Ferlinghetti at 100: An Appreciation

Yes, Lawrence Ferlinghetti is still alive. And yes, he’s still writing, superbly. On the eve of his 100th birthday—it arrives Sunday, March 24—the poet laureate of San Francisco has produced a delightful little mongrel of a book called Little Boy. It opens by lulling the reader into believing it’s going to be a conventional memoir and then–blammo!–it veers into a scintillating free-form riff on…on…on what, exactly? Youth and philosophy and aging and death? Kerouac and Cervantes and Ginsberg and Henry Miller? Yes and no and I can’t say for sure. Here’s a sample that will give you a taste of this autobiographical novel’s delicious heedlessness:
Jack Kerouac and his merry band and not so merry as all that in fact quite the opposite in their imagined quest for you name it an America that no longer existed even as he embarked to find it with his crazy crew oh and it wasn’t just America they were looking for driven as they were by testosterone and the rage of living personified by one Neal Cassady the driven driver of their beat jalopy…
Maybe the best way to appreciate this bawdy, ebullient book’s nearly punctuation-free river of prose is to dip into it at random. Here’s Ferlinghetti on Henry Miller, another writer who lived a very long life:
AND it’s our last Hurrah and keep your pecker up for if you outlive your pecker where does that leave you like Henry from Brooklyn with the great gift of gab who all his life kept it up and wrote great books with it but then kept writing when his pecker couldn’t write anymore like an old fountain pen run dry oh daddy call me a cab…
Here’s a confession: “I was never much of a rebel back then or now.” And here’s a lament: “Oh the time lost and no other memory of it…”

For all its verbal sparks and wordplay, the book provides solid documentation that Ferlinghetti’s was a rich and eventful life. His father died before he was born. His first language was French. “I thought I was Tom Sawyer catching crayfish in the Bronx River and imagining the Mississippi,” he writes, “I delivered the Woman’s Home Companion at five in the afternoon and the Herald Trib at five in the morning…I saw Lindbergh land…I chopped trees for the Civilian Conservation Corps and sat on them, I landed in Normandy in a row boat that turned over…” He also witnessed the devastation of Nagasaki after the second atomic bomb was dropped, an experience that turned him into a lifelong pacifist.

After surviving the Second World War he made his way to California, where he was reborn as a poet and publisher, translator and social activist, promoter of Beat writers but, he insisted, not one of them. “I was never a Beat poet,” he declared in a documentary. But he was certainly a fellow traveler. He was arrested, and later acquitted, on an obscenity charge for publishing a 75-cent paperback copy of Allen Ginsberg’s monumental Howl.

Ferlinghetti, founder of San Francisco’s revered City Lights bookstore, has written more than 50 volumes of poetry, fiction, art criticism, and translation. His best-known book of poetry, A Coney Island of the Mind, has sold more than a million copies, a staggering number. Along the way, Ferlinghetti has become something much larger than a poet or a writer, a Beat or a Buddhist. He’s our longest-living ambassador of the written word, a relic from a time when a certain type of person treated books as sacred objects rather than as products that could be sold at a profit. I realized this way back in the early 1970s, when I was wandering up and down the coast of California, working odd jobs, traveling in a retrofitted pickup with my dog, trying to write an apprentice novel, living out my own Travels With Charley meets On the Road fantasy. Whenever I passed through San Francisco I went straight to City Lights, where I spent countless hours doing something that went way beyond any definition of browsing. I read entire books, in installments, but rarely spent any money because I was always broke. Yet I never once got a filthy look from a clerk when I exited the store empty-handed. It was that kind of place. Amazing to realize the store was already two decades old and that it’s still in business today, nearly half a century later. Only a true believer could create such a cathedral of the written word. Given the staff’s forbearance, it’s a miracle the place ever turned a profit.

That miracle is the doing of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and I’ll be forever grateful to him for it. I’m also grateful for his wondrous new book Little Boy, a valediction, a summing up, a rosy exclamation point at the end of a life well lived.

Image credit: Flickr/Christopher Michel.

This Labor Was Never for You: Sex and the Small Press

1.
It is no secret that women’s work in the small press is often read by our male colleagues as a performance of desire, a kind of masquerade that appropriates and irreverently reconstitutes the conventions of academic spaces. Through the refraction of the cis male gaze, an invitation to “contribute”—or worse, to “collaborate”—becomes, for many men, an exploration of boundaries, power, and a deeply unsettling culture of literary celebrity.

To illustrate this problem, I would like to share an anecdote that is all too commonplace in the literary community. I showed up to a colleague’s reading in a nice dress, and crossed paths with a poet, with whom I had collaborated professionally. He demanded to know what I was doing there, near that building, at exactly the same time that he was standing there. Though I explained that my colleague was giving a reading, he persisted in his belief that I was there, in a nice dress, for him.

In reality, we as women in the small press, are working. Our language, our curatorial projects, and our insights are our livelihood. Still, it has become commonplace for cis men in the literary community to read our economic sustenance and survival—as we pass through the halls of the colleges where we adjunct, as we respond to submissions, and as we organize features and roundtables—as a grand romantic gesture, as a signification of sexual accessibility, a poorly crafted pickup line written in lemon juice.

More often than not, sex is perceived as being at the very center of our interactions, when in reality, survival is the endgame, the object of every wish and fantasy. Which is to say, this work I am doing, the labor that wrecks the nerves in my seemingly delicate hands, is not, was never, intended for you.

2.
As it happens, the problem always begins in language.  Many critics have articulated, and continue to stand by, a disturbing correlation that has been drawn between the physical body and textual body, in which the poem, essay, or story is seen as an extension or appendage of its author. Within this problematic conceptual framework, when a woman solicits the work, she solicits the physical body of that writer, in all of its slouching, argyle, and undoubtedly awkward postures.

A literature survey of work published in the field of hermeneutics will return innumerable books and articles with titles like “Text as Body, Body as Text,” “The Body as Text:  A Psychological and Cultural Reading,” “The Body as Cultural Text,” and so on. When scholars speak about literature, this mindset is as deeply entrenched as it is disturbing. Variations on this same perspective range from Donald Hall referring to poetic form as “The Sensual Body” to Michael McClure describing poetics as a kind of “meat science.” Cary Nelson adeptly summarizes this discourse in a recent study, noting that “[t]he idea of the poem as body or as direct expression of psychic and physiological ratios characterizes one dominant mode of poetry…forged around the authenticity of expression guaranteed by the signifying body.”

What has this discourse meant for women? I believe that this conceptual framework has had unwanted, and deeply felt, repercussions for not only women’s poetry, but for the communities in which they strive to develop their work, learn, and mentor others.

More often than not, when we as women express intellectual interest, this curiosity is read through the lens of physical desire, and in this way we are de-intellectualized by our male peers within a small press community that claims to have democratized self-expression for all. When a woman says, I love your book, it is all too often translated by male writers as that familiar beacon of hope and wishful thinking:  I love you.

To position any text as a projection of the physical body is reductive, as it limits expression to what is material and tactile, altogether negating what Paul Ricoeur called the “symbolic” dimensions of language. Within Freudian theory, this is where meaning “crystalizes,” gaining denseness and complexity; for Pound, this rhetorical space gives rise to the “emotional and intellectual complex” that the reader then unravels. The symbolic realm is where meaning and possibility multiply, and where poetry actually happens. The danger of framing language as mere physical utterance, rather than a more complex process of signification, is that one forecloses many of the intellectual planes to which language can deliver us.

What’s more, this desire to give the material body primacy over language is as misguided as it is dangerous. It invites a kind of biological essentialism into our academic and professional spaces, a mindset that does not challenge us to examine the ways we speak about gender, sexuality, and the visceral, tangible power dynamics within these settings. As Raewyn Cowell notes, “Curiously, whatever biological mechanism was appealed to, the argument always ended up in the same place: Conventional sex roles, gender divisions of labour, and inequalities of power, were biologically determined and therefore could not be challenged. Feminist activism was coming up against nature and so, ultimately, it was futile.”

The body itself exists as a discursive construction, arguably even more so than it does as a tangible thing. After all, it is language that gives meaning, coherence, and order to our most visceral perceptions. In a recent book on corporeality and social theory, Chris Schilling goes so far as to describe the body as an “absent presence,” noting the importance of language in constituting our relationship to our physical being. L. Jeffries even claims that the “role of the body is being taken by language.”

The tendency to read women’s writing as merely a performance of physical desire becomes, then, a kind of reduction of language itself, an essentialism that diminishes the intellect, reducing the elegant metaphor to innuendo, an aesthetic gesture to suggestion, and metonymy to Nabokovian disembodiment.

3.
The Sexualization of Women’s Labor in the Small Press: A Partial Archive

“Damn.  When you said you loved my work, I thought you meant something better.”

“Your poems are like fruits, Kristina.  They’re just begging to be squeezed.”

“I knew you wanted more than just a copy of my book.”

“I like the way you break your lines.”

“Yours fondly.”

“‘sup.”

4.
In the context of the #MeToo movement, it is crucial to note the relationship between textual violence and bodily violence. As Luce Irigaray notes in This Sex Which Is Not One, the breach of boundaries, and the subsequent violation, almost always begins in language. Indeed, signification often functions as a hypothetical testing ground, a separate space in which tangible boundaries and palpable relationships are forged, manipulated, or torn apart.

This is not to position language as the body, per se, but to underscore the ways language shapes our demeanor in the physical spaces we pass through in both professional and personal settings. If language, and the work we do with language, is framed as sexually charged, then this conceptual framework amplifies the potential, however muted it may be, for violation.

In his recent study, Re-Engendering Translation, Christopher Larkosh notes the tendency to “repeat physical violence through textual violence,” and to perpetuate power imbalances though one’s discursive construction of the other. I would caution anyone against thinking that physical violence is, in the end, subdued to textual violence in Larkosh’s analysis. Rather, there is an active and ongoing reciprocity between language and the visceral power dynamics between people.

Case in point: I spent three years of my young adult life corresponding with an older man, more established in his career than myself. Though he later became physically violent toward me, he first defaced my book and mailed it to me. Language was the first fire, the last light.

There is a deeply entrenched tendency among many cis men to view language through the lens of sexuality, as kind of a prerequisite for establishing power, influence, and gauging where exactly a boundary lies. In recent years, even poetry has been coopted as a kind of metonymy, standing in for what has not yet, and might never, be said between two people.

Which is to say, the free play of meaning that makes poetry beautiful has been stilled, arrested, all but frozen in place.

Image credit: Unsplash/Natalie Grainger.

A Vision of Empathy: On Watching ‘Angels in America’

I had the chance to see it, “the greatest American play of the waning years of the 20th century.” Angels in America was being produced at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco in 1994, and I held tickets. The play had won the Pulitzer, the Tony, and heaps of praise by then, and I wanted in on the cultural moment. But when curtain time drew near for Part One: Millennium Approaches, on a weeknight after a full day at the office and with my kids waiting at home, I collapsed.  I didn’t have the stamina to sit through a two-intermission, 3.5 hour play that would run until almost midnight. My husband accompanied me home, gallantly never once mentioning our forfeit of the orchestra seats we’d splurged on.

Regret welled up as soon as I walked in the door. I saw that the kids would’ve been perfectly fine without me—there were three of them; they were a self-entertaining lot, and the babysitter was a dream. We didn’t call it FOMO then but my Fear of Missing Out was every bit as gnawing. I compensated in the years that followed by seeing other Tony Kushner works—Slavs!; Homebody/Kabul; Caroline, or Change; The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures; and the Spielberg movies he wrote, Munich and Lincoln. I went to hear Kushner speak and was amazed at his ravening curiosity, the breadth of his knowledge. Listening to him give a five-part answer to a one-part question was like watching Robin Williams scoop up a stray phrase and run with it, pausing after a couple of miles to let the rest of us catch up. I watched the HBO Angels mini-series more than once. But none of those offerings, dazzling as they were, matched in my imagination the sublime experience of seeing Angels performed live onstage.

So I was brimming with expectation when I went to see the 2018 production of Angels at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in back-to-back matinees—Part One: Millennium Approaches on Saturday, and Part Two: Perestroika on Sunday. I’d waited 24 years and this time, I wasn’t going to whiff. There was just one problem: my eyes were out of whack; my vision was askew. I couldn’t properly see the stage or anyone on it.

In April, a good three months before, I’d had cataract surgery in one eye. I’m nearsighted in both eyes; I’ve been wearing glasses since age six, and I’d developed a cloudy lens in the left eye. They sucked out my old lens and implanted a new plastic one that gives me wonderfully clear vision in the left eye when I’m viewing an object 33 centimeters away. The right eye, unclouded, they left alone. I assumed that, after surgery, I’d get a new pair of glasses with a revised prescription for my revamped eyes. Sure, said the doctor. We can try. Try? What hadn’t I understood?

It turns out, glasses no longer correct my vision. In fact, they boggle it. The condition is called anisometropia, when the refractive power of one eye differs from that of the other. My eyes are now so mismatched that they no longer play well together. Pictures beamed in through my glasses are of different size: the left eye sees things bigger and clearer than the right, and my brain refuses to meld them into a single, coherent image.

A contact lens, which sits directly on the eyeball, can correct for the difference. With a single contact lens in my right eye, I would have been able to watch the play without disturbance. But the contact lens was giving me trouble, and I couldn’t wear it. I had only two choices: wear no glasses, which would leave me so nearsighted that I couldn’t see past the back of the head of the person sitting in front of me. Or wear a pair of glasses that left my eyes fighting and my vision swimming.

I took my seat and put on the glasses. My brain began protesting: what was it looking at? I tried to focus and couldn’t. I wasn’t seeing double, exactly. There weren’t two ghostly images side-by-side. I was seeing asymmetrically, as though one eye was looking through the proper end of a pair of binoculars and the other eye, goofing around, had turned the binoculars backwards and was peering through the wrong end. I was acutely aware, as one usually is not, that I was looking through two different eyes.

