Prayer Consists of Attention: On Reading as a Spiritual Practice

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I first read Simone Weil’s 1950 book Waiting for God six years ago. It was a cloudy Monday in March, and I was sitting on the porch of a 100-year-old Victorian home—former officer’s quarters for a decommissioned military outpost off the coast of Washington state—where I could see the grey water of the Puget Sound and grey sky beyond the shoreline. I’d spent the last several years wondering how I might inhabit my life and my faith in a more contemplative way—and on that day, on that porch, Weil proposed a definition of prayer that resonated with me more than any evangelical prescription.
“Prayer consists of attention,” Weil writes in Waiting for God. “It is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable toward God. The quality of the attention counts for much in the quality of prayer.” A prayer, then, could be any moment of mindfulness, reverence, concentration. It could be whatever I wanted it to be.
Most people probably picture the act of prayer as a person talking to God. And because we might often think of prayer as a last resort in the midst of difficult circumstances, we likely hold in our minds the image of a supplicant like Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey from A Wonderful Life—alone, desperate, seeking divine intervention. In the film’s climactic prayer scene, Bailey, on the brink of bankruptcy and possible imprisonment, sits in a bar by himself, tears in his eyes. His clasps his hands together to beseech a God he’s not even sure is listening: “Dear Father in heaven,” he says despairingly, “I’m not a praying man but if you’re up there and you can hear me, show me the way. I’m at the end of my rope. Show me the way, God.”
I’ve uttered hundreds of prayers like George Bailey’s, and I’ve prayed countless times in this most traditional sense, as a “person talking to God.” But I’ve since learned that prayer can take many forms. To describe the multiplicity of my own prayers, I borrow from the language of clouds: my stratus prayers are flat and smooth, originating from the mundane things of life; my cumulus prayers billow with a fullness of faith, or doubt, or a mixture of both; my cirrus clouds are soaring and wispy with room for mystery; my alto prayers are steady and observant; and my nimbus prayers hold my tears, my grief. But the same current of profound attention, as Weil proposes, animates all these prayers—I listen, watch, and wait while paying careful attention to the divine and whatever shape it takes in my life and the world around me.
If prayer is attention, perhaps the inverse is true. Can attention to an everyday activity, like reading or writing, also be prayer? The thought first entered my mind as I read the last chapter of the 2021 novel Hell of a Book, in which Jason Mott writes about anger in a way that reads like a psalm of lament. Reflecting on the pain, loss, and oppression intrinsic to Black life in the United States, the book’s protagonist, a writer who is struggling to tell the story of his life, muses:

You’ll be angry and not know why. And the anger won’t ever go away, not really. It’ll hang in the back of your mind. It’ll hang in the back of your world, haunting you, guiding all of your decisions. And when you get tired of being angry, it still won’t go away. It’ll just change into something even worse. You’ll take that anger and turn it on yourself and it’ll call itself depression. And, just like anger, it’ll take over your life. It’ll live with you every day.

This passage evoked for me the same raw anguish of Psalm 88—“O Lord, why do you cast me off? Why do you hide your face from me?” Suddenly I could not see much difference between opening my Bible to pray Psalm 88 and reading Hell of a Book, or any work of literature that, like this novel, honestly approaches the realities of suffering. I realized that all words, even those contained in secular literature, have the potential to become prayers.
There is much disagreement among Christians, and among people of all faith traditions, as to what qualifies as acceptable forms of prayer. Some Christians are uncomfortable with contemplative spiritual practices like mine and argue that proper prayer must adhere to four principles: adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. Some Buddhists strive for a prayer practice that requires one to achieve sufficient stillness and silence of mind. Some Hindus believe prayer consists of repeating mantras and the names of certain deities. But most people of faith believe and agree that the divine can show up anywhere—during a brief conversation with a neighbor, while folding a load of laundry, alongside a sunrise or sunset. In his 1960 book Encounters with Silence, Jesuit priest and theologian Karl Rahner writes of God’s omnipresence: “If You have given me no single place to which I can flee and be sure of finding You, if anything I do can mean the loss of You, then I must be able to find You in every place, in each and every thing I do…. Thus, I must seek You in all things.” I, too, need to believe it’s possible to find God in every place, in each and every thing I do, and reading is one way I can detect and connect with the divine.
Over the past few years, practicing spiritual direction with writers has given me many opportunities to think about how writing can also be prayer. During a spiritual direction session, my clients and I set apart one hour to be curious about the divine. When I listen to my clients tell me about their writing lives and creative processes, I often hear them talk about how they notice God, how they give their attention to God, and how God feels present or absent in their work. One client tells me how a word or phrase will come to her mind from outside herself, a gift from God, while she’s writing an essay. Another shares how his writing practice flourished after he left his fundamentalist church, a decision that liberated his creative sensibilities as well as his mind and spirit.

I recently read Lydia Davis’s Essays Two: On Proust, Translation, Foreign Languages, and the City of Arles, in which she describes her early-morning routine of reading and writing—a routine that neatly parallels my own predawn ritual of contemplative prayer. She describes her practice one morning, as she translates short stories by A. L. Snijders: “I may attempt a translation of it even before getting my first cup of coffee. This is partly a result of inertia: I am still tired or half asleep, and I don’t want to move from my chair. If I do have my cup of coffee by me, I’m likely to sit even longer.”
Her description of her process of literary translation struck me as very similar to lectio divina, a form of contemplative prayer that involves slowly reading a passage of scripture several times:

I begin by trying to read the story. I read the first line. More than once, it has contained the word bosrand, “edge of the woods”—something Snijders sees from his kitchen window and a place I like to be, or imagine. Or it has contained something about the author’s problematic chickens, or his dogs. One begins with a woman (vrouw) in the distance (distance is verte, which, confusing me for a moment, is identical to the French for green, but whose root is ver, sharing a past with the English far). Still half dreaming, I am transported to the Dutch countryside, among the chickens and buzzards, foxes, shepherds, swans, and the occasional cyclist or hiker coming along the pad (cognate of path) in front of the author’s house…

What Davis describes isn’t much different from what I tell my spiritual direction clients who want to know more about how to practice lectio divina. I mention the mindfulness required while listening to the scripture multiple times, the role of the imagination, how certain words will demand one’s attention, and the sense of being transported to the place where the scripture’s events initially unfolded. I imagine Davis inhabiting a posture similar as she translates. Davis, my clients, and I all come to the text hoping for a meaningful encounter, then we let the spirit, the magic, the mystery do its work.
While recently reading Victoria Chang’s 2021 epistolary prose book Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, I found myself assuming the same prayerful posture of listening and watching as I do when I’m with my clients. I’m not praying for Chang, but I am giving her what Weil would call my “unmixed attention.” In a chapter addressed to one of her writing teachers, Chang reinforces the connections I feel between reading, writing, God, and prayer. “I now think words are light,” she writes. “How they illuminate the small beak of a lark isn’t up to the writer. It’s up to the lark and the light. A writer is just a guest, the birder.”
Reading these words, I consider how language and literature have illuminated my life, both supplementing and complementing my spiritual practice. And how the lark and the light could represent divine mystery, and how my bearing witness to the sliver of humanity lit up by literature helps me understand that mystery a little bit more. How, like a birder, the writer, or the reader, can seek out answers, but also must be patient in waiting for what they seek.
Later in Waiting for God, Weil explores how the act of waiting intersects with the act of prayer. “Above all our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object that is to penetrate it,” she writes. “We do not obtain the most precious gifts by going in search of them but by waiting for them.” Now, when I read or write, I feel as though I too am waiting for God, for a flash of insight, or for that wholeness of soul that makes me feel more connected to myself, others, the divine, and the world. I’m no longer surprised when I look up from my book or my computer and see that I’m surrounded by a swirl of clouds.

Mephistopheles in the Anthropocene

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The Fitchburg Railroad ran a little under 50 miles between its origin in Boston and its terminus. A bit before the half-way point at the Concord station and the train glided along the western shore of Walden Pond. By the time the celebrated Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau had gone to the “woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life,” making his home in that small cabin in 1845 on the opposite side of the pond from the tracks, and the Fitchburg Railroad had already been operating for a year, built by underpaid, exploited Irish immigrant labor. Making its daily devotionals every day of the year, the Fitchburg thundered past the glacial kettle pond during chill New England winter with its frost tipped pines and the pleasant cool summer days with oaks’ greenness, past spring’s blooming lilac and dogwood and the autumnal maples’ red, orange, and brown. Having conditioned himself to listen to the black-capped chickadee and the song sparrow, of rain lashing against his cedar timber roof or of wind squalls in winter Nor’easters, Thoreau’s reveries were interrupted twice a day by the bestial whistle of the Luciferian locomotive as it made its way west and east. He did not like it. “We do not ride the railroad,” Thoreau wrote in his 1854 Walden; or, Life in the Woods, “it rides upon us.” Examining industrial capitalism’s effect on the globe in the 17 decades hence, and Thoreau didn’t know the half of it.

Remembering Walden as only the account of this eccentric, solitary quasi-hermit living on the edge of a Massachusetts bean fields in the woods outside of Concord belies the fact that so much of Thoreau’s book isn’t just about nature, but about the transformation of nature. Massive changes were underway on this continent that, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, had been valorized as Edenic since the first European saw land that didn’t belong to them; steam-boat and train, telegraph and factory all refashioned a very different landscape. Men like Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson alternated between despairing and triumphant, and as Leo Marx claimed in his classic study The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America, a studied ambivalence marked the intelligentsia on these subjects, noting that the “nothing quite like the event announced by the train in the woods had occurred before.” Regarding that metal shriek outside of Concord, and Marx catalogues numerous other instances as recorded by men like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Emerson, with the train representing how the “great world is invading the land, transforming the sensory texture of rural life… and threatening, in fact, to impose a new and more complete dominion over it,” as Marx writes. Were this an interruption only of the countryside’s quietude that would be one thing, but the train—or at very least what it represents—signaled the beginning of our current Anthropocene, when humanity’s rapacious consumption of the earth for material gain altered the very geology, ecology, and biology of the planet.

It’s estimated that because of the mass burning of coal for industry and transportation—a train’s engine is powered by coal after all—that the average temperature throughout the world rose a single degree Celsius during the 19th century, starting from when steam locomotives became common about three decades before the Fitchburg Railroad rumbled through Massachusetts: the beginnings of the Anthropocene and climate change. (The average temperature rose almost another degree in the last century.) Victorian scientists were aware of this connection; physicist Joseph Fourier writing in an 1837 edition of The American Journal of Science and Arts hypothesized that industrial exhaust “must produce variations in the mean temperature for such places,” while in 1856—two years after Walden’s printing—and Eunice Newton Foote wrote in The American Journal of Science that “An atmosphere of… [carbon dioxide] would give to our earth a high temperature.” Steamrolling towards a distant apocalypse, and Emerson, on whose land Thoreau resided, writes in his journal about how he hears the “whistle of the locomotive in the woods… it is prophetic.” More than they could have realized, for such progress over the past century-and-a-half now threatens to push the world towards an irrevocable climate catastrophe. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded in its 2021 report, we are at “code red for humanity,” with one of the coauthors, atmospheric scientist Kim Cobb, telling the American Association for the Advancement of Science that there’s “really one key message that emerges from this report: We are out of time.” Rather than merely the punctured idyl of a Concord evening, the Anthropocene’s dark promise is ever-rising temperatures and disappearing shore-lines, massive raging wild fires and blighted crops, vicious new pandemics and billions of refugees, ocean acidification and the earth’s sixth great extinction. More than just a whistle in the dark, the more potent image of what the train might represent was expressed by Thoreau and Emerson’s contemporary Connecticut Sen. James H. Lanman, who in his survey Railroads of the United States called locomotives “iron monsters… dragons of mightier power, with iron muscles… breathing smoke and flame through their blackened lungs,” these demons which leap “forward like some black monster, upon its iron path, by the light of the fire and smoke which it promises forth.” Lanman understood the attraction, however, for despite their sulphury breath, locomotives are “triumphs of our own age, the laurels of mechanical philosophy, of untrammeled mind, and a liberal commerce!”

That is the great paradox of the Anthropocene: the knowledge that industry and technology are killing us and our world but the fact that we’re forever hobbled by our addict’s inability to do anything about it. Such irrationality can’t be explained away by recourse to simple economic analysis, to the materialist’s fantasy that reason, logic, and utility explicate the ways of humanity. What it requires is the theological imagination, the poetic imagination, the vocabulary of avarice, greed, and vaingloriousness. If there is any myth that has spoken to modernity, especially regarding this ecological precipice, then it’s that master poem of the Romantic period (to which Transcendentalism was only one small branch), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s two-part closet drama Faust, the whole work begun in 1790 and completed in 1831, the decade before Thoreau moved into his little cabin. “If Henry Thoreau was impressed by Faust, he has unfortunately left no record of his enthusiasm,” writes Joel Porte in The New England Quarterly, and yet his landlord was abundantly aware of Goethe’s opus, if conflicted on its merits, Emerson noting in his 1863 Historic Notes of Life and Letters in New England that “the great poem of the age is the disagreeable poem of Faust.” Goethe had innumerable antecedents to draw upon in his drama, from the Faustbuch of the 16th-century Christopher Marlowe’s famed Elizabethan stage play of 1592. All took as their subject the notorious historical necromancer, magician, and alchemist who sold his soul to Satan’s emissary, the demon Mephistopheles, in exchange for a limited period of power, ecstasy, and knowledge. Yet writing at the dawn of the Anthropocene, with his Faust in part a critique of the rationalist Enlightenment instrumentalism that would literally fuel the coming industrial revolution, and Goethe’s work speaks to this moment of rising temperatures and sea-levels. Even more than during Emerson’s century, Faust is the operative myth for today.

“Like Faust, torn between his earthly lusts and his spiritual strivings, they were dualists; yet they yearned for unity,” explained Porte in his consideration of the spiritual conflict at the heart of the 19th-century, and if true while Emerson and Thoreau were alive, how much more accurate today? Faust is our operative myth because it’s only this narrative about a man willing to sell his very soul for power—which feels infinite, but is disturbingly finite—that is fully fit to express the madness of a culture collectively endeavoring to bring about the apocalypse all for the piddling convenience that a fossil fuel economy provides. Through his infernal contract, Faust is given certain abilities—he can transport himself anywhere in the world instantly, he has access to all knowledge, he can spy on people unseen—but of course the cost is his soul. What use would he have of Mephistopheles in our century, when Faust could effectively have the same abilities imparted through his smart phone, social media, and the 24-hour convenience of Amazon shipping? “Him will I drag through life’s wild waste, /Through scenes of vapid dullness,” Mephistopheles says, and it might as well describe the experience of endlessly perusing Twitter, anesthetizing yourself from calamity to calamity as you doom scroll. “Ah, what a sense of your own greatness must/You have,” Faust’s servant Wagner says to him, an apt description of our own ever narcissistic, ever insular perspectives that retreat into microscopic granularity, even while the world burns (though that does provide opportunity for a great Instagram background). Unless Mephistopheles simply remains the animating spirit of modernity as it had emerged in the 19th-century, his goal the promulgation of a utilitarian doctrine that sees both nature and other people as tools in the furthering of the individual’s own desires. “Ich bin der Geist der stets verneint!” the demon tells Faust: “I am the spirit of perpetual negation.”        

Faustian spiritual malaise and our on-going tragedy of the Anthropocene are not distinct, they are mutually reinforcing. A reduction of the earth’s resources into something that provides mere convenience for us and unimaginable wealth for a corrupt few requires a jaded worldview, a denial of the blessedness of the earth (and of those who inhabit it). Pope Francis writes in his encyclical Laudato si’: Care for Our Common Home that “Economic powers continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to… the pursuit of financial gain, which fail to take the context into account, let along the effects on human dignity and the natural environment. Here we see how environmental deterioration and human and ethical degradation are closely linked.” Few adjectives, I would suggest, more clearly describe such a situation as much as “Faustian,” since as the magician foolishly gives away something of infinite worth for the transient and illusory pleasures offered by Mephistopheles, so too does industrial capitalism sacrifice the environment for idols of wealth and myths of progress. What makes Faust such a potent myth—and certainly not just in Goethe’s iteration but in the deep archetypal sense with which people have been drawn to the story of the doomed magician for centuries—is that his human desires for power, meaning, significance, and intimacy, no matter how jaundiced what he actually received may have been, are immaculately understandable. He is not without sympathy.  However, the necromancer’s individual negotiation yielded him the appearance of omniscient powers for a time, and the price was damnation; we’ve been collectively offered oil, gas, and coal, and the cost is nothing less than apocalypse.

I’m under no illusions that relabeling the Anthropocene as a Faustian Epoch will suddenly improve our environmental and economic situation, that merely identifying something so enormous with a term from cultural mythology will reduce the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and transition the global economy to something more humane and sustainable. Yet if there is any central proposition to demonology, it’s that even if you can’t control them completely, there is still a power in knowing the names of those creatures that bedevil you, whether Mammon, Moloch, or Mephistopheles. One need not literally believe in such entities—I don’t, and besides, I’m not even sure what “literally” would mean—but mythopoesis does allow you to measure the enormity of that which we’re up against. Even more importantly, to understand the Anthropocene’s negotiations as Faustian is an important reminder that much like the good doctor, we shouldn’t take those partisans of supply-side orthodoxy at their word that this system is “rational.” Anything that proposes unsustainable and dangerous growth to the detriment of the very biosphere is the exact opposite of rational, courting apocalypse for the benefit of imaginary numbers on a computer screen just like Faust falling in love with chimerical illusions conjured by Satan. What the designation of “Faustian” does is identify libertarianism, neo-liberalism, and all manner of capitalistic enthusiasms as what they are—not economics, but religion.

