Poetry Is Prayer

The English colony of Jamestown was only 18 years old in 1625, during the midst of what the poet John Donne, preaching safely from London, had called the “barbarous years,” when disease, starvation, and violence nearly destroyed the Virginian settlement. Its unfortunate colonists had been reduced in their most dire straits to exhuming the corpses of the recently dead, so that the living would have something to eat. If anytime would necessitate prayer, it would seem to be when people resort to cannibalism, and no doubt there was rending of garments in Jamestown. Across the Atlantic, too, for the collapse of the Virginia Company humbled an investor named Nicholas Ferrar. A courtier, and eventually an ordained Anglican deacon, Ferrar reacted to the financial implosion of his American investments by taking what money remained and purchasing an abandoned medieval church named St. John’s in the Salisbury village of Little Gidding.

Orthodox in his Calvinism, Ferrar was still High Church, and mourned for what had been lost from that Catholic past of multicolored stained glass and incense burning in thuribles. His little chapel had been stripped bare during the reformation of a century before, and he hoped to restore some ornamentation to that bare-ruined choir. At Little Gidding, Ferrar and his siblings dedicated themselves to founding a secular oratory, what later Puritan critics maligned as a “Protestant nunnery.” The Ferrars were to live simply, by a rigorous schedule of prayer, study, service, and contemplation. Upon the white-washed walls of their home, Ferrar and his brother John and sister Susan (and their respective families) painted psalms, so as to “excite the reader to a thought of piety.” As prayers are outward expressions of inner devotions, sent on vibrations of sound to whatever Ear is listening, the community at Little Gidding displayed their psalms as a type of signpost to the divine, hoping that they’d be noticed. Appropriate for a family that had turned their walls into printed pages, their home into an anthology, because the Ferrars supported Little Gidding with the trade of book binding.

Critic Don Paterson writes in The Poem: Lyric, Sign, Metre that poetry has “invested itself with those magical properties, and also took the form of spell, riddle, curse, blessing, incantation and prayer. For those atavistic reasons, poetry remains an invocatory form.” Like spells written on hidden parchments, there was enchantment to the textuality of the Ferrars’ house, with its divinely graffitied walls. The house a book based on the Book, which produced books. None more famous or influential than a slender volume of poetry titled The Temple, written by a friend of Ferrar’s named George Herbert, a priest. Ministering a village over, Herbert was a product of courtier culture as well, and of similar social status to the Ferrars, his mother of the wealthy Newport family, and a patron to Donne. Like the pious Ferrars, Herbert had rejected the trappings of nobility that were his guaranteed birthright, preferring rather to work as a humble reverend on the Salisbury plain. When Herbert sent his friend a copy of his devotional poems in 1633, he said that he wished them to be printed should they have “advantage of any dejected poor soul,” and if Ferrar saw no such quality, the verse should be burned.

Herbert’s The Temple pairs with Donne’s “Holy Sonnets” as among not just the greatest of 17th-century metaphysical poetry but the greatest religious lyrics ever written in English. Poems like “The Collar,” “Love (III),” and his “shape poems” (with typography working as image) such as “The Altar” and “Easter Wings,” were as a type of worship. A century later and the Puritan schoolman Richard Baxter would enthuse that “Herbert speaks to God like one that really believes in God;” obvious faith beats like a metronome in the meter of his verse. “Heart-work and heaven-work make up his books,” said Baxter, so that it’s impossible to disentangle theology from his poetry, as it might be for modern readers of sexier metaphysical poets like Donne. Biographer John Drury writes in Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert that “Divinity saturated and enclosed his world: the whole of it, from the slightest movements of his own inmost being to his external circumstances in time and the natural world…Divinity was the cause and the sum of how things are, without remainder.” That being the case, Herbert’s poetry itself couldn’t help but be devotional, couldn’t help but fundamentally be as if a prayer. What I’d venture is that all poetry is fundamentally a prayer.

My ideas may be muddled or inchoate, and for that I beg your patience, but I think that some of my half-formed thinking (multitudinous as it will be) can be illustrated by a Herbert poem appropriately entitled “Prayer (1).” Of the poem’s subject, Herbert describes it as “the church’s banquet…God’s breath in man returning to his birth, /The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage.” There are two things happening in those lines; the obvious is the connection of God’s Spirit to the individual spirit of man, how the animus of our breath finds its origin in the divine. All fine and good, but what’s more fascinating is the description of prayer as being a “soul in paraphrase,” for that explicitly aligns prayer not with completism—axioms, treatises, arguments, syllogisms, or any other method of total explication—but that prayer provides an intimation of what a soul is. “Prayer (I)” is replete with this language of incompleteness, it’s in some ways a statement against method. He writes of “The six-days world transposing in an hour,” a type of paraphrase of creation itself, and of “A kind of tune,” or the “Heaven in ordinary.” The imprecision of Herbert’s language is precisely the point—prayers are exemplary because they don’t exist to say everything that can be said; they exist for all of that which can’t be. The result of prayer, Herbert famously concludes, is “something understood.”

Everything depends on that indefinite pronoun, for in the ambiguity of “something” Herbert gestures at what prayer is. It’s not necessarily that prayer deals with only the ineffable (though that concept intersects with prayer), but rather that the product of prayer is this amorphous, free-floating, mercurial something of which Herbert speaks. Prayer imparts a type of knowledge—something has been understood. But good luck in being able to simply or literally say what that something is. So, Herbert differentiates prayer from other forms of sacred language; prayer has not the delineation of a creed or the rigor of an argument, it has not the logic of theology, nor the narrative of scripture. Prayer has this understood something, but by its nature what exactly it is must be felt rather than known, believed rather than stated.

The poem is about prayer, but it’s also about poetry. If Herbert is making an argument about prayer’s significance being incompleteness, then the precise same thing must be said about poetry as well. Like prayer, poetry is not the same as creed or argument, thesis or claim, philosophy or pedagogy. Both prayer and poetry are synonyms, albeit respectively associated with the sacred and the profane. They concern things that can only be espied from multiple perspectives, for the ecstasy of ambiguity and the spurning of literalism, for the quality of having “something understood” even if such a thing is contradictory or indefinable or impossible to summarize. The two forms are mechanisms for approaching the unapproachable, they are engines driving us to that which is an infinite distance away. What’s imparted is the mysterious “something”—when done well, prayer and poetry can both change you, but it’s difficult to put into words what that change was. A sublimity in that paradox, for prayer and poetry are defined by being words that gesture beyond words themselves.

All literary language is a special case; all literary language is exception. Since Plato, philosophers have found it difficult to categorize what exactly literature is supposed to be. Fictional narrative, after all, is simply lies artfully arranged. Or at least that’s one way to look at it, albeit a reductionist one that doesn’t perform due diligence toward just how weird literature is, this process by which we hallucinate entire worlds after staring at abstract symbols. Because it seems real, literature compels questions like that jocularly posed by the Shakespeare scholar L.C. Knight, when in 1933 he asked, “How many children did Lady Macbeth have?” Knight was raising a point about the way we talk about fiction, where a question can be posed that is logically and semantically coherent, yet totally meaningless. Lady Macbeth had no children of course, since she wasn’t real (or at least not in the form that the Bard presented to us). A similar metaphysical conundrum was posed by the philosopher Bertrand Russell, when he asked what the “truth status” was of the question “Is the present King of France bald?” There no longer being a King of France, it would seem that either an affirmative or negative answer is completely meaningless, yet that’s affectively the nature of all fiction.

Poetry and fiction aren’t reducible to each other; if anything, they’re sometimes contrasted (in part because narrative poetry, such as the epic, is a largely moribund genre today). But poetry also has an innate weirdness that makes it difficult to classify—what exactly defines it? What makes poetry poetry? Formal characteristics—rhyme, meter, rhythm, and so on—make little sense as a distinguishing characteristic after almost two centuries of free verse. Russian linguist and critic Roman Jakobson argued (in a paper first published in Thomas A. Sebeok’s anthology Style in Language) that the “poetic function” of language was neither to express nor to communicate clear-cut truth, but rather existed with “the message for its own sake.” Jakobson’s claim was that poetry is basically always about poetry, that verse announces the strangeness of language itself rather than communicating literal facts. What defines poetry is not how it’s constructed, but what it does. Poetry announces itself as language through a process of defamiliarization—iambic pentameter and anaphora are ways in which a reader understands that something odd is happening—but it need not be facilitated only through formal rhetorical means. Paterson rightly condemns the fact that “Too often our interpretations are unconsciously predicated on the real-world existence of a truth, albeit a truth conveniently veiled or missing,” but to be overly hung up on the “truth” of poetry is to precisely miss the point. The medium truly is the message.

In an odd way, such pronouncements were anticipated by the Renaissance critic and poet Philip Sidney, who in his 1580 Defense of Poesy argued that “The poet, he nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth.” Facts can be lied about, but a poem can’t be evaluated on whether it’s “true” or not, at least in any literal or logical way. What’s the “truth status,” Russell might ask, of the statement “I have measured out my life in coffee spoons?” Certainly, it’s not literally accurate, or privy to scientific falsification, but that it says something significant should be obvious. Poetry is thus a cracked type of speech, language that is about language, expressing truths that move beyond mere words but which can be indicated in their splendiferous ambiguities. Poetry is rhetorically distinct from other uses we have for words, Jakobson would argue; it’s not the dry literalism of logic, nor the pragmatic utility of instruction, or even the dense world-building of fiction (though that last certainly can intersect with poetry). Rather verse is when language thinks about itself. Popularizer of religion Karen Armstrong argues something similar in the introduction to Thomas J. Craughwell’s Every Eye Beholds You: A World Treasury of Prayer when she writes that “Prayer helps us to liberate ourselves and to use language in an entirely different way.”

Functionally, I see no difference between prayer and poetry. I should emphasize that this doesn’t necessarily have to do with God per se, but rather with what prayer and poetry do. And as both are in some sense very present-based genres, existing for their own purposes rather than to convey some other primary piece of information, what they do is ultimately the same. W.H. Auden famously declared that “Poetry makes nothing happen,” but there is a theological profundity to that, the idea of something existing without pragmatic justification to some bottom line, having being rather as a glorious singularity unto itself. Not dissimilar to the God of the medieval scholastics, whose views the literary critic Terry Eagleton described in The Meaning of Life, writing that God’s purpose and His creation isn’t a “question about what the world is for, since in… [theological] opinion the world has no purpose whatsoever. God is not a celestial engineer who created the world with some strategically calculated goal in mind. He is an artist who created it simply for his own self-delight, and for the self-delight of Creation itself.” The Word of God thus becomes something very close to the word of Auden. Something close to the ecstasy of prayer as well. Poetry fulfills what Jay Hopler described in the preface to Before the Door of God: An Anthology of Devotional Poetry when he noted that “poems confront two of humankind’s most powerful actuations: the drive to create and the drive to know a creator.”

Both poetry and prayer are written in a type of transcendent tense, they seem to bring voice forward from a certain perspective of eternity. The visceral presentness of both makes them different from other forms of language, for poetry and prayer don’t merely correspond to things that have happened in the world, but they are a reality itself. Kimberly Johnson writes in the introduction to Before the Door of God that “though a lyric poem may have a narrative that unfolds over its course, the first drama it relates is the coming into being of that speaking voice,” for poetry is an ever regenerative form, it is not ossified representation of some outside subject—it is the subject. Unlike painter Rene Magritte’s visual pun “The Treachery of Images,” with its depiction of a pipe with the sentence “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” a similar gambit makes no sense with a poem. There is no delay in verse, it has an immediacy that oracularly announces itself as a presence. Poetry and prayer share in this incantational quality, because they trade not only in representation but in a certain theurgy. This is the position that the narrator addresses to God in Charles Simic’s poem “Prayer” included in his collection A Wedding in Hell: “You who know only the present moment, /O Lord, /You who remember nothing/Of what came before.” An encapsulation of prayer and lyric alike, as well as the experience of being God in eternity, for unlike other modes, verse exists perennially in this moment we live in right now.

Because poetry and prayer, as an experience, belong not to the past or the future but rather a continual present, they both have the incantational quality of being able to resurrect that which is gone, of bringing to bear an actual presence with the reading of a poem, the chanting of a prayer. Eagleton, with good reason, sees something fallacious in this claim, arguing in How to Read a Poem that “On this view, form and content in poetry are entirely at one because the poem’s language somehow ‘incarnates’  its meaning,” but dismissing such romanticism by saying that “words which ‘become’ what they signify cease to be words at all.” But that might be precisely the point: that which distinguishes poetry from prose isn’t form, but the quality by which the former does actually, in some way, invoke or “call down” a different reality from the one in which the reader exists— while making allowances to poetic “prose” being capable of that same quality.

The Harlem Renaissance poet Jean Toomer performs such an incantation in his lyric “Georgia Dusk.” Toomer writes of a “lengthened tournament for flashing gold,/Passively darkens for night’s barbecue” where men gather and “Their voices rise… the pine trees are guitars,/Strumming, pine-needles fall like sheets of rain…/Their voices rise… the chorus of the cane/Is caroling a vesper to the stars.” Poetry is not editorial or syllogism, but it is a calling forth, a transubstantiation. With Toomer’s invocation of this rural black town observing the simple eucharist of a barbecue, how is it not possible to feel the warm breeze of Georgia dusk whistling through the pines, as the yolk dusk descends into the hills, the drone of cicada punctuating the gathering coolness? That Toomer can put the reader there, it seems to me, is not an example of the “incarnational fallacy;” it is simply an incarnation.

Paterson differentiates prose from poetry by noting that with the former, the “well-chosen word describes the thing as if it were present,” but the latter “persists in its attempt to invoke, to call down its subject from above, as if there were no ‘as if’ at all.” That’s because when we read a poem, whether our loud or in our head, we embody the speaker. We’re possessed by the narrator, this spooky character who isn’t quite equivalent with the poet herself. Johnson argues that “poetic speech endures with a kind of immortality. Among other effects, it preserves the human voice far beyond the scale of human life…. the voice that is preserved over centuries comes to the reader’s corporeal as well as intellectual awareness, resurrected anew, as it were, through each new reader’s ears and eyes and breath and heartbeats.”

When we read Marianne Moore’s poem “By the Disposition of Angels,” which takes as its subject this quality of possession itself, we resurrect both Moore and the immanent voice that speaks and exists beyond mere personality, querying “Messengers much like ourselves? Explain it. /Steadfastness the darkness makes explicit? /Something heard most clearly when not near it?” Moore’s poem gives voice, literally and figuratively, to this precise strangeness of poetry and prayer: it’s ability to make us hear that which seems to not be there. “Poet and reader enter a bizarre cultural contract where they agree to create the poem through the investment of an excess of imaginative energy,” argues Paterson, “This convergence of minds adds a holographic dimension to the poem, one denied other modes of human speech. A poem’s elements can sometimes appear to have been summoned into existence with enough potency to engage our physical senses.”

Possession isn’t the same thing as transformation, however. When we pray, we speak to God; as when we read and write poetry, we perhaps speak to our narrators. At their most ecstatic, those things blur into our selves, but when we stand up from the kneeler or close the book we return to being ourselves, what poet Malachi Black describes in his poem “Vespers,” when he writes that “Lord, you are the gulf/between the hoped-for/and the happening.” Any recitation, any reading, has a gulf between it and the actual divine, for a poem must be a mechanism of approaching an eternity that we never quite reach. Ronald Thomas, Welsh poet and Anglican priest, describes in his poem “Kneeling” the “Moments of great calm,/ Kneeling before an altar/Of wood in a stone church/In summer, waiting for the God/To speak.” The simple physicality of his description takes part in that incantational poetics whereby we can transpose ourselves into that private moment, but the illusory nature of that experience isn’t obscured. We are, after all, “waiting” for God to speak, and that uncertainty, that agnostic quiet isn’t incidental to the prayerful qualities of poetry—it’s instrumental to it. Thomas writes, quipping on St. Augustine, to “Prompt me, God;/But not yet. When I speak, /Though it be you who speak/Through me, something is lost. /The meaning is in the waiting.” When Thomas humbly admits that “something is lost,” it’s an acknowledgement that the possessions of poetry are incomplete, yet that gulf between God’s understanding and our fumbling is the vacuum into which poetry must dissipate.

