Annotate This: On Marginalia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image credit: Andrew Measham

The Subjective Mood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image credit: Priscilla Du Preez

Why I’ll Never Read a Book a Week Ever Again

I’ve always been a slow reader. I’ve loved books since I was a kid, but I didn’t identify as a voracious reader until grad school. My writing professors touted the importance of students reading thousands of books before taking a stab at penning their own. So, in an effort to maintain positive habits after graduation, I decided to track my reading.

I’d jumped on the habit-tracking train before: daily words written, weekly miles run. For a while, I even tracked the minutes I wasted on social media (I don’t recommend this—it’s too depressing). The outer accountability of habit tracking has helped me form healthier routines and utilize my time more wisely. I set my first annual reading goal at 40 books, finishing the final page of book number 40 before the ball dropped that New Year’s Eve.

Moving into 2019, I resolved to raise my reading goal. I wanted to catch up with my own compulsive bookstore purchases and watch that pile on my nightstand shrink even more rapidly. I was intrigued by the 52 books in 52 weeks reading challenge I’d seen on Nicole Zhu’s blog. Surely I could handle 12 more titles than I’d read the year before. Plus, I liked the way it felt in principle: If I stayed on track, not only would I get a clean slate at the start of the work week, I’d get a second clean slate in cracking open a new book.

I started out strong, finishing four books in January, then five in February. To track my progress, I used the Goodreads Reading Challenge, which informs you when you’re ahead of schedule, on track, or behind on your reading goal. I liked my new reading pace, making haste with books. Instead of lighting up my phone screen the moment I woke up in the morning, I’d open a book instead, reading on the couch with my first cup of coffee. This habit has been a game-changer. I’ve never been able to read before bed because I fall asleep mid-page. But morning reading? I’m all for it, and for the tone it sets for the rest of my day.

As the year progressed, I read several books I wasn’t wild about. In the past, I’ve always felt at peace with abandoning a book before finishing it. Why waste time on a book I don’t love, trudging through to reach an ending that won’t satisfy? But reading a book a week made it harder to justify abandonment. I didn’t want to fall behind—like I said, Goodreads will tell you when you do. And the thought of that sent my Type A brain into a tailspin. So I wound up finishing several books I felt lukewarm about from the very first chapters. I bolted through short story anthologies cover to cover, most of which I ordinarily would’ve thumbed through, reading only the stories with openings that piqued my interest. The pressure to finish books sucked some of the day-to-day joy out of my reading life.

I also never thought I’d select a shorter book simply because it would take less time to read. But when I found myself stuck in a 700-page tome for three weeks, the next few books I picked off the nightstand pile had significantly fewer pages. I love big, sprawling novels and wish I’d made time to read more of them in 2019. My favorite summer memories from past years involve dragging a fat hardcover down to the beach, dozing off between chapters on my towel: books like Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies. And while I chose lighter books, I still barely took the time to watch the waves striking the shore this summer. And more importantly, I wasn’t immersed in reading. I was immersed in reaching a goal—a goal that was beginning to feel arbitrary.

On top of tracking my progress on Goodreads, I shared books on Instagram as I read. I was pleased when a follower told me I’d inspired her to set a reading challenge of her own. And when another friend said she’d started reading a book she saw I’d just finished, I was thrilled. Sharing a reading experience with someone is among the most intimate bonds.

I received many messages from friends who were curious about what I thought of a book I’d just posted: Would I recommend it to them? Why or why not? But it takes me a long time to digest a story. Often, I’ll come away from a book with lukewarm feelings, only to love the story more after I’ve lived with it at a distance. On the flip side, I’ve torn through certain books from beginning to end, adoring the story and its characters, only to notice it on my bookshelf months later and wonder what made it so captivating. Posting my progress as I finished books allowed little space before friends started asking, “What’d you think?” While I loved that my friends wanted to chat about books, I often didn’t have the words to do so. I felt pressured to form opinions too soon. My post-reading experience became more forced than authentic.

