Goodbye, Rush Limbaugh, and Good Riddance

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Rise of the Slathering Pit Bull

Back in the 1990s, while working as a newspaper columnist in North Carolina, I spent countless hours driving back roads on my way to interview the criminal, the colorful, the obscure and the merely famous. My chariot on those trips through the Piedmont tobacco fields and pine thickets was the paper’s staff car, a bare bones Chevy with no air conditioning and an AM radio that got spotty reception. Which is how I got introduced to that slathering pit bull of right-wing talk radio named Rush Limbaugh.

You’ve seen one tobacco patch, you’ve seen them all. So on those scorching afternoon drives I came to relish the bombardment that began issuing from the dashboard speaker every weekday at noon on the dot, then kept roaring nonstop for three hours — the whining, hectoring, insulting, chortling, blistering, coarse, cruel and often very funny voice of Rush Limbaugh. A typical show would open with a riff from The Pretenders, which made no sense and which surely set Chrissie Hynde spinning in her leather pants. And then: “Greetings, conversationalists across the fruited plain. This is Rush Limbaugh, the most dangerous man in America, with the largest hypothalamus in North America, serving humanity simply by opening my mouth, destined for my own wing in the Museum of American Broadcasting, executing everything I do flawlessly with zero mistakes, doing this show with half my brain tied behind my back just to make it fair, because I have talent on loan from God!”

What the fuck was this? Listening to Limbaugh’s show was like driving past a ghastly car wreck: I was powerless to turn away. He spent three hours every day ridiculing and belittling targets that included feminists (“feminazis”), gays, immigrants, AIDS victims, poor people, environmentalists (“tree-hugging wackos”), all government programs (except the military), and anyone who could be tarred with the label of liberal. “Feminism,” he said, “was established so as to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream of society.” I had worked in radio in Savannah and Nashville, and as I listened to this river of bile, I kept asking myself, How does he get away with saying this stuff?

Most astonishing of all were the listeners who called in to the show, people who dubbed themselves “dittoheads” because they were proud of the fact that they agreed with every word that came out of Limbaugh’s mouth. It’s obvious they were rigorously screened because they never challenged the host and only rarely engaged in a back-and-forth conversation. They were calling in for one purpose: to fawn.

Too Funny!

By then, Limbaugh, who died Feb. 17 at 70, was on his way to becoming a media phenomenon with an audience estimated at 15 million. He parlayed his megaphone into a career that carried him far beyond the AM dial — to television, the bestseller lists, fabulous wealth, a seaside mansion in Palm Beach and, inevitably, Republican kingmaker. After Limbaugh helped engineer the Republican Revolution in the 1990s, a freshman from Indiana named Mike Pence said, “I’m in Congress today because of Rush Limbaugh.” Though no one knew it at the time, the poison Limbaugh was injecting into our national politics would eventually help land Pence in the White House alongside an improbable one-hit wonder named Donald Trump. Trump repaid the favor by bestowing the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Limbaugh the day after he revealed  that he had terminal lung cancer.

Couldn’t have happened to a more deserving guy. If he accomplished nothing else in his outlandish lifetime, Limbaugh revealed the bankruptcy, hypocrisy, and outright cruelty burning  in the heart of every right-wing moralist. For such people, it’s not enough to believe that abortion is morally wrong; they must see to it that no one can get a legal abortion. Anyone who dares to disagree is open to merciless attack, with mockery as a preferred weapon. In a precursor to a bit of Trumpian shtick, Limbaugh once quivered spasmodically to mimic the actor Michael J. Fox, a card-carrying liberal who had contracted Parkinson’s disease. Anyone who has watched someone die of this horrific affliction knows just how hilarious that bit was. Limbaugh also mocked gay men dying of AIDS during the regular “AIDS Update” segment of his show, playing Dionne Warwick’s “I’ll Never Love This Way Again.” Too funny!

Doctor Shopping and Pill Popping

In his bestselling book, Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations, the comedian Al Franken pointed out that Limbaugh viciously ridiculed poor people and anyone who takes government handouts — while glossing over the fact that, by his own admission, he once accepted unemployment benefits and spent his jobless time sitting on the sofa gorging on junk food and moping, too lazy to get off his widening ass to mow his own lawn.

Now comes the best part. Limbaugh was an ardent trooper in America’s culture wars and its misguided and unwinnable war on drugs. As he said on his show in 1995: “There’s nothing good about drug use. We know it. It destroys individuals. It destroys families… And we have laws against selling drugs, pushing drugs, using drugs, importing drugs… And so if people are violating the law by doing drugs, they ought to be accused and they ought to be convicted and they ought to be sent up.” In 2003, the news broke that Limbaugh had bought hundreds of prescription pain pills a month after “doctor shopping” – a crime punishable by five years in prison – but he avoided jail time by agreeing to pay for the police investigation and go into rehab. Big, fat, white, male, right-wing moralists don’t go to prison; they go into rehab.

Off With Their Heads!

Limbaugh didn’t just go into rehab. He also went to the top of the bestseller lists with two books whose titles, respectively, capture the self-righteousness and smugness that drive the right-wing moralist. The books were The Way Things Ought to Be and See, I Told You So. When I heard that Limbaugh had died, I remembered the abrasive tone of those books — and I remembered an encounter with another right-wing moralist who made it to the bestseller lists.

This also happened in North Carolina, during an earlier stint at the same newspaper. One day one of the editorial writers invited me to a local beer joint to meet a man who, my colleague assured me, was an intellectual giant on his way to greatness. The man’s name was Bill Bennett, and at that time, the late 1970s, he was the director of the National Humanities Center in nearby Research Triangle Park. As the three of us drank longneck beers and listened to the country music pouring out of the jukebox — I can still hear Jim Ed Brown singing “Pop a top again, I think I’ll have another round…” — Bennett made a point of letting me know that he had degrees from Williams College and Harvard Law School and that he had served as assistant to John Silber, the controversial president of Boston University who resisted faculty efforts to unionize and decried the “homosexual militancy” of gay students. Then, as a Moe Bandy tune came on the jukebox, Bennett gazed out at the rush hour traffic and wistfully remarked, “I miss places like this.” And I thought: You fucking phony egghead Brahmin. Give up the salt-of-the-earth act already.

My first impression of Bennett was validated years later, after he had achieved the predicted greatness – if your idea of greatness is running the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Department of Education under President Ronald Reagan and then serving as the get-tough drug czar under President George H.W. Bush. Bennett, a devout Catholic, bemoaned “the death of outrage” when people failed to foam at the mouth sufficiently over President Bill Clinton’s moral failings. Like Limbaugh, Bennett was a gung-ho foot soldier in both the culture wars and the war on drugs. On Larry King Live, Bennett proclaimed that a listener’s suggestion that drug dealers should be beheaded was “morally plausible.” This is the right-wing moralist in full plumage: Off with the heads of people who disagree with me or fail to live up to my high standards! In 1993 Bennett published The Book of Virtues, a compendium of bromides about self-discipline, compassion, responsibility, honesty, etc., etc., in which he showed off his vast erudition by quoting Big Thinkers from Aristotle to St. Augustine, Aesop, George Washington, Hilaire Belloc, Kierkegaard and James Baldwin (!).

The book sold well and was adapted into a cartoon series for television called “Adventures From the Book of Virtues.” Small problem. The series was broadcast on PBS, and Bennett, like all good conservative Republicans, is opposed to federal funding for PBS or anything else that has to do with the arts. Robert Mapplethorpe, anyone? The moral of this story is that even right-wing moralists are allowed to swallow their objections when presented with an opportunity to burnish their brand in prime time. “It’s not that I think PBS is bad,” Bennett said at the time, by way of justifying his moral somersault. “It’s the risk of having government involved that I object to.” That’s not even halfway up the mountain to the high moral ground.

Now comes the best part. After publishing this blueprint for virtuous living and co-founding a group called Empower America that opposed the expansion of casino gambling, Bennett, according to an expose in The Washington Monthly, had lost $8 million gambling in those twin citadels of virtue, Atlantic City and Las Vegas. Oops. The right-wing moralist’s defense for this disconnect between word and deed? Bennett was raking in $50,000 per speaking engagement, he was rich, and he could afford to blow a few million on his gambling addiction. “I don’t play the ‘milk money,’” Bennett said after the story broke. “I don’t put my family at risk, and I don’t owe anyone anything.” His wife Elayne stood by her man: “We are financially solvent. Our bills are paid.”

The nastiness, phoniness, and brazen hypocrisy of right-wing moralists like Rush Limbaugh and Bill Bennett should do much more than remind us that such men walk on feet made of clay. Their failings — and the hypocrisy they tried but failed to mask — should remind us of the true moral of this story. It is this: Anyone who tries to tell you how to live, regardless of his political stripes, is trying to make you less free. Such people are to be distrusted and avoided. When you see them coming, run for your life. Goodbye, Rush Limbaugh, and good riddance.

Image Credit: Pexels/cottonbro.

Bird Brain: Lauren Oyler, Patricia Lockwood, and the Literature of Twitter


There was no way for anyone to see it coming, of course—there never is. When the odd little microblogging service launched in 2006, it seemed like a nerdy joke, some bizarre configuration of the literature of constraint. What could be the point of trying to communicate in bursts of 140 characters? Twitter seemed like a novelty, a fad, a gimmick, a shiny toy that would dull quickly and be forgotten. Instead, it colonized the minds of millions of people, permanently altering the culture, spreading like some kind of digital kudzu, seeping down into the very neurons of whole classes and tribes of people. And this new medium proved particularly intoxicating for writers; writers and editors and journalists and critics and publishers and booksellers, all swimming in this strange new sea.

Fiction has always been slow to react to technological change, but it always eventually gets there. Newspapers, automobiles, telephones, movies, television, e-mail, and mobile phones have all been absorbed into, and subsumed by, the older technology’s capacious and appetitive flexibility. Twitter has, so far, proved singularly resistant. There is something liminal about it that makes it hard to translate cross-medium: it’s a mode of communication but also a space of performance; a so-called community forged out of collective isolation. It produces its own language, because when you try to explain things on Twitter to people who aren’t on Twitter, you invariably sound completely unhinged.

Given how comprehensively Twitter has re-wired our fundamental consciousness, it has seemed difficult to believe that no one has yet produced a book equal in expressiveness to its peculiar and otherworldly psychological glow. Olivia Laing’s novel Crudo, from 2018, came closest, but it was derailed by its flip conceptualist framework —it was a wry, Continental jeu d’esprit; clever but ultimately forgettable. As the narrator of Patricia Lockwood’s brilliant novel No One Is Talking About This puts it, all writing about Twitter “so far had a strong whiff of old white intellectuals being weird about the blues, with possible boner involvement.” Boner involvement or no, we suddenly have two novels, released within a week of each other, that brazenly, with swagger and open ambition, take on the voice of the bird app, and thus of our scrambled times.

Lauren Oyler made her name as a literary critic, becoming notorious (well, in certain circles, anyway) for a series of Dale Peck-like hit jobs that betrayed a bracingly astringent sensibility, itself a form of authentic courage in our etiolated age. Although Oyler’s reviews were always more than mere bomb-throwing—they suggested the excrudescence of a rigorous, if somewhat retrograde, critical sensibility—one sensed the room’s temperature raising when Fake Accounts was announced. In the view of the simmering collective unconscious of which literary Twitter is the thermometer, if you are going to have haughtily high standards in your criticism, then you had damn well better be able to deliver when the knives are in someone else’s hands.

Judged in this context, Fake Accounts can only be considered an interesting failure: enjoyable and smart while somehow lacking that mysterious inner light that glows through great fiction. Oyler’s novel centers on an oddly Lauren Oyler-like protagonist who quits her job and is on the verge of breaking up with her boyfriend when things suddenly become interesting. The psychological complexities of this relationship, somewhat surprisingly, are depicted with subtlety and a degree of emotional heft—an oddly 19th-century facet at which to succeed. It’s like the oldest strut in the wheel somehow remains the most durable.

The main strength of Fake Accounts, though, is its narrator’s voice, which is intelligent, fearless, and witheringly amoral. Not-Oyler unleashes plenty of  zingers (a description of “minds narrowed by therapy” has a droll Dorothy Parker ring), but she is also authentically insightful about Twitter—about how “it devours importance,” how it “muffles the sound of time passing without transcendence or joy.” Twitter comes to seem like an invisible third character in the book, one whose needs and rewards are as prickly and rebarbative as any romantic partner’s. Some of her riffs are inspired: a long car ride to the famous Women’s March on Washington with two earnest Hillary Clinton supporters is wickedly sardonic social satire, if faintly counter-revolutionary.

This is good stuff, but stylish asperity, unfortunately, does not a novel necessarily make. The book’s deficiencies become more apparent as it goes along, flattening out noticeably about two-thirds of the way through, unrelieved by anything like character development or indeed plot. There’s a disastrous foray into some modernist-lite experimentalism, and the book’s final twist feels forced and improbable.

Like Lauren Oyler—with whom she is now, due to the caprices of the publishing schedule, permanently frozen in a lit-world pas de deux for all eternity—Patricia Lockwood writes regularly for the London Review of Books. Best known for her irreverent 2017 memoir Priestdaddy, Lockwood’s fiction debut is called No One Is Talking About This, and it is a home run. It is written in quick, agile bursts, and, like Fake Accounts, it’s smart and often extremely funny. Its emotional valence, however, is somehow darker, weirder, quicker; in place of Oyler’s hip urban bohemias, it has the gothic anomie, the mesmerizing nowhere-ness, of the Midwest. Lockwood once voiced a theory that “the surrealism that has overtaken the political landscape in America can be traced back to the poisoned ground of Ohio Facebook.” A similar kind of malevolent hum, barely discernible, lies beneath the freewheeling surface of No One Is Talking About This.

The tensile strength of Lockwood’s prose reminds one that she was, before she became a memoirist and critic, a poet, with the poet’s eye for detail and ear for the music of rhythm. The book’s structure, as a perceptive colleague of mine observed, uses Lockwood’s strengths—the wit, the quickness, the way with a startling turn of phrase—to their very best. The breathless, antic tone of Priestdaddy has been sharpened and honed, suddenly infused with urgency and heart. Lockwood’s vision of Twitter, which she refers to only as “the portal,” is tonally different from Oyler’s—a surreal funhouse rather than a numbing swamp—but she shares the latter’s sense of the absurd, and she is especially good at conveying the weird panopticonical menace that the portal comes to emanate.

The second half of No One Is Talking About This takes a sharp right turn that should not be given away but which vaults the book, unexpectedly, into the realm of the tragic and the sublime. (“Did not have ‘Patricia Lockwood’s novel makes you cry’ on my 2020 bingo,” I tweeted at the time.) Improbably, this restless, hyper-contemporary story accrues a kind of grandeur, melding somehow the new and the impossibly ancient into an emotionally seamless whole. “The doors of bland suburban houses now looked possible, outlined, pulsing — for behind any one of them could be hidden a bright and private glory,” Lockwood writes. The narrator is made an “instantaneous citizen,” she adds, “of the flash of lightning that wrote across the sky I know.” That “bright and private glory,” that knowing, is a form of grieving and, finally, of living, onscreen or off.

Image Credit: Pexels/Sara Kurfeß.

On Literature and Consciousness

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Not far from where the brackish water of the delta irrigates the silty banks of the Nile, it was once imagined that a man named Sinuhe lived. Some forty centuries ago this gentleman was envisioned to have walked in the cool of the evening under a motley pink sky, a belly full of stewed pigeon, dates, and sandy Egyptian beer. In twelve pages of dense, narrative-rich prose, the author recounts Sinuhe’s service to Prince Senworset while in Libya, the assassination of the Pharaoh Amenemhat, and the diplomat’s subsequent exile to Canaan wherein he becomes the son-in-law of a powerful chief, subdues several rebellious tribes, and ultimately returns to Egypt where he can once again walk by his beloved Nile before his death. “I, Sinuhe, the son of Senmut and of his wife Kipa, write this,” begins the narrative of the titular official, “I do not write it to the glory of the gods in the land of Kem, for I am weary of gods, nor to the glory of the Pharaohs, for I am weary of their deeds. I write neither from fear nor from any hope of the future, but for myself alone.” This is the greatest opening line in imaginative literature, because it’s the first one ever written. How can the invention of fiction itself be topped?  

Whoever pressed stylus to papyri some eighteen centuries before Christ (The Tale of Sinuhe takes places two hundred years before it was written) has her central character pray that God may “hearken to the prayer of one far away!… may the King have mercy on me… may I be conducted to the city of eternity.” Fitting, since the author of The Tale of Sinuhe birthed her character from pure thought, and in the process invented fiction, invented consciousness, invented thought, even invented being human. Because Sinuhe is eternal — the first completely fictional character to be conveyed in a glorious first-person prose narration. The Tale of Sinuhe is the earliest of an extant type, but there are other examples from ancient Egypt, and indeed Mesopotamia, and then of course ancient Greece and Rome as well. As a means of conveying testimony, or history, or even epic, there is a utility to first-person narration, but The Tale of Sinuhe is something so strange, so uncanny, so odd, that we tend to ignore it by dint of how abundantly common it is today. Whoever wrote this proto-novel was able to conceive of a totally constructed consciousness and to compel her readers to inhabit that invented mind.

Hard to know how common this type of writing was, since so little survives, but of the scraps that we have there is a narration that can seem disturbingly contemporary. Written some eight-hundred years after Sinuhe’s tale, The Report of Wenamun is a fictional story about a traveling Egyptian merchant who in sojourns throughout Lebanon and Cyprus must confront the embarrassment of being a subject from a once-great but now declining empire. With startling literary realism, Wenamun grapples with his own impotence and obsolescence, including descriptions of finding a character “seated in his upper chamber with his back against a window, and the waves of the great sea of Syria… [breaking] behind him.” What a strange thing to do, not to report on the affairs of kings, or even to write your own autobiography, but rather to manifest from pure ether somebody who never actually lived, and with a charged magic make them come to life. In that image of the ocean breaking upon the strand — the sound of the crashing water, the cawing of gulls, the smell of salt in the air — the author has bottled pure experience and handed it to us three millennia later.