Because if there is anything that poetry and prayer share, that distinguishes them from other forms of language—be they plays and novels, policy briefs or automobile manuals—it’s that both must engage with that abiding sense of mystery that exists in those silent places where the soul dwells. A novel or a play or an essay can have mystery at its core, and can be all the better for it—but such mystery is incidental to it being in whatever particular genre it happens to be in. Philosopher George Steiner noted in Language and Silence: Essays 1958-1967 that “When the word of the poet ceases, a great light begins,” explaining that “Language can only deal [with]… a special, restricted segment of reality. The rest, and it is presumably the much larger part, is silence.” What differentiates poetry is not form or content, but that poetry is the language that is written not in words, but rather in the gaps between them. Poetry and prayer are implicated in that mystery, that sacrament. “Mysteries expound mysteries,” writes Moore, and it’s a good shared explanation of prayer and its identical twin poetry.

That sense of divine mystery is invoked by our most immaculate of modern devotional poets Denise Levertov in her “Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus” from the collection Candles in Babylon. Writing at the mystical confluence of her duel Jewish and Christian background, between America and Europe, the political and the sacred, Levertov voiced the “deep unknown, guttering candle, /beloved nugget lodged in the obscure heart’s/last recess” more fully than any poet after the Second World War. Levertov is an incarnational poet, able to describe “woodgrain, windripple, crystal, /in crystals of snow, in petal, leaf… fossil and feather, /blood, bone, song, silence.” A poet of immanence, but one for whom all of this world is built not on exhalation, but inhalation, of “our hope… in the unknown, /in the unknowing.” This is the subject of all poetry and prayer, the injunction “O deep, remote unknown, /O deep unknown, /Have mercy upon us.” The beating heart of all poetry and prayer must be this blessed silence, this sacred unknown. Such a faith is what animates both vocations. For when we approach the sepulcher of that which Herbert called “something understood.”

Image Credit: Needpix.

Steal This Meme: Beyond Truth and Lies

“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”—Audre Lorde

At that unhappy moment when Donald Trump took the oath of office with what has proven to be an attitude of obscene disingenuity, I happened to be 38,000 miles in the air somewhere above the Pacific off the coast of California. By happy and fortuitous circumstance, I was in possession of a ticket to Honolulu in January, the month when most of my colleagues’ professional society of literary scholars chooses to force its members into dreary hotel conference rooms in Boston or Chicago. By unhappy circumstance, of course, this day scheduled for my trip to God’s own terrestrial paradise (everything they say of Hawaii is true) happened to be the genesis of our never-ending Annus horribilis. All morning I’d harbored irrational fears about what would happen at the exact second when Trump put his hand to Bible (for the first time I assume). When I bundled into a cab on First Avenue headed on the Van Wyck towards Kennedy, the pink-gauze sky was just breaking over shrouded Brooklyn and Queens and Barack Obama was still president.

Half-a-day later, when we touched down some 5,000 miles away, having completely embargoed myself of any social media or news, and thus being blissfully unaware of “American carnage” and the inauguration speech that even George W. Bush thought was “weird shit,” I was able to fall asleep near Oahu sands in a cocoon of immense privilege while pretending that I was somehow not even in America anymore (Trump started his political career claiming something similar). With morning, I first encountered Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who in recent years has attempted to rehabilitate himself on Dancing with the Stars in that characteristically malevolent and tacky way that Americans have perfected, with his bizarre insistence that the National Mall contained “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe,” an easily disproven claim. A day later, and Trump adviser and amoral mercenary Kellyanne Conway would defend Spicer while on Meet the Press, arguing simply that they were in possession of “alternative facts.”

Because a Catholic scrupulosity compels me to never totally enjoy a vacation, I’d taken with me the Anglo-Russian television producer and London School of Economics media theorist Peter Pomerantsev’s crucial Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia. When I came across the unfamiliar title at the Strand’s Central Park book stand a few days before, I suspected that there might be something helpful in Pomerantsev’s account of how the Kremlin had constructed a strange, chimerical, mutant form of authoritarianism that wasn’t just built on lies, but where lies themselves became the operative ideology, an epistemically anarchic relativism that he called “post-modern dictatorship.” The son of Soviet dissidents who moved to Britain and later Germany, where his father first worked in Russian programing for the BBC and then Radio Free Europe, Pomerantsev would later spend a decade in his native country also working in media, where he could watch as Vladimir Putin, with the assistance of Svengalis like Vladislav Surkov, mastered the dizzying, confusing, relativist aesthetics of modern Kremlin propaganda.

Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible presents a Russian authoritarianism that owes as much to the cruelty of reality television as the Stalinist show trial; as much as they used to make the commissar vanish, they’re just as content to make people disbelieve the commissar (though ricin is still useful sometimes). Pomerantsev describes a country that “had seen so many worlds flick through in such blistering progression—from communism to perestroika to shock therapy to penury to oligarchy to mafia state to mega-rich—that its new heroes were left with the sense that life is just one glittering masquerade, where every role and position or belief is mutable,” so that the Russian state can be defender of a staunchly reactionary traditionalist order when that benefits its aims, or the battle-hardened fighter of fascism when that perspective assists it. What Putinism represents, argues Pomerantsev, is not ideology so much as something transcendent of truth or falsehood, where lies aren’t strategy so much as faith itself.

Now Pomerantsev broadens his scope out from Moscow, to London, Washington, Belgrade, Manila, Beijing, Mexico City, and that nebulous universe that exists in the connection between modems and smartphones in his second book This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality. He describes a “world of dark ads, psy-ops, hacks, bots, soft facts, fake news, deep fakes, brainwashing, trolls, ISIS, Putin. Trump,” where the author meets “Twitter revolutionaries and pop-up populists, trolls and elves, ‘behavioral change’ salesmen and Infowar charlatans, Jihadi fan-boys, Identitarians, truth cops, and bot herders.” While not always as unified as Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, Pomerantsev’s latest book (culled from essays originally published in The Guardian, Granta, The American Interest, and The London Review of Books) does provide a primer on how our dystopian new reality of digital simulacra came to be, what it has come to mean, and possibly how we might mitigate the worst of its effects.

Finding ferry-people across this social media Styx, Pomerantsev talks to experts like Russian dissident Lydia Savchuk who infiltrated the Internet Research Agency, the infamous St. Petersburg “troll farm” that long played a role in Moscow politics and that during the 2016 presidential elections saw “Over thirty million Americans… [share] its content among their friends and families.” The author doesn’t limit his analysis to the Kremlin, however, noting that Putinism is but “one front of a vast, global phenomenon.” Something those of us who are horrified by Trump would do well to keep at the forefront of our minds; for there is a certain type of centrist “#Resistance” person addicted to MSNBC and long conspiratorial Twitter threads who harbors the dangerous illusion that Trump is the disease and not the symptom, and that some mythic “normalcy” can be returned upon his ejection. There is also a variety of further-left individual (of which I suppose I’d include myself as a cautious fellow-traveler) who find the first group’s thinking unhelpful, but then overcorrect and end up minimizing the legitimate ideological and technological threats posed by a Kremlin that’s made itself the international of a revanchist order. What Pomerantsev makes clear is that this phenomenon is one that isn’t limited to one country—that’s precisely the point. Our crisis of democracy does not begin and end at the United States.

To that end, This Is Not Propaganda includes interviews with dissidents, hackers, and activists around the world who are attempting to fight a multi-pronged war against the cyber divisions of authoritarian states that have been able to so effectively weaponize information (and the appearance of information) over the past decade. These include the Philippine journalist Maria Ressa who has repeatedly been the target of digital attacks directed by the authoritarian president Roderigo Duterte, the Serbian democracy activist Srđa Popović who was instrumental in the movement against war criminal Slobodan Milosevic (and also literally wrote the guidebook for 21st-century agitators against oppressive governments) and the Mexican hacker Alberto Escorcia who has developed strategies for protestors to reverse-engineer some of the very same technologies used by states to spread disinformation. Pomerantsev even talks with the godfather of digital disinformation, the advertiser, analyst, and cofounder of Cambridge Analytica (which played such a decisive role in the 2016 election) Nigel Oakes. What emerges is an incomplete and sometimes inchoate picture of the second decade of our century, though one that still provides some names, faces, and intentions behind the dark avatars that swarm through Twitter like locusts spreading memes and propaganda, and the good wizards who’ve made it their mission to stop them.

Any radically new information technology alters human consciousness, and has the potential to promulgate disinformation amongst a credulous public not yet literate in the vagaries of the new order. Medieval manuscripts were no more accurate than websites; 14th-century readers of the anonymous The Travels of Sir John Mandeville thrilled to stories about dog-headed Cynocephalics, and two centuries later a rash of printed apocalyptic pamphlets, like the “English Nostradamus” Mother Shipton’s pseudographical prophecies, spread throughout Europe, driving paranoia as surely as Reddit and Twitter defuse QAnon conspiracy theories today. Yet Pomerantsev would be correct in saying that our current predicament is of a different kind, for unlike manuscript or print, our smartphones make us veritable cyborgs, creatures with super computers in our pockets who are continually, potentially connected by network to every other fellow cyborg in the world. This relativist consensus, an epistemic collapse that allows everyone to choose whatever truth is convenient to them, is a type of post-modern magical thinking. However, it isn’t just a return to archaic superstitions, but a reversal of the Enlightenment project that was based in an idea of objectivity that made the work of democracy possible. “There is nothing new about politicians lying,” writes Pomerantsev, “but what seems novel is their acting as if they don’t care whether what they say is true or false.”

We see this happening in real time if we compare the (obvious to some of us at the time) bogus rationale that the Bush administration used to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the similar way that the Trump administration has gone about validating the extrajudicial assassination of Qassem Soleimani. While the former was an unmitigated human disaster and the later may yet hopefully prove to not result in the same scope of death, the Bush administration operated as if falsehood and truth were actual categories, even while they consciously chose to mislead. They operated in quasi-official channels, sending Secretary of State Colin Powell to the United Nations to make the case for war with (compromised) intelligence, and cobbling together a coalition of other countries that supported the invasion. Trump’s Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, on the other hand, tells us to believe that Soleimani was imminently about to attack U.S. interests, and doesn’t even bother to construct a more fully fleshed out lie. At that point, we’ve left even the realm of falsehood, and enter the halls of magic. Pomerantsev explains that “Fox and the Kremlin exploit the same ideas: If reality is malleable, why can’t they introduce their own versions too? And if feelings are emancipatory, why can’t they invoke their own? With the idea of objectivity discredited, the grounds on which one could argue against them rationally disappears.”

My above account lets the Bush administration off the hook entirely too much, for the fact is that Trump is just better at deconstructing the division between truth and lie than they were. That most people know that Trump is lying—and that he still gets away with it—counterintuitively shows how masterful said lying is. Much of this has to do with the way the social media ecosystem of Facebook and Twitter have altered how people understand reality; Trump doesn’t have to make any case for the third of the country that’s going to believe what he says, no matter how absurd it might be—they’ve already made that case themselves in their own heads. The previous Republican administration had already flirted with epistemological tweaking during the Iraq catastrophe; one should remember the anonymous source high in the White House who in a gambit worthy of French philosopher Jean Baudrillard dismissed what he called “the reality-based community” to New York Times Magazine reporter Ron Susskind. Propaganda has always traded in flat-out lying—that’s its nature. Part of Pomerantsev’s argument, however, is that the new world of digital misleading has in some sense democratized tyranny, making all of us unwilling accomplices in spreading a constructed reality, whereas in the past such campaigns were obviously top-down.

Glib traditionalists could point to “post-modernism” as the origin of this free-for-all, but our current crisis of epistemology doesn’t come from French academic salons, but rather the cynical calculations of political pragmatism. Charting how the democratic promise unleashed by the fall of communism in 1989 cynically ended with the justifications for the Iraq war in 2003, Pomerantsev notes that “Words and images filled with potent meaning in East Berlin ended in Baghdad.” With democratizing events as varied as the collapse of Soviet authoritarianism, the execution of Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania, the exile of Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, the resignation of Suharto in Indonesia, and the abolishment of apartheid in South Africa, it could seem obvious to the self-satisfied liberal that the moral arc of history did indeed predictably move towards justice. “If once upon a time one could speak confidently about history’s waves of democratization flowing in a single current,” Pomerantsev writes, “now a great storm has broken out and it’s hard to tell what’s flowing where and in which direction.” We’re done with Ceausescu, Marcos, and Suharto, but now we have Putin, Viktor Orbán, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Jair Bolsonaro, Duterte, and Trump. Such is the state as aptly described by documentary filmmaker Astra Taylor in her perceptive book Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone when she writes that “Political gridlock, corruption, unaccountable representatives, and the lack of meaningful alternatives incense people across the ideological spectrum; their anger simmers at dehumanizing bureaucracy, blatant hypocrisy, and lack of voice.” Into that vacuum defuses the state agitprop of cynical actors willing to hijack our agency for their own coercive ends.

Such meme engineering rewrites the DNA of consciousness, acting as a parasite in the host and completely altering their worldview. In a passage that will no doubt have many nodding in recognition, Pomerantsev describes “people I have known my whole life [that] slip away from me on social media, reposting conspiracies from sources I have never heard of… which is rearranging our relations and identities with its own logic, or in the cause of someone else’s interests we can’t even see.” By way of making contrast between the previous century’s authoritarians and today’s savvier Madison Avenue and Silicon Valley-trained versions, Pomerantsev begins each chapter with a biographical account of his own parent’s running afoul of the Soviet government during the 1970s. In his family’s story, information was something emancipatory that could dispel the official Kremlin line, with censorship the cudgel used by the Soviets to oppress those who opposed them. Today, however, and it’s a surfeit of information that does the same, so much data that nobody can sort through it.

Censorship in 2020 functions not literally, but rather by screaming untruths so loudly through so many channels that reality itself is drowned out. Appropriately enough this is a free market version of propaganda, the tools of the state’s lies privatized and outsourced to your friends, family, and coworkers. The irony is that in the Soviet Union, everybody knew that what Pravda printed was a lie; today people share links from dubious sites pushing a line to assist the status quo under the guise of subversion. Our dire situation was summed up by the Ukrainian investigator Tatyana Gerasimova, who helped conduct an investigation of a tragic fire in Odessa that occurred following the Russian invasion, and which separatists and nationalists each blamed the other for, the truth ultimately being more complicated. Despite that nuance, Gerasimova explains that the truth can’t set one free if you’re incapable of recognizing the truth when presented with it. “Everyone lives in their own reality, everyone has their own truth, there is no reconciliation. We created the investigation to show that there is a difference between truth and lies. In that sense we failed.” So inured are we to the idea that there might be a truth, that there has been a trickle-down rewriting of reality, where now Big Brother doesn’t even have to convince you that 2+2=5. You saw it memed by your uncle on Facebook (the Deep State was the one who said 2+2=4 all along).

Our hellscape’s prophet of authoritarianism is less Franz Kafka than Philip K. Dick. Kafka’s vision of totalitarianism is of the show-trial, the prison, the centrally organized bureaucratic state whereby in The Castle he could write, “If a man has his eyes bound, you can encourage him as much as you like to stare through the bandage, but he’ll never see anything.” In our current world, we’ve put the bandage on ourselves and forgotten that we’re wearing it. Ours is much closer to the neon cacophony of Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep where a character says “Everything is true…Everything anybody has ever thought.” The cruel irony of that is if everything is true, then nothing is true; if everything is permitted, then nothing is.