Finding myself in the middle of a book I never want to end is among the greatest joys of reading. I live for the desire to finish a book in one sitting, and the competing desire to slow down and make the pleasure last. Sadly, I robbed myself that pleasure this year. I blew through everything I read, including books I would’ve dragged out for weeks just to live in their worlds a little longer.

Today’s habit-happy productivity culture advocates for setting measurable, attainable goals. Finishing what we start is considered a victory. But our reading lives shouldn’t depend on filling in a Goodreads progress bar. That’s because reading isn’t just any old habit to track.

While I can’t change our society’s obsession with productivity, I can change my own. That’s why I’ve set a different reading goal for 2020. This year, it isn’t based on the quantity of books I aim to finish. Instead, I resolve to abandon books I don’t like. I’ll take the whole summer to pore over that staggering novel I never want to end. I’ll recommend books to friends after I’ve lived with the story awhile. I’ll read intentionally and joyously. After all, there are too many good books out there. From now on, I’ll take the time to savor them.

Image credit: Tonny Tran

A Pregnant Pause: Reading About Motherhood

When I found out I was pregnant, the first person I told, besides my husband, was my friend’s mother, Claire, who is a doula. The word “doula” comes from the Greek word for “slave” and refers to a birthing professional who is devoted to the mother—or to both parents,— and ensuring her holistic well-being during the antenatal months, through labor, and into the “fourth trimester.”

Claire insisted on sending me a book. It arrived in the mail a few days later: Birth with Confidence by Rhea Dempsey, another Melbourne-based doula. The subtitle interested me: Savvy Choices for Normal Birth.

A “savvy woman,” the book purported, understood that there was “power in women’s bodies,” and that it was necessary to “be on guard, defensive and second-guessing all the time about what the agendas are for suggesting particular procedures.”

These agendas and procedures, Dempsey continued, ranged from artificial induction of labor, to pharmaceutical pain relief (the infamous epidural), to extraction of the baby with forceps and vacuum induction. The alternative to these various interventions, the author stated, was to embrace birth as an ecstatic experience and revel in the female body’s capacity to produce oxytocin, the “love hormone,” which is essential in the laboring process.

Was I a “savvy woman”? I shut the book, terrified that for some reason, I wasn’t.

Over the following months, Dempsey’s book would sit mostly unread under a pile of other books, all pertaining to pregnancy, labor, and motherhood, that I’ve read in lieu of relying on the scant pamphlets provided me by the Australian medical establishment. Having moved hardly two years ago to this remote corner of the world, with my mother and sisters and friends back in North America or Europe, these books were really all I had.

When Sheila Heti’s novel Motherhood came out in 2018, I immediately read it. I did so because I like her work—I would have read her latest book if it had been called Bicycles or Turnips. But as I followed the main character, nervously flipping a coin and hoping that fate would randomly decide whether she, at 37, should have a baby with her live-in boyfriend, I understood that unlike this narrator, I was not undecided about whether to become a mother. For whatever reason, I never have been. Whereas Heti’s narrator wonders aloud (via her iChing coin-flipping methodology) whether a female artist should have children—
But I don’t care about my genes! Can’t one pass on one’s genes through art?

yes

Do men who don’t procreate receive punishment from the universe?

no
—I, for some inexplicable reason, have always felt that motherhood and creative work will somehow go hand-in-hand for me.

And yet, I still had no idea how to be pregnant. I knew that What to Expect When You’re Expecting was considered the “bible” of pregnancy around the world, so I found a copy. Originally published in 1984 (the year I was born, my mother’s fourth pregnancy, and the only one where she accepted the use of an epidural, as she was 41 years old and the obstetrician basically told her she had to use it), the 530-page tome assumes that the newly-pregnant woman knows nothing, and therefore offers information from multiple angles on every possible topic of concern: vitamins; birthing locations; weight gain; single motherhood; alcohol consumption; preparing for labor; and in the third (and current) edition, a new emphasis on partner communications.