Critic Terry Eagleton claims in The Event of Literature that “Fiction is a question of how texts behave, and of how we treat them, not primarily of genre.” What makes The Tale of Sinuhe behave differently is that it places the reader into the skull of the imagined character, that it works as a submersible pushing somebody deep into the murky darkness of not just another consciousness, but that replicates experience of being another mind. That’s what makes the first-person different; that it catalogues the moments which constitute the awareness of another mind — the crumbly texture of a madeleine dunked in tea, the warmth of a shared bed in a rickety old inn on a rainy Nantucket evening, the sad reflective poignancy of pausing to watch the ducks in Central Park — and makes them your own, for a time. The first-person narrative is a machine for transforming one soul into another. Such narration preserves a crystalline moment in words like an insect in amber. The ancient Egyptians believed that baboon-faced Thoth invented writing (sometimes he was an ibis). Perhaps it was this bestial visage who wrote these first fictions? Writing in his introduction to the collection Land of Enchanters: Egyptian Short Stories from the Earliest Times to the Present Day, Bernard Lewis says that the Tale of Sinuhe “employs every sentence construction and literary device known in… [her] period together with a rich vocabulary to give variety and color to… [her] narrative.” Fiction is a variety of virtual reality first invented four thousand years ago.

By combining first-person narration with fictionality, the author built the most potent mechanism for empathy which humans have ever encountered; the ability to not just conjure consciousness from out of nothing, but to inhabit another person’s life. Critic James Wood writes in How Fiction Works that first-person narration is “generally a nice hoax: the narrator pretends to speak to us, while in fact the author is writing to us, and we go along with the deception happily enough.” Wood isn’t wrong – first-person narration, in fact all narration, is fundamentally a hoax, or maybe more appropriately an illusion. What I’d venture is that this chimera, the fantasy of fiction, the mirage of narration, doesn’t just imitate consciousness — it is consciousness. Furthermore, different types of narration exemplify different varieties of consciousness, all built upon that hard currency of experience, so that the first-person provides the earliest intimations of what it means to be a mind in time and space. That nameless Egyptian writer gave us the most potent of incantations — that of the eternal I. “By the end of the 19th century [BCE],” writes Steven Moore in The Novel: An Alternative History, “all the elements of the novel were in place: sustained narrative, dialogue, characterization, formal strategies, rhetorical devices.” Moore offers a revisionist genealogy of the novel, pushing its origins back thousands of years before the seventeenth-century, but regardless of how we define the form itself, it’s incontrovertible that at the very least The Tale of Sinuhe offers something original. Whether or not we consider the story to be a “novel,” with all of the social and cultural connotations of that word (Moore says it is, I say eh), at the very least Sinuhe is the earliest extant fragment of a fictional first-person narrative, and thus a landmark in the history of consciousness.  

What the Big Bang is to cosmology, The Tale of Sinuhe is to literature; what the Cambrian Explosion is to natural history, so narrative is to culture. An entire history of what it means to be a human being could focus entirely on the different persons of narration, and what they say about all the ways in which we can understand reality. Every schoolchild knows that narration breaks down into three persons: the omniscient Father of the third-person, the eerie Spirit of the second-person placing the reader themselves into the narrative, and the Son of the first-person, whereby the reader is incarnated into the character. It’s more complicated than this, of course; there’s first-person unreliable narrators and third-person limited omniscient narrators; plural first-person narratives and free indirect discourse; and heterodiegetic narrators and focalized homodiegetic characters. Regardless of the specifics of what narrative person a story is written in, the way a narrative is told conveys certain elements of perception. The voice which we choose says something about reality; it becomes its own sort of reality. As Michael McKeon explains in Theory of the Novel: A Historical Approach, the first-person form is associated with “interiority as subjectivity, of character as personality and selfhood, and of plot as the progressive development of the integral individual.”

The history of the novel is a history of consciousness. During the eighteenth-century, in the aftershocks of the emergence of the modern novel, first-person faux-memoirs — fictional accounts written with the conceit that they were merely found documents like Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe or Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels — reflected both the Protestant attraction towards the self-introspection which the novel allowed for, but also an anxiety over its potentially idolatrous fictionality (the better to pretend that these works actually happened). By the nineteenth-century that concern manifested in the enthusiasm for epistolary novels, a slight variation on the “real document” trope for grappling with fictionality, such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Concurrently, the nineteenth-century saw the rise in the third-person omniscient narrations, with all of its intimations of God-like eternity that we associate with novels like Charles Dickens’ Bleak House and Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. By contrast, the twentieth-century marked the emergence of stream-of-consciousness in high modernist novels such as James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake and William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury; and following the precedent of Gustave Flaubert and Jane Austen, authors like Virginia Woolf in Mrs. Dalloway and D.H. Lawrence in The Rainbow made immaculate use of free indirect discourse, where the intimacy of the first person is mingled into the bird’s eye perspective of the third. All of these are radical; all of them miracles in their own way. But the first-person is only that which is able to transplant personal identity itself.

“With the engine stalled, we would notice the deep silence reigning in the park around us, in the summer villa before us, in the world everywhere,” writes Orhan Pamuk in his novel The Museum of Innocence. “We would listen enchanted to the whirring of an insect beginning vernal flight before the onset of spring, and we would know what a wondrous thing it was to be alive in a park on a spring day in Istanbul.” Though I have never perambulated alongside the Bosporus on a spring day, Pamuk is still able to, by an uncanny theurgy, make the experience of his character Kemal my own. Certainly lush descriptions can be manifested in any narrative perspective, and a first-person narrator can also provide bare-bones exposition, yet there is something particularly uncanny about the fact that by staring at ink stains on dead trees we can hallucinate that we’re entirely other people in Istanbul. The existentialist Martin Heidegger argued that the central problem of philosophy was that of “Being,” which is to say the question of what it means to be this self-aware creature interacting with an abstract, impersonal universe. By preserving experience as if a bit of tissue stained on a microscope slide, first-person narration acts as a means of bracketing time outward, the better to comprehend this mystery of Being. “We ourselves are the entities to be analyzed,” Heidegger writes in Being and Time, and what medium is more uniquely suited for that than first-person narration?

The first-person isn’t merely some sort of textual flypaper that captures sensory ephemera which flit before the eyes and past the ears, but it even more uncannily makes the thoughts of another person — an invented person — your own. By rhetorical alchemy it transmutes your being. Think of P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie, who for all of his flippancy and aristocratic foppishness arrives on the page as a keen and defined personality in his own right (and write). “I don’t know if you have the same experience, but a thing I have found in life is that from time to time, as you jog along, there occur moments which you are able to recognize immediately with the naked eye as high spots,” Wodehouse writes in The Code of the Woosters. “Something tells you that they are going to remain etched, if etched is the word I want, forever on the memory and will come back to you at intervals down the years, as you are dropping off to sleep, banishing that drowsy feeling and causing you to leap on the pillow like a gaffed salmon.” If genteel and relaxed Anglophilia isn’t your thing, you can rather turn into the nameless narrator of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, buffeted and assaulted by American racism and denied self-definition in his almost ontological anonymity, who recalls the “sudden arpeggios of laughter lilting across the tender, springtime grass — gay-welling, far-floating, fluent, spontaneous, a bell-like feminine fluting, then suppressed; as though snuffed swiftly and irrevocably beneath the quiet solemnity of the vespered air now vibrant with somber chapel bells.”

Those who harden literature into reading lists, syllabi, and ultimately the canon have personal, social, and cultural reasons for being attracted to the works that they choose to enshrine, yet something as simple as a compelling narrative voice is what ultimately draws readers. An author who is able to conjure from pure nothingness a personality that seems realer than real is like Prospero conjuring specters out of the ether. Denis Johnson was able to incarnate spirits from spirits in his classic novel of junkie disaffection Jesus’ Son. Few novels are able to convey the fractured consciousness of the alcoholic (and I know) as well as Johnson’s does; his unnamed character known only as “Fuckhead” filtering through the distillery of his mind every evasion, half-truth, duplicity (to self and others), and finally radical honesty that the drug addict must contend with if they’re to achieve any semblance of sanity. Writing of an Iowa City bar and its bartender, Johnson says that “The Vine had no jukebox, but a real stereo continually playing tunes of alcoholic self-pity and sentimental divorce. ‘Nurse,’ I sobbed. She poured doubles like an angel, right up to the lip of a cocktail glass, no measuring. ‘You have a lovely pitching arm.’” For those normies of a regular constitution, the madness of addictions like Fuckhead’s can seem a simple issue of willpower, yet the distinctive first-person of Jesus’ Son conveys, at least a bit, what it means to be locked inside a cage of your own forging. Fuckhead recalls seeing the aforementioned bartender after he’d gotten clean: “I saw her much later, not too many years ago, and when I smiled she seemed to believe I was making advances. But it was only that I remembered. I’ll never forget you. Your husband will beat you with an extension cord and the bus will pull away leaving you standing there in tears, but you were my mother.”

Alcoholism isn’t the only manifestation of consciousness at war with itself; self-awareness turned inside out so that a proper appraisal of reality becomes impossible. Consider the butler Stevens in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, who carries himself with implacable dignity and forbearance, and is committed to the reputation of his master Lord Darlington, while overlooking the aristocrat’s Nazi sympathies. Stevens is a character of great sympathy, despite his own loyalty being so extreme that it becomes a character deficiency. No mind is ever built entirely of abstractions. Rather, our personalities are always constituted by a million prosaic experiences; there is much more of the human in making a cup of coffee or scrubbing a toilet than there is anything that’s simply abstract. “I have remained here on this bench to await the event that has just taken place – namely, the switching on of the pier light,” remembers Stevens, “for a great many people, the evening is the most enjoyable part of the day. Perhaps, then, there is something to his advice that I should cease looking back so much, that I should… make the best of what remains of my day.” A distillation of individual thought as it experiences the world, to move from switching on a light to a reflection on mortality. Ishiguro captures far more of life in Remains of the Day than does a manifesto, a treatise, a syllogism, a theological tract.

By its very existence, fictional literature is an argument about divinity, about humanity, about creativity. That an author is able to compel a reader into the perspective of a radically different human being is the greatest claim that there is to the multiplicity of existence, of the sheer, radiating glory of being. Take Marilyn Robinson’s Rev. John Ames, an elderly Congregationalist minister in small-town Iowa in 1956, who unfolds himself in a series of letters he’s writing to his young son, which constitutes the entirety of the novel Gilead. Devout, reverential, and most of all good, Rev. Ames’ experiences — not just the bare facts of his life but his reactions to them — is exceedingly distant from my own biography. As with so many readers of Gilead, I feel that there is a supreme honor in being able to occupy Ames’ lectern for a time, to read his epistles as if you were his son. In what for me remains one of the most oddly moving passages in recent American literature, Robinson writes how “Once, we baptized a litter of cats.” Ames enumerates the unusual piety of his childhood, and how that compelled a group of similarly religious children fearful of the perdition which awaited pagan kittens to dressing the animals in doll clothing while uttering Trinitarian invocations and using water to mark the cross on their furry foreheads. “I still remember how those warm little brows felt under the palm of my hand. Everyone has petted a cat, but to touch one like that, with the pure intention of blessing it, is a very different thing.” The way that Ames recounts the impromptu feline conversion is funny, in the way that the things children do often are, especially the image of the meowing cat dressed like a baby, their perfidious mother stealing them back by the napes of their neck, all while the event is marked by the young future minister trying to bring as many of the kittens to Christ as he could. “For years we would wonder what, from a cosmic viewpoint, we had done to them. It still seems to be a real question. There is a reality in blessing… It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that. I have felt it pass through me so to speak.”

And so have I, so to speak, felt that same emotion, despite not being a Congregational minister, a resident of rural Iowa, or a man born in the last decades of the Victorian era writing letters to his son. What the descriptions of first-person narration accomplish — both the litany of detail in the material world, and the self-reflection on what it means to be an aware being — is the final disproof of solipsism. The first-person narration, when done deftly and subtly, proves that yours isn’t the only consciousness, because such prose generates a unique mind and asks you to enter into it; the invitation alone is proof that you aren’t all that exists. Literature itself is a giant conscious being — all of those texts from Sinhu onward mingling together and interacting across the millennia like synapses firing in a brain. Writing may not be reducible to thought, but it is a type of thought. Fiction is thus an engine for transformation, a mechanism for turning you into another person. Or animal. Or thing. Or an entity omniscient. Writing of the feline baptism, Ames remembers that “The sensation is one of really knowing a creature, I mean really feeling its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time.” This, it seems to me, is an accurate definition of literature as well, so that fiction itself is a type of baptism. Writing and reading, like baptism — and all things which are sacred — is simply the act of really knowing a creature.

What Is Wrong with Natasha?: On the Female “Type” in Tolstoian Tales


Ever since I announced that I had started reading War and Peace, more than one person has warned me about its ending, particularly of its female protagonist, Natasha. “The more you like her in the beginning,” a friend said firmly, “the more disappointed you’ll be toward the end.”

My friend is right. I fell in love with Natasha at first sight, when the thirteen-year-old girl scampers into the room, embracing a doll and laughing her loud, contagious laughter. My favor for her grows when she nags her mother about what dessert will be served for that night, and when later, on a sleepless night, she expresses her wish to fly to the moon. Even her affair with Anatole cannot remove me from her fan club. I try not to see her as only a naïve girl readily seduced by a playboy, but a courageous young woman who is willing to pay the price for giving her heart. (She uses the word “love” to define her relationship with Anatole.) I admire her kindness and tenacity in tending to Andrei on his deathbed, her ex-fiancé who broke off their engagement when he learned she was unfaithful. Perhaps like Andrei and Pierre in the fiction, I am drawn to Natasha’s vivacity and, more importantly, her tremendous joy that is independent of any external condition; as Andrei once marvels, “this slender and pretty girl did not know and did not want to know of his existence and was content and happy with some separate—probably stupid—but cheerful and happy life of her own.”

My frustration with the ending comes not as a surprise. Natasha turns out the very opposite of what she used to be. Seven years after she marries Pierre, she has “filled out and broadened,” her inner fire for life has extinguished, and her contentment derives from the one and only source: her husband and children.

Like any movie viewer who is unhappy with a tragic ending of her beloved character, I accuse the director of his personal malevolence. Tolstoy, I decide, has a very narrow understanding of women at best, or is a hidden misogynist at worst.

We have every reason to suspect him. Unlike Gustave Flaubert, who famously said that he had to let Madame Bovary die because that decision was made by aesthetics, Leo Tolstoy is known as both an artist and a preacher. This does not only refer to the fact that War and Peace is interpolated with large prosy passages about history but also, as critic James Wood observes, the two seemly distinctive selves of Tolstoy are intertwined. (James Wood, “War and Peace: Many Stories, Many Lives”) In other words, Tolstoy is sermonizing while telling a story.

Tolstoy is very emphatic and specific about our takeaways from his tales. Take his anti-war message. Almost all the male characters start out harboring a youthful passion about the Great Men and the war. Tolstoy uses a romantic language to describe Nikolai Rostov’s adoration of the tsar: Nikolai fantasizes what “happiness” it would be “simply to die before the eyes of the sovereign,” and realizes that he is “indeed in love with the tsar.” Later, the exact same language is applied to depict the feelings that Petya—Nikolai’s younger brother—holds for his leader in the army, Dolokhov: in one scene, Petya is too infatuated to let go of Dolokhov’s hand; rather, he leans toward him and requests a kiss. Romance, almost by definition, suggests an ignorance of reality and admits illusion and falsehood. Soon, we attest to those characters’ awakening. After seeing the self-satisfied emperors and many devastated soldiers and civilians, Nikolai rids himself of all the halos of a glorious death. “We’re told to die—and we die,” he concludes, “If we’re punished, it means we’re guilty; it’s not for us to judge.” Similar moments of disillusionment can be found in Andrei’s and Pierre’s wartime experience. Petya, who doesn’t have enough time to acquire this insight, is shot to death in a battle. Nevertheless, you won’t miss Tolstoy’s emphasis: Dolokhov, Petya’s Great Man, doesn’t even bother to bury the dead admirer.

We may easily trace those morals to Tolstoy’s personal answers to the big questions he poses in the book. For example, he rejects the pervasive notion that Great Men determine the trajectory of history. Adopting the preacher’s voice, he argues in the beginning of Volume Three, Part Two, “the drawing of Napoleon into the depths of the country [Russia] occurred not according to someone’s plan, but occurred as the result of the most complex interplay of intrigues, aims, and desires of the people participating in the war […] It all occurs by chance.” In that regard, the enlightenment those male characters have attained during the war are artistic footnotes to Tolstoy’s outlook. There is also his answer to what a “true life” is, the philosophical inquiry that firstly loomed large before Tolstoy out of his fear of death: How can there be a meaning of life that is not canceled out by the inevitability of death? Tolstoy, through a lengthy spiritual journey, has found the key in faith and collectivity. Faith, as he wrote in A Confession, is the “meaning imparted by infinity—a meaning not extinguished by suffering, deprivation or death.” Collectivity, as a way out of one’s clinging to immortality, points to the possibility of a union with others through love. (Tolstoy, On Life.) Even though both essay collections, A Confession and On Life, were composed after War and Peace, the Tolstoian characters in the great novel have already come to the same conclusion, and their revelation arrives precisely at the moment when they are facing death. “I experienced the feeling of love,” the dying Andrei murmurs in hallucination, “which is the very essence of the soul and which needs no object. Now, too, I am experiencing that blissful feeling. To love my neighbors, to love my enemies. To love everything—to love God in all His manifestations.” Andrei’s epiphany is interchangeable with the lesson Pierre has acquired after he barely escapes death himself: “He could have no purpose, because he now had faith—not faith in some rules, or words, or thoughts, but faith in a living, ever-sensed God.” Andrei and Pierre’s revelation serves as the dramatic underlining of Tolstoy’s own philosophy of life.

This pronounced intention of storytelling complicates our perspective of Natasha’s ending: Is the abandonment of personhood Tolstoy’s ideal picture for women? Clues that support this hypothesis abound. First, we have the omniscient narrator’s explanation for Natasha’s disinterest in talks regarding women’s rights:
These questions, then as now, existed only for those people who see in marriage nothing but the pleasure the spouses get from each other, that is, nothing but the beginnings of marriage, and not its whole insignificance, which consists in the family.

