And the Walls Came Down

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Across seven seasons and 178 episodes, Patrick Stewart performed the role of Capt. Jean-Luc Picard of the United Federation of Planets NCC-1701-D starship the USS Enterprise with professionalism, wisdom, and humanity. Displaying granitoid stoicism and reserved decorum, Picard was the thinking-person’s captain. The fifth season episode “Darmok” is an example of how Star Trek: The Next Generation was among the most metaphysically speculative shows to ever be broadcast. In the beginning, the Enterprise is hailed by the Tamarians, but the Enterprise’s computerized translator can’t comprehend their language. Against his will, Picard is transported alongside the Tamarian captain Dathon—whose head looks like a cross between a pig and a walnut—to the surface of a hostile planet. Confronted by a massive, shimmering, and horned beast, Dathon tosses Picard a dagger and yells “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.” After they’ve defeated the monster, though at the price of Dathon being injured, Picard realizes that the enigmatic phrase is a reference, an allusion, a myth. Thus, a clue to their language—Tamarians speak only in allegory. Dathon has invoked two mythic heroes to communicate that he and Picard must fight the beast together. Doubtful though it may be that Paul Ricoeur was a Trekkie, but Dathon embodies the French philosopher’s claim in The Rule of Metaphor: The Creation of Meaning in Language that “Only a feeling transformed into myth can open and discover the world.” Dathon, however, has sacrificed himself upon the altar of comprehensibility, for he received a fatal blow, and dies as a pieta in Picard’s arms. As he passes into that undiscovered country, Picard speaks to him in our own mythic-metaphorical tongue – “They became great friends. Gilgamesh and Enkidu at Uruk.” 
Tamarian makes explicit our own language’s reliance on the figurative—any language’s use of metaphor, for that matter. “Try as one might, it is impossible to free oneself from figural language,” writes Marjorie Garber in The Use and Abuse of Literature, as “all language is figurative.” Examine my first paragraph, for there are several mythic allusions throughout—the first clause of my fourth sentence reads “In the beginning,” a reference to the 16th-century Bible translator William Tyndale’s rendering of the Hebrew Bereshith in Genesis (later incorporated into the more famous King James Version, as well as the translation of a different koine phrase in John 1:1). My penultimate sentence has two mythopoeic references; one to Dathon having “sacrificed himself upon the altar,” and a mention of the “pieta,” a word that translates to “piety” and often refers to Christ dead in the arms of the Virgin Mary. Such mythic allusions abound in language. For example—as a writer my Achilles’ Heel is that I take on Herculean tasks like writing an overview of metaphor, requiring me to stop resting on my laurels and to open up a Pandora’s Box, so that I can leave no stone unturned; touch on wood, and don’t treat me like a Casandra, but let’s hope that I can cut the Gordian Knot here. Such Greco-Roman adornments aren’t just mythic allusions, they’re also a dead or at least dying metaphors—for who among us ever tells somebody that we’re “Between a rock and a hard place” while thinking of the Scylla and Charybdis in Homer’s The Odyssey?  That’s another way to say that they’re clichés, but mythic connections abound in less noticeable ways too, though perhaps I’d do well this Wednesday to render unto Odin what belongs to Odin and to spare a thought for the Germanic goddess Frigg when the work week draws to a close.

Star Trek: TNG screenwriters Joe Menosky and Philip LaZebnik make “metaphorical” synonymous with “mythic,” though figurative language draws from more than just classical tales of gods and heroes, but from anything that transfers meaning from one different realm into another. In my first paragraph, I described Stewart’s face as “granitoid,” though he is not coarse-grained igneous rock; later I deployed a simile (rhetoricians disagree on how different that conceit is from metaphor) where I said that Dathon looked like a cross between a pig and a walnut. I can’t claim that these are great metaphors, but they were my attempt to steer the course of the ship away from the rocky shoals of cliché. “A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image,” writes George Orwell in “Politics and the English Language,” his classic essay of 1946, “while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically ‘dead’… has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness.” Between the arresting, lyrical, novel metaphor of the adept poet and the humdrum language of the everyday are the “huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.” Orwell lists around a dozen clichés, including “ride roughshod over,” “grist to the mill,” “swansong,” and “toe the line.” When encountering clichés such as these, in other peoples’ writing but especially in my own prose, they appear to me like a dog turd hidden under the coffee table; their fumes make my eyes water and my stomach churn. Cliché must be ruthlessly expunged by red pen at every opportunity. But those two other categories that Orwell lists are entirely more interesting.

Dead metaphors—not just those on life support but also those decomposing in the ground—merit us getting a shovel and some smelling salts. Tamarian was imagined as structured by metaphor, but the vast majority of words you use every day were originally metaphors. Take the word “understand;” in daily communication we rarely parse it’s implications, but the word itself is a spatial metaphor. Linguist Guy Deutscher explains in The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind’s Greatest Invention how “understand,” derived from the Middle English understanden, itself from the Anglo-Saxon understandan, and ultimately from the Proto-Germanic understandana. “The verb ‘understand’ itself may be a brittle old skeleton by now,” Deutscher writes, “but its origin is till obvious: under-stand originally must have meant something like ‘step under,’ perhaps rather like the image in the phrase ‘get to the bottom of.'” Such spatial language is common, with Deutscher listing “the metaphors that English speakers use today as synonyms: we talk of grasping the sense, catching the meaning, getting the point, following an explanation, cottoning on to an idea, seeing the difficulty.” The word “comprehend” itself is a metaphor, with an etymology in the Latin word prehendere, which means “to seize.” English has a propensity to those sorts of metaphors, foreign loan words from Anglo-Saxon, Frisian, and Norman; Latin, French, Italian, and Spanish; Abenaki, Wolof, and Urdu, which don’t announce themselves as metaphors precisely because of their foreignness—and yet that rich vein of the figurative runs through everything. Dan Paterson gives two examples in his voluminous study The Poem, explaining how a word as common as “tunnel” is from the “Medieval English tonel, a wide-mouthed net used to trap birds, so its first application to ‘subterranean passage’ will have been metaphorical—and would inevitably have carried the connotation ‘trap’ for a little while.” Similarly, the word “urn” comes from “the Latin urere, to burn, bake,” the word itself holding a connotative poetry of immolation. In both these examples, “the original neologists will have been aware of their elation to earlier terms,” Paterson writes, “but this conscious awareness can be lost very rapidly.” If you’re lucky enough to have a subscription to the Oxford English Dictionary, you can trace the etymology of prosaic words and find their glamorous metaphorical beginnings. Within the seemingly hollow throat of every word resides the voice of metaphor, no matter how faint it’s call to us may be.

The manner in which metaphors fossilize into everyday words is not unlike the process during the fetid days of the Carboniferous Period when giant spiders and scorpions, salamanders and sharks, scaled trees and seeded plants would sink into some shallow tropical pool and fossilize until dug out of the ground by a coal miner in Wales or West Virginia. Just as miners occasionally find deposits in the shape of a trilobite, so too do some metaphors that are dead appear as obvious clichés, but the bulk of our language is so dark and hard that it might as well be bituminous. Yet as burning coal releases heat, so too does the glow of meaning come off of these rocks that we call words, the once vital energy of metaphor still hidden inside. “However stone dead such metaphors seem,” writes I.A. Richards in The Philosophy of Rhetoric, “we can easily wake them up.”  Such evolutionary development is what linguists call “semantic change,” as tangible and concrete words are used as metaphors, transferring intent in a one-way direction towards abstraction. “The mind cannot just manufacture words for abstract concepts out of thin air—all if it can do is adapt what is already available. And what’s at hand are simple physical concepts,” writes Deutscher, so that when I say that I’m trying to establish a foundation for my argument, I draw from the concrete metaphors of construction, while it would be odd to appropriate abstraction to describe something tangible. “One thing is certain,” Deutscher says, “nothing can come from nothing.”

Every word is a metaphor; every phrase, no matter how prosaic, is a poem—even if it’s mute. Words don’t correspond to reality; they only correspond to one another. All languages are a tapestry of threads forever floating above the ground. “Metaphor is the transference of a term from one thing to another, whether from genus to species, species to genus, species to species, or by analogy,” as Aristotle defined it in his Rhetoric, the first book to taxonomize the trope. The word metaphor is itself, rather predictably, a metaphor. The Greek μεταφορά, as Aristotle’s explanation literally states, translates as “to transfer,” with all the connotations of transport, shifting, movement, and travel. As contemporary travelers to Greece still discover, delivery vans have the word metaphora painted on their side, something that was a delight to Ricœur. No language can lack metaphor for the same reason that no tongue can lack fiction; it’s not an issue of grammar in the same way that there are languages incapable of tense or person, but rather figuration is the domain of rhetoric. Wherever there are words that are used to designate one thing, then the moment somebody uses those terms to refer to something else, we are within the realm of metaphor. This, it must be said, is rather different from encouraging novel metaphors, or enshrining metaphor as a poetic device, or really even noticing that it exists.

During the Middle Ages, there was a literary fascination with metaphor’s gilded siblings—parable and allegory—but the explication of figuration’s significance didn’t move much beyond Aristotle’s original definition. By 1589, the great English rhetorician George Puttenham would still define the term in The Art of English Poesy as involving “an inversion of sense by transport,” and that belief that metaphor gets you somewhere else remains central, metaphorically at least. Contemporary study of metaphor begins with Richards’s invaluable 1937 The Philosophy of Rhetoric. Because the subject went largely unexplored over two millennia, Richards complained that the “detailed analysis of metaphors, if we attempt it with such slippery terms as these, sometimes feels like extracting cube-roots in the head.” He had a method of exactness, however, for Richards presents a novel vocabulary, a vocabulary that—also unsurprisingly—is metaphorical. According to Richards, a metaphor is composed of two parts, the “tenor” and the “vehicle.” The first is whatever it is that’s being described, and the second is that whose attributes are being carried over in the description of the former (shades of that Greek delivery van). “For the Lord God is a sun and a shield,” writes the Psalmist, providing us an opportunity to see how Richards’s reasoning works. Belying the fundamentalist fallacy that the Bible is a literal text—though nothing is—it’s clear to most that God is neither a giant ball of ionized hydrogen undergoing nuclear fusion into helium, nor is He defensive armor. What God is, in King David’s metaphor, is the tenor, because He is what is being described. The attributes that are being borrowed from “sun” and “shield” are those connotations of being life-giving, luminescent, warm, as well as being defensive and protective. “Sun” and “shield” are even gently contradictory, as blocking out the former with the later can testify towards; but it’s also a demonstration of how the non-literal can express reality in its glorious paradox. In exactly the same manner, Robert Frost’s central conceit in “The Road Not Taken” uses the vehicle of an arduous and uncertain wooded path on the implied tenor of the narrator’s life. A great richness of poetic metaphor—as separate from cliché—is that it allows for ambiguity of referent, so that meaning is a many-colored thing. What makes a poetic metaphor successful is the delicate interplay between tenor and vehicle. A poet’s task is to space that width just right, and to somehow surprise the reader while doing so, without befuddling them.

Poets are less the unacknowledged legislators of the world than they are its wizards, because the form has “the power to define reality,” as George Lakoff and Mark Johnson write in Metaphors We Live By. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that those who nurture metaphors are as if apiarists, since the figurative is like pollen from a flower and each word a bee, meaning traded in a continual hum. Language—and thus reality—is supersaturated with meaning, everything capable of being transformed into something else. “If all language is metaphorical,” writes David Punter in his short study Metaphor, “then it could also follow that we might want to say that all language is continually involved in a series of acts of translation: translating things which are difficult to apprehend into things we can apprehend.” Just as translation is based in difference, so is all communication. All language is relational, a communion between that-which-is and that-which-isn’t. Because words are always arbitrarily connected to that which they represent, language is intrinsically metaphorical, the tethering of random shapes on a page or the vibration of air molecules to an outside sense, the compulsion of someone with a mind different from your own imagining that which you wish them to. Without metaphor there’s no fiction, and without fiction there’s no metaphor. Without either, there’s no possibility of communication. Metaphor is a bridge that doesn’t exist that you’re still able to cross, for faith in being understood is that which gets you to the other side.    

Figurative language encompasses the expansiveness of metaphor; the insularity of metonymy; the granularity of synecdoche; the straightforwardness of simile; the folksiness of parable; the transcendence of allegory. We don’t just read metaphor in literature; humans have always seen it in events, in nature, in the cosmos, in any manner of thinking that sees existence as overdetermined, as meaning permeating that which would otherwise be inert. We see metaphor in the hidden grinning skull of Hans Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors and the melting clocks in Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory. It’s in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s green light and Herman Melville’s whale. It’s in the Anglo-Saxon form of the “kenning,” where the sky is a “bird-road” and Homer’s evocation of the Aegean “wine-dark sea”; in saying that space-time can “curve” and that genes are “selfish”; with Rene Descartes description of the body as a machine and William Paley’s claim that the universe is a clock, and the understanding that God can be both Mother and Father. Politics is threaded through with metaphor, narrative, and artifice—the most effective means of getting the masses to listen to you, for both good and evil. Metaphor is both what facilitated the horror of the Rwandan genocide when Hutu propagandists described the Tutsis as “cockroaches,” as well as what generates the hopefulness in the socialist call for “breads and roses.” Symbolism undergirds both the eagle in the Seal of the United States of America and that of the Third Reich. That the same animal is used for both only emphasizes how mercurial metaphor happens to be. As Punter explains, “metaphor is never static, and rarely innocent.” Figuration’s precise power and danger comes from such slipperiness, as everything is forever morphing and mutating between the metaphorical and the literal.

When Patrick Stewart first came to the United States in 1978, arriving in Los Angeles where he would make his greatest fame as a starship captain, it was as a 37-year-old member of the Royal Shakespeare Company performing the role of Duke Senior in As You Like It at the Ahmanson Theatre. Traipsing through the enchanted forest of Arden, and Stewart appeared opposite Alan Howard performing as Jacques. During the seventh scene of the second act, Howard (most celebrated for voicing Sauron in the Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films) uttered the most celebrated extended metaphor in Shakespeare’s literary career of extended metaphors: “All the world’s a stage, /And all the men and women merely players;/They have their exits and their entrances;/And one man in his time plays many parts.” Conventionally understood as referring to the various roles we all perform over the course of our lives, it’s an apt encapsulation of metaphor itself. All of communication is a stage, and every word is merely a player, and one word can play many parts. When it comes to figuration, Jacques’s monologue is right up there with Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra. Because nothing in the English language is as perfect—as immaculate, as blessed, as sacred, as divine—as the word “like.” What it effects is a syntactical transubstantiation, the transformation of one thing into another. If everything—our concepts, our words, our minds—are sealed off behind a wall of unknowability, then metaphor is that which can breach those walls. Whether implied or stated, “like” is a bridge transporting sense across the chasm of difference, providing intimations of how all ideas and things are connected to each other by similarities, no matter how distant. Whether uttered or only implied, “like” is the wispy filament that nets together all things. Perhaps there is naked reality, but we’ll never be able to see it ourselves, always clothing it in finery that is continually put on and taken off. In our life, metaphor is the intimate kiss between difference.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

The Good Art Friend

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The current Internet-fueled maelstrom ignited by the article “Who Is the Bad Art Friend?”—about two writers and the putative ownership of a “kidney story:” for one writer it was a lived experience; for the other it was something to render in fiction— in all its dizzying permutations, the details of which were further recast in a court case, made me wonder if the corollary, the Good Art Friend, must then also exist.

First, I have to admit I am not sure what an “art friend” is at all. Full disclosure: I am Facebook friends with both protagonists, as well as with the writer of the original piece. I’m also a little unclear how and where the adjective good/bad attaches (to friend? to art?).

Since the definition is up for grabs, I’ve defining BAF as someone who is on the whole deleterious to your art, but probably good to their own, and may or may not be a friend—if we define friend as someone who cares for you, shows up for you, and genuinely shares in your joys. The GAF is the good friend who helps you on your journey, often in ways you don’t expect and don’t appreciate until enough time has passed for hindsight.

For Sale/Kidney Story, Never Authorized was an insightful newsletter post by my erstwhile creative writing colleague Lincoln Michel. The post made me think about how no matter how solitary we are as artists, even Emily Dickinson grabbed the details of life including those of the people closest to her for her work. For me, my oldest art friend, besides my Royal typewriter,  is my hometown best friend, Patti. She is my art friend exemplar, even though, as a VP-CFO of an insurance company, people might say, she’s not an artist, which makes me say, how do we define art and is the “artist” solely responsible for—and the benefiter of—its creation?

Patti and I met, admittedly, in the most incredibly catty way, excusable because we were only 10 or 11: piano recitals. I suffered through years of piano lessons, every minute of which I loathed— the opening bars of “Für Elise” will be forever a trigger—plus the added misery of recitals and competitions, all of which took place in the basement of our public library, where I once took a karate class in hopes it would protect me from racist bullies.  In our small town we actually had three or more piano teachers, which meant sitting through interminable rounds of little kids picking out “Chopsticks.” In our cohort, I felt Patti was the most talented, but most of the attention went to a boy pianist (whom I won’t even refer to here, for our nickname for him will make him instantly recognizable) whom we felt received unnecessary and excessive praise from our teachers solely for being the rare dude.

