When I Mean I

The conventions of essays being what they are, when I write “I” here, you’ll probably assume that I’m referring to myself. If I want you to think otherwise, it’s up to me to give you some kind of sign.

Maybe you object. Maybe, for example, the whole idea of a self seems like a dangerous and unstable fiction to you. Or maybe you think that the very act of writing distorts the self by forcing it into and through generic and linguistic conventions incompatible with the experience of selfhood as you know it. Fair enough. But I don’t think that would prevent you, in objecting, from writing “Farmer argues….” I’m on the hook for these words and these ideas, and it would be absurd for me to reply that “No, it was the speaker of this essay who said that.” And within the larger conventions of our lives among each other, the ones that entail accountability and obligation, the ones that allow us to meet, to agree or disagree, to act in concert or opposition to each other, to write, to speak, that matters quite a bit. It matters quite a bit to me.

But if, instead, I write
I am referring
to myself
there’s a much greater chance you’ll assume that both “I” and “myself” refer to someone else, someone fictional. Even if you don’t assume that, if you’re sufficiently familiar with the conventions of talking about poems, you’ll probably speak as if you do, referring to me as “the speaker.” In fact, given how we’ve been taught to talk and think about poems, those lines have an irony I can’t write out of them, no matter what I add or how I revise them—unless, that is, I put them back in prose.

This seems like a problem. Or: This seems like a problem to me.

I think we’ve done what we often do: we’ve taken a true statement—“in some poems, the person speaking is not the author”[1]—and turned it into a shortcut, without even realizing that we’re doing so. And by now we’ve taken the shortcut so many times we don’t even notice that it sometimes leads us astray.

Here’s a true story: A man wrote and published a book-length sequence of poems in which the speaker describes the death of someone dear to him. He—the author—gave a reading from the book, and afterwards, during a Q&A, someone in the audience offered condolences for his loss, and so the author had to explain, awkwardly, that he had experienced no such loss. Afterwards, someone wrote an essay about this, explaining, based on this moment and others, how important it was that we not confuse author and speaker. Look, the essayist said, where that can lead.

Fair enough. But I imagine another reading, this one by someone who had, in fact, lost their beloved and published a sequence of poems about it. And I think about how strange it would be to preclude such awareness, to offer no fellow feeling there. I imagine referring to the author, standing in front of us, maybe still lit up with grief, as “the speaker.” And I can’t help thinking how strange it is to pretend, while we ask questions about the poems, that we are unaware of the actual grief, the actual person who died.

Here’s another true story: A small child was kidnapped. The white parents of his white mother took him from his black father when he was old enough to retain some ghostly memories of his father, but nothing precise. His white grandfather, a white supremacist, raised him to believe he was white and often abused him, presumably outraged at least in part by the blackness he (the grandfather) could not acknowledge and no one, including the child, could altogether avoid noticing. That child grew up to be an extraordinary poet, writing lines like these about his experience:
Growing up black white trash you grow up wondering you
are raised
Wondering what you did and when Lord wrong to
Deserve your skin     / You grow up wondering you / You
grow up standing Lord outside       yourself and sometimes it’s not bad           / You ride
your in your body bike
but no    matter how hard you pedal how
Steep Lord the hill you dive down head first almost falling like you’re falling down
You stand
Outside yourself stand still
Like how it seemed when you were younger      Lord like the world moved beneath
The wheels of the car and car didn’t move
Growing up raised by white
supremacists     / You grow up skinned / You make
a puppet of your skin
These lines, by and (I believe) about the poet Shane McCrae, seem masterful to me, but one potential meaning of their mastery depends on the admission that this is a real person talking about what happened to him. These lines, like many in McCrae’s poems, not only embody pain and confusion, they enact the human ability to use language, convention, shared experience, and imagination to channel the currents that can elsewhere cut us off from others. They involve the worst of life in meaning, and in that way they hold open a hope for continuance, if not for healing. They are at once an image of breathtaking human cruelty and a proof of human beauty. If this were only imagination, it would still be masterful, but it wouldn’t mean that—not exactly, not quite.

It matters, similarly, to know that Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour” is about Robert Lowell—the same real person I have also encountered in many other Lowell poems—even as I know that the scene described here is partly fictionalized (partly borrowed, in fact from a story about Walt Whitman) and that the lines also borrow from and allude to John of the Cross, John Milton, the blues song “Careless Love,” and, more broadly, Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Armadillo,” whose form they follow:
One dark night,
my Tudor Ford climbed the hill’s skull;
I watched for love cars. Lights turned down,
they lay together, hull to hull,
where the graveyard shelves on the town. . . .
My mind’s not right.
A car radio bleats,
“Love, O careless Love….” I hear
my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,
as if my hand were at its throat. . . .
I myself am hell;
nobody’s here—
In one valence, these lines are an inverse of McCrae’s. Instead of gathering speed, they drift away, apparently unmoored. In the span of just eight lines, Lowell trails off four times. You can hear an awareness of his own excesses and register the work that his mind must do to avoid his mind’s accelerations and distortions (alongside, perhaps, the gaps written into his mind by the medication that allowed him to recover from the breakdown the poem describes). It’s worth noting that Lowell did not, in fact, write this in the present tense of the poem. But as with his slightly falsified version of events, that does not undo the importance of the person speaking here being the person writing here, being the person who lived through, more or less, these things.

Here, too, the poem feels masterful. And here, too, the mastery becomes an emblem of our ability to live meaningfully in spite of circumstances that threaten meaning—so much so that those threats become a fundamental element of their meaning, like the high bar that proves the pole vaulter’s achievement. If the person writing here has not survived the breakdown of his mind, it matters less that his mind can orchestrate these lines so artfully.

I wonder sometimes, thinking about that book of poems describing the death of someone loved, why, if the author didn’t want anyone to think that the speaker was him—that the beloved was his—he didn’t do anything to keep that from happening. He could, for instance, have given it a subtitle like “A Novel in Verse” or “A Poetic Fiction,”[2] or he could have made the speaker female or in some other way signaled the separation between the two.[3] He could even have done what John Berryman did when he got tired of people equating him with the speaker of The Dream Songs, and included a note at the front saying, in essence, this isn’t me.[4] One plausible answer is that the separation of speaker and poet is so doctrinal that he saw no need. Another is that he valued the heightened immediacy of the lost beloved, the way a lingering suspicion of her reality shortened the distance his poems must travel to make her real (which is one of the challenges most fictions have to overcome).

If so, that’s fine. Writers have been playing with these lines (and drawing an added charge from their live currents) for a long time. Philip Roth, as just one example, has written fiction about a character named “Philip Roth.” Purity is not the point, which is probably good, since I doubt purity is possible. Even in our greatest intimacies, we are always mediated, multiple, compromised. Even when reading a memoir, most of us recognize a distance between the artistic representation and the original events. And yet many of us choose to read memoirs, biographies, and histories, not to mention newspapers and nonfiction articles in magazines, in spite of the artistic potentials all of those genres and media can impede. We do so, I believe, because we believe in reality (a reality that, of course, includes fiction, that is full of novels and movies and poems and plays with a nearly infinite variety of relationships to reality; and that is only partly knowable, always mediated by the limitations and beauty of our minds and bodies). And because we believe in the importance of not only real events but real people. And we would like to meet them. And we would like to be heard, and understood, by them as well.

There’s a risk in assuming that the speaker is the poet. When I first reviewed Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, I hadn’t read anything about it, and I assumed that the stories she told about “you” all referred to her. I was wrong—factually, demonstrably, wrong. Rankine gathered those stories from others and stitched them together through stylistic consistency and a standardized mode of address. It bothers me to have gotten it wrong, and to have done so so publicly, at that. Looking back at the book, I think I should have been able to figure it out just by paying closer attention, and I feel a lingering queasiness that my visible foolishness also means that I misrepresented the experiences of real people—including Rankine—in print. But that matters for the same reason that I think it matters when we fail to see the reality, however mediated or complicated, of an actual person speaking to us through a poem.

As in the other places where we sometimes encounter real people—parks, offices, bedrooms, streets—we will sometimes misunderstand them in poems. Humility matters. We should be wary of too much presumption. We should listen carefully, judge slowly, take care. We should not, however, make the unknowability of others into the sole or primary thing we know about them. And we should not let the risk of making a mistake narrow our sense of possibility or starve us in our hunger for people who are real. We should listen carefully enough to hear a poem when it tries to tell us that the person speaking to us exists.

[1] And maybe this one, too: “In some poems, poets present fictionalized versions of themselves and their experience.”

[2] Working in the other direction, poets seem to be adopting a fashion for including the phrase “self-portrait” in the title of a poem, but more often than not, those poems tend to play with the idea of selfhood, displacing self-conception into other objects or beings.

[3] McCrae, who frequently writes poems about both historical figures and fictional characters has no shortage of means for signaling those differences, even as he filters their imagined (and sometimes actual) speech through his distinctive rhythms and patterning.

[4] Berryman’s note—which begins “It is idle to reply to critics, but some of the people who addressed themselves to the 77 Dream Songs went so desperately astray (one apologized about it in print, but who ever sees apologies?) that I permit myself one word”—always amuses me, because even if the speaker isn’t him, it’s clearly not not him, either. He’s mythologizing himself there, and so his protestations never quite ring true. He’s putting on a John Berryman mask and then complaining that people call him John. The differences between the face and the mask matter, but they don’t do away with the similarities, as he undoubtedly knew.

On Isolation and Literature

“The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.” —John Milton, Paradise Lost (1667)

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” —Blaise Pascal, Pensées (1670)

In a field between Sharpsburg, Md., and Antietam Creek in the fall of 1862, more than 21,000 men would die in a single day. In a photograph taken by Matthew Brady of the battle’s aftermath, which in the south is named after Sharpsburg and in the north is referred to by Antietam, there is a strewing of bodies in front of the Dunker Church maintained by a sect of Pennsylvania Dutch Baptists. In their repose, the men no longer have any concerns; in the photograph it’s difficult to tell who wears blue and who wears grey, for death has never been prejudiced. Americans had never experienced such destruction before, such death, such a rupture from what they had defined previously as normal. If Americans had been cursed with their own erroneous sense of exceptionality in the decades before the Civil War, believing that suffering was something that only foreigners were susceptible to, then that carnage temporally availed them of their self-superiority. Drew Gilpin Faust writes in This Republic of Death: Suffering and the American Civil War that the “impact and meaning of the war’s death toll went beyond the sheer numbers. Death’s significance for the Civil War generation arose as well from its violation of prevailing assumptions about life’s proper end—about who should die, when and where, and under what circumstances.”