[The same questions do not exist] for whom the purpose of a dinner is nourishment and the purpose of marriage is the family. (Tolstoy, War and Peace)
Arguably, the voice belongs to Tolstoy. Later in What Is Art, he draws a similar analogy between dinner and art:
People come to understand that the meaning of eating lies in the nourishment of the body only when they cease to consider that the object of that activity is pleasure. And it is the same with regard to art. People will come to understand the meaning of art only when they cease to consider that the aim of that activity is beauty, i.e., pleasure.
If family, as Tolstoy claims, is the only true purpose of marriage, it is logical that he applauds Natasha’s motherhood as the only true purpose of womanhood—even at a price of losing her individuality. As a matter of fact, we can find a personal note in Tolstoy’s real life to this, what seems now, very limited view of women. Like Pierre in War and Peace, the young Tolstoy lived a life of indulgence; he once confessed to Anton Chekhov that he had been “an indefatigable chaser after women.” In “Tolstoy the Apostolic Crusader,” scholar Rene Rueloep-Miller observes that after his famous conversion, the great author “regarded women as evil because they threatened to awaken man’s sensuality and to provoke what he called ‘the sin of fleshliness.” Tolstoy even recorded his generalization of women on the page: “Women are harmless only when they are wholly engrossed in the duties of motherhood, or when they have acquired the venerability of old age.” (Rueloep-Miller, “Tolstoy the Apostolic Crusader”)

In that light, every change that happens to Natasha in the end substantiates Tolstoy’s dichotomy of women’s virtues and physical attraction. In the novel, this dichotomy is also illustrated by a stark contrast between Pierre’s previous and present wife. Helene is extremely beautiful and always brags about a string of lovers. Natasha, when in her prime, almost sins by eloping with Anatole while she is still engaged to Andrei. However, as she grows obese, plain, and dull in the wake of marriage, she no longer poses threat to her husband’s moral integrity; rather, her lack of charm is sufficient proof of Pierre’s lofty mind: Pierre has finally learned “to see the great, the eternal, and the infinite in everything,” and leads a content life of simplicity. Interestingly, Tolstoy adds a nationalistic note to this outlook: the preservation of self, talent, and appearance after marriage is very “French,” with a prejudiced undertone of immorality. In contrast, the selfless, charmless, and very often mindless Natasha epitomizes Tolstoy’s authentic Russian women.

This type of transformation doesn’t happen to Natasha alone. Princess Marya who used to be a fervent spiritual seeker is also reduced to a mother and wife after marriage. Her religious side which previously gained Nikolai’s respect is no longer shown; instead, same as Natasha, she displays a complete failure in connecting to her husband’s intellectual concerns. The only difference between Princess Marya and Natasha is perhaps that the former doesn’t have the urgency to grow out of shape, since she has been stamped as ugly from the very beginning.

James Wood notices that Tolstoy’s storytelling has a lot in common with fairytales. For one thing, Tolstoy sometimes begins an episode with a throat-clearing “Here is how it came about.” (Wood, “War and Peace: Many Stories, Many Lives.”) The objects and plants in War and Peace sometimes can talk. (An oak tree once exclaims, “Spring, and love, and happiness!”) Also, Tolstoy punctuates the characters with their physical attributes: the “fat” Pierre; Prince Vassily with his “shinning bald head”; the “round” Little Princess. Yet, the most fundamental similarity Tolstoy’s stories share with fairytales is perhaps character “types.”

The good, married female type can also be found in Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s other masterpiece. Kitty, a pretty, lively girl before marriage and a faithful, devoted mother after marriage, reminds readers of Natasha. And, like Natasha and Marya, Kitty is indifferent to her husband Levin’s intellectual side. The lofty, converted male types may include Levin. Just as Pierre gets to appreciate the simple beauty in life after his encounter with the peasant foot soldier Platon Karataev, Levin returns to his childhood Christian faith after talking to a peasant. Even though Levin doesn’t transform immediately, he believes that faith will eventually guide his life toward righteousness.

In essence, this is precisely how fairytales convey their morals: ascribing good or bad endings to different types. The beautiful, kind princesses always win the heart of the handsome, brave princes and vice versa; together they live happily ever after. In other words, virtues such as kindness, courage, and loyalty are always rewarded in fairytales. However, the real world is hardly—if ever—that simple. In a similar and yet more complicated way, Tolstoy tries to convince us that a submission to suffering promises a fulfilled, joyous life. Take the story about an old merchant that Platon Karataev tells Pierre when they are both taken prisoners by the French. The old merchant is wrongly charged for manslaughter and robbery and sent to hard labor. Coincidentally, the real culprit happens to be in the same labor camp with him. Feeling profoundly sorry for the innocent merchant’s suffering, the culprit writes a note to confess. With time, the tsar finally orders the release of the merchant. But when the message finds the poor man, he has already died. “The hardest and most blissful thing is to love this life in one’s suffering, in the guiltlessness of suffering,” so Pierre summarizes the moral he has drawn from the tale. The story itself and the “rapturous joy” Karataev exudes when telling the story make me uneasy. Although I concede that suffering may potentially offer a deeper understanding of life, I wouldn’t go so far as to say all sufferings are meaningful and therefore necessary. But it is hard to push back. Tolstoy hijacks our way of thinking by imposing a religious condition: you don’t appreciate the significance of suffering because you don’t believe all is God’s will; if you have faith, you will agree with me. No, Tolstoy, that’s not a fair play.

The danger of preaching through types is that those types are no longer various personalities, but absolute moral judgement. In fairytales, for example, one of the most common villain types is the stepmother. With perpetuation and reinforcement, a moral connotation is carried directly through this identity, regardless of its specific contexts. We are imparted this false “rule of thumb”: all stepmothers are evil. This is what happens to Tolstoy’s female types. His bias of women wears the garment of universal truth: either they are attractive, childless, and morally suspicious charmers, or plain, dumb, dedicated mothers. He murders the energetic and pretty Natasha because he doesn’t believe women could be both glamorous and virtuous. He is responsible for Natasha’s death.

As a modern woman, I always stay alert when reading the portrait of women of the past. The married Natasha who speaks only her husband’s mind can easily find company in many other stories. In Chekhov’s short story “The Darling,” which was once reviewed by Tolstoy, whenever the female protagonist, Olenka Plemyannikova is attached to a man, she becomes a tape recorder of his opinions. There is also the story by Hans Christian Andersen, “What the Old Man Does Is Always Right,” in which the wife applauds her husband’s each and every stupid decision. Those characters do not necessarily bother me, as I know those kinds of women exist in a miscellaneous collection of humanity. But when I stumbled upon Margaret Schlegel in E. M. Forster’s novel, Howards End, I couldn’t hold still. Margaret and her younger sister Helen represent the “New Woman” type: independent, compassionate, and liberal-thinking. Earlier in the novel, when Margaret hosts a luncheon for Ruth, the matriarch of the wealthy Wilcoxes, Margaret is in every way the opposite of this conventional woman in service of her husband and family. When Ruth utters her belief that “it is wiser to leave action and discussion to men” and her gratitude in “not to have a vote herself,” the table falls into a polite but alarming silence. Unfortunately, after Margaret replaces the deceased Ruth to become the new Mrs. Wilcox, she accommodates herself to the role by taking her husband’s words as orders. It pained me to see her suspect the cold and distant notes Helen has written to her as signs of mental illness; she absorbs this thought from her practical-minded husband Henry who always defines Helen’s attraction to spiritualism, music, literature, and art as clinically-defined “hysteria.” For a certain period of time in that fictional world, Margaret the New Woman—with all her advanced knowledge and progressive ideas—falls back helplessly to a conventional woman type which she refused to be before marriage.

The unsettling picture reminds me of a remark my college professor once made about his female classmates: “I am really sad to see those who used to talk about philosophy and art now only discuss infant formula and diapers.” It may sound insensitive as uttered by a man, but I, too, have mixed feelings when seeing some of my female Chinese friends switch from a challenging job they enjoyed to a stable, routine bureaucratic position so they would have more time for their family. Like Margaret, they have turned into the women they once swore not to be. Viewing Natasha through the same lens, I guess what upsets me the most—more than her tragic loss in physical glamor and personhood—is a retrogression of her life trajectory. Spiritually speaking, the Natasha in the Epilogue is not that different from her thirteen-year-old self when she first emerges: bundling a doll in her skirt, she proudly tells her guest, “This is my younger one.” It feels as if she hasn’t advanced an inch of length in her spiritual journey with all the events she has been through in her life.

Almost all the male characters in War and Peace, on the contrary, have undergone a certain level of intellectual and psychological transformation. Take Pierre. He first appears as the illegitimate son of Count Vladimirovich and as a depraved young man. He is placed in the company of Anatole and Dolokhov; the three of them drink, gamble, and tie a policeman to a bear merely for fun. But through failures, struggles, and revelations, Pierre ripens into a New Man: kind, wise, content, a symbolic figure of the future Russian revolutionary. Tolstoy builds noticeable parallels between the two main characters: Pierre and Natasha. They are both seduced by extremely attractive lovers, and they both face the death of their loved ones toward the end. However, while the death of Karataev triggers Pierre’s rebirth, the death of Andrei is subject to oblivion for Natasha to move on. According to Tolstoy, whether the problem of death would initiate a revelation depends on whether the thinker confronts death concretely and corporeally. Pierre does. What ends Karataev’s life may have ended his too. The fear, anxiety, and despair pushes him to find a resolution or reconciliation in faith. Natasha doesn’t. Though heartbroken to see her ex-fiancé die, she is not threatened by war or illness or death, nor does she feel the urgency to search for the true purpose of life. In fact, all the Tolstoian female characters, domestically bound, fail to attain revelation through life experience as their male counterparts do. When Nikolai is awarded the St. George Cross, for example, Natasha’s initial response is “I’m so proud of him,” so are Sonya and Nikolai’s mother. However, exposed to the brutal nature of the war, Nikolai has already grown ambivalent about the decoration. I am not defending Tolstoy, but the huge discrepancies in the level of male and female life experience might partially explain his stiff portrait of women’s incapacity to connect with their husbands intellectually and spiritually.

Then again, this conundrum itself is a patriarchal social construct. Women’s lack of exposure to life experience outside the home originates from men commanding women to stay at home. In War and Peace, we can also see a curious parallel between Pierre’s and Marya’s religious pursuit. Pierre runs into a “traveler” who will introduce him to Masonry. But, when later he meets Marya’s wanderer woman, he speculates that Marya is dumb enough to have been deceived by a false monk. “It’s a trick,” Pierre blurts out. He does not realize that Masonry also craves his wallet, neither is he aware that the war itself is the biggest trick. As a woman, Marya does not have the freedom to wander and gain spiritual experience. She can only imagine herself walking in “coarse rags,” “with a stick and a bag down a dusty road,” and in the end arrive at the place “where there is no sorrow or sighing, but eternal joy and bliss.” That is the exact image of Pierre after his moral conversion: “Pierre’s clothing now consisted of a dirty, tattered shirt, the only remains of his former attire, a soldier’s trousers, tied with string at the ankles for the sake of warmth, on Karataev’s advice, a kaftan, and a muzhik’s hat, […] His former laxness, expressed even in his gaze, was now replaced by an energetic composure, ready for action and resistance. His feet were bare.” Clearly, Marya’s confinement in a conventional gender role prevents her from transforming into a New Woman.

Besides, the paternalistic cultural models that encourage men to protect women from potential harm often results in further restricting women’s life experience. Take the different impact that carnal love has left on Pierre and Natasha. Pierre almost kills a man out of jealousy and, reflecting on the whimsical duel, learns that his feelings for Helene are only wild lust, not love. Natasha does not seem to acquire any emotional knowledge from her aborted elopement. By driving Anatole out of town and locking Natasha up in her room, Pierre saves her reputation but stops her from possibly learning a life lesson from her failings. As a result, Natasha will fall for the next available suitor like before and her happiness will still be entirely dependent on whoever asks for her hand. This protective rhetoric is tricky because it is justified by the sad fact that women do not have the privilege to err. In Howards End, Leonard Bast—an impoverished lower-class man—summarizes the meaning of privilege sharply, “If rich people fail at one profession, they can try another. Not I.” Similarly, if a noble man like Pierre fails at his marriage, he can try remarrying, but not women, not Natasha. So the vicious circle goes on and on: the more men feel the need to prevent women from irredeemable pitfalls, the more they infantilize women.

Perhaps—and I am aware of my idealistic thinking—rather than sheltering women from the exposure to potential harm, or any life experience in general, we should instead fabricate a safety net for the underprivileged. That way, they can gain miles in their spiritual journey and, if they fail, they can start anew without paying too big a price.

Motherhood and an abandonment of individuality, in Tolstoian sense, is never a solution to women’s dilemma. (Tolstoy might even go on to deny that women faced any dilemma at all.) The final picture of Howards End as a home where the free-spirited Helen Schlegel and her extramarital son can fall back upon is closer to the concept of “safety net” which I proposed, but still, even that home is conditional on Henry Wilcox’s changeable conscience and hardly a guardian of women’s precarious lives. Nevertheless, fiction, as an agency of real life experience, engages us in the joy, shame, sorrow, and fear of others. By experiencing their struggles with women’s pressing issues concretely and corporeally, we may come to our respective resolution in reality, the same way Pierre realizes the meaning of a “true life” in facing the death of Karataev, an epiphany Natasha would have attained if given the same opportunity.

Annotate This: On Footnotes


Good Protestant that he was, the sixteenth-century English printer Richard Jugge was a believer in the immutable word of God and that the faithful were afforded salvation through the inviolate letters of scripture alone. Through reading the gospels, the good Christian could find their heavenly reward, not in donation, or morality, or good works. Jugge was ordained in that priesthood of all believers composed of all those who were baptized – no need for black-clad priests to keep the Bible locked away in Latin, because any pious Englishman could well enough read the words for him (or her)self, so that the most humble boy plowing the field knew as much chapter and verse as the Pope himself. The meaning of scripture was simple, straight-forward, and literal.

But…. sometimes any reader could use some help interpreting the finer points of Hebrew or Koine translation. And… anyone could be forgiven for needing the guidance of expertise to better comprehend what exactly it was that God wanted them to do, think, believe, and feel. What was needed was some explication. Some explanation. Some interpretation. So Jugge, laying the copper keys into his printing press to produce copies of the official Bishop’s Bible translation in 1568, faced a bit of a conundrum. How were stolid English Protestants to properly read – of their own accord – a book written by ancient Jews millennia ago? How could such a foreign book be applied to the great theological disputes of the day, from the nature of the Eucharist to the finer points of double predestination? His solution was in the details, or rather their margins, for in Richard Jugge’s printshop located just north of St. Paul’s Cathedral and just downward from heaven was birthed the Reformation’s most enduring contribution to typography – the footnote.[1]

God may have supplied the Word, but Jugge was content to supply the gloss (or at least the typographic organization of it). Jugge’s footnotes, it should be emphasized, were certainly not the first instance of written commentary on scripture (or other books) included within a volume itself. “Notes in the margin and between the lines — so-called glosses — had featured in written documents since time immemorial,” writes Keith Houston in Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks. Marginalia has a venerable history in both manuscript and print, and there is a tradition of using the white space of the page’s border to draw attention to something within the text, from the creatures and monsters populating the illustrations of the Book of Kells, beings who sometimes point and mock transcription errors, to the curious symbol of the manicule, a drawing of a hand looking a bit like one of Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python animations, which gestures to the important bits within a book. “But no traditional form of annotation — from the grammarian’s glosses to the theologian’s allegories to the philologist’s emendations – is identical to the historical footnote,” historian Anthony Grafton reminds us in his invaluable study The Footnote: A Curious History.

Along with other typographical devices that are separate from the main text, from epigraphs to bibliographies, I’ve always had an affection for the lowly footnote. Anybody who has ever had to do advanced academic work has a love/hate relationship with the form; the way in which the piling up of footnotes and endnotes exhibits deep reading (or the performance of it), the scholarly equivalent of getting a stamp in your passport, but also the confusing tangle of references, citations, and long-ago academic debates that a young researcher must tip their cap to in due-deference, which can be a perfunctory slog at best. Footnotes can be an exercise in arid, sober, boring credit-giving, but some of the most dynamic monographs have the best stuff squired away in the footnotes. One of my favorite footnotes is in Stephen Booth’s masterful New Critical close readings of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, whereby regarding a particularly contentious biographical issue, the editor notes that “Shakespeare was almost certainly homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual.” Looking for such treasure within the footnotes — digressions, jokes, insecurities, reflections, meditations, disagreement, discourse, conversation, and snark in addition to reference, citation, credit, and acknowledgement — is like a form of textual beachcombing, pulling up something shiny out of a sandpile. As Bruce Anderson enthuses in the Stanford Magazine, “Footnotes allow us not only to see the prejudices of old sources, but the biases and convictions of the footnote himself. They provide readers with the intellectual map that the writer has used to arrive at her conclusions.” Footnotes are several things at once – labyrinth, but also diagram; honeycomb and map; portrait of thought and bibliographic graveyard.

Jugge’s innovation wasn’t commentary, it was knowing when to shunt commentary away at the bottom of the page. It wasn’t his Bible’s only perk, for a book is always more than the words on the page (whether such should be claimed by Protestants or New Critics). David Daniel describes the edition in his study The Bible in English, noting that Jugge’s volume was “lavish in its ornaments in initial letters, fresh title-pages with portraits, 124 distinct woodblock illustrations, and four maps.” Work on the translation which constituted the Bishop’s Bible was largely overseen by Archbishop of Canterbury Matthew Parker who was vested by Elizabeth I with the task of making a version of scripture that, though it was in English, avoided the overly radical tone of the Geneva Bible, which had been translated by refugees who’d crowded to the Swiss canon during the reign of the queen’s sister. Daniel is less than enthusiastic about Parker’s translation, writing that “scholar though he was, [he] could not write even reasonably pleasing English.” [2] Writing poetry wasn’t the Archbishop’s goal however, for the new edition was tasked by the queen to avoid the overly Protestant affectations of previous translations.

Translation was always a sectarian affair. In choosing to call some religious authorities “elders,” or even “ministers,” rather than “priests” and in translating a word normally rendered as “gift” to the word “grace,” Protestant translators dressed the “naked sense” (as the Renaissance translator William Tyndale describe literal reading) of the Hebrew and Greek originals in Protestant clothes. That’s always the point of a footnote, to pick some form of clothing whereby the author or editor renders the text in a certain fashion. In this regard, the Bishop’s Bible (in keeping with its episcopal name) was steadfastly less Protestant than the Geneva Bible (in keeping with its steadfastly Calvinist name). “The marginal notes… are Protestant,” explains Daniel, but Parker exerted himself to “abstain from ‘bitter notes.’” If anything, the Bishop’s Bible necessitated the reduction of marginalia. Instances as when the Geneva Bible glosses Revelation 11:7, which describes the “beast that cometh out of the bottomless pit” as matter-of-factly referring to the Pope, wouldn’t find room in Jugge’s printing. In fact, most of the marginalia from the Geneva Bible wouldn’t be repeated in the Bishop’s Bible, as all of the writing which crowded around the page would be conveniently placed at the bottom.[3]

Footnotes, marginalia, and glosses such as those in the Bishop’s Bible belong to an awkward category of literature called “paratext,” the ancillary stuff that surrounds the main event of a book, which can include introductions, prefaces, prologues, afterwords, blurbs, bibliographies, copyright information, epigraphs, and even covers and author pictures, among other things. Paratext is basically all of that which can be ignored in a text but where a person can still be credibly said to have read that book in good faith (it takes a dogged completist to include ISBN information in their reading itinerary). Easy to forget that all of those accoutrements which we associate with books, but that dim in the background to mere static, have their own histories separate from the book itself. Gerrard Genette writes in Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation that a “text is rarely presented in an unadorned state, unreinforced and unaccompanied by a certain number of verbal or other productions.”