I flipped through it, and somehow found the page on “Emergency Delivery If You’re Alone”—i.e. what to do if your baby decides to come very quickly and you don’t have time to go anywhere and only you and your partner are around. Using an exacto knife, I removed this page from the book and attached it to the refrigerator with a magnet. Step number one: “Try to remain calm. You can do this.”

“I don’t think I would feel comfortable,” my husband said with a pale face when he saw the page. I assured him it was just in case of an emergency.

At 13 weeks of pregnancy, I boarded a plane to Europe. I’d planned the month-long trip before getting pregnant. In Slovenia and then Italy, I promptly ignored all the dietary cautions I’d read in What to Expect and ate raw milk cheese, salami, and crudo at every chance, washing it all down with modest sips of wine.

By the time I got to Berlin, the last stop on the journey, I was finally showing, but not much. But emotionally, I was in a state—I realized that this trip was my last solo hurrah—ever. I blurted out to one friend over Syrian food in Kreuzberg: “I have always wanted to go to Berghein.” Because she’s not a native Berliner, my friend didn’t roll her eyes dramatically, but instead volunteered to meet me there the next day, for a morning rave. At 9 a.m., I arrived to the ugly beige warehouse that houses Berlin’s most notorious nightclub. I waited nervously to be judged by Sven, the legendary guard. He barked at me to remove my sunglasses, then briefly scanned my outfit—I’d worn the black shift dress that another friend had gifted me secondhand, swearing it had gotten her through pregnancy. I was allowed in, and located my friend at the espresso bar downstairs. We danced for hours, completely sober, and I placed my hand on my belly, smiling at the thought of one day telling my child, “I went out dancing when I was pregnant with you!”

As I do on every trip to Berlin, I visited the magazine shop Do You Read Me?!, in Mitte. In their tightly curated book section, I found a series called “Vintage Minis” that prints short works by famous authors on mundane subjects. I purchased one, called Making Babies, by Irish novelist Anne Enright, and read it on the plane back to Australia.

Enright does not make any attempt to provide guidance on pregnancy and motherhood. To the contrary, she herself seems to be fumbling along, and she narrates all of her anxieties, annoyances, discomforts, and elations from the first trimester onward. In the grocery store, Enright battles cravings: “Starvation is no joke, especially when you have been eating all day.” She fears, even becomes convinced, that something is wrong with her baby, it must be deformed, until the first ultrasound proves otherwise. And Enright discovers, as I did, that being pregnant is a discursive state—a woman’s body becomes a blank page, upon which others can project their own morality.

“A pregnant woman is public property,” Enright writes. “I began to feel like a bus with ‘Mammy’ on the front—and the whole world was clambering on. Four women in a restaurant cheered when I ordered dessert. A friend went into a prolonged rage with me, for no reason at all. Everyone’s unconscious was very close to their mouths. Whatever my pregnant body triggered was not social, or political, it was animal and ancient and quite helpless. It was also most unfair.”

The second trimester is a time when hormones charge the body. Reading Enright’s words, I felt very emotional. Everyone was judging me, I felt—judging my body and consumption, already making me out to be a bad mother before the child was born.

Once the baby has arrived, Enright chronicles the months in terms of “Development (the baby)” and “Regression (me),” almost like an advice book that carefully outlines each stage of pregnancy in terms of sleeping, eating, bodily capabilities, etc. We see Enright struggling to hold it all together (her emotions, her career, her marriage) as the baby takes it all in stride. At five months, she goes back to her smoking habit and gets very tipsy whenever possible. At six months, she feels that her life is essentially centered upon literal shit. I, too, gave up smoking when I became pregnant and reading, I started to wonder whether I’d crave cigarettes not long after my baby is born. I also questioned my environmentally driven vision of using cloth diapers.