The play began. Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz, alone onstage, addressed invisible mourners in a speech that has always thrilled me, invoking “the clay of some Litvak shtetl, your air the air of the steppes.” I could hardly take it in. How was I going to watch the damn play if I couldn’t see it?

Then Roy Cohn took center stage declaring,“I wish I was an octopus, a fucking octopus” and hitting the hold buttons on his phone like punching life in its face, pay attention to ME! And Joe, the lost and closeted acolyte, who sits and watches Cohn in wonder, mistaking this terrible man, so alive, for a father. What was I hearing, what was I seeing, what was Kushner trying with furious intent to tell me? I was at war with myself. I took off the glasses, trying to scold myself into sight, and the scene dissolved into a smeary blur. Back on the glasses went. I’d have to watch the whole thing, and the next part tomorrow, doing battle with the multiplicity jostling in my head.

Around the same time, I’d been reading the novel Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday. Like a play, it’s told in three acts. Part One is about a young woman, tentative and bright, who has a love affair with a brilliant and famous writer some 40 years older. She’s an editorial assistant living in New York, and the action mostly takes place in apartments, on city benches, and at the famous writer’s country house. The narrator is offstage; the tone is direct and often funny, made poignant by resonating sadness. There’s an unlikely sweetness to the affair though trouble finally occurs, as in, something just occurred to me, a woman might say to her lover. The thought held back for a long time—months, even years—either unconsciously or with glad cooperation, the woman complicit in her own constraining, until truth inevitably rises. At just that moment, Part One ends.

Part Two, entirely different, proceeds without introduction or explanation. An Iraqi-American man, an economist, is speaking to us directly while detained by security officers at a London airport on his way to see his brother, a doctor living in Sulaymaniyah, a city in Iraqi Kurdistan. Forced to wait for hour upon hour, deprived of liberty and agency, and suspended between boredom and the agony of not being able to find out what he desperately wants to know, the narrator, Amal Jaafari, travels the stunted pathways of his past as he exactingly recounts his memories of his brother, parents, friends, and a love affair. Intelligent, darkly humorous, and possessed of an enviably even temperament, Amal comes alive to us—a sensitive individual trapped in a maddening world.

Parts One and Two are seemingly unrelated until we read Part Three. I won’t describe what we learn—you’ll want to experience for yourself Halliday’s gifts. In any event, it isn’t critical to appreciating the multiple ways in which the novel focuses our inquiry, and wonder, not on sameness, that usual balm—the similarities between us, the universal truths that bind together the family of man—but on stark difference. The affair between the young editor, Alice, and the famous writer, Ezra, is a study in ludicrous imbalance. He’s rich and celebrated; she doesn’t have the money to buy herself a winter coat. He has a commanding knowledge of literature, history, film, music; she mispronounces Camus. “I’ll show you what to read,” he tells her, and does. But Alice has the one thing he’s already exhausted: a whole life ahead of her. “Oh, Mary-Alice. Sweet Mary-Alice! I want you to win. Do you know?” Ezra tells her.

“Why wouldn’t I?” Alice says, with the breathtaking assurance of youth. His fingers tremble; so do our hearts as we look straight down into the chasm between them.

My daughter and I argue about the book. She’s in her mid-20s, also a writer, and a voracious reader whose tastes often coincide with mine. Ever since she was a child steeping herself in books, she and I have spent many hours comparing notes on what we’ve read. Soon she’ll be moving across the country to set upon a new path and our time together will change, but for now we carry on as always—debating, discussing, buying each other our favorites and carrying volumes back and forth between her apartment and my house. I’m taken by surprise at how strongly we disagree over Halliday’s novel. It’s as though we’ve read two different books. She says it’s about how, when you’re young, you look to others—older others—for instruction on how to live, but later, you don’t need the guidance. You discard those teachers and make your own life.

It’s true that Alice, like Joe in Angels, is an acolyte of sorts. She reads the books that Ezra gives her, orders the whiskey he first pours her, and watches and absorbs how hard he works. She underlines a passage by Camus in a book that he selected for her: “when I was very young, very foolish, and very much alone…you paid attention to me and, without seeming to, you opened for me the door to everything I love in the world.” And so, I see my daughter’s point, that Alice is looking to Ezra to teach her how to live, in anticipation of someday making her own life.

But that isn’t the main point, I insist. To me, the book is a brilliant exercise in imagination. How far can a writer stretch herself to think the thoughts, speak the words, dwell in the past of someone with whom she has nothing in common other than human life? This is a novel about empathy, I say. About how writing a novel is itself an act of empathy, to be attended to and emulated. That’s what Alice is learning from Ezra. And though we’re often told that evoking empathy is the purpose of the novel, it’s rare that one does it so well.

My daughter scoffs. She points out that Ezra is loosely based on Philip Roth. “All he ever wrote about was himself,” she says. Her words sting. Wasn’t I, after all, the person who urged her to read Philip Roth? For despite the malice he gleefully spread, I’m in awe of his audacity and language. She knows I revere his masterpiece American Pastoral, a towering work of immigrant fiction, though nobody calls it that. I’d pressed that novel into my daughter’s hands, later gratified that she read and liked it. “He writes about other people too,” I say weakly. She gives me a skeptical look. “Well, different versions of himself,” I explain. “Anyway, we’re talking about Halliday, not Roth.”

Polar opposites, chalk and cheese, left versus right, combatants. This is what I’m thinking as I struggle to watch Angels. Almost all the scenes in Part One: Millennium Approaches and many in Part Two: Perestroika are between two profoundly mismatched characters—either two people, or one person and a figment or a supernatural force. Split scenes have two people on one side and two on the other. The pairings at the start—the lovers Louis and Prior; Joe and Harper, husband and wife; power broker Roy Cohn and his wide-eyed protégé, Joe—soon begin to break apart. Prior and Harper inhabit each other’s dreams, and Mr. Lie, travel agent to the Valium-kissed, whisks Harper off to Antarctica, hints of the chaos to come. Prior, in a fever state or not, finds himself talking to the Voice, and the terrifying Angel crashes through his bedroom ceiling. “Millennium,” Kushner tells us, “is a play about security and certainty being blown apart, while Perestroika is about danger and possibility following the explosion.”

The pairings come apart and newer, weirder relationships are formed, rife at first with suspicion and misunderstanding. Joe, the closeted husband whom we met at the start, has a love affair with Louis, and Joe’s stringent Mormon mother comforts AIDS-stricken Prior, the man Louis has abandoned. Most ironically, Roy Cohn, now dying of AIDS though he calls it liver cancer, is visited bedside by Ethel Rosenberg, whose execution by electric chair Cohn helped assure. Connections are made, sympathy is stirred. Questions are pleadingly put to figments and forces who leave the answering to us.

“I I I I,” the Angel says. Eye eye eye eye is what I hear. “I PROPHESY I HAVE SIGHT I SEE” Prior tells Joe when he goes looking for his ex-boyfriend’s new lover. It seems a taunt, all these proclamations about sight and vision, as I sit there, crazed. But now the mismatched are listening to each other, with suffering the bridge between them. The “blue streak of recognition…Like you knew me incredibly well” that Harper saw when she first looked at Prior has maybe, momentarily, fused these characters into a state of understanding. Against all probability, given where they started, they are seeing the world through another person’s eyes.

The Angel withdraws. “More Life,” Prior tells us. “The Great Work Begins.”

I emerge into daylight, my thoughts swimming as well as my sight. Everyone around me is stunned and exhausted. Kushner would be pleased, I think. It is a play “meant to stagger the people who are producing it,” he once told Terry Gross. It staggers the people watching it, too. Perhaps he’d be satisfied that I had to struggle to see it, that because of my blighted eyesight, I remained the whole time all too conscious of the artifice onstage. He wanted the audience to see the Angel’s wires, to put us “right on the edge of belief and disbelief.”

I go home, happy at last that I’ve had my cultural moment. Angels has confirmed what Halliday’s novel showed me: empathy is an act of imagination. The more different one person is from another—the more asymmetric—the greater the act of empathy that’s required. And the writer who can fully imagine the life of someone far different is especially worthy of our praise.

My daughter is ready to go. In a couple of days, she moves away. I’d hoped we’d have time for more meals together, another conversation or two about the books that we’re reading, but she’s busy packing and saying farewell to her friends. I’ll have to settle for a rushed good-bye. I think again of our argument and how she missed the crucial theme of Halliday’s book. Alice grows up, she’d told me. She doesn’t need Ezra to guide her anymore. No, I’d said, and argued for my better, wiser reading.

But doesn’t her view of the book, in fact, describe my daughter? And pinpoint the moment at which she has arrived? She’s making her own way in the world. Shedding the ministrations and models of her elders, namely: me. She doesn’t need me anymore to guide her. She’s more than equipped to leave me and step through the door to everything she loves in the world. Not the Millennium but empathy approaches, and not across a gulf of vast difference between us, but across a narrow divide. At last I see her clearly, if only for a fleeting minute, and what have I discovered? That it’s blindingly difficult to imagine the life of another, whatever the circumstance. We blunder our way in darkness, our vision sharpened by pain.

Image credit: Unsplash/Sharon McCutcheon.

Ten Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary, “I must be private, secret, as anonymous and submerged as possible in order to write.” Given the multiple volumes of her diary, letters and memoirs, the outward facts of her life are well-documented, but the priority she gives to the inward life, to what lies obscured in night and shadow, leaves much yet unknown.
1. “The Mysterious Case of Miss V.” This is the title of a scrap of manuscript written in 1906 about a woman who passes unknown and silent through her lifetime. The challenge is “to track down the shadow, to see where she lived and if she lived, and talk to her…” Who was the unnamed Miss V? Might she bear some relation to Miss Virginia Stephen (Woolf’s maiden name)?
2. The Unnoticed Influence of Woolf’s Aunt. Virginia Woolf’s father Leslie Stephen put down his sister Miss Caroline Emilia Stephen as “Silly Milly” who wrote “little books.” It was the way of Victorian men towards spinsters (like the fictional Miss V). Leslie Stephen’s children took up his tone towards his sister, whom they called “the Nun.” This dismissal has distracted attention from what was formative for 22-year-old Virginia during the last months of 1904 when she lived with her 72-year-old aunt Caroline at The Perch, her home in Cambridge. It was, Virginia said, “an ideal retreat for me,” following a breakdown. A Quaker convert and theologian, her aunt’s chief book, Quaker Strongholds (1890)—reprinted three times—and her papers in London’s Metropolitan Museum reveal habits of mind that are precisely those of her niece: to switch off the clamor of public voices in favor of “the witness within” and demand more than votes for women: nothing less than “the disuse of power.” She did not wish women to imitate the abuses of male power and called for women to exercise their vote collectively.
3. The first published essay. It was while Virginia Stephen lived with her aunt Caroline that she picked up her pen to write professionally for the first time in November 1904. It was for a women’s supplement to a church magazine called The Guardian. The topic she chose was a pilgrimage to the Brontë Parsonage in Haworth. In the museum, above a bank on the steep village street, she’s “thrilled” to find the little oak stool “which Emily carried with her on her solitary moorland tramps, and on which she sat, if not to write, as they say, to think.”

4. “Thinking back through our mothers.” This famous phrase, which sparked a turn to women’s history, appeared in Woolf’s first feminist treatise, A Room Of One’s Own (1929). The book originated in lectures to women students at Cambridge in 1928, the year of the Equal Franchise Act, granting the vote to all women. But back in 1906 Virginia Stephen was already exploring the possibility of women’s history in a neglected but wonderful story, “The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn,” about 15th century women who maintain domestic order while thugs (recorded by traditional history as the Wars of the Roses) rampage outside their walls.
5. A Question of “Madness.” A nervous temperament was thought to unfit people, especially females, for public life. In fact, Virginia Woolf shared a predisposition for mental illness with forebears who were particularly able in public office. Her grandfather, Sir James Stephen, had “a severe nervous illness” after drawing up the Parliamentary bill against slavery in 1833. As Colonial Under-Secretary, his anxiety over the colonies (when slave-owners resisted his bill) was so overwrought as to be “a test of insanity.” He apologized to his wife for being “moonstruck.” His son, Leslie Stephen, a successful man of letters, had what he termed “Berserker fits.” Caroline Stephen, who established a women’s refuge in the 1870s, had a breakdown of sorts after her mother died.



6. A “prelude” to marriage. “To be 29 and unmarried—to be a failure—childless—insane too, no writer,” Virginia Stephen groaned to her sister in June 1911. That very month Leonard Woolf turned up on leave from his Colonial Office post in Ceylon. Ten months later, when they announced their engagement, she wrote teasingly to two single friends, “I am marrying a penniless Jew.” It is impossible to document fully what happened when their union was put to the test early on, between 1913 and 1915 – a period Virginia Woolf later called the “prelude” to marriage. Following her breakdowns during those years, her second novel, Night and Day (1919), devises a positive reply to what is a critical and even adversarial stance in Leonard Woolf’s novel, The Wise Virgins (1914) with its ambiguous Virginia figure Camilla Lawrence, who is too classy, too non-Jewish for the hero, Harry. We can have some insight into this fraught time through the way their books talk to each other, and take in what Virginia did to heal what had been hurtful to Leonard.
7. The Russian Ballet. Dates in Leonard Woolf’s diary in 1911, 1912, and 1918, record visits to the Diaghilev Ballet when they performed to enraptured audiences. Among these was a performance of Act II of Swan Lake and it’s worth exploring a link between the revelation of the Swan Queen’s outsider existence in the dark woods (versus the routines of court) and the honeymoon-versus-marriage plot of Virginia Woolf’s greatest story, “Lappin and Lapinova.” Lopokova was the name of Diaghilev’s prima ballerina during the 1918 season in London at the time Virginia Woolf first conceived this story.