Jugge and Parker may have believed that doctrine was verified through recourse to the text alone, but which text? No book is an island, and its shores are sandy and defuse out into the wider ocean of literature, so that paratext does “surround it and extend it,” as Genette notes, for “More than a boundary or a sealed border the paratext is, rather, a threshold.” Stated theology had it that all which was inviolate would be found in the distance between Genesis and Revelation, yet Jugge’s footnotes belied that quixotism with something altogether more utopian — all books must be, whether spoken or not, visible or not, apparent or not, in conversation at all times with a bevy of other works. Footnotes are the receipts of those dialogues. They are, as Chuck Zerby writes in The Devil’s Details: A History of Footnotes, “One of the earliest and most ingenious inventions of humankind… an indispensable tool of the scholar and a source of endlessly varied delight for the layperson.”[4]

Christians were in some ways Johnny-come-latelies to this method of freezing minds in contrast into the borders of the sacred page. While the footnote was a Protestant innovation, the process of standardizing commentary into a book has precursors in the Jewish Talmud. That massive collection is typographically organized with the primary text of the Mishna, constituting an assemblage of Jewish oral law, placed at the center of the page, which is then illuminated by rabbinical analysis known as Gemara. A tractate of the Talmud will display a portion of Mishnah with the Gemara, by several different authors, arrayed around the primary text. Gemara can be, at times, quite spirited, with Barry Scott Wimpfheimer writing in The Talmud: A Biography that the text “has the habit of citing its rabbinic authorities and tolerating disagreements.”

For example, in one Talmudic tractate where the Mishna is concerned with the prohibition on mixing milk with meat, a disagreement within the marginal gloss of the Gemara erupts as to whether fowl is properly considered meat, especially since poultry produce no dairy (and thus the moral imperative of the original commandment would seem irrelevant). Within the Mishna, Rabbi Akiva says that “Cooking the meat of… a bird in milk is not prohibited by Torah law,” (though he allows that it would be forbidden by the oral law). His interlocutor Rabbi Yosei HaGelili argues that a close conjunction of verses in Deuteronomy regarding the prohibition on eating a kid cooked in its mother’s milk, alongside a ban on ingesting carrion, “indicates that the meat of an animal that is subject to be prohibited due to the prohibition of eating an unslaughtered carcass is prohibited to cook in milk. Consequently, one might have thought it prohibited to cook in milk the meat of a bird.” The interpretive gloss of Gemera is a demonstration of a text’s living properties, the way in which correspondence, dialogue, and debate takes place even within the static environs of a book, and how any codex is an artifact of discussion that exists beyond the parameters of the page itself.

That footnotes are in some sense scholarly is central to our connotative sense of them. A book that is taken off the shelf at random advertises itself as academic if there are footnotes, endnotes, and bibliographical lists littering its pages. We see the footnote as a mark of erudition, as a means of demonstrating knowledge and giving attribution. The footnote is an exercise in due deference. It makes sense that alongside the categorization system of chapter and verse which structures early modern Bibles (and which was quickly adopted by Catholics), that the footnote was both a product of Protestantism and of modernity. Ministers might not have been priests, capable of enacting sacramental changes in our world, but they were like physicians, lawyers, and professors — which is to say bourgeoise professionals selling expertise. A minister can’t change water into wine, but what he’s selling is the explanation of how Hebrew conjugation and Greek declension necessitate the need to tithe. Footnotes are a mark of scholarly professionalism, and rhetorically they impart a heady ethos of demonstrating that the author appears to know what their talking about.     

From one perspective, the footnotes in the Bishop’s Bible arguably marked a new method of composition, whereby a concern with evidence to bolster argumentation helped facilitate the transition from the Renaissance into the Enlightenment. The eighteenth-century, era of encyclopedists and lexicographers, was when the footnote became an academic mainstay; both a sop to the new empiricism whereby inductive arguments must be made by recourse to something outside the author’s reasoning, but also counterintuitively a pale ghost of the ancient reliance on past authorities. John Burrow explains in A History of Histories: Epics, Chronicles, Romances and Inquiries from Herodotus and Thucydides to the Twentieth Century that footnotes in the Enlightenment did ”far more than just identify sources… [they were] a way of bringing erudition to the support of the text without cluttering it with documents… an idiosyncratic art form, a commentary… [that] gives rein to a relaxed, garrulous intimacy which acts in counterpoint with the tautly controlled formality of the text.”

Perhaps the eighteenth-century’s greatest footnote-enthusiast is the historian Edward Gibbon in Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, who uses the form to bitchily comment on antiquity’s greatest thinkers. Regarding the Church Father Origen’s self-castration, Gibbon notes that the goal was “to disarm the tempter;” when considering Saint Augustine, the historian says that his “learning is too often borrowing and… [his] arguments are too often his own.” [5] The role of footnotes, whether in the Talmud, the Bishop’s Bible, eighteenth-century historiography, or modern scholarship is to ostensibly provide source and evidence, but footnotes also provide a glimpse into a mind struggling and sometimes fighting with the material. “They evoke the community of historians, scholars and antiquaries, ancient and modern, in a kind of camaraderie of admiration, scorn and sometimes smut,” writes Burrow. Footnotes are a personal, individual, and estimably humane variety of typography.

Books are never self-contained, they are multileveled, contradictory things, and this is demonstrated best by that great engine of contradiction, the novel. When fully compelled, the novelistic imagination broaches no arbitrary unites, instead reveling in the multifaceted, and thus it’s a genre uniquely suited to mimetically presenting a mind in disagreement with itself. Novelists have thus made great stylistic use of the footnote as a means of demonstrating the simultaneous reverence and disagreement which the form is capable of enacting. Books as varied as James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, Roberto Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas, Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves,[6] and of course David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest all make use of the footnote’s literary possibilities, allowing parallel narratives to take place in the margins, unseen narrators to comment, digressions, disagreements, and debates to occur within the white space of the page. The gold standard of the post-modern novel using footnotes to both bifurcate and further a narrative is Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, a high modernist poem written by the character John Shade, with the footnoted annotations by the critic Charles Kinbote containing a narrative that ranges from campus bildungsroman to novel of international intrigue.  It’s the sort of book where Shade can wax “For we die every day; oblivion thrives/Not on dry thighbones but on blood-ripe lives,/And our best yesterdays are now foul piles/Of crumpled names, phone numbers and foxed files,” while his biographer can note in the margins “This brand of paper… was not only digestible but delicious.”

An irony in that the reformers said that salvation was afforded through scripture alone, precisely at the same moment that they placed that book in a web of all of its mutual influences (and every other book as well). The Bible might be a thing-unto-itself, but its footnotes are an exhibition in how no book can survive without that almost mystical web of mutual interdependence with other books innumerable. “To the inexpert, footnotes look like deep root systems, solid and fixed,” writes Grafton, but to the “connoisseur, however, they reveal themselves as anthills, swarming with constructive and combative activity.” What makes a footnote remarkable, arguably, is that it provides evidence of that constructive and combative activity, since all studies, histories, monographs, novels, poems, and plays are born from a similar struggle between the author and reality, whether or not those scars are displayed. Since no book is written by an infant, or by a disembodied eternal consciousness, or from the pure and absolute ether of the void, then every book is the result of a writer reading other books. Footnotes are simply acknowledgement and demonstration of that, and every book written is threaded through with the spectral presence of footnotes, stated or unstated.

Image credit: Unsplash/Aaron Burden .

[1] It
should be said that though both dividing chapter and verse in biblical books
was an innovation of Protestants for whom the doctrine of sola Scriptura necessitated
a certain amount of making scripture more convenient for lay readers, it was something
which the Catholic Church took to quickly. The same is true for footnotes; by
1582 the Douay-Reims translation of the Bible, prepared by English priests
living on the continent (and predating the King James Bible by three decades)
had already adopted Jugge’s innovation of footnotes for their own purposes.
[2] The Hebraist Gerald Hammon is even less charitable about the Bishop’s Bible, describing it as “For the most part… a lazy and ill-informed collection of what had gone before, or, in its original parts, the work of third-rate scholars and second-rate writers.

[3] Houston explains that “The Renaissance… marked a change… for the marginal note passed from the province of the reader to that of the writer; notes grew longer and more frequent as authors preemptively surrounded the narrative with their own ‘authorized’ commentary.”

[4] Zerby’s text is idiosyncratic, eccentric, and endlessly readable.

[5] I’ve borrowed both of these examples from Anderson’s helpful article.

[6] Which I started to read in 2003 but, though it’s an incredible novel, I put aside about two thirds of the way through. I’d decided that I’d pick up the horror novel, which is ostensibly about a house that is bigger on the inside than the outside, when I was in a psychologically healthier place. I’ve never picked it up again.

Poe’s ‘Eureka’ Is a Galaxy-Brained Space Opera for Our Times

Edgar Allan Poe articulated the Big Bang theory some 75 years before scientists advanced the idea. At least, that’s become the conventional wisdom. In recent years, a spate of books and articles have all argued that Poe, with his 1848 “Eureka” lecture, which was later published as the self-described prose-poem Eureka, nailed the astrophysical origins of the universe. And possibly even predicted its eventual fiery end, too.

Now this bit of Poe lore circulates as one more article of faith, popping up in Aeon and as well as Gizmodo. However, as with nearly all the accepted facts of Poe’s life, everything you may’ve heard about this bizarre episode is probably false, misleading, without factual foundation, and off the mark. Which is to say wrong, in case there was any confusion. There’s even ample reason to question the historicity of the “true” story from which it springs.

So let’s review. On February 2nd, 1848, Poe placed an ad in the Daily Tribune: “Edgar A. Poe will lecture at the Society Library on Thursday evening, the 3d inst. At half-past 7. Subject, ‘The Universe.’ Tickets 50 cents—to be had at the door.”

The following evening, with rain beating on the roof, he took the stage at the New York Society Library and gave a lengthy talk detailing his exact views on the physical and metaphysical nature of the universe. For nearly three hours—to an increasingly confused crowd—Poe yarned on and on and on about stars, space, time, consciousness and the nature of God. He was utterly convinced he’d discovered every last galactic secret, and his confidence showed.

The immediate reception split along roughly two lines. The first was polite if somewhat baffled praise. The second was less polite. In fact, it was Greil Marcus-like: What is this shit?

“Some of us began to be quite sensible of the lapse of time,” a reviewer for the New World moaned. “Still no end was visible; the thin leaves, one after another, of the neat manuscript, were gracefully turned over; yet, oh, a plenty more were evidently left behind, abiding patiently ‘their appointed time.’” Even Poe’s own agent, Evert Duyckinck, described the lecture as a “mountainous piece of absurdity” which “drove people from the room.”

In the long years since, the larger reception of Eureka has divided into similar camps. You’ve got those who assert that Poe somehow intuited a host of advanced scientific theories, including, among others, the idea of the multiverse. And there remains another, smaller yet persistent school that sees Eureka as, to quote the Poe biographer Paul Collins, “crank literature”—arguing that, during this phase of his career, Poe was either crazy or a charlatan, perhaps both. Judging by the frequency with which people will assure you Poe called the Big Bang, it’s the first school that’s emerged victorious.

Yet there’s a third possible explanation, an alternative that marries the eerie prescience of Poe’s guesses while paying close attention to what was going on with Poe in the late 1840s, the most grief-stricken years of his grief-stricken life, and what led him to write the modern equivalent of a nervous-breakdown-inspired space opera. Anyone who’s watched The Office probably remembers how, after manager Andy Bernard is fired, he devotes himself to a spaced-based rock opera—in particular to delusions about its quality.

I’m not suggesting The Office was consciously drawing on Poe, only that we might understand Poe’s Eureka phase in a similar way. It may be that we can learn about the history of scientific breakthroughs from Eureka. You and I might also, and just as profitably, take in the crucial life lesson: If you’re going to have a nervous breakdown, make it a spectacular one, complete with gawking audience and baffled fans. Go big or go home. Loose yourself from your moorings and execute a gigantic, galaxy-brained leap. Crank it up. Otherwise, what’s the point? And who knows where you may land? Maybe in English departments and on listicles.

To really grasp Eureka, you have to understand the year that preceded it. Poe’s beloved wife Virginia died in January of 1847, after suffering horribly, for half a decade, from tuberculosis. And with her death, Poe collapsed, knocked past the limits of his endurance. Then, within months, a strange new spirit—an all-consuming new idea—possessed him. It was nothing less than his very own grand unifying theory of the physical, metaphysical, mathematical, material, and spiritual universe, and if he left anything out, it was not for want of trying.

Poe had long been interested in science, keeping abreast of the latest discoveries and theories of his age, and now the interest grew Poe-etically feverish, futuristic. His aunt-and-then-mother-in-law, Maria Clemm, who remained devoted to Poe after Virginia’s death, would remember how they sat up together until four in the morning—Poe working, she keeping him company. “When he was composing ‘Eureka,’ we used to walk up and down the garden, his arm around me, mine around him, until I was so tired I could not walk,” she said. “He would stop every few minutes and explain his ideas to me, and ask if I understood him.”

I’m convinced that—whatever might be said of the science—Eureka was even more ahead of its time than Poe knew. I don’t think we could quite fathom it before our own age, with its sitcom jokes about space operas, and more to the point, the larger notion of “galaxy brain.” By now, most of us know the expanding-brain meme illustrating the bizarre conclusions that can result when a person’s reach exceeds their grasp. What if Eureka marks the earliest and most literal case, with Poe as patient zero? Suddenly this strange episode in literary history makes much more sense, and the two schools of thought are reconciled and ready to hug it out.

The paradox of Eureka is that those who can judge the science tend to be insufficiently versed in the literature and the credibility of various sources in the field of Poe biography, while people versed in the latter often can’t judge the science. Poe’s most dedicated and conscientious biographer, Arthur Hobson Quinn, had to consult astronomy professors to get their takes. But all of us know what it is to experience profound loss. We’ve all been to dark, half-cracked places, whether because of a loved one’s death or some other awful disappointment like a breakup or a layoff. Who among us, after the year we’ve just had, can’t relate?

For me, this is what makes Poe’s Eureka his most profoundly relevant work. It’s not just the lines that make you wonder if anyone has ever written as beautifully or as wildly about astrophysics, metaphysics, or anything else, like:
For my part, I am not sure that I speak and see – I am not so sure that my heart beats and that my soul lives: – of the rising of to-morrow’s sun – a probability that as yet lies in the Future – I do not pretend to be one thousandth part as sure – as I am of the irretrievably by-gone Fact that All Things and All Thoughts of Things, with all their ineffable Multiplicity of Relation, sprang at once into being from the primordial and irrelative One…

Let not the merely seeming irreverence of this idea frighten our souls from that cool exercise of consciousness – from that deep tranquillity of self-inspection – through which alone we can hope to attain the presence of this, the most sublime of truths, and look it leisurely in the face.
It’s how, in the depths of his grief, Poe sought to reconcile the best and worst aspects of human experience. It’s how he completed his work despite the dire circumstances of his life, when he might’ve just given in altogether to depression and juleps instead.

This is, arguably, the story of Poe’s whole career, and why, despite his sometimes-horrendous failings, he remains such a compelling and inspirational figure. His experience is so timeless and epic it functions as myth, not to mention figures in endless memes. There is something deeply instructive in it all, in the same way Joseph Campbell said that heroes’ stories reflect our deepest fears and greatest hopes, outlining our own paths forward.

Part crank, part saint, part screw-up, part hero, Poe’s example suggests that our own bouts of galaxy brain may lead to glory. At least, glory of a kind. Maybe not the overly dignified variety, granted—that probably lies a little beyond our grasp, as it did for Poe. Who cares? When the chance comes, perhaps we ought to make our own leaps, anyway.

Image Credit: Pexels/Graham Holtshausen.

Reimagining and Remaking: On Healing from Workshop Trauma with Matthew Salesses’ ‘Craft in the Real World’

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I need to admit something right up front: I am a product of the Creative Writing Industrial Complex.

I use this term because I came of age in the 1990s when creative writing classes, clubs, and summer camps began to flourish, thus creating a pathway towards the MFA program. It speaks, of course, to my upper middle class upbringing because many of the programs that I participated in cost money.

My earliest creative writing memory is when I competed in the Power of the Pen, where students undertook timed writing prompts, in eighth grade. My English teacher Mrs. Rinn drove me and my friend (who I felt incredibly competitive with since we were both Indian American and into writing) from Centerville, Ohio to Columbus. It was an overnight trip, and we had qualified at the regional level; it felt important. In high school, I attended several summer programs dedicated to creative writing including the Kenyon Young Writers program, where I met glamorous girls from the coasts who I stayed pen pals with for years. During my senior year at my private college prep school, I did a special independent study with a retired English professor from a local university. I spent the spring bringing him pages of an angsty play where the characters chain-smoked cigarettes, talked about sex, plotted crimes, and made a lot of Star Wars and Godfather references. (I may have been going through a Quentin Tarantino phase then. Weren’t we all in 1996?)

In October 2008, one year after finishing my MFA, I sat in a cottage on Whidbey Island at the Hedgebrook residency for women, ready to revise my thesis—a collection of short stories entitled Misbehaving—and felt an utter sense of panic. I realized I had no idea how to revise a story. I felt as though the stories had become impenetrable, echoing with endless comments and suggestions from years of workshop. I felt like a failure. I spoke to the Black poet in the cottage next door, and she told me after her own MFA she had stopped writing altogether for close to a year. She was healing herself on the island with odes to slugs and figs. I would go on to hear this over and over from different writers who left their MFA programs and needed time to heal before they returned to their work.


In Matthew Salesses’ Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping (Catapult), he tackles the underlying problems in teaching creative writing— starting not with eight students and a workshop leader sitting around a table—but by unpacking the word “craft” and how much it’s informed by an individual’s cultural values. In the first half of the book, Salesses focuses on craft and the elements of writing before offering ways to rethink the workshop in the latter half.