Pomerantsev writes that “More information was supposed to mean more freedom to stand up to the powerful. But it also has given the powerful new ways to crush and silence dissent.” As it has turned out it’s the melee of continual information shared by our zombified fellow citizens that’s proven the easiest method to awash us in propaganda. Compared to the authoritarians of the past, Pomerantsev writes that “today’s strongmen are not so rigid. Instead of hanging on to one single ideology, they have learned to speak with different tongues.” To the detriment of all of us, one of the languages they’re most proficient in is a rhetoric that has been available on A.M. radio and amongst shock jocks and stand-up comics for generations, but that has been divorced from any transgressive import it may have once had, now rather serving the purposes of state power.

Leftists were once the funny ones, the Dadaist antics of groups like the Yippies potently using rude and obscene humor to challenge state and corporate hegemony, for “laughter removes the aura of impenetrability around an authoritarian leader.” A perusal of much of woke Twitter will demonstrate that the left has disastrously ceded ground in this regard, the import of humor being taken up by the right in a manner that poses serious challenges to the cause of justice. Pomerantsev recounts visiting popular Manila comedy clubs where stand-ups “pick victims in the audience and roast them, taunting them about the size of their penises, or for their weight, and this right in front of entire families who all laugh along in the relatives’ humiliation.” Duterte’s rhetoric mimics such stand-ups exactly, and goes a long way to explaining his popularity in the ostensibly socially conservative nation. “It’s a type of humor he shares with a troupe of male leaders across the world… [where] toilet humor is used to show how ‘anti-establishment’ they are.”

Such is the disingenuous use of “I was just joking” by leaders from Putin to Trump, who are able to deploy a cavalier cruelty without repercussions. It’s an ingenious hacking of liberals’ natural affinity for the freedom of speech, but done for profoundly illiberal aims. We still understandably valorize the jester speaking truth to power, men like Bill Hicks and George Carlin who were willing to say the seven words you can’t say on television, because if you’re barred from saying the word “fuck” then you’re barred from saying “fuck the president.” But our new authoritarians understand something about amoral tools—they can be asymmetrically used. Pomerantsev notes that “when such language is used consistently by men with real power to degrade those weaker, this humor becomes menacing: It lays the linguistic path to humiliating victims in other ways as well, to as pace where all norms disappear.” Laughter, it seems, is indeed indelible in the hippocampus.

Voters with NPR tote-bags and New Yorker subscriptions may have been caught off guard by the 2016 election results, but they were never the audience for The Apprentice anyhow. The current crisis in democracy, facilitated by cruel and relativist propaganda, is much less surprising if you’re familiar with the past several decades of popular culture that doesn’t receive prestige awards. Trump’s rhetoric matches not the highfalutin pretensions of William F. Buckley, George Will, and The National Review, but it owes everything to A.M. radio sports talk, shock jocks like Don Imus and Howard Stern (neither of whom were supporters of the White House’s current occupant), reality television, and the preening and theatrics of World Wrestling Entertainment. Following the release of the Access Hollywood tape, there was much hand-wringing about how people don’t talk like Trump did in that video—but of course many people do.

For his supporters, the “joy of Trump is to validate the pleasure of spouting shit, the joy of pure emotion, often anger, without any sense,” writes Pomerantsev. It’s not that they’re unaware of the cruelty; the cruelty is the point. While I had long been more pessimistic about the election then many of my liberal friends and colleagues, I definitively knew that Hillary Clinton would lose when on that Tuesday night I saw CNN interview a woman in a Pennsylvania bar (of the sort that I’m estimably familiar with) who dismissed the “pussy grabbing” comments by saying (and I paraphrase) “I don’t care. Lots of women talk that way too.” From a certain perspective, the election of Trump—a gameshow host who is in the WWE Hall of Fame and made his entertainment career appearing on Stern and talking about how his daughter is sexy—seems less a fluke and more a dispiriting inevitability.

This Is Not Propaganda is not necessarily a hopeful read. True, some of the figures whom he speaks with, from Popović to Escorcia, have and do contend with far worse than we do, and they are able to keep a type of revolutionary optimism. It’s hard to ignore Trump, and in some cases it’s malpractice not to consider him when necessity compels us. And yet few of us will wish on our death-beds that we’d wasted more words on his inanities, his narcissism, his bloated absurdity. One of authoritarianism’s most insidious characteristics is that it doesn’t give you the option to ignore it.

Pomerantsev doesn’t necessarily offer the average citizen much in the way of a map out of the quagmire, though that’s less his intent. He alludes that if we’re to hope for any kind of restoration of truth, of objectivity, of rationality, of democracy, that we must “formulate a vision of the alternative political model you want to see.” What this looks like will be hard to say, but it’s necessary to figure that out. What it won’t look like is the endless, lame obsession over Trump, who wants us to obsess over him: all of our own memes inexpertly put together about “Mango Mussolini,” “Cheeto Jesus,” and “Drumpf.” We can’t win that game, so let’s stop playing it. Tyrants may not believe in truth, but there should be succor in knowing that truth is very much real—and patient. “It’s coming from the feel / That this ain’t exactly real,” wrote that prophet Leonard Cohen, “Or it’s real, but it ain’t exactly there.” And yet the chorus could still be sung that “Democracy is coming to the USA.” Hopefully.

Image: rob walsh

Returning to Books After Climbing Peak TV

In 2016, I started keeping track of the television shows I watched, along with books and movies. That was the year I started taking television a bit more seriously, I guess. Or maybe I just wanted to see where all my time was going. This year, when I was looking at my books list to compose my annual “Year in Reading” post, I noticed that the amount of TV I’d watched had dropped dramatically. I started a lot of different series, but hardly finished any of them. Suddenly, it seems, I’m a lot pickier about what TV shows I watch, as picky as I have always been about books.

It used to be that I would try to watch what everyone else seemed to be watching. I grew up in a household where the television was mostly off-limits, so as an adult, I’ve relished the opportunity to stay current. The Sopranos, The Office, Mad Men, Friday Night Lights: These are a few of the mid-aughts shows I started watching because of the cultural conversation around them, rather than my personal interest in the material. I continued to watch them because I liked them, but for the past few years, the social pressure to keep up with a particular show has dissipated. I’m hardly the first person to observe that everyone seems to be watching their own version of TV. In the same way that I never expect anyone to be reading the same book as I am, I don’t have any expectation that other people will be watching the same TV shows. There are some things that I watch that are so obscure I’d be shocked to find another viewer. (Is there anyone besides me and my seven-year-old who watches PBS’s Monstrum, a series of mini-lectures about famous monsters?) With the recent exception of Succession, I can’t think of the last show that I tuned into because it was What People Are Watching.

Without the social pressure to try a particular show, I’ve been choosier. There’s more TV than ever before, yet I find myself listlessly scrolling through the options in the same way I sometimes gaze at my bookshelves, wondering what I’m in the mood to read next. Where I once would have stayed with a better-than-average TV series because my friends and family were into it, I now have to feel personally compelled to watch a show. Basically, I hold TV to the same standard that I hold books—not a higher one, necessarily, but more idiosyncratic.

When I think about how I choose what to read, it’s either nonfiction about a subject that I’m curious about, or it’s fiction with a voice that speaks to me, for whatever mysterious reason. It’s still hard for me to guess what fiction I’m going to adore. Earlier this year, I stayed up until the wee hours to finish Ling Ma’s Severance, a zombie-office novel that I was not expecting to be my cup of tea. I had a similar experience with HBO’s Chernobyl, a show that didn’t initially sound like something I wanted to dwell on, but once I started watching, I eagerly awaited every new installment.

In this era of Peak TV, I try to approach a new series with the same open mind I have for contemporary fiction—and with the same critical gaze. I’ll try more shows than I used to, but I’ll give up more quickly, too. Sometimes that means I’ll enjoy and genuinely admire a couple of episodes but don’t feel the need to continue (The Bold Type, Lodge 49, Queen Sugar). Five years ago, I think I would have given those shows more of a chance. I remember someone telling me that I had to watch about seven episodes of Mad Men before it got good. I actually followed that advice, but I can’t imagine doing it now. Life’s too short, and there’s so much more TV out there anyway. But also: the other night I re-watched a random episode from season six of Mad Men because I couldn’t decide what new thing to watch.

I choose books with the resigned sense that I will never in my lifetime read all of the authors recommended to me. It’s strange to have that feeling with television. As with classic unread novels, certain TV shows have begun to carry with them a hint of obligation. There are so many shows that people assure me are really good, really smart, really fun, shows like Breaking Bad and Borgen and Schitt’s Creek. Then there are the documentaries that promise to teach history: Ken Burns’s Vietnam, Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us, Ken Burns’s Country Music, OJ: Made in America—actually, I did watch OJ, and it was incredible. I would like to watch it again. But then I’d like to read Middlemarch again, too.

I don’t want to overwork this comparison or to suggest that I’m pitting books against TV. (If I’m pitting books against anything, it’s the internet.) Books and television are fundamentally different. TV is theatrical and collaborative, with stories concocted by a room full of writers, and influenced by producers with varied motivations. Even showrunners with distinctive and quirky visions, such as Donald Glover (Atlanta) or Amy Sherman-Palladino (Gilmore Girls, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) depend on their cast, crew, and production team to make certain narrative decisions. In contrast, the author of a book is in charge of all its narrative effects. Editors and publishers have their influence, but when you read a book, it’s you and the author in conversation. Books give a cozy feeling of privacy that I’ve always appreciated. TV never feels private, but it can feel lonely.

It’s possible that this essay is nothing more than a diary of my own exhaustion, of a new discernment brought on by children who leave me desiring quiet at the end of the day and news sites that shred my attention. There may be something generational going on here, too. Having come of age in an era where people tuned into the same shows, I could be bringing expectations to the medium that a younger generation doesn’t have. From what I gather from my nieces and nephews, TV shows are just one part of their daily dose of streaming entertainment, something that gets mixed in with YouTube clips, Instagram stories, memes, and other kinds of social media. This seems to be the future of entertainment, and maybe my recent choosiness regarding television shows is a reflection of the many, many things competing for my attention. As always, I feel overwhelmed. More often than not, I seek the comfort in a book.

Image: Scheier .hr

Prayer Is Poetry

“Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same things as prayer. It presupposes faith and love.” —Simone Weil, “Attention and Will” (1942)

“I do not mean to deny the traditional prayers I have said all my life; but I have been saying them and not feeling them.” —Flannery O’Connor, private “prayer journal” (1946)

Murmuring fills the stone halls of Mt. Athos’s monasteries, exhaling like breath into a cold and clear morning. With its thousands of monks, there is not silence—there is the opposite of silence. Excluding the sounds of nature—the cooing of turtle doves and the swooping of Dalmatian pelicans; the sound of rain hitting the granite paths of the isle; the lapping of the ocean upon the jagged rocks—there is the omnipresent shudder of thousands of men’s faintly mumbled devotions, called to prayer by one of their brothers hitting the metal of a semantron with a wooden mallet. Like chill dew condensed on green leaves still black before the dawn, prayer clings in the atmosphere of this place. Prayer is the ether of Athos through which light must travel; the dun of monks chanting at every hour of the day and for all days is like a holy cosmic background radiation.

At the tip of that rocky peninsula, jutting like a limb into the wine-dark Aegean, are the 20 communities of the Orthodox Monastic Republic of Athos, an outcropping that has been continuously home to ascetic, celibate, reverential monks for 18 centuries. There, overlooking the Greek sea, sit buildings like the blue onion-domed mirage of St. Panteleimon Monastery, filled with Russian monks keeping their liturgy, and the Byzantine castle that constitutes the Stavronikita Monastery in honor of St. Nicholas. That holy bishop looks down on his novices with black eye from gold icon; St. Nicholas is joined by companions such as St. Gregory, St. Nektarios, and the gentle Virgin of Theotokos, as painted by the great artist Theophanes the Cretan. In their otherworldly position, what do the icons see? There they watch scores of dark robed monks, who with lips covered by black and grey and white beards repeat the same prayer as if breathing, over and over: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Such a process, the continual repetition of the Jesus Prayer until it begins to lose coherence, in the same way that a continually uttered word begins to sound like nothing if you do it long enough, lends the words a different sort of significance. Any true hearing of the prayer has to consider the words beyond the words, that which it gestures toward in dictionaries that exist beyond literal statement. Meaning is sacrificed for mystery, and in the process an infinity is gained. Many who use this approach, known as Hesychasm, do so “not just as a philosophical device for indicating God’s utter transcendence, but also, and much more fundamentally, as a means for attaining union with Him through prayer,” notes Timothy Ware in his classic introduction The Orthodox Church. The spiritual cosmonauts who are Hesychasts engage in this extreme repetitive prayer, chasing the literal semantic meanings out of words like souls departing from dead flesh, because such “negations…acted as a springboard or trampoline whereby the mystical theologian sought to leap up with all the fullness of his or her being in the living mystery of God,” as Ware explains.

As superficial attributes are burnt away, the sinner is to encounter that noble silence that is at the core of all of us, the ineffable utterances of prayer. A process whereby those enraptured in the liturgy will subtract that which defines their externalities; a prayer so fervent that it will blind your eyes, mute your mouth, and deafen your ears. This is prayer at its most extreme—absolute, indomitable, and unceasing. Philip and Carol Zaleski explain in Prayer: A History that the “roots of the Jesus Prayer lie in the traditional belief that names contain power…and that repetition of a name concentrates and focuses this power.” The famed utterance is based on these contemplative principles of Hesychasm formulated within Eastern Orthodoxy, whereby the individual empties her soul out so as to make room for those defusing molecules of holiness. In such a space, it is not just the spirit, mind, heart, and mouth that utter the anchorite’s prayer, but indeed the elbow and ankle, the eyelash and earlobe, the knuckle and wrist also. Writing in the fourth century, the Church Father John Cassian said that the Jesus Prayer is to be one that you think upon “as you sleep, as you eat, as you submit to the most basic demands of nature…You will write it upon the threshold and gateway of your mouth, you will place it on the walls of your house and in the inner sanctum of your heart.” For if the Jesus Prayer is a narrative, it is one into which those who pray must descend; if it is a poem, it is one where the words themselves become indistinguishable from the reader, where the recitation becomes life.

The Jesus Prayer is not mere supplication, rather it’s a variation on what Walt Whitman intoned in Leaves of Grass whereby “your very flesh shall be a great poem.” When one transforms themselves into an evocation, it matters not whether we’re speaking of “prayer” or “poetry,” for in heaven those categories are the same thing. Prayer is like poetry in that the greatest examples of both take as their greatest subjects themselves. All true prayers are about prayer; all beautiful poetry is really about poetry. Like all divine utterances, the Jesus Prayer is also narrative and rhetoric, capable of being read critically. This is not to diminish the import of this celebrated Orthodox prayer; we must avoid collapsing the liturgical into the aesthetic, the profundity of ritual into the mere marketplace of art. But the Jesus Prayer—all 12 words, four clauses, three commas, and one period that constitute it—wouldn’t be as effective were it not also poetry, if it did not also have an endlessly regenerative story at its center. A script into which any penitent could imagine themselves.

For those who aren’t Orthodox, but are familiar with the Jesus Prayer, it’s perhaps read less as literature itself and more a concept that may have been encountered in literature. The prayer plays a large part in the plot of J.D. Salinger’s novel Franny and Zoey, whereby the former of the two Upper East Side Glass sisters becomes obsessed with the Jesus Prayer after reading an account of it in the 19th-century anonymous Russian tract called The Way of a Pilgrim. As Franny recounts to her college boyfriend, when considering unceasing prayer as is practiced on Athos, one must emphatically ask if they had ever heard “anything so fascinating in your life, in a way?” Far from mere neurotic scrupulosity, the Jesus Prayer is a melding of the person with the poem, whereby the author of The Way of a Pilgrim could say that “Sometimes my heart would feel as though it were bubbling with joy; such lightness, freedom, and consolation were in it.” The repetition of prayer is like wheels turning in the wind, equally dispelling meaning and its malignant sibling worry. Franny was right to be fascinated.