The United States was unprepared for the extremity of this thing—22,717 young men dead in a day—with almost a million perishing by its end. Faust writes that “Americans of the immediate prewar era continued to be more closely acquainted with death than are their twenty-first-century counterparts,” though if the state of exception demonstrated by the war proves anything, it’s that nobody should be so sanguine concerning his privileges. One survivor of Antietam, a member of the Massachusetts 15th named Roland Bowen, castigated a friend who wanted ghoulish details of the battle. He writes in a letter that such images “will do you no good and that you will be more mortified after the facts are told than you are now.” Such suffering couldn’t be circumscribed by something as insignificant as mere words, nor was it the task of Bowen to supply such texture in fulfilling his friend’s prurient fascination. The task of putting words to this horror belonged to somebody with no allegiance to anything as crass as the literal, and paradoxically it wouldn’t come from somebody who was actually witness to the horrors. A year before Antietam’s blood-letting, and a 31-year-old woman sequestered in a 970-square-foot room in a yellow wooden house in Amherst, Mass., would presciently write on the back of an envelope that “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,/And mourners to and fro/Kept treading – treading – till it seemed/That Sense was breaking through.”

Emily Dickinson is American literature’s most significant recluse. She is our hermit, our anchorite, our holy isolate. Despite Dickinson’s self-imposed solitude, first limiting herself to Amherst, then her family’s house, and finally, finally living only in her own bedroom where she would speak to visitors from the half-opened door, her poetry is the greatest literary engagement with the trauma of the war. She was a spiritual seismograph, transcribing and interpreting the vibrations that she detected through the land itself, and though she never saw the battlefields at Antietam or Gettysburg, never even leaving Massachusetts, her 1,789 short lyrics are the fullest encapsulation of that event, even while it’s never specifically mentioned—though lines like “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun” evidence her mood.

Only a handful of her poems were published in Dickinson’s own lifetime, normally anonymously, with a notable example being a few lyrics included in the 1864 anthology Drum Beats whose proceeds went to Union veterans. The war’s apparent absence from her poetry is incongruously proof of its presence, for as Susan Howe writes in My Emily Dickinson, the “Civil War broke something loose in her own divided nature.” Other figures like Walt Whitman and Herman Melville produced brilliant poetry about the war as well, but the absence of explicit language about battle-field deaths in Dickinson’s verse is a demonstration of Bowen’s warning that mere reportage “will do you no good.” She isolates not only herself, but the meaning of her poems, from the brutal reality of that American apocalypse—such isolation mimics the brutality of the event all the more completely. “I have an appetite for silence,” she wrote, for “silence is infinity.”

Within the cocoon of that silence, Dickinson made herself a conduit for the blood-sacrifice then taking place; despite being in solitude, she was not solitary; despite being isolated, she was not an isolate. There are two ways of producing literature; from her multitudinous contemporary Whitman there was the gospel of extroversion, the smithy of the crowd whereby the throngs are the source of his energy and the “sidewalks are littered with postcards from God.” His engagement with the war was visceral, forged in Washington D.C.’s hospitals where he tended to the injured. Dickinson’s poetry of seclusion was more abstract, but no less pertinent, and from her introversion a different variety of poetry could be produced. Dickinson is too often reduced to mere recluse, she is transformed into a crank sequestered in an attic, but she was actually a brilliant performance artist for whom the process was as integral as the product. Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor writes in The Art of Solitude that there is more to that state “than just being alone. True solitude is a way of being that needs to be cultivated. You cannot switch it on or off at will. Solitude is an art…When you practice solitude, you dedicate yourself to the care of the soul.” Dickinson’s isolation wasn’t just how she crafted her verse, in some sense it was her verse.

“Interiority” is one of those literary critical jargon terms that is overly maligned, for it expresses something useful about this quality of consciousness we share, a term for the many mansions in our head. There is a breadth and width to the human experience—and the experience of the human experience (if I’m to be meta)—that only “interiority” can really convey. Douglas Hofstadter writes in I Am a Strange Loop that “what we call ‘consciousness’ was a kind of mirage…a very peculiar kind of mirage…Since it was a mirage that perceived itself…It was almost as if this slippery phenomenon called ‘consciousness’ lifted itself up by its own bootstraps, almost as if it made itself out of nothing.” Such an ex nihilo self-creation can only take place alone, of course. And in her solitude, Dickinson, like all hermits, made the very substance of her thoughts a living work.

Some people, perhaps most people, live their life on the outside, all thoughts conveyed in a running monologue to the world. But the isolation of crafting literature, even if done in a crowded room, is such that any writer (and reader) must be by definition solitary, even while entire swaths of existence are contained inside one human skull. Such is the idealism of Dickinson when she claims that “To make a prairie…The revery alone will do.” Isolation is the hard kernel of literature. Beyond the relatively prosaic fact that there have been reclusive writers and secluded characters, isolation is also the fundamental medium of both reading and writing, traceable back to our inherited numinous sense and the thread of expression that intimates works hidden, all that we shall never read but that nonetheless radiate outward into the world with beauty.

A history of isolation is a history of literature, albeit a secret one. Historically we’ve valorized men of action, but it’s people of seclusion who just as easily move the Earth. Think of Christ’s Lenten vigil in the Negev, the way in which Satan tempted him and the Son of God so easily resisted, the Lord kept company only by silence and perdition. Isolation is a counternarrative of human existence; for every vainglorious general like Alexander the Great conquering until the ends of the Earth, there is the philosopher Diogenes living naked in an Athenian pot and imploring the former to get out of his sunlight. Emperor Qin Shi Huang can be answered by the sage Lao-Tzu riding off by himself unto the west, and every bishop and pope can be matched by the Desert Fathers and anchorites. For every Andrew Carnegie, there should be a Henry David Thoreau in his Walden cabin. Isolation is one of the fundamental themes of literature, the kiln of experience whereby a human is able to discover certain aspects of character, personality, and existence through journeying to the center of their being (though results are certainly varied).

In fiction, there are the recluses damaged by their toxic loneliness: think of Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations in her filthy, tattered wedding dress sadistically toying with Pip and Estella, or of the psychically diseased anonymous narrator in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground who can intone that “To be acutely conscious is a disease, a real, honest-to-goodness disease.” For all of the sociopathic recluses, biding their time under floorboards and going mad in attics, there are also positive depictions of isolation. Daniel Defoe’s titular character in Robinson Crusoe, ship-wrecked upon a desert isle and thus forced to recreate civilization anew, has often been understood as a representative citizen of hard-working, sober, industrious modernity, whereby “We never see the true state of our condition till it is illustrated to us by its contraries, nor know how to value what we enjoy, but by the want of it.” Something similar in Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, when writing of the isolation of the Alaskan wild he could declare that there is an “ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such a paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive.” Isolation, however, is far more than a subject authors describe now and then.

Few religious traditions are lacking in the hermitage or the monastery, at least in some form. Among the ecstatic Hasidism there are stories of rabbis like the Baal Shem Tov who lived at least part of his life as a hermit, and according to tradition, the second-century founder of Kabbalah Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai resided in a cave for 12 years as the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, exploring mystical secrets. When he could finally leave, bar Yochai’s focus was so intense that he was able to smite people with his eyes. Christianity potentially adopted monasticism from the esoteric first-century Jewish group the Essenes, and from the Desert Fathers onward, men who lived their lives sitting atop tall columns or who would meditate among the sands of Sinai, would develop a full-fledged system of religious seclusion. The wages of silence have defined the life of figures as varied as the nun and sacred composer Hildegard of Bingen in the 12th century to the Trappist monk and activist Thomas Merton in the 20th For Merton, to be silent was to be radical; in Choosing to Love the World: On Contemplation, he explains that his vows are “saying No to all the concentration camps, the aerial bombardments, the staged political trials, the judicial murders, the racial injustices, the economic tyrannies, and the whole socio-economic apparatus.” Hermits are replete in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, as much as in Judaism and Christianity. To be a hermit, to make sister or brother with your own isolation, is to commit a profound act of courage. To have no company other than yourself can be dangerous. As the 12th-century Sufi Muslim hermit Al-Ghazali said, “I have poked into every dark recess, I have made an assault on every problem, I have plunged every abyss.” What’s brought back from the emptiness at the beating heart of every ego is something ineffable, and only privy to those willing to look for it.

BBC reporter Peter France asks in Hermits: The Insights of Solitude if it is “possible that solitude confers insights not available to society? Could it be that the human condition, even the ways we’re related to each other, is better understood by those who have opted out of relationships?” Certainly there has long been a religious tradition of answering that question in the affirmative; a literary one as well if we think of authors like Dickinson and Thoreau as psychological astronauts who returned from inner space with observations not accessible to those of us enmeshed in the cacophonous din of everyday social interaction. In a more modern sense, imagine the singular focus, the elemental personality, the bare simplicity of Christopher Thomas Knight’s life. From 1986 until 2013, the North Pond Hermit of Maine’s Belgrade Lake’s pushed the stolid and taciturn New England personality to extremes, living alone on campgrounds and surviving from pilfered supplies and burglarized cabins, while only once speaking the single word “Hi” to a hiker sometime in the ‘90s.

When finally apprehended by local police, the harmless eccentric supposedly told the officers that he thought Thoreau had been a “dilletante.” A voracious reader, Knight had consumed Walden and thousands of other books, often on the subject of solitude, and if he found Thoreau lacking, he saw great value in other works. Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, the collected essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and of course the collected poetry of Dickinson were all held in high esteem by the hermit. Journalist Michael Finkel recounts his conversations with Knight in The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit, whereby the dedicated Mainer claims that “solitude bestows an increase in something valuable…my perception. But…when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. There was no audience, no one to perform for.” Stripped of all of the socially constructed, arbitrary, imposed, and chosen definitions of the self, Knight had become a singular consciousness, an aggregate of experience divorced from the humdrum job of applying meaning, significance, or gloss to the fact that things happen one after the other. “To put it romantically,” he said, “I was completely free.” Knight had become, in a manner, God.