Late in the book, Salesses admits that he holds an unpopular opinion amongst literary types, which is that he “believe[s] in workshop as a shared act of imagination.” Shortly thereafter, Salesses advocates for “burning the old models down” in order to remake them.

This book is a stunning conflagration, and I wish I had it with me for the past twenty plus years of navigating writing workshops, both as student and teacher. It is a blueprint for a way forward to build better writing programs, and thus a new kind of writer and teacher who can imagine beyond a structure that often hurt them and left them in need of repair.

It was at Kenyon, when I was 17, where I remember first feeling that dizzying, addictive quality of the writing workshop; that pre-social media feedback loop that workshop provided, especially as a nerdy kid in the 90s who wrote in paper notebooks only for herself. At Oberlin, I became thoroughly familiar with the sweaty, nauseous excitement of workshop and, even then, began to recognize the power dynamics. That’s where I came to know the workshop personality types that have persisted through the decades: the opinionated bro, the over-enthusiastic offerer of fixes, the “this reminds me of an obscure story I read” snob. And, of course, the feeling as a non-white, Asian American student of being out of place, or having my peers say they needed to spend time looking up where my story was set on a map, or that backhanded comment about how lucky I was to have such rich cultural material to pull from. That it didn’t occur to me for almost another decade that there was something deeply troubling about the repetition of these comments and workshop types reveals to me now how mesmerized and enmeshed I was in the system.


In Craft in the Real World, Salesses writes: “I believe in the vulnerability of process and the process of vulnerability” when talking about why he believes in the workshop model, but he follows this up by writing we must “acknowledge and confront the dangers of workshop.”

And, of course, these dangers have been well-documented and discussed in this past decade. Junot Diaz wrote about it in “MFA vs. POC”, the introduction to Dismantle, an anthology from writers of color who attended the Voices of Our Nations (VONA) Workshops. The piece, outlining the issues Diaz faced in his MFA at Cornell—which he said was “too white”—was also published in the New Yorker in 2014. “Shit, in my workshop we never talked about race except on the rare occasion someone wanted to argue that ‘race discussions’ were exactly the discussion a serious writer should not be having,” Diaz wrote.

Salesses doesn’t spend too much time on his own experiences as a student. Instead, in the first half of the book, Salesses carefully deconstructs the idea of the creative writing workshop model as a place of neutrality. He traces the history of the current workshop model to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which rose to prominence under poet Paul Engle in the second half of the 20th Century, and how tied Engle’s ideas of literature were to defending against the threat of communism. “What we call craft is in fact nothing more or less than a set of expectations. Those expectations are shaped by workshop, by reading, by awards and gatekeepers, by biases about whose stories matter and how they should be told,” Salesses writes. “These expectations are never neutral. They represent the values of the culturally dominant population: in America that means (straight, cis, able, upper-middle-class) white males. When craft is taught unreflexively … it reinforces narrow ideas about whose stories are important and what makes a story moving, beautiful, and good.”

In the grounding essays in the first two chapters of the book, Salesses draws from Toni Morrison’s critical texts, Playing in the Dark and The Origin of Others; critiques and investigates other great writers like Aristotle, E.M. Forester, John Gardener, Charles Baxter, and Milan Kundera; and intersperses ideas from Asian American scholars like Lisa Lowe and Trin T. Minh Ha. What a pleasure it is to get a published critique of these classical ideas about writing and how they are connected to privilege and position.

But one of the core ideas of this book—which was both intriguing and surprising—is that this book is not focused on race nor necessarily from an Asian American perspective. Instead it’s a broader take on power structures and how they affect the traditional workshop model. What follows then, is not always a discussion about classes Salesses has taught, but scenarios that explain these ideas. For example, he writes about a class where there are seven literary fiction writers and one fantasy fiction writer. Then he expands this idea to any of these different workshops: “Writers of color in a workshop where the craft values are implicitly white, or LGBT writers in a workshop where the craft values are straight and cis, or women writers in a workshop where the craft values are male, and so on, are regularly told to ‘know the rules before they can break them.’ They are rarely told that these rules are more than “just craft” or “pure craft,” that rules are always cultural. This is how the spread of craft starts to feel and work like colonization.”


After I graduated from Oberlin, I moved to San Francisco and became a reporter at a weekly Asian American newspaper. Over the next three years, I threw myself into the vibrant Bay Area creative and activist communities: joining the staff of a new Asian American magazine; taking creative writing classes at Asian American arts spaces;  co-editing an anthology of writing dedicated to South Asian voices after 9/11. Every aspect of my creative life was about centering the voices of those who were marginalized.

I decided to get my MFA at San Francisco State University, the birthplace of Ethnic Studies, which had a huge population of working-class and immigrant students. Though I didn’t realize the population of the actual MFA program—most MFA programs—was very different from the school’s larger diversity. In the program, I encountered almost all white professors and mostly white peers in my classes.

Salesses writes: “MFA workshops are infamous for being mostly white, mostly cis, mostly straight, mostly able, mostly middle-class, mostly literary, and mostly realist. The writers who face the biggest gap between the expectations of the workshop and the expectations of their actual audience are marginalized writers ….” This was true for me, and it was jarring and sometimes painful, but mostly I didn’t think about it. Once, during a workshop, a student said that some of my white characters felt flat and that they seemed overly simplistic in the way they were all “the bad guys.” She went on to say that I could check out the movie Crash for its complex portrayal of race relations. It was an innocuous enough comment but I remember my rage in that moment, that my fists were clenched and my heart was palpitating. I may have even growled. I didn’t know the term “racial microaggression” then but this was a perfect example. Something shifted for me that day. Once I accessed that rage, I couldn’t put it back. Suddenly, those types of comments started to pile up and distort my ability to feel at peace in my classes. I took refuge in classes outside of the department like Ethnic Studies and Women’s Studies. Those classes helped me process and name the issues I was interested in writing fiction about, and had the structures to recognize racial and class differences.

At the time, I was also working as an editor for a long-time youth media project run out of the historic Pacific News Service, a non-profit alternative media organization focused on centering voices of those not represented in mainstream media. So, when I wasn’t in my all-white workshops, I was at our large open office South of Market asking young people to center their POV and stories first, and providing them the structure and resources to do so. I was constantly thinking about the ideas that Salesses talks about at length in this book, which is how to restructure the workshop space in order for writers to find their own power and not let it be crushed by a system that doesn’t serve or see them.

I taught my first community creative writing class at Kearny Street Workshop—the oldest multidisciplinary Asian American arts space in the country. In 2005, the org had moved to a third floor space near the 16th Street BART Station on a particularly grimy part of Capp Street alley. I remember how exciting it felt to claim the space as my own for two hours on a Tuesday evening. I still had a year of my MFA to go and wasn’t interested in teaching composition, so this class felt like a way to share the resources and knowledge I was receiving with my community. These models of teaching writing became foundational to me, and I have always recognized the same sensibility in Salesses’ work.


I first came across Salesses’ writing in 2012, after I had moved to Los Angeles and became an editor at Kaya Press, an independent press dedicated to Asian American and Asian diasporic writing. Salesses is a prolific writer who has published two novels, a chapbook, and many, many essays over the 15 years. Most significant to me was his month-long takeover of the website Necessary Fiction in 2012, which focused entirely on the subject of revision—his ideas and those of other writers as well. He wrote there: “I have decided to launch a war on first drafts and erect the memorial to edits.”

This intersected with a time in my life when I had begun thinking critically about the problems in the workshop model, and why I had not had a lot of success with my thesis manuscript after graduating. Along with never taking any classes that focused on the idea of revision, I realized that the traditional workshop model rewards polished first drafts. And, as a product of that system for so long, I learned how to pander my writing to what seemed successful in first drafts, but felt stuck afterwards in terms of how to make the draft better. I also could have used more support around my actual writing process when I was in my MFA, as well as my emotional state and how it felt to be writing in a mostly white space during a violent decade of war. Now that support seems important to any healthy space for students, but back then I could not imagine it being provided.

Now I am an adjunct professor at several universities, and a parent, and an editor, and trying to write a novel. I know that everyone is trying to get through their day and life and teach, and I understand that each student can’t be treated as though they are the center of the world, but maybe the structure needs to be shifted to allow for more holistic support.

A writing professor I worked with for my entire four years at my MFA pulled me aside during class break in my penultimate semester to say that he’d be gone for my thesis semester and a different person—who I had not worked with the entire time in my MFA—would be directing my thesis meetings. When I expressed concern, he scoffed and said he only met with his own thesis advisor for thirty minutes during his own thesis semester and it didn’t really matter. I remember feeling utterly confused and upset, but also embarrassed at my emotions. Of course, I wanted to come off as cool as a cucumber to this white man who just told me that my work and MFA process was not important to him and, in effect, should not be important to me. That happened fourteen years ago and my cheeks still burn with embarrassment; embarrassment that it still matters to me, and anger that I walked out of my program with such a clear message about the importance of my work.

All to say that Salesses’ work, whether about revision, or the essays that were the predecessor to Craft in the Real World—one of my favorites is published here at The Millions called “Seeing Myself: In Search of the Inciting Incident,” or a longer essay about his Asian American identity and basketball player Jeremy Lin, which I teach often to my undergraduate students—always felt like a chance to rethink my own MFA program. Salesses’ writing has always provided practical and well-thought tools for getting over those painful blocks that prevented me from flourishing at the writing desk.


And, thankfully, Salesses continues that work here in this book. Beyond the essays that dismantle and engage in ideas of craft and the history of the workshop in America, the second half of the book is full of resources like alternative workshop models and even super practical ideas like rethinking what to grade in creative writing workshops.

For the past four years, I have had the distinct privilege to teach mixed-genre creative writing workshops in the Asian American Studies Department at UCLA, a department which believes that Ethnic Studies should offer classes in scholarship, community-based learning, and the arts. I admit that I cried my first day of teaching when I walked into a creative writing classroom of majority Asian American students and other students of color. And, though in the years that I have taught this class, it feels incredible to be able to center culture and context when talking about writing—it is not a utopia. I have encountered workshop bullies and struggled to unpack the power dynamics of workshop here as well. I have adopted alternative models, like dancer Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process, but even that doesn’t always work. Sometimes I just know that the workshop has not been useful for a student.

Salesses makes an argument that each student in your class could have a different workshop model, that it might be very particular to the student and what they are trying to do, and the workshop and who is in it. He gives models as varied as a reverse of the gag rule, where the student getting workshopped gets to ask questions to the class, or where another student in the class acts as a translator and defender of the person getting workshopped. These tools and ideas— and his own notes on how these models worked and didn’t worked—are incredible and feel like opportunities for further exploration. I am excited about models that really encourage the writer to take control of the workshop; this idea of giving power back to the workshop participant feels intrinsic to the change that needs to happen.


One of the damaging side effects of a bad workshop is a fear to be vulnerable again. In order to make good art, vulnerability is crucial, and the writing workshop should be the space where writers first lay themselves and their work bare. Salesses writes about how this is often expected disproportionately from writers or color: “Like everything else, vulnerability is a matter of privilege and power and must be considered within a system of privilege and power.”

Craft in the Real World outlines ways to start having conversations and making small changes towards reclaiming this vulnerability. It feels like an opening where things have felt closed, or stuck, or violent, or unsafe for those of us who have been students or teachers in painful or damaging creative writing workshops. Salesses has offered both a torch to light the fire, and a safe path to the new world that we can now start to build.

Ten Ways to Lose Your Literature


“I have built a monument more durable than bronze.” — Horace

1.Inconceivable that a man with a disposition like Ben Jonson’s wouldn’t take an offered drink, and so it can be expected that the poet would enjoy a few when he completed his four-hundred mile, several months long walk from London to Edinburgh in the summer of 1618. Mounted as a proto-publicity stunt, Jonson’s walk was a puckish journey between the island’s two kingdoms, where once the Poet Laurette was in view of the stolid, black-stoned Edinburgh Castle upon its craggy green hill he’d be hosted by his Scottish equivalent, William Drummond of Hawthornden.

At a dinner on September 26th, the bill for victuals was an astonishing (for the time) £221 6s 4d. Imagine the verse composed at that dinner, the lines jotted onto scraps or belted out as revelries, the lost writing which constitutes the far larger portion of any author’s engagement with words. Also his engagement with ale and sack, for it was Jonson’s loose tongue that led to a discussion about a different type of literature lost to posterity, when he confessed that one of their poetic colleagues, a Reader of Divinity at Lincoln’s Inn named Dr. John Donne, had decades before attempted a scurrilous mock-epic entitled Metempsychosis; or, The Progress of the Soule.

Drawing its title from a Pythagorean doctrine that’s roughly similar to reincarnation, Donne’s Metempsychosis is a poem wherein he sings the “progress of a deathless soul, /Whom Fate, which God made, but doth not control, /Placed in most shapes.” He abandoned the project some 520 lines later. Drummond recorded that Jonson had said that the “conceit of Donne’s transformation… was that he sought the soul of the Apple which Eve pulled, and thereafter made it the soul of a Bitch, then of a she-wolf, and so of a woman.” Written before Donne converted to Protestantism, Metempsychosis was a parody of the Reformation, whereby the “soul” of the forbidden fruit would migrate through various personages in history, contaminating them with its malevolence. Jonson told Drummond that “His general purpose was to have brought in all the bodies of the Heretics from the soul of Cain,” perhaps moving through other villains from Haman to Judas.

As it was, Donne mostly charted the apple’s soul through various animal permutations, ending with Cain rather than starting with him. It seems that Donne feared his own mind, and the inexorable logic that drove his poem to a conclusion which was unacceptable. Donne “wrote but one sheet, and now since he was made a Doctor he repented highly and seeketh to destroy all his poems.” Jonson thought that Donne’s intent was to have the final manifestation of that evil spirit appear in the guise of John Calvin. Others have identified an even more politically perilous coda to Metempsychosis, when the at-the-time staunchly Catholic Donne imagined that the “great soul which here amongst us now/Doth dwell, and moves that hand, and tongue, and brow… (For ‘tis the crown, and last strain of my song)” and assumed that the poet was speaking of Elizabeth I.

Biographer John Stubb notes in John Donne: The Reformed Soul that Metempsychosis was “a politically directed piece of writing,” which is the biggest reason why none of you will ever read the entire poem. Donne himself wrote to a friend of his that there must be “an assurance upon the religion of your friendship that no copy shall be taken for any respect.” Metempsychosis is one way of losing your words. Literature as fragment, literature as rough draft, literature as the discarded. The history of writing is also the shadow history of the abandoned, a timeline of false-starts and of aborted attempts. What Donne wrote of Metempsychosis is, even in its stunted form, the longest poem which the lyricist ever penned, and yet it’s a literary homunculus, never brought to fruition. Never burnt upon the pyres by his critics either, because it would never be completed.

2.This is a syllabus of all which you shall never read: Jane Austen’s Sanditon, which exists only in outline form written in 1817, the year its author died of Addison’s disease, and that promised to tell the narrative of Sir Edward Denham whose “great object in life was to be seductive.” John Milton’s epic about Merlin entitled The Arthuriad. Over 2/3rds of the work of Aristotle, with all that survives composed of lecture notes. A thundering abolitionist speech delivered by the congressman Abraham Lincoln on May 29, 1856, where one observer said that he spoke “like a giant inspired.” Isle of the Cross by Herman Melville, which told the tale of romance between the Nantucket maiden Agatha Hatch Robertson and a shipwrecked sailor and crypto-bigamist. Melville explained in a letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne that Isle of the Cross concerned “the great patience & endurance, & resignedness of the women of the island in submitting so uncomplainingly to the long, long absences of their sailor husbands” (Rejected by publishers; no record ).

A series of versified narratives of Aesop penned by Socrates, the philosopher famed for despising writing. Hypocritical though Socrates may have been, he inspired Plato to burn all of the poems he wrote, and to argue for the banning of such trifles in The Republic. Sacred scripture has its absences as well, for the Bible references any number of ostensibly divine books which are to be found nowhere today. The Book of the Covenant mentioned in Exodus 24:7, The Book of the Wars of the Lord cited in Numbers 21:14, Acts of Uzziah whose authority is checked at Chronicles 26:22, and the evocatively titled Sayings of the Seers, which is called upon at Chronicles 33:19. Stuart Kelly, author of The Book of Lost Books: An Incomplete History of All the Great Books You’ll Never Read, notes of the Bible that it is “A sepulcher of possible authors, a catafalque of contradictory texts.” Scripture is a “library, but one in ruins.” Scholars know that there are, for example, a Gospel of Perfection and even more arrestingly a Gospel of Eve, neither of which made the final cut or whose whereabouts are known today.

Of the sacred books of the oracular Roman Sibyllines, not a single hexameter survives. Concerning sublime Sappho, she who was celebrated as the tenth muse, only one complete lyric endures. Nor are Socrates and Aristotle the only Greek philosophers for whom posterity records virtually none of their original writings; the great Cynic Diogenes of Sinope, who lived in an urn, masturbated in the Agora, and told Alexander the Great that the only thing the ruler of the world could do for him is get out of the light, supposedly wrote several manifestos, none of which still exists.  

In 1922 a suitcase filled with Ernest Hemingway’s papers, including the draft of a finished World War I novel, was stolen from Paris’ Gare de Lyon Metro station. A few decades later and the Marxist theorist Walter Benjamin fled towards the Spanish border after the Nazis invaded France, with a briefcase containing a manuscript. He’d commit suicide in Portbou, Spain in fear that the SS was following; when his confidant Hannah Arendt arrived in America, she tried to find Benjamin’s book, but the draft is seemingly lost forever. Lord Byron’s manuscripts weren’t misplaced, but were burned at the urging of his Scottish publisher John Murray, who was horrified by the wanton sexuality in the famed rake’s autobiography, not least of which may have been a confession of an incestuous relationship with his sister. Nineteenth-century critic William Gifford said that the poet’s recollections were “fit only for a brothel and would have damned Lord Byron to everlasting infamy.”

Franz Kafka desired that the entirety of his unpublished corpus be destroyed by his friend Max Brod, writing that “whatever you happen to find, in the way of notebooks, manuscripts, letters, my own and other people’s, sketches and so on, is to be burned unread to the last page.” Unfortunately for Kafka, but to literature’s benefit, Brod turned out to be a terrible friend. Of that which survives, however, much was incomplete, including Kafka’s novel Amerika with its infamous description of the Statue of Liberty holding a sword aloft over New York Harbor. A very different type of burning was that of the literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, who was holed up in a Moscow apartment when the Soviet Union was invaded by the Nazis. Bakhtin was forced to use his manuscript as cigarette paper. The book which he was working on, which would mostly go up in tobacco smoke, was a study of the German novel.  

