horror and the Monstrosity of Women

In Sharlene Teo’s wise, tenderly grotesque novel Ponti, the introduction of teenaged protagonist Szu is effected in a cloud of body odor. “When I was eleven,” Szu grumbles, sitting in a classroom that smells of Impulse body spray and soiled sanitary towels, “I used to hope that puberty would morph me, that one day I’d uncurl from my chrysalis, bloom out beautiful. No luck! Acne instead. Disgusting hair. Blood.” Overflowing with monsters and matriarchs, Teo’s novel is at least partially a horror narrative and draws much of its impetus from the backstory of Szu’s mother, Amisa, a former horror actress, who once starred in a movie named Ponti! The film, telling the story of a deformed girl who makes a deal with a bomoh—a shaman—to become beautiful, pins the theme of transformation at the novel’s heart. Her wish is granted, but the transformation is a dual one. She does become beautiful, but she also becomes a bloodthirsty monster who feeds insatiably upon men. Teo’s novel stresses this duality, writing female adolescence as, in effect, synonymous with female monstrosity, with the becoming of something other. Szu is nicknamed “Sadako,” after another classic horror movie monster, and her adolescence is a lank, disquieting thing, at once disappointing and horrendous. She is turning into a woman, she is turning into a monster; the two things are one and the same.
 
 
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“Body Horror” is a term that comes from horror cinema, but its literary origins can be traced back as far as Frankenstein. It is a trope that springs from primal fears—from the knowledge of oneself as a physical object and the consciousness of pain—and its roots wind through the Gothic, to the fin de siècle and the birth of science fiction. As a sub-genre, it broadly encompasses the concept of bodily violation, whether that be via mutilation, zombification, possession, or disease, but arguably one of its most pervasive themes is that of transformation. From Ovid to Cronenberg, transformation occupies an anxious corner in so much of film and literature that it more or less forms a tradition all its own. Folklore and myth are littered with metamorphosis—Daphne twisting into a bay tree, Alice in Wonderland with her Eat Me’s and Drink Me’s—and its impact is frequently an unsettling one. It is a fairy-tale punishment, a warning to naughty children, a reminder of the body’s unreliability.
In talking about Salt Slow, my short story collection, I have found myself returning frequently to the concept of the body, particularly the body as a locus of fear. The majority of stories in the collection are built on body horror and transformation, concerning women and the ways in which their bodies both contain and betray them: a girl whose teenage skin is hiding something terrible, a woman taking on the aspect of a jellyfish, a woman birthing something slippery. I think that writing about women goes hand in hand with horror writing. The female body is a nexus of pain almost by design (that by-now ubiquitous line from Fleabag: “women are born with pain built in, it’s our physical destiny”), but it is also potentially monstrous—an object traditionally subjugated, both for its presumed weakness and its perceived threat. The mutations and transformations of horror writing are uniquely qualified to evoke this: the difficulty and unreliability of the female body, its duality as an object both to be feared for and to fear.


When Daphne transforms into a bay tree, the moment is one of both horror and deliverance. She is no longer what she once was, but the metamorphosis frees her from the unwanted attention of Apollo. This duality of horror and emancipation sits, I think, at the core of female transformation. Within the horror genre (and arguably everywhere else), bodies read as female are always subject to pain, and to the threat of violation. Becoming something else—a tree, a freak, a monster—preempts this pain and reduces the risk of harm. It may even, if the transformation is the right one, allow you to cause harm in return.
 
 
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As made evident in Teo’s Ponti, female adolescence is frequently a site of horror. It is, after all, the “transformation” aspect of the body horror trope made literal. Over and over, in books and in movies, girls are made subject to the bleedings and stretchings of adolescence: that werewolf period where the body becomes an othered version of itself (the horror movie Ginger Snaps comes to mind—the protagonist’s first period coinciding with her transformation into something hairy and ill-tempered). Often, the horror of this alteration is fed by misinformation—the teenaged girls I find myself writing about frequently haven’t been told. Adolescence is frightening enough on its own, but the strange, puritanical sketchiness that consistently surrounds sex and sex education only serves to heighten the panic. In Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides, a teenage boy relays to his friends a jumbled impression of the informational “puberty” video he has stolen into a Girls Only class to watch: “When girls hit twelve or so,” he tells them breathlessly, “their tits bleed.” A monster, created by whispers.
In my short story “Mantis,” a Catholic schoolgirl’s troubled teenage skin extends far beyond acne. In between receiving woefully outdated sex education and attempting to navigate a newfound interest in boys, the protagonist loses teeth and hair, watching her skin come away in pieces to reveal something altogether buggier beneath. The transformation is a horror, of sorts, but it is also an emancipation—once freed from her physical strictures, the protagonist can act in a way that is natural to her (can do to a boy what a praying mantis would normally do to her chosen mate). This sense of transformation as a moment of freedom is not new. From certain representations of Lilith to Lucy Westenra, unloosed female power is often linked to a transformation into the monstrous, a shucking of one skin for another. Teenagers shed their younger selves for the relative power of womanhood, women shed their skins to take on fresh, more threatening aspects. In another story from my collection, a girl begins to take on attributes of her newly acquired stepsister, who happens to be a wolf. While it isn’t a transformation, in a physical sense, her newly feral traits allow her to contend far more effectively with the teenage boy who has started following her home. In this case, as in many others, the “transformation” is somewhat an active choice: looking at the possibilities presented to your body—pliancy, weakness, suffering—and choosing another option. Changing into a vampire, a wolf, a praying mantis, and eating people instead.
 
 
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There is another aspect to transformation—or rather, another level. In Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love, a mother experiments with cocktails of drugs and hallucinogens to achieve what she perceived as a perfect brood of “mutant” children to display at the family carnival. The extremity of transformation, here, conveys status and happiness, with “normality” considered a failing. “I get glimpses of the horror of normalcy,” notes the protagonist, “Each of these innocents on the street is engulfed by a terror of their own ordinariness. They would do anything to be unique.”
In my story “Salt Slow,” a woman gives birth to something that might not be quite human—a tentacled creature which her boyfriend tries, and ultimately fails, to destroy. The transformation here, and in Geek Love, manifests in the child rather than the mother—an inherited transformation, so to speak. Transformation, in this sense, can be not only an active choice but one to pass on—the act of becoming, or of siring, a monster as a means of reclaiming control over the female body. Within the scaffolding of the body horror trope, female bodies are arguably presented with unprecedented choice: They can be at once unstable, vulnerable, suffocating, difficult, frightening, monstrous, and changing right before your eyes.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.
Image credit: Marten Newhall