Nomads as these are cracked, their extremity such that they dance on the precipice of either saintliness or madness. When journeying to the center of one’s own mind, care must be taken not to lose it. Knight was able to return relatively unscathed from both the chill New England forests and from the solitary experience of only having himself for company for almost three decades, but he is in some sense lucky as regards extreme hermits. For example, there’s Christopher McCandless, the subject of Jon Krakauer’s bestseller Into the Wild, who followed Jack London dreams into the Alaskan brush, where the aspiring naturalist’s decomposing corpse would be discovered next to his extensive diaries in a broken-down bus that he’d been living in. Krakauer writes about how for McCandless, to hike alone was to “constantly feel the abyss at your back,” where the “siren song of the void puts you on edge,” yet as with Knight, a type of elemental solitariness emerges as well.

For McCandless, existence could become “a clear-eyed dream,” wherein a “trancelike state settles over your efforts.” A danger with dreams however, for it’s never clear to the dreamer himself just how clear-eyed they actually are, so that the zealotry of a McCandless that confuses the echoes in his own mind for other voices can easily transmogrify into a different type of hermit. Witness the former mathematics-professor-turned-recluse-turned-domestic-terrorist Theodor Kaczynski. In Walden, Thoreau claimed that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” That’s clearly not identical to Kaczynski’s claim in his anarcho-ecological manifesto Industrial Society and its Future that “almost everyone hates somebody at some time or other, whether he admits it to himself or not,” but there are some resonances. A special type of wag would claim that the Unabomber was simply an angrier Thoreau with a chemistry set, but they both arguably are examples of not unrelated strains of American antisocial individualism, albeit with incredibly different outcomes. “Whosoever is delighted in solitude,” wrote Francis Bacon in the 17th century, “is either a wild beast of a god.”

Thoreau would be instrumental to any cultural accounting of isolation; from a literary perspective he’s the most obvious of hermits in our national tradition. His biographers Robert D. Richardson and Barry Moser note in Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind that the hermit “argued with himself in his journal…about his need for solitude versus the merits of society,” an incredibly American argument, and as the authors note, his conclusion was also particularly American: “He came down repeatedly for solitude.” Thoreau’s understanding of solitude derived from that sense of the frontier, that desire for unlimited elbow room that distinguishes this country from the Old World. When my wife and I used to live in Massachusetts, it took less than half an hour to drive to the recreation of Thoreau’s cabin on the shores of that glacial pond, and it’s understandable why he chose to spend a few years there pretending to live off the land. It’s an exceedingly pleasant space, and his example spoke to some sort of romancing of solitude that exists deep within my Pennsylvania soul.

I’m a city boy who grew up in a house that was so close to our neighbor that we could hear when that gentleman sneezed, and I’ve lived in apartments since I was 18, yet I harbor some delusion that if given half a chance I’d live in the middle of nowhere surrounded by nobody. A foolish dream, but my rightful inheritance as an American. The author of Walden is the primogeniture of that particular counter-cultural vision—it’s not wrong to see him as a kind of proto-hippie, living off the land and spouting mistranslated versions of the Upanishads, the grandfather of both John Muir and Edward Abbey. But the boot-strapping, the rugged individualism, the obsession with industriousness—Thoreau is a proto-survivalist as well. When he writes in an 1847 diary that “Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty,” it sounds more a creed for somebody with a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag decal on their truck as much as somebody with a “Coexist” bumper sticker on their Volvo. As our favorite hermit, Thoreau is in some manner the patriarch of us all, both left and right, liberal and conservative, anarchist and libertarian. He proves that Americans are nothing so much like each other, especially when we’re alone.

Thoreau isn’t our only reclusive writer. Gravity’s Rainbow author Thomas Pynchon eschews almost all media spectacle and refuses to update his author bio from a senior yearbook picture (though he did do a voice on The Simpsons); Harper Lee retired after To Kill a Mockingbird from Manhattan to her hometown of Monroeville, Ala., where she supported the local high school drama club; and Cormac McCarthy living rugged and without punctuation in a New Mexico trailer only broke his silence to appear on The Oprah Winfrey Show, as one does, when the book club read The Road (he has since been more chatty). For most supposedly hermit authors, the reality might be more prosaic; as an irate Pynchon told CNN, “My belief is that ‘recluse’ is a code word generated by journalists… meaning ‘doesn’t like to talk to reporters.’”

No accounting of literary isolation can credibly ignore J.D. Salinger whose The Catcher in the Rye, despite read less frequently by adolescents today than it once was, remains the Great American Teenage Novel. Within The Catcher in the Rye there are intimations of that profound desire to be left alone, with its main character Holden Caulfield ruminating that “I’m sort of glad that they’ve got the atomic bomb invented. If there’s ever another war, I’m going to sit right the hell on top of it. I’ll volunteer for it, I swear to God I will.” Salinger’s biography has an unmistakable romance, the scion of the Upper East Side who was feted by The New Yorker and The Paris Review, a brilliant enfant terrible who produced perfect short stories and the immaculate novel with which he’s most associated, only to retire to rural New Hampshire, reject all media and appearances, and yet continue to prodigiously write until his death in 2010.

His last story appeared in The New Yorker in 1966, yet according to journalist and novelist Joyce Maynard in At Home in the World, her memoir about her affair with Salinger in 1972 when he was 53 and she was only 18, he “works on his fiction daily,” claiming that since he’d last been published he’d written two more novels. By the time of his death, Salinger had written 13 more. His dedication to the craft itself was pure—in a rare interview with The New York Times in 1974 Salinger said that “There is a marvelous peace in not publishing…I like to write. I live to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.” The purest form of composition. Upon his death, journalists discovered that the residents of Salinger’s New Hampshire hamlet fully knew who he was, but helped to mislead gawkers from tracking down the author. Katie Zezima writes in The New York Times that “Here Mr. Salinger was just Jerry, a quiet man who arrived early to church suppers, [and] nodded hello while buying a newspaper at the general store.” Keeping with a venerable New England sentiment that perhaps both Knight and Thoreau would recognize, a woman quoted in Zezima’s article says that his neighbors did “respect him. He was an individual who just wanted to live his life.” It’s unknown if any of them read those 15 novels.

Solitude and quiet are often figured, albeit in perhaps fewer extreme examples than Salinger’s method, as integral to the process of composition. Susan Sontag opined that “One can never be alone enough to write;” Ernest Hemingway said that “Writing, at its best, is a lonely life;” and the Romantic poet John Keats enthused that “my Solitude is sublime.” Peruse the rightly celebrated author interviews in The Paris Review, and you will discover that a space carved out for the self’s sovereignty is one of the few things that unite writers with their varying schedules, methods of research, and editorial eccentricities. The private John Updike, fully inhabiting the 9-5 ethos of his suburban Pennsylvania middle-class youth, wrote his novels in a rented office above a restaurant in Ipswich, Mass.; Wallace Stevens composed his poetry in the quiet of his own head, pounding out the scansions in his steps as he walked to his job in a Hartford, Conn., insurance office. Isolation can take many forms, not all of them literal, but in the pragmatic necessity of a writer needing a “room of one’s own,” as Virginia Woolf famously described it, there need be, well, a room of one’s own.

Woolf’s formulation was of course gendered; her point throughout A Room of One’s Own was the way in which the details of domestic responsibility (among other factors) contributed to the silencing of women. In short, if you don’t have the dedicated space and the leisure time in which to write in peace, you’re not going to be writing in peace. Philosopher Gaston Bachelard says as much in The Poetics of Space, noting that the house is “psychologically complex,” whereby “the nooks and corners of solitude are the bedroom.” Living collectively dampens the interior a bit, which is why the privacy of an individual space becomes instrumental in producing individual works. “The house, the bedroom, the garret in which we were alone,” Bachelard writes, “furnished the framework for an interminable dream, one that poetry alone, through the creation of a poetic work, could success in achieving completely.”

A direct causal relationship could be drawn between the architectural development of independent bedrooms in the early modern period and the evolution of the novel, the literary genre that most aggressively displays subjectivity. Like all things we take for granted, the bedroom, or the office, or the study, and all places of individual and solitary repose have their own history. Bill Bryson explains in At Home: A Short History of Private Life that the “inhabitants of the medieval hall had no bedrooms in which to retire,” and that “Sleeping arrangements appear to have remained relaxed for a long time.” The word “bedroom” itself didn’t exist until well later; Bryson writes that as “a word to describe a dedicated sleeping chamber… [it] didn’t become common until” the 17th century, the exact period in which the novel began to emerge.

People wrote long narratives before the novel and the bedroom, and for that matter there have always been venerable forms of collaborative writing as well. Yet the possibility of privacy and solitude—not just for a St. Jerome sequestered in his study or a Trappist whose taken his vow of silence—arguably contributed to certain literary forms that not only require isolation in their production, but in some sense mimic a type of isolation as well. To argue that writing requires quiet is in some ways too prosaic an observation. Writing is silence—writing is isolation. By shielding themselves in the cocoon of composition, writers are in some sense able to create rooms of their own, wherever they happen to be writing. Writing can function as its own type of sensory deprivation, an activity that can erase the outside world in the construction of a new internal one. Think of Stevens lost in his rhythmic reverie pounding out poems on his way to the office, or of James Baldwin writing Go Tell It on the Mountain in a busy Parisian café. Being ensconced within the process of writing, letting yourself become a conduit for words (and wherever they come) is a type of armor against the outside world; it’s a form of isolation that can be brought with you wherever you go.