So, let’s close read the Jesus Prayer as poetry. It begins with that invocation, a calling upon Christ as if Homer entreating the muse; it transitions into the statement of identity for the Son of God, whose majesty is contrasted with the narrator of the lyric who is in need of saving grace. The plaintiveness of requesting mercy has the weighted heaviness of its simple declaration. So much is held in those last two words; the indefinite article indicating the universality of sin, the confession of that condition the material for all great drama. The Jesus Prayer is a microfiction written in the present tense, where the main character is whoever should be speaking it. The great tale it tells is that of unearned salvation. The peroration is inconclusive, the ending yet to be written.

God will hear any prayer as poetry—even the recitation of the alphabet or guttural nonsense syllables may be recognized by the Lord as prayer, but humans require prosody to stick in the brain. Too often prayer is dismissed by the secular because it’s reduced to mere plea for intercession; it’s slurred as being a cosmic gift-card, and not recognized for what it actually is—the only poetic genre defined by its intended audience being the Divine. Not enough attention is paid to the poetic aspects of prayer, scarcely more attention is paid to the prayerful qualities of poetry. Prayer is just as deserving of critical analysis, of close reading and interpretation through the methods of literary interpretation as any verse is. Such is the position of The New Yorker’s esteemed book critic James Wood, who in his introduction to the Penguin Deluxe Edition of the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer’s 1549 The Book of Common Prayer argued that the Church of England missal marked “one of the great, abiding works of English literature.” There are a handful of anthologies that treat prayer with the literary interest expressed by Wood. The Oxford Book of Prayer is an ecumenical anthology compiled by a group of scholars that goes beyond Christianity to explore the varieties of the poetic numinous, with the committee member George Appleton explaining that their desire was to express admiration for “all who value the religious experience of mankind, and are seeking the Eternal Mystery and Transcendence.” Religion popularizer Karen Armstrong offered her own selection of prayers as poems in the collection Tongues of Fire: An Anthology of Religious and Poetic Experience, which is sadly out of print. But for the most part, there is an endemic critical fallacy separating prayer and poetry.  

Theologians frequently divide prayers into five categories: adoration, petition, thanksgiving, contrition, and confession; in an act of Episcopalian parsimony the essayist Anne Lamott collapses those categories in her new-age guide Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. Certainly prayer as a genre has multiple uses, with petition for the Lord to redress our needs and desires but the least of these. That’s not to diminish the importance of supplication; there are few things more understandable, universal, and human than the individual crying out to God in helplessness. Even God Himself supposedly does it as He dies upon the cross. If poetry is to be an expression of the breadth of humanity in its full experience, than the various purposes of prayer are a helpful encapsulation of what it means to be a person; running the gamut from ecstatic wonder to humble gratitude, desperation to guilt. The most powerful of prayers arguably embody all of those reasons for praying in the first place, because it’s not always easy to separate the terrible wonder toward God from our desire for redemption or our cries for help.

Filmmakers often understand the innate dramatic potential of a prayer, whether it be John Cazale’s stoic Fredo calmly reciting a Hail Mary in the seconds before his brother Michael, as played with reptilian efficacy by Al Pacino, shoots him in the back of the head during an ill-fated fishing trip in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather: Part II; bellowed out in horror and sadness like Harvey Keitel’s tortured scream within a cathedral at the conclusion Abel Ferrara’s gritty noir depiction of a corrupt cop in Bad Lieutenant; or Samuel L. Jackson’s character Jules Winnfield reciting scripture (hubristically invented by director Quentin Tarantino) before executing someone who has run afoul of him in Pulp Fiction. If crime drama seems heavy on prayer, then it’s because prayer isn’t only for quiet meditation, but exists at those places where sin and the sacred must by necessity occupy the same space. Such is the explanation as memorably delivered by Jackson, who reflects that when it comes to his scriptwriter’s pseudo-scriptural inflection, “I been saying that shit for years. And if you heard it, that meant your ass. I never gave much thought to what it meant. I just thought it was some cold-blooded shit to say to a motherfucker…But I saw some shit this morning that made me think twice…The truth is… you’re the weak, and I am the tyranny of evil men. But I’m trying.”

Prayer must by definition be extreme; to make oneself a conduit for the transcendent by words artfully arranged is, in a materialistic culture dominated by ruthless pragmatism, a transgressive practice. For those who reject prayer as maudlin affectation, more Thomas Kincaid than Caravaggio, know that the later has been at the forefront of the sacred a lot longer than the former. Not surprisingly, but strangely under remarked on, is the understandable facility with that poets themselves have in composing prayers. The 19th-century novelist Anne Brontë wrote her own subversive supplication in 1844, asking “My God! O let me call Thee mine! / Weak, wretched sinner though I be, / My trembling soul would fain be Thine, / My feeble faith still clings to Thee.” The poem is perfectly orthodox (lower-case “o” emphasized), for there would be nobody in the Church of England at the time who would look askance at confession of their faith’s fallibility. Yet there is also an eroticism in Brontë’s lyric, the romantic connotations of asking the beloved to be the speaker’s, the desire to cling to the beloved. In her language she calls back to the 17th-century Metaphysical tradition of George Herbert, or especially John Donne; in her punctuation she calls forward to Whitman. The forwardness of her confession that “Not only for the past I grieve, / The future fills me with dismay” is Brontë’s alone, however, the universality of such an observation paradoxically belying its personal nature.

Some of our greatest modernists have penned prayers as captivating as anything written in a patrist’s cell or jotted in the margins of a Puritan’s notebook, and not even necessarily the obvious figures who had religious fascinations like T.S. Elliot or Ezra Pound. Broad-shouldered Carl Sandburg of that hog butchery capital of the world Chicago wrote an unlikely prayer, appropriately enough for his proletariat subject-matter entitled “Prayers of Steel.” In a manner that evokes the Holy Sonnets of Donne, Sandburg asks the Lord to “Lay me on an anvil, O God. / Beat me and hammer me into a crowbar./Let me pry loose old walls. / Let me lift and loosen old foundations.” If prayer is erotic, then it’s also violent—it’s instrumental. Such a practice is to be a technology for transformation, and Sandburg’s desire is to be made into something with all of the heft, energy, and grit of sheer matter, so that God would “Beat me and hammer me into a steel spike. / Drive me into the girders that hold a skyscraper together. / Take red-hot rivets and fasten me into the central girders.” For such is a fundamental tension, a beautiful paradox of prayer—that it requires a profound humility, but is based upon the belief that a simple human can casually compose verse for the Infinite, so that he who is in repose may “be the great nail holding a skyscraper through blue nights into white stars.”

Another modernist psalmist is the Jamaican-American poet and seminal Harlem Renaissance figure Claude McKay, who composed a melancholic and intensely personal meditation in 1922, writing that “’Mid the discordant noises of the day I hear thee calling; / I stumble as I fare along Earth’s way; keep me from falling,” a declaration that is perhaps that which most sharply differentiates prayer as a subset of poetry—for unlike the later the former is always obligated to be honest (for its Reader would know if it wasn’t). In a theme that has motivated religious narrative from Paul to Augustine to Hank Williams Sr., McKay tells God that the “wild and fiery passion of my youth consumes my soul; / In agony I turn to thee for truth and self-control.” The rhyming couplets, as critically out of fashion as they were and continue to be, give the prayer the sing-song quality of hymn; their formal innocence add to the sense of helplessness that motivates the most intense of prayers.

That great wit and raconteur Dorothy Parker, more famous for her cutting gin-and-vermouth fueled quips at the Algonquin Round Table than piety, penned a beautiful and sad prayer in 1930 that James P. More Jr. described in One Nation Under God: A History of Prayer in America as “conveying a rare tenderness in the midst of personal loss.” Written in light of infidelity, miscarriage, and the omnipresent companion of alcoholism, Parker pleaded, “Dearest one, when I am dead / Never seek to follow me. / Never mount the quiet hill / Where the copper leaves are still, / As my heart is, on the tree / Standing at my narrow bed.” Parker’s sadness is a rejoinder to those who see in prayer only the myopia of personal contentment, for the asking of a cosmic favor. Rather, her prayer is an artifact of the broken ego that defines the tragedy of any prayer uttered truthfully—that prayer, if it’s to be heard, must be a ritual of ego extinction, of Hesychasm. “Only of your tenderness, / Pray a little prayer at night,” wrote Parker, “Say: ‘I have forgiven now – / I, so weak and said; O Thou, / Wreathed in thunder, robed in light, / Surely Thou wilt do no less.”

If prayer was “effective” than people wouldn’t die young, alone, sick, spurned, and forgotten; if prayer was “pragmatic” than loved ones wouldn’t suffer and pass, people wouldn’t be in debt, homes wouldn’t be foreclosed; if prayer was “useful,” than we’d never be despairing and broken. That prayer’s purpose isn’t to be effective, pragmatic, or useful speaks to a far deeper thirst that the practice quenches. Prayer isn’t about avoiding bad things; it’s about how one approaches their inevitability in a fallen world. Because I am a broken person who once drank too much, and discovered that it was impossible for me to drink less without drinking everything, I decided that it would be easier to not drink at all. As such, there’s a perhaps predictable and cliched prayer that I’ve long been partial towards, but which has as much significance to me as the Jesus Prayer had to John Cassian. The Zaleskis write of the “Serenity Prayer” that “nothing in it smacks of ideology or sectarianism, and yet its demands, if followed faithfully and to the letter, require Solomonic insight and saintly fortitude.”

Commonly attributed to the liberal Protestant minister and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who claimed that he first preached it in a sermon at an Evangelical church in western Massachusetts during World War II, the prayer was attributed by the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill W., to everyone from an “ancient Greek, an English poet, [or] an American naval officer,” as the Zaleskis write. As seen on coffee mugs, wall-hangings, key chains, and cross-stiches, the Serenity Prayer implores “God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change,/Courage to change the things we can,/And wisdom to know the difference.” This Stoic injunction is often misinterpreted as maudlin pablum by those who stop at the first sentence, misinterpreting the call to surrender as unthinking capitulation, whereas in reality it is often good sense. It’s the second sentence that has the pathos, however, and in the third there is the ingredient for all true narrative. When people are unable to know the difference we call it tragedy; when they can, we call it something else—even if tragedy remains forever a possibility.

The prayerful greatest hits have much to recommend in themselves as well, of course. Each of the great Abrahamic faiths is poetically bound by defining prayers, whether the Jewish Shema Yisrael, the Christian Pater Noster, or the Islamic Shahadah. The Shema’s blessing is both principle and poem, the short declaration “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is One,” a statement of divine synthesis, unity, consilience. The imploration that the collected people must listen raises our profane realm into the transcendent. As with the Hesychasts or Whitman, humanity itself is transposed into the very flesh of the prayer. Melvin Konner describes the phylacteries used by observant Jews in the recitation of the prayer, writing in Unsettled: An Anthropology of the Jews about “tefillin, the black leather boxes that hold the words of the Shema, fulfilling the commandment to place them as ‘a sign upon the hand’ and ‘frontlets between the eyes.’” The Shahada does something similar, presenting an axiom as a prayer, the drama implicit within it a statement about reality itself. “There is no god but God,” prays the observant Muslim, and part of the beauty of the statement lies in its tautological simplicity, self-referentiality only broken in English transliteration by orthographic convention regarding the capitalization of certain words. The Pater Noster has a similar sense of the ways in which heaven (and perhaps hell) dwell not in a beyond, but in the here and now, as clear as a poem placed in a box and affixed to the forehead. What could be more tangible than the forgiveness of debts and of our “daily bread?”

America’s greatest psalmist, Emily Dickinson, defined the genre as being “the little implement / Through which Men reach / Where Presence – is denied them,” the gap of that characteristic dash saying everything we’ve ever felt, thought, or wondered about the spaces at the center of that absent Writer we call G-d. Perhaps that old language of adoration, thanksgiving, contrition, and so on is limited, better to think of prayer as being the poetry that you internalize and take with you, a consumptive implement that burns away the detritus of personality to leave behind (w)holly ash. Prayer is the poetry that possesses the body, the kernel of a soul left over when everything else has been immolated. Poems are written for audiences, readers, the poet themselves, but only prayers are written for God.

No doubt the literary genre for which there is the greatest number of compositions, but for which the vast majority of them will never be heard or read by any living person. The only literary genre in which there need not even be words for it to be a poem. All true prayers have as their subject the drama of salvation, redemption, reconciliation, peace. Such was the request of the great Iranian poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi who in the 13th century ecstatically implored us to “Come, come, whoever you are. Wanderer, worshiper, lover of learning – it doesn’t matter, / Ours is not a caravan of despair. / Come, even if you have broken your vow a hundred times, / Come, come again, come.” So that prayer is, even when it seems to despair, a fundamentally optimistic genre. What it presupposes is that every second is a portal through which some kind of grace may enter. What it hopes is that there is somebody on the receiving end, listening.

Hong Kong and ‘The Hunger Games’

The Umbrella Movement’s kaleidoscopic and iconic “Lennon Wall” featured drawings and hand-written statements (“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one” among them) on colored post-it notes.—Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Los Angeles Review of Books, November 11, 2016

Largely absent from the coverage is a far more uplifting and meaningful visual: “Lennon Walls” bearing rainbow Post-It notes of hope and determination from Hong Kong’s residents.—Hana Meihan Davis, Washington Post, August 8, 2019

When we made plans to talk by phone a few months ago, having never met but having each read and liked short pieces the other had written, we knew what our first topic of conversation would be: Lennon Walls, a utopian feature of the Hong Kong protests that fascinates us both. The name goes back to a celebratory structure created in Prague in the early 1980s, the work of young activists who used paint to express their love for John Lennon. The original wall showed that the hopeful spirit of the song “Imagine” could survive Lennon’s assassination and stay alive even in a place of authoritarian rule. Hong Kong’s Lennon Walls—both the single 2014 one that became a key symbol of the Umbrella Movement and the many that have gone up in recent months—use Post-It Notes rather than paint, speak to local concerns, and sometimes include messages of anger and frustration, but overall have the same optimistic feel as their inspiration.

What we did not realize before speaking that first time was how quickly we would shift from utopian to dystopian themes. We soon discovered that, as different as our backgrounds and current situations are, Lennon Walls are not the only kind of creative work whose relevance for the Hong Kong crisis intrigues us. One of us may be a Californian who got his doctorate three decades ago and the other a Yale student from Hong Kong, but we share a deep interest in the dystopian vision of one writer.

Some might assume that the author in question, whose work we talked about by phone and have kept returning to in subsequent email exchanges, must be George Orwell. After all, Hong Kong protesters are pushing back against a Communist Party that is often described as running a Big Brother state. In addition, 2019 was a big year for Orwell, with the 70th anniversary of 1984 and events in Beijing and elsewhere proving him prophetic. And throughout 2019, as reports appeared detailing human rights abuses in Xinjiang and the use of high-tech surveillance across the country, the adjective “Orwellian” was used with increasing frequency to describe the Chinese Communist Party’s approach to rule.

We certainly both admire Orwell, but his dark imaginings have not been the focus of our communications. Nor has it been the murky V for Vendetta universe dreamed up by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, though some protesters in Hong Kong and other places have donned Guy Fawkes masks associated with that dystopian world. We have also not been comparing notes on the creators of the Matrix films, though a powerful late 2014 Louisa Lim article for The New Yorker quoted a veteran of the Umbrella Movement describing the year coming to an end as one during which some locals felt they had taken the “red pill” that allows characters in the franchise to see the brutal side of how power is exercised in their world.

The writer we keep circling back to is The Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins.