The relationship between free markets and faith has been noted since Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, and he was abundantly aware of the irrationality at the core of a system where economic “striving becomes understood completely as an end in itself—to such an extent that it appears as fully outside the normal course of affairs and simply irrational.” Weber’s thesis concerned the connections between religion and economics, but Eugene McCarraher argues something even more radical and certainly more reflective of the dire state of the world during the Anthropocene in The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity, arguing that “Under capitalism, money occupies the ontological throne from which God has been evicted.” According to McCarraher, the only way to understand the irrationalities of capitalism, especially at this point in our history, is that it’s the dominant religion of our world and age, where the Lord is the Invisible Hand, its priests are those titans of industry, the liturgy is commercialism, and the rites are sacrificial, with the offering of such dark rituals nothing less than the entirety of the biosphere. Capitalism is now no longer simply a means of organizing labor and money, distributing commodities and assigning them monetary value, but rather a dark faith unto itself. The goal is unlimited growth and ever more capital for a smaller and smaller group of people, even while all of our futures are endangered. Moloch, the Lord of utilitarian reductions and blood sacrifices, has been slowly wakening over the past five centuries. We see him in the thought-experiment of the 18th-century physicist Pierre-Simon Laplace, a demon who is aware of the position, trajectory, and velocity of every single particle in the universe, and thus according to the mathematician can predict every aspect of a predestined future with perfect accuracy, all of consciousness, intentionality, and freedom now mere numbers on a ledger. We see Moloch in the grim scholasticisms of John Calvin, who prayed to a God that existed purely for Himself, every bit the same fatalistic tyrant as Laplace’s demon. And now Moloch reaches his apotheosis with Adam Smith’s invisible hand around all of our necks. Such men, puritans and positivists alike, valorized the word “rationalism” as a kind of shibboleth that masked something malignant at the core, envisioning economics, the universe, and God as a type of hyper-efficient and carefully assembled steam engine, but now the boiler is overheating and the entire thing threatens to explode.

“Storms, earthquakes, fire and flood assail the land” says Mephistopheles, though he sounds like somebody reading their newsfeed. Should the Anthropocene reach its terminus when, despite its name, it becomes impossible for the planet to sustain human life, then capitalism will have revealed itself as the most disastrous ideology in history. Or, perhaps more accurately, not capitalism or technology per se, but those powerful individuals that view both of those things as an end unto themselves rather than a means unto an end. Right now we’re at an impasse—there is a new, global, political, and spiritual reawakening from the movement Extinction Rebellion to Laudato si’ that attempts to imagine a more equitable future—but there’s also the enthusiasms of the Lords of Capital, none more so than the confidence men of Silicon Valley who, like Jeff Bezos, shoot octogenarian actors into space or, like Elon Musk, tinker with monkey brains, praying to Moloch’s final incarnation in the form of the technoutopian Singularity, their creed being nothing less than Faust’s injunction “Bin ich ein Gott? Mir wird so licht!”—”Am I a god? Light fills my mind.” Few political movements have been more effectively tarred than the Luddites, who agitated among the textile mills of England a generation before Thoreau, men who understood that mechanization signaled their economic obsolescence, and thus under capitalism their extinction. Far from being antiquated bumpkins, they were radicals attacking the instrumentalism of unfettered technology. It’s not technology that’s the problem—it’s the doctrine that it’s something more than a tool, that in fact we’re tools for it. When Thoreau heard the locomotive’s whistle, his fear was that rather than riding the train, the train was actually riding upon us. The central economic, political, ethical, and spiritual question of the remainder of this century—no matter how much time we actually might have left—is how to stall that engine so that we’re able to get off of the tracks.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

Proper Poetical Education

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“The metaphor whose manage we are best taught in poetry––that is all there is of thinking.”  —Robert Frost,  “Education by Poetry:  A Meditative Monologue” 
From the backseat, my three-year-old asks, “What does ‘Take a sad song and make it better’ mean?” We’d been listening to The Beatles, and it seems this line had lodged itself inside him. He does this often––chews on something a few days before asking about it.    
When I brought this up to a colleague, he took my son’s question quite literally.  “Well, one way is to put it in a major key,” he said, “like that cover of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ from a few years ago.” I see on YouTube there’s a cottage industry of musicians redoing songs in major keys: R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” receives the treatment, as does The Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of These),” Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” Katy Perry’s “Roar,” the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Californication” too. (And even though my son didn’t ask what it means to take a better song and make it sadder, there are even songs in a major key redone to a minor. Particularly jarring: The Village People’s “YMCA” and Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin.’”) 
My son’s question suggests he knows “Take a sad song and make it better” doesn’t quite mean what it says. He seems to understand “make it better” doesn’t mean “play it more proficiently” or even “make it better at being sad.” His is a question of metaphor and––taking a step back––how someone comes to know metaphor.     
I think immediately of Robert Frost’s “Education by Poetry,” originally a speech to the Amherst College Alumni Council in November 1930. Frost laments how poetry has been pushed out of the curriculum at a number of colleges, with the consequence that graduates are not “educated enough to find their way around in contemporary literature.” Frost continues, with a bit of a kids-these-days tone:  

They don’t know what they may safely like in libraries and galleries. They don’t know how to judge an editorial when they see one. They don’t know how to judge a political campaign. They don’t know when they are being fooled by a metaphor, an analogy, a parable. 

And, I would add, they don’t know how to judge a piece of classic rock. At the root of the problem is reading, and at the root of that, Frost says, is figurative language, “and metaphor is, of course, what we are talking about.” Frost puts it in its starkest terms: “Education by poetry is education by metaphor.” I find it interesting that to make it in the world––to make sense of editorials, of campaigns, of politics––one must understand figurative language. These arenas Frost lists are not ones most people would think belong to the domain of poetry but metaphor, nonetheless, governs them.  
So, we need more poetry, we need more metaphor. Poetry, Frost says, “begins in trivial metaphors, pretty metaphors, ‘grace’ metaphors, and goes on to the profoundest thinking that we have.” There’s a progression, from the banal to the extra-ordinary, poetry able to cover both and everything in between. “Poetry provides the one possible way of saying one thing and meaning another,” Frost says. This is the genesis of my son’s question, and, it seems to me, the foundation of his play. When he takes a spoon and pretends it’s a race-car, I see metaphor. When he knocks over his train set, pretending his hand is a storm, I see metaphor.    
Like Frost says, metaphor begins in the trivial. My son will soon come to know how to use figurative language, and this knowledge comes, in part, from imaginative play, one thing standing in for another. This play mirrors how language works: letters act as metaphors themselves, these marks on a page standing in for sounds produced by our tongues, those sounds standing in for ideas. Everything in language acts as a proxy for something else, or, as Frost says, metaphor is “the whole of thinking.”  And the whole of play.    
Frost then provides a list of everyday metaphors, or, as he calls them, metaphors “to live by.” I won’t go through them––we can each generate a list of our own; it’s easy enough to do so. From my own essay here, I’ve referred to the root of a problem or, two paragraphs prior, the foundation of my son’s play.  Metaphor is impossible to escape. It’s this inability to get away from metaphor that prompts Frost to say the following. (And here I will quote him at length.) The key words for me in this passage are at home, safe, and at ease, these, too, metaphors:  

What I am pointing out is that unless you are at home in the metaphor, unless you have had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere. Because you are not at ease with figurative values: you don’t know the metaphor in its strength and its weakness. You don’t know how far you may expect to ride it and when it may break down with you. You are not safe in science; you are not safe in history.  

Frost had said metaphor is something “to live by,” and the Frost of my epigraph says metaphor is “all there is of thinking.” But metaphor isn’t something we just come into on our own. We aren’t at home in it without guidance or assistance. Metaphor doesn’t come easily. We need, as Frost says above, a “proper poetical education in the metaphor.” A proper poetical education. This is why my son must ask what “take a sad song and make it better” means. He’s searching for that education.  
Frost calls this kind education one wherein the student “comes close to poetry.” (There’s another metaphor, coming close.) It can happen two ways. Students can write poetry––but Frost doesn’t force this on anyone; only those who want should write poetry, he says. The other way to come close to poetry, which he does encourage everyone to do, is to read it.    
(How many college writing courses are built around a book of poetry? What might that open up for students in terms of lessons on reading? What might it teach them about language and its uses? How might it prepare them to judge an editorial when they see one, or judge a political campaign? How might it help them know when they are being fooled by metaphor, by analogy, by parable, by rhetoric?) 
The challenge in teaching poetry, according to Frost, is knowing whether a student has come close to the poet. “The closeness––everything depends on the closeness with which you come” Frost declares. And then, in what I read as a vulnerable moment, he speaks candidly of his own teaching: “It is hard for me to know,” Frost says. He explains: “I have lived with some boys a whole year over some of the poets and I have not felt sure whether they have come near what it was all about.” (What a metaphor here, living over some of the poets. Not reading them but living over them.)    
What teacher hasn’t second guessed their work of the previous year, of a career, wondering, hoping, that the students, even just a single student, came close to the subjects at hand? Sometimes, if he is fortunate enough, Frost hears one remark from one of his students––just one remark, that’s all he has to show for a year of teaching––that will show him the student has come close to poetry. That one remark “was all I got that told me what I wanted to know.”     
As it is with my son. At Christmas, after reading St. Luke’s account of the nativity, I asked him what it means that “Mary treasured up all these things in her heart.” “Oh papa,” he said, dismissing my question, “That’s what I do with you.” 
Image Credit: Wikipedia

Distancing: On the Writers Who Saved My Marriage

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1.One of the late pandemic’s literary hullabaloos was Jonathan Franzen Day. Or more accurately, Crossroads day, in October of 2021. In contemporary fiction, it was as close to a major holiday as we have, in the dual sense of it being a time of celebration and, after much fatigue, an event to be endured.
When the day arrived, I met a friend at our local bookseller, where we spoke to the owner through a plexiglass shield. Outside it was raining, a cold, hard rain. The store had only just opened but already four copies of Crossroads—including ours—had “gone out,” the owner said, as if they’d fledged like common birds. Such is the owner’s equanimity in all things. You don’t operate a bookstore since 1975 and fall prey to the thinking that one book will pay the rent.
A survivor’s idiom, “gone out.” A language of letting go.
The bookstore is not for sale, not officially, but it’s a poorly kept secret that the owner wants to retire. If he likes you, which isn’t a given, he might ask you to work a shift. If you work a shift, the thinking goes, you might get asked to buy the bookstore.
Other than a quick driveway visit during quarantine, I hadn’t seen my friend for almost two years. The week before, we exchanged the usual hesitations and withdrawals—feel free to cancel and let’s check in beforehand—nothing certain but nothing taken for granted, so much about physical contact now provisional, elective, and necessarily so. The specter of meeting up now just that, a specter.
After the bookstore, we decided to get coffee. The coffee shop where for years we met weekly—to debate books and whether our lives were living up to them—still has regular, posted hours but whether they will open on any given day is something of a running gag since Covid. What with the weather and the pandemic-induced ebb in our friendship, I could feel the morning retreating, our Franzens in hand, our primary goal accomplished, a cup of coffee now the risk-equivalent of a hamstring pull or worse. But we arrived to find the door propped open. Even our old seats by the window were unoccupied.
Twenty years ago, I read The Corrections with my parents, and the shared experience of Franzen’s novel is still the high-water mark of our relationship. Together we marveled at the downward spiral of the Lamberts, at Edith’s endless capacity for hope. At whether I or my younger brother, who has since died, more closely resembled Chip. My parents voted for Reagan and Bush I and Bush II but today they watch MSNBC, even while asleep, a turnabout timed to the invasion of Iraq and perhaps to The Corrections. While the slippery feeling persists of knowing them well without knowing them at all—a feeling hardly limited to parents, I admit—I can at least reach back to the time we all assembled for Jonathan Franzen.
Today, instead of books, my mom sends me links to CBS Sunday Morning, in which Anthony Doerr is seated by a lake.
Over coffee, my friend revealed that he and his wife have struggled through the pandemic. His marriage has reached a point of such inertia that it is almost beyond divorce, he says. They are too busy to make changes and too far apart to discuss things. I take off my mask. We still don’t have our coffee, but I need him to see my face. Mentally I add him to my list of favorite couples for whom Covid was a heavy burden, if not the end of things outright. The two divorces (and counting) were all the more troubling because they were so asymptomatic, if you will, heading into the pandemic.
The woman my wife and I see for remote couple’s therapy suggested, this past summer, that we read a book together. We hadn’t read the same book at the same time since The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. I was working on a memoir, so my wife reluctantly chose Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, after reading that all modern memoirs spring from it. The language of The Liar’s Club, in scene after remarkable scene, has the universe-expanding richness of discovering gardening or encountering a new cuisine. But that book has the arc of a ruler. My wife is still on page 120, where Karr introduces the Liar’s Club members. By finishing it, and moving onto Franzen, I’ve misaligned us, and neither of us are sure about trying another book.
Nobody we know thrived during Covid, other than the shareholders of streaming platforms, but my wife and I fared better than some, and maybe most. Naturally, we’re reluctant to share our experience of a global pandemic strengthening something between us, but for all it took away, it provided some things as well.
For one thing, if you set out to write a book just before Covid, and provided you had some access to childcare if you needed it, it wasn’t sub-optimal, at least for a time, to be alone with yourself and with your partner.
At night during early quarantine, when it was time to decide what to watch or whether to read—and from here, whether to do so together—there wasn’t even the flicker of regret about our choices, because time was suddenly the commodity of which we had the most. We could re-watch The Sopranos, an investment I never thought possible, and I could finally finish Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, as well, with time left over for a kindhearted baking show in which baking, if you ask me, is almost entirely beside the point.
2.The other day I ran into the woman whose husband slept with my wife eight years ago. The day after it happened, my wife told me about it, despite her knowing it might end us, given my vanity and family history. The husband waited to tell his wife, waited some more, and he never told her. It took my wife and I years to recover the trust, to get to a place where co-reading The Liar’s Club could happen, and now we’re the couple who hold hands at their son’s soccer practice. But there were days, years even, where neither of us were sure. And we’re still not sure, because you can’t be, but the will is there. The will is everything.
Books aren’t why we stayed together. No couple ever recovered from infidelity by only reading books, even the books written for that purpose. But books are what kept me from falling apart. Big books like Franzen’s Freedom, which cut a little too close to my own situation, and little books with huge undercurrents, like Jenny Offil’s Dept. of Speculation.
When I see the woman around town, I keep checking to see if the light in her eyes has gone out, like it did in mine. I still wonder if I should tell her, like I threatened her husband I would.

These are the kinds of questions that Jonathan Franzen makes me think about. Whether your person is Colson Whitehead or Jennifer Egan or Colm Toíbín, certain writers help you sort through the serious questions at a level so deep, the concept of sorting doesn’t exist there. Reading is therapy in isolation. Reading is the practice of self-awareness. The little questions, like whether to clean the house before or after a party, or whether to clean a toilet before or after using it, are up to us to figure out.
Franzen is my big book writer, big on arrival, big in theme, and for the most part, big in the literary pleasures he delivers.
Whatever you think of Franzen—moralist, systems novelist, unsympathetic nerd—the reason he matters, to me and to others, is his willingness to confront a huge slice of American reality in all its white, Midwestern, protestant former glory. While that reality isn’t our future, it is demonstrably one of our pasts, and Franzen, at a massive scale, has been fearless in showing us the terror that was always behind the lie of this seemingly uncomplicated identity. It’s the agony of maintaining a posture for so long, it threatens to break you.
Terry McDonell, a founder of Literary Hub, writes in An Accidental Life about the “awesome post-literateness” of being asked in a bar whether his novel is fiction or nonfiction. (It’s a great moment in a book overfull with great moments; I once gave it for Christmas to everyone I knew still reading books.)  While I believe that, for McDonell, there was indeed an awesomeness to confronting post-literacy, implied in his head-scratching tone is a disbelief that no longer exists. Today’s post-literateness is much grander, a thing sleeker and slicker and therefore more insidious. The last serious reader I know was seated before me, at the coffee shop, urging me to finish the Richard Ford novel I’d just told him I’d abandoned. That I’d started in part because of McDonell’s praise for Ford.
It was The Sportswriter, which despite decades of hype, didn’t disappoint in the least. But I couldn’t finish it. The novel is about distance, about the gaps in our ability to communicate and even our desire to do so. About the space required to survive repeated trauma. The loss of a child. Divorce. I just couldn’t do it, I said. Not right now.
My friend convinced me I’d started out with the wrong Ford novel. He said I should read The Ultimate Good Luck, and based on that title alone, I will. He is the last person I know who can do that for me, who can embarrass whatever algorithm Amazon uses by serving up a recommendation from inside his head.
Come to think of it, he should buy the bookstore, I said. He laughed at that.
The thin, dry miracle of his laugh. I’d almost forgotten it.

Is This Why Edgar Allan Poe Never Had Kids?

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Two mysteries dominate discussions of Edgar Allan Poe, whose tales of revenge and murder still captivate us. First, there are the strange circumstances of his death in October of 1849. Then there’s the even stranger matter of his marriage to his much younger cousin, Virginia. What was the nature of their relationship? Was it sexual, and if so, why didn’t they have children?

“I was a child and she was a child,” Poe wrote in “Annabel Lee,” his late-life poem seemingly inspired by his marriage. In fact, Poe was 27 when, in May of 1836, he wed Virginia Clemm in a boarding-house parlor. She was not quite 14, an exceptionally young bride even by the standards of their day. As offensive as the marriage may be to modern mores, it appears to have been motivated by Poe’s understandable desire to unite what little family he had, while his aunt, Maria Clemm—Virginia’s mother—consented to the union, and always lived with the couple afterward.

The Poes would be married for 11 years, but whether the marriage was consummated, immediately or later, has bedeviled scholars for over a century. In the 1920s, Joseph Wood Krutch theorized that Poe was “psychically” and physically impotent. A decade later, Marie Bonaparte, also applying psychoanalytic concepts to Poe’s life and work, alleged that Poe never acted on any of his sexual desires, with Virginia or anyone else, because his true interests lay in “sado-necrophilia.” Nor has such thinking fallen altogether out of fashion. In 2000, Jan Finkel cited Krutch’s impotence theory, saying, “there is no evidence that Poe ever had an adult relationship with a woman.”