We actually didn’t dislike Boy Pianist on a personal level, we just truly felt the adulation he received from our teachers gave short shrift to Patti’s talents. Patti was also being raised by a single dad, a miner, after her mother was killed in a car accident, and unlike me with my Asian Tiger parents and the other kids, she continued to play of her own accord and because of her talent. This was also my first lesson in how you can bond with a fellow artist by being annoyed at a third artist.

Patti was also the person who constantly pushed me to venture into new experiences, like the time before we had driver’s licenses when we tried biking to the next town, which required a short and terrifying stint on the highway. The sense of risk and being able to sit with uncertainty is essential for any art, and I don’t know if I would have developed it on my own. I also secretly thought I was a very humorous person, but without a sparring partner, how to develop those skills? Patti was and still is one of the quickest and funniest people I know. Imagine my delight as a child finally finding someone who shared my passion for MAD magazine. Not to mention that being the only student of color in our high school made me a magnet for bullies, and often I was too tired, too scared, too full of self-loathing to defend myself, but Patti never seemed to tire of defending me.

When I wrote my first novel, a YA story set in high school, a Patti-esque character figured prominently. It was easy to develop a fully realized character basically plagiarizing my colorful friend, including her telling off racist bullies. The novel did end up with race as a prominent theme, but much of my motivation came from feeling the experiences of youth slipping away and wanting to trap them in fiction.  In various drafts, the protagonist became more and more fictional: I was an avatar of a better and braver high school self, the racial and intergenerational themes became more prominent, while the Patti character largely remained Patti, with fictional details created or rearranged for plot.
When I pull up, her house is dark; her father doesn’t come home from the mines until late in the evening, so she doesn’t leave the lights on.

I’ve never met Jessie’s mom. One Thanksgiving, long before Jessie and I became friends, an Arkin High student killed her when he came barreling down the wrong side of the street in his pickup–apparently he’d been drinking while watching the football game

I stare out at the night. I won’t drive drunk tonight–or any night. No way.

Jessie opens the door to the car. “Hi, Ellen,” she said. As she hoists herself into the Blazer, the flowery smell of Sweet Honesty fills the car, followed by the slight trace of cooking smell—fried something.
In homage, I had even left the character’s name as “Patti.” How it changed to “Jessie,” I will explain.

While I was still working on the novel, I pooled all my vacation time from my day job and went to the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, where I got to work with the late wondrous Nancy Willard. One critique she had was that the two characters, Ellen and Patti, were “too alike.” Maybe revise Ellen “up” and Patti “down,” she suggested. I still remember the hand motions she made. Up and down. So I indeed made Ellen even nerdier (and much kinder) than I was high school, and roughened the Patti character around the edges. However you want to look at it, these changes helped get the book into a publishable state.

When Houghton Mifflin bought the book, I giddily sent Patti the manuscript, excited to see what she’d think about the daredevil BFF character, modeled so closely on her that, not unlike what happened in For Sale/Kidney Story, I proudly used her real name.

I assumed she would be over the moon for me and be happy to see a fictional version of our friendship immortalized in print. And I inadvertently proved the truism one of our teachers used to use, that to assume makes an ASS out of U and ME.

She called to let me know she’d read the manuscript. Then she started yelling at me about how angry she was at what I had done, and then hung up.  I, confused and panicked, called back only to get various iterations of the loud hang-up. This was in the time of landlines and hang-ups were pretty emphatic. Finally, her husband answered the phone, and kindly said Patti didn’t want to talk to me and it would be better to just stop calling.

Of course I considered not publishing, but I comforted myself that although she had expressed her hurt over my “betrayal,” she never asked me not to publish. Honestly, I don’t know what I would have done if she did.

I did frantically call my editor to have the name changed to “Jessie.” I remember being in extremis to the point my editor said, “Wow, this makes me wonder how much else in the book is true.”

With fiction, it’s all true, and it’s all a lie. The relevant issue was whether I was being a Bad Art friend at that moment. It reminds me a little bit of Bob Dylan, who was also from our town. In his early post-Hibbing years, exploring the folk scene, many people would dig out their prized one-of-a-kind folk records only to find the next day they’d been swiped by Dylan because he so single mindedly needed them. That was an unequivocally rotten thing to do, and legally actionable, but now that Dylan is Dylan, no one called foul, everyone seemed glad for their small contribution to American arts and culture. Was that similar to what I was doing? Tearing single-mindedly into my project and hoping for forgiveness later? Would that require me becoming as famous and influential as Dylan as a justification?

I didn’t know, and maybe I still don’t know. All I knew is that I had set myself on a path that I wanted to follow, and did.

But I still missed her. I told her so, in various missives I would put in the mail every few months (I was too terrified to call). They were never reciprocated.

Until one day.

My second book, a middle grade novel set in junior high and completely Patti free, had just been published and had gotten some press in the Minneapolis newspapers, including mentions that I was in town. Patti, who had moved there shortly after our high school graduation, called me up without preamble, congratulated me on my new book, told me she had a coupon for a favorite restaurant, Ciatti’s (RIP), and would I help her fulfill the buy one, get one?

I was ready to leap into her arms when we met, but she clearly was not intending to resume where we left off. Conflict avoidant as always, I didn’t push. I ate my meal, we talked about my new book. I remember we laughed, sporadically, perhaps about how “cappuccino” at this restaurant was Sanka with whipped cream on top. The connection was still there.

We tentatively put each other on Christmas card lists. With social media, we friended and accepted the requests. We enjoyed spying on her former piano nemesis this way. Years later, she and another high school friend, Lisa, visited me in New York. Back at the apartment, she noticed my compendia of MADs and asked to borrow one. We still didn’t talk about “it.” The novel had gone out of print for a second time years ago, so it seemed we could just not talk about it forever.

Occasionally things go better than you expect—not often, even less often in publishing, but it happens. My novel had a brief second life at HarperCollins, then promptly went out of print again. But maybe 10 years later, an out-of-nowhere BuzzFeed article listed Finding My Voice as one of 15 YA Books From The ’80s And ’90s That Have Stood The Test Of Time, and set it on its third reanimation, with Soho Press.

This time, I resolved to be a better friend than artist.  During a visit to Minneapolis, I asked Patti—making sure to do it while we were driving in a car and at night so I wouldn’t have to look at her—if it was “okay” to republish.

“Oh my God Mawee,” she said, using my childhood nickname. “Of course it is.”

“But, um, you were kind of mad back then.”

“I was out of my mind then.”

She explained more about what she’d been going through at the time, and she said she felt she had acted inappropriately. I told her that the things she had said to me in anger—”You ripped out huge pieces of my life.” “Is that what you think of me?”—still stand. My bleating “But you were the hero in the book and in my life” was not a good defense on my part. I built a character on the details of her life I had gleaned as her friend, not someone doing an interview, something I now do routinely for research for my fiction.

Patti was sincere in her permission for this third go-round. Needing to reread it for republication, I was startled at how the novel now read like it had been written by someone else. Obviously, I could easily pick out where I mined the shared details of our lives, but  enough time has passed that I could see that the real/actual memories had been transformed beyond recognition–something I think Patti saw before I did. I remember writing that very first draft, being conscious that I was altering the “car accident” narrative to include alcohol, to make a character point that Ellen is aware she would not drink and drive—only to find the lived detail was Patti’s mother having a heart attack in the car, which I had somehow misremembered as a car accident. Thus, this detail in the book, which works in the text to provide characterization is still “inspired” if not “copied” from a real person’s life—and the most devastating event of that person’s life, at that. Is it okay to use it just for my “art”? I consider then the grace she extended to me despite my complete lack of consideration of her feelings when we were 28 and I was working so hard to get published. In late 2020, I casually informed my high school friends via group email about my virtual (COVID-19) launch for Finding My Voice, and I almost cried with joy to see her face in the Zoom panes.

Last, week, I did a book club visit to group of Korean American adults reading YA. All the readers, one by one, mused on how much better their high school lives would have been if they had had a Jessie  by their side. They were all amazed and somewhat envious when I explained Jessie was more or less my real BFF.  I know that I am lucky this way, now more than ever. Not just to have a viable writing career but to have a lifelong friend.

One important life lesson from these decades of career, ambition, writing, and friendship is that change is real and it’s happening all the time despite our attempts to deny it. What both Art Friend stories show is that there’s no one way to be an artist, and there’s no one way to be a friend. The who-what-why changes over time, as do the boundaries of what is moral, ethical, allowable. What is appropriation, what is theft, and the big question: Is the artist solely responsible for her art (for praise or opprobrium, including the legal kind)? I think the only remedy is to resist our very human urge to adjudicate sides: Who’s right? Who’s the bad one here? This is a toxic path that can spiral forever, with nothing resolved, feelings continually hurt, nothing generative, and only the lawyers and the third-party chronicler (in Bad Art Friend’s case) profiting. If there’s one thing being Buddhist has taught me, it’s that once you let go of attempting to impute value—win/loss, good/bad—to whatever it is unfolding in front of your face, you can actually be open to what the moment is. And that by just being actively kinder, defaulting to the kinder impulse is spiritually profitable for all. In my defense, my version of our friendship is also mine to tell, and it is my blind spot to not consider others’ feelings while I work that actually allows me to create; in fact, I consider such focus a help, not a hindrance as far as my writing is concerned. Furthermore, we see that no one actually owns memories, and even these change with time and perspective. For Patti and me, the very same event that was “bad” back then has proved to be “good” today. But the whole time, the only thing that mattered and still matters is our connection, in art and life.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Nothing Outside the Text

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Let’s pretend that you work in a windowless office on Madison, or Lex, or Park in the spring of 1954, and you’re hurrying to Grand Central to avoid the rush back to New Rochelle, or Hempstead, or Weehawken. Walking through the Main Concourse with its Beaux Arts arches and its bronzed clock atop the ticketing booth, its cosmic green ceiling fresco depicting the constellations slowly stained by the accumulated cigarette smoke, you decide to purchase an egg-salad sandwich from a vendor near the display with its ticking symphony of arrivals and departures. You glance down at a stack of slender magazines held together with thick twine. The cover illustration is of a buxom brunette wearing a yellow pa’u skirt and hauling an unconscious astronaut in a silver spacesuit through a tropical forest while fur-covered extraterrestrials look on between the palm trees. It’s entitled Universe Science Fiction. And if you were the sort of Manhattan worker who, after clocking in eight hours at the Seagram Building or the Pan Am Building, settles into the commuter train’s seat—after loosening his black-knit tie and lighting a Lucky Strike while watching Long Island go by—ready to be immersed in tales of space explorers and time travelers, then perhaps you parted with a quarter so that Universe Science Fiction’s cheap print would smudge your gray flannel suit. The sort of reading you’d want to cocoon yourself in with nothing outside the text. As advertised, you find a story of just a few hundred words entitled “The Immortal Bard,” by a writer named Isaac Asimov.

Reprinted three years later in Earth Is Room Enough, “The Immortal Bard” is set among sherry-quaffing, tweedy university faculty at their Christmas party, where a boozed-up physicist named Phineas Welch corners the English professor Scott Robertson, and explains how he’s invented a method of “temporal transference” able to propel historical figures into the present. Welch resurrects Archimedes, Galileo, and Isaac Newton, but “They couldn’t get used to our way of life… They got terribly lonely and frightened. I had to send them back.” Despite their genius, their thought wasn’t universal, and so Welch conjures William Shakespeare, believing him to be “someone who knew people well enough to be able to live with them centuries away from his own time.” Robertson humors the physicist, treating such claims with a humanist’s disdain, true to C.P. Snow’s observation in The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution that “at one pole we have the literary intellectuals, at the other scientists… Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension.” Welch explains that the Bard was surprised that he was still taught and studied, after all, he wrote Hamlet in a few weeks, just polishing up an old plot. But when introduced to literary criticism, Shakespeare can’t comprehend anything. “God ha’ mercy! What cannot be racked from words in five centuries? One could wring, methinks, a flood from a damp clout!” So, Welch enrolls him in a Shakespeare course, and suddenly Robertson begins to fear that this story isn’t just a delusion, for he remembers the bald man with a strange brogue who had been his student. “I had to send him back,” Welch declares, because our most flexible and universal of minds had been humiliated. The physicist downed his cocktail and mutters “you poor simpleton, you flunked him.”

“The Immortal Bard” doesn’t contain several of the details that I include—no sherry, no tweed (though there are cocktails). We have no sense of the characters’ appearances; Welch’s clothes are briefly described, but Robertson is a total blank. A prolific author, penning over 1,000 words a day, by Asimov’s death in 1992 he had published more than 500 books across all categories of the Dewey Decimal System (including Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare). Skeletal parsimony was Asimov’s idiom; in his essay “On Style” from Who Done It?, coedited with Alice Laurence, he described his prose as “short words and simple sentence structure,” bemoaning that this characteristic “grates on people who like things that are poetic, weighty, complex, and, above all, obscure.” Had his magisterial Foundation been about driving an ambulance in the First World War rather than a galactic empire spanning billions of light years, it’d be the subject of hundreds of dissertations. If his short story “The Nine Billion Names of God” had been written in Spanish, then he’d be Jorge Luis Borges; had Asimov’s “The Last Question” originally been in Italian, then he’d be Italo Calvino (American critics respect fantasy in an accent, but then they call it “magical realism”). As it was, critical evaluation was more lackluster, with the editors of 1981’s Dictionary of Literary Biography claiming that since Asimov’s stories “clearly state what they mean in unambiguous language [they] are… difficult for a scholar to deal with because there is little to be interpreted.”

Asimov’s dig comes into sharper focus having admitted that “The Immortal Bard” was revenge on those professors who’d rankled him by misinterpreting stories—his and other’s. A castigation of the discipline as practiced in 1954, which meant a group that had dominated the study of literature for three decades—the New Critics. With their rather uninspired name, the New Critics—including I.A. Richards, John Crow Ransome, Cleanth Brooks, Allen K. Tate, Robert Penn Warren, William Empson, and a poet of some renown named T.S. Eliot (among others)—so thoroughly revolutionized how literature is studied that explaining why they’re important is like explaining air to a bird. From Yale, Cambridge, and Kenyon, the New Criticism would disseminate, and then it trickled down through the rest of the educational system. If an English teacher asked you to analyze metaphors in Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 12″—that was because of the New Critics. If an AP instructor asked you to examine symbolism in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby—that was because of the New Critics. If a college professor made you perform a rhetorical analysis of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway—that was because of the New Critics. Most of all, if anyone ever made you conduct a “close reading,” it is the New Critics who are to blame.

According to the New Critics, their job wasn’t an aesthetic one, parsing what was beautiful about literature or how it moved people (the de facto approach in Victorian classrooms, and still is in popular criticism), but an analytical one. The task of the critic was scientific—to understand how literature worked, and to be as rigorous, objective, and meticulous as possible. That meant bringing nothing to the text but the text. Neither the critic’s concerns—or the author’s—mattered more than the placement of a comma, the connotation of a particular word, the length of a sentence. True that they often unfairly denigrated worthy writing because their detailed explications only lent themselves to certain texts. Poetry was elevated above prose; the metaphysical over the Romantic; the “literary” over genre. But if the New Critics were snobbish in their preferences, they also weren’t wrong that there was utility in the text’s authority. W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley argued in a 1946 issue of The Sewanee Review that the “design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art.” In a more introspective interview, Asimov admitted that what inspired “The Immortal Bard” was his inadequacy at answering audience questions about his own writing. Asimov was right that he deserved more attention from academics, but wrong in assuming that he’d know more than them. The real kicker of the story might be that Shakespeare actually earned his failing grade.     

When New Critics are alluded to in popular culture, it’s as anal-retentive killjoys. Maybe the most salient (and unfair) drumming the New Critics received was in the 1989 (mis)beloved Peter Weir film Dead Poets Society, featuring Robin Williams’s excellent portrayal of John Keating, an English teacher at elite Welton Academy in 1959. Keating arrives at the rarefied school urging the boys towards carpe diem, confidently telling them that the “powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” With vitality and passion, Keating introduces the students to Tennyson, Whitman, and Thoreau, and the audience comprehends that this abundantly conservative curriculum is actually an act of daring, at least when contrasted to the New Critical orthodoxy that had previously stultified the children of millionaires. On his first day, wearing corduroy with leather arm patches, Keating asks a student to recite from their approved textbook by Professor J. Evans Pritchard. In a monotone, the student reads “If the poem’s score for perfection is plotted on the horizontal of a graph and its importance is plotted on the vertical, then calculating the total area of the poem yields the measure of its greatness.” We are to understand that after the cold scalpel of analysis cuts the warm flesh of the poem—that if it wasn’t already dead—then it certainly perished thereafter. Keating pronounces the argument to be “Excrement,” and demands his students rip the page out, so that a film that defends the humanities depicts the destruction of books. “But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for,” Keating tells his charges, and how could dusty Dr. Pritchard compete with a Cartesian coordinate plane ?