8. The Outsiders’ Society. Virginia Woolf is usually seen as an insider among her Bloomsbury set, made up largely of privileged, upper-middle-class men who had been at top schools and Cambridge University. But in her treatise, Three Guineas (1938), she positions herself as an “Outsider” and member of an “Outsiders’ Society.” This is a secret and anonymous organization of women. In her diary, on February 7, 1938, Virginia Woolf considers putting out an illustrated sheet to be called The Outsider, as a way of popularizing and politicizing an Outsider party. Members work for the same aims as men who are brothers: “liberty, equality and peace.” But women do this separately, “by their own methods,” resisting militancy and the temptation to imitate men.
9. Preparing for suicide. It is a fact that Virginia Woolf committed suicide on March 28, 1941 by weighting her pockets with stones and wading into the fast-running River Ouse near her writing room in the village of Rodmell in Sussex. What is less well-known is that in 1940 Leonard proposed joint suicide to a reluctant Virginia. At that time German invasion of Britain seemed imminent after the rest of Europe had fallen to the Nazis. As a Jew, Leonard expected to be seized and his wife too. In fact, they were already on Himmler’s list for immediate arrest.
10. Silencing and Voicing. In the 19th century nice women were quiet. Virginia Woolf said that she and her sister were taught the “tea-table” manner. This was designed to keep polite, self-effacing conversation flowing. The most vital fact in her life was the contrast between this stifling of utterance, this concealment in “shadow’—epitomized by Miss V—and the ground shaking under her like an earthquake when she brought out her full-throated “Outsider” voice, protesting against military or domestic violence in favour of nurture, listening and sympathy, values which the civilized of both sexes already share. The voice of her Outsider prepares the way for the present voice of the #MeToo generation.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

PoMo No Mo’: What Virginia Woolf Teaches Us About How to Write Today

In the end, Virginia Woolf went for a walk, filled her pockets with rocks, and waded into the river. After a lifetime of struggling with her mental health, the onset of another depressive episode, in conjunction with the impending war, ultimately defeated her. Since then, women writers across the world have recognized fragments of themselves in her and her work. For my part, growing up in rural Massachusetts, I used to end long winter walks standing at the edge of the pond across the field from the house where I grew up, and the gentle pulse of the water’s surface felt like a promise to take me if I wanted to go.

I didn’t have a connection to Woolf growing up. I was nineteen the summer I first read Mrs. Dalloway, lonely again in my humid hometown. At first pass, I found it dense and perplexing; it was difficult to follow the thread that Woolf masterfully weaves from one character to the next. But I was drawn to her even then, to that breathless style, to life, London, that moment of June.

Perhaps, then, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when I finally read all of Woolf’s novels and saw myself, not only in suicidal ideation but in literary aesthetic: in that persistent, if sometimes melancholy, optimism that pervades Woolf’s work despite mounting evidence that there is little left to hope for.

This realization came in my senior year of college, when I elected to put an end to my embarrassing lack of knowledge about one of history’s most prominent women writers by taking a senior thesis seminar on Woolf. Led by notable writer and Woolf scholar Mary Gordon, we read 10 books and two personal essays by Woolf, each student producing a 30-page thesis on the writer’s oeuvre.

I came to the class as something of a lapsed postmodernist. I’d taken a course in the literary school a few semesters prior and had only recently grown disillusioned with its tenets, the nihilistic rejection of reality and truth that filled me first with existential dread, then a numbing emptiness as I tried to apply it to my own writing. Reading Woolf with this lens, I found her work to present a thorough criticism of the ideas that would characterize postmodernism after her death. It wasn’t just that Woolf was a modernist, embodying the reassertion of reason against a growing alienation that individuals felt in response to advancing industrialization—this modernist aesthetic sets her up in obvious opposition to postmodernism, given that the latter movement grew out of a rejection of their modernist predecessors. Woolf’s work goes beyond this simplistic dichotomy, acknowledging and considering at great length the ideas that would later become postmodernism, but ultimately turning away from them in favor of what Woolf seems to consider the essential truth of being human. That is, the idea that while people’s true selves are masked beneath layers of constructed identities—making meaningful connection almost entirely impossible—the point of life, the beauty in it, is to continue to search for a glimpse at that true self below the surface. For Woolf, this is what makes life worth it all.

This aesthetic appears initially in Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out. Rachel Vinrace, the novel’s young leading lady, pushes against the boundaries of society, unable to conform to the polite expectations set for her. Her entrance into “proper” society midway through the book dovetails with her eventual death, with Rachel falling ill and never recovering soon after getting engaged. Once Rachel attains marriage, “the right thing, the only thing, the solution required by everyone she knew,” she is literally destroyed. In this way, Woolf seems to argue that the arbitrary structures of society do a sort of violence to individuals, taking away their agency in favor of fitting in with what is “proper.” This echoes the nihilist reaction to society that would come to characterize postmodernism after Woolf’s death.

However, an undercurrent of optimism flows through the novel. After Rachel dies, a thunderstorm hits, and the societal conventions that everyone adhered to throughout the book fall quite suddenly away. The otherwise relentlessly proper Mrs. Flushing asks her friends if they fear dying, and they all respond in turn. Unlike earlier in the book, when people would pointedly shy away from asking personal questions, the characters begin to say real, meaningful things. Rachel’s senseless death forces them to be more than they are; to create meaning, to communicate. While the spell breaks as the storm fades, Woolf is not pessimistic about the fact that meaning is only momentary. Rather, she notes the beauty in the fact that, despite this heartbreaking, meaningless death, the other characters go on living, as if to point out that there is something valuable in the going-on-ness of life. Even though meaning only comes in flashes, like lightning, people do not grow disillusioned in the face of the fact that they spend most of their lives stumbling around in the dark. One must push through these difficulties—that is, from a contemporary lens, push through postmodern solipsism—for the hope of momentary clarity. It is worth it for these moments.

In fact, beyond simply arguing for the existence of moments of clarity amidst the stilted performance of English society, Woolf seems to argue that these barriers preventing us from accessing this clarity are the only things that keep us alive. In The Voyage Out, Rachel finds herself paralyzed when she begins to consider the “unspeakable queerness” of life, which she considers “only a light passing over the surface and vanishing.” Through this paralysis, we see how it is destructive to think about the immense and desolate fact of human existence. In this way, while the barriers put up by the conscious presentation of society do serve the destructive end of making it impossible for people to really communicate with one another, these barriers also serve the very constructive end of making it possible to do anything at all. If one thinks too much about how, like Rachel, a person can die merely by forgetting to wash their vegetables before eating them, it becomes impossible to continue. This is why, as with lightning, clarity can only exist in moments. After any more than an instant, the absolute vulnerability of humans to the most absurd things becomes unbearable to consider. In Woolf’s formulation, the best we can hope for is to glimpse clarity in fragments. Any more would destroy us.

These ideas pervade all of Woolf’s novels. In Night and Day, she remarks that “to see the truth is our great chance in this world.” One of the novel’s heroines, Katharine, continually invokes Dostoyevsky, repeating, “It’s life that matters, nothing but life—the process of discovering—the everlasting and perpetual process, not the discovery itself at all.” In The Years, it’s the distant bombing of the war heard during a quiet English tea. In To the Lighthouse, Woolf re-emphasizes the beauty in the dogged going-on-ness of life, showing how even in the face of tremendous tragedy life continues as it did before simply because it must. The house is restored. Lily Briscoe returns to her painting. They finally sail towards the titular lighthouse, despite the deaths of Mrs. Ramsay, Prue, and Andrew.

Woolf is unquestionably a modernist, and the easy assumption would be to say that she has, as she might put it, “nothing whatever” to do with postmodernism as a school. Given that she died before postmodernism could begin to take hold, one might argue that her optimism has no purchase as a critique of contemporary postmodernism, and that to pose such a critique risks anachronism. But this argument falls apart under the weight of The Waves, that fluid and experimental work that firmly established Woolf not only as an extraordinary novelist but as an intensely conceptual writer fiercely pushing the boundaries of her craft.

Told in six soliloquies that ebb and break against each other, The Waves explicitly references numerous major tenets of what would become postmodernism without losing Woolf’s steadfast optimism. The character of Bernard destabilizes the strong sense of self inherent in many modernist texts, declaring, “To be myself…I need the illumination of other people’s eyes, and therefore cannot be entirely sure what is my self.” He goes further, pointing out a whole host of ideas that would later characterize the postmodern movement: the flimsy nature of socially constructed reality, the instability of language, the dubiousness of concrete knowledge. Woolf writes:
There is no stability in this world. Who is to say what meaning there is in anything? Who is to foretell the flight of a word? It is a balloon that sails over tree-tops. To speak of knowledge is futile. All is experiment and adventure. We are for ever mixing ourselves with unknown quantities. What is to come? I know not. But as I put down my glass I remember: I am engaged to be married. I am to dine with my friends tonight. I am Bernard, myself.
Throughout the passage, Bernard seems to be falling away from that optimism that carried Woolf throughout her literary career. Then, the word “but” in the middle. Despite all these grand questions, Bernard is able to situate himself in relation to his position in society. In this way, Bernard represents the point that Woolf makes again and again throughout her career: While nothing is perfect, it is all we have. While society is constructed, it is the only way that Bernard has to relate to the world, and that must be worth something. It must be worth fighting for. If not to keep it the same, then to salvage it, to turn it into something to hope for, rather than the postmodern alternative of nothing at all. As Bernard states, “Is this the utmost you can do? Then we have triumphed. You have done your utmost.”

Woolf’s relationship to postmodernism becomes more compelling when put in context with major critiques that postmodernists raised against modernism. In large part, literary criticism in Woolf’s time was dominated by men like Clive Bell, Joseph Frank, David Lodge, and John Barth. According to Patricia Waugh, a leading specialist in modern and postmodern literature, in her book Feminine Fictions, works by women were marginalized and misinterpreted by these critics. In Waugh’s formulation, fiction written by male modernists was characterized by splitting, fragmentation, and atomization of the story and of the self. In contrast, women’s writing at this time had more to do with dissolution and mergence. According to Waugh, this is because women were traditionally positioned as “other,” so the desire to become subjects overpowered the postmodern desire to deconstruct themselves. Rather, these women sought to experience their selves as strong and coherent while also acknowledging the socially constructed aspects of their identities. Thus, reading these women writers, including Woolf, with the lens of male modernists and critics would misrepresent their aims and concerns.

Furthermore, these women were not only misunderstood or overlooked in their time period, but formulations of modernism continue to misunderstand women like Woolf today. For example, Adam Kelly invokes modernism in his essay “David Foster Wallace and the New Sincerity in American Fiction,” setting up modernist sincerity in contrast with his idea of the New Sincerity, a burgeoning school of post-postmodernism. Kelly asserts that the modernist aesthetic was characterized by “impersonality,” but he exclusively cites male authors such as Joyce and Eliot to prove his point. It would certainly be strange to describe Woolf’s persistent search for meaningful connections between people as anything approaching impersonal, so one might think she was left out of Kelly’s formulation, destabilizing his arguments surrounding postmodernism and New Sincerity.

What does all this indicate? Given that postmodernism grew out of mainstream critiques of modernism, and given that these critiques generally did not focus on the work being done by women writers, the very existence of the school of postmodernism becomes suspect, because it appears to exclude women writers and writers of color. Woolf’s oeuvre is proof of this gaping oversight. While the world is in many ways more equitable than it was when Woolf was writing—at the very least, women can now enter the library at Cambridge without a male companion, unlike in A Room of One’s Own–the literary world remains troublingly gendered.

Ruth Franklin discusses this gendering in her article “Why the Literary Landscape Continues to Disadvantage Women.” According to VIDA, and advocacy organization for women in literary arts, in 2013 The New York Review of Books reviewed 636 books by men and only 164 by women. Franklin notes how even today women writers struggle to be seen as writing about anything other than women, while male narratives continue to be considered universal. This echoes the sentiment Woolf expressed almost a century ago in A Room of One’s Own. She writes:
Yet it is the masculine values that prevail. Speaking crudely, football and sport are “important”; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes “trivial.” And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battle-field is more important than a scene in a shop—everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists.
If literary problems from 1929 that a prominent woman writer like Woolf considered at length still remain unsolved today, it seems fair to say that our contemporary literary schools developed out of a deliberate exclusion of women writers. This indicates that postmodernism is not only passé, but, in fact, that parts of postmodernism were never going to be useful for a progressive society. This is because postmodernism began as a movement by white men critiquing previous work by white men, never pausing to look outside of themselves to consider if people of other genders or races might have something interesting to contribute. Woolf’s contradictory relationship to postmodern tenets is proof that she, and likely others, were overlooked.

This isn’t to say that the entire project of postmodernism was useless. It did its work in exposing the arbitrary nature of many, if not most, aspects of our lives. It questioned our assumptions, our values, asked if we knew where things began and then asked us to look again. But for all its good, postmodernism has been ripping a hole in the literary fabric by failing to address this gendered critique, dragging the tapestry down as it overstays its welcome.

For my part, I think there’s nothing left to be gained from this irony, this solipsism, the extinguishing emptiness of the postmodern world. In a world where violence and hate speech are skyrocketing perhaps in part due to this rampant postmodern depersonalization, maybe what we need is not more explorations of how meaningless everything is, but a radical reassertion of that meaning, the kind of hope that kept Woolf alive.

It was the war that ultimately killed Virginia. She had been deeply unsettled by the First World War, and her diaries and letters indicate a growing sense of dread as the Second World War advanced in the last years of her life. While we’re not on the obvious brink of a world war now, it feels similarly easy to despair at advancing right-wing populism across the globe. But having grown up in postmodernism’s grasp, I would rather write towards hope, that truth that Woolf considered our great chance in this world.

In order to be productive, post-postmodern fiction must let go of the solipsistic irony borne out of exclusionary white male narratives. These post-postmodern works must allow writers of all perspectives to dismantle societal narratives and structures like a postmodernist. At the same time, such works must illuminate unseen spaces in literature, like Woolf called for in A Room of One’s Own, and they must resist postmodernism by remaining optimistic and unironic in the process. Drawing on Waugh, these writers must seek to understand their (whole) self in terms of problematic social structures rather than denying the existence of the self because of these structures.