Children are the usual proof we get of anyone’s sexual relationship, so the Poes’ lack thereof has fueled this salacious speculation. Yet other evidence does exist—and can’t be ignored. In Poe’s 1842 story “Eleonora,” for example, a pair of cousins grow up together in a beautiful valley, until the female cousin turns 15. At that time, “locked in each other’s embrace,” the two at last discover “Eros,” or love and desire. In turn, the valley blooms, ringing with life like a Wagner opera. Even the clouds of the sky grow closer to the ground, Poe writes, “shutting us up, as if forever, within a magic prison-house of grandeur and of glory.”

His gift for metaphor shines here. Comparing erotic life to a “magic prison-house” is a dead-on analogy to make you laugh in the painful way. The whole passage is Poe at his most explicit and seemingly autobiographical, appearing to imply that he and Virginia did know sexual joy, and to imply further that this aspect of their relationship began closer to Virginia’s 15th birthday, or approximately 16 months after the wedding, in late 1837. Poe often fudged dates, it’s true, sometimes shaving a few years off his own age to portray himself as more of a Romantic wunderkind, and adding a year or two to Virginia’s age when it suited him, too. But here again the explicitness of the passage, and the specificity of the timeline given as a relationship between cousins blossoms into mutual desire, is hard to ignore.

What’s more, the Poes’ friends described the marriage as intimate, with George Graham, Poe’s one-time boss and one of the most reliable firsthand sources, characterizing Poe as a “devoted husband.” Likewise, there is Virginia’s only known poem, a sweet acrostic written as a Valentine’s Day present, in which she tells her husband, “Ever with thee I wish to roam/Dearest, my life is thine.” The overall suggestion is one of profound love as well as intense domestic devotion.

Finally, there are the simple odds to consider. Not all marriages are physically consummated, not then and not now; the majority are, making it more likely than not that the Poes eventually developed a sexual relationship. By the same token, more people were (and are) fertile than not. We are indeed assuming a lot if we say that the Poes were likely sexually active as well as fertile, and I admit I’m speculating here, just the same as earlier commentators. Still, after five years’ deep research into Poe, consummated in a book, I’m convinced I’ve arrived at the real reason they had no children. It’s a hidden-in-plain-sight answer that readers today, amidst the rising costs of childcare and medical care, may grasp straightaway: The Poes simply couldn’t afford to have kids.

Here again, the timeline emerges as compelling. Line up the years and you will spot the economic rationale: The Poes’ marriage in fact took shape during the most devastating financial crisis in American history, at least until the Great Depression a century later. They married in the late spring of 1836. Within a year, the Panic of 1837 was fully underway, with banks shuttering and asset prices collapsing. Tens of thousands of people lost their livelihoods.

The Poes were affected, too, all the more so because Poe had chosen almost the exact moment before the crisis hit to try and trade up. In the early months of 1837, he’d left (or perhaps was fired from) his job at the Southern Literary Messenger. The Panic hit soon after, and the better job Poe had hoped to pursue in New York seems to have evaporated, essentially overnight. He could hardly any find freelance work, either. The effects of the crisis lingered for years, and his income during its depths averaged just $4 a day, adjusted for inflation. At times, the family had nothing to eat but bread and molasses.

If, as Poe hinted in “Eleonora,” he and Virginia consummated the marriage in late 1837, it would’ve been an impoverished moment, not the time to consider adding to a family. This is where birth control might have entered the Poes’ picture, and where their larger era’s massive drop in birth rates becomes relevant. In fact, birth rates declined so dramatically throughout the 19thh century that historians who track such arcane matters call it the “demographic transition.” Between 1800 and 1900, white married couples went from having an average seven children to fewer than four. The rate of extramarital pregnancy similarly plummeted during Poe’s lifetime.

Historians debate the causes of this shift, ascribing it to urbanization, war, and toward the end of the century, the beginnings of the women’s movement. So far, so plausible, but birth control’s role must be acknowledged. Techniques known in the Poes’ day included coitus interruptus, condoms, douching, and abortifacients (or pills to induce miscarriage that were advertised in a coded, if not coy, manner). Abortion was a relatively common practice, too, and broadly legal. My admittedly prurient best guess is that the Poes may have practiced one or more of these methods, with the lowest-cost methods the most likely.

And by the time their fortunes were looking up in the early 1840s? Virginia had grown ill with tuberculosis, which can cause infertility, while there are the secondary effects of grave illness to consider as well. The couple may have believed Virginia’s health too weak to risk a pregnancy after 1842, when she began to show symptoms. And in fact, Virginia would die in early 1847, closing the question forever.

In the end, there’s no way to prove this theory that the Poes didn’t have children because they couldn’t afford it. Perhaps factors in their diet and environment or some epigenetic cause made birth control unnecessary. Maybe I myself am the flaw in the rationale, inevitably seeing the history through the lens of my own millennial experience because I live in an era when economic crises and the rising cost of raising children have caused many people to delay or even forego parenthood. But my hunch, honed by research, is that a lot less has changed since the Poes’ time than we might hope. Rather, our own day is, to borrow a thought from the great Romantic biographer Richard Holmes, a “particularly fruitful moment” to rethink Poe—a moment in which his life story can take on a new “particular and poignant resonance.”

Image Credit: Pixabay

Daring to Eat the Peach: The Nature of Being Possessed

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Sitting at a table crowded with red and green and blue glazed tajine pots filled with mutton and saffron couscous that smelled of cinnamon, turmeric, and fenugreek alongside bowls of pickled plums and hardboiled eggs, while shakily holding a small cup of astringent anise mahia, William S. Burroughs first heard the ecstatic music of Boujelod—the Father of Skins; the Father of Fear—the goat god. Burroughs was obsessed with the mysterious place where words, and music, and images seem to come into a mind as if from without, the cursing and blessing of inspiration. He travelled to Morocco in 1954, three years after he shot his wife, Jean Volmer, to death in their Mexico City apartment; she was drunk and Burroughs was on benzos, they were performing a trick they called “their William Tell act.” The murder “brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a life long struggle, in which I had no choice except to write my way out,” Burroughs recalled in his autobiographical novel Queer. The author lived in the Tangiers International Zone, administered by a lackadaisical alliance of Portugal, Italy, Belgium, Holland, and the United States, enjoying the cheap dope and willing young men, but at the 1001 Nights restaurant and club he would hear the possessor, the font of all inspiration. The Dark One Himself.

Burroughs was always square in appearance, in keeping with his wealthy St. Louis upbringing and his Harvard education. At the 1001 Nights he’d have been conspicuous wearing a characteristic grey flannel suit and skinny black tie, a wool fedora and leather wingtips. Gaunt, hollow-cheeked and dead-eyed. Six musicians sat in a circle, wearing long, loose, green djellabas, rough woolen burnouses, and Berber caps. They played the double-reed ghaita, the goat-skinned tebel, the ceramic djarbouga, the picked gimbri, the bowed kamanja, and the bamboo lira. A single droning note pulsated, and then a squeal of other instruments would begin to play, the staccato vibration of a reed, the discordant strumming of the lute, the wafting of tones back and forth, a piercing ululation. Vocalists sang in multiphonics, what’s known as “throat singing,” wherein a single person produced two or three notes at once. Instrumentalists used circular breathing, inhaling through their nose and exhaling into their horns and flutes in a continuous stream, so that there are no pauses, no rests. No melody was discernible, but the rhythm was a complicated cacophony; the silence between notes was as deafening as the notes themselves. A flickering. To fall into their trance was like being hypnotized by a fire. Hallucinatory, incessant, relentless, incantatory, apocalyptic. A barefoot boy, clad entirely in goat-skins, brandishes two olive branches and begins to dance, an incarnation of Boujelod himself. A being better known as Pan.  

The musicians were from Jajouka, deep in the inhospitable Ahl-Srif mountains of the western Sahara. Seven nights a week, six of them would perform at 1001 Nights before a motley audience of diplomats and expatriates, prostitutes and bohemians. The restaurant would be packed with curious foreigners, shoes scuffing the zellij and leaning against walls decorated with woven tapestries featuring intricate ogee designs, lattice-worked brass lanterns illuminating Arabesque stencils on the ceiling. Sisters and mothers of the men worked as servers and in the kitchen, where the head chef was a Jajouka local, Mohamed Hamri. Only 21, Hamri would go on to become a folklorist who recorded the legends of the musicians; he had introduced a friend of the owner to their music three years before. Hamri first met the American composer and writer Paul Bowles in a Tangiers train station; the latter in turn introduced the young Moroccan to the Anglo-American avant-garde writer Brion Gysin, who owned and managed the 1001 Nights. At a beachfront festival in 1950, the two Westerners would first listen to the droning trance music, with Gysin recalling that he had thought “I just want to hear that music for the rest of my life. I want to hear it every day.” Of the three men who would first introduce the Master Musicians of Jajouka (as they’d come to be marketed) to a Western audience—Bowles, Gysin, and Burroughs—the least interesting person is the last, and William S. Burroughs was fascinating.


Bowles had come for the same sorts of reasons many libertines had—Morocco afforded him more freedom than was countenanced by his conservative family. Half a century was spent in Tangiers, which Bowles first visited in 1931 with his lover, the composer of Appalachian Spring, Aaron Copland. Cosmopolitan, elegant, charming, and handsome, Bowles had an impressive roster of friends, including Orson Welles, Salvador Dali, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Koestler, Tennessee Williams, Allen Ginsberg, and Gregory Corso. Christopher Isherwood was supposedly so taken with Bowles that he borrowed the name for the female protagonist of The Berlin Stories, immortalized by Liza Minelli in the musical adaptation Cabaret. During his time in Morocco, Bowles equally mastered musical composition and writing. Authoring dozens of scores for his own plays, he also wrote novels such as his dark Tangiers nocturne Let It Come Down, with its axiom that “We’re all monsters… It’s the age of monsters.” Critics have noted that Bowles’s music was light and his writing was dark, perhaps detecting the union of the Apollonian and the Dionysian borrowed from Jajouka.

The English-born Gysin’s mind vibrated at the same frequency as his American friend, and he was even more promiscuous, a brilliant dilettante, an experimental poet and novelist, performance artist, calligrapher, psychedelic theorist, and inventor, who wanted to push literature to the same extremes as modern art. His biographer John Geiger describes him in Nothing Is True–Everything Is Permitted: The Life of Brian Gysin as the “most influential cultural figure of the Twentieth Century that most people have never heard of.” Many influential people knew of Gysin, however, as he befriended Jean Genet, Francis Bacon, Max Ernst, Patti Smith, Timothy Leary, Iggy Pop, and David Bowie. More than anyone, he’s associated with Burroughs, who first dismissed Gysin as a mere restauranteur catering to “uppity queens” (himself included), but after the Englishmen’s death in 1986, Burroughs admitted that his frequent collaborator was the only other writer whom he respected. The two expanded on the “cut-up” method of composition, a means of using selective randomization to pull inspired words from the ether. First practiced by Dadaist poets like Tristan Tzara, the original cut-up method involved taking an original composition, and cutting words and phrases out with scissors, and then rearranging them into new texts, letting unseen correspondences, similarities, congruencies guide your hand as if an oracle. Gysin and Burroughs developed a variation they called “fold-in,” where two separate pages of writing are folded in half, and then combined, so that the new composition is read across. Their collaborative 1977 novel The Third Mind was written this way, wherein the “first step in re-creation is to cut the old lines that hold you right where you are sitting now,” something also on display in Burroughs’s most famous book Naked Lunch, a work of “magic and taboos, curses and amulets.”

What drew Gysin and Burroughs together was the incantatory aspect of literature, whereby the manipulation of words can generate divinations and conjurations. “The poets are supposed to liberate the words,” wrote Gysin in Let the Mice In, “not chain them in phrases… Writers don’t own their words. Since when do words belong to anybody?” The two explored how language could be combined and recombined, cut up and rearranged, how words can be as if a virus, where thinking happens on the page rather than in the head. Enthusiasts of tarot, astrology, and I Ching, Gysin and Burroughs understood inspiration as a form of possession, as an intersection between astral realms and the typewriter. This was magic as literary criticism. Heightened consciousness—meditation, drugs, sex—has often been used to pull the brain from its doldrums, to elevate it, to capture Icarian fire that’s then transcribed into mere books. “Magic calls itself the Other Method for controlling matter and knowing space,” Gysin is quoted as saying in Matthew Levi Stevens’s essay for Beatdom. They heard in the flickering drone of Jajouka the alchemical discordance of tone and note, that spirit kingdom where inspiration resides. “In Morocco, magic is practiced…assiduously,” Gysin claimed, “ecstatic dancing is the music of the brotherhoods [that] may be called a form of psychic hygiene. You know your music when you hear it one day. You fall into line and dance until you pay the piper.” Long after 1001 Nights closed, Gysin invited an English recording artist to Jajouka to record their rites. The musician stayed only for a day in 1969, but gathered enough material that an album of their heretofore unheard music would be released. He played the saxophone brilliantly, among other instruments, for a group named the Rolling Stones, and the album he produced was entitled Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Jajouka, finally released two years after he returned to his East Sussex estate where he drowned to death in his swimming pool at the prescribed age of 27.

“Pleased to meet you, hope you guessed my name,” Mick Jagger croons on “Sympathy for the Devil,” the most electric of tracks on the Stones’ 1968 album Beggars Banquet. In the Jean-Luc Godard documentary of the same name, Rolling Stones’ drummer Charlie Watts plays a Jajouka drum in one scene, a full year before his bandmate would decamp to Morocco. If there is a mystery about its provenance it’s unconsciously clarified in the primal syncopation that thrums through the track, with an answer in the chorus. The Master Musicians of Jajouka sound far more ominous than the Rolling Stones, and “Sympathy for the Devil” is already ominous, but the distinctive, bestial, Luciferian rhythm in both the rock song and the religious rites are paeans to giving the devil his due. Not to worshiping the devil, you must understand, but acknowledging these things of darkness that permeate creation. Music, poetry, writing, they are all inspired by the muse and inhabited by it, they allow us to be possessed by such forces, but they also exorcise them. Hamri wrote in Tales from Jajouka that “Such a powerful contact, with a sound and pitch so high, could be used with the blessing of Allah like a surgical tool to heal sick minds.”

Such music had first been brought to Jajouka by Boujelod, when a shepherd named Attar had dared to sleep in a forbidden cave near the village. Awakened by the goat god playing his pipes, Attar came to an agreement, whereby Boujelod would teach the shepherd his music, as long as the man kept such rhythms secret. Attar broke his promise, and in retaliation Boujelod demanded a bride from Jajouka as a sacrifice. The canny villagers sent out a young woman known to be insane, and her frenetic dancing exhausted Boujelod, who departed. Subsequently, the descendants of Attar have performed a pantomime of that incident every year, the ritual linked to both fertility and inspiration (for what is the latter but a variety of the former?). Ostensibly derived from the Islamic Sufi mysticism that’s prevalent throughout Ahl-Srif, a realm of saint’s shrines and dervish lodges, this music recalled far earlier traditions. Anthropologist Edvard Westermarck provides a hypothesis as to the origin of such rites in his anachronistically titled 1933 study Pagan Survivals in Mohammedan Civilization. Morocco is where Moorish-Spanish Al-Andalus kisses Northern Africa, a land whose dreams had been spoken in Arabic, Latin, Sephardic Ladino, Carthaginian, Phoenician, the Silha, Kabyle, and Tamazight languages of the Berbers, and the lost language of Silbo Gomero, spoken by the Guanche, who until the 15th century communicated in whistle, though ultimately murdered by the Spanish during their invasion of the Canary Islands. Deserts buffeted between the pagan and Jewish, the Christian and Islamic. Into this fragrant tagine, Westermarck detects a flavor of Roman origin, noting the similarity between the rituals of Jajouka and the festivals of Saturnalia, Lupercalia, and Kalends, as all of those festivals featured a penitent “dressed up in skins of some sacrificed goats … to benefit [the participants] and especially to expel illness… a scapegoat as well as a positive expeller of evil,” Westermarck wrote.

Gysin was blunter in his assessment of the practices, writing in The Third Mind that “Their secret, guarded even from them, was that they were still performing the Rites of Pan under the ragged cloak of Islam.” Timothy Leary was even more anachronistic, claiming that the musicians were a “4,000-year-old rock band.” Certain correspondences can be drawn between Jajouka and the scapegoat as described in the biblical book of Leviticus, or the various Dionysian rites of the Maenads practiced in the classical world. But there are, to be sure, problems with Gysin’s enthusiasms, not least of which is the barely concealed colonialist condescension that deigns to tell a group of men who are otherwise pious Muslims that he understands their own culture better than them, the orientalist assumption that a white Englishmen would be the best interpreter of Jajouka. They were, after all, a guild blessed by the Sufi saint Sidi Ahmed Schiech, whose shrine was still in the village. Still, it’s fair to note that the ritual of Boujelod has nothing obvious to do with Islam, and that if Westermarck and Gysin claim a Dionysian origin, it’s not necessarily ridiculous, as the Romans had ruled in North Africa for 500 years, and its possible some traditions may have endured, even if their origin was occluded.


Pagan rites had survived Christianity in sublimated European folk rituals, after all; in the Abruzzi village of Cocullo, not far from where my grandfather was born, the Festa dei Serpari honors St. Domenico on his feast day by parading his statue through the streets, decorated with a garland of writhing serpents, a practice derived directly from the Umbrian snake goddess Angitia. Perhaps there is something archetypal in these animalistic flourishes, all of those snakes and goats appearing across cultures but often connotating the same thing. From bacchanals and the Maenads to the witches’ sabbath and Black Mass, the goat has been endowed with ambivalent symbolism. Dionysus’s reveries and the orgies of Satan are not exactly parallel, but they’re not perpendicular either. Possession was strongly associated with the Dionysiac rites when the god was imported from the Thracians and he was quickly conflated with madness, irrationality, intoxication, and poetry. As E.R. Dodds writes in The Greeks and the Irrational, Dionysius was “a god of ecstatic prophecy,” “the patron of a new art, the art of the theater,” who was a “Master of Illusions,” and both the “cause of madness and the liberator from madness.” Dionysius wasn’t evil—but he was dangerous. This is true no matter what name he took—Pan, Orpheus, Bacchus, Ogoun, Sucellus, Loki, Tezcatzontecati, Osiris, Lucifer. Boujelod. Pleased to meet you. As Bachier Attar, a musician in the guild, told a New York Times reporter in 1995, “We say that jajouka music can wake the devils from the ground.”  