The fictional Pritchard’s essay is an allusion to Brook and Warren’s influential 1938 Understanding Poetry, where they write that “Poetry gives us knowledge… of ourselves in relation to the world of experience, and to that world considered… in terms of human purposes and values.” Not soaring in its rhetoric, but not the cartoon from Dead Poets Society either, though also notably not what Keating advocated. He finds room for poetry, beauty, romance, and love, but neglects truth. What Keating champions isn’t criticism, but appreciation, and while the former requires rigor and objectivity, the latter only needs enjoyment. Appreciation in and of itself is fine—but it doesn’t necessarily ask anything of us either. Kevin Detmar in his defenestration of the movie from The Atlantic writes that “passion alone, divorced from the thrilling intellectual work of real analysis, is empty, even dangerous.” Pontificating in front of his captive audience, Keating recites (and misinterprets) poems from Robert Frost and Percy Shelley, demanding that “When you read, don’t just consider what the author thinks, consider what you think.” Estimably sensible, for on the surface an enjoinder towards critical thought and independence seems reasonable, certainly when reading an editorial, or a column, or policy proposal—but this is poetry.

His invocation is diametrically opposed to another New Critical principle, also defined by Wimsatt and Beardsley in The Sewanee Review in 1946, and further explicated in their book The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry, published the same year as Asimov’s story. Wimsatt and Beardsley say that genuine criticism doesn’t “talk of tears; prickles or other physiological symptoms, of feeling angry, joyful, hot, cold, or intense, or of vaguer states of emotional disturbance, but of shades of distinction and relation between objects of emotion.” In other words, it’s not all about you. Being concerned with the poem’s effect tells us everything about the reader but little about the poem. Such a declaration might seem arid, sterile, and inert—especially compared to Keating’s energy—and yet there is paradoxically more life in The Verbal Icon. “Boys, you must strive to find your own voice,” Keating tells a room full of the children of wealth, power, and privilege, who will spend the whole 20th century ensuring that nobody has the option not to hear them. Rather than sounding the triumphant horn of independence, this is mere farting on the bugle of egoism. Poetry’s actual power is that it demands we shut up and listen. Wimsatt and Beardsley aren’t asking the reader not to be changed by a poem—it’s the opposite. They’re demanding that we don’t make an idol from our relative, contingent, arbitrary reactions. A poem is a profoundly alien place, a foreign place, a strange place. We do not go there to meet ourselves; we go there to meet something that doesn’t even have a face. Keating treats poems like mirrors, but they’re windows.

With austerity and sternness, New Criticism is an approach that with sola Scriptura exactitude understood nothing above, below, behind, or beyond the text. Equal parts mathematician and mystic, the New Critic deigns objectivity the preeminent goal, for in the novel, or poem, or play properly interpreted she has entered a room separate, an empire of pure alterity. An emphasis on objectivity doesn’t entail singularity of interpretation, for though the New Critics believed in right and wrong readings, good and bad interpretations, they reveled in nothing as much as ambiguity and paradox. But works aren’t infinite. If a text can be many things, it also can’t mean everything. What is broken are the tyrannies of relativism, the cult of “I feel” that defined conservative Victorian criticism and ironically some contemporary therapeutic manifestations as well. New Criticism drew from the French tradition of explication de texte, the rigorous parsing of grammar, syntax, diction, punctuation, imagery, and narrative. Not only did they supplant Victorian aesthetic criticism’s woolliness, their method was estimably democratic (despite their sometimes-conservative political inclinations, especially among the movement known as the Southern Agrarians). Democratic because none of the habituated knowledge of the upper-class—the mores of Eton or Philips Exeter, summering at Bath or Newport, proper dress from Harrod’s or Brooks Brothers—now made a difference in appreciating Tennyson or Byron. Upper class codes were replaced with the severe, rigorous, logical skill of being able to understand Tennyson or Byron, with no recourse to where you came from or who you were, but only the words themselves. Appreciation is about taste, discernment, and breeding—it’s about acculturation. Analysis? That’s about poetry.

From that flurry of early talent came Richards’s 1924 Principles of Literary Criticism and 1929 Practical Criticism, Empson’s 1930 Seven Types of Ambiguity, Brook and Warren’s 1938 Understanding Poetry, Brooks’s classic 1947 The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry, and Wimsatt and Beardsley’s 1954 The Verbal Icon, as well as several essays of Ransome and Eliot. The New Critics did nothing less than upend literature’s study by focusing on words, words, words (as Hamlet would say). “A book is a machine to think with,” Richards wrote in Principles of Literary Criticism, and disdain that as chilly, but machines do for us that which we can’t do for ourselves. Reading yourself into a poem is as fallacious as sitting in a parked car and thinking that will get you to Stop & Shop. Lest you think that Richards is sterile, he also affirmed that “Poetry is capable of saving us,” and that’s not in spite of it being a machine, but because of it. They sanctified literature by cordoning it off and making it a universe unto itself, while understanding that its ideal rigidity is like absolute zero, an abstraction of readerly investment that by necessity always lets a little heat in. In practice, the job of the critic is profound in its prosaicness. Vivian Bearing, a fictional English professor in Margaret Edson’s harrowing and beautiful play W;t, which contains the most engaging dramatization of close reading ever committed to stage or screen, describes the purpose of criticism as not to reaffirm whatever people want to believe, but that rather by reading in an “uncompromising way, one learns something from [the] poem, wouldn’t you say?”

There have been assaults upon this bastion over the last several decades, yet even while that mélange of neo-orthodoxies that became ascendant in the ’70s and ’80s when English professor was still a paying job are sometimes interpreted as dethroning the New Critics—the structuralists and post-structuralists, the New Historicists and the Marxists, the Queer Theorists and the post-colonial theorists—their success was an ironic confirmation of the staying power of Wimsatt, Beardsley, Brooks, Warren, Richards, Empson, and so on. “Like all schools of criticism, the New Critics have been derided by their successors,” writes William Logan in his forward to Garrick Davis’s Praising It New: The Best of the New Criticism, “but they retain an extraordinary influence on the daily practice of criticism.” After all, when a post-structuralist writes about binary oppositions, there are shades of Empson’s paradox and ambiguity; when Roland Barthes wrote in 1967 that “the reader is without history, biography, psychology” there is a restatement about effect, and that he was writing in a book called The Death of the Author is the ultimate confirmation against intention. And Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction, that much maligned and misinterpreted word, bane to conservative and balm to radical? It’s nothing more than a different type of close reading—a hyper attenuated and pure form of it—where pages could be produced on a single comma in James Joyce’s Ulysses. We are still their children.

Though far from an unequivocal celebrant of the New Critics, Terry Eagleton writes in Literary Theory: An Introduction that close reading provided “a valuable antidote to aestheticist chit-chat,” explaining that the method does “more than insist on due attentiveness to the text. It inescapably suggests an attention to… the ‘words on the page.'” Close reading is sometimes slandered as brutal vivisection, but it’s really a manner of possession. In the sifting through of diction and syntax, grammar and punctuation, image and figuration, there are pearls. Take a sterling master—Helen Vendler. Here she is examining Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, where he writes “In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire/That on the ashes of his youth doth lie.” She notes that the narrator across the lyric “Defines himself not by contrast but by continuity with his earlier state. He is the glowing—a positive word, unlike ruin or fade—of a fire.” Or Vendler on the line in Emily Dickinson’s poem 1779. The poet writes that “To make a prairie it takes a clover and a bee,” and the critic writes “Why ‘prairie’ instead of ‘garden’ or ‘meadow?’ Because only ‘prairie’ rhymes with ‘bee’ and ‘revery,’ and because ‘prairie’ is a distinctly American word.” Or, Vendler, once again, on Walt Whitman, in her book Poets Thinking: Pope, Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats. In Leaves of Grass he begins, “I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” and she observes that “The smallest parallels… come two to a line… When the parallels grow more complex, each requires a whole line, and we come near to the psalmic parallel, so often imitated by [the poet], in which the second verse adds something to the substance of the first.” And those are just examples from Helen Vendler.

When I queried literary studies Twitter about their favorite close readings—to which they responded generously and enthusiastically—I was directed towards Erich Auerbach’s Dante: The Poet of the Secular (to which I’d add Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature); Marjorie Garber’s reading of Robert Lowell’s poem “For the Union Dead” in Field Work: Sites in Literary and Cultural Studies; the interpretation of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd in The Barbara Johnson Reader: The Surprise of Otherness; Shoshana Felman’s paper on Henry James titled “Turning the Screw of Interpretation” in Yale French Studies; Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson; Randall Jarry writing about Robert Frost’s “Home Burial” in The Third Book of Criticism; Olga Springer’s Ambiguity in Charlotte Bronte’s Villette; Northrop Frye’s Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake; Vladimir Nabokov on Charles Dickens and Gustave Flaubert in Lectures on Literature; Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding. Nina Baym on Nathaniel Hawthorne in Novels, Readers, Reviewers: Responses to Fiction in Antebellum America; Minrose Gwin on The Sound and the Fury in The Feminine and Faulkner; Edward Said on Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park in Orientalism; Christopher Ricks’s Milton’s Grand Study (to which I’d add Dylan’s Vision of Sin, which refers not to Thomas but Bob), and so on, and so on, and so on. If looking to analyze my previous gargantuan sentence, just note that I organized said critics by no schema, save to observe how such a diversity includes the old and young, the dead and alive, the traditional and the radical, all speaking to the vitality of something with as stuffy a name as close reading. Risking sentimentality, I’d add another exemplary participant—all of those anonymous graduate students parsing the sentence, all of those undergraduates scanning the line, and every dedicated reader offering attentiveness to the words themselves. That’s all close reading really is.

Naïve to assume that such a practice offers a way out of our current imbroglio. However, when everyone has an opinion but nobody has done the reading, where an article title alone is enough to justify judgement, and criticism tells us more about the critic than the writing, then perhaps slow, methodical, humble close reading might provide more than just explication. Interpretations are multifaceted, but they are not relative, and for all of its otherworldliness, close reading is built on evidence. Poorly done close reading is merely fan fiction. Something profound in acknowledging that neither the reader—nor the author—are preeminent, but the text is rather the thing. It doesn’t serve to affirm what you already know, but rather to instruct you in something new. To not read yourself into a poem, or a novel, or a play, but to truly encounter another mind—not that of the author—but of literature itself, is as close to religion as the modern age countenances. Close reading is the most demonstrative way to experience that writing and reading are their own dimension.

Let’s pretend that you’re a gig worker, and while waiting to drive for Uber or Seamless, you scroll through an article entitled “Nothing Outside the Text.” It begins in the second-person, inserting the reader into the narrative. The author invents a mid-century office worker who is travelling home. Place names are used as signifiers; the author mentions “New Rochelle,” “Hempstead,” and “Weehawken,” respectively in Westchester County, Long Island, and New Jersey, gesturing towards how the city’s workers radiate outward. Sensory details are emphasized—the character buys an “egg-salad sandwich,” and we’re told that he stands near the “display with its ticking symphony,” the last two words unifying the mechanical with the artistic—with the first having an explosive connotation—yet there is an emphasis on regularity, harmony, design. We are given a description of a science fiction magazine the man buys, and are told that he settles into his train seat where the magazine’s “cheap print… smudge[s]” his “gray flannel suit,” possibly an allusion to the 1955 Sloane Wilson novel of that name. This character is outwardly conformist, but his desire to be “immersed in tales of space explorers and time travelers” signals something far richer about his inner life. Finally, if you’re this modern gig worker reading about that past office worker, you might note that the latter is engaging the “sort of reading you’d want to cocoon yourself in, a universe to yourself with nothing outside the text.” And in close reading, whether you’re you or me, the past reader or the present, the real or imagined, all that the text ever demands of us—no more and no less—is to enter into that universe on its own terms. For we have always been, if we’re anything, citizens of this text.   

Image Credit: Pixabay

The Year of the Whale

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1.
I once had a professor who would read, every year, the same 10 books. He called them THE TEN. CandideSiddhartha, Screwtape Letters, and Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations were regulars; the others he’d swap out after a six- or seven-year run. Taken with this idea, I decided I, too, would do a yearly re-reading. The book would be Moby-Dick, and I would begin it each year on Christmas, the day the Pequod sets sail.

And so I did: 2017, 2018, and 2019. But last year I read it three times. In the winter of 2020, I read it with a student doing an independent study. She told a friend how great Moby-Dick is, and so the following spring he, too, wanted an independent study.  And then, in fall, I ran another independent study on Moby-Dick, this time with two students I met just a few months earlier when we were, as it turns out, building a whale.

2.
“Building a whale is a lot like building a deck.” So says biologist Rus Higley. “You can get all the parts at Home Depot, and there are a few tricks that, if you know them, make everything a hell of a lot easier.”

Higley knows the tricks. He built the gray whale skeleton hanging at Highline College’s Marine Science and Technology Center and the humpback skeleton in the Foss Waterway Seaport. And he helped me (an English professor) lead 158 volunteers in building the gray skeleton that now hangs at Seattle Pacific University.

The whale had washed up on Longbranch Beach, on the southern end of Washington’s Kitsap peninsula. She was a juvenile, 29 feet long, her ribs jutting out, skin over them as a blanket over knees. Her stomach, the necropsy would soon find, was empty. We towed the whale to Gig Harbor, where a ship crane hoisted her 16,000-pound carcass into a dump truck. At a nearby farm, our crew flensed her, retrieving her 250 bones and burying them in pile of horse shit, its enzymes and critters leaching the oil from her bones. Six months later, we exhumed them––now bone dry––brought them to campus, and put them on a roof to bleach in the sun. And then, in August, we began building.

3.
It’s a strange thing to spend so much time with a book over the course of a year. I think of Jean Giono. With his good friend Lucien Jacques, he translated Moby-Dick into French. “Long before I embarked on this project,” Giono says, speaking of that translation, “for at least five or six years, Melville’s book was my foreign companion.”

What does it mean for a book to be your foreign companion for nearly a decade? For Giono, it means walking alongside Ishmael, who, Giono writes, “would accompany me on my homeward path.” He explains:
I never had to take more than a few steps to catch up with him and, once the depths of the shadows were black, to become him. I would reach him with what felt like a single, longer stride. Then it was as though I’d entered inside his skin, my body clothed in his like an overcoat.
I can’t quite say that I, too, put on Ishmael like a jacket. But I can say that he, and Melville, through all those re-readings, have been my companions.

4.
Of all the work ahead of us, measuring the whale––our first task––seemed the simplest. We needed to know whether she’d fit in our 30-foot lobby. Higley told me to bring a rope to the beach, and I did, 200 feet of it. He laid one end in the notch between the whale’s flukes, and I stretched the rope across the corpse, trying to follow the backbone as best I could, the rope sliding off the knobby knuckles of this emaciated gray’s spine.

I then laid that rope on the beach, next to a maxed-out tape measure. “Nine hundred seven centimeters,” I called from the whale’s snout. “Twenty-nine feet, nine inches. She’ll fit.”

When I read the whale’s necropsy now, months later, I see that Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has her at 867 cm––nearly 16 inches shorter than the measurement Higley and I came up with.

That’s a big difference, and I’m not sure how to account for it, given that WDFW measured the same way Higley and I did, with a rope laid across the whale. For me, the discrepancy points to an even bigger question: can we ever really know how long a whale is?

A live whale, her tonnage buoyant in the ocean’s salty water, would never stay still long enough to measure. A dead whale rests on a beach, gravity pulling that weight down into the sand. Is a live whale the same length as a dead whale? I doubt it, that body disfigured, either slumped over and cowered by death, or stretched and bloated and distended by all those fermenting gasses. And which is a better representation of a whale’s length, a measurement running across the topography of its backbone, or as the crow flies, a taut line snout to tail, tangent to the highest knuckle of the spine? And if that beached whale lays not on its belly but on its side, its torso twisted such that its jaw faces the sky, unobstructed measurement impossible––what then?

5.
In the messiness of trying to determine a whale’s length, my companions offer some help. When he’s asked whether a whale’s spout is water or air, Ishmael responds, “My dear sir, in this world it is not so easy to settle these plain things. I have ever found your plain things the knottiest of all.” Water from air, the length of a whale—plain things as these are, they are not simple.

Later in the book, an imaginary interlocutor, frustrated with Ishmael’s exhaustive cetology, admonishes him to “have a care how you seize the privilege of Jonah alone.” But Ishmael, whaler that he is, is in a place to know, and I think that I, too, may be in a place to say something, having myself sat in the mouth of a gray whale, pushed up against her tongue, cutting away at the flesh holding her jaw, her throat behind my shoulder.

This imaginary opponent continues, saying that Jonah alone has “the privilege of discoursing upon the joists and beams; the rafters, ridge-pole, sleepers, and underpinnings, making up the frame-work of leviathan.” I’ve sat within that rib cage, lifted the ridge-pole spine as we tried to shift the orientation of the whole skeleton. I’ve handled all 518.3 pounds of her bones, matching growth plates to vertebrae, wedging nasal cavities into the cranium, rotating a pair of hips this way and that to discern, as best I can, their proper orientation. 

And just as Jonah alone has the right speak to the skeleton, Ishmael’s conversant argues, only Jonah can speak to the insides, “the tallow-vats, dairy rooms, butteries, and cheeseries in his bowels.” But these, too, I have held, have sliced away from the body, have seen strewn about a grassy field as the flensing crew cut, cut, cut away, looking for bones and discarding the rest. Her ovaries, the size of basketballs. Her eye, the size of a grapefruit. I placed that eye in a jar filled with cheap vodka, an all-purpose preservative until I could get back to the lab. Whale lice I pried from her flesh with my pocketknife, those, too, going in the vodka. I’ve stroked her broom-stiff hair, each strand an inch or two long, blonde, those near her blowhole reddened from the blood oozing from it.