We are never going to see the world or ourselves with complete objectivity, nor should we have to. The intrinsic failure of objectivity should not be taken as cause for despair, because this despair then masks the simple beauty that keeps us alive, as Woolf argued. That humans are fallible is part of what makes us endearing to each other. Woolf writes in Jacob’s Room, “In any case life is but a procession of shadows, and God knows why it is that we embrace them so eagerly, and see them depart with such anguish, being shadows.” It is merely because, “Such is the manner of our seeing. Such the conditions of our love.”

Image credit: Flickr/Laura Miller.

Ten Ways to Look at the Color Black

1.One of the most poignant of all passages in English literature occurs in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, serially published between the years of 1759 and 1767, when its author Laurence Sterne wrote: “████████████████████████████████████ ██████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████████” Such is the melancholic shade of the 73rd page of Tristram Shandy, the entirety of the paper taken up with black ink, when the very book itself mourns the death of an innocent but witty parson with the Shakespearean name Yorick. Said black page appears after Yorick went to his doors and “closed them, – and never opened them more,” for it was that “he died… as was generally thought, quite broken hearted.”

Tristam Shandy is more than just an account of its titular character, for as Steven Moore explains in The Novel: An Alternative History 1600-1800, the English writer engaged subjects including “pedantry, pedagogy, language, sex, writing, obsessions… obstetrics, warfare and fortifications, time and memory, birth and death, religion, philosophy, the law, politics, solipsism, habits, chance… sash-windows, chambermaids, maypoles, buttonholes,” ultimately concluding that it would be “simpler to list what it isn’t about.” Sterne’s novel is the sort that spends a substantial portion of its endlessly digressive plot with the narrator describing his own conception and birth. As Tristam says of his story, “Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine; – & they are the life, the soul of reading; – take them out of this book for instance, – you might as well take the book along with them.”

Eighteenth-century critics didn’t always go in for this sort of thing. Dr. Johnson, with poor prescience, said “Nothing odd will do long. Tristam Shandy did not last,” while Voltaire gave it a rather more generous appraisal, calling it “a very unaccountable book; an original.” Common readers were a bit more adventuresome; Moore records that the “sheer novelty of the first two volumes made Tristam Shandy a hit when they were reprinted in London in the early 1760s.” Sterne arguably produced the first “post-modern” novel, long before Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow or David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Central to Tristam Shandy are its typographical eccentricities, which Michael Schmidt in The Novel: A Biography describes: “mock-marbling of the paper, the pointing hands, the expressive asterisks, squiggles, dingbats…the varying lengths of dashes.” None of those are as famous as poor Yorick’s pitch-black page, however.

It’s easy to see Sterne’s black page, its rectangle of darkness, as an oddity, an affectation, an eccentricity, a gimmick. This is woefully inconsiderate to English language’s greatest passage about the blankness of grief. Sober critics have a tendency to mistake playfulness with lack of seriousness, but a reading of Tristram Shandy shows that for all of its strangeness, its scatological prose and its metafictional tricks, Sterne’s goal was always to chart the “mechanism and menstruations in the brain,” as he explained, to describe “what passes in a man’s mind.”

Which is why Tristram Shandy’s infamous black page represents grief more truthfully than the millions of pages that use ink in a more conventional way. Sterne’s prose, or rather the gaping dark absence where prose normally would be, is the closest that he can get to genuinely conveying what loss’s void feels like. What’s clear is that no “reading” or “interpretation” of Yorick’s extinction can actually be proffered, no analysis of any human’s death can be translated into something rationally approachable. Sterne reminds us that grief is not amenable to literary criticism.  For anyone that has ever lost someone they loved, seen that person die, you can understand that there is an inability for mere words to be commensurate with the enormity of that absence. Concerning such emotions beyond emotions, when it comes to “meaning,” the most full and accurate portrayal can only ever be a black hole.

2.Black is the most parsimonious of all colors. Color is a question of what it is we’re seeing when contrasted with that which we can’t, and black is the null zero of the latter. Those Manichean symbolic associations that we have with black and white are culturally relative—they are contingent on the arbitrary associations that a people project onto colors.  Yet true to the ballet of binary oppositions, they are intractably related, for one could never read black ink on black paper, or its converse. If with feigned synesthesia we could imagine what each color would sound like, I’d suspect that they’d either be all piercing intensity and high pitches, or perhaps low, barely-heard thrum—but I’m unsure which would be which.

Their extremity is what haunts, allowing either only absorption or only
reflection, the two colors reject the russet cool of October and the blue chill
of December, or the May warmth of yellow and the July heat of red. Black and
white are both voids, both absences, both spouses in an absolutism. They are
singularities. Hardly anything is ever truly black, even the night sky awash in
the electromagnetic radiation of all those distant suns. Black and white are
abstractions, they are imagined mathematical potentials, for even the darkest
of shades must by necessity reflect something back. Save for one
thing—the black hole.

As early as 1796 the Frenchman Pierre-Simon Laplace conjectured the existence of objects with a gravitational field so strong that not even light could escape. Laplace, when asked of God, famously told Napoleon that he “had no need for that hypothesis,” but he knew of the black hole’s rapacious hunger. It wouldn’t be until 1916 that another scientist, the German Karl Schwarzschild, would use Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity to surmise the existence of the modern black hole. Physicist Brian Greene explains in The Elegant Universe that Schwarzschild’s calculations implied objects whose “resulting space-time warp is so radical that anything, including light, that gets too close… will be unable to escape its gravitational grip.”

Black holes were first invented as a bit of mathematical book-keeping, a theoretical concept to keep God’s ledger in order. However, as Charles Seife writes in Alpha and Omega: The Search for the Beginning and End of the Universe, though a “black hole is practically invisible, astronomers can infer its presence from the artifacts it has on spacetime itself.” Formed from the tremendous power of a supernova, a blackhole is a lacuna in space and time, the inky corpse of what was once a star, and an impenetrable passage from which no traveler may return.

A black hole is the simplest object in the universe. Even a hydrogen atom is composed of a proton and an electron, but a black hole is simply a singularity and an event horizon. The former is the infinitely dense core of a dead star, the ineffable heart of the darkest thing in existence, and the latter marks the point of no return for any wayward pilgrim. It’s at the singularity itself where the very presuppositions of physics breakdown, where our mathematics tells us that reality has no strictures. Though a black hole may be explained by physics, it’s also paradoxically a negation of physics. Obvious why the black hole would become such a potent metaphor, for physics has surmised the existence of locations for which logic has no dominion. A cosmological incognito if you will, where there be monsters.

God may not play dice with the universe, but as it turns out She is ironic. Stephen Hawking figured that the potent stew of virtual particles predicted by quantum mechanics, general relativity’s great rival in explaining things, meant that at the event horizon of a black hole there would be a slight escape of radiation, as implied by Werner Heisenberg’s infamous uncertainty principle. And so, from Hawking, we learn that though black may be black, nothing is ever totally just that, not even a black hole. Save maybe for death.

3.“Black hole” is the rare physics term that is evocative enough to attract public attention, especially compared to the previous phrase for the concept, “gravitationally collapsed object.” Coined by physicist Robert H. Dicke in the early ’60s, he appropriated it from the infamous dungeon in colonial India that held British prisoners and was known as the “Black Hole of Calcutta.” In Dicke’s mind, that hot, fetid, stinking, torturous hell-hole from which few men could emerge was an apt metaphor for the cosmological singularity that acts as a physical manifestation of Dante’s warning in Inferno to “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”

Dante was a poet, and the word “black hole” is a metaphor, but it’s important to remember that pain and loss go beyond language, they are not abstractions, but very real. That particular Calcutta hole was in actuality an 18-foot by 14-foot cell in the ruins of Ft. William that held 69 Indian and British soldiers upon the fall of that garrison in 1756, when it was taken by the Nawab of Bengal. According to a survivor of the imprisonment, John Zephaniah Howell, the soldiers “raved, fought, prayed, blasphemed, and many then fell exhausted on the floor, where suffocation put an end to their torments.” On the first night 46 of the men died.

What that enclosure in Calcutta signified was its own singularity, where meaning itself had no meaning. In such a context the absence of color becomes indicative of erasure and negation, such darkness signaling nothing. As Lear echoes Parmenides, “Nothing can come of nothing: speak again.” There have been many black holes, on all continents, in all epochs. During the 18th century the slave ships of the Middle Passage were their own hell, where little light was allowed to escape.

In Marcus Redicker’s The Slave Ship: A Human History, the scholar speaks of the “horror-filled lower deck,” a hell of “hot, crowded, miserable circumstances.” A rare contemporary account of the Middle Passage is found in the enslaved Nigerian Olaudah Equiano’s 1789 The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African. Penned the year that French Jacobins stormed the Bastille, Equiano’s account is one of the rare voices of the slave ship to have been recorded and survived, an account of one who has been to a hell that they did not deserve and who yet returned to tell tale of that darkness. Equiano described being “put down under the decks” where he “received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experience in my life: so that, with the loathsomeness of the stench, and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat…I now wished for the last friend, death.”

There’s a risk in using any language, any metaphor, to describe the singularities of suffering endured by humans in such places, a tendency to turn the lives of actual people into fodder for theorizing and abstraction. Philosopher Elaine Scary in The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World argues that much is at “stake in the attempt to invent linguistic structures that will reach and accommodate this area of experience normally so inaccessible to language… a project laden with practical and ethical consequence.” Any attempt to constrain such experience in language, especially if it’s not the author’s experience, runs a risk of limiting those stories. “Black hole” is an affective metaphor to an extent, in that implicit within it is the idea of logic and language breaking down, and yet it’s all the more important to realize that it is ultimately still a metaphor as well, what the Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago described as “the dark infinity.”

David King in The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin’s Russia provides a chilling warning about what happens when humans are reduced to such metaphor, when they are erased. King writes that that the “physical eradication of Stalin’s political opponents at the hands of the secret police was swiftly followed by their obliteration from all forms of pictorial existence.” What’s most disturbing are the primitively doctored photographs, where being able to see the alteration is the very point. These are illusions that don’t exist to trick, but to warn; their purpose is not to make you forget, but rather the opposite, to remind you of those whom you are never to speak of again. Examine the Damnatio memoriae of Akmal Ikramov, first secretary of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan, who was condemned by Stalin and shot. In the archives his portrait was slathered in black paint. The task of memory is to never forget that underneath that mask there was a real face, that Ikramov’s eyes looked out as yours do now.

4.Even if the favored color of the Bolsheviks was red, black has also had its defenders in partisan fashion across the political spectrum, from the Anarchist flag of the left to the black-shirts of Benito Mussolini’s fascist right and the Hugo Boss-designed uniforms of the Nazi SS. Drawing on those halcyon days of the Paris Commune in 1871, anarchist Louis Michel first flew the black flag at a protest. His implications were clear—if a white flag meant surrender, then a black flag meant its opposite. For all who wear the color black certain connotations, sometimes divergent, can be potentially called upon; including authority, judiciousness, piety, purity, and power. Also, black makes you look thinner.

Recently departed fashion designer, creative director for the House of Chanel, and noted Teutonic vampire Karl Lagerfeld once told a Harper’s Baazar reporter that “Black, like white, is the best color,” and I see no reason to dispute that. Famous for his slicked-back powdered white pony-tail, his completely black suits, starched white detachable collars, black sunglasses, and leather riding gloves, Lagerfeld is part of a long tradition of that fabled French design firm. Coco Chanel, as quoted in The Allure of Chanel by Paul Morand and Euan Cameron, explains that “All those gaudy, resuscitated colors shocked me; those reds, those greens, those electric blues.” Chanel explains rather that she “imposed black; it’s still going strong today.”

Black may be the favored monochromatic palette for a certain school of haute couture; think black tie affairs and little black cocktail dresses—but the look is too good to be left to the elite. Black is the color of bohemians, spartan simplicity as a rebellion against square society. Beats were associated with it, they of stereotypical turtlenecks and thick-framed glasses. It’s always been a color for the avant-garde, signifying a certain austere rejection of the superficial cheerfulness of everyday life. Beats like Allen Ginsberg in his epic poem Howl, with its memorable black cover from City Lights Books, may have dragged himself through the streets at dawn burning for that “ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo,” but his friend William S. Burroughs would survey the fashion choices of his black-clad brethren and declare that the Beats were the “movement which launched a million Gaps.”

Appropriated or not, black has always been the color of the outlaw, a venerable genealogy that includes everything from Marlon Brando’s leather jacket in The Wild One to Keanu Reeves’s duster in The Matrix. Fashionable villains too, from Dracula to Darth Vader. That black is the color of rock music, on its wide highway to hell, is a given. There is no imagining goth music without black’s macabre associations, no paying attention to a Marilyn Manson wearing khaki, or the Cure embracing teal. No, black is the color of my true love’s band, for there’s no Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne, or the members of Bauhaus in anything but a monochromatic darkness. When Elvis Presley launched his ’68 comeback he opted for a skin-tight black leather jumpsuit.

Nobody surpasses Johnny Cash though. The country musician is inextricably bound to the color, wearing it as a non-negotiable uniform that expressed radical politics. He sings “I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down, /Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town.” Confessing that he’d “love to wear a rainbow every day,” he swears allegiance to his millennial commitments, promising that he’ll “carry off a little darkness on my back, /’Till things are brighter, I’m the Man in Black.” Elaborating later in Cash: The Autobiography, cowritten with Patrick Carr, he says “I don’t see much reason to change my position today…There’s still plenty of darkness to carry off.”