As time went on, I reverted to the advice books. After all, I was going to have to breastfeed this child and keep it clean and fed, all of which seemed like pretty high-stakes things. A friend lent me her copy of Ina May Gaskin’s Guide to Childbirth, and it became my cornerstone.

Gaskin is a beacon of sanity in a world of hypermedicalized child birthing. After one birth in which a doctor used forceps, followed by a traumatic premature birth on a bus traveling though Nebraska (the baby did not survive), Gaskin became motivated to provide better birth experiences for women. In 1971, she and her husband founded one of the United States’s first outside-hospital birth retreat centers, called The Farm, in Tennessee. Over the decades, Gaskin and her coterie of midwives delivered thousands of births, and she became the foremost expert in natural childbirth. I read her book from cover to cover, absorbing every single one of the birth stories with gusto I usually reserve for binge-watching Netflix.

With confident Ina May by my side, I felt equipped to write my “birth plan,” in which I voiced my intention to avoid, unless medically necessary, every kind of medical intervention ranging from induction to episiotomy to C-section. And I finally felt comfortable telling my doctor that I would not be taking the gestational diabetes test, which involved fasting for 12 hours and drinking a sugary solution, since I had no risk factors and plenty of qualms with the methodology.

At around 20 weeks of pregnancy—halfway through—I remembered that a book called Bringing Up Bebe had been a huge bestseller in the U.S. Being a Francophile, I rushed out to get it. In this 2012 book, Paris-based American journalist Pamela Druckerman offers anthropological insight on French childrearing culture. Every time Druckerman debunked another classically American, overly risk-averse stipulation, whether about pregnancy or childbirth, and cracked the code on what the French were doing, I felt like cheering out loud. Her approach showed expert journalistic slyness and cultural sensitivity—French mothers insisted they didn’t let their babies “cry it out,” but when Druckerman pried more, these mothers explained that they briefly “observed” their babies crying just for a few minutes, before acting. French childrearing was different, I came to think, because it emphasized the well-being of broader society (a child must be well-educated because it’s better for everyone; a child must go to daycare because it’s important to the family as a whole that the mother works) rather than obsessing over a child’s achievements and plotting its entrance to Harvard at six months. Druckerman, I thought, you’re my hero.

Three friends who live in Europe, who were also pregnant, shared photos on social media featuring a nice new hardcover book called The First Forty Days: The Essential Art of Nourishing the New Mother. They seemed excited about it, so I ordered it. The author, Heng Ou, applies her family’s knowledge of traditional Chinese medicine and cooking to postnatal care for the mother. About half the book is recipes, including super food smoothies, bone broths, soups, and stews—apparently, after birthing it is important to warm the body—and I noticed one recipe, in particular, called for Chinese red dates, which according to the author “bestow amazing postpartum benefits.”

I tried to picture myself going to the Asian markets to find these red dates and preparing such a stew. Even without a baby crying on my hip, it seemed like a lot of work. I lay the Forty Days book on the shelf along with my other aspirational cookbooks such as Bar Tartine’s.

At 31 weeks of pregnancy, this stack of books sits neatly on a shelf. I have stopped reading any of them; instead I prefer to delve into the latest Rachel Cusk essay collection and Ben Lerner’s new novel. I’m not sure a book could make me a better mother than I am already destined to be. But at least I do know that I’ll raise a good reader—and maybe one who likes late-night dancing to house music.