Where Hong Kong is concerned, 2019 was a Hunger Games year. Throughout the summer and fall, determined people, like Katniss Everdeen and other heroes in Collins’s series, took bold actions to try to overcome seemingly impossible odds. Some protesters were in their mid-teens, as Katniss was when she took on a leading role in the resistance struggle in Catching Fire, the second book in the series. Some were even younger. And there is clear evidence that the series was on the minds of some activists, for a two-part phrase that figures in the books became a common sight in Hong Kong in 2019: “If we burn, you burn with us.” This motto is similar in structure to, but has a radically different tone than, the famous “Imagine” line that we saw written out on banners and Post-It Notes in 2014: “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”

In exchanging ideas about the work of Suzanne Collins, we found that we both had The Hunger Games on our minds five years ago, around the time we each first caught sight of the original Hong Kong Lennon Wall. It was important to the elder of us then because that was the point that he started receiving blank looks in his classes when he spoke of it being useful to think of China as divided into regions where the boot-on-the-face mode of control associated with 1984 was the rule, such as Tibet and Xinjiang, and locales where Aldous Huxley’s vision of control via hedonism and distraction a la Brave New World was more relevant. The problem was that some students, while familiar with Orwell, knew little about Huxley. The elder of us began experimenting with adding comments about The Hunger Games, saying Xinjiang and Tibet were like the tightly controlled district where Katniss grew up, while Shanghai and Beijing were more like the glittering Capitol. This worked well, given how familiar nearly every student was with the novels featuring youths forced to perform as gladiators who fought to the death in televised spectacles, and even more so the films based on them.

For the younger of us, the world of The Hunger Games was important in 2014 for a more straightforward reason: She was a teenager in a school where everyone seemed to be reading the novels and seeing the films. Like many of her classmates, she had devoured the trilogy of books and watched the first three of the movies with equal tenacity. She saw the third movie—part one of Mockingjay, the series-ending novel having been broken up into two films—nearly two months into the Umbrella Movement. And she loved it. She was looking forward to the release of part two the following year, which would show audiences what it looked like when Katniss and other young rebels managed to pull off a version of the David versus Goliath story, toppling the autocrats in the Capitol. The franchise seemed to her a symbol of hope.

Neither of us thought in 2014 that The Hunger Games had direct relevance to the Umbrella Movement. The fiery filmed battle scenes were nothing like the peaceful sit-in on a major downtown thoroughfare that was the main site of action. Yes, there were rare uses of the three-finger Mockingjay resistance salute in Hong Kong that fall, as there were earlier that year in Thailand. Still, to invoke a symbol associated with a violent conflict seemed far-fetched, especially on the largely peaceful Hong Kong Island, despite some police use of tear gas and pepper spray. With hindsight, though, we had to admit that the salute’s use in Mong Kok across the harbor, where some clashes involving not just police and protesters but also pro-government thugs, gave a foretaste of darker days to come. In 2014, the occasional nods that activists made to The Hunger Games and V for Vendetta seemed a minor—not major—part of the struggle’s symbolism.

But by the middle of 2019, much had changed. A clear sign of this was the proliferation of the phrase “If we burn, you burn with us,” a key line in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1. Sometimes, it would appear on posters showing film star Jennifer Lawrence playing Katniss, who in a memorable scene shoots a flaming arrow. Sometimes, it would be painted on walls as graffiti or written out on banners. In still other cases, it would show up online beside images of real-life activists using low tech weapons, such as sling shots, which resemble those deployed by youths in the films as they fought against the more advanced armed forces of the rulers in the Capitol.

Some images coming out of Hong Kong have made The Hunger Games seem less like a dystopic fantasy than like an actual locale’s new normal. We are thinking of shots of bloodied protesters—as well as of passersby in the wrong place at the wrong time—juxtaposed with spotless police gear; of streets set alight by Molotov cocktails hurled by militant frontline protesters; of vandalized storefronts, often of buildings owned by government supporters; and of subway stations and malls filling up with tear gas, patrolled by officers with batons, guns, and darkened masks that shield their features.

And it is not just protesters who use terms that bring the series mind. “Those who play with fire will perish by it,” Yang Guang, the spokesperson of Beijing’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, warned in a press conference in August.

The Hong Kong crisis has inspired many historical comparisons, with people citing parallels to past crises centered everywhere from Belfast and Berlin to Ukraine and South Korea. None of these references are a perfect fit. None tell us what will happen next in Hong Kong. But some can help us bring blurry aspects of the ongoing struggle into sharper perspective. The same is true for forays into fiction, including references to the anime series that have inspired some protesters. We definitely see value of this kind in the Hunger Games analogy. Unlike the series, there are no clearly defined leaders of the Hong Kong protests. There are also many reasons to doubt that the ending of the struggle on the streets will resemble the simplistic and satisfying conclusion of the trilogy in which Katniss and her beloved live happily ever after in a liberated land. Still, if used judiciously, the comparison has its uses.

The main value of keeping The Hunger Games in mind when thinking about the Hong Kong crisis lies in appreciating that many participants see themselves as taking a final stand. Here, the allusion to The Matrix, as mentioned above, is helpful as well. When Beijing and its local proxies refused to give any ground in 2014 over how the next Chief Executive would be selected, despite the widespread support for the Umbrella Movement and the moderate methods protesters used to press their case, this was an eye-opening “red-pill” moment for some local residents. More such moments followed between 2015 and 2018, serving as gradual but assured wake-up calls for many in Hong Kong. For some, it was when five local booksellers whose publishing activities displeased Beijing were spirited across the border into mainland China. For others, it was Beijing’s interference with a local court gearing up to decide whether two people elected to serve on the Legislative Council should be disqualified from office for the mocking way they took their oath of office; or when word came that it would soon likely become a crime punishable by up to three years in prison to show public disrespect for the Chinese national anthem.

Events such as these helped frame 2019 as Hong Kong’s last stand, giving protesters the sense that too many of their values had been stolen away. So, too, did two things that happened early in that year, well before tear gas began to fill the air in mid-June and the first Molotov cocktails were hurled weeks later.

One important development came in April. That was when moderate leaders of the Umbrella Movement were sentenced to months of jail time on charges dating back to the non-violent rallies of 2014.

The other, which was the specific trigger of the massive march of June 9 that set the current movement in motion, was Chief Executive Carrie Lam introducing an extradition bill. For millions of Hongkongers, this was seen as the first step in creating a situation where fear of retribution would govern the city: where all residents local or foreign would worry that engaging in behavior displeasing to Beijing could mean finding themselves at the mercy of the brutal legal regime across the border. If the bill went into effect, anyone could potentially be subjected to the sort of treatment that the booksellers had had to endure—with the difference that no force or subterfuge would be required to get them across the border onto the mainland.

In a piece appearing near the start of a year, it is worth ending on a forward-looking note. So, here, despite knowing how often Hong Kong has made fools of forecasters, are some cautious predictions for the year that has just begun.

First, an easy one, since Suzanne Collins has already announced her intention to do this. 2020 will see the publication of the first addition to the Hunger Games series in a decade. It will take the form of a prequel.

Second, in Hong Kong, by contrast, there will be sequels—not to the series but to the protests of 2019. This seems a safe bet because the sense that a final stand is underway has not yet dissipated. The final weeks of the last year saw everything from a peaceful march by more than half a million people, which one of us was on the scene to witness, to new acts of vandalism that damaged buildings and renewed police violence. The first sequels have already taken place, as there have been several January protests.

Third, while there are many reasons to view the current situation across the mainland through different sorts of dystopian lenses, and while both activists and independent-minded artists are finding less and less room to maneuver there, in Hong Kong, Hunger Games analogies aside, things will not be as bleak. There will still be at least momentary flashes of hopefulness among activists and artists, even forays into utopian creativity.

One reason we make this last prediction is that when police and thugs tear down Lennon Walls, people rebuild them almost instantly. Another is that on Christmas Day, there was another clear indication that the “Imagine” spirit lives on in Hong Kong.

Here is what happened on the 25th of December. Local artist Sampson Wong and his “Add Oil Team”—known for daring, playful, and often optimistic light projections—created a work that paid homage to the billboards that John Lennon and Yoko Ono had put up around Christmastime exactly 50 years earlier in a dozen cities around the world, Hong Kong among them. “War is Over! If you want it. Happy Christmas from John and Yoko,” was the wording on those billboards half a century ago. Wong and his colleagues, choosing as a fitting canvas the now blank concrete wall in the heart of Hong Kong Island that in 2014 was turned into the city’s first Lennon Wall, projected this variation on Christmas Day: “TYRANNY IS OVER! If You Want It. Happy 2019 from Add Oil Team, Hong Kong.”

Image: William Sauro/The New York Times Photo Archives

The Fashion of Jane Austen’s Novels

Dress in the Age of Jane Austen has been a long time coming. It started out as a chance comment in 2013 from Professor Aileen Ribeiro, author of foundational books on dress history such as The Art of Dress: Fashion in England and France 1750 to 1820. We were standing chatting in the snowy grounds of Chawton House, once owned by Jane Austen’s brother Edward Knight, who was adopted by childless cousins and changed his surname. The gracious Elizabethan manor had become a center for studying women’s lives and writings, but we were there for the filming of the BBC documentary Pride and Prejudice: Having a Ball, which sought to recreate the famous Netherfield ball scene from Jane Austen’s most beloved novel. I had made a hand-stitched replica gown for the production and appeared as the costume expert. During conversation, Professor Ribeiro mused on the fact that there was no good book on Regency dress. I agreed, but was taken by (flattered) surprise when she said she thought I would be the perfect person to write one. The conversation moved on. However, the idea’s seed started growing quietly in the back of my head. Six months later, I had decided to write what I privately thought of as The Big Book of Regency Dress.
My introduction to the clothes of Britain’s Regency period (c. 1795-1821) was through the body and life of Jane Austen, by recreating a silk pelisse coat, the only known garment connected with the author. Her incredibly observant writing, combined with the breadth of research existing on her and her family, made Austen the perfect starting point. Because I began with her physicality, I mused on the importance of the bodily self as the starting point for imagining and wearing fashion. From this center emerged the book’s structure, which moves outwards in concentric circles from Self, through the experiences of Home, Village, Country, City, Nation and finally, World. Locating seemingly English local fashions within their wider global contexts was important to me as an Australian historian. Without Britain’s world trade, none of the heaving bosoms dear to screen adaptations would have been clad in muslin gowns and Kashmir shawls.
I also wanted to go back to first principles. Regency fashion attracts a lot of myths, like that women stopped wearing stays or corsets, or damped their dresses to achieve a clinging fit. Did they really? And if not, what were Austen’s gentry peers actually wearing? The research involved scouring every kind of source I could think of, peering into people’s washing lists, their account books and recipes, taking advice from professionals of the time, and reading a lot of second-rate fiction. I also amassed thousands of images of clothed Regency people, only a comparative few of which appear in the book. Here’s some that didn’t make it.

A Virtuoso and a Fly, Isaac Cruikshank, 1796, Lewis Walpole Library.

Continuing an 18th-century tradition of depicting scholarly men in loose “banyans” or robes, this “virtuoso” of 1796 combines the domestic informality or undress of a turban and plaid gown—probably made of Indian Madras checked cotton—with outdoor shoes with buckles. The corner of his by now old-fashioned waistcoat with long skirts peeps from below his gown.

Maria Edgeworth, John Downman, 1807, Wikimedia.

Anglo-Irish author Maria Edgeworth’s letters are a font of information about dress and dressing practices. By comparison, only 161 of an estimated 3,000 of Austen’s letters survive. Edgeworth moved in more exalted social circles as a celebrated author, which Austen unfortunately never lived to experience. The Edgeworth letters share fashion details of the aristocracy as well as her tactics for dressing well in such company. In this portrait, the writer wears a blue satin gown, and her age-appropriate cap is bedecked with matching ribbons.

Negligence, Daniel Thomas Egerton, 1823, Lewis Walpole Library

Images of dressing practices are harder to find than the finished ensembles. In a satirical yet detailed portrayal of the effort required to appear negligibly dressed, as was the fashion, many intimate aspects of the male dressing room are revealed. The snoozing servant’s clothing, including knee breeches, is less up to date than his master who wears newly fashionable trousers.

Comfort, Unsigned; probably by Charles Williams, c. 1810. Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle, New York Public Library.

Regency women didn’t wear underpants. She is reading a copy of The Monk by Matthew Lewis, a wildly popular Gothic novel of the sort Jane Austen sends up in Northanger Abbey.

Cloak, late 18th century. Purchase, Irene Lewisohn Bequest, 1969. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Englishwomen wore bright red worsted or woolen cloaks throughout the 18th century and into the Regency period. Foreign visitors thought them a peculiar and charming local style. Visual sources show the ubiquitous scarlet garments worn in the country by everyone from local gentry girls through to peddlers and street sellers.

Boot and Shoe Shop from Poetical Sketches of Scarborough, 1813. Public domain.

A vision of unpretentious provincial retailing of footwear in the popular seaside resort of Scarborough. The lady in a white cotton gown and voluminous cloak is being fitted for a pair of the heelless shoes that entered fashion around 1800. Her companion wears a woolen riding habit, worn on horseback and for travel. Habits took their cues from men’s fashion, further reflected in her Hessian boots and top hat.

Unknown sitter, formerly called Miss Lamb, Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1810s. Museum purchase with funds donated by James A. Simpson, William M. Spencer, Jr., and The Women’s Day Lecture Series, Birmingham Museum of Art, Alabama.

Thomas Lawrence’s luminous depiction of an unknown sitter glows with life, satin, and nipples. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the engineering of Regency breasts, and how women used changing shapes in corsetry to support their busts—the key part of the new high-waisted silhouette. The brooch in the center front, and the gathers falling from it, show there is still a structured undergarment below this seemingly draped gown.

L’Emprunt mutuel (The Mutual Loan), 1817, Pierre de La Mésangère, Bibliothèque historique de la Ville de Paris

French and English fashions mutually borrowed from each other during the Regency period, as the title of this print from the series Le Bon Genre suggests. The subtleties of difference in each nation’s fashions are harder to reconstruct from the distance of a couple of centuries. To contemporary viewers the distinctions were clear. It would have been evident without the title that here were French girls dressed in English fashions, and vice versa.

The Jockey Frank Buckle, the Owner-Breeder John Wastell, his Trainer Robert Robson, and a Stable-lad, Benjamin Marshall, 1802, Yale Center for British Art.

Riding clothing was one of the strongest dress influences for the Regency gentry. Knee-high boots, cut away coats, and caped great coats imitating coachmen’s weatherproof garments suffused gentlemen’s dress. The peaked cap worn by jockeys such as Frank Buckle was fashionable for women, too. In 1811 Jane Austen wrote that “now nothing can satisfy me but I must have a straw hat, of the riding-hat shape, like Mrs. Tilson’s; & a young woman in this Neighbourhood is actually making me one.” It would cost her a guinea (a pound and a shilling).

A Flint, 1811, Science Museum Group Collection © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum, London. Creative Commons Attribution 4.0

The arts of making dress were of far greater importance to Regency people than they are today. Clothes were nearly all custom made, usually by dressmakers and tailors, and the gentry understood the construction processes. This comical figure is a tailor comprised from the tools of his trade. The artifacts of making would have been familiar to every man who had fittings in the professional premises, or at home. Even villages had at least a tailor or two. A quality garment was judged through the hands as much as the eye, and style could not be achieved without good fit.
The world of British Regency dress, seen through the lens of Jane Austen’s life and work, has been my constant companion in the years since that wintery afternoon deep in Austen heartland. I’m delighted to be able to share the fruits of my labors, and give readers an insight into how she and her contemporaries wore, used, made and understood clothing, that fundamental part of all human culture.
This post was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Bon Courage: ‘The Good Wife’ Qua Middlebrow Novel

1.

For this year’s Year in Reading, I wrote about my 2019 reading grump—a restless disinterest in many of the novels that literary and social media were excited about. As readers we all go through these ruts. For whatever reasons, we are fickle—impossible to please, hungry for work that will stimulate and nourish our intellect, emotions, and spirits just so.

Enter the dramatic TV series.

Backing up: One of the reasons I feel disconnected from contemporary literary fiction is that it’s become a largely middlebrow medium. This assessment is admittedly vague, subjective, and not necessarily a wholesale critique. I really don’t expect anyone to agree with me, nor do I feel impelled to convince readers who love/admire the books in question that they should feel or think otherwise. Generally speaking I embrace subjectivity in relation to art: let’s disagree, let’s have varying experiences—all for the greater Good and pursuit of Beauty.