Part of giving the devil his due is performing such rituals as an honor, but also as a means of corralling that dangerous spark from whence poetry and song originate. The penitent in the skins of Boujelod is both possessed by the creature and exorcizing him—this has much to do with control as it does with abandon. Friedrich Nietzsche writes that those who “turn away with pity or contempt from phenomena,” who dismiss them as mere “folk diseases,” are “poor creatures [who] have no idea how blighted and ghostly this ‘sanity’ of theirs sounds when the glowing life of Dionysiac revelers thunders past them.” Nietzsche has no time for prigs who are “bolstered by a sense of their own sanity,” and when it came to Jajouka that was definitely not the case with Bowles, Gysin, and Burroughs, of whom many adjectives could be applied, but sanity would be one used sparingly. The latter two in particular were drawn to the archaic and ecstatic undercurrent of this music. Both were obsessed with the supernatural, the divine, the occult— the buried question sung by Orpheus but long dismissed by the rationally inclined as rank superstition—from whence is the origin of poems? Burroughs made clear his stake, writing in Queer that “My concept of possession is closer to the medieval model than to modern psychological explanation,” for he is speaking of a “definite possessing entity,” while Gysin, as quoted by Stevens, declared “I talk a new language… I talk about the springs and traps of inspiration.”    

When Bowles was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia—he dropped out and moved to Paris, then Tangiers—he was partial to certain subjects. Gregorian Chants. Duke Ellington. The Blues. And T.S. Eliot. That Anglophilic monarchist—an upper-class Missourian just like Burroughs—was steadfastly Apollonian, and yet he is not short on Dionysian evocations. The Waste Land was Bowles’s favorite poem, but in the “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” the titular fool asks himself “Do I dare. Disturb the universe?” Though this is not what Eliot himself meant, the line is an apt summation of what inspiration is—it’s both to be disturbed by the universe and to disturb the universe. For after all, you are a small sentient portion of that far larger medium of reality—we are all microcosms of that immeasurable thing—we are small parts of the universe that has gained consciousness. Prufrock asks himself “Do I dare eat a peach?” and in the context of the poem it’s an indictment of the aging narrator’s self-seriousness, but it relates well to disturbing the universe, for fruit has always facilitated the fall (and there’s no inspiration if you’re stuck in perfect Eden). Augustine stole some pears in the marketplace of Hippo, not far from Morocco, and then threw them away, the point of the filching to revel in wickedness. “I loved my fall,” Augustine writes in his fourth-century Confessions, “not the object for which I had fallen but my fall itself.” Augustine identified such transgressions as a manifestation of that ur-lapse, when Adam and Eve ate another piece of forbidden fruit. In the West it has traditionally been depicted as an apple. Some have hypothesized it was a pomegranate. Perhaps it was a pear or peach.

Regardless, we’re to understand that fatal act as the moment when everything went wrong, when humanity’s rebelliousness condemned us to exile. And yet it’s just as easy to see this decision as the first fruit of inspiration, a fortunate fall that imbued them with the audacious ability to create, which had previously only been the eternal purview of the Lord. Every inspired act was thus a faint echo of both God’s creation and the self-creation of the fall that propelled Adam and Eve to points east. Idiosyncratic as such an interpretation might be, it has ample heretical precedent, with the orthodox Hippolytus recording that the Gnostic Monoimus had preached that all must “Abandon the search for God and the creation and other matters of a similar sort. Look for him by taking yourself as the starting point. Learn who it is within you who makes everything his own… If you carefully investigate these matters you will find Him in yourself.” God was a mere demiurge, but the higher creator—often associated with the serpent—was the liberator. As with Dionysus and his snakes, or Angitia and hers, this liberation is the teaching of how to create, it is the imparting of inspiration. Both freedom and madness can result. A dangerous present. Hans Jonas writes in The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginning of Christianity that “it is understand that, though thrown into temporality, we had an origin in eternity, and so we have an aim in eternity.” A flash of inspiration is both evidence that we come from Eden and that we no longer live there; a brief reflection of what it feels like to create as God. A divinely imparted gift. A dangerous present.      

“Let me pass through the arch,” wrote Federico Garcia Lorca in “Double Poem of Lake Eden” from Poet in New York, translated by Greg Simon (no relation) and Stephen F. White, composed while the Spanish poet and playwright was staying in rural Vermont. With a Maenad’s intensity, Lorca intoned “Here you are drinking my blood… while my eyes are shattered by aluminum/and drunken voices in the wind.” This is a mystic who knows the secret rites, who sees in creation “my liberty, my human love/in the darkest corner of the breeze no one wants.” Bowles was intensely moved by Lorca, this demon-haunted poet who had made his stand in fascist Spain across the Straits of Gibraltar, a republican, anarchist, socialist, and most of all Spaniard who agitated for liberation against the Francoists, and who in some Andalusian field in 1936, five years after the American first arrived in Tangiers, suffered a bullet in the brain because of it. “Then I realized I had been murdered/They looked for me in cafes, cemeteries and churches/… but they did not find me. /They never found me? /No. They never found me,” reads an entire lyric from Poet in New York, presciently written seven years before his assassination. Appropriate, because just as Lorca was murdered on some road to Granada in the dead of night, a blood-sacrifice for the Spanish people, so was Dionysus torn apart and resurrected on the road to Thebes. In 1943, Bowles adapted some of Lorca’s lyrics for a zarzuela entitled The Wind Remains, with Bernstein conducting the opening night. Long fascinated with Spanish culture, and Lorca’s presentation of the nation as a death-haunted realm of pathos, where the bull fight was a Dionysian sacrament and stern Catholicism was the operative mood, Bowles also translated dialogue from Lorca’s play Yerma, which he incorporated into an opera of that same name.

Lorca’s original was a pagan tragedy worthy of the ancient Greeks in its horrific tale of a childless young woman driven to madness and murder by her inability to conceive, a play about the perils of inspiration deferred. After she has strangled her husband to death, and thus forever precluded the ability of having a baby with him, Yerma screams “Don’t come near me, because I’ve killed my child. I’ve killed my child with my own hands!” A modern ritualization of that murder from Euripides’s The Bacchae, when Pentheus is murdered by his own mother after she has been entranced by Dionysus. No modern aesthetician of darkness was as proficient as Lorca, for none was quite as blunt about the chimerical nature of inspiration. He was the theorist of duende, his term for the irrational, ineffable, inscrutable nature of the creative spark, independent from positivist and rationalist justification for where ideas originate, borrowing the name for his term from the malevolent spirit that populates Spanish folklore, a wicked gnome who can both give and take away. “Play and Theory of the Duende” was Lorca’s 1933 treatise on the ways in which certain works of art reflect this dark spirit, and in the process embodies qualities that are intangible, authentic, earthy, deathly.

“The duende, then, is a power, not a work,” writes Lorca, differentiating between inspiration and that which results. “It is a struggle, not a thought. I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, ‘The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet.’ Meaning this: it is not a question of ability, but of true, living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation.” For Lorca, the duende is explicitly Dionysian. Any type of art is capable of both being inspired by and producing duende, but Lorca thought that music, dance, and poetry had an energy that made them more amenable. Certain artists are obvious possessors of duende—Robert Johnson and his Satanic blues, most of Bob Dylan, all of Leonard Cohen, Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue and of course Sketches of Spain, everything in William Blake, Joan Didion’s sentences in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Tom Waits’s voice on Frank’s Wild Years, Toni Morrison’s narratives, The Velvet Underground and Nico, particularly “The Black Angel’s Death Song,” young Marlon Brando, Jackson Pollock’s splatters, the verse of Sylvia Plath, John Coltrane’s saxophone, and of course the musicians of Jajouka. “The duende’s arrival always means a radical change in forms,” writes Lorca. “It brings to old planes unknown feelings of freshness, with the quality of something newly created, like a miracle, and it produces an almost religious enthusiasm.”       

Inspiration arrives mysteriously; it is not necessarily freely chosen, but comes as if a grace. No artist or writer can quite say why or how inspiration comes, but they can often say where or when, which means that there are ways of summoning her. “The duende is an enabling figure,” writes poet Edward Hirsch in The Angel and the Demon: Searching for the Source of Artistic Inspiration, “like Freud’s idea of the uncanny or Proust’s perception of involuntary memory, because it makes something visible that might be otherwise be invisible… It surfaces wherever and whenever a demonic anguish suddenly charges and electrifies a work of art in the looming presence of death.” Dreams have always been a conduit for inspiration. Keith Richards awoke from a bender one night, grabbed his guitar and recorded a riff, in the morning he played back the hook for “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” Around the same time, the entire melody to “Yesterday” was imparted into the slumbering mind of Paul McCartney, so mathematically perfect that he feared it was something that he’d heard before and forgotten. The impetus to Frankenstein came to Mary Shelley after an evening of horror stories told amongst friends in a Swiss villa; that night in a fretful dream she “saw the hideous phantasm of a man sketched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.” John Milton similarly drew from night visions, claiming that the blank verse of Paradise Lost was directly transmitted into his skull by his muse Urania, and that in the morning the blind poet’s mind had to be “milked” by his amanuensis (a troubling metaphor). Drugs and alcohol have always been a treatment for summoning the muse, albeit often with diminishing returns. Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote his lush “Kubla Kahn” stoned on opium, with visions of “gardens bright with sinuous rills, /Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree,” until his reveries were interrupted by that infamous person from Porlock banging on his door. The Tang dynasty poet Li Bai wrote his lyrics “Looking up, I find the moon bright/Then bowing my head, I drown in homesickness” while drunk, and the Persian poet Omar Khayyam’s rubaiyat with his celebration of “A jug of wine, a loaf of bread and thou/singing beside me in the wilderness” was written with a cup of shiraz in hand. For a genius, an intoxicated mind can sometimes be the royal road to wisdom; for myself it was more often the muddy ditch to a hangover. Since getting sober I’ve found that walking and a shower just as often bring inspiration.   

Life is an ever-obvious source, experience mixed within the smithy of the unconscious mind in the creation of something new. Adventure, exploration, journeying have all been used to discover the intangible. There’s a reason why the perceived exoticism of Tangiers drew Bowles, Gysin, and Burroughs. Edward Gibbon resolved to write The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire while on a gentleman’s grand tour of Europe, where “as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the temple of Jupiter… the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind.” Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage drew no inspiration from the author’s own experience, his having been born six years after Appomattox. Without Manassas or Gettysburg, Antietam or the Wilderness to draw on, Crane rather explained that it was “sense of the rage of conflict on the football field” from whence he appropriated verisimilitude. To be inspired by an earlier work of art is common enough, to understand those that came before you as your muses. As a student of mine pointed out, both Dante’s The Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost are biblical fan fiction. There is no Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote without those “vain and empty books of chivalry,” no Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary without Don Quixote, no Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot without Madame Bovary. A divinely ordered chain of influence radiating out through all of that which we write and read, inspiration touching everything like light from the Big Bang. There are the iconic means of inspiration as well—ecstasy, madness, visions. Blake was gifted with “a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars,” which initiated him into his prophetic vocation; almost two centuries later, while Ginsberg masturbated to some lines of Blake in his Greenwich Village apartment, he heard the dead poet whisper in his ear “For everything that lives is holy, life delights in life.”     

Plutarch writes in The Obsolescence of Oracles that there was a chthonic message relayed throughout the Peloponnese two millennia ago, but rather than whispered it was shouted. During the reign of Tiberius and when the fishermen Thamus heard an echoing voice declare, “Are you there? When you reach Palodes, take care to proclaim that the great god Pan is dead.” Goat-legged spirit of the woods, the satyr so often conflated with Dionysus (at least by many of the mystery cults), the god of fertility, sexuality, and inspiration, had expired. The Church Fathers naturally saw in Plutarch an allegorical account of the birth of their own God who would die, and certainly paganism itself is replete with stories of perishing deities who descend only to be resurrected. Pan is, like Dionysus, another dangerous god, a wild and intoxicated being who imparts wisdom, or a version of it, to the drunk, the foolish, the ecstatic. Foolish to think that any such god can ever die, at least not really. Look at the first-century marble pulled from the Vesuvian ash of Herculaneum, goat-hooved, bearded, caprine Pan with his flute, arm around Daphnis, staring with Arcadian lust at the shepherd. Then look at Peter Paul Rubens’s orange sfumato-hazed print of the demigod from 16 centuries later, the stolid Catholic presenting the creature in odalisque repose, staring into the eyes of the viewer with the same intensity as that shepherd more than a millennium before. Pan has a way of possessing still. Dionysius, too.

Plutarch was wrong—no oracle can ever be silenced. William Butler Yeats claimed that his poems composed through automatic writing were compelled by a force beyond him, a djinn whom he named Leo Africanus. The Swedish artistic visionary Hilma af Klimt attributed her abstract masterpieces to a spirit which had possessed her, and by consulting a Ouija board, Sylvia Plath communed with a being who identified himself as Pan, writing in her poem “The Colossus” that she’d said to him “Perhaps you consider yourself an oracle,/Mouthpiece of the dead, or of some god or other.” Even Bob Dylan told an interviewer in 2004 that his music had its origin from a bargain struck with the “Chief Commander… [of] this earth and in a world we can’t see.” Burroughs and Gysin, both being Americans, the former by birth and the latter naturalized, and perhaps in keeping with the national spirit, tried to summon Pan through technologized ecstasy with their infamous “Dreamachine.” Not so dissimilar from Plath’s Ouija board, and the two built a contraption that involved placing a cardboard cylinder with evenly cut slits onto a record player with a light-bulb descended within. A person watching the Dreamachine with closed eyes would experience 13 flickers per second—the goal was to hack the viewer’s alpha waves and trigger ecstatic hallucinations, a psychedelic television for the unconscious. Whatever works.

“Awe bears traces of the holy,” writes Hirsch. “It is both rapturous and terrifying, because it puts one in the space of the transcendental, the world beyond.” Both the musicians at Jajouka and those fortunate enough to hear them experience rapture, an overcoming, a transcendence, an ecstasy. It’s similar as to when a singer gets lost within their own notes and the voice seems to come from some place other than within; what a painter experiences when certain colors and shapes announce themselves as if from without; how a writer can become immersed within the flow of composition in a way that’s not totally themselves, that’s not totally rational. To be possessed is to be in danger and to be dangerous; to be possessed is to be holy. Not long after Pan’s death was announced across the Mediterranean, when the oracles were supposed to be dumb, the prophecies mute, and those penitents at Cocullo still handled their snakes and the initiates of Jajouka still played their flutes, and a different group of the possessed danced in ecstasy. In the eastern most corner of the empire, by those waters of Zion, and the assembled apostles felt “tongues of fire” come upon them as they gloriously chanted, each in their own spirit intoxicated language, this redemptive Babel that was Pentecost. They danced as if Maenads. Luke writes in the Book of Acts that the disciples were “filled with the Holy Spirit, and [they] began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.” How it must have sounded like a squealing of reeds, a blowing of pipes. Each person speaking in their own words, their own language, singular acts of inspired creation, of unique rendering. The only unpardonable sin we are told is to deny the Holy Spirit, to ignore the enchantments of this creation and the meaning that permeates everything, to not play the pipes when Pan calls. We are told in that same book of scripture that when Saul was on the road to Damascus, Christ appeared in a blinding light and told him that it was “hard to kick against the goads.” The Spirit cannot be denied. Yet Luke’s words had been said before, the gospel writer was quoting the playwright Euripides. They had first been uttered some five centuries before by Dionysus in The Bacchae. Old gods have a way of always being born again.    

Image Credit: Wikipedia.

Read More Puritan Poetry

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“I am drawn, in pieties that seem/the weary drizzle of an unremembered dream.”—John Berryman, Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1956)

At the height of their dominance, the North American mastodon traversed from the Arctic Circle to as far south as Costa Rica, going extinct during the Pleistocene about 11 millennia ago. With an average height of 14 feet and a weight of around eight tons, the pachyderm foraged throughout the frozen American forest for millions of years; white tusk glinting in moonlight, coarse brown hair hanging in ragged clumps from massive haunches, trumpeting trunk echoing in Yosemite, the Berkshires, the Adirondacks. Sometime in the last 20, or 30, or 40 thousand years, one of these mammoths perished in those virgin woods near what would be Claverack, N.Y., her body covered over in rich soil and her bones transmuted into fossils. Above her decaying corpse the glaciers would recede, then the ancestors of the Mahican would arrive, after them came the Dutch, and finally the English. A Knickerbocker whose name is lost to posterity was digging in a marsh by the Hudson in 1705 when he unearthed a five-pound honey-comb ribbed bright-enameled ivory molar. On July 23, the Boston News Letter printed report of a “great prodigious Tooth brought here, supposed by the shape of it to be one of the far great Teeth of a man.” Some of those who were enslaved, recalling their lives in Africa, remarked that the tooth looked similar to that of an elephant, but those observations were dismissed.

Edward Hyde, the infamous cross-dressing 3rd Earl of Clarendon and Governor of New York and New Jersey, had the molar dispatched to the Royal Society in London, with his own evaluation being that it was from some Antediluvian monstrosity, possibly the Nephilim spoken of in Genesis, the giant progeny of fallen angels and loose women. The Puritan divine Cotton Mather came to the same conclusion, citing the teeth in his Biblia Americana as evidence of the flood. And in Westfield, Mass., a minister named Edward Taylor wrote a poem about the gargantuan teeth. A private man, Taylor was taken to penning verse entirely for himself, and in the molar he saw a muse, writing 190 verses about how it evidenced the glory of God. “This Gyants bulk propounded to our Eyes/Reason lays down nigh t’seventy foot did rise/In height, whose body holding just proportion/Grew more than 7 yards round by Natures motion.” Taylor recorded his epic in a commonplace book of some 400 pages, which included lyrics that would eventually be regarded as the greatest of early American verse, described by Michael Schmidt in Lives of the Poets as a “strange voice, new and yet with old and tested tonalities,” sealed away in a leather-bound volume donated by his family to Yale’s Beinecke Library and fossilizing on some shelf until discovered in 1937, like an ivory tooth sifted from the silt.