Image: Toa Heftiba

Lost in Translation: Classical Arabic Literature

It’s a good time to be an Arab writer. December 18 marks the seventh annual UNESCO World Arabic Language Day, just one of many honors accorded by western elites on their Arab peers. Another came earlier this year when the International Booker—not to be confused with the “Arabic Booker,” a.k.a. the International Prize for Arabic Fiction; as James English observes in The Economy of Prestige, the nature of cultural prizes is to endlessly beget more prizes—had its first Arabic winner in Celestial Bodies, by Omani author Jokha Alharthi and translated by Marilyn Booth. All of this commotion means that publishers are now seeing Arabic titles spike in supply and demand. With conspicuous gestures by enterprising Gulf monarchs, there is now more financial and psychical support than ever for translating Arabic literature into English.
Yet such happy developments tend to bless the province of modern works alone. However well-intentioned their goals, the various prizes, publishers, and pecuniary goods—in short, the institutional boons to translation—are losing sight of Arabic’s great riches: the centuries-old tradition of classical literature, as well as the battle-weary corps of translators bringing it into English, often from beyond the fortified ramparts of university tenure.
There are exceptions, of course. Foremost among them is the Emirati-funded Library of Arabic Literature (LAL), a New York University Press venture that has released more than three dozen works of classical Arabic. For each, scholars use original manuscripts to create a reliable print edition and English translation, in partnership with a board of accomplished Arabists. The books are then published as bilingual hardbacks and English-only paperbacks. Among the tenured, this series bodes a new era of friendly assistance that some have waited entire careers to see. However, the LAL editorial policy of turning away young scholars—with the worthy goal of keeping them from work that doesn’t count for tenure—means that most titles come only from comfortably established professors or translators. This stiff hierarchy finds itself mirrored outside the university, too: journalists and others not affiliated with LAL but who hope to promote classical Arabic literature have had lost potential readers to LAL’s savvy, well-funded publicity team.
But despite the odds, a number of independent translators, most of them young and untenured, have in the last few years taken to small presses with radiant, vigorous English translations. The majority are works of classical Arabic poetry, although in the case of NYU’s David Larsen, the text in question was an 11th-century etymological dictionary called Names of the Lion, translated by Larsen and published as a “chapbook” with Wave Books in 2009 and reprinted in 2017. Larsen has another Wave Books title, Lightning Scenes, of actual Arabic poetry in English.
After a characteristically insightful preface, Larsen surrounds and overwhelms his readers with lexicographical minutiae—a list of more than 400 classical Arabic synonyms for “lion” compiled by Persian grammarian Ibn Khalawayh, plus translator’s footnotes that betray a deep erudition:

al-Rayyas              “The Strutter”al-Jukhdub           “The Great Big [Leaper in the Grass?],” also said of the locustal-`Ajannas          “The Colossus,” also said of a camelal-Sabanda          “The Daredevil,” also said of the leopard, as is al-Sabantaal-Ghadb               “The Scarlet,” said of intense saturation with rednessal-Bay’as               “The Bane,” said of anything that causes harm. God, be He exalted, speaks [in Surat al-`Araf 7:165] of “a doom that is ba’is.”al-Muhis                “Who Causes Folks to Step Along”al-Arqab                “Whose Neck is Massive”

Doing more justice to a classical Arabic tradition obsessed with its own language than many a wispy verse collection could, Larsen’s oddball gamble paid off, netting him the 2018 Harold Morton Landon Translation Award from the Academy of American Poets. With 2020 promising his second classical poetry night for the American Oriental Society, he is clearing the cobwebs from a corner of ancient Arabic literature that English readers never get to see.
But Larsen is a working poet, just like many who grind away at classical Arabic. It’s no shock that they should choose to translate verse rather than something else. Casting an enormous shadow over this new generation of Arabic literary translators, in terms of style and voice, if not in direct tutelage, are the labors of Michael Sells, professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Chicago. For decades, he has rendered the Qur’an, pre-Islamic desert odes, and Islamic Sufi lyric poetry in a way that avoids the archaizing quality of the original, striving instead for “a natural, idiomatic, and contemporary American verse,” as he explains in Desert Tracings. Here, for instance, is his opening to Qur’an 82, “The Tearing”:

When the sky is tornWhen the stars are scatteredWhen the seas are poured forthWhen the tombs are burst openThen a soul will know what it has given              and what it has held back