6.
Ishmael’s response to this interrogation is to tell a story of when, on leave from another voyage, he found himself on an island housing an assembled sperm whale skeleton. He cuts himself a “green measuring-rod” and sets about measuring it. Once he’s done measuring, Ishmael tattoos the whale’s dimensions on his right arm. “There was no other secure way of preserving such valuable statistics,” he says.

In this moment, the extraordinary––these invaluable statistics––becomes markedly ordinary. Every time Ishmael looks down at that arm, at these numbers made flesh, he re-reads the whale, that whale, in all its mystery and majesty, becoming a bit more familiar with each glance encounter. And so it was through our own day-to-day work with these bones, the novelty of carrying a radius and ulna across the room soon wearing off, the strangeness of sorting ribs and the surreal act of threading vertebrae onto a two-inch metal pipe, this sacred work of handling another’s bones, the innermost part of a body, somehow becoming routine––routine as reading a book three times in a year. Each rereading invites me into Melville’s sentences. Those sentences have become my companion, a companion not unlike my whale, sentences I’ve only yet begun to learn to read, a whale whose length I never will.

This Isn’t the Essay’s Title

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“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Great Crack Up” (1936)

“You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you.” —Carly Simon (1971)

On a December morning in 1947 when three fellows at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study set out for the Third Circuit Court in Trenton, it was decided that the job of making sure that the brilliant but naively innocent logician Kurt Gödel didn’t say something intemperate at his citizenship hearing would fall to Albert Einstein. Economist Oscar Morgenstern would drive, Einstein rode shotgun, and a nervous Gödel sat in the back. With squibs of low winter light, both wave and particle, dappled across the rattling windows of Morgenstern’s car, Einstein turned back and asked, “Now, Gödel, are you really well prepared for this examination?” There had been no doubt that the philosopher had adequately studied, but as to whether it was proper to be fully honest was another issue. Less than two centuries before, and the signatories of the U.S. Constitution had supposedly crafted a document defined by separation of powers and coequal government, checks and balances, action and reaction. “The science of politics,” wrote Alexander Hamilton in “Federalist Paper No. 9,” “has received great improvement,” though as Gödel discovered, clearly not perfection. With a completism that only a Teutonic logician was capable of, Gödel had carefully read the foundational documents of American political theory, he’d poured over the Federalist Papers and the Constitution, and he’d made an alarming discovery.

It’s believed that while studying Article V, the portion that details the process of amendment, Gödel realized that there was no safeguard against that article itself being amended. Theoretically, a sufficiently powerful political movement with legislative and executive authority could rapidly amend the articles of amendment so that a potential demagogue would be able to rule by fiat, all while such tyranny was perfectly constitutional. A paradox at the heart of the Constitution—something that supposedly guaranteed democracy having coiled within it rank authoritarianism. All three men driving to Trenton had a keen awareness of tyranny; all were refugees from Nazi Germany; all had found safe-haven on the pristine streets of suburban Princeton. After the Anschluss, Gödel was a stateless man, and though raised Protestant he was suspect by the Nazis and forced to emigrate. Gödel, with his wife, departed Vienna by the Trans-Siberian railroad, crossed from Japan to San Francisco, and then took the remainder of his sojourn by train to Princeton. His path had been arduous and he’d earned America, so when Gödel found a paradox at the heart of the Constitution, his desire to rectify it was born from patriotic duty. At the hearing, the judge asked Gödel how it felt to become a citizen of a nation where it was impossible for the government to fall into anti-democratic tyranny. But it could, Gödel told him, and “I can prove it.” Apocryphally, Einstein kicked the logician’s chair and ended that syllogism.

Born in Austria-Hungary, citizen of Czechoslovakia, Austria, Germany, and finally the United States, Gödel’s very self-definition was mired in incompleteness, contradiction, and unknowability. From parsing logical positivism among luminaries such as Rudolph Carnap and Moritz Schlick, enjoying apfelstrudel and espresso at the Café Reichsrat on Rathausplatz while they discussed the philosophy of mathematics, Gödel now rather found himself eating apple pie and weak coffee in the Yankee Doodle Tap Room on Nassau Street—and he was grateful.  Gone were the elegant Viennese wedding-cake homes of the Ringstrasse, replaced with Jersey’s clapboard colonials; no more would Gödel debate logic among the rococo resplendence of the University of Vienna, but at Princeton he was at least across the hall from Einstein. “The Institute was to be a new kind of research center,” writes Ed Regis in Who Got Einstein’s Office?: Eccentricity and Genius at the Institute for Advanced Study. “It would have no students, no teachers, and no classes,” the only responsibility being pure thought, so that its fellows could be purely devoted to theory. Its director J. Robert Oppenheimer (of Manhattan Project fame) called it an “intellectual hotel;” physicist Richard Feynman was less charitable, referring to it as a “lovely house by the woods” for “poor bastards” no longer capable of keeping up. Regardless, it was to be Gödel’s final home, and there was something to that.

Seventeen years before his trip to Trenton, and it was at the Café Reichsrat where he presented the discovery for which he’d forever be intractably connected—Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems. In 1930 he had irrevocably altered mathematics when Gödel demonstrated that the dream of completism that had dogged deduction since antiquity was only a mirage. “Any consistent formal system,” argues Gödel in his first theorem, “is incomplete… there are statements of the language… which can neither be proved nor disproved.” In other words, it’s an impossibility that any set of axioms can be demonstrated to be true as part of a self-contained system—the rationalist dream of a unified, self-evidently provable system is only so much fantasy. Math, it turns out, will never be depleted, since there can never be a solution to all mathematical problems. In Gödel’s formulation, a system must either sometimes produce falsehoods, or it must sometimes generate unprovable truths, but it can never consistently render only completely provable truths. As the cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter explained in his countercultural classic Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, “Relying on words to lead you to the truth is like relying on an incomplete formal system to lead you to the truth. A formal system will give you some truth, but… a formal system, no matter how powerful—cannot lead to all truths.” In retrospect, the smug certainties of American exceptionalism should have been no match for Gödel, whose scalpel-like mind had already eviscerated mathematics, philosophy, and logic, to say nothing of some dusty parchment once argued over in Philadelphia.

His theorems rest on a variation of what’s known as the “Liar’s Paradox,” which asks what the logical status of a proposition such as “This statement is false” might be. If that sentence is telling the truth, then it must be false, but if it’s false, then it must be true, ad infinitum, in an endless loop. For Gödel, that proposition is amended to “This sentence is not provable,” with his reasoning demonstrating that a sufficiently formal system of logic can’t demonstrate that proposition, regardless of its truth value, since to prove the statement is to make it unprovable, but if unprovable, then it’s proved, again ad infinitum in yet another grueling loop. As with the Constitution and its paeans to democracy, so must mathematics be rendered perennially useful while still falling short of perfection. The elusiveness of certainty bedeviled Gödel throughout his life; a famously paranoid man, the assassination of his friend Schlick by a Nazi student in 1936 pushed the logician into a scrupulous anxiety. After the death of his best friend Einstein in 1955 he became increasingly isolated. “Gödel’s sense of intellectual exile deepened,” explains Rebecca Goldstein in Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel. “The young man in the dapper white suit shriveled into an emaciated man, entombed in a heavy overcoat and scarf even in New Jersey’s hot humid summers, seeing plots everywhere… His profound isolation, even alienation, from his peers provided fertile soil for that rationality run amuck which is paranoia.” When his beloved wife fell ill in 1977, Gödel quit eating since she could no longer prepare his meals. The ever-logical man whose entire career had demonstrated the fallibility of rationality had concluded that only his wife could be trusted not to poison his food, and so when she was unable to cook, he properly reasoned (by the axioms that were defined) that it made more sense to simply quit eating. When he died, Gödel weighed only 50 pounds.

Gödel’s thought was enmeshed in that orphan of logic that we call paradox. As was Einstein’s, that man who converted time into space and space into time, who explained how energy and mass were the same thing so that (much to his horror) the apocalyptic false dawn of Hiroshima was the result. Physics in the 20th century had cast off the intuitive coolness of classical mechanics, discovering that contradiction studded the foundation of reality. There was Werner Heisenberg with his uncertainty over the location of individual subatomic particles, Louis de Broglie and the strange combination of wave and particle that explained the behavior of light, Niels Bohr who understood atomic nuclei as if they were smeared across space, and the collapsing wave functions of Erwin Schrödinger for whom it could be imagined that a hypothetical feline was capable of being simultaneously alive and dead. Science journalist John Gribbin explains in Schrödinger’s Kittens and the Search for Reality: Solving the Quantum Mysteries that contemporary physics is defined by “paradoxical phenomena as photons (particles of light) that can be in two places at the same time, atoms that go two ways at once… [and how] time stands still for a particle moving at light speed.” Western thought has long prized logical consistency, but physics in the 20th century abolished all of that in glorious absurdity, and from those contradictions emerged modernity—the digital revolution, semiconductors, nuclear power, all built on paradox.

The keystone of classical logic is the so-called “Law of Non-Contradiction.” Simply put, something cannot both be and not be what it happens to be simultaneously, or if symbolic logic is your jam:  ¬(p ∧ ¬p), and I promise you that’s the only formula you will see in this essay. Aristotle said that between two contradictory statements one must be correct and the other false—”it will not be possible to be and not to be the same thing” he writes in The Metaphysics—but the anarchic potential of the paradox greedily desires truth and its antecedents. And again, in the 17th century the philosopher Wilhelm Gottfried Leibnitz tried to succinctly ward off contradiction in his New Essays on Human Understanding when he declared, “Every judgement is either true or false,” and yet paradoxes fill the history of metaphysics like landmines studded across the Western Front. Paradox is the great counter-melody of logic—it is the question of whether an omnipotent God could will Himself unable to do something, and it’s the eye-straining M.C. Escher lithograph “Waterfall” with its intersecting Penrose triangles showing a stream cascading from an impossible trough. Paradox is the White Queen’s declaration in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass that “sometimes I believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast,” and the Church Father Tertullian’s creedal statement that “I believe it because it is absurd.” The cracked shadow logic of our intellectual tradition, paradox is confident though denounced by philosophers as sham-faced; it is troublesome and not going anywhere. When a statement is made synonymous with its opposite, then traditional notions of propriety are dispelled and the fun can begin. “But one must not think ill of the paradox,” writes Søren Kierkegaard in Philosophical Fragments, “for the paradox is the passion of thought, and the thinker without the paradox is like the lover without passion: a mediocre fellow.”

As a concept, it may have found its intellectual origin on the sunbaked, dusty, scrubby, hilly countryside of Crete. The mythic homeland of the Minotaur, who is man and beast, human and bull, a walking, thinking, raging horned paradox covered in cowhide and imprisoned within the labyrinth. Epimenides, an itinerant philosopher some seven centuries before Christ, supposedly said that “All Cretans are liars” (St. Paul actually quotes this assertion in his epistle to Titus). A version of the aforementioned Liar’s Paradox thus ensues. If Epimenides is telling the truth then he is lying, and if he is lying then he is telling the truth. This class of paradoxes has multiple variations (in the Middle Ages they were known as “insolubles”—the unsolvable). For example, consider two sentences vertically arranged; the upper one is written “The statement below is true” and the lower says “The statement above is false,” and again the reader is caught in a maddening feedback loop. Martin Gardner, who for several decades penned the delightful “Mathematical Games” column in Scientific American, asks in Aha! Gotcha: Paradoxes to Puzzle and Delight, “Why does this form of the paradox, in which a sentence talks about itself, make the paradox clearer? Because it eliminates all ambiguity over whether a liar always lies and a truth-teller always tells the truth.” The paradox is a function of language, and in that way is the cousin to tautology, save for the former describing propositions that are always necessarily both true and false.

Some intrinsic meaning is elusive in all of this this, so that it would be easy to reject all of it as rank stupidity, but paradoxes provide a crucial service. In paradox, we experience the breakdown of language and of literalism. Whether or not paradoxes are glitches in how we arrange our words or due to something more intrinsic, they signify a null-space where the regular ways of thinking, of understanding, of writing, no longer hold. Few crafters of the form are as synonymous with paradox as the fifth-century BCE philosopher Zeno of Elea. Consider his famed dichotomy paradox, wherein Zeno concludes that motion itself must be impossible, since the movement from point A to point B always necessitates a halving of distance, forever (and so the destination itself can never be reached). Or his celebrated arrow paradox, wherein Aristotle explains in Physics that “If everything when it occupies an equal space is at rest at that instant of time, and if that which is in location is always occupying such a space at any moment, the flying arrow is therefore motionless at that instant of time and at the next instant of time.” And yet the arrow still moves. Roy Sorenson explains in A Brief History of the Paradox that the form “developed from the riddles of Greek folklore” (as with the Sphinx’s famous query in Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex), so that words have always mediated these conundrums, while Anthony Gottlieb writes in The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance that “ingenious paradoxes… try to discredit commonsense views by demonstrating that they lead to unacceptable consequences,” in a gambit as rhetorical as it is analytical. Often connected primarily with mathematics and philosophy, paradox is fundamentally a literary genre, and one ironically (or paradoxically?) associated with the failure of language itself. All of the great authors of paradox—the pre-Socratics, Zen masters, Jesus Christ—were at their core storytellers, they were writers. Words stretched to incomprehension and narrative unspooling is their fundamental medium. Epimenides’s utterance triggers a collapse of meaning, but where the literal perishes there is room made for the figurative. Paradox is the mother of poetry.

I’d venture that the contradictions of life are the subject of all great literature, but paradoxes appear in more obvious forms, too. “There was only one catch and that was Catch-22,” writes Joseph Heller. The titular regulation of Heller’s Catch-22 concerned the mental state of American pilots fighting in the Mediterranean during the Second World War, with the policy such that if somebody requests that they don’t want to fly a mission because of mental infirmity, they’ve only demonstrated their own sanity, since anyone who would want to fly must clearly be insane, so that it’s impossible to avoid fighting. The captain was “moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.” Because politics is often the collective social function of reducto ad absurdum, political novels make particularly adept use of paradox. George Orwell did something similar in his celebrated (and oft-misinterpreted) novel of dystopian horror 1984, wherein the state apparatus trumpets certain commandments, such as “War is peace. /Freedom is slavery. /Ignorance is strength.” Perhaps such dialectics are the (non-Marxist) socialist Orwell’s parody of Hegelian double-speak, a mockery of that supposed engine of human progress that goes through thesis-antithesis-synthesis. Within paradox there is a certain freedom, the ability to understand that contradiction is an attribute of our complex experience, but when statements are also defined as their opposite, meaning itself can be the casualty. Paradox understood as a means to enlightenment bestows anarchic freedom; paradox understood as a means unto itself is nihilism.

Political absurdities are born out of the inanity of rhetoric and the severity of regulation, but paradox can entangle not just society, but the fabric of reality as well. Science fiction is naturally adept at examining the snarls of existential paradox, with time travel a favored theme. Paul Nahin explains in Time Machines: Time Travel in Physics, Metaphysics, and Science Fiction that temporal paradoxes are derived from the simple question of “What might happen if a time traveler changed the past?” This might seem an issue entirely of hermetic concern, save for in contemporary physics neither general relativity nor quantum mechanics preclude time travel (indeed certain interpretations of those theories downright necessitate it). So even the idea of being able to move freely through past, present, and future has implications for how reality is constituted, whether or not we happen to be the ones stepping out of the tesseract. “The classic change-the-past paradox is, of course, the so-called grandfather paradox,” writes Nahin, explaining that it “poses the question of what happens if an assassin goes back in time and murders his grandfather before his (the time-travelling murderer’s) own father is born.” The grandfather’s murder requires a murderer, but for the murderer in question to be born there is also the requirement that the grandfather not be murdered, so that the murderer is able to travel back in time and kill his ancestor, and again we’re in a strange loop.

Variations exist as far back as the golden age of the pulps, appearing in magazines like Amazing Stories as early as 1929. More recently, Ray Bradbury explored the paradox in “A Sound of Thunder,” where he is explicit about the paradoxical implications that any travel to the past will alter the future in baroque ways, with a 21st century tourist accidentally killing a butterfly in the Cretaceous, leading to the election of an openly fascistic U.S. president millions of years into the future (though the divergence of parallel universes is often proffered as a means of avoiding such implications). In Bradbury’s estimation, every single thing in history, every event, every incident, is “an exquisite thing,” so that a “small thing that could upset balances and knock down a line of small dominoes and then big dominoes and then gigantic dominoes all down the years across Time.” This conundrum need not only be phrased in patricidal terms, for what all temporal paradoxes have at their core is an issue of causality—if we imagine that time progresses from past through future, then what happens when those terms get all mixed up? How can we possibly understand a past that’s influenced by a future that in turn has been affected by the past?