After Professor Thomas H. Johnson’s uncovering of Taylor’s poetry, some of the lyrics would be printed in The New England Quarterly, and just as a mammoth tooth had charged imaginations in the early 18th century, so would scholars construct grandiose interpretations of the significance of this yeoman farmer, Paracelsian physician, Congregationalist minister, and religious poet. Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mark van Doren pronounced Taylor the author of the “most interesting American verse before the 19th century,” and critics quickly heralded this forgotten writer who had prohibited the publication of his work during his lifetime as the equivalent of the Spanish Baroque poets who were his contemporaries in Mexico City, or as a frontier George Herbert or John Donne, who doesn’t just make “one little room an everywhere” but who counts out iambs and trochees while splitting wood on his homestead, plumbing metaphysical poetry’s intricacies while braving Nor’easters and fortifying his town’s defenses during King Philip’s War. Whether or not Taylor was the equivalent of Donne (he wasn’t), the poet crafted some brilliant and beautiful poems, with Werner Sollors writing in his contribution to the Greil Marcus edited New Literary History of America that the minister was a “tinkerer, risk taker, language explorer, multilingual punster, lover of metaphors, and coiner of strange images, a trained rhetorician skeptical of eloquence, a divine with an odd sense of humor, an isolated frontier poet striving for new ways of expressing.” Hyde and Mather looked at a mammoth tooth and saw a giant; Johnson and van Doren read Taylor’s Preparatory Meditations and God’s Interpretations and detected the greatest American poet until Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. What the truth was, in both cases, happened to be different, but no less wondrous because of it.

The strange epic inspired by the mastodon tooth wasn’t included in Johnson’s first edition of the Poetical Works of Edward Taylor, perhaps a bit too eccentric for the New Critics of the day, but the lyrics that made the cut were lauded as among the finest of the 17th century. “Am I new minted by thy Stamp indeed?” Taylor addresses God, writing that “Mine Eyes are dim; I cannot clearly see./Be thou my Spectacles that I may read/Thine Image and inscription stampt on me.” Editor of The Poems of Edward Taylor, Donald E. Stanford, snarks that the “puritan tendency to invest all aspects of life with religious meaning had a profound and often unfortunate effect on Taylor’s choice of images… [he] had little concern with incongruous connotations. He saw resemblances rather than differences,” and yet I’d argue the source of his genius is simile. Taylor has a wit and a metaphorical cleverness that’s indicative of conceit; configuring himself as a book stamped with register’s approval and God as a pair of glasses is certainly clever. In such a comparison, one sees love as a compass or conjugal pleasure in a flea. The rhyme scheme and rhythm are simple but they’re not rustic. Some critics claimed to see in Taylor crypto-Catholicism (inaccurate), or his verse as prefiguring Ralph Waldo Emerson or Gerard Manley Hopkins (fairer). Such claims dehistoricize Taylor, who though a brilliant poet was an orthodox Puritan, concerned more with the Half-Way Covenant than what it meant to be an American poet, much less an American (he was English, after all).

During graduate school, I would read fat anthologies of early American verse filled with names that are forgotten. David S. Shields’s beautiful Library of America anthology American Poetry: The Seventeenth and Eighteenth-Centuries with its bible paper and black ribbon bookmark; Harrison T. Meserole’s slightly gothic purple covered American Poetry of the Seventeenth Century, and Alan Heimert and Andrew Delbanco’s The Puritans in America: A Narrative History, its cover adorned with a ghostly close-up of the woodcut engraved shortly after Richard Mather landed in Massachusetts, depicting his disembodied hands and glasses. During dusk, the sunlight would filter through the canopy of trees that looked over my 19th-century apartment’s communal courtyard— which was rounded on two sides by kudzu covered hills and the building behind me, a rickety wooden fence separating me from the railroad tracks and the Lehigh River beyond—and with the sound of crickets and the occasional blare of a train whistle as the bestial metal monstrosity lumbered past, I’d read. Poems like John Wilson’s “To God our twice-Revenger,” Edward Johnson’s “New England’s Annoyances,” Urian Oakes’s “An Elegie Upon that Reverend, Learned, Eminently Pious, and Singularly Accomplished Divine, my Ever Honoured Brother, Mr. Thomas Shepherd,” Nathaniel Evans’s “To Benjamin Franklin Esq: L.L.D., Occasioned by hearing him play on the Harmonica,” and of course Ned Botwood’s “Hot Stuff.” Sometimes I’d sojourn to Bethlehem’s northside where 18th-century dormitories of the German-speaking Moravians still stand, walking through a cemetery of flat gravestones down a lonely red-brick path to sit on a bench behind the federal-style church, perusing my collections of forgotten poetry. What I’m saying is that, as with all reading experiences, the atmosphere of where you first encounter early American poetry can make a difference, can add a romance.

The early Americans whom we’ve enlisted in our national story were abundantly and irrevocably different from us. Their concerns were not our concerns, their lives were unfathomable. They were not better than us —often they were clearly far worse (and yes, sometimes they were noble, or steadfast, or loyal). Taylor’s obsession with whether he was worthy of administering communion speaks little to secular people. Cracking the spine of one of those anthologies was a way of being with folks whose views were divergent from mine, whose beliefs I sometimes find abhorrent. They would recognize me at best as an apostate and at worst as a papist heretic. I respected them. Sometimes I even liked them. “If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant: if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome,” wrote Anne Bradstreet in her 1664 Meditations Divine and Moral, as Yankee a sentence as has ever been written, and true, I think, even as the winters get shorter and warmer. Coming to love Puritan poetry is an odd aesthetic journey, for poets like Taylor are not easy. It’s the sort of thing you expect people partial to bowties and gin gimlets to get involved with. Perhaps that’s how one Ipswich realtor read my wife and me, back when we lived north of Boston and with mortgage dreams of millennial wanderlust we toured a 17th-century house just to see how wooden shoe people lived. When the agent discovered my job, I detected his misguided sense of luck, and he told me that just the previous autumn he’d sold “Mistress Bradstreet’s house,” pointing toward a wooden-planked salt-box across the road. Latter, when I examined the brass plaque affixed to the side, I discovered that he was telling the truth.  

Seventeenth-century America had no Donne. There was no Shakespeare or Jonson or Milton in Boston or Philadelphia or New Amsterdam. Still, something about the mistiness of the period, the distance and oddity of these people who were ministers and physicians and the enslaved who wrote verse moved me, as if putting on a pair of divine glasses to read something intrinsic stamped on the soul. Taylor and his mirror of infinity, Bradstreet on hardship and duty, Michael Wigglesworth’s meditations on sin, and dozens of others who if they didn’t rise to the heights of the country they left still struck me as beautiful because they were so enigmatic—not because of any perceived universalism, but precisely because they were so unlike us, unlike me. That is, I suppose, a reason to read early American poetry. Not because it’s a mirror, but rather a window of fogged, dimpled, rough-blown glass. Too often the justification of engaging with centuries-old literature is because readers will see themselves reflected in those works, but if you want to see yourself go on Twitter. If you want to spend time with something alien, foreign, strange, and odd, read early American poetry.  

Preparatory Meditations is an odd book because it wasn’t written for consumption, at least not by human eyes. The poet had no concern of readers, or critics, or scholars; Taylor’s verse was the most pure that there can be, written for him and Him alone. The work’s title refers to the purpose that those lyrics served, to prepare for administering the sacrament of communion (that perseveration being a reason why he was misinterpreted as secretly sympathetic to Catholicism, which he adamantly wasn’t). Today such a poet would be seen as an oddball eccentric, an outsider. By contrast, Taylor wasn’t just a respected minister, his family was so esteemed that his grandson became president of Yale. Which speaks to the alterity of Puritan poetry—it’s very reasoning is countercultural. “Did God mould up this Bread in Heaven, and bake,/Which from his Table came, and to thine goeth?” Taylor writes. “Its Food too fine for Angells, yet come, take/And Eate thy fill. Its Heavens Sugar Cake.” Christianity is so obvious in Taylor’s verse that it demonstrates how secular our current age is (especially among Christians). To read Taylor is to be in the presence of somebody with a gem-like intensity, a flame as much as a man, and unless you’re a very particular type of person, he is most likely somebody who is little like you. And his poetry can be beautiful. Though Taylor couldn’t have thought of himself as an American in the sense that citizens of the United States do, I think it’s helpful to countenance that fiction, in part because I find that myth as instructive in and of itself. “Infinity, when all things it beheld/In Nothing, and of Nothing all did build,/Upon what Base was fixt the Lath wherein/He turn’d this Globe, and rigalld it so trim?” wrote Taylor. Hemispheric turning and building an everything from nothing, not dissimilar to inventing the idea of America, a fictional domain that’s its own type of heretical divinity.

No period of American literary history raises the question of what an American is more than our earliest poetry, which during the twilight of empire becomes an ever more urgent query. Richard Ruland and Malcolm Bradbury note in their study From Puritanism to Postmodernism: A History of American Literature that “more than most literatures, American literary history is frequently dominated by the interpretations modern writers make of their predecessors,” good enough justification at midnight to go back to sunrise. That’s not to mention the other reasons to contemplate such verse—that it’s often beautiful and almost always deeply weird. At the time of Taylor’s rediscovery, the nascent field of American Studies was constructing a new understanding of what this nation meant, and in part that involved retroactively reading events in the 16th through the 18th centuries as prophetically pointing towards the United States, the sort of typology practiced by Puritans when they read the Hebrew Scriptures as foreshadowing Christ. Ruland and Bradbury write that “any discussion of American literature draws on long-standing speculation… shaped by large questions about the nature of American experience, the American land and landscape, American national identity and the nature of language and expression in the presumed ‘New World.'” That’s all fantasy of course, albeit useful fantasy. For those constructing a new canon nearly a century ago, these early authors became an invaluable argument for the nation’s singular literary origins. William C. Spengemann writes in A New World of Words: Redefining Early American Literature that the “reigning theory of American literature as an independent, autochthonous, unique collection of writings with a history of its own appears to be little more than a political fiction” whereby “American literature comes from a certain place” rather than being written in a particular language (namely English).  

Such an “ambiguous literary status,” writes Spengemann, is due to thinking of writers like Taylor as “American rather than as English, as a primitive phase in the evolution of a truly ‘American’ literature that would not arrive until a century or two later.” Johnson and van Doren saw a giant, when really Taylor was a mammoth (but being a mammoth is good enough). What’s fascinating to me about early American literature, if we acknowledge Spengemann’s point while turning him on his head, is that works from that gloaming period makes us question what “America” means, that word that after all should be applied to a whole hemisphere and not just 13 British colonies (of 38 that were part of British North America in 1775). American literature is marked by an obsession with defining itself, because in every way that matters, “America” has never actually been a place so much as a variable, contradictory, and difficult idea. From the Aleutian Islands to Tierra del Fuego, both continents of this hemisphere have been endowed with millennial, utopian, and Edenic associations. The Spanish historian Francisco Lopez de Gomara wrote in 1552 that the “discovery” of America was the “greatest event since the creation of the world” (he made an exception for the incarnation and the crucifixion), while in his India Christiana of 1721 Mather would apocalyptically write “we have now seen the Sun rising in the West.” To read American literature then—but especially early American literature—is to read letters from an imaginary realm. From beginnings to endings, Genesis to Revelation, to be an inhabitant of the more than16 million square miles of the New World is to be the citizen of a myth.

Who knows if that’s how Bradstreet felt as she approached Boston Harbor aboard the Arbella in 1630, among the first of the Puritans to follow the Pilgrims who’d arrived in Massachusetts a decade earlier. “I found a new world and new manners, at which my heart rose,” Bradstreet recalled, “But after I was convinced it was the way of God, I submitted to it and joined to the church.” In her father’s spacious library in Northampton, England, she studied the verse of the Huguenot poet Guillaume de Salluste Du Bartas and the once-popular Englishman Joshua Sylvester. In America, Bradstreet raised six children in Cambridge. During all this time she wrote poetry. While darning her husband’s socks, she wrote poetry. When preparing cornmeal johnny cakes for her children, she wrote poetry. When scrubbing rough wooden floors held together with iron joists, she wrote poetry. When cleaning clothes with burning lye, she wrote poetry. When breastfeeding her babies, bathing her daughters and sons, and burying her children—Bradstreet wrote poetry. Apocryphally it was the Rev. John Woodbridge who filched her verse to London in 1650, where without her knowledge it was published with the grandiose title The Tenth Muse, lately Sprung up in America. She was lauded as a brilliant voice, the first sapling of American verse to grow from the stony soil of New England. Much of her poetry, written when she was younger, is inspired by the historical, theological, philosophical, and natural interests of DuBartas and Sylvester, Bradstreet penning miniature epics known as the “Quaternions” about subjects as varied as the seasons or the four providential kingdoms of eschatology. Her poetry that is most remembered, however, is that which is sometimes called “domestic,” whether because it conforms to our understanding of what a woman’s verse should sound like or because it’s far more moving to contemporary readers (in a manner that Taylor isn’t).

“I wakened with thundering noise/And piteous shrieks of dreadful voice./That fearful sound of ‘Fire,'” Bradstreet wrote in a 1666 poem about the accidental burning of her Cambridge house. “When by the ruins oft I passed/My sorrowing eyes aside did cast/And here and there the places spy/Where oft I sat and long did lie.” Bradstreet attributes the burning to divine providence, though she doesn’t let the reader forget what it would mean to see the place where you raised your children, loved your spouse, and wrote your verse, burnt to ash. Today the site houses a Starbucks and a CVS, across the street from the legendary Harvard Square newsstand. Part of my attraction to early American poetry, long before I ever lived in Massachusetts, was the charged aura its presence seems to leave behind. Mistress Bradstreet isn’t there anymore, but I spent hours reading her poetry where her house used to be, drinking a venti black dark roast. That presumed familiarity can be misleading though, as we try to transform those whom we love into images of ourselves. A detriment and fallacy in contemporary critical thinking is often to refuse taking those in the past on their own terms, to torture them into the Procrustean bed of whatever we believe so that they become ethically more palatable. Not that we shouldn’t condemn them when they deserve it, but intentionally misreading them doesn’t do justice for them or us either. Emory Elliot writes in The Cambridge Introduction to Early American Literature that the “advocates of Anne Bradstreet continue to construct an image of her as a cultural rebel who produced poetry in spite of the religious and social forces against her as a woman and a Puritan,” while Heimert and Delbanco explain how some see her as a subversive celebrating “things of this world, rhyming out a pagan heat in forced solitude.” All of it reminds me of a panel I attended at a conference that was titled something like “Queer Bradstreet,” and one of the presenters rather honestly admitted that as much as they wished there was something subversive, radical, or transgressive in her poetry, there simply wasn’t. “If ever two were one, then surely we,” wrote Bradstreet to her husband, a sometimes governor of Massachusetts, “If ever man were loved by wife, then thee;/If ever wife was happy in a man,/Come with me ye women if you can.” Perhaps one can engage with this in a hermeneutic of suspicion, reading against the grain, searching for signs of duress. Certainly that’s sometimes the case with poetry. And yet it also does a disservice not to take Bradstreet at her word—not that we should want to emulate the Puritans, not that we don’t see what was stifling, zealous, or constricting about their world (though we’d do better to note those instances in our own) but that we show her the respect to acknowledge her humanity, as distant as her time may have been. Anne Bradstreet was Anne Bradstreet, and that was more than enough.

Bradstreet and Taylor are the most frequently taught and anthologized of American poets from that vast hinterland of years before the 19th century, since as even Meserole admits “time and circumstance have been unkind to the poetry of this era.” They’re the most read because, if you’ll forgive the simplicity here, they’re the best. Dismissing the rest would be a mistake, though. Rhymes are often rough, meters awkward, and Christ knows the themes can be didactic, but to reduce such verse to mere “historical evidence” is to ignore the fact that idiosyncrasy and temporal distance are their own literary affects. Nobody would ever mistake Michael Wigglesworth with Milton, even while he was the author of per capita the single most popular book in American history, the apocalyptic epic poem The Day of Doom. A kind person might surmise that Wigglesworth’s name sounding like a character from a British children’s television show is some part in why it’s hard to take him seriously, and yet the poetry speaks for itself in that regard, for as Bradbury and Ruland conclude, his writing “was not, admittedly, a joyous read.” A minister at First Parish in Malden, Wigglesworth was tortured by nocturnal emissions, and believed that his depravity made him incapable of preaching the word of God. He resigned, and the subsequent minister embezzled church funds, so the congregation begged Wigglesworth to return, which he reluctantly did. Almost too spot-on as a parody of the black-clad, dour, humorless and abnegating Puritan, Wigglesworth haunted by his own dirty thoughts and semen. Elliot writes that “Puritan doctrines may have led to self-destructive repression and even depression,” which seems clear, but in losing sight of the fact that Wigglesworth was a suffering neurotic, we harden our hearts. And yet the sheer popularity of The Day of Doom speaks to why we should pay attention to Wigglesworth, pages worn to gossamer thinness and ink smudged from fingers periodically licked to turn those pages, binding loose and covers missing.