Which is also true of reading, the only cultural medium that is purely mental and can be done in any situation, circumstance, or setting, and that if we’re considering its non-digital forms can be rapaciously consumed free of any outside interference, a universe cordoned off in a book. Reading a book on the bus or a subway, in a Starbucks or on a park bench, is a manner of building your own room within the public. It’s the profoundest type of privacy there can be as you generate an entire new reality alongside the author of the words you’re reading. When language was primarily an oral form, it was delivered collectively, and there is great power in that. But the proliferation of wide-spread literacy several centuries ago, the promulgation of affordable print, and the development of book forms like the 15th-century Venetian printer Aldus Manutius’s innovation of the cheap and portable octavo form made it possible for people to dream with their books not just while sequestered in a monastery, but anywhere that they pleased, from the encampments by the side of Renaissance Europe’s roads to a New York City taxicab.

Alberto Manguel describes the innovation of silent reading (which becomes common in late antiquity, in the fourth century around the time of St. Augustine), whereby readers could “exist in interior space…[where] the text itself, protected from outsiders by its covers, became the reader’s own possession, the reader’s intimate knowledge, whether in the busy scriptorium, the market-place or the home.” When I argue that the history of literature is the history of isolation, I mean something more than writers often require solitude, or that the hermit is a popular figure to be explored in fiction. Rather, the deep vein that runs through the experience and definition of both reading and writing is precisely the sort of solitude of that Manguel describes. Isolation is not a medium for literature, nor is it a method of creating literature; it is the very substance of literature itself.

If there is something special about seclusion, about quiet, about aloneness that defines our literature, if something about isolation defined the shift from oral cultures to written ones, then perhaps it’s in the imitation of that original Author who was the first to compose in quarantine. Judaism’s God was distinguished from His pagan colleagues by being a singular creator-being, from forming His world not out of raw materials in collaboration with a pantheon, but of His own singular volition from nothing at all. Nobody could have been more isolated than God in the beginning, and no literary work emerging from that aloneness more powerful than all of existence. Such a model, of creation ex nihilo, is the operational essence of literary composition, a medium that requires no performers and no audience and exists only in the transit from one mine to another (and not necessarily even that).

As Dickinson approached her death, she asked her sister Lavinia to immolate her correspondence, but disregarded instructions concerning the poetry, assuming it didn’t even merit mention. It appears that Dickinson never intended her work for publication, that the author and audience were one, the purest form of poetry conceivable. Lavinia recognized their brilliance, which is the only reason that we’re able to read them today. What’s remarkable isn’t that they were almost destroyed, but that Dickinson’s poems survived at all. How many comparable works were penned by names unknown, by women and men innumerable? How much is written and read in glorious isolation never to extend to an audience beyond its creator? What shall be written in the coming days and weeks and months of isolation, existing only for the delight and glory of its creators, and none the less for its impermanence? In the end all works are immolated. Even that of the Creator’s shall be deleted. That Book’s glory is no less because of it.

Image Credit: Wallpaperflare.

Letter from the Other Shore

“Beyond right and wrong there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”
—Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi

They’ve constructed tent hospitals in Central Park across Fifth Avenue from Mt. Sinai Hospital and the foreboding is so palpable to me, the sense that what’s coming can’t be prepared for so visceral, that I can barely stand to consider it. New York used to be home, at least for the better part of most weeks when I’d commute in from small-town northeastern Pennsylvania to stay with my now wife while she was completing a residency in the city.

Every decent person loves New York, and some indecent too, but that it stands as the greatest of American cities is so axiomatic that I care not to even make an argument on behalf of it. Central Park is the great lung of Manhattan; when my wife was at work I’d wander the paths, the ramble, the Great Meadow were now medics work. There are few places—for many of us—as evocative of what a better world could look like. Think of it, unlike all of those royal pleasure palaces in the world of old, Olmsted’s lush urban garden is free and open to all. And now the dying too. All I will say is that I’ve heard from those who still live in the city (for anyone in publishing knows a lot of New Yorkers) that right now the sirens are deafening, that there are refrigerated trucks parked outside the hospitals because of the morgue overflow, and that EMS is working longer and harder hours than they did during 9/11. Speaking of that seminal event that inaugurated adulthood for those of my generation—for that was a disquieting year to be an 18-year-old man—sometime this week our nation will begin to suffer deaths equivalent to the World Trade Center attack every single day until this burning stops.

According to the almost certainly sugarcoated predictions of the man with the unenviable task of being the chief epidemiologist for our current, cankered administration, this pestilence could see 200,000 Americans die in the next few months—more than four times as many men who died in Vietnam. If one consults the terrifying Imperial College of London report, the reality—if nothing was done and social distancing was ignored—would be closer to 2.2 million women and men. That’s more than twice as many Americans who died in the four years of the Civil War. When the rebels fired on Ft. Sumter and Washington D.C.’s precarious position too many miles south of the Mason-Dixon Line made it an obvious target for Confederate invasion, President Abraham Lincoln ordered the capital to be heavily fortified. And in a few months, it became the most solidly protected city on Earth. Lincoln was not necessarily an optimist, but he was a hopeful man, and that is a difference. One thing that he wasn’t was a denialist; when he refused to abandon Washington, he knew what the score was, capable of seeing from the balcony of the White House a massive Confederate flag flying from an Alexandria hotel across the Potomac, the pestilence already infecting the body politic. Regardless of the city’s fortifications, there were still incursions into the District of Columbia. The Battle of Fort Stevens, late in the war during 1864, occurred when Confederate Lt. Gen. Jubal Early invaded just over the northern border of the city from Maryland. When remembered at all, it’s sometimes configured as just an unsuccessful scouting mission. But almost 1,000 men died. The same number as the average losses we’re about to suffer every day.

Washington D.C. is my home now; spring really is prettier here than it is further north, albeit perhaps less earned after the warm winters. The cherry blossoms bloomed early this year; I gather they’ve been doing that more frequently of late. I haven’t been to the National Mall for a few weeks, even though it’s less than a mile away. We’re new to the city, so I still don’t totally intuit that this is where I live. When boredom compels me to go for a brief drive, the neighborhood looking nothing so much like the bougie Mid-Atlantic neighborhood of my Pittsburgh upbringing, I’ll occasionally turn one of those narrow, brick-lined rectilinear alphabet streets and suddenly see the Capitol dome. The experience always strikes me as strange and dreamlike, since I’d forgotten where I was for the past few weeks. All that dysfunction, all that callousness, all that refusal to see what we face while giving people the bandage of a one-time $1,200 check, mere blocks from where I’m in quarantine.

Not far from the site of Early’s rebellious perfidy, and there’s the National Arboretum maintained by the Department of Agriculture. Though a poor substitute for Central Park, the space is not without its charms, not least of which is the surreal spectacle of the National Capital Columns, an arrangement of 22 of the original Corinthian support columns from the United States Capital, looking nothing so much like some abandoned temple in a field. They’re uncanny, eerie, unsettling—like seeing the debris of a lost civilization that happens to be your own. A few weeks ago, before social isolation became de facto policy, my wife and her brother drove with me throughout the arboretum to see if we could see any of the cherry blooms from the car windows. The bonsai museum and the visitor’s center were closed, but the paths were packed with people meandering in groups, as if nothing was different here, as if there was no need for fortifications at all, as if they couldn’t hear Jubal Early moving in from the north.

The sirens are not yet deafening here, though I hear them more frequently. More medivacs flying low over Capitol Hill, too. Whatever is coming is coming. It no longer feels like we’re on the Potomac, but waiting to cross the River Styx. I figure it might behoove me to gather some of my thoughts in an epistle here from the opposite bank of that river. Because I fear that none of us are prepared for what’s coming; none of us can truly comprehend the enormity of the changes that will take place, even if some of us had our ears to the ground and could hear those hoofbeats coming months ago. Anyone who isn’t an abject denialist, somebody enraptured to false paeons of positivity or an adherent of the death cult that currently masquerades as this nation’s governing party, can intuit the heat in the atmosphere, all that horror and sadness that’s already happened, that’s waiting to come. Those people dead in New York, around America, around the world. All those stories, all the narratives brought to an end. If you’ve got your empathetic radio tuned into the frequencies that are coming out of every corner of the land, then the songs you’re hearing are in a minor key. Obituaries are starting to fill up with mentions of the virus, and those strange icons of celebrity have it: Prince Charles, Tom Hanks—and most heartbreaking to me, the death of brilliant folkie John Prine. There’s an unreality to the whole thing; as those seemingly unassailable of the rich and wealthy succumb to the pestilence. I wonder if it will soon seem more real to those blocking up the road in the arboretum?

Never forget that less than a few weeks and several members of the chattering class of columnists who bolster the delusions, lies, and taunts of the junta were “simply considering” the possibility that it might be worth it to have a few million Americans die—the elderly, those with preexisting conditions, and a bunch of the unlucky of the rest of us—to jumpstart the economy. As if an economy that demanded a blood sacrifice of citizens was an economy worth having. If we remember our villains after some of us have survived, then the pharaohs of the supply-side cult governing from the White House and the Senate should forever be emblazoned as a travesty, whose intentions were a cruel pantomime of their self-described “pro-life” positions. Some commentators described them as offering the populace up as if infants to the Canaanite deity of bull-headed Moloch who immolates the innocent in the fiery cauldron of his bronze stomach. It’d be an overwrought metaphor if it wasn’t precisely what they were doing.  Anger is my most reliable emotion; I can convert sadness, depression, anxiety into its familiar and comfortable contours, so for at least a few hours of the day I let myself feel that hatred towards the ghouls a few blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue. Otherwise I’m like the rest of you, little idea what soundtrack to put on as you rocket towards the singularity. I’ve no clue how one prepares for something like this, what one expects April, or May, or June to look like when you’re facing that abyss that feels like the end of the world every day. Right now, I’m adhering to that old Program mantra of “One Day at a Time” and that seems to work while I’m white-knuckling it through the apocalypse. That means steadfastly following social distancing and getting proficient with disinfection. What one should also do, of course, is believe the science, believe in medicine, listen to the doctors and the epidemiologists who know what they’re talking about (no matter how disturbing) and ignore the pundits, politicians, and talking heads who trade in masturbatory, sociopathic tweets while people die.