Cash’s sartorial choices were informed by a Baptist upbringing; his clothes mourned a fallen world, it was the wardrobe of a preacher. Something similar motivates the clothing of a very different prophetic figure, the pragmatist philosopher Cornel West, who famously only wears a black three-piece suit, with matching scarf. In an interview with The New York Times, West calls the suit his “cemetery clothes,” with a preacher’s knowledge that one should never ask for whom the bell tolls, but also with the understanding that in America, the horrifying reality is that a black man may always need to be prepared for his own funeral when up against an unjust state. As he explained, “I am coffin-ready.” West uses his black suit, “my armor” as he calls it, as a fortification.

Black is a liturgical, sacred, divine color. It’s not a mistake that Cash
and West draw from the somber hue of the minister’s attire. Black has often
been associated with orders and clerics; the Benedictines with their black
robes and Roman collared Jesuits; Puritans and austere Quakers, all unified in
little but clothing. Sects as divergent as Hasidic Jews and the Amish are known
for their black hats. In realms of faith, black may as well be its own temple.

5.Deep in the Finsterwalde, the “Dark Forest” of northwestern Switzerland, not far from Zurich, there is a hermitage whose origins go back to the ninth century. Maintained by Benedictine monks, the monastery was founded by St. Meinard. The saint lived his life committed to solitude, to dwelling in the space between words that can stretch to an infinity, a black space that still radiates its own light. In his vocation as a hermit, where he would find the monastery known (and still known) as the Einsiedeln Abbey, he had a single companion gifted to him by the Abbes Hildegard of Zurich—a carved, wooden statue of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Christ, who was himself clutching a small bird as if it was his play companion.

For more than a millennium, that figure, known as the “Lady of Einsiden,” has been visited by millions of pilgrims, as the humble anchorage has grown into a complex of ornate, gilded baroque buildings. These seekers are drawn to her gentle countenance, an eerie verisimilitude projecting some kind of interiority within her walnut head. She has survived both the degradations of entropy and Reformation, and is still a conduit for those who travel to witness that material evidence of that silent world beyond. Our Lady of Einsiden is only a few feet tall; her clothing is variable, sometimes wearing the celestial, cosmic blue of the Virgin, other times in resplendent gold, but the crown of heaven is always upon her brow. One aspect of her remains unchanging, however, and that’s that both her and Christ are painted black.

In 1799, during a restoration of the monastery, it was argued, in the words of one of the workers, that the Virgin’s “color is not attributable to a painter.” Deciding that a dose of revisionism was needed alongside restoration, the conclusion of restorer Johann Adam Fuetscher was that the Mary’s black skin was the result of the “smoke of the lights of the hanging lamps which for so many centuries always burned in the Holy Chapel of Einsideln.”

Fuetscher decided to repaint the statue, but when visitors saw the new Virgin they were outraged, and demanded she be returned to her original color, which has remained her hue for more than 200 years. Our Lady of Einsideln was not alone; depictions of Mary with dark skin can be found the width and breadth of the continent, from the famed Black Madonna of Czestochowa in Poland to Our Lady of Dublin in the Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church; in the Sicilian town of Tindari, to the frigid environs of Lunds Domkyrka Lund Cathedral in Sweden. Depending on how one identifies the statues, there are arguably 500 medieval examples of the Virgin Mary depicted with dark skin.

Recently art historians have admitted that the hundreds of Black Madonnas are probably intentionally so, but there is still debate as to why she is so often that color. One possibility is that the statues are an attempt at realism, that European artists saw no compunctions about rendering the Virgin and Christ with an accurate skin-tone for Jews living in the Levant. Perhaps basing such renderings upon the accounts of pilgrims and crusaders who’d returned from the Holy Land, these craftsmen depicted the Mother of God with a face that wasn’t necessarily a mirror of their own.

Scholar Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum has her own interpretation of these carvings in her study Black Madonnas: Feminism, Religion, and Politics in Italy. For Birnbaum, the statues may represent a multicultural awareness among those who made them, but they also have a deep archetypal significance. She writes that “Black is the color of the earth and of the ancient color of regeneration, a matter of perception, imagination, and beliefs often not conscious, a phenomenon suggested in people’s continuing to call a madonna black even after the image had been whitened by the church.”

China Galland in Longing for Darkness: Tara and the Black Madonna, her account of global pilgrimage from California to Nepal, asks if there was in the “blackness of the Virgin a thread of connection to Tara, Kali, or Durga, or was its mere coincidence?”  These are goddesses, which as Galland writes, have a blackness that is “almost luminous,” beings of a “beneficent and redeeming dark.” Whatever the motivations of those who made the statues, it’s clear that they intended to depict them exactly as they appear now, candle smoke and incense besides. At the il Santuario della Madonna del Tindari in Sicily there is a celebrated Virgin Mary with dark skin. And just to dispel any hypothesis that her color is an accident, restorers in 1990 found inscribed upon her base a quotation from Song of Songs 1:5, when the Queen of Sheba declares to Solomon: “I am black but beautiful.”

6.Very different deities of darkness would come to adorn the walls of the suburban Madrid house that the Spanish painter Francisco Goya moved to 200 years ago, in the dusk of the Napoleonic conflicts (when Laplace had dismissed God). Already an old man, and deaf for decades, Goya would affix murals in thick, black oil to the plaster walls of his villa, a collection intended for an audience of one. As his biographer Robert Hughes would note in Goya, the so-called black paintings “revealed an aspect of Goya even more extreme, bizarre, and imposing” than the violent depictions of the Peninsular War for which he was famous. The black paintings were made for Goya’s eyes only. He was a man who’d witnessed the barbarity of war and inquisition, and now in his convalescence he chose to make representations of witches’ sabbaths and goat-headed Baphomet overseeing a Black Mass, of Judith in the seconds after she decapitated Holofernes, and of twisted, toothless, grinning old men. And, though now it hangs in the Museo del Prado, it was painted originally on the back wall of the first story of the Quinta del Sordo next to one window and perpendicular to another, was his terrifying depiction of a fearsome Saturn devouring his own young.

In the hands of Goya, the myth of the Titan who cannibalized his progeny is
rendered in stark, literal, horrifying reality. For Goya there is no forgetting
the implications of what that story implies, his Chronos appears as shaggy,
wild-eyed, orangish monstrosity; matted, bestial white hair falls uncombed from
his head, and past his scrawny shoulders. Saturn is angular, jutting bones and
knobby kneecaps, as if hunger has forced him to this unthinkable act. His eyes
are wide, and though wild, they’re somehow scared, dwelling in the darkness of
fear.

I wonder if that’s part of Goya’s intent, using this pagan theme to express something of Catholic guilt and death-obsession, that intuitive awareness of original sin. It makes sense to me that Saturn is the scared one; scared of what he’s capable of, scared of what he’s done. Clutching in both hands the dismembered body of a son, whose features and size are recognizably human, Chronos grips his child like a hoagie, his son’s right arm already devoured and his head in Saturn’s stomach, with the Titan biting directly into the final remaining hand. Appropriately enough for what is, after all, an act of deicide, the sacrificed god hangs in a cruciform position. A fringe of blood spills out from inside. His corpse has a pink flush to it, like a medium rare hamburger. That’s the horror of Chronos—of time—emerging from this undifferentiated darkness. When considering our final hour, time has a way of rendering the abstraction of a body into the literalism of meat. Saturn Devouring His Son hung in Goya’s dining room.

His later paintings may be the most striking evocation of blackness, but the
shade haunted Goya his entire life. His print The Sleep of Reason Produces
Monsters, made two decades before those murals in the Quinta del
Sordo, is a cross-hatched study of the somber tones, of black and grey.
Goya draws himself, head down on a desk containing the artist’s implements, and
above him fly the specters of his nocturnal imagination, bats and owls flapping
their wings in the ceaseless drone that is the soundtrack of our subconscious
irrationalities, of the blackness that defines that minor form of extinction we
call sleep.

7.The blackness of sleep both promises and threatens erasure. In that strange state of non-being there is an intimation of what it could mean to be dead. Telling that darkness is the most applicable metaphor when describing both death and sleep, for the bed or the coffin. Sigmund Freud famously said of his subject in The Interpretation of Dreams that they were the “royal road to the unconscious.” Even the laws of time and space seem voided within that nocturnal kingdom, where friends long dead come to speak with us, where hidden rooms are discovered in the dark confines of homes we’ve known our entire lives. Dreams are a singularity of sorts, but there is that more restful slumber that’s nothing but a calm blackness.

This reciprocal comparison between sleep and death is such a cliché precisely because it’s so obvious, from the configuration of our actual physical repose to our imagining of what the experiences might share with one another. Edmund Spenser in the Faerie Queene writing “For next to Death is Sleepe to be compared;” his contemporary the poet Thomas Sackville referring to sleep as the “Cousin of Death;” the immaculate Thomas Browne writing that sleep is the “Brother of Death;” and more than a century later Percy Shelley waxing “How wonderful is Death, Death and his brother Sleep!”

Without focusing too much on how the two have moved closer to one another on the family tree, what seems to unify tenor and vehicle in the metaphorical comparisons between sleep and death is this quality of blackness, non-existence of color the same as non-existence. Both imply a certain radical freedom, for in dreams everyone has an independence, at least for a few hours. Consider that in our own society, where our totalizing system is the consumerism which controls our every waking moment, that the only place where you won’t see anything designed by humans (other than yourself) is in dreams, at least until Amazon finds a way to beam advertisements directly into our skulls.

Then there is Shakespeare, who speaks of sleep as the “ape of death,” who in Hamlet’s monologue writes of the “sleep of death,” and in the Scottish play calls sleep “death’s counterfeit.” If centuries have a general disposition, then my beloved 17th century was a golden age of morbidity when the ars Moriendi of the “good death” was celebrated by essayists like Browne and Robert Burton in the magisterial Anatomy of Melancholy. In my own reading and writing there are few essayists whom I love more, or try to emulate more, than the good Dr. Browne. That under-read writer and physician, he who both coined the terms “literary” and “medical,” among much else besides, wrote one of the most moving and wondrous tracts about faith and skepticism in his 1642 Religio Medici. Browne writes “Sleep is a death, /O make me try, /By sleeping, what it is to die:/And as gently lay my head/On my grave, as now my bed.” Maybe it resonates with me because when I was (mostly) younger, I’d sometimes lay on my back and pretend that I was in my coffin. I still can only sleep in pitch blackness.

8.Far easier to imagine that upon death you go someplace not unlike here, in either direction, or into the life of some future person yet unborn. Far harder to imagine non-existence, that state of being nothing, so that the most accessible way that it can be envisioned is as a field of black, as being the view when you close your eyes. That’s simply blackness as a metaphor, another inexact and thus incorrect portrayal of something fundamentally unknowable. In trying to conceive of non-existence, blackness is all that’s accessible, and yet it’s a blackness where the very power of metaphor ceases to make sense, where language itself breaks down as if it were the laws of physics at the dark heart of the singularity.

In the Talmud, at Brachot 57b, the sages tell us that “Sleep is 1/60th of death,” and this equation has always struck me as just about right. It begs certain questions though: is the sleep that is 1/60th of death those evenings when we have a pyrotechnic, psychedelic panoply of colors before us in the form of surrealistic dreams, or is it the sleep we have that is blacker than midnight, devoid of any being, of any semblance of our waking identities? This would seem to me to be the very point on which all questions of skepticism and faith must hang. That sleep, that strangest of activities, for which neurologists still have no clear answers as to its necessities (though we do know that it is), is a missive from the future grave, a seven-hour slice of death, seems obvious to me. So strange that we mock the “irrationalities” of ages past, when so instrumental to our own lives is something as otherworldly as sleep, when we die for a third of our day and return from realms of non-being to bore our friends with accounts of our dreams.

When we use the darkness of repose as metaphor for death, we brush against the extremity of naked reality and the limitations of our own language. In imagining non-existence as a field of undifferentiated black, we may trick ourselves into experiencing what it would be to no longer be here, but that’s a fallacy. Black is still a thing. Less than encouraging, this inability to conceive of that reality, which may be why deep down all of us, whether we’re to admit it or not, are pretty sure that we’ll never die, or at least not completely. And yet the blackness of non-existence disturbs, how couldn’t it? Epicurus wrote as an argument against fear of our own mortality that “Death… is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.”

Maybe that’s a palliative to some people, but it’s never been to me. More of
sophistry than wisdom in the formulation, for it eludes the psychology of being
terrified at the thought of our own non-existence. Stoics and Epicureans have
sometimes asked why we’re afraid of the non-existence of death, since we’ve
already experienced the non-existence before we’re born? When I think back to
the years before 1984, I don’t have a sense of an undifferentiated blackness,
rather I have a sense of…. well…. nothing. That’s not exactly
consoling to me. Maybe this is the height of egocentricity, but hasn’t anyone
ever looked at photographs of your family from before you’re born, and felt a
bit of the uncanny about it? Asking for a friend.

In 1714, the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz asked in the Monadology “Why is there something rather than nothing,” and that remains the rub. For Martin Heidegger in the 20th century, that issue remained the “fundamental question of metaphysics.” I proffer no solution to it here, only to notice that when confronted with the enormity of non-existence, prudence forces us to admit the equivalently disturbing question of existence. Physicist Max Delbrück in Mind from Matter: An Essay on Evolutionary Epistemology quotes his colleague Niels Bohr, the father of quantum theory, as having once said that the “hallmark of any deep truth [is] that its negation is also a deep truth.” Certainly, the case with existence and non-existence, equally profound and equally disquieting. If we’re to apply colors to either, I can’t help but see oppositional white and black, with an ambiguity to which is which.

9.If there can be a standard picture of God, I suspect that for most people it is a variation on the bearded, old man in the sky trope, sort of a more avuncular version of Michelangelo’s rendering from the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Such is an embodied deity, of dimensions in length, breadth, and width, and also such is the Lord as defined through that modern heresy of literalism. The ancients were often more sophisticated than both our fundamentalists and our atheists (as connected as black and white). Older methods of speaking about something as intractable as God were too often pass over in silence, with an awareness that to limit God to mere existence was to limit too much.