Again, no issue of scholastic quibbling, for though we experience time as moving forward like one of Zeno’s arrows, the physics itself tells us that past, present, and future are constituted in entirely stranger ways. One version of the grandfather paradox involves, rather than grisly murder, the transfer of information from the future to the past; for example, in Tim Powers’s novel The Anubis Gates, a time traveler is stranded in the early 19th century. The character realizes that “I could invent things—the light bulb, the internal combustion engine… flush toilets.” But he abandons this hubris, for “any such tampering might cancel the trip I got here by, or even the circumstances under which my mother and father met.” Many readers will perhaps be aware of temporal paradoxes from the Robert Zemeckis Back to the Future film trilogy (which for what they lack in patricide they make up for in Oedipal sentiments), notably a scene in which Marty McFly inadvertently introduces Chuck Berry to his own song “Johnny B. Goode.” Ignoring the troubling implications that a suburban white teenager had to somehow teach the Black inventor of rock ‘n’ roll his own music, Back to the Future presents a classic temporal paradox—if McFly first heard “Johnny B. Goode” from Berry records, and Berry first heard the song from McFly, then from whence was the song actually composed? (Perhaps from God).

St. Augustine asks in The City of God “What is time, then? If nobody asks me, I know; but if I were desirous to explain it to one who should ask me, I plainly do not know.” Paradox sprouts from the fertile soil of our own incomprehension, and to its benefit there is virtually nothing that humans really understand, at least not really. Time is the oddest thing of all, if we honestly confront the enormity of it. I’m continually surprised that I can’t easily walk into 1992 as if it were a room in my house. No surprise then that time and space are so often explored in the literature of paradox. Oxymoron and irony are the milquetoast cousins of paradox, but poetry at its most polished, pristine, and adamantine elevates contradiction into an almost religious principle. Among the 17th-century poets who worked in the stead of John Donne, paradox was often a central aspect of what critics have called a “metaphysical conceit.” These brilliant, crystalline, rhetorical turns are often like Zeno’s paradoxes rendered into verse, expanding and compressing time and space with a dialectical glee. An example of this from the good Dr. Donne, master of both enigma and the erotic, who in his poem “The Good-Morrow” imagined two lovers for whom they have made “one little room an everywhere.” The narrator and the beloved’s bed-chamber—perhaps there is heavy wooden paneling on the wall and a canopy bed near a fireplace burning green wood, a full moon shining through the mottled crown glass window—are as if a singularity where north, south, east and west; past, present, and future; are all collapsed into a point. Even more obvious is Donne in “The Paradox,” wherein he writes that “Once I loved and died; and am now become/Mine epitaph and tomb;/Here dead men speak their last, and so do I,” the talking corpse its own absurdity made flesh.

So taken were the 20th-century scholars known as the New Critics with the ingenuity of metaphysical conceits that Cleanth Brooks would argue in his classic The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry that the “language of poetry is the language of paradox.” Donne and Andrew Marvell, George Herbert, and Henry Vaughan used paradox as a theme and a subject—but to write poetry itself is paradoxical. To write fiction is paradoxical. Even to write nonfiction is paradoxical. To write at all is paradoxical. A similar sentiment concerning the representational arts is conveyed in the Belgian surrealist painter Rene Magritte’s much parodied 1929 work “The Treachery of Images.” Magritte presents an almost absurdly recognizable smoking pipe, polished to a totemistic brown sheen with a shiny black mouth piece, so basically obvious that it might as well be from an advertisement, and beneath it he writes in cursive script “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”—”This is not a pipe.” A seeming blatant contradiction, for what could the words possibly relate to other than the picture directly above them? But as Magritte told an interviewer, “if I had written on my picture ‘This is a pipe,’ I’d have been lying!” For you see, Magritte’s image is not a pipe, it is an image of a pipe. Like Zeno’s paradoxes, what may first initially seem to be simple-minded contrarianism, a type of existential trolling if you will, belies a more subtle observation. The philosopher Michel Foucault writes in his slender volume This Is Not a Pipe that “Contradiction could exist only between two statements,” but that in the painting “there is clearly but one, and it cannot be contradictory because the subject of the propositions is a simple demonstrative.” According to Foucault, the picture, though self-referential, is not a paradox in the logical sense of the word. And yet there is an obvious contradiction between the viewer’s experience of the painting, and the reality that they’ve not looked upon some carefully carved and polished pipe, but rather only brown and black oil carefully applied to stretched canvas.

This, then, is the “treachery” of which Magritte speaks, the paradox that is gestated within that gulf where meaning resides, a valley strung between the-thing-in-itself and the way in which we represent the-thing-in-itself. Writing is in some ways even more treacherous than painting, for at least Magritte’s picture looks like a pipe—perhaps other than some calligraphic art, literature appears as nothing so much as abstract squiggles. Moby-Dick is not a whale and Jay Gatsby is not a man. They are less than a picture of a pipe, for we have not even images of them, only ink-stained books, and the abject abstraction of mere letters. And yet the paradox is that from that nothingness is generated the most sumptuous something; just as the illusion of painting can trick one into the experience of the concrete, so does the more bizarre phenomenon of the literary imagination make you hallucinate characters that are generated from the non-figurative alphabet. From this essay, if I’ve done even a somewhat adequate job, you’ve hopefully been able to envision Gödel and Einstein bundled into a car on the Jersey turnpike, windows frosted with nervous breath and laughter, the sun rising over the wooded Pine Barrens—or to imagine John and Anne Donne bundled together under an exquisite blanket of red and yellow and blue and green, the heavy oak door of their chamber closed tight against the English frost—but of course you’ve seen no such thing. You’ve only skimmed through your phone while sitting on the toilet, or toggled back and forth between open tabs on your laptop. Literature is paradoxical because it necessitates the invention of entire realities out of the basest nothing; the treachery of representation is that “This is not a pipe” is a principle that applies to absolutely all of the written word, and yet when we read a novel or a poem we can smell the burning tobacco.

All of literature is a great enigma, a riddle, a paradox. What the Zen masters of Japanese Buddhism call a koan. Religion is too often maligned for being haunted by the hobgoblin straw-man of consistency, and yet the only real faith is one mired in contradiction, and few practices embrace paradox quite like Zen. Central to Zen is the breaking down of the dualities that separate all of us from absolute being, the distinction between the I and the not-I. As a means to do this, Zen masters deploy the enigmatic stories, puzzles, sayings, and paradoxes of koan, with the goal of forcing the initiate toward the para-logical, a catalyst for the instantaneous enlightenment known as satori. Sometimes reduced to the “What is the sound of one-hand clapping?” variety of puzzle (though that is indeed a venerable koan), the monk and master D.T. Suzuki explains in An Introduction to Zen Buddhism that these apparently “paradoxical statements are not artificialities contrived to hide themselves behind a screen of obscurity; but simply because the human tongue is not an adequate organ for expressing the deepest truth of Zen, the latter cannot be made the subject of logical exposition; they are to be experienced in the inmost soul when they become for the first time intelligible.” A classic koan, attributed to the ninth-century Chinese monk Linji Yixuan, famously says “If you meet the Buddha, kill him.” Linji’s point is similar to Magritte’s—”This is not the Buddha.” It’s a warning about falling into the trap of representation, of refusing to resist the treachery of images, and yet the paradox is that the only way we have of communicating is through the fallible, inexact, medium of words. Zen is the only religion whose purpose is to overcome religion, and everything else for that matter. It asks us to use its paradoxes as a ladder to which we can climb toward ultimate being—and then we’re to kick that ladder over. In its own strange way, literature is the ultimate koan, all of these novels and plays, poems and essays, all words, words, words meaning nothing and signifying everything, gesturing towards a Truth beyond truth, and yet nothing but artfully arranged lies (and even less than that, simply arrayed squiggles on a screen). To read is to court its own type of enlightenment, of transcendence, and not just because of the questions literature raises, but because of literature’s very existence in the first place.

Humans are themselves the greatest of paradoxes: someone who is kind can harbor flashes of rage, the cruelest of people are capable of genuine empathy, our greatest pains often lead to salvation and we’re sometimes condemned by that which we love. In a famous 1817 letter to his brothers, the English Romantic poet John Keats extolled the most sublime of literature’s abilities that was to dwell in “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason,” a quality that he called “negative capability.” An irony in our present’s abandonment of nuance, for ours is a paradoxical epoch through and through—an era of unparalleled technological superiority and appalling barbarity, of instantaneous knowledge and virtually no wisdom. A Manichean age as well—which valorizes consistency above all other virtues, though it is that most suburban of values—yet Keats understood that if we’re to give any credit to literature, and for that matter any credit to people, we must be comfortable with complexity and contradiction. Negative capability is what separates the moral from the merely didactic. In all of our baroque complexity, paradox is the operative mode of literature, the only rhetorical gambit commensurate with displaying the full spectrum of what it means to be a human. We are all such glorious enigmas—creatures of finite dimension and infinite worth. None of us deserve grace, and yet all of us are worthy of it, a moral paradox that makes us beautiful not in spite of its cankered reality, but because of it. The greatest of paradoxes is that within that contradictory form, there is the possibility of genuine freedom—of liberation.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

Circles of the Damned

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Maybe during this broiling summer you’ve seen the footage—in one striking video, women and men stand dazed on a boat sailing away from the Greek island of Evia, watching as ochre flames consume their homes in the otherwise dark night. Similar hellish scenes are unfolding in Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya, as well as in Turkey and Spain. Currently Siberia is experiencing the largest wildfire in recorded history, an unlikely place for such a conflagration, joined by large portions of Canada. As California burns, the global nature of our immolation is underscored by horrific news around the world, a demonstration of the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Report on Climate Change’s conclusion that such disasters are “unequivocally” anthropogenic, with the authors signaling a “code red” for the continuation of civilization. On Facebook, the mayor of a town in Calabria mourned that “We are losing our history, our identity is turning to ashes, our soul is burning,” and though he was writing specifically about the fires raging in southern Italy, it’s a diagnosis for a dying world as well.

Seven centuries ago, another Italian wrote in The Divine Comedy, “Abandon all hope ye who enter here,” which seems just as applicable in 2021 as it did in 1221. That exiled Florentine had similar visions of conflagration, describing how “Above that plain of sand, distended flakes/of fire showered down; their fall was slow –/as snow descends on alps when no wind blows… when fires fell, /intact and to the ground.” This September sees the 700th anniversary of both the completion of The Divine Comedy and the death of its author Dante Alighieri. But despite the chasms of history that separate us, his writing about how “the never-ending heat descended” holds a striking resonance. During our supposedly secular age, the singe of the inferno feels hotter when we’ve pushed our planet to the verge of apocalyptic collapse. Dante, you must understand, is ever applicable in our years of plague and despair, tyranny and treachery.

People are familiar with The Divine Comedy’s tropes even if they’re unfamiliar with Dante. Because all of it—the flames and sulphur, the mutilations and the shrieks, the circles of the damned and the punishments fitted to the sin, the descent into subterranean perdition and the demonic cacophony—find their origin with him. Neither Reformation nor revolution has dispelled the noxious fumes from inferno. There must be a distinction between the triumphalist claim that Dante says something vital about the human condition, and the objective fact that in some ways Dante actually invented the human condition (or a version of it).  When watching the videos of people escaping from Evia, it took me several minutes to understand what it was that I was looking at, and yet those nightmares have long existed in our culture, as Dante gave us a potent vocabulary to describe Hell centuries ago. For even to deny Hell is to deny something first completely imagined by a Medieval Florentine.

Son of a prominent family, enmeshed in conflicts between the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire, a respected though ultimately exiled citizen, Dante resided far from the shores of modernity, though the broad contours of his poem, with its visceral conjurations of the afterlife, are worth repeating. “Midway upon the journey of our life/I found myself within a forest dark,” Dante famously begins. At the age of 35, Dante descends into the underworld, guided by the ancient Roman poet Virgil and sustained by thoughts of his platonic love for the lady Beatrice. That Inferno constitutes only the first third of The Divine Comedy—subsequent sections consider Purgatory and Heaven—yet that it is the most read, speaks to something cursedly intrinsic in us. The poet descends like Orpheus, Ulysses, and Christ before him deep into the underworld, journeying through nine concentric circles, each more brutal than the previous. Perdition is a space of “sighs and lamentations and loud cries” filled with “Strange utterances, horrible pronouncements, /accents of anger, words of suffering, /and voice shrill and faint and beating hands” who are buffeted “forever through that turbid, timeless air, /like sand that eddies when a whirlwind swirls.” Cosmology is indistinguishable from ethics, so that each circle was dedicated to particular sins: the second circle is reserved for crimes of lust, the third to those of gluttony, the fourth to greed, the wrathful reside in the fifth circle, the sixth is domain of the heretics, the seventh is for the violent, all those guilty of fraud live in the eighth, and at the very bottom that first rebel Satan is eternally punished alongside all traitors.

Though The Divine Comedy couldn’t help but reflect the concerns of Dante’s century, he still formulated a poetics of damnation so tangible and disturbing that it’s still the measure of hellishness, wherein he “saw one/Rent from the chin to where one breaks wind. /Between his legs were hanging down his entrails;/His heart was visible, and the dismal sack/That makes excrement of what is eaten.” Lest it be assumed that this is simply sadism, Dante is cognizant of how gluttony, envy, lust, wrath, sloth, covetousness, and pride could just as easily reserve him a space. Which is part of his genius; Dante doesn’t just describe Hell, which in its intensity provides an unparalleled expression of pain, but he also manifests a poetry of justice, where he’s willing to implicate himself (even while placing several of his own enemies within the circles of the damned). 

No doubt the tortures meted out—being boiled alive for all eternity, forever swept up in a whirlwind, or masticated within the freezing mouth of Satan—are monstrous. The poet doesn’t disagree—often he expresses empathy for the condemned. But the disquiet that we and our fellow moderns might feel is in part born out of a broad theological movement that occurred over the centuries in how people thought about sin. During the Reformation, both Catholics and Protestants began to shift the model of what sin is away from the Seven Deadly Sins, and towards the more straightforward Ten Commandments. For sure there was nothing new about the Decalogue, and the Seven Deadly Sins haven’t exactly gone anywhere, but what took hold—even subconsciously—was a sense that sins could be reduced to a list of literal injunctions. Don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t murder. Because we often think of sin as simply a matter of broken rules, the psychological acuity of Dante can be obscured. But the Seven Deadly Sins are rather more complicated—we all have to eat, but when does it become gluttony? We all have to rest, but when is that sloth?

An interpretative brilliance of the Seven Deadly Sins is that they explain how an excess of otherwise necessary human impulses can pervert us. Every human must eat; most desire physical love; we all need the regeneration of rest—but when we slide into gluttony, lust, sloth, and so on, it can feel as if we’re sliding into the slime that Dante describes. More than a crime, sin is a mental state which causes pain—both within the person who is guilty and to those who suffer because of those actions. In Dante’s portrayal of the stomach-dropping, queasy, nauseous, never-ending uncertainty of the damned’s lives, the poet conveys a bit of their inner predicament. The Divine Comedy isn’t some punitive manual, a puritan’s little book of punishments. Rather than a catalogue of what tortures match which crimes, Dante’s book expresses what sin feels like. Historian Jeffrey Burton Russell writes in Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages how in hell “we are weighted down by sin and stupidity… we sink downward and inward… narrowly confined and stuffy, our eyes gummed shut and our vision turned within ourselves, drawn down, heavy, closed off from reality, bound by ourselves to ourselves, shut in and shut off… angry, hating, and isolated.”

If such pain were only experienced by the guilty, that would be one thing, but sin effects all within the human community who suffer as a result of pride, greed, wrath, and so on. There is a reason why the Seven Deadly Sins are what they are. In a world of finite resources, to valorize the self above all others is to take food from the mouths of the hungry, to hoard wealth that could be distributed to the needy, to claim vengeance as one’s own when it is properly the purview of society, to enjoy recreation upon the fruits of somebody else’s labor, to reduce another human being to a mere body, to covet more than you need, or to see yourself as primary and all others as expendable. Metaphor is the poem’s currency, and what’s more real than the intricacies of how organs are pulled from orifices is how sin—that disconnect between the divine and humanity—is experienced. You don’t need to believe in a literal hell—I don’t—to see what’s radical in Dante’s vision. What Inferno offers isn’t just grotesque descriptions, increasingly familiar though they may be on our warming planet, but also a model of thinking about responsibility to each other in a connected world.

Such is the feeling of the anonymous authors of the 2018 anarchist manifesto The Invisible Committee—a surprise hit when published in France—who opined that “No bonds are innocent” in our capitalist era, for “We are already situated within the collapse of a civilization,” structuring their tract around the circles of Dante’s inferno. Since its composition, The Divine Comedy has run like a molten vein through culture both rarefied and popular; from being considered by T.S. Eliot, Samuel Becket, Primo Levi, and Dereck Walcott, to being referenced in horror films, comic books, and rock music. Allusion is one thing, but what we can see with our eyes is another—as novelist Francine Prose writes in The Guardian, those images of people fleeing from Greek wildfires are “as if Dante filmed the Inferno on his iPhone.” For centuries artists have mined Inferno for raw materials, but now in the sweltering days of the Anthropocene we are enacting it. To note that our present appears as a place where Hell has been pulled up from the bowels of the earth is a superficial observation, for though Dante presciently gives us a sense of what perdition feels like, he crucially also provided a means to identify the wicked.