I’m under no illusions that what I’m doing right now makes a contribution, for the best thing that all of us can do is to exile ourselves from this world. The woman I love more than my own heartbeat goes off to deal with this on the frontlines every day, so I know that anything I offer is paltry. Good Romantic that I am, I of course adhere to the power of words, the transcendence of poetry, the power to reach out and connect to others that are suffering. That’s not just lip service, I do believe that, even while I think that washing your hands can be as immaculate as a poem, staying inside as triumphant as a novel. So, what I want to make clear is that right now I’m writing for myself, and should any of that be useful to some of you than I am grateful. But I’m fundamentally offering a non-essential service, and it does no harm to my ego to admit that. What’s difficult is to know what to turn to when facing something this unexpected, this enormous. Peruse Facebook and Twitter right now, there’s a way of talking that’s expected of late-stage capitalism, or post-modernity, or whatever the fuck we’re supposed to call it. Snarky, outraged, absurd at times, perennially aggrieved, concerned with piffling bullshit. I suspect that by summer many of us won’t be talking that way anymore. I think, if we can, we should try and turn to something a bit more permanent, a bit more real, to help us hold our heads above water for a few more minutes even while the water is burning our lungs.

In the coming weeks, the coming months, this whole damned year, there will be death. This will be a season of death. All of us will lose people we know, lose people that we love. The famous will die, and the unknown will too. Both the poor and the rich; the powerful and the powerless. Unless you were witness to atrocities in Syria and Iraq, unless you are a refugee from El Salvador or Honduras, or a survivor of when this government let young men die by the thousands simply because of who they loved, then little will prepare us for such staggering loss, I think. This devouring reminds me of a poem of crystalline beauty by the underread Irish poet Eavan Boland from 2008’s New Collected Poems. In Boland’s appropriately named “Quarantine” she writes, “the worst hour of the worst season/of the worst year of a whole people” during the Great Hunger in 1847, when the potato blight and its attendant famine decimated Ireland. A million women and men dead, a million more forced into exile across the ocean. Victims of potato mold, yes; but more approximately humans killed by negligent or actively murderous government policy from the colonial rulers. Into that abyss, that cacophony of numbers and statistics, she reminds us that all of those millions were human beings, that each death was the conclusion of a unique story, placed into a mass grave and dusted over with soil.

Boland writes of “a man set out from the workhouse with his wife. /He was walking—they were both walking—north.” Across this broken world, this scarred earth, Boland describes that the wife “was sick with famine fever and could not keep up. /He lifted her and put her on his back. /He walked like that west and west and north. /Until at nightfall under freezing stars they arrived.” As a poet, Boland is no fabulist, she is no nostalgist, or sentimentalist. She does not give into the charming narcotic of optimism, and abides not by keeping spirits up. Boland is, however, resplendent with grace—in the full religious implications of that word. She writes “Let no love poem ever came to this threshold. /There is no place here for the inexact/praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body.” Romanticism is a luxury that Boland can’t countenance for her characters, not in Ireland, not in the black year of ’47. This is a poem about “what they suffered. How they lived/And what there is between a man and a woman. /And in which darkness it can best be proved.” She writes not of happy endings, but of the possibility, the reality of love. In her third stanza, the middle one, Boland writes:
In the morning they were both found dead.
Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.
But her feet were held against his breastbone.
The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.
What I’m saying to you is that I know not who among us shall live or die, but Christ I pray that we all have the ability to be the breastbone.

I’ve decided to write an obituary for our dying world while I’m still well, while most of you are still well. The world is convulsing. I’ve no idea what it will ultimately look like, nor does anyone else for that matter. Jeff Sharlet and Peter Manseau wrote about the aftermath of 9/11 in Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible, asking “How many times can the world end? How many times can it begin again? As often as you survive. As often as you tell the story. The apocalypse is always now, but so is the creation.” This seems right to me—the world is ending now. But something else is coming out of it. Possibly it could be a far worse world, the authoritarians and aspiring dictators using pandemic as an excuse to further tighten the noose, the obscenely wealthy retiring to their palaces as inequity grows even starker and the people who bag our groceries are forced into a virtual death sentence as disease runs rampant. Or, perhaps our current moment of unlikely solidarity, our new consciousness on what work is, what work requires, will continue unabated; maybe there will be a new demanding of justice, new victories for equity, for fairness, for fundamental human dignity. In our current touchless epoch it’s impossible to know. All that can be offered is the breastbone, the reminder that you must give to those you love, even as the world ends.    

I can list what I do know will be on that other side, what will be there after the world stops ending. Whenever we emerge, whenever we’ve buried our dead, whenever we’ve mourned the losses and tabulated the incalculable grief that we can barely comprehend in this darkest of Lents, I say to you that the following things shall be waiting: A plate of half sours at the Second Avenue Deli. The way Manhattan looks at sunset when first espied from a bus as it turns around the cliffs of Weehawken toward the tunnel. The perfumed scent of a magnolia tree at dawn. Primanti Brothers sandwiches. Calloused hands of strangers grasped together in a church basement as they utter the Serenity Prayer. Roadside rib festivals where flimsy napkins do literally nothing to sop the mess up as you eat. Corny and wonderful beachside art festivals where everything is pastel and painted on drift wood. Baseball (but the Pirates will sadly still suck). Dog parks where the concentrated joy is almost unimaginable. Refreshing summer breeze and spray rolling off the forks of the Ohio River. Scorching hot sand at the Singing Sands Beach in Manchester-by-the-Sea, and the attendant mystery-meat hot dog purchased from a bored teenager. Ridiculous small-town music festivals where you can pay bottom dollar to hear classic rock warriors on their epic road downward, and yet they still absolutely shred it. Pittsburgh’s skyline when you first emerge from that tunnel. Ice cream trucks. Cheesesteaks made with the worst meat but with the best of intentions. Cannoli. The Metropolitan Museum of Arts alabaster gleaming Roman room. The old men playing chess in Washington Square Park. Holding hands. Falling in love. The cherry blossoms. Central Park. The world on the other side of what’s coming will not look exactly like this one. But there will be a world. I hope that most of us can meet there.

The Necessary Staying Put: Beckett and Social Distancing

After reading a witty reimagining of famous first lines rewritten for social distancing, it occurred to me that one really wouldn’t have to tweak much with Samuel Beckett’s oeuvre. (Though the meeting with Godot, alas, might have to be postponed.) Beckett doesn’t necessarily offer solace in these times; one can only grin, or grimace, at his buoyant pessimism: “What room for worse!” we read in one Worstward Ho. He is however, one of the great modernist chroniclers of isolation, and one who labelled his own mid-career burst of production from 1946 to 1950 as the “siege in the room.” So join me, dear, homebound reader, on a tour of Beckett’s circumscribed though capacious universe.

In an essay on Hermann Hesse’s novel Demian, the critic Walter Bauer described the young hero’s coming-of-age as “Die notwendige Reise,” or “The  Necessary Journey.” Coming across this phrase as a young man, Samuel Beckett noted in his journal: “Journey anyway is the wrong figure. How can one travel to that from which one cannot move away?  Das notwendige Bleiben [The Necessary Staying Put] is more like it.” Throughout his career, Beckett’s protagonists undertake journeys that are more and more stationary, compelled by their obsessions (Krapp), their hopes (Vladimir and Estragon), or their surrounding (Winnie) to stay put.

We begin with the eponymous hero of Murphy, who in the novel’s opening has tied himself up, naked, to a rocking chair with seven scarves such that “only the most local movements were possible.” Thus bound, he comes “alive in his mind…And life in his mind gave him pleasure, such pleasure that pleasure was not the word.”

Murphy is eventually thrust into “the jaws of a job” and into the “mercantile Gehenna” of London—the novel is in some ways about the tragicomic impossibility of separating oneself from the world—though we can nonetheless look to Murphy, that “long hank of Apollonian asthenia” who rocks from home to avoid all worldly bustle, as one who strove valiantly to attain bliss-in-solitude.

Molloy, Beckett’s great road novel, sees both hunter, Moran, and quarry, Molloy, reduced to increasingly hobbled or immobile conditions—the latter recounting his troubles in a Wordsworthian vein: “It is in the tranquility of decomposition that I remember the long confused emotion which was my life.” Like Murphy, Molloy is torn between the desire to stay put and the compulsion to advance: “For in me there have always been two fools, among others, one asking nothing better than to stay where he is and the other imagining that life might be slightly less horrible a little further on.” The novel tends to bear that out. We first see him bedridden in his mother’s room, where he hopes to “finish dying” after a journey that ends with him lying at the bottom of ditch.

And in this germ-conscious era, we must make brief mention of Molloy’s stone sucking. I won’t linger on his intricate, obsessive-compulsive ritual, but suffice it to say the cavalier use of saliva would give Dr. Anthony Fauci a panic attack.

The Unnameable supplies a starker version of social distancing. The Unnameable is a “caged beast born of caged beast born of caged beast born of caged beast born in a cage and dead in a cage.” He is a dyspeptic creation who spews invective at the shadowy creators who spawned both him and the other “miscreated puppets” of the novel. Among them is Mahood, who has lost all his members “with the exception of the onetime virile” and resides in a sawdust-filled jar on Paris’s Rue Brancion.

Perhaps Mahood shares a realtor with Nagg and Nell, Hamm’s ash bin-dwelling parents in Endgame. The peremptory Hamm is not brimming with empathy, begrudging them when they emerge from their cans to demand food: “The old folks at home! No decency left! Guzzle, guzzle, that’s all they think of.”  And yet if your own “accursed progenitor” insists on carelessly roaming about, it might not be the worst idea to toss them in a recycling bin for a spell. Desperate times…

Krapp from Krapp’s Last Tape is well-equipped for a prolonged seclusion, armed with his stash of bananas and tapes he has recorded as a young man. I am of the 99 percent of people mortified to hear their voice on tape, but Krapp listens to his confident younger self with an intoxicating mixture of fascination, scorn, and yearning. He is tethered to the tape recorder and the unfulfilled vision of the future it contains, even as it tortures him.

In contrast to the generally ornery Krapp, Winnie, the indefatigable heroine of Happy Days, has an obstinately roseate worldview. Her husband navigates his burrow with increasing difficulty, occasioning Winnie to reflect back on his happier, and more slithery, days: “Not the crawler you were, poor darling.” Winnie, though, is always ready to look on the bright side:  “What a curse, mobility!” she says, buried in sand up to her waist as the play opens, to her neck as it ends.