Spare, ghostly, thrumming with the distance of legend told in light whispers—this is not a classicist’s crib, but instead the ethereal fare one might expect in the pages of River Styx or Tin House. Being aware of this working poet’s sensibility goes a long way toward explaining the shape of translations now being made by young Arabists, and perhaps why some of them have chosen to remain outside academia, where literalizing trots are the preferred tool.
One translator in this camp is Kareem James Abu Zeid. An Egyptian-American with a UC Berkeley Ph.D. and training under the poet CK Williams, Abu Zeid has worked exclusively with modern Arabic up to now, including Songs of Mihyar the Damascene by the Syrian poet Adunis (with Ivan Eubanks, New Directions, 2019). But in 2018, he secured a National Endowment of the Arts grant to translate the mu`allaqat or “hung poems.” These are a group of seven—or 10, depending on the compiler—pre-Islamic desert odes as formative to Arabic as Beowulf was to English.
Channeling a sixth-century Arabian desert zeitgeist in which the grainy details of tribal warfare and harsh landscapes mingle with more expansive themes such as love, betrayal, and hubris, the odes were traditionally grist to the mill of European orientalists like Charles Lyall and Sir William Jones. But in the last century, they got their first working poet’s touch from Sells in Desert Tracings, mentioned above. Abu Zeid moves in a similar direction, rendering them “more poetic and accessible,” as in this passage from the hung poem of Imru’ al-Qays describing the poet’s own horse:

How quickly he moves,charging forward and drawing backas in a single motion, poisedto rush down from on highlike a torrent of stones.His hue: the dark of wine.His back: so slickthe saddle-felt slips from itlike raindrops off rock.

Sidestepping the familiar Latinisms and plodding cadences, Abu Zeid delivers tight, Creeley-esque lines that quicken long-dead poets back to life. Specialists will groan about yet another translation of what they see as well-worn texts, but this view forgets how novel they are to non-experts. What’s more, the specialists themselves, malnourished by a lack of apparent relevance to society, will reap the fruit of greater public awareness about classical Arabic titles beyond the 1,001 Arabian Nights.
Speaking of that last work, another person to watch is Yasmine Seale, a French-Syrian translator and essayist for venues like Harper’s and The Times Literary Supplement. One of the first women to translate the Nights, in 2018 she put out a dynamic English rendition of Aladdin with Liveright Publishing, an imprint of W.W. Norton. Just as artful but less known are her experiments with the mystical poetry of 13th-century Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi. According to Tentacular Magazine, Seale has teamed up with Robin Moger, a Banipal Prize-winning translator of modern Arabic literature, to workshop poems from The Interpreter of Desires, a collection that uses erotic motifs to express mystical-philosophical doctrine. At the urging of his pupils, Ibn Arabi wrote a preface to clarify the connection.
Regarding their method, Seale and Moger explain: “We each separately begin a translation of the same ode and then send the translations to one another. The second iteration of the ode is written as a response to this translation and sent in turn, and so on, until we are exhausted.” Readers can watch a single poem evolve as Seale and Moger post its several English reincarnations online, such as these lines in Moger’s translation:

if we meet we will partbut in one moment pressing and wrapping we is emphatic
really there is space between useyes do not see itinstead the unity of usin my sparse stuff and your light
by my thin cries loosed I am spied

Perhaps not surprisingly, given such redolent material, Ibn Arabi is yet another figure touched by the poetic vision of Michael Sells. In 2018, he reprised his earlier work Stations of Desire (Ibis, 2000) with a new set of translations from The Interpreter of Desires, called Bewildered (The Post-Apollo Press), with further plans to publish a complete translation plus Arabic edition.
Some up-and-comers have cast their translator’s nets to the other side of the boat, opting for material less common in English. One is Melanie Magidow, Ph.D. alumna of University of Texas at Austin and a freelance Arabic consultant. In 2017, she received an NEA grant to translate the epic Sirat Dhat al-Himma, the longest of its kind and the only one named for a female general, Dhat al-Himma—“She of High Resolve,” a warrior’s honorific; her real name is Fatima—who brawls her way across the Arab-Byzantine borderlands. Readers can find an excerpt published through the University of Iowa. At times the English comes off a bit sclerotic, as when Magidow’s classicizing ear picks up the garble of battle cries:

Mazlum shouted, “You bastard! No matter which sky shades you or which bit of earth upholds you, you are going down!” “No!” Fatima hefted the spear in her hand, and called to Marzuq, “Cover my back, brother!”