Of the ninety plays which Euripides wrote, only eighteen survive. Aeschylus also wrote ninety tragedies, but of his, only six can be performed today. From his play The Loves of Achilles only one haunting line survives — “Love feels like the ice held in the hand by children.” Sophocles’ has seven plays which are extant, but we know that he penned an astounding 123 dramas. William Shakespeare was the author of a Love’s Labours Won and with his later collaborator John Fletcher a lost play based on Miguel Cervantes novel Don Quixote entitled The History of Cardenio, an irresistible phantom text. Hamlet, it has been convincingly argued, was based on an earlier play most likely written by Thomas Kyd which scholars have given the clinical name of Ur-Hamlet, though no traces of that original are available. Our friend Jonson also has a significant number of lost works, not least of which was 1597’s The Isle of Dogs which he cowrote with Thomas Nash and that was briefly performed at the Bankside Theater. Like Donne’s poem, the subject matter of The Isle of Dogs was potentially treasonous, with the Privy Council ruling that it contained “very seditious and slanderous matter,” banning the play, and briefly arresting its two authors.

When it comes to such forgotten, hidden, and destroyed texts, Kelly argues that a “lost book is susceptible to a degree of wish fulfillment. The lost book… becomes infinitely more alluring simply because it can be perfect only in the imagination.” Hidden words have a literary sublimity because they are hidden; their lacunae functions as theme. Mysteriousness is the operative mood of lost literature; whether it’s been victim of water or fire, negligence or malfeasance, history or entropy, what unites them is their unknowability. They are collectively the great unsolved of literature. There’s a bit of Metempsychosis about it, with a more benign lost soul connecting a varied counter-canon from Aristotle to Byron to Austen to Hemingway. Pythagoras who believed that all souls and ideas were united by an unseen divine filament which replicated throughout eternity and infinity would have some insight on the matter. Sadly, none of Pythagoras’ writings happen to survive.  

3. The claim that Hernan Cortez was welcomed by Montezuma into Tenochtitlan—that city of verandas, squares, canals, and temples —as if he were the feather-plumed Quetzalcoatl, owes much to the accounts gathered by Bernardino de Sahagun. The Franciscan friar assembled a group of Nahuatl speakers to preserve what remained of Aztec culture, including folklore, philosophy, religion, history, and linguistics. This sliver would be preserved in the Florentine Codex, named after the Italian city where it would one day be housed. The Nahuatl authors attempted to resurrect the world of their parents, when Tenochtitlan was larger and more resplendent than any European city, a collection of cobalt colored palaces, observatories, and libraries such that the conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo recalled “seeing things never before heard of, never before seen.” Miguel Leon-Portilla translates much of the Florentine Codex in The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico, an evocation of that which “had been stormed and destroyed, and a great host of people killed and plundered… causing terror wherever they went, until the news of the destruction spread through the whole land.”

Cortez’s conquest took two years and was completed by 1521. Eight years later, the Spanish inquisitor Juan de Zumarraga, fabled in his native land as a witch-hunter, arrived and assembled a massive auto-de-fe of Aztec and Mayan books—with the Mestizo historian Juan Bautista Pomar noting that such treasures “were burned in the royal houses of Nezahualpiltzintli, in a large depository which was the general archive.” If Cortez was guilty of killing thousands of Aztecs, ultimately millions in the pandemics he spread, then Zumarraga was a murderer of memory. One assaulted the body and the other the mind, but the intent was the same — the extinction of a people. Lucien X. Polastron writes in Books on Fire: The Tumultuous Story of the World’s Great Libraries that the “conquistador was there to kill and capture, the cleric to erase; the bishop fulfilled his mission while satisfying his conscious desire to destroy the pride and memory of the native people.” The Jesuit Jose de Acosta mourned that “We’ve lost many memoires of ancient and secret things, that could have been of great utility. This derives from a foolish zeal,” it being left to those like Sahagun to try and redeem the Spanish of this holocaust they’d unleashed.

In A Universal History of the Destruction of Books: From Ancient Sumer to Modern-day Iraq by Fernando Baez argues that “books are not destroyed as physical objects but as links to memory… There is no identity without memory. If we do not remember what we are, we don’t know what we are.” Zumarraga’s atrocity is only one of many examples, including the destruction of the famed library at Alexandria and the 1536 Dissolution of the Monasteries when the English King Henry VIII would immolate Roman Catholic books in a campaign of terror which destroyed almost the entirety of the early medieval English literary heritage, save for a few token works like Beowulf which would be later rediscovered. Paradoxically, burning books is an acknowledgement of the charged power contained therein.

4.Sometime in 1857, an enslaved woman named Hannah Bond escaped from the North Carolina plantation of John Hill Wheeler. Light-skinned enough to pass as white, Bond dressed in drag and boarded a train due-north, eventually arriving in upstate New York. There Bond would board with a Craft family, from whom she would take her new surname. Eventually the newly christened Hannah Craft would pen in careful hand-writing a novel entitled The Bondswoman’s Narrative, the title perhaps a pun on its author’s previous slave name. Displaying a prodigious knowledge of the books in Wheeler’s library which Craft had been able to read in stolen moments, The Bondwoman’s Narrative is a woven quilt of influences (like all novels are); a palimpsest of things read but not forgotten.

There are scraps of Horace Walpole ’s gothic pot-boiler The Castle of Otranto and Charlotte Bronte’s tale of a woman constrained in Jane Eyre; Harriet Beecher Stowe’s sentimentalized slavery in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the poet Phyliss Wheatley’s evocation of bondage, and more than any other literary influence that of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. Drawing from the brutal facts of her own life, The Bondwoman’s Narrative concerns another Hannah’s escape from a plantation. “In presenting this… to a generous public I feel a certain degree of diffidence and self-distrust,” wrote Craft, “I ask myself or the hundredth time How will such a literary venture, coming from a sphere so humble be received?” Written sometime between 1855 (possibly while still in North Carolina) and 1861 (during the earliest days of the Civil War), Craft’s question wouldn’t be answered until 2002, after the manuscript was found squirreled away in a New Jersey attic.

As far as we know, The Bondswoman’s Narrative is the only surviving novel by an enslaved black woman. There were an assemblage of slave narratives ranging from Olaudah Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative from 1789 to Solomon Northup’s terrifying 1853 captivity narrative Twelve Years a Slave and Frederick Douglass’ autobiographical trilogy. Purchased at auction by the Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, who would edit, annotate, and publish the book, Craft’s rediscovery evokes the biblical story about King Josiah restoring Jerusalem’s Temple after finding the Book of Deuteronomy, its purpose to restore a sense of justice. Craft’s intent was that Americans must “recognize the hand of Providence in giving to the righteous the reward of their works, and to the wicked the fruit of their doings.”  

There is no discussing lost literature without consideration of that which is found. Just as all literature is haunted by the potential of oblivion, so all lost books are animated by the redemptive hope of their rediscovery. Craft’s book is the mark of a soul; evidence of that which is left over after the spirit has told us what it needs to tell us, even if it takes centuries to hear. A miracle in its rediscovery, Craft’s book is the rare survivor from hell that teaches us how much is lost as humans are lost. What lyrics were written in the minds of those working plantations which we shall never read; what verse revised in the thoughts of those being marched into the gas chamber? This is among the saddest of all lost literature. Craft’s rediscovery provides the divine promise of that canon of lost books—that literature may be lost, but maybe only for a time.

5.During the spring of 2007, I read the entirety of the pre-Socratic metaphysician Democritus. The assignment took me forty-five minutes. I did it in a Starbucks on Forbes Avenue in Pittsburgh and my Venti wasn’t even cold by the time I finished. When we consider literature that has been lost, literature which has survived, and literature that has been rediscovered, it must be understood that much is fragmentary — sometimes in the extreme. Democritus, the “laughing philosopher,” the father of science, who first conceived of atoms, endures in about six photocopied pages. “And yet it will be obvious that it is difficult to really know of what sort each thing is,” reads one of Democritus’ surviving fragments, and how correct he was.

Democritus is not unique; most ancient philosophers exist either only in quotation, paraphrase, or reputation. No tomes survive of Thales, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Protagoras, or Zeno, only some flotsam and jetsam here and there. As I’ve already mentioned, Pythagoras has no words of his which survive, and all of Aristotle is turgid second-hand lecture notes. The classical inheritance of Greece and Rome exists, where it does, in shards. Harvard University Press’s celebrated Loeb Classical Library, which prints translations of Greek and Latin literature, has 542 books in the entire sequence, from Apollonius to Xenophon. More than can be read in a long weekend, no doubt, but easily accessible during the course of a lifetime (or a decade). Easy to assume that the papyri of Athens and Rome were kindling for Christians who condemned such pagan heresy, though that’s largely a slander. The reality is more prosaic, albeit perhaps more disturbing in a different way. Moisture did more to betray the classical past than Christianity did; for decay is a patient monarch willing to wilt Plato as much as a grocery list. Something to remember as we have our endless culture wars about what should or shouldn’t be in the canon. What’s remembered happens to simply be what we have.  

Fragmentation defines literature — there is a haunting of all which can’t be. Fragments are faint whispers of canons inaccessible. Lacunae is sometimes structured into writing itself, for literature is a graveyard filled with corpses. Sometimes a body is hidden in plain sight – consider Shakespeare’s Sonnet 146. That poem begins “Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth, / […] these rebel powers that thee array.” Because the meter is so aggressively broken, it’s understood that a typesetter’s mistake was responsible for the deletion of whatever the poet intended. Jarring to realize that Shakespeare is forever marred with an ellipsis. Dan Peterson writes in Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets: A New Commentary that the aporia in the poem “tends to obsess most commentators,” but that the “poem deserves it; we shouldn’t allow it to be completely ruined by a compositor thinking about his dinner.” Several pages are spent by Peterson trying to use prosody in the service of forensics, with various degrees of plausibility entertained, including Shakespeare having possibly meant to write “fenced by,” “starv’d by,” or “fooled by,” all of which any good New Critic will tell you would imply wildly different interpretations.

I’d like to offer an alternative possibility, based not on
sober scansion but irresponsible conjecture. Peterson notes that the sonnet is
one which “says that the body is a lousy home for the soul, which ends enslaved
to its gaudy, pointless, sensual, self-consuming worldliness… it proposes
nothing sort of renunciation of worldly things, a mortification of the flesh in
exchange for the revival and revivification of the spirit.” Maybe then the gap
is the point, an indication that the matter of the poem can never really
intimate the soul of meaning, where the black hole of the typographical mistake
is actually as if an open grave, an absolute zero of meaning that sublimely
demonstrates the theme of the sonnet itself? Because the gulf between printed
word and the meanings which animate them is a medium for sublimity, the entirety
of all that which we don’t know and can never read as infinite as the universe

In the first-century the Roman critic Longinus, whose identity is unknown beyond his name (another way to lose your literature), argued that the “Sublime leads the listeners not to persuasion, but to ecstasy… the Sublime, giving to speech an invincible power and strength, rises above every listener.” Romantic era critics saw the sublime in the Alps and the Lake District; American transcendentalists saw it in the Berkshires and Adirondacks. For myself, I gather the trembling fear of the sublime when I step into the Boston Public Library at Copley Square, when I cross the fierce Fifth Avenue lions of the New York Public Library, and underneath the green-patina roof of the Library of Congress. To be surrounded by the enormity of all that has been written which you shall never read both excites and horrifies me – all the more so when you consider all that is lost to us, whether from misplacement, destruction, or having never been written in the first place (the last category the most sublime of all).

Longinus’s “On the Sublime” is also fragmented, struck through with gaps and errors. He tantalizes us at one point with “There is one passage in Herodotus which is generally credited with extraordinary sublimity,” but there is nothing more sublime than a vacuum, for what follows is nothing. Latter he promises that “loosely allied to metaphors are comparisons and similes, differing only in this,” but the page is missing. And at one point he claims that Genesis reads “Let there be light, and there was. Let there be earth, and there was,” though it could be entertained that Longinus is simply quoting an alternative version of the Bible which is lost. His essay was built with words from hidden collections, a gesture towards Alberto Manguel’s observation in The Library at Night that the “weight of absence is as much a feature of any library as the constriction of order or space… by its very existence, [it] conjures up its forbidden or forgotten double.”

6.W.H. Auden was the most ruthless self-editor as his decades-long war of attrition against his most celebrated lyric, “September 1st, 1939,” demonstrates. Originally published in the New Republic on the occasion of Adolph Hitler’s invasion of Poland, “September 1st, 1939” is well-remembered and well-loved for a reason. “I sit in one of those dives/On Fifty-second street,” where Auden hears news of the panzer divisions rushing towards Warsaw and Krakow. Here among mundanity, where “Faces along the bar/Cling to their average day,” Auden invokes feelings all too familiar to us in the contemporary moment (hence the endurance of the poem), these “Waves of anger and fear” felt by the drinkers at the bar; men who feel “Uncertain and afraid/As the clever hopes expire/Of a low dishonest decade.” Nonetheless, Auden maintains that the “lights must never go out, /The music must always play,” in the penultimate stanza including a line that has moved people for eight decades – “We must love one another or die.”  

Eighteen years later and Auden would write to a critic that “Between you and me, I loathe that poem.” He saw it as sentimental pablum; most importantly Auden felt that it was simply a lie. His biographer Edward Mendelsohn explains in Early Auden, Later Auden: A Critical Biography that “By his own standards, if not those of his readers, these public poems failed.” In later editions he changed the line to “We must love one another and die,” the conjunction giving an entirely different meaning (albeit literally truer). The red pen is not easily pulled out once a book is in print, for though he omitted the line in collections released in both 1945 and 1966, it was inevitable that “September 1st, 1939” would circulate, even though he wrote that it was “trash which he is ashamed to have written.” This poem is not lost literature, but rather a case of a failed attempt to have buried the word. Impossible to imagine that Auden didn’t despair at the simple fact that there had been a time when he could have strangled the poem in the crib, that before “September 1st, 1939” was sent out into the world the sovereign power of the strike-through had still once been his.

Luckily for us Auden didn’t do that, but it does demonstrate that one of the most effective means of losing literature is in editing and revising. How many innumerable drafts of famous novels and poems exist, revisions immeasurable? If there is any modernist credo, it’s one of valorizing the red pen. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s injunction to “kill your darlings,” and anecdotes about Hemingway writing a staggering forty-seven drafts of A Farewell to Arms (but only one of his novels is in some tossed luggage somewhere). Such is the masochism of contemporary composition advice, whereby if there is one inviolate truism it’s that writing isn’t writing unless its rewriting. Vladimir Nabokov who bragged that “My pencils outlast their erasers”; Truman Capote saying “I believe in the scissors”; and E.B. White and William Strunk’s commandment in The Elements of Style that “A sentence should contain no unnecessary words” (I reject that advice). Lean, muscular, masculine, taut, minimalist prose was the point of writing, and as such loss became an intrinsic part of literature itself.

Hannah Sullivan in her brilliant The Work of Revision examines how the cult of editing emerged, looking at how technology in part facilitated the possibility of multiple drafts. With the introduction of mechanical means of composition (i.e. the typewriter) authors had, for the first time, the possibility to relentlessly write and rewrite, and a certain ethos of toughness surrounding the culling of words developed. “Our irrepressible urge to alter ‘the givens’ helped to create Modernism,” argues Sullivan, and “remakes us right to the end.” In some ways, contemporary technology haunts us with the ghosts of exorcised drafts more than mere typewriters ever could. Sullivan had a record of typed pages to look back at: drafts with underlined and struck out passages, a cacophony of addition carrots and transposition marks and the eternal promise of “TK,” rendered in ink and whiteout, but she had a record.

With Word processing, editing and revision can be
instantaneous in a manner that they couldn’t with a Remington, so that drafts
exist layered on top of each other, additions and deletions happening rapidly
in real time, with no record of what briefly existed before like some quantum
fluctuation. A final copy is the result of writing, but is not writing itself.
It rather represents the aftermath of a struggle between the author and the
word, merely the final iteration of something massive, and copious, and large
spreading its tendrils unseen backwards into a realm of lost literature.
Revision is a rhizomatic thing, each one of the branches of potential writing
hidden and holding aloft the tiny plant. A final draft is the corpse left over
after the life that is writing has ended.  

7.How talented an actor must Edwin Forrest have been that on May 10th, 1849 his fans would be willing to riot in his defense after it was perceived that he was being slighted by rival thespian William Charles Macready? The two had long come to blows in the press over who was the superior Shakespearean actor, and they each had their own partisans. Where Macready was delicate and refined, Forest was rough-hewn and rugged; Macready delivered his lines with elegance, Forest with swagger and punch. Advocates for Macready watched their hero perform Hamlet in the palatial theaters of Broadway; the faction of Forrest was content to drink and brawl in front of the Bowery’s stages. Most importantly, Macready was British and Forrest an American. Shakespeare was thus an issue of patriotic loyalty, with Nigel Cliff writing in The Shakespeare Riots: Revenge, Drama, and Death in Nineteenth-Century America that the Bard was “fought over, in frontier saloons no less than in aristocratic salons, with an almost hysterical passion.”

“Early in life,” Forrest once said, “I took a great deal of exercise and made myself what I am, a Hercules.” The “Bowery Boys” of the Five Points slums were delighted by Forrest’s American self-regard. Which actor you preferred, and whose style of delivery you saw as superior, said much about who you were as a person. Forrest was preferred by the working class, both Know Nothing nativists and Irish immigrants thrilled to him, while the Anglophilic New York aristocracy attended Macready plays in droves. Following three nights of rambunctious, mocking “Bowery Boys” buying seats out at Macready’s title performance in Macbeth (of course) at the Astor Place Opera, a riot would explode, leaving as many as three dozen people dead, and over a hundred injured. The worst violence in the city since British prison ships dotted the harbor during the Revolution, and until the Draft Riots would burn through New York during the Civil War. All of it over the power of performances that none of us shall ever see.  

No literature is more intrinsic to human experience than performance, and no literature is more perishable. The New York World said that Forrest had “head tones that splintered rafters,” and reviewers noted the distinctive elongated pauses of Macready’s delivery, but the fact is that theirs is an art that will never be accessible to us. Sometimes Macready is configured as a stuffy Laurence Olivier to Forrest’s virile Marlon Brando, but more than likely both would have performed in the rigid, stylized style that reigned supreme in a theater where there was no technology that could amplify voices and where the idea of the naturalistic method would have seemed bizarre. We can’t really know though — Forrest died in 1872, followed less than six months later by Macready, both within five years of Thomas Edison’s invention of the phonograph.