And then there are Beckett’s two most famous players, Vladimir and Estragon, rooted in place for their perpetually deferred meeting. Their entire existence depends on killing time—through improvisational “canter[s]” or squabbles or lyrical flights of fancy—between their sporadic encounters and interminable waiting for Godot: “We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?,” says Estragon.  The strain, however, does wear on them, as made clear in a line some of us may have uttered over the past week: “Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful!”

Finally, there is Company, Beckett’s extraordinary late work in which a voice comes “to one in the dark,” identified by the second-person pronoun “you, and delivers a fiat: “Imagine.” Imagine what, exactly? First, a past, a series of formative vignettes involving “You” and his father, his mother, a lover, a diving board, and an unfortunate hedgehog. And second, a more companionable existence: “Devised deviser devising it all for company,” Beckett writes. “You” exists in a state of isolation and near-total sensory deprivation, and so imagines a series of pleasant additions to the monotony: a “shadowy light” in the dark; the “mercy” of an odd sound, “some soft thing softly stirring soon to stir no more”; or even—and here the “temptation is great”—a fly to swat away, “a live fly mistaking him for dead.” Crawling would also be a pleasant addition to company, but by this point in Beckett’s career, the mere possibility of movement becomes a theoretical, empirical, and ethical question: “Can he move? Does he move?  Should he move?”

This short novel is a highly refracted autobiography, an accomplished exercise in style and a fable of the artist’s mind, a “bourneless dark” in which creator and created, deviser and devised, create the momentary illusion of company:

With every inane word a little nearer to the last. And how the fable too. The fable of one fabling of one with you in the dark. And how better in the end labour lost and silence. And you as you were always were.

Alone.

Image Credit: Flickr/rich_f28

How to Survive the End of the World with Jenny Offill

My family and I walked to a few different stores in our neighborhood today, in search of bananas and fresh air. I love bananas and we’d run out, but there aren’t bananas anywhere right now. Finally I found some on the counter next to the register in a liquor store: 75 cents each. I bought four. Across the country the person I love most in the world, after my own children, is getting home from rehab. I realize an AA meeting is a gathering of more than 20 people, and I worry they’ve all been canceled.

I loved Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, but I wasn’t sure what to make of Weather. It didn’t seem to be about anything.  It’s told in a similar format as Dept. of Speculation—little paragraphs about the narrator’s job (a librarian), her husband, her son, her neighbors. I had heard the book was about climate change, or maybe it was about addiction. It didn’t seem to be about any of these things, really, but I kept reading. Usually, I read a little before I go to sleep. I don’t have much time. I have two children, a five-year-old daughter and a 10-month-old son. I work. I try, and fail, to write. Like everyone else, I’ve been following the coronavirus stories this month. I just lived day-to-day, because coronavirus or not, that’s all I’m capable of right now.

So I read Weather, and didn’t think too much about it. The narrator meets some cats, avoids other moms at her son’s school. She takes a car service, she takes the bus. She has funny one-liners. She feeds the dog. She starts to work with an old mentor from grad school, a woman named Sylvia who is an expert on climate change. Her brother, a recovering drug addict, meets a woman and they have a baby. Interspersed in the text are handy tips for the end of the world. How to make a candle out of a tin of tuna. How to fish in a river with nothing but your shirt and the spit in your mouth.

I order diapers, formula, soap, baby wipes, baby food, and vitamins. We go to grocery stores and buy toilet paper, flour, yeast, canned tomatoes, rice, beans, wine, chips, chocolate. I order refills of my Xanax, Prozac, and birth control. The narrator of Weather asks, where should we go, where will my son be safe from the ravages of climate change? And her mentor answers: nowhere. Nowhere will be safe. Want to be safe? Become rich.

My kids and my husband went to sleep and I stayed up late to finish the book. Los Angeles Unified School District canceled school. A friend is scared she has it, the virus, but she can’t get tested. She’s worried about her parents. My mom is 65 and won’t stop working. She buys groceries for my 95-year-old grandma. My loved one is coming home from rehab. Somewhere in the middle of the book, we learn the narrator dropped out of graduate school to keep her brother alive, to help him recover from drug addiction. Later we learn she’d keep him on the phone late, and then instruct him she had to tell him something tomorrow morning, so he wouldn’t kill himself during the night.

It’s at this point in the book, I realize this is what the book is about: everyday living during the end of the world. The futility, the impossibility, the absurdity of trying to keep people alive, trying to keep them safe.

My loved one comes home from rehab and drives around the city, trying different meetings. They are all canceled. He calls me in between each attempt. I get off the phone and I cry, because there’s nothing I can do. My daughter wants to know why I am crying. She cries with me. Then the baby starts crying, because he cries whenever she does. I pick him up and hold him close. We blow raspberries at each other. Everyone is smiling again.

The narrator loves her husband, her son, her dog. She just continues to go about living her life the best she can, showing up at work, helping her brother, newly sober, with his infant daughter.

My family and I go for a walk and I stop in at a corner grocery store, which has been in the neighborhood for more than 60 years. They keep open tabs for all the people in the neighborhood who need it. When someone needs food and can’t afford it, this place gives it to them. They don’t have the bananas I am looking for, but I give them a $20 bill, which is all the cash I have, and tell them to use it to help someone pay for food. I don’t know what else to do. I try not to let my daughter see me cry as we walk home.

For more information about online AA meetings, click here and here. For more information about Al-Anon, click here. Please reach out to anyone you know in AA or Al-Anon for information about Zoom meetings.

Letter from the Pestilence

One particularly brutal winter, more than half a decade ago now, I used to find myself fantasizing about stripping down to my underwear and t-shirt and calmly walking out into the massive field of snow that blanketed the flat lot across from my apartment complex so that I could quietly freeze to death. These day dreams came on casually, and it was only after a few times of realizing that I had been online looking up “What does it feel like to die from the cold?” that I might be in trouble. For several weeks following an arctic blast, my small Pennsylvania town was covered in snow and ice, which the tax averse city fathers did little to clear. Though I obviously wasn’t ensconced inside my apartment for the entirety of that time period, able to mostly slide down the hill to my job, and more frequently to the bar where I could get black-out drunk and somehow amazingly get back home, the isolation somehow felt both metaphorical and literal. During that time I mostly kept company with box wine, liquor, beer, and a Netflix subscription, and despite my Google searches I thankfully never saw fit to try my experiment during those blackouts. Weather wasn’t the cause of my depression obviously; my father was dying of a terminal illness at the time, I had yet to figure out that I should stop drinking, and there is some betrayal in my brain chemistry. But the chill permanence of the starkly beautiful and isolated landscape was certainly an affirmation of the pathetic fallacy, every bit as trite as if I’d made it up for a book. I eventually came out of the depression—as one does.

If you’ve ever been depressed, then you know that sometimes it feels like you’ve been wearing dark sunglasses on a bright day; the strange film that seems to cover everything and muck up the synapses in your brain. There might be drama to some people’s depression, and while there was certainly anxiety and the dull hiss of fear punctuated by moments of panic in mine, for much of it there was a surprisingly low volume. It occupied you all the time, but there was something almost relaxed about it, like the way the moment before you freeze to death is supposed to feel like a gentle letting go of one sense after the other. One of the signs of depression is that you lose interest in things that you love. In a clinical sense, that was true for me; I abandoned a lot of the intellectualization of literature that was my passion (and my paying job as a graduate student), but in a far deeper way it wasn’t accurate at all. Maybe I didn’t want to write interpretations of poetry, teach the novels that I kept on teaching, or talk about drama in graduate seminars, but words were stripped to their most elemental and jagged for me, boiled down and rendered into a broth that I kept on drinking. This isn’t going to be where I set up a false dichotomy between thinking and feeling, between interpretation and experience, nor is it a rejection of the critical discussion of literature. I truly derive pleasure from those things, and it was a blessing when my desire to engage them returned.But when everything was stripped away from my desire, when I could scarcely feel love, least of all for myself, the words were still there. At the core of the humanities, it turns out, remains the human. Sometimes reading felt like running in place in a swimming pool; sometimes I was so distracted by my malady that the connection between sense and syntax was all but severed. I was lucky enough that I could still do it though—and with a dim awareness that it was because I had no choice if I was going to come out on the other side. During this period, either ironically or appropriately, I read Andrew Solomon’s stunning personal etiology The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression. Much like Leslie Jamison in The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath, Solomon gives an account of our shared affliction in terms of history and medicine, and offers his own dark nights of the soul. Solomon writes “To give up the essential conflict between what we feel like doing and what we do, to end the dark moods that reflect that conflict and its difficulties—this is to give up what it is to be human, of what is good in human beings.” The Noonday Demon’s great power is that it doesn’t reduce depression to character building, nor does it simply explain it away, but it does give some scaffolding of meaning to the experience of meaninglessness. Solomon’s prose is exemplary, his empathy is complete, and though I don’t personally know him, reading The Noonday Demon was just enough a connection—as weak as my transponders were—that a bit of static electricity was able to power me through when I got better.I only bring this up because currently we’re all in the pest house. What a strange thing, this social isolation, the self-quarantining? Suddenly societal survival depends on all of us anointing ourselves as depressives, staying sequestered in our homes as whatever hell burns through the immune systems of our fellow humans. When I was depressed, I drew hope from the fact that other people weren’t depressed; it felt like if my world was unravelling there was at least a world. The surrealism of our current moment is that none of us have that same luxury anymore. Ironically there’s something democratic in our common situation, the way in which we’re all feeling the same fear, the same uncertainty, the same panic, worry, anger, and anxiety. A solidarity, finally. If there’s anything different between our current situation and personal depression—the sense of doom, the preoccupation with a malignant force, and the inability to fully immerse yourself in that which gives joy make this feel like a type of cultural depression—it’s that there’s also a weird joviality out there. The often funny social media gallows humor (I’m partial to a picture of the advertising mascot Mr. Clean with the caption “He left us when we needed him most.”) and the odd confessions with strangers, like the Trader Joe’s checkout guy who told me he’d miss karaoke most of all.