Denizens of the nine circles were condemned because they worshiped the self over everybody else; now the rugged individualism that is the heretical ethos of our age has made man-made apocalypse probable. ExxonMobil drills for petroleum in the heating Arctic and the apocalyptic QAnon cult proliferates across the empty chambers of Facebook and Twitter; civil wars are fought in the Congo over the tin, tungsten, and gold in the circuit boards of the Android you’re reading this essay with, children in Vietnam and Malaysia sew the clothing we buy at The Gap and Old Navy, and the simplest request for people to wear masks so as to protect the vulnerable goes unheeded in the name of “freedom” as our American Midas Jeff Bezos barely flies to outer space while workers in Amazon warehouses are forced to piss in bottles rather than be granted breaks. Responsibility for our predicament is unequally distributed, those in the lowest circle are the ones who belched out carbon dioxide for profit knowing full well the effects, those who promoted a culture of expendable consumerism and valorized the rich at the expense of the poor. Late capitalism’s operative commandment is to pretend that all seven of the deadly sins are virtues. Literary scholar R.W.B. Lewis describes the “Dantean principle that individuals cannot lead a truly good life unless they belong to a good society,” which means that all of us are in a lot of trouble. Right now, the future looks a lot less like paradise and more like inferno. Dante writes that “He listens well who takes notes.” Time to pay attention.

Bonus Link:—Is There a Poet Laureate of the Anthropocene?

Image Credit: Wikipedia

Who’s There?: Every Story Is a Ghost Story

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“One need not be a chamber to be haunted.” —Emily Dickinson

Drown Memorial Hall was only a decade old when it was converted into a field hospital for students stricken with the flu in the autumn of 1918. A stolid, grey building of three stories and a basement, Drown Hall sits half-way up South Mountain where it looks over the Lehigh Valley to the federal portico of the white-washed Moravian Central Church across the river, and the hulking, rusting ruins of Bethlehem Steel a few blocks away. Composed of stone the choppy texture of the north Atlantic in the hour before a squall, with yellow windows buffeted by mountain hawks and grey Pennsylvania skies. Built in honor of Lehigh University’s fourth president, a mustachioed Victorian chemistry professor, Drown was intended as a facility for leisure, exercise, and socialization, housing (among other luxuries) bowling alleys and chess rooms. Catherine Drinker Bowen enthused in her 1924 History of Lehigh University that Drown exuded “dignity and, at the same time, a certain at-home-ness to every function held there,” that the building “carries with it a flavor and spice which makes the hotel or country club hospitality seem thin, flat and unprofitable.” If Drown was a monument to youthful exuberance, innocent pluck, and boyish charm, then by the height of the pandemic it had become a cenotaph to cytokine storms. Only a few months after basketballs and Chuck Taylors would have skidded across its gymnasium floor, and those same men would lay on cots hoping not to succumb to the illness. Twelve men would die of the influenza in Drown.

After its stint as a hospital, Drown would return to being a student center, then the Business Department, and by the turn of our century the English Department. It was in that final purpose that I got to know Drown a decade ago, when I was working on my PhD. Toward the end of my first year, I had to go to my office in the dusk after-hour, when lurid orange light breaks through the cragged and twisted branches of still leafless trees in the cold spring, looking nothing so much like jaundiced fingers twisting the black bars of a broken cage, or like the spindly embers of a church’s burnt roof, fires still cackling through the collapsing wood.  I had to print a seminar paper for a class on 19th-century literature, and to then quickly adjourn to my preferred bar. When I keyed into the locked building, it was empty, silent save for the eerie neon hum of the never-used vending machines and the unnatural pooling luminescence of perennially flickering fluorescent lights in the stairwells at either end of the central hall. While in a basement computer lab, I suddenly heard a burst of noise upstairs come from one end of the hall rapidly progress towards the other—the unmistakable sound of young men dribbling a basketball. Telling myself that it must be the young children of one of the department’s professors, I shakily ascended. As soon as I got to the top the noise ceased. The lights were out. The building was still empty. Never has an obese man rolled down that hill quite as quickly as I did in the spring of 2011.

There are several rational explanations—students studying in one of the classrooms even after security would have otherwise locked up. Or perhaps the sound did come from some faculty kids (though to my knowledge nobody was raising adolescents at that time). Maybe there was something settling strangely, concrete shifting oddly or water rushing quickly through a pipe (as if I didn’t know the difference between a basketball game and a toilet flushing). When depleted of all explanations, I know what I heard and what it sounded like, and I still have no idea what it was. Nor is this the only ghost story that I could recount—there was the autumn of 2003 when walking back at 2 a.m. after the close of the library at Washington and Jefferson College, feet unsteady on slicked brown leaves blanketing the frosted sidewalk, that I noted an unnatural purple light emanating from a half-basement window of Macmillan Hall, built in 1793 (having been the encampment of Alexander Hamilton during the Whisky Rebellion) and the oldest university building west of the Alleghenies. A few seconds after observing the shining, I heard a high-pitched, unnatural, inhuman banshee scream—some kind of poltergeist cry—and being substantially thinner in that year I was able to book it quickly back to my dorm. Or in 2007 while I was living in Scotland, when I toured the cavernous subterranean vaults underneath the South Bridge between the Old and New towns of Edinburgh, and I saw a young chav, who decided to make obscene hand gestures within a cairn that the tour guide assured us had “evil trapped within it,” later break down as if he was being assaulted by some unseen specter. Then there was the antebellum farm house in the Shenandoah Valley that an ex-girlfriend lived in, one room being so perennially cold and eerie that nobody who visited ever wanted to spend more than a few minutes in it. A haunted space in a haunted land where something more elemental than intellect screams at you that something cruel happened there.

Paranormal tales are popular, even among those who’d never deign to believe in something like a poltergeist, because they speak to the ineffable that we feel in those arm-hair-raised, scalp-shrinking, goose-bumped-moments where we can’t quite fully explain what we felt, or heard, or saw. I might not actually believe in ghosts, but when I hear the dribbling of a basketball down an empty and dark hall, I’m not going to stick around to find out what it is. No solitary person is ever fully a skeptic when they’re alone in a haunted house. Count me on the side of science journalist Mary Roach, who in Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife writes that “I guess I believe that not everything we humans encounter in our lives can be neatly and convincingly tucked away inside the orderly cabinetry of science. Certainly, most things can… but not all. I believe in the possibility of something more.” Haunting is by definition ambiguous—if with any certainty we could say that the supernatural was real it would, I suppose, simply be the natural.

Franco-Bulgarian philosopher Tzvetan Todorov formulated a critical model of the supernatural in his study The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, in which he argued that stories about unseen realms could be divided between the “uncanny” and the “marvelous.” The former are narrative elements that can ultimately be explained rationally, i.e., supernatural plot points that prove to be dreams, hallucinations, drug trips, hoaxes, illusions, or anything unmasked by the Scooby-Doo gang. The latter are things that are actually occult, supernatural, divine. When it’s unclear as to whether or not a given incident in a story is uncanny or marvelous, then it’s in that in-between space of the fantastic, which is the same place any ghostly experience has had to be honestly categorized. “The fantastic is that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event,” writes Todorov, and that is a succinct description of my Drown anomaly. Were it to be simply uncanny, then I suppose my spectral fears would have been assuaged if upon my ascent I found a group of living young men playing impromptu pick-up basketball. For that experience to be marvelous, I’d have to know beyond any doubt that what I heard were actual spirits. As it is, it’s the uncertainty of the whole event—the strange, spooky, surreal ambiguity—that makes the incident fantastic. “What I’m after is proof,” writes Roach. “Or evidence, anyway —evidence that some form of disembodied consciousness persists when the body closes up shop. Or doesn’t persist.” I’ve got no proof or disproof either, only the distant memory of sweaty palms and a racing heart.

Ghosts may haunt chambers, but they also haunt books; they might float through the halls of Drown, but they even more fully possess the books that line that building’s halls. Traditional ghosts animate literature, from the canon to the penny dreadful, including what the Victorian critic Matthew Arnold grandiosely termed the “best which has been thought and said” as well as lurid paperbacks with their garish covers. We’re so obsessed with something seen just beyond the field of vision that vibrates at a frequency that human ears can’t quite detect—from Medieval Danish courts to the Overlook Hotel, Hill House to the bedroom of Ebenezer Scrooge—that we’re perhaps liable to wonder if there is something to ghostly existence. After all, places are haunted, lives are haunted, stories are haunted. Such is the nature of ghosts; we may overlook their presence, their flitting and meandering through the pages of our canonical literature, but they’re there all the same (for a place can be haunted whether you notice that it is or not).

How often do you forget that the work that is the greatest in the language is basically a ghost story? William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is fundamentally a good old-fashioned yarn about a haunted house (in addition to being a revenge tragedy and pirate tale). The famed soliloquy of the Danish prince dominates our cultural imagination, but the most cutting bit of poetry is the eerie line that begins the play: “Who’s there?” Like any good supernatural tale, Hamlet begins in confusion and disorientation, as the sentries Marcellus and Bernardo patrolling Elsinore’s ramparts first espy the silent ghost of the murdered king, with the latter uttering the shaky two-word interrogative. Can you imagine being in the audience, sometime around 1600 when it was a widespread belief that there are more things in heaven and earth than can be dreamt of in our philosophies, and hearing the quivering question asked in the darkness, faces illuminated by tallow candle, the sense that there is something just beyond our experience that has come from beyond? The status of Hamlet’s ghost is ambiguous; some critics have interpreted the specter as a product of the prince’s madness, others claim that the spirit is clearly real. Such uncertainty speaks to what’s fantastic about the ghost, as ambiguity haunts the play. Notice that Bernardo doesn’t ask “What’s there?” His question is phrased towards a personality with agency, even as the immaterial spirit of Hamlet’s dead father exists in some shadow-realm between life and death.

A ghost’s status was no trifling issue—it got to the core of salvation and damnation. Protestants wouldn’t believe that souls could wander the earth; they would either be rewarded in heaven or punished in hell, while ghosts must necessarily be demons. Yet Shakespeare’s play seems to make clear that Hamlet’s father has indeed returned, perhaps as an inhabitant of that way station known as purgatory, that antechamber to eternity whereby the ghost can ascend from the Bardo to skulk around Elsinore for the space of a prologue. Of course, when Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, ostensibly good Protestant that he was, he should have held no faith in purgatory, that abode of ghosts being in large part that which caused Luther to nail his theses to the Wittenberg Cathedral door. When the final Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England were ratified in 1571 (three decades before the play’s premier), it was Article 22 that declared belief in purgatory was a ” thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of scripture; but rather repugnant to the word of God.” According to Stephen Greenblatt’s argument from Hamlet in Purgatory, the ghost isn’t merely Hamlet’s father, but also a haunting from the not-so-distant Catholic past, which the official settlement had supposedly stripped away with rood screens and bejeweled altars. Elsinore’s haunting is not just that of King Hamlet’s ghost, but also of those past remnants that the reformers were unable to completely bury. Greenblatt writes that for Shakespeare purgatory “was a piece of poetry” drawn from a “cultural artery” whereby the author had released a “startling rush of vital energy.” There are a different set of ambiguities at play in Hamlet, not least of which is how this “spirit of health or goblin damned” is to be situated between orthodoxy and heresy. In asking “who” the ghost is, Bernardo is simultaneously asking what it is, where it comes from, and how such a thing can exist. So simple, so understated, so arresting is the first line of Hamlet that I’m apt to say that Bernardo’s question is the great concern of all supernatural literature, if not all literature. Within Hamlet there is a tension between the idea of survival and extinction, for though the prince calls death the “undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns,” he himself must know that’s not quite right. After all, his own father came back from the dead (a role that Shakespeare played himself).

Shakespeare’s ghoul is less ambiguous than those of Charles Dickens, for the ghost of Jacob Marley who visits Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol is accused of simply being an “undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!” Note that the querying nature of the final clause ends in an exclamation rather than a question mark, and there’s no asking who somebody is, now only what they are. Because A Christmas Carol has been filtered through George C. Scott, Patrick Stewart, Bill Murray, and the Muppets, there is a tendency to forget just how terrifying Dickens’s novel actually is. The ultimately repentant Scrooge and his visitations from a trinity of moralistic specters offer up visions of justice that are gothic in their capacity to unsettle. The neuter sprite that is the Ghost of Christmas Past with holly and their summer flowers; hail-fellow-well-met Bacchus that is the Ghost of Christmas Present; and the grim memento mori visage of the reaper who is the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (not to mention Marley padlocked and in fetters). Dickens in the mold of Dante, for whom haunting is its own form of retribution, a means of purging us of our inequities and allowing for redemption. Andrew Smith writes in The Ghost Story 1840-1920: A Cultural History that “Dickens’s major contribution to the development of the ghost story lies in how he employs allegory in order to encode wider issues relating to history, money, and identity.” Morality itself—the awesome responsibility impinging on us every second of existence—can be a haunting. The literal haunting of Scrooge is more uncertain, for perhaps they’re gestated from madness, hallucination, nightmare, or as he initially said, indigestion. Dickens’s ghosts are ambiguous—as they always must be—but the didactic sentiment of A Christmas Carol can’t be.

Nothing is more haunting than history, especially a wicked one, and few tales are as cruel as that of the United States. Gild the national narrative all that we want, American triumphalism is a psychological coping mechanism. This country, born out of colonialism, genocide, slavery, is a massive haunted burial ground, and we all know that grave yards are where ghosts dwell. As Leslie Fiedler explained in Love and Death in the American Novel, the nation itself is a “gothic fiction, nonrealistic and negative, sadist and melodramatic—a literature of darkness and the grotesque.” America is haunted by the weight of its injustice; on this continent are the traces of the Pequod and Abenaki, Mohawk and Mohegan, Apache and Navajo whom the settlers murdered; in this country are the filaments of women and men held in bondage for three centuries, and from every tree hangs those murdered by our American monstrosity. That so many Americans willfully turn away from this—the Faustian bargain that demands acquiescence—speaks not to the absence of haunting; to the contrary, it speaks of how we live among the possessed still, a nation of demoniacs. William Faulkner’s observation in Requiem for a Nun that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” isn’t any less accurate for being so omnipresent. No author conveyed the sheer depth and extent of American haunting quit like Toni Morrison, who for all that she accomplished must also be categorized among the greatest authors of ghost stories. To ascribe such a genre as that to a novel like Morrison’s Beloved is to acknowledge that the most accurate depictions of our national trauma have to be horror stories if they’re to tell the truth. “Anything dead coming back to life hurts”—there’s both wisdom and warning in Morrison’s adage.

Beloved’s plot is as chilling as an autumnal wind off of the Ohio River, the story of the former enslaved woman Sethe whose Cincinnati home is haunted by the ghost of her murdered child, sacrificed in the years before the Civil War to prevent her being returned to bondage in Kentucky. Canonical literature and mythology have explored the cruel incomprehension of infanticide—think of Euripides’s Medea—but Sethe’s not irrational desire to send her “babies where they would be safe” is why Beloved’s tragedy is so difficult to contemplate. When a mysterious young woman named Beloved arrives, Sethe becomes convinced that the girl is the spirit of her murdered child. Ann Hostetler, in her essay from the collection Toni Morrison: Memory and Meaning, writes that Beloved’s ghost “was disconcerting to many readers who expected some form of social or historical realism as they encountered the book for the first time.” She argues, however, that the “representation of history as the return of the repressed…is also a modernist strategy,” whereby “loss, betrayal, and trauma is something that must be exorcized from the psyche before healing can take place.” Just because we might believe ourselves to be done with ghosts doesn’t mean that ghosts are done with us. Phantoms so often function as the allegorical because whether or not specters are real, haunting very much is. We’re haunted by the past, we’re haunted by trauma, we’re haunted by history. “This is not a story to pass on,” Morrison writes, but she understands better than anyone that we can’t help but pass it on.

Historical trauma is more occluded in Stephen King’s The Shining, though that hasn’t stopped exegetes from interpreting the novel about homicide in an off-season Colorado resort as being concerned with the dispossession of Native American, particularly in the version of the story as rendered by director Stanley Kubrick. The Overlook Hotel is built upon a Native American burial ground, Navajo and Apache wall hangings are scattered throughout the resort. Such conjectures about The Shining are explored with delighted aplomb in director Rodney Ascher’s documentary Room 237 (named after the most haunted place in the Overlook), but as a literary critical question, there’s much that’s problematic in asking what any given novel, or poem, or movie is actually about; an analysis is on much firmer ground when we’re concerned with how a text works (a notably different issue).  So, without discounting the hypothesis that The Shining is concerned with the genocide of indigenous Americans, the narrative itself tells a more straightforward story of haunting, as a bevy of spirits drive blocked, recovering alcoholic writer and aspiring family destroyer Jack Torrance insane. Kubrick’s adaptation is iconic—Jack Nicholson as Torrance (with whom he shares a first name) breaking through a door with an axe; his son, young Danny Torrance, escaping through a nightmarish, frozen hedge-maze of topiary animals; the crone in room 237 coming out of the bathtub; the blood pouring from the elevators; the ghostly roaring ’20s speakeasy with its chilling bartender, and whatever the man in the boar costume was. Also, the twins.