Virtually no copies of The Day of Doom’s first edition survive because the book was literally loved to death.  “Still was the night, Serene & Bright,/when all Men sleeping lay;/Calm was the season, & carnal reason/though so ‘twould last for ay.” Wigglesworth’s ballad meter gallops along, giving a poem about the apocalypse a juvenile feel, something almost ironic or even kitsch. If anything it makes the verse more ominous. “For at midnight brake forth a Light,/which turn’d the night to day,/And speedily a hideous cry/did all the world dismay.” If we are residents of the United States of Apocalypse, Americans forever obsessed with our dramatic collective leave of this world, than Wigglesworth was the first consummate master of Armageddon, writing a poem that with eerie prescience seems to almost describe a nuclear explosion. Inevitably the Puritans spoke an idiom that was violent, even if they themselves wouldn’t have necessarily thought of it that way. Paradise was lost before William Bradford’s slipper ever hit Plymouth Rock, and yet the gleeful despoiling of a land that they thought was virginal speaks to a collective rapaciousness that still slinks its way across our culture. For that reason, and that reason alone, it would be worth it to pay attention to those earliest indications of what this land is, as in their own bloody conflicts they forced themselves into a new type of human being known as the “American.” Benjamin Tompson, the first English-language poet to actually be born in America, writes of the colonists’ adversaries in New-England’s Tears, his 1676 epic about the hideous violence of King Philip’s War, that they should be “besmeared with Christian blood & oiled/With fat out of white human bodies boiled./Draw them with clubs like mauls & full of stains,/Luke Vulcans anvilling New England’s brains.”   

Important to observe that this generation of New Englanders were the first who self-described themselves as Americans even while they continued to eliminate the original Americans. It’s what’s disturbing about reading early American poetry—those authors may have configured themselves as new Adams in Eden, but none of them were innocent. More than Atlantis, the Hesperides, or Utopia, America was a blood-soaked, skull-bedecked howling wilderness, and the Puritans were aware of that contradiction (if less confessional in their role in making it that way). “The Puritan imagination… was central to the nature of American writing,” write Ruland and Bradbury, in a way that wasn’t the case in other colonies whose great literatures—often far more accomplished than what was being produced in Boston—were extensions of national literatures in Spain or Portugal. They write that the Puritans brought to the New World a sense of ” millenarian promise— the ‘American dream’ that is still recalled in so much modern literature.” As crafters of an idea, the Puritans saw themselves as entering into a covenant, where to be an American was to ascent to a particular creed more than it was anything else. But at what price is that dream purchased, especially to acquire the deed to a cursed house that has yet to be built? American literature is always haunted—by a place that never really existed, and the innumerable dead whom we murdered in the land that really did. America is a Faustian bargain.  

Now that the sun really does seem to be rising in the West—hard yet to tell whether it’s a mushroom cloud or a California wild fire on that horizon—there is something essential about returning to when those myths were crafted, when the fresh green breast of the New World was first espied, or at least invented. Could it have been any different? And what voices do we refuse to hear when we listen to only these? I think about the earliest verse believed to have been written in English in the New World, penned by the notorious libertine Thomas Morton who established his own ecumenical, interracial, non-conformist, and neo-pagan colony known as Merrymount on the site of present-day Quincy, Mass. During their Mayday revels, when Morton invited the Native Americans to Merrymount to celebrate the forging of his new country, he affixed to the Maypole two hermetic, occult, and bizarre poems, but they are lyrics that predate Taylor, Bradstreet, and Wigglesworth by decades. “Drink and be merry, merry, merry boys;/Let all your delight be in the Hymens joys;/So to the Hymen, now the day is come,/About the merry Maypole take a room,” Morton records in New English Canaan, the account of his brief carnivalesque experiment before the Puritans cut down the Maypole, arrested and then expelled Merrymount’s leader. The other lyric is all the more mysterious, in keeping with Morton’s boast that it was “enigmatically composed… [and] puzzled the Separatists’ most pitifully to expound it.” The author gleefully supplies a gloss of “The Poem,” mocking Plymouth dunderheadedness, but even so the reader might have trouble making sense of such lines as “What meads Caribdis underneath the mold, / When Scilla solitary on the ground / (Sitting in form of Niobe,) was found,” continuing that “the Seas were found/So full of Protean forms that the bold shore/Presented Scilla a new paramour/So strong as Sampson and so patient/As Job himself, directed thus, by fate,/To comfort Scilla so unfortunate.”

Jack Dempsey gives an enigmatic reading in Early American Literature, arguing that such verse addressed “the most catastrophic human event in seventeenth-century New England: the ’Great Mortality’… [which] between 1616 and 1619 killed as many as ninety percent of an estimated 90,000-135,000 Native Americans inhabiting land from Maine to Connecticut.” The critic claims that Morton is honoring the cemetery upon which his experiment was being enacted, writing that the poem “invokes three famous healers for the world of human troubles it describes”—Oedipus, Proteus, and Asklepios—as well as the pain of the biblical character Job. “Morton’s Oedipus seems called upon to read a riddle concerning epidemic,” writes Dempsey, so that his verse could function as a “’comfort,’ if not exactly a cure, for the ‘sick.'” Odd to think about that Maypole today, gnarled tree stripped of bark, two pages of verse nailed to its side, the whole thing crowned with a set of stag antlers. During our own season of pandemic, undoubtedly more than a million Americans already dead, it’s a duty to recall the smallpox horror that killed those who lived here before. Our time feels as apocalypse, theirs was. Morton’s verse does nothing to resurrect them—he doesn’t even name them—but he acknowledges them. He mourns them. That, maybe even more than Merrymount, gestures towards an America-that-could-have-been. Puritan poetry is a verse of the frigid strand and cold shoals, leafless trees whose spindly branches frame a gray sky and of perennial drizzle in an overgrown marsh, of slate gravestones with winged skulls and austere white churches ringed with a foreboding wilderness—solemn, gothic, macabre. I love it in spite of itself, but I mourn for all of the poems too muffled for me to listen. Returning to such verse, I try to make out the sound of that other America, and I wonder if it’s possible to hear what future poems may sound like, if there are future poems, lest we get buried in the silt like Pleistocene monsters forgotten beneath the earth.

Image Credit: Wikipedia.

Tripping the Late Capitalist Sublime

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“Dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains/And there’s no end in sight/I need the darkness someone please cut the lights.”—Arcade Fire, The Suburbs (2010)


When my wife and I lived just north of Boston, we’d drive past wood-paneled, yellow-painted two floor colonials and Queen Anne Victorians, pastel blue Cape Cods and rustic brown salt-box houses, until the meandering cow path of Lowell Street shunted us onto the Middlesex Turnpike toward the Burlington Mall. I never enjoyed malls when I was young; our closest was the Monroeville Mall where George Romero filmed Dawn of the Dead, and I disliked the creepy uniformity of those spaces, the steep escalators and strange indoor fountains, the shiny linoleum, piped in Top 40, and artificially lit interiors. Over time, I defeated my own snobbishness. The futuristic slickness of the Apple Store, the faux-exoticism of Anthropologie, the seediness of Spencer Gifts and Hot Topic, the schmaltziness of Yankee Candle. “Not only is the mall a place of material reward,” writes Matthew Newton in Shopping Mall, “it is also a space to meditate on your surroundings,” where wandering “feels almost like slipping off into a dream.” The few things I bought at the Burlington Mall included a pair of swim trunks at Macy’s, my glasses, and maybe bubble tea slurped through one of those unnervingly thick straws. What I did do, however, is stand in the second-floor food court overlooking the turnpike glazed in January snow with the low-winter sun of early dusk appearing as if a squib of yellow butter scrapped lightly across browned toast glowing golden. I see no shame in admitting that I love the mall.
Everyone in literary circles has met the man whose family had homes in Manhattan and upstate New York, in rural New England and in Hilton Head, and somewhere in Europe, but who hates Pottery Barn, Williams-Sonoma, even Starbucks. These types emphasize that family wealth isn’t theirs, but their parents’, and the bright orange sashimi and red tuna nigiri sitting in an open fridge at Wegman’s, the fake distressed wood of Pier 1, the cutting fragrances of Sephora were only bourgeois affectation for the rest of us. A privilege of the wealthy class tourist is the ability to whole-sale skip over life in the middle, even while that middle disappears. Despite not needing the money, these types often romanticize manual labor, seeing in summer gigs as a dishwasher something authentic, the callouses from scrubbing a rough steel-wool pad across pasta-caked plates and burns from scalding water, the rhythmic mindlessness of loading glasses and bowls into their plastic tray and then sending them on a conveyer belt through the industrial washer. Such fantasies are a rejection of the suburban, the bourgeoise, the basic. “The assumption that everyone else is like you. That you are the world,” such a man might quote from David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, “The disease of consumer capitalism. The complacent solipsism.” ($15.49 on Amazon Prime). Despite being privileged enough to grow up upper middle-class, I’m close enough to the factory that I see something of the tourist in that aforementioned pose, and 12 years in inner-city public schools at least kept me honest. I don’t know much about class, but I know that most people who don’t have a choice in anything but the dishwashing rarely have the option to run that steel wool across the bright reds and blues of Le Creuset when they get home. Poverty is a luxury that only the rich can afford. As for me, I’ve always loved Williams-Sonoma.
During the mid-19th century, an economist enthused that capitalism has “created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations,” name-checking the marvels of “steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs… canalization of rivers,” while asking “what earlier century had even a presentment [of] such productive forces?” He was a paragon of bourgeoise tastes, an avid reader of the sentimental novels of Honoré de Balzac, a fan of maudlin Romantic music, and a perennial smoker of cheap cigars. Today he’d no doubt enjoy a Pumpkin Spice Latte at the Burlington Mall. His name was Karl Marx and the selection quoted is from The Communist Manifesto. Marx’s critique is pertinent because he acknowledges what’s seductive about capitalism. Any radical analysis that ignores what’s so great about owning stuff isn’t really a radical analysis at all; any claim that television isn’t actually amazing, or junk food never tastes good, or pop music is anemic is just bohemian posturing. Sing me a song of Chipotle’s burrito bowl, all gristly steak, synthetic cheese, and fatty guac; of the glories of an MTO hoagie ordered from a Wawa screen; of the bruising trauma of the NFL; of the spectral sublimity of Netflix. Marx’s denunciations of capitalism—written with the support of his wealthy friend Friedrich Engels—were trenchant because he didn’t confuse ethics with aesthetics. By contrast, Pete Seeger—who God bless him was right about war and labor, and produced some catchy songs as well—couldn’t shake the condescension of an upstate New York childhood being raised by two WASPy Julliard professors. “Little boxes on the hillside/Little boxes made of ticky tacky/Little boxes, little boxes/Little boxes all the same.” We’re to look down on these middle class dupes for their spiritually bereft lives, their desire to golf and drink martinis. Seeger—whose family had a rural New Jersey estate and died with $5 million to his name—saw those tracts of suburban sprawl as deadening. But you know who I bet wouldn’t mind one of those ticky tacky little boxes? Homeless people.

“Modern bourgeois society,” Marx writes “is like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.” Dispute the prescription if we must, Marx was perceptive in his diagnosis—for all of the material plenty that industry supplied to some, capitalism depends on exploitation, it is defined by inequity, it requires alienation. The problem isn’t the ticky tacky houses, the problem is that people in McMansions have convinced those in those little boxes that their enemies are people in public housing (and government assistance is nefarious socialism). Engels and Marx used an occult rhetoric of wizards, specters, and hauntings, and it’s apropos, for capitalism itself is a religion. “Under capitalism,” writes Eugene McCarraher in The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity, “money occupies the ontological throne from which God has been evicted.” If our religion is capitalism, then our theology is consumerism and our God is the Invisible Hand. Our prayers are “Have It Your Way,” “Think Different,” and “Just Do It;” our avatars are Ronald McDonald, Mr. Peanut, and the Kool-Aid Man; our relics are the Golden Arches, the Mercedes trinity, and the Pepsi Tao. Our liturgy, that’s advertising. It’s produced some great and beautiful art. What I would argue to you is that all of it—the television commercials and the print advertisements, the marketing campaigns and the logo designs—constitutes the United States’ artistic patrimony; that our great literature is the jingle, the copy, the billboard, the TV spot. It’s true that capitalism exploits humans—you get no disagreement on that. Furthermore, as we peer down on our remaining decades and realize it was industry itself that took us to the Anthropocene’s sweltering apocalypticism, and suddenly Marx sounds Panglossian.

Still, I can appreciate Super Bowl ads, I can enjoy TGIFridays, I can prostrate myself before capital’s liturgy even with my impious heart. You need not be Catholic to be moved by Dante, so why can’t three minutes about Budweiser and Clydesdale horses move me? “Endure, and keep yourselves for days of happiness,” wrote Virgil in The Aeneid, all in the service of Caesar Augustus, an authoritarian dictator; Donatello’s bronzed “David” is a moving evocation of the body’s perfection produced for the Florentine Medicis, and Dmitri Shostakovich’s tonalities are immaculate, albeit composed for Joseph Stalin. When the tyrants are dead, maybe it’s easier to appreciate beauty, but soon enough the ice caps will drown billions of us all, so why not enjoy our equivalent artists and their preferred medium now? James Walter Thompson who filched the Rock of Gibraltar for the Prudential Insurance Company in 1890; Doyle Dane Bernbach and their lemonish Volkswagen; Ogilvy and Mather with contracts for Schweppes, Guinness, Rolls-Royce, Sears, Dove, and so on. The little narratives constructed by these (mostly) men, tiny portraits and miniature novels, weren’t created just to sell people things, for as Jackson Lears writes in Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America, “they also signify a certain vision of the good life; they validate a way of being in the world. They focus private fantasy.” Wherever people are hungry they’ll purchase food, wherever they’re thirsty they’ll buy drink, but commercials sell you an entire worldview. Every culture has myths, ordering stories of reality. In Athens, to live the good life depended on reason; in Jerusalem it was to commit yourself to faith, and on Madison Avenue it’s to live for consumption. We don’t have Hesiod’s Theogony or the Torah, our scripture is a 30-second spot. Our myth tells you that you are incomplete, disordered, and unhappy, but that the solution involves the accumulation of things, beautiful things, tasty things, sexy things, amazing things, and that through such commodities you become perfectible, as surely as an ancient Greek making offerings at Delphi ensured his favor among the Olympians, as much as a Medieval penitent paying an indulgence ensures release from Purgatory. Does any of it work? Well in the immediate sense, paying the indulgence makes you feel better too. But look, the churches are defunct and our faith is dying as our shopping malls are boarding up, our prayers as unanswered as the next shipping delay. Still, as the Sibylline Oracle at the Mall of America says,
The heartbeat of America is openhappiness, when a diamond isforever in the happiest place onearth.
Because you’re in good hands,so don’t leave home without it.
We bring good things to life, andgo the extra mile. The power ofdreams is the relentless pursuitof perfection, good to the lastdrop.
Eat fresh, expect more, and pay less—anytime, anywhere. Because you’reworth it.
Can you hear me now?

Critique my little cento, but whatever way you arrange it, some version of this lyric will be a more enduring work than anything by T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound. If you can only feel sublime in a cathedral, I pity you, because the numinous can be smuggled into these commercial prayers, however empty their promises. Virgil, Donatello, and Shostakovich all exploited emotions, and they were servants of nefarious masters as well, and yet it would be a fool who thought that The Aeneid, “David,” and “Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47” don’t intimate the shores of eternity, the breath of transcendence. Materialism in its most raw and literal form has little to do with it. “It isn’t the whiskey they choose,” wrote David Ogilvy in Ogilvy on Advertising, “it’s the image.”

Like a wounded gladiator, Pittsburgh Steelers defensive tackle “Mean” Joe Greene limps back to the Three Rivers Stadium locker room after a bruising first two quarters. A tow-headed little boy follows the football player and offers to help his hero, but the famously gruff Greene declines. Then the child offers him his Coke, and again he’s turned down. True to the rule of three, Greene finally accepts the supplication of sugar water, and downs the Coca-Cola while the boy turns back. Before the child can return to the stands, “Mean” Joe says with a smile “Hey kid, catch!” and throws his jersey to the boy. The Hero’s Journey as envisioned by McCann Erickson in 1979. A 2020 neurological study demonstrated that 90 percent of NFL players have suffered chronic traumatic encephalopathy from injuries sustained on the field. Leo Burnett had similar masculine ambitions when tasked with reorienting Marlboro Cigarettes towards the men’s market in 1954. Across a blasted, rugged, western terrain, all otherworldly plateaus and the burnt ochre sun of dusk, rides a cowboy. The visuals are John Ford, the music is from The Magnificent Seven, the most iconic of the “Marlboro Men” was Darrell Winfield, who played the role for 20 years after working as an Oklahoma rancher. Marlboro sold a fantasy, that of the homesteader, the bootstrapper, the stern and taciturn settler kept company by his shadow. This isn’t a place—Marlboro Country is everywhere. Two years after the character’s introduction, Marlboro’s profits increased 300 percent from $5 billion to $20 billion. Five of the men who played the Marlboro Man died from lung cancer.


Calvin Klein’s in-house ad agency borrowed Western accoutrement in a 1981 television ad. Brooke Shields whistles “My Darling Clementine,” laying odalisque in jeans and cowboy boots, wearing a pewter belt buckle and a slightly open red blouse. “You know what comes between me and my Calvins?” Shields asks. “Nothing.” If the point wasn’t already clear, Tom Richert writes in The Erotic History of Advertising that it was an “unmistakable double entendre when framed with a camera shot that took thirteen seconds to slowly move along the length of her inseam before including her face.” Shields was 15. In a 2021 Vogue interview, she recalled “I was a kid, and where I was, I was naïve.” Three years later, and Steve Hayden, Lee Clow, and Brent Thomas would take advantage of the slightly warming Cold War and the ominous connotations of the year “1984” in their famed Ridley Scott directed Super Bowl spot for Apple Computers’ new Macintosh. A group of androgynous, grey-hued drones shuffles in lockstep into an industrial hanger where they watch an address by an obvious Big Brother stand-in delivered on a massive blueish telescreen. “We have created, for the first time in all history, a garden of pure ideology,” says the speaker, “where each worker may bloom, secure from the pests purveying contradictory thoughts.” But then, a solitary rebel emerges, a blonde woman in red running shorts and white tank top who seems like she has escaped from an aerobics studio, sprinting through the grimy and steamy hanger, pursued by riot police, and in the last moments of the ad she flings a sledgehammer at Big Brother’s screen, which explodes. Whether this incarnation of ’80s material excess was targeting Soviet communism or IBM is ambiguous, but a voiceover informs us that “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984.” It aired only once, during Superbowl XVIII. The estate of George Orwell sued Apple Computers.