The depressed, ironically, might have an immunological consciousness more prepared for the quarantine that is now necessary. No longer kept in my apartment by diminished serotonin levels and several feet of snow, now it is the coronavirus that keeps me home. “Depression at its worst is the most horrifying loneliness,” Solomon writes, “and from it I learned the value of intimacy.” Our school has been those feelings of nothing that have trained us in the art of that most human of things, our need for connection, precisely at the moment when its necessary to sever those ties. “You cannot draw a depressed person out of their misery,” Solomon correctly notes, but “You can, sometimes, manage to join someone in the place where he resides.” We live in an ugly era—mean, intemperate, cruel, cynical, narcissistic. Everyone says that of their age, but doesn’t it feel a bit more true of our own? Now, as if the Earth has a breaking fever, it seems as if the very planet itself is shaking us off. We’re all in that dark place now; some of us will get sick, as well. Many of us will. We will all require a kindness in that.

Like Solomon was once something I was able to hold onto—however so slightly—that returned me to life, there must be an engagement with each other, with that which we’ve created, with that which exists to make connection, with that which joins us in the places where we reside. Creation can’t be a luxury, nor is it just entertainment, or a way of passing time. Recently, I saw a video of an empty street in Florence, where women and men are quarantined where Boccaccio was once sequestered from the plague, where Petrarch’s beloved Laura de Noves succumbed to it. From an open window, a strong baritone voice from an unseen man starts singing in an Italian I can’t understand, then a woman joins in somewhere down the alley, then another man, then another. Even the feral dogs in the street are barking joyfully by the end. All of them were isolated, but none were alone. Creation must be a kindness.

Image Credit: Needpix.com.

On Pandemic and Literature

Less than a century after the Black Death descended into Europe and killed 75 million people—as much as 60 percent of the population (90% in some places) dead in the five years after 1347—an anonymous Alsatian engraver with the fantastic appellation of “Master of the Playing Cards” saw fit to depict St. Sebastian: the patron saint of plague victims. Making his name, literally, from the series of playing cards he produced at the moment when the pastime first became popular in Germany, the engraver decorated his suits with bears and wolves, lions and birds, flowers and woodwoses. The Master of Playing Cards’s largest engraving, however, was the aforementioned depiction of the unfortunate third-century martyr who suffered by order of the Emperor Diocletian. A violent image, but even several generations after the worst of the Black Death, and Sebastian still resonated with the populace, who remembered that “To many Europeans, the pestilence seemed to be the punishment of a wrathful Creator,” as John Kelly notes in The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of all Time.

The cult of Sebastian had grown in the years between the Black Death and the engraving, and during that interim the ancient martyr had become associated with plague victims. His suffering reminded people of their own lot—the sense that more hardship was inevitable, that the appearance of purpled buboes looked like arrows pulled from Sebastian’s eviscerated flesh after his attempted execution, and most of all the indiscrimination of which portion of bruised skin would be arrow-pierced seeming as random as who should die from plague. Produced roughly around 1440, when any direct memory of the greatest bubonic plague had long-since passed (even while smaller reoccurrences occurred for centuries), the Master of the Playing Cards presents a serene Sebastian, tied to a short tree while four archers pummel him with said arrows. Unlike more popular depictions of the saint, such as Andrea Mantegna’s painting made only four decades later, or El Greco and Peter Paul Reubens’s explicitly lithe and beautiful Sebastians made in respectively the 16th and 17th centuries, the engraver gives us a calm, almost bemused, martyr. He has an accepting smile on his face. Two arrows protrude from his puckered flesh. More are clearly coming. Sebastian didn’t just become associated with the plague as a means of saintly intercession, but also because in his narrative there was the possibility of metaphor to make sense of the senseless. Medical historian Roy Porter writes in Flesh in the Age of Reason: The Modern Foundations of Body and Soul that the “Black Death of the mid-fourteenth century and subsequent outbreaks…had, of course, cast a long, dark shadow, and their aftermath was the culture of the Dance of Death, the worm-corrupted cadaver, the skull and crossbones and the charnel house.” All of said accoutrement, which endures even today from the cackling skulls of Halloween to the pirates’ flag, serve to if not make pandemic comprehensible, then to at least tame it a bit. Faced with calamity, this is what the stories told and the images made were intended to do. Religion supplied the largest storehouse of ready-made narrative with which to tell stories, even while the death toll increasingly made traditional belief untenable. John Hatcher writes in The Black Death: A Personal History that many lost “faith in their religion and…[abandoned] themselves to fate,” where fatality is as unpredictable as where an arrow will land.

A different narrative, though not unrelated, was depicted 40 years later. Made by the Swedish painter Albertus Pictor, and applied to the white walls of the rustic Täby Church north of Stockholm, the mural presents what appears to be a wealthy merchant playing a (losing) game of chess against Death. Skeletal and grinning, Death appears with the same boney twisted smile that is underneath the mask of every human face, the embodiment and reminder of everyone’s ultimate destination. Famously the inspiration for director Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film The Seventh Seal, Pictor’s picture is a haunting memento mori, a very human evocation of the desperate flailing against the inevitable. Both pictures tell stories about the plague, about the lengths we’ll go to survive. They convey how in pandemic predictability disappears; they are narratives about the failure of narratives themselves. What both of them court are Brother Fate and his twin Sister Despair. The wages of fortune are the subject of which cards you’re dealt and the tension of strategy and luck when you avoid having your bishop or rook taken. Life may be a game, but none of us are master players and sometimes we’re dealt a very bad hand.

There has always been literature of pandemic because there have always been pandemics. What marks the literature of plague, pestilence, and pandemic is a commitment to try and forge if not some sense of explanation, than at least a sense of meaning out of the raw experience of panic, horror, and despair. Narrative is an attempt to stave off meaninglessness, and in the void of the pandemic, literature serves the purpose of trying, however desperately, to stop the bleeding. It makes sense that the most famous literary work to come out of the plague is Giovani Boccaccio’s 1353 The Decameron, with its frame conceit of 100 bawdy, hilarious, and erotic stories told by seven women and three men over 10 days while they’re quarantined in a Tuscan villa outside Florence. As pandemic rages through northern Italy, Boccaccio’s characters distract themselves with funny, dirty stories, but the anxious intent from those young women and men self-exiled within cloistered walls is that “Every person born into this world has a natural right to sustain, preserve and defend” their own life, so that storytelling becomes its own palliative to drown out the howling of those dying on the other side of the ivy-covered stone walls.

Pandemic literature exists not just to analyze the reasons for the pestilence—that may not even be its primary purpose. Rather the telling of stories is a reminder that sense still exists somewhere, that if there is not meaning outside of the quarantine zone there’s at least meaning within our invented stories. Literature is a reclamation against that which illness represents—that the world is not our own. As the narrator of Albert Camus’s The Plague says as disease ravages the town of Oran in French Algeria, there is an “element of abstraction and unreality in misfortune. But when an abstraction starts to kill you, you have to get to work on it.” When confronted with the erraticism of etiology, the arbitrariness of infection, the randomness of illness, we must contend with the reality that we are not masters of this world. We have seemingly become such lords of nature that we’ve altered the very climate and geologists have named our epoch after humanity itself, and yet a cold virus can have more power than an army. Disease is not metaphor, symbol, or allegory, it is simply something that kills you without consideration. Story is a way of trying to impart a bit of that consideration that nature ignores.

The necessity of literature in the aftermath of pandemic is movingly illustrated in Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven. Mostly taking place several years after the “Georgian Flu” has killed the vast majority of humans on the planet and civilization has collapsed, Mandel’s novel follows a troupe of Shakespearean actors as they travel by caravan across a scarred Great Lakes region on either side of the U.S.-Canadian border. “We bemoaned the impersonality of the modern world,” Mandel writes, “but that was a lie.” Station Eleven is, in some sense, a love letter to a lost world, which is to say the world (currently) of the reader. Our existence “had never been impersonal at all,” she writes, and the novel gives moving litanies of all that was lost in the narrative’s apocalypse, from chlorinated swimming pools to the mindlessness of the Internet. There is a tender love of every aspect of our stupid world, so that how the crisis happened can only be explained because of the fact that we were so interconnected: “There had always been a massive delicate infrastructure of people, all of them working unnoticed around us, and when people stop going to work, the entire operation grinds to a halt.” As survivors struggle to rebuild, it’s the job of narrative to supply meaning to that which disease has taken away, or as the motto painted on the wagon of the traveling caravan has it: “Survival is insufficient.” The need to tell stories, to use narrative to prove some continuity with a past obliterated by pandemic, is the motivating impulse of English professor James Smith, the main character in Jack London’s largely forgotten 1912 post-apocalyptic novel, The Scarlet Plague. With shades of Edgar Allan Poe, London imagines a 2013 outbreak of hemorrhagic fever called the “Red Death.” Infectious, fast-moving, and fatal, the plague wipes out the vast majority of the world’s population, so that some six decades after the pestilence first appears, Smith can scarcely believe that his memories of a once sophisticated civilization aren’t illusions. Still, the former teacher is compelled to tell his grandchildren about the world before the Red Death, even if he sometimes imagines that they are lies. “The fleeting systems lapse like foam,” writes London, “That’s it—foam, and fleeting. All man’s toil upon the planet was just so much foam.”

The Scarlet Plague ends in a distant 2073, the same year that Mary Shelley’s 1826 forerunner of the pandemic novel The Last Man was set. Far less famous than Shelley’s Frankenstein, her largely forgotten novel is arguably just as groundbreaking. As with Station Eleven, narrative and textuality are the central concerns of the novel; when the last man himself notes that “I have selected a few books; the principal are Homer and Shakespeare—But the libraries of the world are thrown open to me,” there is the sense that even in the finality of his position there is a way in which words can still define our reality, anemic though it may now be. Displaying the trademark uneasiness about the idea of fictionality that often marked 19th-century novels, Shelley’s conceit is that what you’re reading are transcriptions of parchment containing ancient oracular predictions that the author herself discovered while exploring caves outside of Naples that had once housed the temple of the Cumae Sibylline.