Still, it could be observed that the only substantiated supernatural phenomenon is the titular “Shining” that afflicts both Danny and the Overlook’s gentle caretaker, Dick Halloran. “A lot of folks, they got a little bit of shine to them,” Dick explains. “They don’t even know it. But they always seem to show up with flowers when their wives are feelin blue with the monthlies, they do good on school tests they don’t even study for, they got a good idea how people are feelin as soon as they walk into a room.” As hyper-empathy, the shining makes it possible that Danny is merely privy to a variety of psychotic breaks his father is having rather than those visions being actually real. While Jack descends further and further into madness, the status of the spectral beings’ existence is ambiguous (a point not everyone agrees on, however). It’s been noted that in the film, the appearance of a ghost is always accompanied by that of a mirror, so that The Shining’s hauntings are really manifestations of Jack’s fractured psyche. Narrowly violating my own warning concerning the question of “about,” I’ll note how much of The Shining is concerned with Jack’s alcoholism, the ghostly bartender a psychic avatar of all that the writer has refused to face. Not just one of the greatest ghost stories of the 20th century, The Shining is also one of the great novels of addiction, an exploration of how we can be possessed by own deficiencies. Mirrors can be just as haunted as houses. Notably, when King wrote The Shining, he was in the midst of his own full-blown alcoholism, so strung out he barely remembers writing doorstopper novels (he’s now been sober for more than 30 years). As he notes in The Shining, “We sometimes need to create unreal monsters and bogies to stand in for all the things we fear in our real lives.”   

If Hamlet, A Christmas Carol, Beloved, and The Shining report on apparitions, then there are novels, plays, and poems that are imagined by their creators as themselves being chambers haunted by something in between life and death. Such a conceit offers an even more clear-eyed assessment of what’s so unsettling about literature—this medium, this force, this power—capable of affecting what we think, and see, and say as if we ourselves were possessed. As a trope, haunted books literalize a profound truth about the written word, and uneasily push us towards acknowledging the innate spookiness of language, where the simplest of declarations is synonymous with incantation. Richard Chambers’s collection of short stories The King in Yellow conjures one of the most terrifying examples of a haunted text, wherein an imaginary play that shares the title of the book is capable of driving its audience to pure madness. “Strange is the night where the black stars rise, /And strange moons circle through the skies,” reads verse from the play; innocuous, if eerie, though it’s in the subtlety that the demons get you. Chambers would go on to influence H.P. Lovecraft, who conceived of his own haunted book in the form of the celebrated grimoire The Necronomicon, which he explains was “Composed by Abdul Alhazred, a mad poet of Sanaa in Yemen, who was said to have flourished during the period of the Ommiade caliphs, circa 700 A.D.,” and who rendered into his secret book the dark knowledge of the elder gods who were responsible for his being “seized by an invisible monster in broad daylight and devoured horribly before a large number of fright-frozen witnesses.” Despite the Necronomicon’s fictionality, there are a multitude of occultists who’ve claimed over the years that Lovecraft’s haunted volume is based in reality (you can buy said books online).

Then there are the works themselves which are haunted. Shakespeare’s Macbeth is the most notorious example, its themes of witchcraft long lending it an infernal air, with superstitious directors and actors calling it the “Scottish play” in lieu of its actual title, lest some of the spells within bring ruin to a production. Similar rumors dog Shakespeare’s contemporary Christopher Marlowe and his play Doctor Faustus, with a tradition holding that the incantations offered upon the stage summoned actual demons. With less notoriety, the tradition of “book curses” was a full-proof way to guard against the theft of the written word—a practice that dates back as far as the Babylonians, but that reached its apogee during the Middle Ages, when scribes would affix to manuscript colophons warnings about what should befall an unscrupulous thief. “Whoever steals this Book of Prayer/May he be ripped apart by swine, /His heart splintered, this I swear, /And his body dragged along the Rhine,” writes Simon Vostre in his 1502 Book of Hours. To curse a book is perhaps different than a stereotypical haunting, yet both of these phenomenon, not-of-this-world as they are, assume disembodied consciousness as manifest among otherwise inert matter; the curse is a way of imbuing yourself and your influence beyond your demise. It’s to make yourself a ghost, and it worked in leaving those books complete. “If you ripped out a page, you were going to die in agony. You didn’t want to take the chance,” Marc Drogin dryly notes in Anathema! Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses.

Not all writing is cursed, but surely all of it is haunted. Literature is a catacomb of past readers, past writers, past books. Traces of those who are responsible for creation linger among the words on a page; Shakespeare can’t hear us, but we can still hear him (and don’t ghosts wander through those estate houses upon the moors unaware that they’ve died?). Disenchantment has supposedly been our lot since Luther, or Newton, or Darwin chased the ghosts away, leaving behind this perfect mechanistic clockwork universe with no need for superfluous hauntings. Though like Hamlet’s father returned from a purgatory that we’re not supposed to believe in, we’re unwilling to acknowledge the specters right in front of us. Of all of the forms of expression that humanity has worked with—painting, music, sculpture—literature is the eeriest. Poetry and fiction are both incantation and conjuration, the spinning of specters and the invoking of ghosts; it is very literally listening to somebody who isn’t there, and might not have been for a long while. All writing is occult, because it’s the creation of something from ether, and magic is simply a way of acknowledging that—a linguistic practice, an attitude, a critical method more than a body of spells. We should be disquieted by literature; we should be unnerved. Most of all, we should be moved by the sheer incandescent amazement that such a thing as fiction, and poetry, and performance are real. Every single volume upon the shelves of Drown, every book in an office, every thumbed and underlined play sitting on a desk, is more haunted than that building. Reader, if you seek enchantments, turn to any printed page. If you look for a ghost, hear my voice in your own head.

Bonus Link:—Binding the Ghost: On the Physicality of Literature

Image Credit: Flickr/Kevin Dooley

Agentless Agency: On Submitting to Lit Journals

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1.
Last month, I came across a sentence in Cal Newport’s A World Without Email that took my breath away: Outsource what you don’t do well. Newport describes how one entrepreneur’s decision to hire a part-time assistant swiftly drove up the startup’s efficiency and the entrepreneur’s satisfaction with his job. I put down the book and watched two dogs wrestle in my neighbor’s yard. Newport’s dictum had sparked an idea that seemed so scandalous, so alluring, so taboo, that it might just work…

What if I could find the funds in my teaching salary to hire a writing assistant for a few hours a week? Namely, someone to submit my stories and essays for me?

Creating work has never been an issue. I began composing short stories and poems as a kid, majored in creative writing in college, and attended an MFA program, where I largely worked on fiction. I rarely submitted the stories that I’d spent months and years polishing.

Professors urged us to submit regularly, to create Excel spreadsheets, to amass rejections and keep going. But the whole system felt so obtuse and unrewarding: you submitted a story, waited for months on end, then received a polite form rejection, if that. Every now and then a personal note would come through, suggesting that you send something else. Discouraged by the rejections, I rarely did.

When I managed to actually publish work, the path to success seemed difficult to repeat. In one instance, a college professor kindly nominated me for an Emerging Writers issue. Afterward, a magazine editor at a tiny lit mag reached out, urging me to submit a story. I did so, and somehow the piece wound up being selected as an O’Henry Prize Story that year. All of it—the professor’s nomination, the solicitation, the prize—came down to incredible, unthinkable luck, and no real work on my part, aside from writing and editing the piece itself.

When it came time to look for an agent, a friend offered to put me in touch with his. She eventually agreed to shop my story collection around, but didn’t get any bites. And since the agent regularly misspelled my name in emails, I figured I wasn’t her first priority. Then another friend from grad school, who had since begun agenting, reached out and offered to represent me. I said yes, and she recommended I try my hand at a novel before selling the story collection. I wrote the novel in a couple years, she sold it, and I wound up with a generous book deal and a great editor, even if the novel itself didn’t sell very well.

I assumed that this method would continue for the rest of my career: I’d write another novel, she’d sell it, basta. But none of my drafts seemed to satisfy her, and after five years, we parted ways. Now, on my own (cue the Les Mis soundtrack), with 20 years of writing and publishing under my belt, I still feel squeamish when it comes to submissions. I’ve begun writing more nonfiction, and have had some luck placing personal essays, although this, too, feels scattershot.

Meanwhile, there’s a groaning file labeled WRITING on my computer that contains, I swear, dozens of standalone pieces—poems, short stories, flash fiction and nonfiction, essays, novel drafts, a memoir—all of which silently rebuke me whenever I open Microsoft Word. I’m proud of that work. I think most of it holds up (even if, skimming an old short story the other day, I realized I’d need to substitute a character’s “CD-burning” for a Spotify mix.)

Agentless, as the majority of writers are, how do we find our own agency? My fiancé, Alejandro, ironically, is exactly where I was 10 years ago: poised to finish and publish his first novel. He has done well with submissions: an American Short Fiction prize two years ago turned into a Best American prize last year. He seems less fazed by the whole slush pile prospect: as I type this, he’s in his office next door, shortening a short story for a Guernica submission. Is it his scrappy, thick-skinned approach (he applied to the Michener Program four years in a row before an acceptance) or is he innocent of an industry weariness that my 20 years in the biz has conferred, like a professional tennis player’s sore shoulder?

2.
I love reading business and productivity books because they’re reassuringly matter of fact. But Newport’s suggestion to outsource your headaches is complicated when it comes to submitting creative writing. How can I instruct someone on how to submit my work if I don’t have a reliable process in place? Should I hire a marketer? A college student? A virtual assistant? A freelance publicist?

Ideally, I would hand my teeming file of writing to a deeply organized soul who would go to town organizing it, strategizing about where to submit, and then send work out like mad, using my cover letters. I could offer bonuses for work that was accepted, along with a fair hourly wage. But with such an enormous lag time between submitting and hearing back, and with acceptance rates so low, it’s hard to create an appealing incentive. And the prospect of sacrificing therapy sessions for a publishing assistant seems dubious, to say the least.

Another one of my favorite productivity gurus, Greg McKeown, whose latest tome, Effortless, I devoured in the way I no longer devour novels (see: industry weariness), suggests asking yourself these questions when approaching a thorny task: How could this be easy? And: How am I making this too complicated?

3.
After finishing Newport’s book, I spent a full week trying to come up with a job description for a writing assistant before deciding I probably just need to do the work. Last week, during a lull from teaching responsibilities, I decided I would look over old pieces and edit them in the morning, and then send each story out to five places in the afternoon. Simple, right? Log into Submittable, copy and paste the cover letter, attach the short story file, basta! (Sadly, anytime my plans end with basta, it’s usually a sign that they’re not going to work out.)

Sitting down at my laptop to submit again reminded me why I always avoided it. Trying to figure out if a magazine is in a reading period. Trying to scout out the appropriate editor on the masthead. (Alejandro, scandalously, told me that he just addresses his letters to an anonymous Editor. Ballsy.) Trying to decide what my list of publications should be. Do I attempt a college admissions approach, with reaches and safeties? But if I’m sending out a bunch of work over the course of several weeks, including several short stories, how to choose which magazine should receive what?

Barf.

4.
For a long time after my divorce, six years ago, I refused to date online. I didn’t want to go through the drama of meeting people who wouldn’t work out. I wanted connection to happen naturally, in the real world. Unfortunately, this meant I jumped at every odd encounter that occasionally crossed my path, just to prove to myself that this organic method was serving me well.

When I finally took the plunge and signed up for dating apps, it took six months of good, shitty, and largely underwhelming dates before meeting Alejandro. I was his first Bumble date, go figure. I told you he was lucky when it came to submissions. And now that I think about it, he totally lured me by touting that recent ASF short story prize in his dating profile, as if I were another magazine editor instead of a romantic prospect.

But maybe there’s something to thinking about submitting as a kind of matchmaking for my creative work rather than as a test of its fundamental worth. Scrolling through lit mags the way I once swiped through faces and profiles. We’re told to go for the most selective publications first, but maybe looking for the friendliest and most intriguing journals would be a more enjoyable prospect. Over the years, my writing has gotten more experimental, and prospective publishers for later work will likely look much different than publishers for work from my 20s and early 30s, just as my romantic partners have changed along with shifts in my personality and my priorities.

5.
The first definition of “submission,” according to Oxford Languages, is “the action or fact of accepting or yielding to a superior force or to the will or authority of another person.” Part of why I’ve avoided submitting in the past is that it always makes me feel so powerless, so… submissive. But perhaps submitting is also about yielding to the truth that my work isn’t for everybody, just as my style of clothing (I’m newly obsessed with vests.) or taste in music (‘90s country forever!) is off-putting to some.

Okay. New plan. I’m going to approach submissions as an online dating adventure for my writing, and see if I can set my pieces up on some alluring blind dates. After all, it’s way better to imagine my story sipping wine at a candlelit Italian restaurant than drowning in a “slush pile.” First step: submit this essay on submitting.

Image Credit: Pixabay

The World Is All That Is the Case

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“Well, God has arrived. I met him on the 5:15 train. He has a plan to stay in Cambridge permanently.” —John Maynard Keynes in a letter to his wife describing Ludwig Wittgenstein (1929)

Somewhere along the crooked scar of the eastern front, during those acrid summer months of the Brusilov Offensive in 1916, when the Russian Empire pierced into the lines of the Central Powers and perhaps more than one million men would be killed from June to September, a howitzer commander stationed with the Austrian 7th Army would pen gnomic observations in a notebook, having written a year before that the “facts of the world are not the end of the matter.” Among the richest men in Europe, the 27-year-old had the option to defer military service, and yet an ascetic impulse compelled Ludwig Wittgenstein into the army, even though he lacked any patriotism for the Austro-Hungarian cause. Only five years before his trench ruminations would coalesce into 1921’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and the idiosyncratic contours of Wittgenstein’s thinking were already obvious, scribbling away as incendiary explosions echoed across the Polish countryside and mustard gas wafted over fields of corpses. “When my conscience upsets my equilibrium, then I am not in agreement with something. But is this? Is it the world?” he writes. Wittgenstein is celebrated and detested for this aphoristic quality, with pronouncements offered as if directly from the Sibylline grove. “Philosophy,” Wittgenstein argued in the posthumously published Culture and Value, “ought really to be written only as poetic composition.” In keeping with its author’s sentiment, I’d claim that the Tractatus is less the greatest philosophical work of the 20th century than it is one of the most immaculate volumes of modernist poetry written in the past hundred years.

The entire first chapter is only seven sentences, and can easily be arranged as a stanza read for its prosody just as easily as a logician can analyze it for rigor:

The world is all that is the case.

The world is the totality of facts, not of things.

The world is determined by the facts, and by their being all the facts.

For the totality of facts determines what is the case, and also whatever is not the case.

The facts in logical space are the world.

The world divides into facts.

Each item can be the case or not the case while everything else remains the same.

Its repetition unmistakably evokes poetry. The use of anaphora with “The world” at the beginning of the first three lines (and then again at the start of the fifth). The way in which each sentence builds to a crescendo of increasing length, from starting with a simple independent clause to a trio of lines that are composed of independent and dependent clauses, hitting a peak in the exact middle of the stanza, and then returning to independent clauses, albeit the final line being the second longest sentence in the poem. Then there is the diction, the reiteration of certain abstract nouns in place of concrete images—”world,” ‘facts,” “things.” In Wittgenstein’s thought these have definite meanings, but in a general sense they’re also words that are pushed to an extreme of conceptual intensity. They are as vague as is possible, while still connotating a definite something. If Wittgenstein mentioned red wheelbarrows and black petals, it might more obviously read as poetry, but what he’s doing is unique; he’s building verse from the constituent atoms of meaning, using the simplest possible concepts that could be deployed. Finally, the inscrutable nature of Wittgenstein’s pronouncements is what gives him such an oracular aura. If the book is confusing, that’s partially the point. It’s not an argument, it’s a meditation, a book of poetry that exists to do away with philosophy.   

Published a century ago this spring, the Tractatus is certainly one of the oddest books in the history of logic, structured in an unconventional outline of unspooling pronouncements offered without argument, as well as a demonstration of philosophy’s basic emptiness, and thus the unknowability of reality. All great philosophers claim that theirs is the work that demolishes philosophy, and Wittgenstein is only different in that the Tractatus actually achieves that goal. “Most of the propositions and questions to be found in philosophical works are not false but nonsensical,” writes Wittgenstein.  “Consequently, we cannot give any answer to questions of this kind,” where “of this kind” means all of Western philosophy. What results is either poetry transubstantiated into philosophy or philosophy converted into poetry, with the Tractatus itself a paradox, a testament to language that shows the limits of language, where “anyone who understands me eventually recognizes… [my propositions] as nonsensical…He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.” The Tractatus is a self-immolating book, a work that exists to demonstrate its own futility in existing. At its core are unanswerable questions of silence, meaninglessness, and unuttered poetry. The closest that Western philosophy has ever come to the Tao.