But what do I mean by “middlebrow?” I mean this: The story is centered around familiar types of modern people dealing with modern problems, including something related to race and/or social inequity and/or complicated romantic and familial relations; the protagonist(s) is (are) both earnest and flawed; pathos and wit co-mingle in good measure; the prose “flows,” i.e. is “well-written” and propulsive such that the reader does not trip over it, is guided along from sentence to sentence as if by a kindly butler or gentle ocean wave; there is a balance of interior (thought, reflection) and exterior (dialogue, action) drama; there are no more than two or three high-conflict scenes, which may be vividly unpleasant though tolerably so.

Another way of putting it is that a middlebrow novel need only be read once, perhaps in three or four sittings, and the reader will be satisfied by this experience, which is relatively passive while also still engaging. Yet another way of putting it—more grumpy—is that there is no strangeness or disturbing difficulty at the heart of the narrative or the characters, nor in the language or structure used to form them. The reader is not inclined to pause in mid-scene or mid-sentence—to take a moment to metabolize or review or recover—because these novels are meant to be smoother and more manageable than life, and thus no such slowing-down in response to unsettledness or confusion or wonder or alarm is demanded.

I have nothing against this experience of propulsive absorbedness. I enjoy and seek out this experience regularly. I just think: This isn’t what literature as an art form is/does/should do. Literature is not about smoothing out prickly spots or sharp corners or the essential misshapenness of existence; in a word, literature should be, at minimum, more courageous than life.

If this seems snobby, let me offer an analogy, which may seem equally snobby, but hopefully at least clarifying: I am not someone who wants my candidate for president to be primarily someone I can “have a beer with.” I want that person to be smarter and better than me—much smarter and better—a little intimidating, someone who will lead, challenge, and enlist me to participate actively in the greater good.

And so, these days, I am passing on middlebrow, aka “relatable,” novels. I think: For satisfying manageable engagement, why not watch good serial TV instead?

Prestige showrunners like David Simon (The Wire) and Matthew Weiner (Mad Men) have both spoken of their multi-season series as having been conceived “as a novel.” Each might be understood as a Great American Social Novel—the former roving through multiple sectors of urban life in a major city (Baltimore), season by season; the latter spanning socio-cultural transformation between 1960 and 1970 via New York City’s advertising world. In centering its many storylines around Don Draper and Peggy Olsen, Mad Men is perhaps more character-driven than The Wire, whose real main character (despite a richly complex ensemble cast) is the city of Baltimore itself. Yet neither is protagonist-driven, strictly speaking.

As someone interested primarily in the mystery and complexity of human personality—as reader, viewer, and writer—the series that has me thinking most about TV drama-qua-novel then, is The Good Wife.

2.

For seven seasons (2009-2016), viewers followed the eponymous wife, Alicia Florrick (played by Julianna Margulies), through her mid-life coming-of-age—her journey the very model of an adult bildungsroman. In the pilot, we meet Alicia in high crisis: Her husband, Illinois State’s Attorney General Peter Florrick (Chris Noth), has just been convicted of corruption, while simultaneously exposed as a philanderer. With Peter serving prison time, stay-at-home mom Alicia is not only humiliated, but must now earn a living for herself and their two teens. Trained as a lawyer, Alicia sets off to interview at corporate firms for associate positions usually reserved for recent law-school grads. Between her resume gap and public profile, her prospects are grim, until by chance she runs into an old flame from college, Will Gardner (Josh Charles). Will is dashing, confident, a partner in his own firm. He says, “Call me sometime,” and when Alicia becomes desperate for a job, she does. Will gives her the break she needs, hiring her as an associate at Stern, Lockhardt & Gardner, where she thrives and advances quickly. In the midst of disaster, Alicia begins to not only find her footing, but also her latent talents and ambitions.

Alicia is both Hillary and not-Hillary: She stands by her man, but her public image could not be more different. Nicknamed by the press “Saint Alicia,” she eschews public attention, is temperamentally calm, deferent, laconic—feminine in the ways a “good wife” should be—slender and smoky-eyed to boot. Building each episode’s plot around a court case (or two), the strength of the series is in interrogating, challenging, redefining over and over this notion of “good” as it applies to “wife”—and to woman more generally—along with professional ethics. Through the vicissitudes of Alicia’s life over seven years, we come to know—or think we know and then realize there’s yet still more to know—the conflicted, hungering inner life of a character whose defining external traits are self-denial, quiet intelligence, and caution.

Series finales are high-stakes balancing acts: writers must satisfy audience, art, and network (CBS, in this case). To their great credit, The Good Wife writers stuck that ending (see in your mind Simone Biles, feet planted and arms stretched to the sky after her floor routine). They hit that surprising-but-inevitable sweet spot in a way that sent me right back to rewatch earlier episodes—not all of them, but particular ones that sent up pricks and sparks of resonance as the series’s final moments rippled back through the seven-year narrative like an electric current.

The upshot: Alicia, now truly free of Peter, arrived and confident (professionally, sexually, emotionally) at the same time she is thoroughly battle-scarred—is less “good” than we thought she was. More importantly, she is less good than she thought she was. Her relationships to the law, ambition, colleagues, money, friends, lovers, children—all these have both deepened and darkened, grown more complicated and more simple in thought-provoking ways.

This is true of our relationship to Alicia as well. After seven seasons of rooting for her, we find she is not so exceptionally sympathetic after all. She is—has either always been, or has become, or both—as self-serving and transactional as anyone. What we are left with then is the essential question of how we feel about that.

Is it more or less “good” to be (a) sober-eyed, seasoned, willing to claim your success and take your pleasure or (b) naive, soft-hearted and deferent, ever-longing after but unsullied by the triumphant sumptuousness of the big-bad world? This either/or proposition—how to be “good”—is a woman’s question; certainly it has been. (Perhaps, hopefully, this is changing). A woman cannot—in 2016 in Chicago, in 2020 anywhere in America—mindlessly, without cost, inhabit and manifest her Alpha dog, her Nietzschean mensch. The question is urgent, difficult, infuriating, and real.

But the incarnation of the how-to-be-good conundrum at the end of The Good Wife, open-ended and unsmooth, is to my mind comforting in its courage.  This was network TV, mind you, the very breeding ground for middlebrow, redefining a “good woman” as a complete woman, a full person—neither relative object nor idealized vessel, but multidimensional Subject. She may or may not be likable; she is as disappointing as she is inspiring. She is no saint, and even publicly rejects religion (despite the entreaties of her earnest daughter and a straight-shooting African-American minister). In the finale’s final seconds, after her moral character and physical body are at once dealt a stunning blow, Alicia smooths down her pencil skirt, then lifts her chin. But that ending leaves a rough taste in our mouths: the messes Alicia leaves behind her and now faces before her are what lingers. As novelistic vision, this for me rises above middlebrow. It’s unmanageable. And true.

3.

Serial format is inherently populist and thus fraternal with middlebrow: The serial novel, popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries à la Dickens, George Eliot, Wilkie Collins, Thackeray, Dostoevsky, et alia, made novels accessible to poor people (a periodical or installment was less expensive than a bound book) and even those who couldn’t read (excited readers would gather to read the latest installment aloud). Serialization has been good for creators and producers alike, generating communal conversation about the most recent installment and anticipatory predictions/hopes for what comes next, all of which bolsters interest and sales.

This phenomenon, of episodic buzzy chatter, has clearly energized today’s TV-viewing and the economics thereof. It also, interestingly, has the effect of making serial TV more novelistic: In slowing down the series’ central narrative tension—in the case of The Good Wife, the romantic-sexual-professional relationship between Alicia and Will—we experience the arc of that central narrative more completely. The Alicia+Will connection underwent intensity and diffusion, intimacy and distance; it was a slow, patient burn. Even after Will abruptly and dramatically exited Alicia’s life and the series in season 5, Alicia continued for two years to metabolize—more profoundly than she had when he was present—what had happened and not happened between them. As would be in life, it took the whole seven years.

Meanwhile, each episode, with its bite-sized court case, delivered its smooth, manageable dose of rising action, conflict, crisis, and (generally too-easy) resolution—replete with delightful and entertaining supporting characters and cameos (some of them well developed in themselves, others narrowly typed)—to satisfy the need for passive engagement and propulsion. Even marathon-watching the entire series in a few weeks delivered these shorter- and longer-term satisfactions.

4.

In lieu of the proliferating middlebrow literary novel, might we bring back the serial narrative? Nonfiction has done so, with wild success, via podcast. On the upside, long-form fiction could, like serial TV, hook readers installment by installment and generate a wider base of word-of-mouth consumers (good for authors); on the downside, books with weak, unsatisfying arcs/endings would exploit reader addiction and anticipation (bad for readers and for art). In 2015, Washington Post book critic Hillary Kelly, recognizing that the serial form favors plot-driven work—for example fantasy fiction and YA, both forms currently producing serial publications actively—and/or “literature that’s heavy on cliffhangers and light on subtlety,” nonetheless made a strong case for reviving the serial novel, across all genres:

[Serialization] requires the same characteristic any worthy novelist already seeks: momentum…While the plot of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy is nearly as bloody and scheming as a Game of Thrones book, we all know that Anne Boleyn loses her head; it’s the inner workings of Thomas Cromwell’s mind that keep readers delighted and critics astounded…Imagine a Stephen King novella terrifying the readers of Time, a new Jeffrey Eugenides epic unfurling through the pages of the New Yorker or Jennifer Weiner’s curious, energized female protagonists occupying a prominent section in Elle. Imagine if HarperCollins had slowly unveiled Harper Lee’s much-anticipated second novel over a period of six months. Novels wouldn’t be bulks to trudge through or badges of honor to pin to pedants’ chests. They’d be conversation notes, watercooler chatter, Twitter fodder. A part of the zeitgeist, perhaps, instead of a slowly fading pastime.

Perhaps the revived literary-fiction serial could, like the hit podcast Serial and its progeny, be in audio form. Or some other interactive hybrid that incorporates visuals, hyperlinks, choose-your-own adventure? I don’t know. Perhaps the novel is doing just fine, and I’m the grumpy defector here. I’m just saying: As both writer and reader, I’m rooting for literature and books; but for now serial TV has effectively replaced middlebrow fiction for me. Both the pleasures and substance of long-form TV drama are richer and ultimately more resonant than those of the sort-of-but-not-quite literary novel. Form and content are better matched; there is an integrity between the two. The literary novel, on the other hand, respects and optimizes its raison d’etre in respecting and optimizing language; its eggs are all—should be, more than it currently is—in that basket.

Call me a traditionalist or a dinosaur or whatever: I’m a Gen Xer who came to reading and writing for the richness and poetry of language. I’d be happy to see literary novels become less prosaic in both senses of the word—braver, more language rich and structurally inventive—shaping and challenging more than reflecting existence as we know it. I get excited about the ambitious structuring of a novel like As Lie Is to Grin by Simeon Marsalis, who both creates his own and channels his literary forebears’ language and polyphonic structure (specifically Jean Toomer and Paul Laurence Dunbar). As one reviewer puts it, “as a kind of vellum onto which this novel has been written…” Or the weird, dense sentences, and equally weird, lightly absurdist characters of stories and novels by Joy Williams, all of which invariably add up to something mysterious, vibrant, and sad. Or the precise, mesmerizing narrative voices of Yoko Ogawa and James Salter; the muscular, whirling, linguistic and philosophical energy of Sergio de la Pava.

I want these works too to be widely read, to generate buzzy chatter, to re-energize novel-reading. But I don’t know how that happens. Is there only one way to generate so-called “momentum” in a book? Is it always “what happens next?” Or “relatability” or manageable smoothness? Why not intensity, or depth, or unsolvable mystery—a more vertically-oriented driving energy?

We’re all figuring these things out. The golden age of TV, its captivation of our emotional devotion and resources, has yet to run its course, if ever it will. In the meantime, I wish you all bon courage—good luck and best wishes—but also the Good and the Courageous literally, in choosing your satisfactions.

How the Women Became Little

In 1834, Amos Bronson Alcott—most famous now for being the father of the author of Little Women, but then a 34-year-old self-taught intellectual determined to become famous himself—founded the Temple School for children in Boston. One of his visions (he was the kind of man who had many) was of space: He wanted his school to be a kind of cathedral, and he found a fitting setting for it on the second floor of the recently built Masonic Temple on Boston Common. The classroom spanned 60 feet. Its ceilings were so high that in winter the cavernous space they enclosed was always cold. Its enormous arched window bathed everything in sacred-looking light. Alcott arranged the desks in a semicircle, since his would be a classroom of conversation, in which every soul was valued, every voice listened to. He would be these voices’ conductor. He put busts of Plato, Walter Scott, Shakespeare, and Socrates around the classroom’s periphery, and a bas relief of Christ behind his own desk, right above his own head.

Alcott’s school quickly found a different kind of space, too, thanks to his assistant, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody; not long after the Temple School opened, she started writing a book about it, called Record of a School: Exemplifying the General Principles of Spiritual Culture. In 1835, a full year before Emerson’s Nature appeared, it would become the first published book to emerge from the Transcendentalist movement. Peabody was 30 years old when she worked at the Temple School, and surely one of the most overqualified teaching assistants to have ever assisted a teacher. She had a formidable mind and education—she would eventually know 10 languages, was a prolific writer, and would later be publisher of the famous Transcendentalist journal The Dial—and had opened her own school at the age of 17. Peabody was the one who taught Alcott’s students mathematics and Latin, because Alcott himself wasn’t qualified to teach either. She was also the one who found him his first crop of students amongst the children of the Boston intellectual elite who knew her but not him.

Record of a School is actually a record of many things. First: It records Peabody’s admiration (at least partly warranted) for Alcott’s skill and vision as an educator. Alcott worked via Socratic method, and out of his students, some of them as young as 5, he drew astonishments. He read to them, stopping to paraphrase and respond and asking them to do the same—requiring active reading of them in a way that would look familiar to modern teachers but was at the time radical, assuming as it did that children had something of value to say. Rapturously, Peabody writes, “Mr. Alcott thinks that every book read, should be an event to a child.” All aspects of Alcott’s teaching were events. Alcott’s “spelling” lessons became cascading moral sermons on all the meanings that could expand out of a single word as if out of a clown car:

Lone was the first word defined. Did you ever feel lone, lonely? said Mr. Alcott. Yes. Always, when there was no person present?—No. Ever when there were people present?—Yes. This led to the conclusion that loneliness was in the mind, a feeling independent of circumstances…but that the feeling could not exist when the soul was conscious of the omnipresent friendship of its Father…

In evidence here are far loftier ambitions than teaching children to spell “lone” correctly. Alcott believed too that students must be allowed a time of free exploration in their own writing before their teachers tried to inflict “petty criticism” upon it, subscribing to the view that, as Peabody writes, “Children have a great deal to contend with, in the attempt to express their thoughts.” There’s a valuing and empathy and treasuring of individual children in Record of a School that makes us understand that Alcott’s schoolroom was in many ways a lucky place to be.

But that’s of course in part Peabody’s valuing and empathy and treasuring, because that’s Peabody’s voice, telling us about Alcott’s beliefs, making him beautiful. The second thing recorded in Peabody’s Record, if a person looks for it, is her own subjugated place in the Temple School. Peabody’s daily Latin and arithmetic lessons figure in the text mostly as stage directions: “After recess I took my class into the other room to attend to Latin.” We almost never get anything substantive about this “attending,” and never whole scenes, as we get so often in accounts of Alcott’s teaching. When I picture those scenes—children talking, Alcott himself talking and talking—I see Elizabeth Peabody sitting apart and taking her notes, perhaps at the rear of the classroom, or along one of its edges. Only very occasionally interfering, and then mostly internally. When Alcott is explicating the opening of the book of John, for instance, Peabody tells us, “I was sorry he did not take the time to observe to them, that word, in that passage was probably used in a still more general sense than Language, meaning the expression of Truth in all ways…” We might wonder if time was really the limiting factor in Alcott’s failure to say this to his students; we might wonder also what would have had to change in that room, and in Peabody’s placement within that room, for Peabody herself to have been able to say it.