We know a tremendous amount about the men, and eventually the women, who first performed some of the most iconic of plays centuries before Forrest and Macready. Even with contemporary accounts, however, we’ll never actually be able to see Richard Burbage, knowing rather the names of the characters he first played — Hamlet, Lear, Othello. Likewise, the Elizabethan comedian Richard Tarlton has had his monologues rendered mute by history. Or the Kings Men’s great comedic actor William Kempe, famous for his improvisational shit-talking at jeering audiences, though none of his jibes come down to us, even while it believed that he was instrumental in the composition of one of his most famous characters – Lear’s fool. And the incomparable Edward Alleyn, confidant of Christopher Marlowe (and son-in-law of Donne) who was regarded as the greatest actor to ever grace the Rose Theater stage, and who mastered a subtle art so ephemeral that it disappeared the moment the play ended. Of this assemblage, Stanley Wells writes in Shakespeare & Co.: Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Dekker, Ben Jonson, John Middleton, John Fletcher and the Other Players in His Story that they were “leading actors who would have been stars whenever they were born.” Well, maybe. Who is to say?

Part of the glory of the theater is its gossamer transience, the way in which each performance is different, how it can’t be replicated. A script is an inert thing, while the play is the thing forever marked by its own impermanence. In the years after Macready and Forrest died, Edison gave us the illusion of eternity, the idea that voices and images could be preserved. Nothing signaled a greater shift in human consciousness over the past millennium than the myth that both very far away or long after somebody’s death (not dissimilar states) that their identity could be preserved in an eternal present. We can’t watch Forrest or Macready — but we can Olivier and Brando. It seems fundamentally different, a way of catching forever the ephemeral nature of performance, of preserving the fleeting. An illusion though, for decay just takes longer to come. Film must have seemed a type of immortality, but it’s estimated that 75% of silent films are lost forever, and as many as 90% of all films made before 1929. Flammable nitrate and the fickle junking of Hollywood studios proved as final as death, because not only can you never watch Forrest or Macready, you also can’t see Lon Chaney in London After Midnight, Theda Bara in Cleopatra, or Humor Risk — the first film starring the Marx Brothers.

8. “It is one hundred years since our children left,” reads a cryptic, anonymous missive in the town record of the German city of Hamelin from 1384. The only evidence for the basis of that disturbing fairy tale about the Pied Piper, he of mottled cloth and hypnotic music who drew all of the children of the town away from their parents after he’d already depleted it of vermin. Fairy tales operate by strange dream logic, chthonic echoes from the distant past which exist half-remembered in our culture. Hypotheses have been proffered as to what the story may have been based on, why those children were taken. Explanations include that the youth of the city were victims of mass psychosis in a manner similar to the outbreaks of compulsive dancing which marked the late Middle Ages; it’s been suggested that they were victims of plague, that they’d been sold into slavery, or that they’d been recruited by a roving preacher to join one of the ill-fated “Children’s Crusades” that sent thousands of adolescents off to the Levant. Regardless of the basis for the fairy tale, it’s story has played down in our culture like an idee fix, in the nineteenth-century appearing not just in the Brothers Grimm’s Children’s and Household Tales, but also in poems by Johann Goethe and Robert Browning, with “Pied Piper” a short-hand for the siren’s manipulative call.

Who then “authored” the original story? Do we credit the reinvention of the Grimm’s as its origin, do we count the source material from which they drew their inspiration, does each text influenced by the tale stand on its own? Was it whatever forlorn ancestor made that annotation in Hamlin’s ledger? The Pied Piper himself? The nature of a fairy tale is that everyone is their reader but nobody is their author. Jack Zipes writes in Why Fairy Tales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of a Genre that “We respond to these classical tales almost as if we were born with them, and yet, we know full well that they have been socially produced and induced and continue to be generated.” The Grimms and other Romantic-minded folklorists saw the fairy tale as arising spontaneously from the collective genius of the people, and there is a sense in which these anonymous tales are a collaborative venture of composition which takes places over centuries, millennia even. They are, in a sense, examples of lost literature finding itself, their creators’ anonymity a different form of oblivion.

The fairy tales which we all seem to intuitively know — Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Rumpelstiltskin — were collected by linguists like the Brothers Grimm, but it was in the twentieth-century that folklorists were actually able to categorize them. Chief among the classification systems developed for fairy tales is the Aarne-Thompson-Uthar Index, a complex method of charting the various narrative relationships between disparate stories, with an accompanying numeric mark to distinguish individual narratives. Cinderella, for example, is ATU 510A; Beauty and the Beast is ATU 425C. Scholars were able to thus chart stories to their potential beginnings. The tale of Cinderella finds its earliest iteration in ancient Greek writings of the geographer Strabo; researchers at the University of Durham have been able to ascertain that the Beast first met Belle in a version from an astounding four-thousand years ago. Jamie Terhani and Sara Graça da Silva, the folklorists who used phylogenetic means to chart alterations in Indo-European languages so as to estimate the approximate age of various fairy tales, have claimed that The Devil and the Smith (of which the Faust legend is an iteration) may have first been told six millennia ago.   

So many variations, so many lost stories, whispered only to infants in swaddling clothe over millennia. We can never know what exactly the earliest version of those stories was like; we’ll never know the names of those who composed them. Fairy tales pull at our soul like the vestigial leg of an amputee, a dull ache of people long since gone whose stories we still tell even though we’ve forgotten the creators. Anonymous literature of this sort is the most intimate, told to children before bed-time, repeated to families preparing food around a kitchen table. “I would venture to guess that Anon,” wrote Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own, “who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.” Such is the lost literature of our mothers, and our grandmothers, of “Anon” who is the greatest writer who ever lived (or didn’t).  Nothing is as intrinsic to our sense of identity like these sorts of stories, when all else is stripped away from us — popular paper backs, avant-garde experimentation, canonical literature — fairy tales will remain. While our libraries are inscribed with names like “Shakespeare” and “Cervantes,” we’ll never be able to chisel into stone the legion of those who composed Cinderella.

9.Since his brother died, Amadeo Garcia Garcia can only speak his native tongue to another human in his dreams. His language was once used to express love and anger, to console and castigate, to build, to instruct, to preserve, now relegated only to nocturnal phantoms. Over the last several decades, fewer and fewer people were able to understand Taushiro, till only Garcia’s immediate family knew the language, and now they’ve all died. A linguistic isolate spoken in the Peruvian Amazon, Taushiro is like all languages in that its syntax and grammar, its morphology and diction, necessarily shapes its speaker’s perception of reality.

Journalist Nicholas Casey who introduced Garcia’s story to the world in a New York Times article notes that the “entire fate of the Taushiro people now lies with its last speaker, a person who never expected such a burden and has spent much of his life overwhelmed by it.” When it joins that graveyard of discarded language, alongside Akkadian and Manx, Ainu and Etruscan, what will pass is nothing so dry as a dictionary, but an entire vision of the world. Literature is language and all languages are literature, forged collaboratively in the discourse between people. When the only ones left to talk to are ghosts of dead loved ones in dreams, it’s as if the coda for an entire universe.

Linguist K. David Harrison explains in When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World’s Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge what exactly is at stake. As of the turn of this century, there were 6,912 distinct languages spoken in the world, albeit the vast majority of those spoken by exceedingly few people (as with Taushiro and its speakership of one). He explains that 204 of those languages have less than ten speakers, and that an additional 344 have no more than a hundred. By the end of this century, the number of spoken languages will be half that previous number, if we’re lucky. Victim to globalization and “development,” Harrison says that we stand to lose an “immense edifice of human knowledge, painstakingly assembled over millennia by countless minds, [which] is eroding, vanishing into oblivion.”

Garcia can give us indications of what the stories he heard from his parents were like, of how it feels to speak a language that doesn’t distinguish between numbers, or where diction is whittled down to a pristine simplicity, but we’ll never really know since none of us can speak Taushiro. It was the anthropologist Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Whorf who made the fullest argument as to the way that these unique qualities produce thought, where language isn’t the result of ideas, but rather that ideas were the result of language. Their estimation was that things like tense, person, subject-verb-object order, and so on, don’t just convey information—they create it. Whorf was an insurance claims adjuster intimately aware of how much of reality depends on the language through which we sieve our experience; it was he who was responsible for the convention of “flammable” things being marked as such, as opposed to the grammatically correct “inflammable,” which he had discovered people took to mean the opposite.   

Their Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is succinctly stated by the
first of the two in his 1929 The Status of Linguistics as a Science, when
he argued that “Human beings do not live in the objective world alone… but are
very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium
of expression for their society… The worlds in which different societies live
are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached.”
English is not French is not Greek is not Farsi is not Punjabi. Taushiro is not
English. Translation is feeling about in a darkened room and being able to discern
the outline of the door, but it doesn’t give one the ability to step through
into the other room (only perhaps to hear some muffled conversation with an ear
pressed against the wall).

When a tongue has genuinely stopped moving there is an
insurmountable difference separating us from its literature. We’ll never quire
get the fear in Elamite accounts of Alexander the Great invading the Achaemenid
Empire; nor understand the vanquished pathos of the god Chemosh speaking in his
native Moabite; or the longing implicit in the poetry of Andalusian Arabic.
Each one of those languages had their own last speakers, as lonely as Garcia,
like Lot surveying his destroyed home and thinking he was the last man on
Earth, or as its said in Taushiro, “Ine aconahive ite chi yi tua tieya ana na’que
I’yo lo’.”

10.A thousand virgin trees have been planted in the Nordmarka forest near Oslo. Just saplings today, the Norwegian spruces are embanked by older birch and fur trees, but the new plantings are marked to be felled in 2114, after they’ve grown for a century. At that point, they’ll be pulped and turned to paper, which will be transported to the Deichman Library, which houses a printing press that will be used to produce the first editions of books that will have been compiled over the preceding ten decades and maintained in the sanctum of a wooden space known as the “Silent Room.” This is the Scottish artist Katie Peterson’s Future Library Project, in which a different prominent author will contribute a novel every year until the completion date, with the understanding that nobody will be allowed to read their contribution until 2114.

Which means that none of you reading this today will ever be able to parse Margaret Atwood’s novel Scribbler Moon. What its plot is, who the characters she’s created are, or the themes entertained, is all a glorious absence, save for that evocative two-word title. Nor can you read David Mitchell’s From Me Flows What You Call Time, whose title makes it sound as if it were an imagined novel from his Cloud Atlas, the author remarking that taking part in the project was a “vote of confidence in the future.” The most recent contribution has come from native son Karl Ove Knausgaard, an untitled work which may or may not contain descriptions of breakfast that go on for pages. Knausgaard said of Paterson’s vision, that it’s “such a brilliant idea, I very much like the thought that you will have readers who are still not born — it’s like sending a little ship from our time to them.”

A vote of confidence in the future is a beautiful description
of a beautiful project, if an idiosyncratic one. It’s also a definition of
literature, for even though the writer must primarily create for herself,
literature still must transmit in the connections between minds. Literature is
a vote of confidence in the future, in the present, in the past – it’s a vote
of confidence in other people. The Future Library Project is in keeping with
those theorists who are concerned with “deep time,” with the profoundly long
view and arc of human history as it rushes away from us. The Long Now
Foundation of San Francisco is one such organization that encourages all of us
to think in the sorts of terms that Paterson does, to understand that innumerable
civilizations have fallen and so shall ours, but that there is a way in which
history ever moves forward.

Stewart Brand writes of a future Library of Alexandria in The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility, imagining a “10,000-Year Library… [in] a vast underground complex hewn out of rock – preferably a mountain.” The Long Now Foundation tentatively is taking suggestions for what a 10,000-Year library might look like, what books should be included, and how we’re to understand the continuity of an institution that would be older than all of recorded human history. “Fantasy immediately calls up a refuge from the present,” Brand writes, “a place of weathered stone walls and labyrinthine stacks of books, at a remote location with far horizons. It is a place for contemplative research and small, immersive conferences on topics of centenary and millennial scope.” Surely, he knows that there is something quixotic in this vision, just as Paterson no doubt understands that a century hence it’s quite possible that nobody will be left around to read those books in Oslo.

Literature is forever in the process of being lost, and it’s hubristic to assume that what we read today will be around to be read tomorrow. Nevertheless, that’s the beauty in Peterson and Brand’s dreams, that it conceives of a way that all which is lost shall someday be found, that all which is feeble can be preserved. Theirs is a struggle of attrition against that most merciless of editors known as entropy. All literature is of a similar resistance against time, mortality, finitude, limitation. To write it to commit an act of faith, to pray that what words you’ve assembled shall last longer than you, and that they’ll hopefully be found by at least someone who shall be, however briefly, changed.

Bonus Links:—Ten Ways to Live ForeverTen Ways to Save the WorldTen Ways to Look at the Color Black

Image Credit: Pexels/Bakr Magrabi.

Obsession, Collection, and Connection: On Pixar’s ‘Soul’ and Jazmina Barrera’s On Lighthouses


A chunk of bagel. The crust of a slice of pizza, pale as a sliver of fingernail. A spool of blue thread. A yellow subway card with cobalt lettering. A red lollipop, unwrapped and glistening as though still wet. And, finally: a single helicopter seed from a molting maple, veined and translucent, like an earlobe in sunlight.

These are just a few of the endearingly New York mementos accumulated by the protagonists of Disney Pixar’s latest animated feature, Soul. On the evening I watched Soul, the concept of collection was on my mind: I had just finished Jazmina Barrera’s haunting hybrid On Lighthouses, translated by Christina MacSweeney last year for Two Lines Press. Throughout the petite sky-blue book, Barrera pursues her obsession with lighthouses through time and space and the annals of literature until her fixation begins to accumulate matter and heft, a kind of reverse entropy, becoming a collection of objects and experiences—and, finally, six experimental essays. In fact, Barrera wonders if obsession couldn’t be considered “a form of mental collecting,” a “fervent yet controlled passion.”

Soul also concerns itself with the consequences of passion and obsession: the movie follows a middle-aged jazz musician named Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), who has to make his way back to his body to live out his dream of performing in a successful gig after a near-death experience sends his soul into a metaphysical realm called “The Great Beyond.” There, Gardner becomes convinced that without finding success in music his life will have amounted to nothing. Essentially a fugitive from death, he teams up with an incorrigible soul known only by their number, 22 (Tina Fey), who hopes to avoid life on earth altogether. But after a mishap lands the pair in Manhattan, 22 begins to gather a collection of artifacts—the bagel, the pizza crust, the subway card—that challenges both characters’ presuppositions about what makes life worthwhile.

The writing I love to read often attempts to illustrate or explain an obsession of the writer: Maggie Nelson’s affair with blue, Leslie Jamison’s preoccupation with empathy, Nabokov’s passion for lepidopterology, Tommy Pico’s collection of junk. Writing that takes a pin and drives it through obsession’s abdomen, splaying it open like one of Nabokov’s butterfly specimens. Perhaps, as a result, I often worry that in my own writing I don’t care enough about one thing. A brief list of contenders might include: dark chocolate, vintage outerwear, cats, my mother, my mother’s mother, coffee, flirting, ketchup, romantic relationships between former So You Think You Can Dance contestants, stained glass windows, and the city of St. Louis. Oh—and ginkgo leaves, like the ones that blanketed the street outside my apartment, released from the tree in a single cold snap, as heavy and sudden as stage curtains.

I would hesitate if you asked me whether my life would be worth living without books, but I can’t say I’ve ever experienced—or pursued—a devotion as potent as Barrera’s lighthouses or Gardner’s jazz.

To Barrera, the obsessive practice of collecting is capacious and contradictory: it’s love and escapism both; it’s a ritual act, a devotion, but it’s also a constant exercise in failure, a bid for possession and conservation that will always reduce rather than encapsulate. As with the practice of collection, the lighthouse itself is a contradiction: an isolated object (and an object that isolates, as the lone keeper inside is forbidden from leaving, in case the signal is obstructed or extinguished in his absence), yet one whose purpose is to guide others and keep them safe. The edifice both contains and projects; it stands on tiptoe on the precipice between land and sea, simultaneously alive and dead, static and roving, light and dark. The lighthouse, like the surrender to obsession itself, occasions both inspiration and madness.

According to Soul, when people lose themselves too deeply in this somnambulistic, spellbound state, they become Lost Souls, monstrous figures who wander the shadowy metaphysical plains choked in a tower of fine black sand. Barrera, for one, lives alone inside the tower of her obsession (and the physical tower of her apartment building, whose windows face a brick wall). She describes her longing to merge with the lighthouse; she craves the cold solidity of stone, the peace that comes with numbness. And yet—she can’t extinguish her own light, her drive to connect. She admits that she finds lighthouses so attractive because “they combine that disdain, that misanthropy, with the task of guiding, helping, rescuing others.”

As the tension in Soul builds, Gardner experiences a similar internal tug-of-war. He declares that his “spark,” the unique source of inspiration that offers each young soul their ticket to earthly life, is and has always been playing music himself; however, after he impresses at the show he calls his “big break,” he’s left feeling just as unfulfilled.

Gardner assumes that a soul’s spark must represent one’s “purpose.” The lesson as Gardner interprets it is this: in order to have a fulfilling and productive life, you have to find your calling. It isn’t until after the show, when he rediscovers 22’s collection of keepsakes in his suit pocket, that he begins to reassess. The collection is an exercise in synecdoche: the half-eaten bagel represents 22’s first connection with music, when they earnestly tear off a chunk of bread to tip a busker in the subway; the lollipop is a stand-in for a gregarious barber, who shows 22 that it’s possible to find joy in listening to other people’s stories; the spool of thread is an extension of Gardner’s mother, who uses it to tailor his late father’s suit in a display of unconditional love. The only artifact culled from a moment of solitude is the single helicopter seed that flaps, lepidopterous and alive, into 22’s open palm.

It’s a breath of beauty, of rapture—coins of afternoon light stippling the stone, autumn leaves blushing the sidewalk like rose petals—and of serendipity. The moment’s privacy, brevity, and rarity—snatched in the midst of a frenetic quest through a swarming city—punctuates the film like the delicate peal of an orchestral triangle. Plucked from its context, we might give an involuntary awestruck sigh at the somersaulting seed, as I did, but it’s the noise and congestion surrounding it that makes this moment chime.

Every so often, I receive contextless snapshots of fallen ginkgo leaves from friends and acquaintances and even friends of acquaintances. I’ve never been lucky enough to witness what poet Howard Nemerov termed “the consent”—the moment in which a “signal from the stars” compels a stand of ginkgo trees “to strike their leaves, to down their leaves” in a synchronous, celestial surrender—but these missives feel fortuitous in their own way, little gifts helicoptering from the heavens into my hands.