In that silence there was the ever-heavy blossom of blackness, the all-encompassing field of darkness that contains every mystery to which there aren’t even any questions. Solzhenitsyn observed that “even blackness [can]… partake of the heavens.” Not even blackness, but especially blackness, for dark is the night. Theologians call this way of speaking about God “apophasis.” For those who embrace apophatic language, there is an acknowledgement that a clear definition of the divine is impossible, so that it is better to dwell in sacred, uncertainties. This experience of God can often be a blackness in itself, what St. John of the Cross spoke of in his 1577 Spanish poem “The Dark Night of the Soul.” Content with how an absence can often be more holy than an image, the saint emphasized that such a dark night is “lovelier than the dawn.” A profound equality in undifferentiated blackness, in that darkness where features, even of God, are obscured. Maybe the question of whether or not God is real is as nonsensical as those issues of non-existence and death; maybe the question itself doesn’t make any sense, understanding rather that God isn’t just black. God is blackness.

10. On an ivory wall within the National Gallery, in Andrew Mellon’s palace constructed within this gleaming white city, there is a painting made late in life by Mark Rothko entitled Black on Grey. Measuring some 80 inches by 69.1 inches, the canvas is much taller than the average man, and true to its informal title it is given over to only two colors—a dark black on top fading into a dusty lunar grey below. Few among Rothko’s contemporaries in his abstract expressionist circle, that movement that moved the capital of the art world from Paris to New York, had quite the sublimity of color as he did. Jackson Pollock certainly had the kinetic frenzy of the drip, Willem de Kooning the connection to something still figurative in his pastel swirl. But Rothko, he had a panoply of color, from his nuclear oranges and reds to those arctic blues and pacific greens, what he described to Selden Rodman in Conversations with Artists as a desire to express “basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom.”

Black on Grey looks a bit like what I imagine it would be to survey the infinity of space from the emptiness of the moon’s surface. These paintings towards the end of the artist’s life, made before he committed suicide by barbiturate and razor blade in his East 69th Street studio, took an increasingly melancholic hue. Perhaps Rothko experienced what his friend the poet Frank O’Hara had written about as the “darkness I inhabit in the midst of sterile millions.” Rothko confirmed that his black paintings were, as with Goya, fundamentally about death.

In a coffee-table book, Rothko’s work can look like something from a paint
sample catalog. It does no justice compared to standing before the images
themselves, of what Rothko described as the phenomenon of how “people break
down and cry when confronted with my pictures.” For Rothko, such reactions were
a type of communion, these spectators were “having the same religious experience
I had when I painted them.” When you stand before Black on Grey, when
it’s taken out from the sterile confines of the art history book or the
reductions of digital reproduction, you’re confronted with a blackness that
dominates your vision, as seeing with your eyes closed, as experiencing death,
as standing in the empty Holy of Holies and seeing God.

With a giant field of black, the most elemental abstraction that could be
imagined, this Jewish mystic most fully practiced the stricture to not make any
graven image. He paradoxically arrived at the most accurate portrayal of God
ever committed to paint. For all of their oppositions, both Infinity and
Nothing become identical, being the same shade of deep and beautiful black, so
that any differences between them are rendered moot.

Image credit: Unsplash/David Jorre.

Remade in His Own Image: Mark Hogancamp’s Marwencol

1.

Kingston, New York, sits two hours north of New York City on the Hudson. Refugees from Brooklyn have recently put down their version of roots in the historic and formerly abeyant small city—vinyl record shops, bookstores purveying the kind of coffee topped with microfoam tulips, lounges serving Instagram-ready handcrafted cocktails. In a less frivolous development, an LGBTQ community center now occupies a corner of uptown’s most prominent block.

If this Kingston of 2018 had been the Kingston of the turn of the millennium, the one that is the setting of Welcome to Marwen, the new movie directed by Robert Zemeckis, it is possible that its originating event might never have occurred. Then again maybe it would. Hate has no fixed address.

In that Kingston of yore begins a story about storytelling, revealed from multiple points of view in three different media. It starts in the first hours of April 8, 2000, when a 38-year-old restaurant worker and former U.S. Navy petty officer with a drinking problem was set upon by five men outside a bar. He was beaten so mercilessly that when a bartender found him in the street he was near death. She initially thought he was a garbage bag. Mark Hogancamp spent 40 days in the hospital, nine of them in a coma. The bone around his right eye required reconstruction. When he came to, he remembered nothing of life before the assault. He had to relearn how to eat, to walk. He returned home and thought the pairs of women’s high heels piled in the closet must belong to a girlfriend he couldn’t recall. In fact they were his, and they may well have provoked his attack. At trial people testified they’d overheard Hogancamp tell the men he enjoyed cross-dressing.

A heartbreaking story that might have stayed within the confines of a forgotten city, like the numberless tragedies that daily occur on a thousand other cultural islands, instead broke free because of what the otherwise unremarkable city of Kingston was becoming. And because this transformation intersected with who Mark Hogancamp already was.

He had long kept diaries—dubbed “drunk journals” because they recounted self-destructive behavior that to him was “like something Stephen King wrote”—filled with accomplished drawings informed by comic book illustration. These were neither the product of a trained artist nor overtly intentional artmaking: Hogancamp is the consummate example of an outsider artist.

It was pure chance that a photographer named David Naugle then living in Kingston witnessed a curious sight. A man, frequently dressed in Army drab, used a modified pool cue to pilot a 1:6 scale model jeep filled with costumed dolls down his semi-rural neighborhood’s road. He’d walk to the local deli and back, again and again.

Hogancamp was walking in search of verisimilitude. After his release from the hospital, he embarked on a project that was more like a need. Left with a right hand that now shook too much for drawing, he went about creating a new type of world. It would only look old, meticulously detailed and appropriately weathered. He named his fictional town, set in World War II Belgium, Marwencol. Hogancamp built it in 1:6 scale beside his rented trailer using scavenged materials and peopled it with an alter ego named Hogie and other characters of Hogancamp’s acquaintance. Under his obsessive attention it grew until the realest part of his existence took place inside its miniature precincts. The world reversed. It was women (some of them Barbies) who were the fiercest avengers; Axis and Allied soldiers respected a pact to peacefully coexist. The bar at the center of town life was named the Ruined Stocking Catfight Club. A tiny sign reassured patrons the vicious fights were only staged. Hogancamp’s Marwencol was a matryoshka creation, a hall of mirrors in which personal storylines set in motion by fate were reenacted by characters of his own making. He arranged and photographed figures that appeared to build the town church as he himself was building it. Sometimes a larger figure, identically dressed as Hogie but holding a camera, arranged the smaller figures in Hogancamp’s stead. He photographed big Hogie photograping little Hogie.

The true evildoers were handily provided by history. The SS was the town’s persistent threat. Five soldiers, the number of Hogancamp’s attackers, might appear at any time. In one of the recurring narratives Hogancamp conceived, the SS rampaged through town—desperate for drink. The soldiers attacked Hogie and savagely beat him. After being saved by a cadre of invincible women, as Hogancamp himself had been (the barkeep who found him, the mother who advocated for his recovery and strong penalties for his attackers, the neighbor and colleagues at work who became objects of desire and thus reawakened an essential drive to master destiny by picturing a narrative in which his affections were requited), Hogie was left with a dashing scar over his diminutive right eye.

Alone among the denizens of Hogancamp’s imagined world, the SS were revenants. They could never be killed except by supernatural powers. Their existence speaks to the issue of creative control even as they effectively personify post-traumatic stress, the ordeal that won’t stop.

2.

After David Naugle introduced himself, Hogancamp gave him a packet of photos. They recorded moments—panels, really—of the staged action in Marwencol. If the essence of photography is its apparent capture of frozen moments, these were frozen moments of frozen moments. Everything Hogancamp did stood at a double remove from either life or its representation. His photos were pre-cinematic: film stills of a film that had yet to be made. Perhaps—or perhaps not—Hogancamp’s world was ripe for onscreen realization.

It could be that Hogancamp’s story is necessarily resistant to any effort to cinematize it. The pictures he took were the ultimate step in the creation of a self-enclosed new world through which he could comprehend, reshape, and re-present the past. Only by way of photography’s evocation of the permanent eternal was the creation sealed and complete. It would in effect be unmade if reeled backwards into action, into the recursive present that is film.

Action, along with special effects, is what Robert Zemeckis is known for. It is understandable that the director of earnest movies like Forrest Gump and Cast Away was attracted to a tale that on its surface appears about art’s ability to deliver personal salvation. By combining Mark Hogancamp’s story with animations of Marwencol that jolt the viewer with scale trickery, Welcome to Marwen ironically diminishes both. Not that it isn’t marginally fulfilling, to some degree; Steve Carrell as Hogancamp is affecting. At least when he has not been converted into plastic via motion capture. The film’s narrative, smoothed into the requisite symmetricality by Caroline Thompson (Edward Scissorhands) and Zemeckis, is a good one. It just isn’t about what Hogancamp has truly done: artistically transfiguring a complex, dark, and insular experience. It is about what popular movies do with others’ stories. It is, finally, about Hollywood itself.

3.

As a photographer, David Naugle knew the rawly surreal art brut the man had shown him was unprecedented. Hogancamp’s work recalled that of David Levinthal, another artist who photographed toy soldiers, but without the self-aware guile that permeates the established artist’s pictures. Naugle alerted his friend Tod Lippy, the founder and editor of the arts magazine Esopus, to Hogancamp’s work, which the magazine then featured. A show at New York’s White Columns followed, as did an excellent documentary by Jeff Malmberg in 2010 and six years later the Princeton Architectural Press publication of Welcome to Marwencol, by Hogancamp and Chris Shellen.

It is worth making explicit that Hogancamp’s project spans both the making of his fictional town and the photographing of it. They are inextricable parts of the same endeavor. How to define “art”? Let me not count the ways. Out of infinity, though, I might pull the one that seems most germane to Mark Hogancamp’s singular achievement: an object or experience predicated on its potential for consumption by someone other than its maker. He could have posed his figures and then, alone, looked at them for a time. No one would’ve known about the secret act. Instead, the artist was compelled to make an enduring record. If he hadn’t taken that ambitious step, Marwencol might have remained a doleful oddity, a self-therapy of interest mainly to its creator. Instead, with the first snap of a shutter, Hogancamp imagined into existence a viewer. In that moment, when we were invited into this made-up village with its heroic plastic denizens, we became real too. His small world joined ours, his lens the bridge between the world of the imagination and the world at large.

Hogancamp’s photos speak to the line between believability and fakery, between simulation and the surprise inherent in finding “life” inside the obviously unreal. His photos capture weather and mud, sun filtering through tree branches, drops of “blood” on actual snow: Dislocation is the subject of these works. Shallow depth of field blurs what is in the distance, making it look realer than real, because it looks familiar from a thousand posters for movies we’ve seen. (In a caption in the book, Shellen explains, “The natural environment of Kingston is incorporated into Mark’s photos, with faraway vistas looking size appropriate.”) Then there are the figures, caught in “active” poses—carrying a wounded comrade through deep muck, checking a map unfurled on the hood of a jeep, running away, taking aim, dressing wounds. They bear permanent expressions, ones molded right into their faces, their very “beings.” The viewer’s brain is required to recalibrate basic notions of motion versus permanence. What hurts the head to explain is immediately grasped by the eye: Hogancamp’s pictures represent dynamism through picturing the clearly static.

Their sense of the surreal is not limited to their method. One of the most often reproduced of his photographs is a wedding picture, bride-doll in gauzy white dress and Hogie in black suit and shiny tie. The backdrop consists of the five SS soldiers strung up by their feet. An image of wartime brutality collides with a photographic convention, love’s happy future.

In Susan Sontag’s On Photography, a book about photos that contains no photos, she writes, “As photographs give people an imaginary possession of a past that is unreal, they also help people to take possession of space in which they are insecure.” Mark Hogancamp’s past was indeed beaten into unreality. And the space of which he is insecure is the one where he still lives, the Kingston forever changed into an ominously shifting landscape.

***

In Malmberg’s documentary, the photographer Hogancamp tells the camera that has been turned on him for a change, “I built Marwencol for me—now it’s everybody’s. It’s the one last thing I don’t want taken from me.” One is reminded of those innocents who once feared cameras would steal the soul of their subjects.

In Kingston, the dark and unadorned hobby shop where Hogancamp bought many of his models has become a store that sells a “beautifully curated” selection of home goods: modernist porcelain and cooking tools. In a nod to its predecessor, the shop recently hung some Hogancamps in the window. Through fictional eyes Hogie looked out on the streets of the city that is no longer his. It is the one where he almost died and came to life, again and again.

Image credit: Unsplash/Hanny Naibaho.

Mirror, Mirror: On the Nature of Literature

Because of the mirror I cannot touch the me-inside-the mirrorBecause of the mirror I get to meet the me-inside-the mirror     —Yisang, “Mirror,” translated from Korean by Jack Jung
God has created nighttime, which he armsWith dreams, and mirrors, to make clearTo man he is a reflection and a mereVanity. Therefore these alarms.     —Jorge Luis Borges, “Mirrors,” translated from Portuguese by Mildred Boyer and Harold Morland
Sometimes it takes a probeand a camera’s eye to show you 
what you’re looking for.       —Maureen Doallas, “How Argument Go.”
1.
Many people, especially during their teenage years, spend a lot of time gazing at themselves in the mirror. One of my dorm-mates in high school was a pretty dancer. One day she started to get up an hour earlier every morning—the reason, she said, was to study. She did get up early, but she spent that extra hour looking in the mirror and combing her hair. Boys do similar things, too. Walking to the cafeteria during high school, I occasionally passed by a boy: Feet glued to the hallway, he held a stainless-steel spoon and kept glancing at the reflection of his face.
I never took a fancy to mirrors. They bear ill omens in childhood stories. Narcissus, in Greek mythology, grows infatuated with his reflection in the water and eventually dies of unrequited love. The magic mirror in Snow White stirs up the queen’s jealousy and causes a series of misfortunes to befall the innocent princess. My fear of mirrors developed when I turned 14. Two weeks after a friend broke her mirror at lunch break, she was diagnosed with leukemia. That night I did some googling and found that breaking a mirror was considered bad luck in many cultures. I knew I was being superstitious, but immediately checked all three mirrors my mother kept at home to make sure they were stable.
I don’t know whether this is related, but whenever I hear people say great literary works “mirror” society, I pause. The mirror analogy seems universal and timeless. A genre of literature known as Specula Principum became popular in Western Europe during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Specula Principum, which translates to Mirrors for Princes, provided political instructions for rulers. One of the most famous compilations of Chinese history completed in Song Dynasty (1084 AD) is titled Zizhi Tongjian or Comprehensive Mirror to Aid in Government.