It isn’t news about women and their history, of course, that they’ve often been excluded from certain arenas. Lately, though, I’ve been noticing a recurrence in the shape that women assumed within those arenas, when they did manage, against all odds, to make their way in and become thinkers and artists. In the Rodin Museum in Paris, there’s one room devoted to the work of the female sculptor Camille Claudel, a room that exists because Rodin himself stipulated its existence. Claudel was a gifted artist in her own right, but she was also for a time Rodin’s protégé, and his much, much younger lover; eventually Rodin ended the relationship because of his continued attachment to the woman of around his own age, Rose Beuret, who was his mistress for decades and whom he eventually married. Claudel’s most famous sculpture, “The Mature Age,” which has pride of place in the Claudel room, is of a man being led away from a young, imploring, kneeling woman by an old woman who whispers intimately in his ear. The younger woman’s arm, her face, strain. She herself isn’t moving, but her wanting is an active force. Claudel’s most famous sculpture is many things, and one of them is an image of Rodin leaving her. Of herself, being left.

This shape is everywhere in the history of women scholars and writers and artists once you’re attuned to it: the embodying of this active/passive contradiction. Mary Lamb, sister of the 19th-century English writer Charles Lamb, had a hand in the books that bore his name (sometimes along with hers) and played a part in his salons, and ended her life—like Camille Claudel, who died in an institution—in poor mental health. At one point she wrote to her brother, “I am much fonder of receiving letters, than of writing them.” Frida Kahlo said of the patterns of her pain, “Perhaps it is expected that I should lament about how I have suffered living with a man like Diego. But I do not think that the banks of a river suffer because they let the river flow…”

This is how these brilliant, ambitious women see their places. The self kneels and reaches after, the self receives, the self makes a bank for the river, which passes it by.

In Record of a School, Peabody’s shape is mostly the shape of a margin, or a hem. When I read Peabody’s book, I’m looking for the places where I can actually see her. Here, for instance, where she recounts a story she told the students: “I here asked permission to tell the first tale that I remembered Life to have told me…” The tale is of women in white robes crossing a dark, stormy sea; disembarking, two by two, into a new wilderness; kneeling to pray; going into the underbrush to make little huts to live in. “The story of the Pilgrim fathers! exclaimed several, interrupting me; but what made you think the Pilgrims were women? said one. It was the misunderstanding of a single word, said I.” Misunderstanding, perhaps—or revision, conscious or unconscious. A widening of the story into a more spacious version of itself, so that there was room for a woman, too, to set out voyaging and forefathering.

We have to wait until near the end of Record of a School for Peabody’s most extended coming off the wall. Now that she’s recorded the goings-on of Alcott’s classroom, she wishes to frame what she’s observed for the reader, laying out some “General Principles of Education.” To steel herself she requires paragraphs of preamble and performative humility. “I am well aware that the foregoing record is an entirely inadequate representation of the interesting communications between Mr. Alcott and his pupils; but if I have not failed utterly, some interest has been excited…” The essay that follows is thoughtful and groundbreaking, and crammed to overflowing with her learning. It has Lycurgus and Ignatius de Loyola and “Asiatic religious polity” and Anaxagoras at its fingertips. But it also keeps putting those fingertips on the cradle. “There is nothing in true education which has not its germ in the maternal sentiment; and every mother would find more of the spiritual philosophy in her own affections, if her mind would but read her heart, than could be obtained by years of study in books,” Peabody writes—this woman who has spent years and years of such book-study. “What is the soul? is the question; and, will not every mother, who has watched the infant from its cradle, respond to the following propositions…” she writes—this woman who was not and never would be a mother. Her analysis, she seems to feel, must be couched in womanly terms. To ensure the best reception for her ideas, she clothes them in comparisons to motherly feelings. I know I am a woman, but I can know things. Look at me, knowing them, showing them to you.

Alcott lived his life surrounded by women, and his daughters surface occasionally in Record of a School. He makes them into cases in his point, as he illustrates various moral or educational principles. Peabody records a story he told about how, when one daughter told him that her sister, “a boisterous child who inflicted pain thoughtlessly,” had pinched her and pulled her hair, Alcott then pinched and pulled the hair of the offending daughter in turn. He asks his class, wasn’t he right not to “let her mind go uncultivated because I was afraid of hurting her body? The result of the conversation seemed to be a universal agreement with Mr. Alcott.” Alcott wanted such agreement even from his daughters themselves. He wanted their inner lives to harmonize so completely with his own that they would welcome his harshest penalties: “His own little girl is led to tell him of all the naughty things she does, and the telling does not save her from punishment, but often only ensures it.”

And this is the little girl who would grow up to write Little Women. We first encounter that novel’s father figure in the letter he sends to his wife from the war, in which he lectures his daughters from afar in very Bronson-Alcottian fashion: “I know they will remember all I said to them, that they will be loving children to you, will do their duty faithfully, fight their bosom enemies bravely, and conquer themselves so beautifully that when I come back to them I may be fonder and prouder than ever of my little women.” This father means his daughters to be students of self-conquering; their success, in his estimation, hinges on how well they have fought their “bosom enemies,” and I have wondered if it’s possible those are just their disagreements with him.

Elizabeth Peabody’s disagreements with the real-life Bronson Alcott take the form of wonderings, additions, or, on one occasion, a lengthy bracketed aside: “[N.B. I generally agree with the views that Mr. Alcott brings out from his pupils; but in this instance I disagreed; and I am inclined to think that he unconsciously led them into his own views; by contradistinguishing mercy and justice…].” Here is the set-apart space in Peabody’s own book where she permits herself to think her own thoughts. Here and only here can she express her worry about the way Alcott is reaching inside his students’ heads and shaping their thoughts to mirror his own.

I wonder if she thought to question whether, in the non-bracketed text of her book, he was doing the same to her.

Despite its promise, the Temple School soon collapsed into failure. After Elizabeth Peabody published her Record of a School, Alcott decided to write a second volume himself. He called it Conversations with Children on the Gospels and included inflammatory passages that Peabody had warned him their social circles weren’t ready for. In response, too many of the students’ parents pulled them from the school for it to remain open. Alcott and Peabody also had a personal falling out: Peabody had been living with Alcott and his family, and he and his wife discovered and read her private correspondence with her sister Mary, which contained worries that sometimes Alcott’s teaching was more about himself than about the children. The Alcotts were enraged. Peabody had not sufficiently conquered herself, it seemed.

Yet the amount of self-conquering on display in Record of a School staggers me. On every page, this book demonstrates its author’s belief that someone else’s words, opinions, insights, verdicts, and judgment matter more than her own. It’s not that Peabody measured Alcott against herself and found him larger—it’s that she assumed he was larger from the beginning and so never really measured at all. She assumed he was entitled to what he was asking of her.

Time has passed; things have changed, of course. But somehow I think many of us still find ourselves, more often than men do, in this place of the expected why yes. Why yes, person (often man) to whom I have no real personal or professional obligation, I will read your manuscript four times/let you pick my brain/refer you to my contact/reassure you repeatedly/listen listen listen listen listen.

There’s not much room in this place for the demands of the self, but that doesn’t mean those demands stop pulling, even if the woman in question can’t move in response. Even if she remains folded into the space that’s left to her.

Annotate This: On Marginalia

“We have all seized the white perimeter as our own And reached for a pen if only to show We did not just laze in an armchair turning pages; We pressed a thought into the wayside, Planted an impression along the verge.” —Billy Collins, “Marginalia”

Sometime after the fourth century, an unknown transcriber of the Mithraic scholar Lactantius Placidus accidentally conjured into history a demon named Demogorgon. Writing in the margins of Placidus’s commentary on Statius’s Latin poem Thebaid, the transcriber turned his attention to a line concerning “the supreme being of the threefold world.” By way of gloss, the scholar noted that Statius had been referring to the “Demogorgon, the supreme god, whose name it is not permitted to know” (even while Placidus apparently knew it). Etymologically the provenance of the word is unknown. Aurally it reminds one of the daemons of ancient Greek philosophy, that indwelling presence that acts as a cross between consciousness and muse; a terrifying sounding being, with its portmanteau connotations of both “demon” and of the serpentine-locked “Gorgon.” Most uncanny of all is that no reference to the “Demogorgon” appears to exist before the Placidus’s marginalia.

As if he had been manifested from the very ether, the Demogorgon has replicated from that initial transcription through literary history. After that initial appearance, the Demogorgon appeared in Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th-century On the Genealogy of the Gods of the Gentiles, where the Italian author connected the entity to the demigod Pan while interpreting a line from Ovid’s Metamorphoses; by the Renaissance he’d be incantated in works such as Ludovico Aristo’s I Cinque Canti, Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, and Christopher Marlowe’s diabolical play Doctor Faustus. A few centuries later, and the sprite mentioned in Placidus’s gloss would be name-checked by Voltaire, and he’d be conjured in Percy Shelly’s Prometheus Unbound and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

By the 20th century, the Demogorgon would become a character in Gary Gygax’s role-playing phantasmagoria Dungeons & Dragons, and he now enjoys his ninth life as the bestial, reptilian antagonist of the first season of Netflix’s exercise in Gen-X nostalgia Stranger Things. Cultural footnote though the Demogorgon may be, that scribbling in the border of Thebaid endures. What Spenser described as something “Downe in the bottome of the deepe Abysse / Where Demogorgon in full darknesses pent, / Farre from the view of Gods and heauens blis, / The hideous Chaos keeps, their dreadful dwelling is.” More prosaic an explanation for the creature’s genesis—whoever had been copying Placidus’s commentary had misread the Greek accusative referencing the Platonic concept of the “demiurge.” All those deltas and gammas got confusing. There never had been a Demogorgon, at least not outside of that initial misreading. Even Placidus nods, it would seem (just like the rest of us). At least that’s how it’s often interpreted, but in the genre of marginalia, which is its own form of instantaneous commentary on a literary text, there is a creative act in its own right. Such commentary is the cowriting of a new text, between the reader and the read, as much an act of composition as the initial one. From this vantage point, the Demogorgon is less a mistake than a new being born in the space between intent and misinterpretation. A conjuring appears. So much depends on marginalia.   

In his 1667 epic Paradise Lost, John Milton replicates that transcendent transcription error when he invokes “the dreaded name / Of Demogorgon,” but the blind poet got the marginalia treatment himself in a used copy of his work that I read during my doctoral composition examinations. My copy of William Kerrigan, John Rumrich, and Stephen M. Fallon’s The Complete Poetry and Essential Prose of John Milton has a delightful addition made on its title page. Marginalia by way of doodle, where some bored and anonymous undergraduate, a Placidus in her own right, added a cartoon thought bubble to the 1629 portrait of the young poet posed soberly in his stiff, starched, ribbed collar as if an oyster emerging from a shell, leading the annotator to imagine the author thinking “I am a seahorse, or a snail.” Not my favorite marginalia as it is, that’s reserved for a copy of the Pelican Shakespeare edition of The Merchant of Venice heavily annotated by a reader who’d clearly no previous familiarity with the play. When Shylock gives his celebrated soliloquy, in which he intones, “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” the previous owner approvingly added in the margins “Bring your own BOOYEA!” Whoever got their first taste of The Merchant of Venice from the copy that I now possessed was rightly rooting for Shylock, so much so that when they got to the final act and discovered the moneylender’s heartbreaking forced conversion, they wrote in a corner of the creased and dog-eared page “Aww,” then choosing never to annotate this particular copy again.

Such marginalia greatly enlivened my reading of the play; in part because the weird enthusiasm of the previous owner was innately funny, but not without being equivalently moving. As all marginalia is, those little marks that people make in borderlands of a book, in the margins and on the title page, underlined text and notes scribbled wherever there is a blank space requiring commentary, exegesis, digression, or doodle. They exist as the material result of a reader having grappled with literature. Since the era of literary mechanical reproduction (i.e. print), there has been the risk of all books partaking in a dull uniformity with every other object that shares their particular title; marginalia returns the actual book to its glorious singularity, print is converted back into manuscript as my copy of The Merchant of Venice is individual from all the others in the Pelican Shakespeare series as a result. Marginalia in a used book is an autograph from the reader and not the author, and all the more precious for it. Such scribblings, notations, and glosses, whether commentary on the writing itself, or personal note, or inscrutable cipher known only to its creator, is artifact, evidence, and detritus, the remainder of what’s left over after a fiery mind has immolated the candle of the text. A book bloody with red ink is the result of a struggle between author and reader, it is the spent ash from the immolation of the text, it is evidence of the process – the record of a mind thinking. A pristine book is something yet to be read, but marginalia is the reading itself. Far from the molestation of the pristine object, the writing of marginalia is a form of reverence, a ritual, a sacred act. So rarely do you get the opportunity to write back to authors, whether out of love or hate. Marginalia lets you do it for even the dead ones.

Such reverence for marginalia was hard-won for me; I’m not the sort of reader who took naturally to jotting observations in the corner of a page. When I was growing up, I approached my books with a bibliomaniacal scrupulosity that was marked in its own neuroticism. To prevent the pages of paperbacks from curling around each other in the un-airconditioned summer humidity, I used to take a ruler and make sure that they were perfectly lined up on the edges facing the back of the bookshelf, so that their spines greeting those who might peruse their titles were strung along like crooked teeth. Books were to be gingerly opened, carefully placed, and certainly never allowed to have ink vandalize them. An observer might note that all of this obsessiveness doesn’t have much to do with actually reading; as S. Brent Plate writes in his own reflection on marginalia and the totemistic quality of books at The Los Angeles Review of Books, “this fetishization cannot be sustained.” Graduate school broke me of that affectation, the need to actually ingest the content of a book became more important than treating a copy of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish as if it were the goddamn Book of Kells (which incidentally has its own marginalia). Disciplining and punishing books is precisely what we did in wrestling with the ideas therein; no wonder so many violent metaphors are used in describing the process of reading, whereby we “crack spines” and drench pages in lurid corpuscular red ink.

When I first began writing book reviews several years ago, I still hadn’t quite shaken my previous idolatry of paper and binding. Writing my first published review of a book (it was Colin Dickey’s Afterlives of the Saints considered at The Revealer) and I concocted an elaborate system of color-coded Scotch-tape tabs and enumerated page numbers listed in a document so as to be able to reference portions of the text I might need to paraphrase or quote, all while avoiding anything as gauche as dog-earing or underlining. Untenable is what this system was. Now I struggle with at least the books I’m tasked with reviewing as if Jacob with his nocturnal angel, and the marked, torn, broken books that limp away testify to an event that in some way altered us both. At least evidence that there was an event that we can call reading. Out of interest I checked some of the most recent books that I had to read for my supposedly professional opinion (I don’t do this with novels from the library of course), and my marginalia is a record of my perseverations c.2019. In one I wrote underneath the printed words “seems anemic, feels as untrue as feeling that God can’t be cruel,” and in another I penned “AMERICAN TRAGEDY.” At the very least, the people who purchase the corpses of my volumes read after I’ve deposited them into the book donation bin will be able to psychoanalyze my hypergraphic observations.

Referencing exhibits at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Regenstein Library of the University of Chicago, Plate notes that today is a veritable golden age of the form, even as digital publication would ironically seem to announce its eclipse. The plucky dons of Oxford University even sponsor a Facebook group for the analysis of evocative specimens of the form spotted in the wild. The BBC reports one volume from the Bodleian Library in which a student wrote “I hate these clever Oxford people.” One reader recorded their graffito in the pages of the Labour Party’s response to the EEC with “Why the fuck is this all so boring…” An annotation in a scholarly journal reads “This article is a load of balls.” Much as with the literary Banksy who imagined my Milton dreaming of a beautiful aquatic invertebrate existence, these marginalia have little to do with simply annotating the book, and everything to do with engaging with the text as if they were an interlocutor (as angry as those engagements sometimes are).