Of the Viennese Wittgensteins, Ludwig was raised in an atmosphere of unimaginable wealth. As a boy, the salons of the family mansions (there were 13 in the capital alone) were permeated with the music of Gustav Mahler and Johannes Brahms (performed by the composers themselves), the walls were lined with commissioned golden-shimmer paintings by Gustave Klimt, and the rocky bespoke sculptures of August Rodin punctuated their courtyards. “Each of the siblings was made exceedingly rich,” writes Alexander Waugh in The House of Wittgenstein (and he knows about difficult families), “but the money, to a family obsessed with social morality, brought with it many problems.” Committed to utmost seriousness, dedication, and genius, the Wittgensteins were a cold family, the children forced to live up to the exacting standards of their father Karl Otto Clemens Wittgenstein. Ludwig’s father was an iron man, the Austrian Carnegie, and the son was indulged with virtually every privilege imaginable in fin de siècle Vienna. His four brothers were to be trained for industry, and to be patrons of art, music, poetry, and philosophy, with absolutely no failure in any regard to be countenanced. Only a few generations from the shtetl, the Wittgensteins had assimilated into gentile society, most of them converting to Catholicism, along with the few odd Protestants; Ludwig’s grandfather even had the middle name “Christian” as if to underscore their new position. Wittgenstein had a life-long ambivalence about his own Jewishness—even though three of his four grandparents were raised in the faith—and he had an attraction to a type of post-theological mystical Christianity, while he also claimed that his iconoclastic philosophy was “Hebraic.”

Even more ironically, or perhaps uncannily, Wittgenstein was only the second most famous graduate of Vienna’s secondary Realschule; the other student was Adolph Hitler. There’s a class photograph from 1905 featuring both of them when they were 16. As James Klaage notes in Wittgenstein: Philosophy and Biography, “an encounter with Wittgenstein’s mind would have created resentment and confusion in someone like Hitler,” while to great controversy (and thin evidence) Kimberly Cornish in The Jew of Linz claims that the philosopher had a profound influence on the future dictator, inadvertently inspiring the latter’s antisemitism. Strangely, like many assimilated and converted Jews within Viennese society, a casual antisemitism prevailed among the Wittgensteins. He would even be attracted to the writings of the pseudo-philosopher Otto Weininger, who in his book Sex and Character promulgated a notoriously self-hating antisemitic and misogynistic position, deploring modernity as the “most effeminate of all ages” (the author would ultimately commit suicide in the house where Beethoven had lived as an act of Völkisch sacrifice). When promoting the book, Wittgenstein maintained that he didn’t share in Weininger’s views, but rather found the way the writer was so obviously wrong interesting. Jewishness was certainly not to be discussed in front of the Wittgenstein paterfamilias, nor was anything that to their father reeked of softness, gentleness, or effeminacy, including Ludwig’s bisexuality, which he couldn’t express until decades later. And so at the risk of indulging an armchair version of that other great Viennese vocation of psychoanalysis, Wittgenstein made the impossibility of being able to say certain things the center of his philosophy. As Brahms had remembered, the family chillily acted “towards one another as if they were at court.” Of his four brothers—Rudi drank a mixture of cyanide and milk while in a Berlin cabaret in 1922, distraught over his homosexuality and his father’s rejection; Kurt shot himself in the dwindling days of the Great War after his troops defied him; and Hans, the oldest and a musical prodigy, presumably drowned himself in Chesapeake Bay while on an American sojourn in 1902—only Paul and Ludwig avoided suicide. There were economic benefits to being a Wittgenstein, but little else.

Austere Ludwig—a cinema-handsome man with a personality somehow both dispassionate and intense—tried to methodically shuffle off his wealth, which had hung from his neck along with the anchor of respectability. As it was, eventually the entire fortune would be commandeered by the Nazis, but before that Wittgenstein dispensed with his inheritance literally. When his father died in 1913, Wittgenstein began anonymously sending large sums of money to poets like Rainer Maria Rilke, whose observation in a 1909 lyric that “I am so afraid of people’s words./They describe so distinctly everything” reads almost as a gloss on the Tractatus. With his new independence, Wittgenstein moved to simple log cabin on a Norwegian fjord where he hoped to revolutionize logic. Attracted towards the austere, this was the same Wittgenstein whom in 1923, after the Tractatus had been published, lodged above a grocer in rural Austria and worked as a school teacher, with the visiting philosopher Frank Ramsey describing one of the richest men in Europe as living in “one tiny room, whitewashed, containing a bed, washstand, small table and one hard chair and that is all there is room for. His evening meal which I shared last night is rather unpleasant coarse bread, butter and cocoa.” Monasticism served Wittgenstein, because he’d actually accomplish that task of revolutionizing philosophy. From his trench meditations while facing down the Russians—where he ironically carried only two books—Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Leo Tolstoy’s The Gospel in Brief —he birthed the Tractatus, holding to Zossima’s commandment that one should “Above all, avoid falsehood, every kind of falsehood.” The result would be a book whose conclusions were completely true without being real. Logic pushed to the extremes of prosody.  

The Tractatus was the only complete book Wittgenstein published in his lifetime, and the slender volume is composed of a series of propositions arranged within one another like an onion. Its seven main propositions are asserted axiomatically, their self-evidence stated without argument or equivocation—a book not of examples or evidence, but of sentences. A Euclidean project that reads as if hermetic poetry, with claims like “A logical picture of facts is a thought,” which in its poetic abstractions is evocative of something like John Keats’s “Truth is beauty.” Part of its literary quality is the way in which these claims are presented as crystalline abstractions, appearing as timeless refugees from eternity, bolstered not by recourse to anything but themselves (indeed the Tractatus contains no quotes from other philosophers, and virtually no references). His concern was the relationship between language and reality, how logic is able (or not able) to offer a picture of the world, and his conclusions circumscribe philosophy— he solves all metaphysical problems by demonstrating that they are meaningless. “Philosophy aims at the logical clarification of thoughts,” writes Wittgenstein. “Philosophy is not a body of doctrine but an activity… essentially of elucidations.” All of the problems of philosophy—the paradoxes and metaphysical conundrums, the ethical imperatives and the aesthetic judgments—are pseudo-problems. Philosophy exists not to do what natural science does; it doesn’t explain reality, it only clarifies language. When you come to Ludwig Wittgenstein on the road, you must kill him. The knife that you use is entitled the Tractatus, and he’ll hand it to you first.

When Wittgenstein arrived at the Cambridge University office of the great British philosopher Bertrand Russell in 1911, he had no formal training. So bereft was his knowledge that Wittgenstein couldn’t pronounce some of the philosophers’ names correctly. Biographer Ray Monk maintains in Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius that his subject had never even read Aristotle (despite sharing an affinity with him). And yet a few months into their studies together, the latter would declare “I love him & feel he will solve the problems that I am too old to solve.” Though after the Austrian had argued that metaphysical problems are simply an issue of linguistic confusion, the elder thinker would despair that “I could not hope ever again to do fundamental work in philosophy.” At the time that Wittgenstein met with Russell, he was studying aeronautical engineering at the University of Manchester, pushed into a practical field by his father. During his time there he invented several different metal airplane propeller blades exemplary in their ingenuity, but he was unfulfilled and despondent. He had come to believe that only philosophy could cure his spiritual malaise, and so Wittgenstein spent three years at Cambridge, where he travelled in intellectual circles that included the philosopher G.E. Moore and the economist John Maynard Keynes. Finally, he was also able to live openly with a lover, a psychologist named David Pinsent. He would dedicate the Tractatus to Pinsent, his partner ironically killed in an airplane crash training for the war that they fought on the opposite sides of. After his return to Austria, Wittgenstein worked a multitude of disparate jobs—he was a school-teacher in the Alps, unpopular for discharging corporal punishment; he was a gardener in a monastery (and inquired about taking vows); and he was an architect of uncommon brilliance, designing a modernist masterpiece for his sister called the Haus Wittgenstein, which in its alabaster parsimony and cool rectilinear logic recalls the Bauhaus. When that building was completed in 1929, Wittgenstein finally returned to Cambridge, where he would be awarded a PhD even though he took no courses and sat for no exams. Russell had recognized that not all genius need be constrained in the seminar room. And still, after his successful defense, Wittgenstein would clap his advisor on his shoulder and say “Don’t worry, I’ll know you’ll never understand it.” Years latter Russell would remark that he had only produced snowballs—Wittgenstein had generated avalanches.  

Hubris aside, Wittgenstein was dogged by a not unfounded fear that the Tractatus would be misinterpreted, not least of all by analytical philosophers like Russell who valorized logic as holy writ. Twentieth-century philosophy has long suffered schism between two broadly irreconcilable perspectives on what the discipline even exists to do. There are the analytical philosophers like Russell, Gottlieb Frege, G.E. Moore, and so on (including, technically, Wittgenstein), who see the field as indistinguishable from logic, to the point where its practice shares more in common with mathematics than Socrates. Largely focused in the United Kingdom and the United States, analytical philosophers are, as Russell writes in his A History of Western Philosophy (the work which secured his Nobel Prize in Literature), unified in a sense of “scientific truthfulness, by which I mean the habit of basing our beliefs upon observations and inferences as impersonal…as is possible for human beings.” Continental philosophy, however, is much more concerned with the traditional metaphysical and ethical questions which we associate with the discipline, asking what the proper way to live is, or how we find meaning in life. Associated with scholarly work in Europe, largely in France and Germany, a primary question to a continental philosopher like Martin Heidegger could be, as he writes in What Is Metaphysics?, “Why are there things at all, and why not nothing? This is the question.” To Russell that’s not a question at all, it’s pure nonsense. Wittgenstein would perhaps also see it as meaningless—though not at all in the same way as his advisor, and that makes all the difference. As with his interpretation of Weininger, it’s how things are nonsense that’s interesting.

In the city of Wittgenstein’s birth, the dominant philosophical movement at the time he published the Tractatus was a gathering of analytical philosophers known as the Vienna Circle. Composed of figures like Moritz Schlick, Rudolf Carnap, and Kurt Gödel, the Vienna Circle argued something not dissimilar to what Wittgenstein had claimed, understanding metaphysical, ethical, and aesthetic conjectures as nonsense. At the core of much of their work was something called the Verification Principle, an argument that the only propositions that are sensical are from either deduction or induction, either from mathematics or empiricism, and that everything else can be discarded (that the Verification Principle would fail its own test wasn’t important). But if the Vienna Circle agreed with Wittgenstein about how much of traditional philosophy was nonsense, the latter invested that nonsense with a sublimity they were blind toward. Perhaps the earliest to misinterpret the Tractatus, of which the Vienna Circle were nonetheless avid readers, Schlick invited Wittgenstein to address them in 1926. When he arrived, rather than giving a lecture, Wittgenstein turned a chair to the wall, began to rock back and forth and recited the verse of the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. An arresting and moving scene: handsome Wittgenstein in rumpled blue shirt and tweed jacket, a man whom the American philosopher Norman Malcolm would describe as possessing a face that was “lean and brown…aquiline and strikingly beautiful, his head was covered with a curly mass of brown hair,” davening as was the ritual of his ancestors, perhaps chanting Tagore’s line from The Gardner that “We do not stray out of all words in the ever silent,” a disposition more in keeping with the Tractatus than anything written by the audience. Carnap, to his credit, quickly realized their mistake, recalling that Wittgenstein’s point of view was “much more similar to those of a creative artist than to those of a scientist; one might almost say, similar to those of a religious prophet or a seer.”

Though classified as one of the most important logicians of the 20th century, Wittgenstein’s earlier thought is more poetry than philosophy; the curt, aphoristic pronouncements of the Tractatus deserving to be studied alongside Rilke and Paul Celan. Both in form and content, purpose and expression, the Tractatus is lyric verse—it’s poetry that gestures beyond poetry. More than just poetry, it’s a purposefully self-defeating logical argument that exonerates the poetic above the philosophical, for if the Vienna Circle thought that all of the most interesting things were nonsense, then Wittgenstein knew that faith was the very essence of being, even if we could say nothing definitive about it. As he writes in the Tractatus, “even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched. Of course, there are then no questions left, and this itself is the answer.” Something Taoist about Wittgenstein, his utterances evocative of Lao Tzu’s contention in the Tao Te Ching that the “name that can be named is not the eternal name.” With the Tractatus, Wittgenstein mounted the most audacious ars poetica, a book of verse written not in rhythm and meter but in logic, where the purpose was to show the futility of logic itself. “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent;” its most famous line, and the entirety of the last chapter. Things must be left unsaid because they’re unable to be said—but literally everything important is unable to be said. Understood as a genius, interpreted as a rationalist, treated as an enigma, and appearing as a mystic, Wittgenstein was ultimately a poet. “The limits of my language are the limits of my world,” writes Wittgenstein, and this is sometimes misunderstood as consigning everything but logic to oblivion, but the opposite is true. In a world limited by language, then it is language itself that constitutes the world. Poetry, rather than logic, is all that is the case.

FOMO, but for Books

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We were getting ready to go to the community pool last weekend, packing all the things we needed: towels, sunblock, water, change of clothes, etc. My husband glanced in the bag to double-check everything and then casually asked if there was a reason I’d packed two books and a magazine.

“To read,” I told him.

He looked at me. We have two children, one eight and one three. The three-year-old cannot swim. The eight-year-old can and requires an audience. There is perhaps a 10 minute window when I might be able to read uninterrupted. And yet I had to bring those books. Because…what if I did have time? And what if, when I got there, I just wasn’t in the mood to finish Elizabeth Kolbert’s Under a White Sky? (But what if I was?) What if, instead, I wanted to dig into Daniel Okrent’s history of prohibition, Last Call, which was due at the library very soon. Or what if I was in the mood for fiction, and I felt like reading the literary magazine that had just come in the mail?

“You never read at the pool,” he said. “You stay in the water and swim.”

This is true. My husband is the one who reads near bodies of water. He also has a realistic grasp on the number of hours in a day. He always brings one book with him on vacation, and he reads that one book. Sometimes he brings a book he’s already read, to guarantee that he will like it. This summer, he’s been bringing The Sun Also Rises to the pool, a novel he’s read at least three times before. It’s a great summer read. I love the part where they go fishing and have a picnic and keep the wine bottles cold in the stream. Just thinking about that scene makes me want to read that book again.

Sometimes I think I have FOMO, but for books. It’s particularly acute in the summer. When I go on vacation, I always take too many books with me. On my first big trip with my husband—before we had children—I packed five novels and then bought magazines at the airport. I read the magazines on the plane and the novels languished in my bag. There was no time to read. We were traveling around Spain, walking and eating and talking. And I knew that would be the case. Yet I packed the books. In my mind, we were traveling to a place where we would somehow have time to see all the sights and also relax for several hours every morning, and to read books. A place with 30-hour days.  

I ask myself where this fantasy comes from and I think—as with so many things—it goes back to childhood. When I was 10 years old, my family moved from New Hampshire to western Maryland. It was the year of Brood X, and I remembered the thick whine of the cicada song in the air when we arrived. I was bewildered by the humid weather and I didn’t know anyone. The kids down the street invited me to Vacation Bible School, so I went there, where I read the Bible and learned the Lord’s Prayer while my mother unpacked. When that was over, my mother took me to the library and told me to get out as many books as I wanted. When we got home, she gave me a glass of lemonade and the foldable wing chair and told me to find a spot outside in the shade to read—preferably a place where she could see me from her office window.

And so began a summer ritual that lasted through middle school. I loved how unrestricted summer reading was. You could read as much as you wanted, and whatever you wanted—there was no one interrupting you to do homework in other subjects or to get ready for soccer practice. You could read more than one book at once, dipping into one and then another and back again. You could skim over the sections you didn’t like; nobody was going to quiz you. You could read books you were too young for—hello, John Irving!—and books you were too old for—hello, Anne of Green Gables for the 10th time! You could read comics and sci-fi and celebrity biographies alongside the classics. You could go ahead and read the books that you might be assigned in high school—Ethan Frome, The Catcher in the Rye, Catch-22, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Stranger—because what if you weren’t assigned them and then you didn’t get to read them?  

Henry James once wrote, “Summer afternoon, summer afternoon—to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.” I’ve always assumed this quote refers to reading. I doubt James was hanging clothes out on the line or preparing dinner. He definitely wasn’t sitting by a pool and rating a cannonball jump on a scale of one to five at the request of a small child. I don’t begrudge James his summers, but I do assume that he, unlike most people I know, was able to hold onto them well into adulthood. My leisurely afternoons began to disappear midway through high school, when I started to work in the summers, and were gone by my 20s—though I did have more empty afternoons for reading in my 20s than I do now. But in my 20s, the Internet began to encroach on my time, and I also began to read with greater purpose—to learn the craft of writing or to gain knowledge to think critically about a particular issue. Of course, I read to be entertained, too, and to be absorbed in another person’s way of seeing things. That has never gone away. But the haphazard reading of my childhood summers is gone, and sometimes I think I’m chasing it, when I pack too many books.

Then again, maybe they’ll return to me, sooner than I realize. Just last week, our local library branch finally opened for browsing. My son headed to the children’s area and returned, 20 minutes later, with a tall stack. My pile was more modest—just two books. But as we walked home together and my son chatted about what he would read first, I took vicarious pleasure in his excitement. I wish I could say that I read alongside him, but the truth is cleaned up, attended to his younger sister, made lunch, and then finished up some of my own work. But summer isn’t over yet, and with a little planning, I may yet sneak in a few afternoons.  

Bonus Links:—A Summer Reading List for Wretched Assholes Who Prefer to Wallow in Someone Else’s MiseryAlternate Routes: A Summer Reading ItineraryThe Problem with Summer Reading

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