The Macintosh ad illustrates the brilliant vampiric logic of capitalism, for a totalitarian must continually dominate those whom he oppresses, but the capitalist insidiously convinces to you that he’s your friend. By outsourcing tyranny to the individual, everything is much more seamless. Capitalism privatizes totalitarianism, which on the whole is much more effective. In a review of the ad that ran in Harper’s for its 30th anniversary, Rebecca Solnit outlines how Silicon Valley has been instrumental in coarsening the discourse, increasing the gap between the wealthiest and everybody else, and ironically manufactures their products in Chinese factories that evoke the dreary setting of the commercial, before concluding that “If you think a crowd of people staring at one screen is bad, wait until you have created a world in which billions of people stare at their own screens while walking, driving, eating in the company of friends—all of them eternally elsewhere.” If resistance took only flinging a hammer at a screen (where’s the sickle?) fighting authoritarianism would be so much easier, but the genius of capitalism is that any rebellion can instantly be integrated into the status quo and used to sell jeans, computers, and beer. Like a virus, capitalism just mutates to overcome the vaccine. Thomas Frank writes in Commodify Your Dissent: Salvos from the New Gilded Age, an anthology coedited with Matt Weiland, that the counterculture’s “frenzied ecstasies have long since become an official aesthetic of consumer society, a monomyth of mass as well as adversarial culture… Corporate America is not an oppressor but a sponsor of fun, provider of lifestyle accoutrements, facilitator of carnival.”

Well, true. Still, I hope that filching the subversive to sell soap has the unintended consequence of injecting resistance into mass culture, that if we can hear the quiet chords of redemption in Virgil and Shostakovich, that we can also see rebellion in a Macintosh ad, even if the intent was duplicitous. Few ads are more cynical than McCann Erikson’s 1971 Coca-Cola Hilltop ad, in which dozens of vaguely countercultural looking young women and men sing a paeon to the glories of pop in an Italian field with glassy eyed Peoples Temple intensity. “I’d like to buy the world a home/And furnish it will love/Grow apple trees and honey bees/And snow white turtle doves,” they sing in perfect harmony. “I’d like to buy the world a Coke/And keep it company/That’s the real thing.” Obviously this millennium of fraternity and fizzy water deserves scorn, and yet dialectically it does contain a kernel of resistance against its own best interests, this evocation of a utopian moment, this depiction of a better world, even if you’ve got to have a Coke at the same time. Media theorist Marshal McLuhan claimed in The Mechanical Bride that “To get inside in order to manipulate, exploit… To keep everybody in the helpless state engendered by prolonged mental rutting is the effect of many ads,” but 25 years later in 1976 he’d admit in Advertising Age that his subject was the “greatest art form of the twentieth century.” Again, both of these things can be true. Not for nothing did Marx think that capitalism was the most revolutionary movement up until that point, and consumerism does unify people in a type of cracked democracy. Andy Warhol, our greatest theorist of commercial semiotics, wrote in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol that a “Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good.” It can both be true that capitalism is an exploitative system and that Cokes are good.
Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men—which introduced many of us to the history of advertising—features Hilltop in a crucial scene, with the implication that the show’s alcoholic, philandering anti-hero Don Draper was responsible, inspired to appropriate the hippie aesthetic after a California Esalen-retreat. Draper is a Luciferian figure, simultaneously beguiling as cankered, and despite his worst intentions sympathetic. What makes him fascinating isn’t that he’s a monster, but that he’s human. Mad Men’s best monologue, or at least its most memorable, is in the season finale of the first season when Draper gives a presentation to Kodak executives about a campaign for their new slide projector. Loading up happy pictures of his own troubled family, and Draper intones that nostalgia is a “twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a space ship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards, forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called a wheel, it’s called a carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels… to a place where we are loved.” Sometimes Draper is understood as a sociopath, but that’s incorrect—he has a surfeit of empathy. If he didn’t, such a presentation wouldn’t be possible. Part of what fascinates about ad men is that it’s such a succinct and obvious way in which writers could sell out, in the commodification of creativity we see both warning and pride. Draper is the suit who reads Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency, a cerebral soul who is an embodiment of the axiom that ad men are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Partially the reason why so many ad men wrote novels and Madison Avenue became a subject for serious post-war literature, the dejected copywriter as an existentialist hero. There’s Frederic Wakeman’s misanthropic The Hucksters and Jack Dillon’s The Advertising Man, but nothing is more associated with this sub-genre than Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. Wilson’s protagonist Tom Rath is a Manhattan public relations consultant, overworked and jaded, who says “I’ll write copy telling people to eat more cornflakes and smoke more and more cigarettes and buy more refrigerators and automobiles, until they explode with happiness,” for he is “not a cheat, exactly, not really a liar, just a man who’ll say anything for pay.”  

Ad men completely reshaped the mental topography during these years. Louis Menand writes in The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War about how the postbellum world was dominated by “commercial and entertainment culture: movies and television, newspaper and magazine photographs, advertisements, signage, and labeling and packaging.” This was the silver age of mental coercion (ours is the golden), when Soviet writers like Mikhail Sholokhov and Nikolai Ostrovsky were used to produce official literature that extolled collectivization and the command economy, where in the latter’s novel How the Steel Was Tempered a character could shout “all my life, all my strength were given to the finest cause in all the world—the fight for the Liberation of Mankind!” Capitalist propaganda is far more subtle, rather we have “those Golden Grahams/Graham cracker tasting cereal/That taste is such a treat!” I’ve no clue who wrote that particular jingle, but Madison Avenue has always had an outsize concentration of literary ambition. Who among you knew that F. Scott Fitzgerald, Salman Rushdie, and Don DeLillo all worked as copy-writers? Rushdie may have penned The Satanic Verses, but he also wrote “Naughty! But Nice” for Fresh Cream Cakes while working at Ogilvy and Mather; Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby with its description of “such beautiful shirts,” that rain of blue, and green, and yellow that Daisy sends down onto Jay, but while first living in Iowa the author’s line “We Keep You Clean in Muscatine” was emblazoned on laundry trucks throughout the city.

There’s no simple correspondence here, no one-to-one symbiosis, but the experience of DeLillo at Ogilvy and Mather must have informed his writing. In DeLillo’s White Noise, erstwhile professor of Hitler Studies and small liberal arts faculty member Jack Gladney exists, like all of us, in the medium of commercials. Thomas DiPietro records the author as saying in Conversations with DeLillo that America’s central commandment is “consume or die,” and that’s on display in the novel. Commodity fetishism is the contrition through which the capitalist soul is formed, where one “found new aspects of myself, located a person I’d forgotten existed. Brightness settled around me… I was bigger than these sums. These sums poured off my skin like so much rain. These sums in fact came back to me in the form of existential credit.” In White Noise, Jack mumbles the prayers of our faith—”Mastercard, Visa, American Express.” Good copywriter DeLillo must have been, White Noise expresses a truth of advertising—all of this purchasing isn’t about stuff, it’s about identity. Before the omnipresence of consumer culture, if you needed to plow—you bought a plow. If you needed to shovel—you bought a shovel. But as the sacrament of Jack’s purchasing demonstrates, the simulacra of reality that is late capitalism asks you to buy (and sell) your soul. White Noise is an example of the advertising turn in literature, where a character’s personality is signaled through the products that they buy. Victorian novels let you understand characters through phrenology, the slope of a brow signaling criminality or the distance between eyes demonstrating intelligence, but in post-modernism it’s the brand of ice cream somebody eats or the type of car they drive.

If you didn’t already know that Patrick Bateman was a sociopathic serial killer in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, or that he imagines himself to be, than you at least understand that he’s a conceited prick with his “six-button wool and silk suit by Ermenegildo Zegna… cotton shirt with French cuffs by Ike Behar… Ralph Lauren silk tie and leather wing tips by Fratelli Rosetti,” along with all those Eddie Money cassettes. By comparison, a very different personality is conveyed in the brands named by Jeffrey Eugenides in The Marriage Plot, where “Sometimes Madeline made him tea. Instead of going for an herbal infusion from Celestial Seasonings, with a quotation from Lao Tzu on the package, Madeline was a Fortnum & Mason’s drinker, her favorite blend Earl Grey.” The vaguely New Age-y affectations of Celestial Seasonings with its sleepy bear on the box rejected in favor of the stolid, slightly stodgy, sort-of-fussy Fortnum & Mason’s with the Royal Seal on its packaging, so that Madeline isn’t some hippie, but rather a serious person, an Anglophile even (or at least that’s what she’s trying to convey, she owns both brands clearly). Not even poetry is so otherworldly to ignore capitalism’s siren; Frederick Seidel has been writing about his luxury Italian motorcycles for decades, of Ducatis “all around, all red, all beautiful,/Ducatis as far as the eye can see,/Each small and perfect as a ladybug,” published in 2019 in The London Review of Books. Clive James provides ingenious readings of modernist poetry’s relationship to advertising in Poetry Notebook: Reflections on the Intensity of Language, noting that “Theoretically [poets] have despised the land of Just Add Hot Water and Serve, but in practice they loved the slogans. Readymade cheap poetry, the scraps of advertising copy, properly mounted.” He enumerates examples from e.e. cummings, Eliot, and Philip Larkin, though reserves attention for poet—and advertising executive—L.E. Sissman who could write of how “The maître d’/Steers for my table, bringing, in his train,/Honor in Pucci, Guccis, and Sassoon.” Bateman with his business cards and Madeline with her tea; Seidel on a motorcycle and Sissman’s song of Pucci, all of these brand names tell us something.

But of course they do in real life as well; we interpret peoples’ consumer choices in our day-to-day interactions far more than we do in fiction, and what we look for are signs of ideological affiliation. As our politics become only more tribal, what we eat, what we wear, what we drive all become signifiers, readymade symbols that advertise our identity. Imagine somebody who drives a Ford pickup, enjoys a Coors with his Chick-fil-A as compared to a woman who owns a Subaru with a radio tuned to NPR on her way to Trader Joe’s. You know exactly who these people are, or at least who they’re supposed to be. Often this has little to do with class in any traditional socio-economic sense, as “lifestyle usurped the more traditional class markers of income, and even education and occupation,” as Lizabeth Cohen explains in A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America. Cohen asks you to predict the different sorts of people who would buy a “Cadillac over a Chevrolet, a ranch house instead of a Cape Cod, The New Yorker over True Story magazine,” and you immediately understand her point. It speaks to something deterministic in the American psyche since the type of ice cream we buy predicts who we’ll vote for, though I offer no appraisal on this one way or the other, just the observation. And politics is only one vestige of this, obviously, consumer choices are instrumental in the formation of identity within and across races, genders, sexualities, and religions as well. We shop, therefore we are.
It becomes impossible to imagine anything different, what Mark Fisher describes in Capitalist Realism as the process by which the market “subsumes and consumes all of previous history.” Marxists use the term “late capitalism” as an optimistic shorthand, when the internal contradictions usher in the millennium of socialism. While I think that we’re definitely in capitalism’s end-stage, I’m not quite as sanguine, because I suspect that what the contradictions of the system will generate is nothing. As with anything consumed without respite, you eventually run out, and history is no exception. How will we define ourselves when the final bill comes due, when the eternal credit card is maxed out, especially since we’re incapable of imagining anything other than capitalism? In aforementioned Dawn of the Dead, all of those survivors of the zombie apocalypse hole up in the Monroeville Mall, where to get through to the other side of consumerism you must yourself become consumerism. With undead cannibals smashing their gory faces against the automatic doors and marauding through the asphalt flat lot, inside we’d raid Footlocker and Dick’s, we’d engorge ourselves at Cheesecake Factory and Red Robin, and we’d wait for the zombies to consume us all. “What haunts me is not exactly the absence of literal space so much as a deep craving for metaphorical space,” writes Naomi Klein in No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, “release, escape, some kind of open-ended freedom.” As Klein describes it, advertising and design mark everything in our reality, and we’re so constricted we can’t even imagine what wild open space would look like. For all that consumerism has promised us—comfort, security, identity—it was always the assurance that we could keep on purchasing our freedom that was the biggest illusion. Now the shipments are on back order and the shelves are empty, but for the time being you can still have whatever it is you want delivered right to your front door, never mind that the driver can never stop working. What happens after collapse when we can no longer define ourselves through products? No clue—the burden of defining some better world falls to those left behind after the rest of us have already left. In the meantime, have a Coke.    
Bonus Links:—A Brief Late-Stage Capitalism Reading ListWhen Capitalism and Christianity Collide in Fiction

Image Credit: Free SVG

Letter from the Collapse

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“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of monsters are born.” —Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks (1930)

“Twenty-thousand years of this, seven more to go… The quiet comprehending of the ending of it all.”—Bo Burnham, Inside (2021)

In our corner of Northern Virginia, we were fortunate to never see the dead birds. Yet throughout the Mid-Atlantic—a cardinal on the pebbly beaches of Delmarva or a sparrow on the Jersey Shore, a finch like an omen in front of Independence Hall or a bluebird as a threat on the steps of the Capitol—the creatures started to die by the thousands. With little sense of this new plague, experts recommended the removal of bird feeders. And so I dutifully took down the tall model where I examined mourning doves over morning coffee and listened to woodpeckers on the birches, watched the hawks who flew above, and the sleek, elegant crows speaking in their own impenetrable tongue. The Allegheny Front, an environmental show on Pittsburgh’s WYEP, posted a photograph of an afflicted robin found in Erie, Penn. Laid out in a cardboard box decorated with spruce leaves, it looked like the otherwise pristine creature was sleeping, the only sign of its illness the thick crust on her sealed eyes. An affect not unlike the wisps of cotton that escape from underneath the lids of taxidermied birds. “The phenomenon has since spread through 10 states,” writes Andy Kubis at The Allegheny Front, “including West Virginia, Ohio, Maryland and Delaware, and in 61 of 67 Pennsylvania counties.” Observers noted neurological symptoms, birds unable to fly or crashing into the ground; the dead animals, found framed by the brittle, yellow grass of sweltering June, with the characteristic discharge from eyes and beaks.

Ornithologists proffered hypotheses, noting that the avian pandemic accompanied the cicada Brood X. Those creatures we couldn’t avoid seeing, skeletal eldritch horrors bursting from the earth and their own bodies: red-eyed grotesqueries whose incessant droning permeated the humid air for weeks, who dropped from branches and through car windows like something out of a horror film. Between the dead birds and the cicadas, the summer had a Pharaonic glean, intimations of Exodus. A surreal poetry to these chthonic beings, the existential crisis of their lives spent hibernating for 16 years, only to emerge and then die. “Happy the Cicadas live,” wrote Charles Darwin in Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Death, though quoting Xenarchus. Our dog took to biting them in half and pushing them between the slots of our deck’s wooden planks, casting them back to hell. By the time they disappeared, without even bothering to say goodbye, I’ll confess that we missed them. But in their brittle, green bodies there was an answer to the bird pandemic, for it seemed that people had attempted to poison the cicadas, and after ingesting their pesticide-corrupted corpses the birds were killed instead. The “sense of cosmic significance is mostly unique to the human relationship with birds,” writes Boria Sax in Avian Illuminations: A Cultural History of Birds, but not apparently to those squeaked out by some bugs, the same people who undoubtedly water their lawn during a drought, or who buy the last 10 chickens during the coming food shortages.  Trillions of cicadas emerged; to avoid them was an impossibility, but you only had to bear them for a short while, and yet people unable to reason that there is no eliminating something of that magnitude and too impatient to wait decided that they knew better. Is there a more perfect encapsulation of the American mindset in these dwindling days?

I’d be amazed if you couldn’t sense it—the coming end of things. A woman sits by her grandmother in a St. Louis, Miss., ICU, the older woman about to be intubated because Covid has destroyed her lungs, but until a day before she insisted that the disease wasn’t real. In Kenosha, Wisc., a young man discovers that even after murdering two men a jury will say that homicide is justified, as long as it’s against those whose politics the judge doesn’t like. Similar young men take note. Somebody’s estranged father drives to Dallas, where he waits outside of Deeley Plaza alongside hundreds of others, expecting the emergence of JFK Jr. whom he believes is coming to crown the man who lost the last presidential election. Somewhere in a Menlo Park recording studio, a dead eyed programmer with a haircut that he thinks makes him look like Caesar Augustus stares unblinkingly into a camera and announces that his Internet services will be subsumed under one meta-platform, trying to convince an exhausted, anxious, and depressed public of the piquant joys of virtual sunshine and virtual wind. At an Atlanta supermarket, a cashier who made minimum wage, politely asks a customer to wear a mask per the store’s policy; the customer leaves and returns with a gun, shooting her. She later dies. The rural mail carrier who has driven down the winding, unnamed roads of a northwestern Oregon hamlet for over three decades notes to herself how the explosion of annoying insects on her windshield seemed entirely absent this summer. A trucker who lives in Ohio blows his airline break, and when trying to get a replacement finds that it’s on backorder indefinitely. Walking across Boston Common this October, and two men holding hands and heading toward the duck boats realize that they’re both sweating under their matching pea coats. It’s 83 degrees. On the first day of July, my family huddles in our basement; a tornado has formed in the District of Columbia, and is rapidly moving across the National Mall.     

Everyone’s favorite Slovenian Marxist Slavoj Zizek snottily gurgled it a decade ago, writing in Living in the End Times that the “global capitalist system is approaching an apocalyptic zero-point,” and identifying four horseman in the form of environmental collapse, biogenetics, systemic contradictions, and “explosive growth of social divisions and exclusions.” Not everyone claims to see the gathering storm however, especially those who are most responsible, though if they do, they’re silent about it in their New Zealand compounds. Degenerated, chipper, faux-optimism is a grift during our epoch of dusk; Jeff Bezos expecting us to clap when he shoots Captain Kirk into space; Elon Musk mouth-breathing about cryptocurrency and terraforming the rusty soil of Mars, as if we haven’t already heated one planet too much; Peter Thiel promising us that there will be a digital heaven where all of the billionaires can download their consciousness unshackled from the material world, and we can serve alongside them as Egyptian slaves entombed with their masters, clicking on PayPal,and Amazon and Facebook for a silicon eternity. Such promises are the opposite of hope, they’re only grinning assurances of dystopia instead of apocalypse. Besides, such things are chimerical; ask not for whom the Antarctic ice shelf collapses, or for whom the ocean acidifies, or for whom the temperature rises at 3 degrees Celsius, it does all these things for Bezos, Musk, and Thiel as much as you and me. Ours is the age of Covid and QAnon, supply chain breakdown and surveillance capitalism, food shortages and armed militias, climate change and bio-collapse. We’re merely in a milquetoast interregnum as we wait for monsters to be born in a year, in three. If poets and prophets have traditionally been our Cassandras, then on some level everybody knows that a rough beast is slouching towards Bethlehem right now, though despite that one sees perilously little grace, kindness, and empathy. Even the insanity of those who believe whatever conspiracy theory happens to give them scant meaning intuit that the insects are disappearing, the waters are rising, and the absence of 700,000 lives means that something is askance.