What the exhibits, studies, and Oxford group signify is that marginalia has long come out from between the covers as it were. A demonstration of how literary theorists interested in material history—as well as critics concerned with that nebulous collection of attributes that invisibly radiate out from the book proper and which are known as “paratext” (including everything from covers and blurbs to prefaces and reviews—have been academically concerned with marginalia now for a generation. Writing in Early Modern English Marginalia, scholar Katherine Acheson notes that the form is a “record of our complex material, intellectual, emotional, and psychological interactions with the book, and therefore [they present]…a special kind of history of those marvelous things and their readers.” A history of marginalia, from the saucy medieval monks who used manicules to mock their own transcription errors, to the 17th-century mathematician Pierre de Fermat’s unfulfilled promise in a marginalia to have found a proof that no positive integer greater than two can satisfy the equation an + bn = cn (and which awaited three centuries until it was again proven), is as a history of the human mind itself.

Marginalia has gone digital, with projects like The Archeology of Reading in Early Modern Europe (administered jointly between Princeton, Johns Hopkins, and UC London), Annotated Books Online, and repositories of authors from Walt Whitman to Charles Darin and their marginalia available to the historian and the merely curious alike. Harvard’s Widener Library has an online collection allowing anyone to read the annotations of “John Keats, Herman Melville, [and] Hester Lynch Piozzi,” among others. And marginalia has finally earned its indefatigable scholarly champion in the form of H.J. Jackson and her exhaustive study Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books. Jackson surveyed a voluminous amount of material written and read across the century’s books consumed by both the famous and the average, so as to develop a taxonomy of the form. She writes that “Readers’ notes in books are a familiar but unexamined phenomenon. We do not understand it well. We have mixed feelings about it, sometimes quite strong ones, such as shame and disapproval.” Beyond simple note-taking, Jackson discovered that those who annotate their books do it for a variety of reasons, even while those reasons may be “private and idiosyncratic.” Readers address the author, they address an imagined audience, they address posterity and the absolute. They are written to express ecstatic agreement and vociferous disagreement, to interrogate the book as if it were under oath, and to merely express physically the existence of readers themselves in the most potent objects that embody writerly ambition. Jackson observes that “All annotators are readers, but not all readers are annotators. Annotators are readers who write. Annotation combines—synthesizes, I should say—the functions of reading and writing. This fact in itself heights the natural tension between author and reader.”

As enjoyable as anonymous marginalia can be, most of us seem more interested in the annotations of famous writers considering other famous writers, for the obvious reasons. Aspiring seahorse or snail John Milton’s heavily annotated version of Shakespeare’s first folio was recently discovered hiding in plain site at the Free Library of Philadelphia, an identification that may prove invaluable to scholars trying to understand the influence of one genius on another. Then there are Vladimir Nabokov’s drawings within Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, the committed Peabody Museum affiliated amateur entomologist trying to flesh out the segments and exoskeleton of poor Gregor Samsa. Being able to see a fertile brain in flux is one of the exquisite joys of marginalia in the hand of celebrated authors. Writing in his column entitled “Marginalia,” Edgar Allan Poe enthused that in “getting my books, I have been always solicitous of an ample margin…penciling suggested thoughts, agreements and differences of opinion, or brief critical comments in general.” A brilliant writer not alone in that pose. Consider that old curmudgeon Mark Twain’s notation in the margins of his copy of Darwin’s The Voyage of the HMS Beagles Around the World when he wrote “Can any plausible excuse be furnished for the crime of creating the human race?,” presumably whether ex nihilo or by primordial soup. The character of Jack Kerouac as both reader and writer is on display in an edition of his fellow New Englander Henry David Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, pilfered from a Lowell, Mass., library in 1949, a little under a decade until the writing of his most famous book. There Kerouac underlined an observation of Thoreau’s: “The traveler must be born again on the road.”

Ever is the case, for it’s not a coincidence that Thoreau’s language has such evangelical connotations to it. Reading does have something of the religious in it, and not just all of the transcendent hoopla either. With considerations of faith, prayer is not just a matter of the soul, but of the hands as well; reverence not only a subject for the mind, but of the body contorted into kneeling, too; ecstasy fit not only for the spirit, but also as an issue of the body. Such is the same for reading, for even in our supposedly transhumanist digital age there is still the question of how you comport yourself when scanning a page, whether leaning over a desk or sprawled across a couch; of how the book is gripped or carefully opened, of the pencil or pen poised over print. Marginalia can be such a form of material supplication, before the altar of the text’s base physicality. As a method, marginalia remind us that all annotation is allusive, that all literature is connected to everything else, that the reader influences the writer as surely as the other way around, and even if the later has been dead for centuries. Plate writes that margins are “sites of engagement and disagreement: between text and reader and…between author and reader. From Talmudic studies to legal amendments, margins have been the places where texts have been kept alive—alive because they’ve been read and responded to.” Books are otherwise inert things, whereas marginalia turns the moribund page into a seminar, an academy, a disputation, a debate, a temple.

Books are, certainly, often inert things. They can exist as a type of interior decoration, as status symbol, as idol. Think of the unreaderly sentiment parodied by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby, when Nick comes upon the library filled with classics bonded by their uncut pages. There a drunken admirer of Jay Gatsby, wearing “enormous owl-eyed spectacles,” informs Nick “It’s a bona-fide piece of printed matter. It fooled me…It’s a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop, too—didn’t cut the pages. But what do you want? What do you expect?” Certainly not to actually read the books, because they exist not to be interpreted, but admired. “Printed matter” as mere wallpaper. A memorable image of a certain type of crass materialism, of the idolization of the book at the expense of the actual writing, the whole thing drawn to its ultimate logical conclusion. Not only is Gatsby not underlining and marking up his margins, he’s not even going to bother cutting the pages to actually read what’s inside. By contrast, consider the marginalia made by the young poet Sylvia Plath while she was an undergraduate at Smith College first reading The Great Gatsby. Before she’d lived the bulk of her own tragic life—abuse at the hands of her husband, Ted Hughes, and her eventual suicide—Plath read of Daisy Buchanan.

When the narrator leaves Gatsby standing vigil outside of the Buchanan home, his youthful love retiring upstairs with her brutish, privileged, bigoted husband, Nick reflects that “I walked away and left him standing there in the moonlight—watching over nothing.” There in her neat, meticulous, tidy handwriting, Plath recorded nine words in black ink organized into eight lines marked with the caesura of a single hyphen: “knight waiting outside—dragon goes to bed with princess.” Such reading is as if a prayer for intercession, and the physicality of the whole thing is instrumental. Such a method of annotation gives the flesh spirit, reminding us that books are objects—but not entirely. Such is the gravitational power of literature, that every new work alters every other so that the canon as an abstract idea can never be defined, can never be static. Marginalia, as evidence of thought and engagement, is among the synapses of that process. Marginalia is the ash left over, the melted wax of the candle proving that a fire once burnt here.

Image credit: Andrew Measham

The Subjective Mood

In my 2019 “A Year in Reading” entry, I wrote about the way Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie engages with itself on a moral level. In short: Spark’s controlling headmistress Jean Brodie metaphorizes Spark’s controlling narration, and the whole book serves to—among many other things—interrogate the value of this kind of domineering control in fiction. The novel does not settle for merely telling a story and telling it well; it also on some level considers that story and frames it, in doing so giving the narrative a greater dimensionality, what we might describe as moral depth.

I wrote about the feeling I have had, for some time, that this kind of novel is being written less and less frequently. I don’t mean a novel of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’s quality—novels of that quality have always been written infrequently. And on a related note, I’ll allow for the likelihood of some selection bias here—in other words, that I’m comparing great novels of the past to decent novels of the present. That said, over and over, I find myself reading well-reviewed contemporary novels that seem unwilling or unable to engage with themselves on a moral level. They tell a story, perhaps tell it well. But I finish the book and close it with no sense of what the book thinks about the story it told.

After writing the “A Year in Reading” piece, I found myself unsatisfied with merely diagnosing a (possible) condition. I wanted to consider whether it was a disease or symptom, or both, or neither. And I wanted to think about why—if this is a real change in the way people are writing—it might be happening.

As so often seems the case with questions like this, the most obvious, likely correct, and exceedingly boring answer is: the internet. Two decades of internet usage has rewired (and in some cases, broken) our brains. Since the advent of the internet, more people are writing than ever in human history, and the dominant mode of all this writing is first-person, in the form of tweets, Facebook and Instagram updates, Tumblr posts, Amazon and Goodreads reviews, and so on. I wrote here, about the move from third to first-person as our primary storytelling point of view, a shift borne out by opening any Best American Short Story collection from the last few years, and one from, say, 1995.

But authors have always employed first and third person to varying degrees, and literary tastes and trends are constantly changing. What seems more important here is less the current hegemony of first person, and more what feels like an accompanying change in the expectations of what a piece of fictional narrative can—or should—do. What I’m talking about is a cultural change that has accompanied the internet’s rise: the primacy of the subjective.

This primacy is expressed in a number of ways, large and small, obvious and less so. There is the bespoke, à la carte, curated nature of almost all entertainment, for example. Mostly gone are the days when a vast number of people tuned in, at a certain time, to watch a show they all agreed on. We are now delivered not only the content we want, but content we might want suggested on the basis of previous listens or views, and in this manner our consumption of music and film can be insidiously siloed. I’m not bemoaning the death of network television, and I find streaming services as convenient as the next person, but someone younger than I am (44) might not be fully aware of the paradigm shift this represents, in the way the world has been miniaturized and streamlined to service individual taste.

Our politics have, as well, become almost exclusively subjective. In some ways, for the good—#MeToo, for example, prioritized women’s individual claims of abuse out of necessity, in response to a rape culture that so often denies justice and even a voice to victims of assault. Cancel culture, more trickily—though still understandably—seeks to erase from the public record works of art by artists accused of bad behavior. Whatever one thinks of this, it signifies a stunning change in expectations from most of the 20th century, when, as articulated by the New Critics and their Intentional Fallacy and later by Roland Barthes’s The Death of the Author, the inviolable, objective separation between artist and art seemed more or less a settled matter. Finally, and to the unquestionable bad, the internet has allowed the mainstreaming of conspiracy theories that, like Netflix and Spotify, are curated at the level of individual taste depending on one’s personal cosmology of fear and desire. Trump’s election represented, in many ways, the victory of subjective paranoia and ignorance regarding immigrants, racial politics, and climate change over objective facts that were somewhat more difficult to ignore in a pre-internet era. Fifteen years ago, it felt stunningly cynical, not to mention stupid, for a Bush apparatchik to accuse a reporter of living in the “reality-based community,” but it now feels horribly prescient.

All of which is to say that one feels a consistent, accompanying shift toward the subjective in the fiction of our moment, in what it does and does not do. What it does do: relate intensely personal lived experience, depict trauma, and—maybe especially—project personality. What it does not do: usually attempt any sort of objectivity or try to situate a narrative in a moral framework.

The problem with this is, from my point of view, situating narrative in a moral framework is what novels do better than really any other type of art. No other narrative form can so dexterously tell a story while critiquing it, a sleight-of-hand enabled by the engaged moral interplay of an author/narrator with his or her narrative. The reluctance to engage on this level may become an inability, and this is a loss. Not just artistically, but socially, as well. During times of moral crisis like the one we’re living in, we need books of moral power and daring that challenge us. Books that are willing to take a stand, and in doing so, dare us to do the same.

On a less grand, but possibly more important level, the problem is also that so many of these books are boring. The reluctance to engage on a moral level is closely related to a reluctance to engage on a plot level. This is because the basic mechanics of plot—a character encounters trouble, makes a choice, and endures the consequences (which usually occasion further choices and consequences)—almost unavoidably raise moral questions. Is it good that she chose this thing and not the other? Are the consequences just or warranted? And what does the book think about all this? I suppose it’s conceivable to write plot without placing any moral weight on the character, and by extension the text, but it’s difficult to imagine in practice. Action and choice occasions a moral dimension—even dumb superhero movies usually manage a bit of this kind of depth, however microscopically thin.

Consider, as a refreshing recent counterexample, Adelle Waldman’s excellent The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P, a novel published only seven years ago, but one that feels stylistically of an entirely different era. Love Affairs begins as its protagonist, Nate, encounters a former girlfriend on the subway, who calls him an asshole. The entire novel is premised on asking this question—is Nate an asshole?—and the questions that this question raise, among them: What constitutes being an asshole, and is it even possible to not be an asshole in the sexual marketplace? The book offers Nate a real choice, between a more complicated woman and less complicated woman, and he chooses the less complicated with all the consequences that choice brings, good and bad. By forcing Nate to take a stand (several of them), the messy drama of Nate Piven’s romantic life is acted out in a larger moral theater, though Waldman resists easy formulations. In the end, the novel finally seems to ask how fit we—the reader or the narrator—are to judge anyone else’s romantic happiness.   

But in recently published novel after recently published novel, a reader encounters something closer to this: a BIG EVENT happens proximate to the narrator, which makes them FEEL things and might remind them of other BIG EVENTS to which they’ve been proximate in their life, all of which occasions a lot of aimless, if lyrical prose. Various feints may be made in the direction of actual choices and consequences, but in the end, the novel’s imagined space is as safe and padded as a childproofed house. It is all about summoning atmosphere and suggesting the potential for action and choice, without actually having a character make any choices, and, more importantly, without having to dramatize any consequences that might arise from a choice. Again, to do so would risk saying something that might feel like an objective moral position, if only in the context of the novel.

To return to Muriel Spark: in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Miss Brodie acts in a manner that damages her students, and Sandy Stranger, in return, betrays her teacher and brings about Miss Brodie’s downfall. These choices and consequences are important in themselves, in the creation of a dynamic piece of narrative, but also, again, they are important in the way they dramatize a larger point about the dire consequences of authoritarian control, in real life and in the novel—a question Spark is clearly wrestling with regarding her own artistic tendencies. In a broad sense, it’s clear what the novel’s intentions are, what the moral implications are for the characters, for the reader, and even perhaps for the author.

Published today, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie would seem to run counter to the larger cultural mood, the sense many smart people may have that we are past—regrettably or not—creating work that presumes, however obliquely, to tell other people how to live. At first glance, it seems odd to think this might be the case, given the sheer volume and stridency of opinion to be found online. But this is mostly simple moralizing, mostly about creating in-group dynamics within one’s curated political space—an intensely subjective and affirming performance of one’s felt beliefs. It is not about the kind of serious inquiry and deep self-reflection at which novels as an art form excel—a moral dimensionality that complicates, rather than simplifies, our sense of other people and the world. The subjectivity that has characterized our consumption of art and our participation in politics has also begun to characterize our sense of morality, and it therefore may seem quaint to write with the objectivity required to hoist up and secure a fictional narrative in a larger, moral architecture.  

And so it is not difficult to imagine a first-person version of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, published in 2020, from the lone perspective of Sandy Stranger. In this book, we would also get marvelous descriptions of Edinburgh and the rolling fields by the river. We would also get tender moments between the girls. We would get, perhaps, an ominous sense of Miss Brodie’s despotic personality, and we might, at some point, get the news that Mary had died on a misadventure to Spain. But we would likely not get Miss Brodie’s manipulation of Rose, we would likely not get Sandy’s affair with Mr. Lloyd, and we would almost certainly not get Sandy’s betrayal of Miss Brodie. In the end, Sandy would graduate from the school, having grown apart from the crème de la crème, feeling a bit wistful and disabused, but not much worse for the wear.

A concluding question here might be, even if one accepts that what I’ve described is true, is there anything to be done about it? That depends, I suppose, on if one sees cultural movements as something inevitable, or something that can be affected on an individual level. In truth, it’s probably both: No, there’s no putting the Me genie back in the internet bottle; yes, we can try to write, and reasonably expect to read, fiction that thinks more deeply about life than the average Tumblr post. What we want, really, is a well-read modern fiction that represents the historical moment we’re in, with all of its solipsism, its confessional honesty and sometimes wonderful theatricality, while remembering the encompassing moral intelligence great fiction is capable of when, now and then, it gazes away from its own navel.

Image credit: Priscilla Du Preez