Her main character is a masculinized roman a clef for Shelley herself, an aristocrat named Lionel Verney who lives through the emergence of global pandemic in 2073 up through the beginning of the 22nd century when he earns the titular status of The Last Man. All of Shelley’s characters are stand-ins for her friends, the luminaries of the rapidly waning Romantic age, from Lord Byron who is transformed into Lord Randolph, a passionate if incompetent leader of England who bungles that nation’s response to the pandemic, to her own husband, Percy, who becomes Adrian, the son of the previous king who has chosen rather to embrace republicanism. By the time Verney begins his solitary pilgrimage across a desolated world, with only the ghosts of Homer and Shakespeare, and an Alpine sheepdog whom he adopts, he still speaks in a first person addressed to an audience of nobody. “Thus around the shores of deserted earth, while the sun is high, and the moon waxes or wanes, angels, the spirts of the dead, and the ever-open eye of the Supreme, will behold…the LAST MAN.” Thus, in a world devoid of people, Verney becomes the book and the inert world becomes the reader.

The Last Man’s first-person narration, ostensibly directed to a world absent of people who could actually read it, belies a deeper reason for the existence of language than mere communication—to construct a world upon the ruins, to bear a type of witness, even if it’s solitary. Language need not be for others; that it’s for ourselves is often good enough. Literature thus becomes affirmation; more than that it becomes rebellion, a means of saying within pandemic that we once existed, and that microbe and spirochete can’t abolish our voices, even if bodies should wither. That’s one of the most important formulations of Tony Kushner’s magisterial play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. Arguably the most canonical text to emerge from the horror of the AIDS crisis, Kushner’s three-hour play appears in two parts, “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika,” and it weaves two narrative threads, the story of wealthy WASP scion Prior Walter’s HIV diagnosis and his subsequent abandonment by his scared lover, Louis Ironson, and the arrival to New York City of the closeted Mormon Republican Joe Pitt, who works as a law clerk and kindles an affair with Louis.

Angels in America combines subjects as varied as Jewish immigration in the early 20th century, Kabbalistic and Mormon cosmology (along with a baroque system of invented angels), the reprehensible record of the closeted red-baiting attorney and Joseph McCarthy-acolyte Roy Cohn, and the endurance of the gay community struggling against the AIDS epidemic and their activism opposing the quasi-genocidal non-policy of conservative politicians like Ronald Reagan. If all that sounds heady, Kushner’s play came from the estimably pragmatic issue of how a community survives a plague. Born from the pathbreaking work of activist groups like ACT UP, Angels in America has, because of its mythological concerns, an understanding that pandemics and politics are inextricably connected. In answering who deserves treatment and how such treatment will be allocated we’ve already departed from the realm of disinterested nature. “There are no gods here, no ghosts and spirits in America, no spiritual past,” says Louis, “there’s only the political, and the decoys and the ploys to maneuver around the inescapable battle of politics.” Throughout Angels in America there is an expression of the human tragedy of pandemic, the way that beautiful young people in the prime of life can be murdered by their own bodies. Even Cohn, that despicable quasi-fascist, who evidences so little of the human himself, is entitled to some tenderness when upon his death kaddish is recited for him—by the spirit of Ethel Rosenberg, the supposed Soviet spy whom the lawyer was instrumental in the execution of.At the end of the play, Prior stands at Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, with all the attendant religious implications of that place’s name, and intones that “This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won’t die secret deaths anymore… We will be citizens. The time has come.” In telling stories, there is not just a means of constructing meaning, or even endurance, but indeed of survival.  Fiction is not the only means of expressing this, of course, or even necessarily the most appropriate. Journalist Randy Shilts accomplished something similar to Kushner in his classic account And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, which soberly, clinically, and objectively chronicled the initial outbreaks of the disease among the San Francisco gay community.In a manner not dissimilar to Daniel Defoe in his classic A Journal of the Plague Year (even while that book is fictionalized), Shilts gives an epidemiological account of the numbers, letting the horror speak through science more effectively than had it been rendered in poetry. Such staidness is its own requirement and can speak powerfully to the reality of the event, whereby “the unalterable tragedy at the heart of the AIDS epidemic…[was that] By the time America paid attention to the disease, it was too late to do anything about it,” the shame of a nation whereby Reagan’s press secretary Larry Speakes would actually publicly laugh at the idea of a “gay plague.” Shilts waited until he finished And the Band Played On to be tested for HIV himself, worried that a positive diagnosis would alter his journalistic objectivity. He would die of AIDS related complications in 1994, having borne witness to the initial years of the epidemic, abjuring the cruel inaction of government policy with the disinfectant of pure facts.

Most people who read about pandemics, however, turn to pulpier books: paperback airport novels like Michael Crichton’s clinical fictionalized report about an interstellar virus The Andromeda Strain, Robin Cook’s nightmare fuel about a California Ebola pandemic in Outbreak, and Stephen King’s magisterial post-apocalyptic epic The Stand, which I read in the summer of 1994 and remains the longest sustained narrative I think that I’ve ever engaged with. Because these books are printed on cheap paper and have the sorts of garish covers intended more for mass consumption than prestige, they’re dismissed as prurient or exploitative. Ever the boring distinctions between genre and literary fiction, for though the pace of suspense may distinguish entertainment as integral as aesthetics, they too have just as much to say about the fear and experience of illness as do any number of explicitly more “serious” works.

The Stand is an exemplary example of just what genre fiction is capable of, especially when it comes to elemental fears surrounding plague that seem to have been somehow encoded within our cultural DNA for more than seven centuries. Written as an American corollary to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Stand depicts a United States completely unraveled one summer after the containment loss of a government “Super-Flu” bioweapon nicknamed “Captain Trips.” In that aftermath, King presents a genuinely apocalyptic struggle between good and evil that’s worthy of Revelation, but intrinsic to this tale of pestilence is the initial worry that accompanies a scratchy throat, watery eyes, a sniffling nose, and a cough that seemingly won’t go away. If anything, King’s vision is resolutely in keeping with the medieval tradition of fortuna so expertly represented by the Master of the Playing Cards or Pictor, a wisdom that when it comes to disease “Life was such a wheel that no man could stand upon it for long. And it always, at the end, came round to the same place again,” as King writes.

Far from being exploitative, of only offering readers the exquisite pleasure of vicariously imagining all of society going to complete shit, there is a radical empathy at the core of much genre fiction. Readers of Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore’s graphic novels The Walking Dead (or the attendant television series) or viewers of George Romero’s brilliant zombie classics may assume that they’ll always be the ones to survive Armageddon, but those works can force us into a consideration of the profound contingency of our own lives. Cynics might say that the enjoyment derived from zombie narratives is that they provide a means of imagining that most potent of American fantasies—the ability to shoot your neighbor with no repercussions. More than that, however, and I think that they state a bit of the feebleness of our civilization.

This is what critic Susan Sontag notes in Illness as Metaphor about how pandemic supplies “evidence of a world in which nothing important is regional, local, limited; in which everything that can circulate does, and every problem is, or is destined to become, worldwide,” so that products and viruses alike can freely move in a globalized world. The latter can then disrupt the former, where plague proves the precariousness of the supply lines that keep food on grocery store shelves and electricity in the socket, the shockingly narrow band separating hot breakfast and cold beer from the nastiness, brutishness, and shortness of life anarchic. Such is the grim knowledge of Max Brook’s World War Z where “They teach you how to resist the enemy, how to protect your mind and spirit. They don’t teach you how to resist your own people.” If medieval art and literature embraced the idea of fate, whereby it’s impossible to know who shall be first and who shall be last once the plague rats have entered port, than contemporary genre fiction has a similar democratic vision, a knowledge that wealth, power, and prestige can mean little after you’ve been coughed on. When the Black Death came to Europe, no class was spared; it took the sculptor Andrea Pisano and the banker Giovanni Villani, the painter Ambrogio Lorenzetti and the poet Jeauan Gethin, the mystic Richard Rolle and the philosopher William of Ockham, and the father, mother, and friends of Boccaccio. Plague upended society more than any revolution could, and there was a strange egalitarianism to the paupers’ body-pit covered in lye. Sontag, again, writes that “Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.” Such equality motivated the greatest of medieval artistic themes to emerge from the Black Death, that of the Danse Macabre or “Dance of Death.” In such imagery, painters and engravers would depict paupers and princes, popes and peasants, all linking hands with grinning brown skeletons with hair clinging to mottled pates and cadaverous flesh hanging from bones, dancing in a circle across a bucolic countryside. In the anonymous Totentanz of 1460, the narrator writes “Emperor, your sword won’t help you out/Scepter and crown are worthless here/I’ve taken you by the hand/For you must come to my dance.” During the Black Death, the fearful and the deniers alike explained the disease as due to a confluence of astrological phenomenon or noxious miasma; they claimed it was punishment for sin or they blamed religious and ethnic minorities within their midst. To some, the plague was better understood as “hoax” than reality. The smiling skulls of the Danse Macabre laugh at that sort of cowardly narcissism, for they know that pestilence is a feature of our reality and reality has a way of collecting its debts.

Illness sees no social stratification—it comes for bishop and authoritarian theocrat, king and germaphobic president alike. The final theme of the literature of pandemic, born from the awareness that this world is not ours alone, is that we can’t avert our eyes from the truth, no matter how cankered and ugly it may be in the interim. Something can be both true and senseless. The presence of disease is evidence of that. When I was little, my grandma told me stories about when she was a girl during the 1918 Spanish Influenza epidemic that took 75 million people. She described how, in front of the courthouse of her small Pennsylvania town, wagons arrived carting coffins for those who perished. Such memories are recounted to create meaning, to bear witness, to make sense, to warn, to exclaim that we were here, that we’re still here. Narrative can preserve and remake the world as it falls apart. Such is the point of telling any story. Illness reminds us that the world isn’t ours; literature let’s us know that it is—sometimes. Now—take stock. Be safe. Most of all, take care of each other. And wash your hands.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Poetry Is Prayer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credit: Needpix.

Steal This Meme: Beyond Truth and Lies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: rob walsh

Returning to Books After Climbing Peak TV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: Scheier .hr