I save every single photo. My obsession becomes collection that becomes conversation, and it makes me glow to think that, because of me, someone stopped and looked. Is this vanity, or simply a communal joy?

Why do we enjoy reading about the obsessions of others? I’ve come to believe it’s at least partly because we want evidence that we have more care left to give. Not only that we can love more, farther, wider, but also drill deeper, dig a well, and fill it all the way up. (Barrera describes her attraction to the idea of the lighthouse as a well turned inside-out, each other’s inverse: a pit of dark, a tower of light.)

22’s collection, by contrast, is far from singular—it’s a hodgepodge of flotsam and jetsam that encapsulates the thrill of human connection and the beauty, the rapture, the meaningfulness that hides in the mundane. And yet Barrera’s collection, too, reminds us that obsession can only fulfill us so long as it exists in conversation with the outside world. On Lighthouses ends not because Barrera’s obsession abates, but because she chooses to allow the collection to remain incomplete. She realizes that she must return her gaze from the sea to the land, or else risk becoming a lost soul herself: “Falling in love with a beauty that at moments seems too much like death.” While she’s reluctant to relinquish her hold on nothingness for “the bustle, irreverence, and noise of dry land”—just as 22 initially hopes to “skip life” and all its attending disappointments—Barrera concedes that while oblivion will always be there, waiting, “The other is ephemeral. It must be appreciated while it lasts.”

I read a review of Soul for Roger Ebert in which the critic jabs, “The film’s message could be summed up as, ‘Don’t get so hung up on ambition that you forget to stop and smell the flowers.’ A birthday card could’ve told you that.” Though the movie is certainly flawed, I disagree with this particular take: a card from CVS could tell you that and many other platitudes, but good art proves them. What Soul and On Lighthouses both prove to us is that a personal obsession, even a passion or a calling, can’t necessarily supplant the fulfillment we derive from sharing knowledge, stories, and discovery with other people. And even when it does, perhaps it shouldn’t. As the writer Kyoko Mori observed in a recent essay for Conjunctions, “Solitude only makes sense when we’re connected to the world around us: we can’t be apart unless we can be a part of.”

As a nonfiction writer, it’s tempting to collect thoughts, images, quotes, scents, contradictions, conversations, and questions not for the joy of the collecting, but in the hopes that the whole will someday amount to more than the sum of its parts. It can begin to seem as though nothing about living is distinct from writing. But while Pixar’s Lost Souls become trapped in their obsessions through their consummation, I’ve always felt far more adrift when I can’t bring myself to write. I misplace my faith in the particular; I stop noticing things. I retreat from my family and community. Writer’s “block” doesn’t just obstruct my creativity; when I succumb, it barricades me from the rest of my life.

Both Soul and On Lighthouses articulate the desire to be swept away on a current of inspiration, but they also warn us against losing ourselves inside our passions when we find them. In the end, each represents the act of collecting as a reminder of what makes life worth living: not the flood of feeling that gives rise to obsession, or the solitary thrill of possessing its object, but the messiness and spontaneity of being a part of.

Maybe it’s alright for my collection to look less like Barrera’s and a little more like 22’s: a square of my mother’s favorite chocolate, studded with rubies of freeze-dried raspberry; a coffee bean from the café down the street from my St. Louis apartment, where the bathroom walls were plastered in old board games; a yellow ginkgo leaf, dried and pasted to the front of a birthday card by a boy I loved. Our collections remain incomplete by necessity, not in the sense of ‘deficient’ but that of ‘ongoing.’ We continue gathering moments of beauty, awe, communion. We amass a whole grotto of tiny wonders; together, we help each other see them.

Image credit: Unsplash/Joanna Kosinska.

Letter from the Capitol

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The Confederate battle standard never flew within the Capitol Building — until January 6th, 2021. During the Civil War, that cankered, perfidious, malignant, cancerous cabal of traitors who grandiosely called themselves the “Confederate States of America” had many northern strategic inflection points in which they stabbed into the nation’s body, and because of these, for a time, it seemed as if they might be triumphant. General John Hunt Morgan’s 2nd Kentucky Calvary Regiment raided not just in that unfortunate border state, but in 1863 they pierced into Indiana and Ohio as well. Morgan would finally surrender in Salineville, Ohio, which latitudinally is almost as far north as Connecticut. Even more incongruously and a year later, 21 veterans of Morgan’s Raid crossed over the Canadian border, that land then colonized by a Southern-sympathizing Great Britain, and attacked the sleepy hamlet of St. Albans, Vermont, including robbing the bank and forcing the citizens at gun point to swear fealty to the Confederacy. The most violent (and most famous) invasion of the north was the traitor Robert E. Lee’s campaign in Pennsylvania, the goal of which was to possibly capture or burn down Philadelphia, but which was stopped at the infamous “High Water Mark” of the Confederacy when Union General George C. Meade turned back the Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg—a battle that took more than 50,000 American lives in three days. During Lee’s campaign in southern Pennsylvania, free Black women and men had to flee north, as the Confederate raiders would send those they kidnapped into a southern bondage.

For sheer absurdity, among the closest positions that the rebels ever got to the national capital was the Marshall House Inn in Alexandria, Virginia, where a Confederate flag was displayed that was so large and so tall that Lincoln could see it from the White House across the Potomac. A few weeks after Ft. Sumter and Union troops occupied the city, marching down red-bricked King Street where slave markets had sold thousands of human beings less than ten miles from the Capitol Building. When Colonel Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth of the 11th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment ascended to the roof of the hotel to remove the flag, the proprietor of the Marshall House shot him dead, the first Union casualty of the Civil War. Despite being able to see the warped cross of the Confederate battle standard from the portico of the White House, Lincoln steadfastly refused to move the capital to safer points further north, arguing that the abandonment of Washington would be a capitulation to the seditionists.

“Let us be vigilant,” Lincoln telegraphed to the worried Maryland governor in 1864, “but keep cool. I hope neither Baltimore nor Washington will be sacked.” Not for lack of desire, as that same year Confederate Lieutenant Jubal Early would attack Ft. Stevens in the Northwest Quadrant of the District of Columbia, in a battle that would take close to nine hundred men. Long had the secessionists dreamed of Washington as the capital of their fake nation. In the decades before the Civil War some imagined a “Golden Circle,” which would be a veritable empire of slavery, with the South Carolina Senator Robert Barnwell Rhett imperially enthusing that “We will expand… over Mexico – over the isles of the sea — over the far-off Southern — until we shall establish a great Confederation,” their twisted nation stretching from Panama to the District of Columbia. Until last week the Confederate flag never flew within the Capitol.

There the man casually strolls across the red-and-blue mosaic floor of some antechamber in the Capitol, dressed in jeans and a black hoodie with a tan hunting vest; hoisted over his shoulder is the Confederate flag, its colors matching the tiles. It shouldn’t be lost on anybody that his uniform is the exact same “suspicious” article of clothing which Black pre-teenagers have been shot for wearing, even while this man is able to raid the very seat of government unmolested. Because America is many things, but it is not subtle, the man in the photograph is centered by two gild-framed oil paintings. One is of Charles Sumner, the Massachusetts Senator and abolitionist nearly caned to death by an opponent on the legislative floor of this very building, and who denounced the “unutterable wrongs and woes of slavery; profoundly believing that, according to the true spirit of the Constitution, and the sentiments of the fathers, it can find no place under our National Government” before Congress in 1852. The other portrait, almost predictably, is of John C. Calhoun, the South Carolina Senator and Vice President under Andrew Jackson, who in 1837 would declaim that the “relation now existing in the slaveholding states… instead of an evil, [is] a good. A positive good,” and would then gush about what a kind and benevolent slave-master he was. It would be harder to stage a more perfect encapsulation of the American dichotomy than our weekend warrior did on Wednesday, the continual pull between those better angels of our nature and the demons of history, who are never quite exorcized and are often in full possession of the body politic. A power in that grotesque image, the cosplaying Confederate momentarily self-anointing himself sovereign as he casually strolls through the chamber. Chillingly strolled, one might say, for all of these terrorists acted with as impunity as if they had the knowledge there would be no consequences to their actions. It reminds us that the mantra “This isn’t who we are” is at best maudlin and at worst a complete lie.

The siege against the Capitol on the day that Congress met for the constitutionally mandated and largely pro-forma ritual of officially counting the Electoral College votes to certify Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as the rightful victors of the 2020 presidential race can be examined from many directions, of course. Security experts can parse why there was such a profound failure at ensuring the safety of the session; political scientists can explain how social media algorithms has increasingly radicalized adherents of the far-right; historians can place movements like QAnon and the Proud Boys in a genealogy of American nativism and European fascism. Everyone should be able to say that ultimate responsibility lay with the stochastic terrorism promoted by the lame-duck president and his congressional sycophants in the Sedition Caucus, as well as his media enablers with whom he is clasped in a toxic symbiotic relationship. All those approaches to analysis are valid, but I choose to look at the day as a literary critic and a resident of Washington D.C., because those things are what I am. But incongruity alone, even the uncanny alone, can’t quite provide the full critical lexicon for what we witnessed on our televisions that afternoon, the sense that even more than an inflection point, we were viewers of a cracked apocalypse. How do we make sense of an attempted American putsch, the almost-nightmare of a coup?

Because the cultural idiom of this nation is Hollywood, and our interpretive lenses are by necessity through that of the movies, I can’t help but feel that much of what we saw seemed prefigured in film. The terrible logic of America is that our deepest nightmares and desires always have a way of enacting themselves, of moving from celluloid to reality. Look at the photograph of Jake Angeli, the self-styled “QAnon Shaman,” shirtless and bedecked in racoon fur with buffalo horns upon his head (in pantomime of the very people whom this nation enacted genocide upon) with his face smeared in the colors of the American flag, standing at the dais of the Speaker of the House, and tell me that it doesn’t look like a deleted scene from The Postman. Or examine the photograph of a smiling ginger man in a stocking cap emblazoned with “TRUMP,” casually waving as he jauntily strolls underneath the rotunda past John Trumbull’s massive painting Surrender of General Burgoyne holding under his arm a pilfered wood podium decorated with a gold federal eagle, his hero’s adage that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” apparently only to be selectively enforced. It looks like something from the post-apocalyptic movie The Book of Eli.

And then, most chillingly (and disturbingly underreported), there was the painstakingly assembled set of gallows, placed a bit beyond the equestrian monument to Ulysses S. Grant, who with great courage and strength broke the first iteration of the Ku Klux Klan, from which one vigilante hung that most American symbol of a noose. When remembered in light of the black-clad and masked men photographed with guns and zip-ties, it should make all of us consider just how much more tragic this violation, which was already a grotesque abomination, could have been. Horrifying to recall that the narrative conceit in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (and its television adaptation) that allowed for the theocratic dictatorship to ascend to power was the mass murder of a joint session of Congress. Sometimes #Resistance liberals get flak for their fears of fascism, but it would be easier to mock those anxieties if our country didn’t so often look like a science fiction dystopia.

It’s my suspicion that pop culture — that literature — is capable of picking up on some sort of cultural supersonic wavelength, those deep historical vibrations that diffuse in circles outward from our present into both past and future. There is something incantatory about those visions generated in word and special-effect, so that the eeriness of seeing marauding fascists overtake the Capitol grounds feels like something we’ve seen before. Think of all the times we’ve watched the monuments of Washington D.C. destroyed on film. Last week — while half paying attention to a block of cheesy apocalypse movies on the Syfy network that were supposed to count down the days left in the year — I saw the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy aircraft carrier pushed into the city by an Atlantic tsunami where it rolled across the National Mall and crushed the White House in Roland Emmerich’s godawful 2012. I’ve seen the executive mansion punctuated by bombs and dotted with bullet holes in the spectacularly corny Antoine Fuqua movie Olympus Has Fallen, and according to Thrillist the Capitol itself has been laid waste in no less than nine movies, including Day After Tomorrow, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Independence Day, Olympus Has Fallen, Superman II, White House Down, and X-Men: Days of Futures Past. Probably the impulse to watch this sort of thing is equal parts vicarious thrill and enactment of deep fears. I remember that when I saw Independence Day (also by Emmerich, the Kurosawa of schlock) after it came out, the 1996 theater audience erupted into cheers and claps when the impenetrable wall of exploding alien flames incinerated its way across D.C. and shattered the white dome of the Capitol like an egg being thrown into a fire-place. Was that applause an expressed opinion about Newt Gingrich? About Bill Clinton? Something darker?

After the terrorist attacks on 9/11, now almost twenty years ago, there was a profoundly shortsighted prediction that the hideous spectacle of Americans seeing the World Trade Center collapse would forever cure us of our strange desire to see our most famous buildings, and the people within them, destroyed. A perusal into the Olympian corpus of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (seemingly the only entertainment which Hollywood bothers to produce anymore) will testify that such an estimation was, to put it lightly, premature. French philosopher Guy Debord could have told us this in 1967 in his Society of the Spectacle, wherein he noted that “all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation,” to which it could be added that the inverse is also accurate – everything that has been represented has seemingly moved into life. Which doesn’t mean that scenes like those which we witnessed on Wednesday aren’t affecting – no, the opposite is true. People reach to the appraisal that “it looks like a movie” not to be dismissive, but rather because cinema is the most powerful mythopoesis that we’re capable of.

What’s needed, of course, is a vocabulary commensurate with what exactly all of us saw. A rhetoric capable of grappling with defilement, with violation, with desecration, but because all we have is movies, that’s what we’re forced to draw upon. They gave us the ability to think about the unthinkable before it happened; the chance to see the unseeable before it was on our newsfeeds. If the vision of the screen is anemic, that’s not necessarily our fault — we measure the room of our horror with the tools which we’ve inherited. Few square miles of our civic architecture are quite so identified with our quasi-sacred sense of American civil religion as the grounds of the U.S. Capitol, and so the spectacle of a clambering rabble (used as a Trojan Horse for God knows what more nefarious group of actors) calls to mind fiction far more than it does anything which actually has happened. That’s the cruelty of our current age — that so frequently our lives resemble the nightmare more than the awakening. The Capitol siege was very much an apocalypse in the original Greek sense of the word: an unveiling, a rupture in normal history that signals why all of this feels so cinematic — though it’s hard to tell if it’s the beginning or ending of the movie, and what genre we’re exactly in. As Timothy Denevi writes about the assault in LitHub, “What is a culmination, after all, except the moment in which everything that could happen finally does? Where are we supposed to go from there?”

Important to remember that everything which could happen has already happened before, at some point. That’s what the bromide about this not being who we are gets wrong — this is, at least partially, who we’ve always been, albeit not in this exact or particular way. What happened at the eastern edge of the Mall this week has shades of the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898 in which an conspiracy of white supremacists plotted against the Black leadership of the North Carolina city ushered in Jim Crow at the cost of hundreds of lives (and then untold millions over the next century). The assault on the Capitol has echoes of the Election Riots of 1874, when members of the White League attacked Black voters in Eufaula, Alabama, leaving behind dozens of wounded women and men, and seven corpses. These are two examples of hundreds of similar events that shamefully liter our nation’s history, albeit most citizens have never heard of them. Hell, most people didn’t know about the Tulsa race massacre of 1921 — still less than a century ago — until HBO’s Watchmen dramatized it. The issue is exactly the same: White supremacists think that only their votes count, and will do anything to enforce that conviction.

That the supporters of the man who currently occupies the Oval Office believe any number of insane and discounted conspiracy theories about election fraud — claims rejected in some sixty lawsuits and a 9-0 Supreme Court decision — is to in some ways miss the point. Listen to their language — the man who instigated Wednesday’s riot emphasizes that he simply wants to count “legal” votes and ask yourself what that means, and then realize why the fevered rage of his mob focuses on places like Detroit, Philadelphia, and Atlanta. If the only people who’d been allowed to vote for Trump were white people, then he would have won the election in his claimed landslide — that’s what he and his supporters mean by “legal” votes. The batshit insane theories are just fan fiction to occlude the actual substance of their political belief. Such anti-democratic sentiment is also an American legacy, an American curse. The connection between what happened on Capitol Hill and in Wilmington, Eufaula, and Tulsa; or Fort Bend, Texas in 1888; or Lake City, South Carolina in 1897; or Ocoee, Florida in 1920; or in Rosewood, Florida in 1923 (you can look them all up), or any number of other thousands of incidents, may seem tangential. It isn’t.

When I lived in Massachusetts there was a sense of history that hung thick in the air, all of those centuries back to the gloomy Puritans and their gothic inheritance. Historical markers punctuated the streets of Boston and her suburbs, and there was that rightfully proud Yankee ownership of the American Revolution. Our apartment was only a mile or so from the Lexington battle green where that shot heard around the world rang out, and I used to sometimes grab a coffee and read a magazine on one of its pleasant benches in what was effectively a pleasant park, battle green thoughts in a green shade. Part of me wanted to describe this part of the country as haunted, and perhaps it is, but its ghosts seem to belong to a distant world, a European world. By contrast, when I moved to Washington DC, the American specters moved into much clearer focus. If Massachusetts seems defined by the Revolution, then the District of Columbia, and Maryland, and Virginia are indelibly marked by the much more violent, more consequential, more important, and more apocalyptic conflagration of the Civil War. In his classic Love and Death in the American Novel, the critic Leslie Fiedler described the nation as “bewilderingly and embarrassingly, a gothic fiction, nonrealistic and negative, sadist and melodramatic — a literature of darkness and the grotesque in a land of light and affirmation.” Our national story is a Jekyll and Hyde tale about the best and worst aspirations at conflict within the Manichean breast of a nation which fancied itself Paradise but ended up somewhere points further south.

Because I have a suspicion that poetry is capable of telling the future, that everything which can or will happen has already been rendered into verse somewhere (even if obscured), a snatch of verse from a Greek poet accompanied my doom scrolling this week. “Why isn’t anything going on in the senate?” Constantin Cavafy asked in 1898, “Why are the senators sitting there without legislating?” I thought about it when I first heard that the mob was pounding at the Capitol door; it rang in my brain when I saw the photographs of them parading through that marble forest of statuary hall, underneath that iron dome painted a pristine white. “Because the barbarians are coming today,” Cavafy answered himself. I thought about it when I looked at the garbage strewn through the halls, the men with their feet up on legislators’ desks, cackling at the coup they’d pulled. “What’s the point of senators making laws now? Once the barbarians are here, they’d do the legislating.” For a respite, it seems that the barbarians have either been pushed back or left of their own accord. In that interim, what will be done to make sure that they don’t return? Because history and poetry have taught us that they always do.

Image credit: Pexels/Harun Tan.