Last year, Shanghai Translation Publishing House, a leading press in China, asked me to translate Mystery and Manners and The Habit of Being for their forthcoming project, The Complete Works of Flannery O’Connor. I was surprised to find that in her time (the 1950s), American critics and readers wanted to enforce an orthodoxy of sorts on fiction writing:

They demand a realism of fact which may, in the end, limit rather than broaden the novel’s scope. They associate the only legitimate material for long fiction with the movement of social forces, with the typical, with fidelity to the way things look and happen in normal life. (“Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction”)


 In the same essay, O’Connor quoted Van Wyck Brooks, a literary critic, biographer, and historian, who called for literature to return to its “traditional” role as a “mirror and guide for society.” To O’Connor, such literature would only “satisfy tired readers” and flatten the originality of the American Southern voice. Interestingly though, the same orthodoxy is actually the literary tradition in China that still prevails today. All the best contemporary works in Chinese are about typical characters involved in big social movements. To Live by Yu Hua chronicles the fate of Fu Gui, an average Chinese man, during the Cultural Revolution. The Red Sorghum by Mo Yan revolves around a group of peasants fighting Japanese invaders during World War II.
As a writer, I—like all other responsible citizens—agree that we need to be socially engaged. But something feels wrong about the aforementioned demand: first the words “typical,” and “social forces.” These terms suggest the life of an individual is unimportant unless it is tied to social movements, and that the artistic elements of fiction are only a vehicle for the work’s larger societal message. Second, the word “fidelity.” I never really liked that word. In her essay “Erasing the Signs of Labor under the Signs of Happiness: ‘Joy’ and ‘Fidelity’ as Bromides in Literary Translation,” poet and translator Sophie Collins discusses the feminine connotation of the word fidelity—women are required to be faithful to men. Fidelity implies a subordinate nature: Translations are asked to be the handmaids of the original texts, fiction that of reality, society, and nation.
I can see why the mirror analogy persists. The reflection of a mirror is objective, dehumanized, and thus faithful. But that doesn’t work in fiction writing (or in nonfiction writing). Art is a selective process, and selection is inherently subjective. If we require writers to exactly follow the orthodoxy, to record the “typical” in a “faithful” fashion, then we are done with fiction.
2.
For the contemporary American reader who respects and cherishes original voices, perhaps there is no need to defend the importance of writers’ subjective feelings. But subjectivity doesn’t only involve insight and point of view. It also contains presupposition and judgment. We are now more conscious of racism, homophobia, and sexism in older American works of literature; and we demand a more faithful representation of minorities in present-day writing. So, the idea of fiction as a mirror endures—writers should be fair, balanced, and objective.
In practice, being fair often turns into being generous. Writers may feel obligated to “correct” for the prejudices of the past. They believe that their writing should reflect their values or group identity. Feminists may avoid showing any female character that is too frail or emotional; minority writers feel the urge to present a positive picture of their ethnic group. As a result, fidelity takes the form of loyalty; art serves as the handmaid of collective values.
In August 2018, after my op-ed was published in The New York Times, I was targeted by cyber bullies. I wrote the piece two days after I learned of my mother’s stroke. Grief, guilt, and grievance overwhelmed me; I couldn’t help but unleash my feelings on the page. I criticized the pragmatic tendency of Chinese culture and medical institutions that are dominated by nepotism and wealth. My Weibo account, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, was soon filled with hundreds of angry and hateful comments. My countrymen called me a “traitor” who “drank her mom’s blood to lip the American dick.”
After the storm passed, I told my friends at home I didn’t care what people had said. But that was a lie. For four months, I wasn’t able to write down a single Chinese word. My English writing also became difficult. I kept torturing myself with the following questions:
1) Was I smearing my country?
2) For whom was I writing?
3) Was my writing contributing to my country anymore?
And soon I had the answers:
1) No. All the points in my essay were facts.
2) When I write in English, I write for readers who speak that language.
3) Probably not.
The last answer killed me. Growing up in China, I had been taught to be patriotic and responsible. What value does my writing have if it doesn’t do my country any good?

In my darkest moment, I started reading Philip Roth, the great American author who, as Brett Ashley Kaplan puts it, was once considered an “enemy” by his fellow Jewish people. Roth’s characters are not pleasant. Take Goodbye, Columbus, his first major work. The Patimkins are filthy rich and snobbish, while Neil’s working-class family seem like boorish fools. But because the portrait is so raw, I can relate to Neil’s desire to fit in with the upper-middle class Jewish American community. Aunt Gladys sounds exactly like my working-class relatives in Shanghai. I understand Neil’s feelings about living with her—he fears being drowned in the unintellectual life that he despises, and he is afraid that all his hard work will come to nothing. Neil is not pleasant either: He bears the defects of both sides. Reading Roth, I know I am Neil, and Neil is me.

I probably sound like I was seeking legitimacy in Roth’s work. Perhaps I was. But I recall my days as a writer in Chinese. After my first collection, People Grow Old, But Never Die, came out in 2014, a friend brought her husband to meet me after a reading. It turned out we’d gone to the same high school. We talked about our shared memories and had a very good time. He said he couldn’t wait to read my stories. Two days later, he was the first person who posted a negative comment online. My friend told me that the dark picture of the neighborhood in my book offended him.
Back then I didn’t question whether my stories were a faithful representation of the lower-class Shanghainese, because, like many authors, my first book is largely autobiographical.
Take “A Sick Tooth,” the short story that earned me a China Times Literary Award in Taiwan in 2011. The father is useless and timid, like my father; the mother extremely economical and pragmatic, like my mother. They are good people, only stricken with poverty. But, looking back, I wonder what good that story did for my city, Shanghai. Or for my parents. As Czeslaw Milosz’s famous quote goes: “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.”
But my Shanghai stories never aroused controversy; the readers who enjoy my book find in it their own images, not happy ones though, mostly their deep-buried woes and sorrows. Will the image of Shanghai and Shanghainese be tarnished by my stories? I would not be arrogant enough to think so. The question of whether my stories were useful to my city never arose while I was writing. Lost in a world of insults and curses that people hurled at me last year, I forgot the nature of art. Art is good in and of itself, as Thomas Aquinas puts it. For all my writing, I am performing painful self-reflection and I would be grateful if my readers would do the same after reading my work.
Back in my school days, Japanese horror stories were very popular. There was one titled “Miss Mirror.” One day, a young doctor works the night shift. While washing her hands in the restroom, she sings spells into a mirror. Soon, the image of a ghost appears in the mirror. After I came to the States, I learned about the legend of Bloody Mary. If you chant her name into a mirror, she will emerge.
These thoughts about mirrors came to me randomly, while I was still considering my writing identity. It struck me that I do hope my writing serves as a mirror, not an ordinary one, but a magic mirror that can summon ghosts. I have a theory about the abundance of ghost-in-mirror stories around the world: The ghost is not “the other;” when we look at ourselves long enough, we see our own grotesqueness.
Humans are born self-centered. If I don’t remind myself of the dark and ugly side that I have, I would become a narcissistic being, like in Greek mythology. I need the magic mirror on the wall to tell me the fairest girl is someone else. I may end up feeling unhappy, but at least I can have true self-knowledge. The same can be said of every individual, social group, generation, culture, and nation. As Flannery O’Connor said it, “The first product of self-knowledge is humility, and this is not a virtue conspicuous in any national character.”


3.
In real life, I am all for inclusion and acceptance, for political correctness, that American obsession. I owe everything I have here to social justice advocates. But sometimes I wonder: What would be Philip Roth’s fate if he were a young writer today?
Author and professor Brian Morton, in his essay “Virginia Woolf? Snob! Richard Wright? Sexist! Dostoyevsky? Anti-Semite,” points out today’s college students’ tendency to condemn canonical authors for moral failings. I love the comparison he draws between reading literature of the past and time traveling.     

When we imagine that writers from the past are visiting our world, it subtly reinforces our complacence, our tendency to believe that the efforts at moral improvement made by earlier generations attained their climax, their fulfillment, their perfection, in us. The idea that we are the ones who are doing the time-traveling doesn’t carry the same implication.
If, whenever we open old books, we understand from the get-go that their authors have motes in their eyes regarding important ethical or political questions, it might help us understand that the same thing could be said of us today.

Morton’s analogy reminds me of a story about Nan-in, a Japanese Zen master during Meiji era. Once a university professor came to ask for his teachings. While serving tea, Nan-in kept pouring hot water into the cup after it was full. The professor looked at the cup and said, “It’s already full. No more water.” “Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions. How can I teach you Zen?”
If we are too full of our own opinions, we will never be able to see the richness of our predecessors. We must recognize our own limitations (or at least accept the possibility of our limitations) so we can begin to appreciate the merits of others.
On the other hand, racism, sexism, and prejudice persist. In “The Snow Queen,” one of Hans Christian Andersen’s most famous fairy tales, a wicked hobgoblin makes a mirror that reduces everything good and beautiful to nothing. When this mirror breaks into billions of pieces, the shards fall across the earth and become embedded in people’s hearts and eyes, causing them to only see the bad and ugly in other people.
As a writer, how can I be sure that I am not making the same wicked mirror? What is the dividing line between being critical and being hateful? How much liberty can writers take to reveal the darker side of our collective selves?
My answer is: as long as I am making the mirror of truth, and as long as I am using the mirror to reflect myself.
Writers are often called truth seekers. But what is truth? Etymologically, the Middle English word for “truth” is “trewthe,” which derives from Old English word trēowth, which mean fidelity and is akin to the Old English word trēowe, which means faithful. Here it is again: fidelity. That doesn’t help: fidelity to what?
In an indirect way, Flannery O’Connor addresses my question. As a Roman Catholic, the nature of truth is transparent to her: It is with God and with mystery. In a letter she wrote to Alfred Con, then a freshman at Emory University, who felt lost in college, O’Connor says: 

Where you have absolute solutions, however, you have no need of faith. Faith is what you have in the absence of knowledge. The reason this clash [clash of different world religions] doesn’t bother me any longer is because I have got, over the years, a sense of the immense sweep of creation, of the evolutionary process in everything, of how incomprehensible God must necessarily be to be the God of heaven and earth.

I am not religious, though Christianity appeals to me intellectually. However, while translating O’Connor, I realized that she, like all the great writers of the past, shines a light on my narrow-mindedness. Like Alfred Con, I have become biased by “the stimulation of an intellectual life that happens in college.” Meanwhile, without realizing it, I have been experiencing what O’Connor calls a “shrinking of the imaginative life.” Nowadays, truth has mutated into its many degraded kin: values, reality, perspective, and group image. Exposed to them, I took the side of the majority and stuck to it. I rested my skepticism. I have stopped looking for God (truth).
Perhaps, truth is something that transcends all the comprehensible things around us. It is not something that we hold in our hands or that we fight for, but something that keeps us searching and wondering.
Truth also affords writers the liberty to be unfaithful to its degraded kin. In 2016, shortly before I came to the U.S., I asked Gish Jen at her reading in Shanghai the same question that I ask myself today: Immigrant writers take bits and pieces of their native land with them; how can they deliver a full faithful picture of their homeland or ancestors’ land to a foreign readership? Jen’s answer was refreshing, and recalling the moment now, I feel even more grateful. “They can’t,” she said. “Nobody can give a full faithful picture of his/her homeland. But writers have the liberty to be disloyal. And we pay the price for being expelled from Plato’s Republic.”
Today, I find many writers, myself included, driven by the moral demand to write “what it should be” instead of “what it is”—that is, we use the “correctness” of our values to determine “what it should be.” But, as I see it, writing for or against certain values creates propaganda. The problem with the creation of this type of propaganda is that we close our eyes and let our values do the seeing for us. In doing so, we give ourselves the illusion of flawlessness and absolute correctness. When we are complacent in this way, we have turned away from truth.
In the tradition of Zen Buddhism, the mind—the higher self—is compared to a bright mirror. There was a fierce debate between the Northern and Southern Schools in seventh-century China: one school believed that the mirror needs constant cleaning; the other believed that it was fundamentally pure, free, and unconditioned.
This is a polemical debate, and I am no expert on Zen. But this bright mirror matches my ultimate image of the mirror of truth.  To me, a look at our internal ghosts won’t result in a distorted reality, like it does in “The Snow Queen.” When looking in the mirror, we also see our fundamentally good higher selves. We see what we could be. Allow me to once again quote Flannery O’Connor: “to know oneself is, above all, to know what one lacks. It is to measure oneself against Truth, and not the other way around.” Speak to the mirror. Don’t shy away from anything we see. Grope your way out of the darkness and the unknown. Ultimately, we will see the light, in every corner of the world, in others, and in ourselves.
Image credit: Snapwire/Will Milne.

Stalin’s Scheherazade: Was Nobel Prize-Winner Mikhail Sholokhov a Brilliant Writer or a Communist Con Man?

Stalin’s Russia was full of self-promoting con-men with invented personas, ambitious intellectuals with questionable credentials, and audacious imposters who for a time succeeded in both faking it and making it. Even some of the highest officials of the Communist Party were revolutionary improvisers lacking either the experience or training to do what history demanded of them. Mikhail Sholokhov (1905?- 1984) can be viewed as the most talented and successful of them all. Rising from obscure, rural origins, he impersonated a great writer long enough to truly become one. He earned the admiration of Joseph Stalin. Sholokhov gamed the most important mark in the Soviet Union. Or was it perhaps the other way around?