“The world sinks into ruin,” wrote St. Jerome in 413, some six decades and change before the final sack of Rome that marks the Western empire’s fall. “The renowned city, the capital of the Roman Empire, is swallowed up in one tremendous fire,” he noted of the Visigoth Alaric’s siege. Hard not to imagine that some didn’t realize that the end was coming, shortages of pungent garrum made in Mauretania, a scarcity of Cappadocian lettuce and Pontic fish. In 410, the Emperor Honorius recalled all legions from Britannia to defend the eternal city from the Visigoths who would soon traipse through its burning streets. Envision that horde, ascending the marble steps of the Senate, in furs and horned helmets, brandishing their red standard and crowding through the halls of that once august and solemn space. Can you even countenance it? The Romanized Celts requested from the emperor the return of defensive legions, and in his rescript Honorius “wrote letters to the cities in Britain urging them to be on their [own] guard.” The United States Postal Service will be late in delivering packages, because of supply chain shortages there is no chicken available at the Stop & Shop, the power grid will be down this winter in Texas. You’re on your own. As civil society crumbled, Romans turned to all variety of superstitions and occultisms, cults and conspiracies. As Edward Gibbon noted in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the “zeal of fanaticism prevailed over the cold and feeble efforts of policy.” Stop the steal! Lock her up! Make America GREAT again! Living on a heating planet filled with dying animals and governed by either the inept or the insane, and it’s hard not to feel a bit strange going to work, buying groceries, saving your salary, as if everything were normal. “We live as though we are going to die tomorrow,” wrote Jerome, “yet we build as though we are going to live always,” or, as David Byrne sang, “Why stay in college? Why go to night school?… I ain’t got time for that now.”

Whenever comparisons are made between Rome and America, there’s always somebody who denounces such language as not just histrionic, but clichéd. The latter is certainly fair; ever since the founders obsessed over republican virtue we’ve imagined that the Potomac is the Tiber, and we’ve parsed (arch-royalist) Gibbon’s history for clues about our falling. Copies of Plutarch and Livy were brought to the Continental Congress, and the most popular colonial American play was a turgid script by Joseph Addison about Cato (it would be performed at Valley Forge). The young Republic declared itself to be a “Novus ordo seclorum,” a “New Order of the Ages,” in conspicuous Latin borrowed from Virgil’’s Aeneid, while the Federalist Papers were written under pen-names like Caesar, Brutus, and Publius and John Adams attributed his worldview to Cicero. Roman symbolism was replete, as in the fasces that would adorn the Senate located on Capitol Hill. When George Washington deigned not to hold a third term, he was compared to the noble dictator Cincinnatus who dropped his sword for a plow, which was enough virtue that by 1840, four decades after the first president’s death, and the sculptor Horatio Greenough rendered the general as a muscular Jupiter in a toga. By the final year of the Civil War, and the first president was depicted underneath the Capitol dome as a purple robed Roman god in “The Apotheosis of Washington”. The Lincoln Memorial, the Supreme Court, the Capitol, all of it neo-classical ridiculousness. Gore Vidal recalled in United States Essays: 1952-1992 that his grandfather, Sen. Thomas Gore of Oklahoma, remarked to Franklin Delano Roosevelt about the bloated buildings of Washington that “At least they will make wonderful ruins.”  

Vidal, that classical patrician, wrote that “Empires are dangerous possessions… Since I recall pre-imperial Washington, I am a bit of an old Republican in the Ciceronian mode, given to decrying the corruption of the simpler, saner city of my youth.” Hardly a postbellum pose, for critics have feared that the Republic would slide into an Empire before the Constitution’s ink was dry. Naturally there is also fear of collapse, and long has there has been foreboding about the decline and fall of the American Empire. On the top floor of the austere New-York Historical Society, there is a pentad of paintings by the unjustly forgotten landscape artist Thomas Cole, a series known as “The Course of Empire.” Rendered between 1833 and 1836, Cole was disturbed by both the vulgarity of Jacksonian Democracy and the brutality of Manifest Destiny. A member of the Hudson Valley School who reveled in the sheer grandiosity of the nation’s natural spaces, Cole imagines in “The Course of Empire” a fantastical country from its primitive state of nature, through an idealized agrarian state, into a decadent imperium, an apocalyptic collapse, and finally desolation. Overlooking each painting is the same mountain peak, roughly the shape of Gibraltar’s rock, the one consistency as Cole’s civilization follows the course of its evolution, a reminder that nature was here before, and despite how we may degrade it, will still be here afterwards. The penultimate landscape, entitled simply “Destruction,” presents the denouement of this fantastic city, a skyline of columned, porticoed, and domed classical buildings in flames, bellowing smoke partially obscuring that reliable mountain; vandals flooding the streets, murdering and raping the city’s citizens, pushing them into the mighty river that bisects it. A triumphant monumental statue is now decapitated. With its wide marble buildings and its memorials, Cole’s city resembles nothing so much as Washington D.C., though when he lived the capital was more provincial backwater than the neoclassical stage set it would become. Cole made a note that “the decline of nations is generally more rapid than their rise,” concluding that “Description of this picture is perhaps needless; carnage and destruction are its elements.”

Enthusiasm for such parallels, along with attendant breathless warnings (including the ones that I’m making) have hardly abated. In just the past decade, there have been articles entitled “8 striking parallels between the U.S. and the Roman Empire” by Steven Strauss in 2012 at Salon, Pascal Emmanuel-Gobry’s “America now looks like Rome before the fall of the Republic” from 2016 in The Week,  Tim Elliot’s 2020 piece at Politico entitled “America is Eerily Retracing Rome’s Steps to a Fall. Will It Turn Around Before It’s Too Late?,” Vox’s essay from that same year “What America Can Learn from the Fall of the Roman Republic” by Sean Illing, and Cullen Murphy’’s succinct “No, Really, are we Rome?” from The Atlantic of this year. Just to dissuade those who parse such things, Tom Holland wrote “America Is Not Rome. It Just Thinks It Is” for The New York Review of Books in 2019. With an article that reprints Cole’s painting underneath the headline, a pull-quote reads “There is nothing written into the DNA of a superpower that says that it must inevitably decline and fall.” Well, with all due respect, the second law of thermodynamics mandates that everything has to fall apart, but Holland’s point is taken that in a more immediate sense, comparisons of America to Rome tell us little about the latter and everything about the former. But for those who see the comparison as tortured beyond all reasonableness, the truth can be bluntly stated as follows: our current problems aren’t like the fall of Rome because they’re far, far worse. Would it only be that we faced the collapse of the U.S. government, or authoritarianism, or even civil war, because the rising average temperature per year, the PH of the oceans, and the biodome’s decreasing diversity are things unheard of on the Earth since the Permian-Triassic extinction of more than 250 million years ago, when 70 percent of life on land perished and almost 95 percent in the seas did.     

“It is worse, much worse, than you think,” writes David Wallace-Wells in The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming. Wallace-Wells describes the five previous mass extinctions that shaped evolution, explaining that four of these “involved climate change produced by greenhouse gas.” Before the Permian-Triassic extinction, the land was occupied by the fin-reptile dimetrodon and the hog-shaped Lystrosaurus, the abundant atmospheric oxygen supported massive dragonflies and centipedes, and the oceans were plentiful with mollusks and trilobites. For some still unexplained reason the amount of carbon dioxide rapidly increased, which in turn triggered the release of methane, so that this feedback loop “ended with all but a sliver of life on Earth dead,” as Wallace-Wells writes. “We are currently adding carbon to the atmosphere at a considerably faster rate; by most estimates, at least ten times faster,” he explains. If we didn’t know what caused that warming 250 million years ago, we know what’s doing it now—us. Should the worst case scenario of the United Nations Intergovernmental Report on Climate Change come to pass, then in the coming century the exponential increase in warming will result in an ice-free arctic, obliteration of the coastal cities where two-thirds of humans live (no more Venice and Amsterdam, New York and Miami), the mass destruction of farm land, continual massive wildfires for which we will look back fondly on the summer of 2021, never-ending hurricanes and tropical storms, heat waves, droughts, desertification, new pandemics, and at worse the acidification of the ocean and the resultant perishing of most things that live beneath the waves. Short of a social or political revolution to reorient the world away from the cannibalistic capitalism which has brought us to this moment, we’ll read Gibbon as halcyon (assuming anyone is around to read).

This summer I threw a little digital life buoy out into the whirlpool of Twitter, another one of those horseman of dystopia, and asked others what it felt like to be living during what could be the apocalypse. Mostly I discovered that my anxiety is common, but one gentleman reminded me that there were Medieval millenarians and Great Awakening Millerites awaiting their messiahs who never came, and that they were all mistaken. That is, if you’ll forgive me, exceedingly stupid. There have been times when I was sure that I was going to die—the shaky prop plane flying low to the ground between Philly and the Lehigh Valley and the erratic driver going 20 miles over the speed limit who almost side-swiped me on a stretch of I-95 in Massachusetts—but just because I survived shouldn’t lead me to conclude that I’m immortal. Armageddon isn’t any different. My critic, though, seems to be in the minority—most people have that sense of foreboding, picking up whatever cries are coming from the Earth that the summers feel hotter, the animals scarcer, the sky sometimes glazed an ungodly glow from the redness of western fires. “The piers are pummeled by the waves;/In a lonely field the fain/Lashes an abandoned train,” wrote W.H. Auden in his 1953 poem “The Fall of Rome,” perhaps about his own justified fears regarding nuclear conflagration. I imagine the poet placing his wrinkled, droopy, hang-dog face to the ground and picking up on those frequencies that are today a cacophony, the “Private rites of magic” that now mark the fascists of one of our only two parties, how “an unimportant clerk/Writes I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK” reminding me of the striking heroes who are leaving the degrading and barely remunerated labor of late capitalism, how the “Herds of reindeer move across/Miles and miles of golden moss” in a warm arctic, and my beloved “Little birds with scarlet legs… Eye each flu-infected city.”

From the Greek, “apocalypse” means to “uncover” hidden knowledge, so for those of us anticipating what the future holds, it’s been the apocalypse for a while. What are you to do with this knowledge? Our politics operate on inertia and project onto individuals a responsibility that was always vested in the powerful themselves. Perhaps you should ditch your car, turn off your air conditioning, recycle, give up meat, and begin composting, but do that because those thing are good for your soul, not because you’re under any illusions that “Not The End of the World” is a consumer choice. Be neither a defeatist nor certainly an accelerationist, however, for avoiding the boiling of the oceans and the burning of the air must be what we put our shoulder to the door for. “To hope is to give yourself to the future,” writes Rebecca Solnit in Hope in the Dark, “and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.” Waiting for transformation like it’s the messiah isn’t preferable to collectively willing that transformation, but I know not what that will look like because I’m not a professional revolutionary. The signs that are appearing in the windows of McDonald’s and Subway, Starbucks and Chipotle, from workers tired of being mistreated and underpaid is the largest labor rebellion in a generation, the totally organic Great Resignation spoken of everywhere and reported on nowhere—it gives me hope. It gives me hope because that dark faith, the capitalism that has spoiled the planet, isn’t inviolate; a confirmation of Ursula K. LeGuin’s promise that “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable; so did the divine right of kings.” A corollary is the welcome mocking of fools like Bezos, Musk, and Thiel. Just the widespread awareness of our situation is promising, not because I valorize despair, but maybe if there are a billion little apocalypses it will somehow stave off the big Apocalypse. The whole of the law is treat others as you would wish to be treated and don’t cross a picket line, the rest is all theory. Now, go, and study.   

Finally, I’m only a writer, and the most recondite type, an essayist. Could there by any role for something so insular at the end of the world? In The Guardian, novelist Ben Okri recommends “creative existentialism,” which he claims is the “creativity at the end of time.” He argues that every line we enjamb, every phrase we turn, every narrative we further “should be directed to the immediate end of drawing attention to the dire position we are in as a species.” I understand climate change as doing something similar to what Dr. Johnson said the hangman’s noose did for focusing the mind. It’s not words that I’m worried about wasting, but experiences. What’s needed is an aesthetic imperative that we somehow live in each moment as if it’s eternal and also as if it’s our last. Our ethical imperative is similar: to do everything as if it might save the world, even if it’s unlikely that it will. Tending one’s own garden need not be selfish, though if everyone does so, well, that’s something then, right? I’m counting the liturgy of small blessings, noting the cold breeze on a December morning, the crunch of brown and red and orange leaves under foot, the sound of rain hitting my office window, the laughter of my son and the chirping of those birds at the feeder who delight him. I’ve no strategy save for love. “The world begins at a kitchen table,” writes Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, in a lyric that was introduced to me by a Nick Ripatrazone essay. “No matter what, we must eat to live.” Harjo enumerates all of the quiet domestic beauties of life, how the “gifts of earth are brought and prepared” here, and “children are given instructions on what it means to be human” while sitting at this table, where “we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and/remorse. We give thanks./Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and/crying, eating of the last sweet bite.” That, finally, is the only ethic I know of as the oceans flood and the fires burn, to be aware of our existence at the kitchen table. When the cicadas come back in 17 years, I wonder what the world will be like for them? I hope that there will be bird song.    

Image Credit: Wikipedia

All I Really Need to Know I Learned from ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’

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If America’s most beloved blockhead taught us anything, it’s the power of perseverance. Who but Charlie Brown would try (and fail) to kick a football a few hundred times and still dust himself off to try again?

If Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang taught fans additional lessons, many of them came by way of the iconic 1965 holiday special A Charlie Brown Christmas.  Though early viewings appeared disastrous to CBS executives and sponsors, in its own Christmas miracle, the show’s premiere pulled in 15 million viewers (second only to Bonanza that week) and secured an Emmy, a Peabody, and a place in the hearts of generations of viewers.

As gentle and big-spirited as it is, for modern audiences, it’s also a little boring.  Where are the death-defying action sequences?  The celebrity voice actors?  Or at least a cameo from Santa.  Instead, audiences must settle for the story of a sad boy who fails to direct a Christmas play; selects the lowliest, sprig-sized tree on the lot; and finds himself at odds with a culture that prefers a more commercialized take on the holiday.

Insert a couple of Vince Guaraldi songs and that’s about it.

Though the plot falls short, the philosophy doesn’t. Re-watching it today feels like a masterclass in self-help.  If Charles Schulz and Brené Brown had a love child, they’d name their sage Charlie Brown.

Read on for three Charlie Brown-inspired life lessons that extend well beyond the holiday season.

1. Good Grief, Your Feelings Are Your Own.

Moments after the opening ice-skating sequence, a visibly troubled Charlie Brown laments, “I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus.  Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy.  I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.”  He tries clarifying his feelings: “I might be getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy.”  Rather than serve as a shoulder to lean on, Linus removes his thumb from his mouth just long enough to reply, “Of all the Charlie Browns in the world, you’re the Charlie Browniest.”  Linus’s emotional invalidation only deepens Charlie Brown’s troubles.  What a blow, and even more painful since it came from a supposed friend.

Linus’s dismissiveness serves as a lesson for the rest of us.  We needn’t understand, or empathize with, someone else’s emotions.  Simply acknowledging them is enough.

2. You Are Not the Disaster You Think You Are.

No sooner does Charlie Brown reveal his sprig-sized Christmas tree as the play’s centerpiece than his actors begin to revolt.  One look at the lowly tree confirms what many of the children already assumed to be true: their play’s director, a perennial loser, is incapable of finding a win.  “Boy are you stupid, Charlie Brown,” grumbles Violet.  “You’re hopeless,” Patty adds.  “You’ve been dumb before…” Lucy says, “But this time, you really did it.”  As the actors storm off the stage, Charlie Brown is left alone with Linus and his humble tree.  “Everything I do turns into a disaster,” he moans.

Not everything.  Were it not for Charlie Brown’s “Everything-I-do-turns-into-a-disaster” outburst, Linus would never have shared his minute-long recitation from the Book of Luke.  And if Linus hadn’t, then Charlie Brown would never have been inspired to bring his “tidings of great joy” in the form of his humble tree.  And if he hadn’t, then Charlie Brown and the gang would’ve never bestowed upon the tree the necessary TLC to transform it from a sprig to a full-bodied fir.

As Charlie Brown demonstrates, the road is long and winding.  And though our decisions can sometimes seem momentarily disastrous, that doesn’t mean that we are.

3. Be a Blockhead.

Following the sprig-sized Christmas tree’s extreme makeover, the Peanuts gang makes peace with Charlie Brown.  “Charlie Brown is a blockhead,” Lucy says, “but he did get a nice tree.”  Except, of course, that he didn’t.  Charlie Brown got a terrible tree, though in doing so, he set into motion the ideal conditions to reveal his true message.  “I won’t let all the commercialism ruin my Christmas,” Charlie Brown previously proclaimed to no one.  “I’ll take this little tree home and decorate it and I’ll show them it really will work in our play.”  And that’s exactly what he did.  And that’s exactly how it played out.  It was not the way he planned, of course, but the outcome remained the same.  In placing principle over popularity, he opted for the real tree rather than the artificial version—despite the haranguing he knew would soon come.

Charlie Brown, we salute you.  And we thank you for your lesson:

Sometimes, the head knows exactly what it wants; other times, we’re better off following our big, old blockheaded hearts.