Sholokhov had written several promising, but by no means brilliant, short stories by his early twenties. His writing career was on the verge of stalling when he somehow managed to acquire an archive that was left behind when anti-Soviet forces were routed by the Red Army during the Russian Civil War. At a minimum, this archive appears to have included an unfinished novel that ended around 1919 and a trove of scrapbooks consisting of stories, sketches, newspaper clippings, and articles spanning over a decade of Cossack history. In 1926-27 his work with “the big thing,” as he sometimes called it, became more than a novel. It became a mission. From the moment he started to connect narrative threads and patch seams, he transformed from passive consumer to passionate co-creator. He moved, merged, and juxtaposed texts, combining them with new sections drawn from his own background. He added communist threads and amplified communist characters to create the Soviet Union’s epic equivalent to Gone with the Wind.  The result was the first volume of Quiet Don, a deeply tragic epic centered on two star-crossed lovers and the twilight of a culture swept up into a whirlwind of war and revolution.

In 1927-28, the first volume of the planned trilogy became an overnight success. Sholokhov was immediately vaulted into the spotlight of Soviet celebrity and acclaimed as a rising star of Russian literature. The novel was hailed as a War and Peace of the revolutionary era. With fame came envy and suspicion. In Moscow, one of Sholokov’s first editors, Feoktist Berezovskii, became highly skeptical of his rapid metamorphosis from an apprentice into a virtuoso. It just seemed too good to be true. He doubted that astonishing prose could emanate from the pen of the same young author whose short story he had laboriously edited just three years earlier.

The ensuing plagiarism scandal brought Sholokhov to Stalin’s attention. In early 1929, rumors began to circulate in Moscow that an old woman had written to Soviet authorities claiming that her son, who disappeared during the Civil War, had written a novel. She insisted that the recently published chapters of Quiet Don were identical to her son’s book. As the story spread, it became more and more elaborate. In some versions the poor old woman was going from publisher to publisher hoping to arrange a tearful reunion with her missing son. In others, she was angrily demanding justice from the authorities. When the rumors reached Stalin, the controversy became a matter of life and death for Sholokhov.

In March 1929, the editorial board of Pravda (the Soviet Union’s most important daily newspaper) convened an ad hoc tribunal to examine the allegations that Sholokhov had plagiarized Quiet Don. Several days later, Pravda publicly exonerated Sholokhov and pronounced the plagiarism gossip to be “malicious slander being spread by enemies of the proletarian dictatorship.” Although Sholokhov weathered the plagiarism scandal, bureaucrats soon banned the newest installments of his novel as anti-Soviet.

Critics complained that his sympathies were not unequivocally on the side of the proletariat. They accused him of humanism, pacifism, and worst of all, objectivism. He dared to portray class enemies without expressing excessive, exaggerated hatred of them. In a desperate effort to save Quiet Don, in the spring of 1931 Sholokhov appealed to Maxim Gorky, Russia’s most famous living writer. The ploy worked. A few weeks later Gorky invited him to a meeting to discuss the novel at his mansion in the heart of Moscow. When Sholokhov arrived Gorky was not alone. A remarkably familiar mustachioed face filled the large room with his presence. The mustache belonged to a face made famous by newspaper engravings and grainy photos of May day parades.

That evening Joseph Stalin decided to discuss characters and scenes in Quiet Don rather than unravel conspiracies or analyze grain reports. Following introductions, Gorky receded into the background. Stalin beckoned Sholokhov to approach. In seconds it became clear that this was no social call. Stalin immediately accused Sholokhov of sympathizing with some of the revolution’s most vicious adversaries. Resorting to one of his favorite tactics, Stalin advanced a series of damning allegations. These were calculated to knock his adversary off balance and unmask his true character. Would his target retreat? Would he submit and become subservient? Or would he push back?

Sholokhov saw the dictator’s eyes burning like those of a tiger ready to pounce. The snap decision he made in that instant had the potential to either influence his life for decades or to end it. He stood his ground. With his career on the line, he confidently argued with Stalin and vigorously defended his audacious decision to write sympathetically about the Cossacks, the former tsarist military caste which rose in rebellion against the Soviet government.

Stalin was impressed by Sholokhov’s tenacity. Concluding his barrage of questions, he started to reminisce about his first, albeit temporary, taste of dictatorship in 1918. The dictator and the writer bonded over conversations about battles which had faded from public memory but would soon become central to the emerging Stalin cult. Elated, Sholokhov departed from the mansion with the most coveted prize in the USSR—Stalin’s telephone number.

Though fate had smiled upon him that evening, Sholokhov soon discovered that a dictator’s favor comes with daily dangers and crushing burdens. As Stalin’s prized protégé he would have to become a new man. That fateful meeting in a mansion forever changed the calculus of young Sholokhov’s literary gambit. The instant Stalin revealed that he too was a fan of the novel, Sholokhov understood that he was in way too deep. The novel transformed him into a Soviet Scheherazade. His very fate now hinged on satisfying a dictator’s literary cravings. He would have to become a cunning courtier to stay alive during the Great Terror. An opportunistic, literary caper became a life-long con…with no possibility of escape.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and originally appeared on publishersweekly.com.

How Leonard Cohen and Emily Dickinson Led Me Through Dark Days

His voice came to me right before the world began to end. It was a cold evening in October of 2016—slate grey skies, the highway flat, that Sunday feeling where the worries of the week ahead overtake the pleasure of a weekend away. Leonard Cohen on the stereo, speaking more than singing. He put all casual conversation to an abrupt end.

That wasn’t the first time I heard Cohen. I knew his best-known songs, what his voice sounded like. But it was the first night I really heard him, the first night his voice reached inside and gutted me. It always seems so strange and stupid, in retrospect, when something precious is handed to you, and years go by before you accept it and give thanks for the gift. Until then, I simply hadn’t been paying attention.

On November 7, 2016, after releasing You Want It Darker, his 14th album, Cohen died at the age of 82. One day later, Donald Trump was elected President.

My introduction to Cohen’s extensive catalogue triggered a chain of events, one that continued long after the think pieces were published, after a new terror took root, after Cohen’s wiser, long-term fans quietly went about the lonely work of mourning their warrior poet king. I found myself enthralled, delighted, heartbroken, ecstatic, in the midst of that otherworldly experience people so rarely speak of. It’s a sensation that tends to be relegated to the discovery of a band or writer as a teenager, when emotions are so high that the sounds and stories you connect to become woven into the very fiber of the person you become. In the two years that have passed since that night in the car, listening to Cohen’s songs, reading his lyrics and poetry, I have reconnected with a part of myself I’d been trying to shut off since I was 14 years old. I was awkward, obviously; a weirdo, definitely. In those ways I was no different than most of my peers. What caused me trouble was my obsession with death.

I’m not sure what came first—the depressing music, an all-black wardrobe, or Emily Dickinson. At 14, it was important to constantly display signifiers of what I was interested in, and I did what I could to dress like a reclusive genius who entertained no visitors and lived entirely in her head. I placed a dog-eared copy of Dickinson’s poetry on the lunch table next to my sandwich, hoping someone, anyone, would try to talk to me about it. I admired Dickinson’s origin story as much as I did her writing. Her subject matter and prolific creativity were mystical, so I grouped her with the other wise, witchy, artistic women I idolized: Tori Amos, Francesca Lia Block, Winona Ryder. The fact that Dickinson was a loner who died unmarried, that no one knew her depths until after she was gone, made her brilliance that much more powerful to me.

When I read “Because I could not stop for Death,” one of her most famous poems about the afterlife, I marveled at how Dickinson cleverly personified Death. Her Grim Reaper was not a frightening phantom, come to steal her away. Instead, he was a courteous gentleman who took her on a drive. Dickinson notes his civility—could he have been flirty, even, to the poem’s narrator, who was dressed for the journey in gossamer and tulle? In this poem, Death offers the promise of immortality. But Dickinson suggests her narrator had an independent streak, one that compelled her to make her own decisions and choices, not only about her death, but also about her life. This set my teenage mind on fire: The thought that death itself could be confronted like any other person, that it was both far away and yet just beyond an invisible veil that could, at any moment, be lifted. These themes are repeated again in Dickinson’s captivating, metaphor-rich “Death is a dialogue,” which opens up a conversation between Death and a Spirit, in which they argue about the finality of consciousness.

Do we return to the earth as dust, or is the body just one aspect of a human being? I didn’t know. But, man, in the throes of adolescence, it felt so good to ask, to question, and not in terms of religion or faith. Dickinson’s verses were a constant source of comfort. Heaven, hell, death, god, eternity—she covered it all, simply, perfectly, in a way that actually made sense. The more I obsessed about death, the more fascinated I was. But I soon realized it was best to keep my thoughts about the eternal mystery to myself. If I did express them, I was pandered to or deemed unnecessarily negative, morbid, a freak. I didn’t understand why our culture so readily assumed that thinking about death was gauche, inappropriate, or, more broadly, a red flag, something to keep an eye on, to worry about. Nobody could answer this in a way that satisfied me, and so I returned to the books—the novels and poems that some called melancholy or sinister, but that I needed as a guide, a way of coming to terms, in my own small way, with why we are here and where we might go.

As the years passed, I thought I became less afraid, more confident in what would always be unknowable. Goth culture never quite went away, but I stopped devoting so much time to worship at that particular altar—though I kept wearing black, because what New Yorker doesn’t? I kept the music, too, and continued reading the goths whose merit nobody would dare question: the Brontës, Daphne du Maurier, Poe. My taste hadn’t changed, but I figured I was growing up, growing out of it, whatever it was. I assumed, like so many mansplaining men had told me, that I should smile more.

And so it went, until my rediscovery of Cohen, which set in motion a new cycle of questions about death and the soul. My mother became seriously ill. As I watched her health decline, I became gripped by a fear of time. Not only my own time with her, or the time she had left, but the vast, cavernous depths of what that meant. The weeks that slipped by were not as productive as I wanted them to be, not as generous, not as articulate. There were words I could no longer say. The words I did say so many times—I love you, I love you—seemed to have lost their meaning entirely. I reckoned with deep regrets, with daily disappointments, with the endless, hopeless wishing that I could live in the past, when so much was still possible even if it was cloaked in shadow. Back then, the future was a fantasy, even if it was a dark one. Back then, I considered my research, the books, the songs, all part of a very interesting experiment. By the end of that experiment, I told myself, I’d be adequately prepared for grief, in whatever form it came. I thought that being interested in death meant, on some level, that it couldn’t hurt me as much as it did someone else.

Cohen and Dickinson both have an immortal quality, and both treat death as a muse. This past November, FSG published The Flame: Poems Notebooks Lyrics Drawings, Leonard Cohen’s posthumous diary, a collection he vowed to complete before he died in late 2016. The book is a beautiful, intimate look at his life and work, combining his poetry, notebook entries, and lyrics, interspersed with drawings and self-portraits. In “I Pray for Courage,” Cohen writes:
I pray for courage

Now I’m old

To greet the sickness

And the cold

I pray for courage

In the night

To bear the burden

Make it light

I pray for courage

In the time

When suffering comes and


Starts to climb

I pray for courage

At the end

To see death coming

As a friend
In these verses, I feel such compassion and empathy for the burdens of life. Cohen describes a sleepless night wondering, fearing, suffering, while praying for courage, for the rosy fingers of dawn, and for a way to lighten his emotional load. And he prays to see death arriving as a friend, an ally, similar to the way Dickinson describes her supernatural carriage ride. Then, in “School Days,” Cohen personifies time, just as he and Dickinson personify Death.
I never think about The Past


but sometimes


The Past thinks about me

and sits down

ever so lightly on my face—
Here, the Past is a being, someone capable of thought—and someone who Cohen can’t escape. He claims not to think about it, but the Past thinks about him, taunts him a bit, takes him to places in his mind he might prefer to avoid. This is what the pre-grief I live with feels like, the sense that I’m constantly readying myself, waiting for the worst to happen, a phone call in the middle of the night, an accident, or worse, the slow onslaught of the inevitable, bringing with it the small, unavoidable heartaches that pile upon one another until, yet again, I find myself daydreaming about the last terrible piece of news as if it were a friend, a  Past like the being in Cohen’s poem, better and more comforting in its known-ness than the confusion of the present, a new shape of pain.

It’s in poems like these that I find solace—solace in who I was, who I am, and who I hope to be. I still wear black, though not exclusively. I still love sad songs, sad books, stories that end not with everything wrapped in a bow, but with some sense of lament, a nod to the human folly, flaws, and inconsistencies that make even a “happy ending” feel like a question mark. This is what Cohen has taught me, in his songs and his poems, and what Dickinson knew before he did. Both writers invite us into their inner lives because they take their inner lives seriously. They take these questions without answers seriously. They never make light, they never turn their heads away, they refuse to change the subject. They look at the inevitable and perhaps they are scared—and I am, too. But their words are like a hand grabbing mine tightly. They are a reason to keep moving forward.

Reading Cohen’s final poems and absorbing his drawings and lyrics, then reading Emily Dickinson’s verses again and again, I’m reminded of how far I’ve come through the darkness. To some, my current state of mind may seem like something to escape—and so it was to me, even when I knew that the darkness could be a friend, a feeling, a weight, not oppressive but thoughtful, not excruciating but auspicious. Now I move through the darkness, and I try to find peace in what I can’t see. Once, I anticipated what would happen and thought I could prepare. Now that saying goodbye is no longer a vague concept but a heavy reality, my poets sit with me. They remind me that I will never be ready. Not for death, not for the sorrow that haunts my days, not even for the happiness that arrives with a shock. But they also tell me I shouldn’t give up trying.

Image Credit: Unsplash/Cherry Laithang.