But she is more confident in passages of description or narrative:

Fatima kept to herself, riding the horses and learning the arts of war on her own–attack and retreat, lining up for battle, pursuit, defense, and charging. She made weapons from tree branches, leaves, and reeds. Whenever a camel stallion opposed her, she would shout at him and, clinging to the stallion’s mate, she would direct him until he surrendered … By the age of seven, she could fast a full day, repeating to herself the name of Allah. The Bani Tayy began to call her “Shariha the Mystic.”

Another translator whose work enlarges classical Arabic literature’s place in English is Alex Rowell. A Beirut-based journalist and managing editor of Al-Jumhuriya English, Rowell burst onto the scene in 2017 with his debut book, Vintage Humour: The Islamic Wine Poetry of Abu Nuwas (Hurst Publishers). Despite being a household name in the Arab world, the 9th-century poet Abu Nuwas is all but unknown in English. An infamous philanderer, sexual adventurer, mocker of religion, and general free spirit, he’s considered above all to be classical Arabic’s bacchic bard. His wine poems, or khamriyyat, speak of a dissolute Baghdad nightlife where all pleasures can be found:

Why would I go on Hajj as long as                I’m plunged in a wine house, or a pimp’s pad?And even if you could save me from those               How could I be saved from Tiyzanabad?

Unlike most renderings of classical Arabic poetry, Rowell’s English pulls off rhyming couplets (aB-cB-dB-eB, etc.) without sounding trite or stilted, although readers will sense his taste for a bookish register when compared to the other translations seen here. Along with a sharp introduction and helpful notes, Vintage Humour finds a rare balance between poetry and philology that so completely defines the original.
It’s a balance needed right now, at a time when contemporary Arab writers are taking their turn on the world stage, in order to keep the classical tradition from being lost to view. As independent translators strive after the best English voice for lines written a thousand years ago in Arabic, they are also determined to show why those lines matter in the first place.

Image: T Foz

Lessons in Waiting for Yes

1.
I used to be in a band.

We played more than 600 shows in our roughly seven years together. We lasted seven years and 600 shows and three full-length albums and four EPs and two tapes, and dozens upon dozens of sessions, interviews, and videos. We weren’t the best. We weren’t the coolest. We weren’t the hippest. But we were good. We were really fucking good. And we outworked everyone. Beyond any music we ever created, we became most known for that work ethic. We were the Road Dogs, the writers said, the Working Man’s Band, the Hardest Working Group in Rock ‘n’ Roll. Our tires were bald, our heads heavy, our guitars torn to absolute shit.

Yet all of that hard work yielded nothing.

Well, that’s not entirely true. It yielded seven of the greatest years of my life, the majority of which were spent driving around the country, playing my guitar every night, making new friends and fans, seeing old friends and family, watching our small but devout fan base singing words that we wrote right back in our faces, and spreading our beer-soaked gospel in every corner of the country. We got to see our world in a way few people get to see it, and I’ll never suggest anything other than our being amongst the luckiest people on Earth.

But in the end, it resulted in nothing other than fond memories and a lifetime of experiences. As far as tangible returns on our years-long investment, we had nothing to speak of.

And yet here I am, starting at the same point I started at almost a decade ago. Only now, in place of a guitar and a bunch of songs, I am armed with a laptop and a bunch of stories.

I’ve decided to parlay my life and career from (arguably) the hardest industry to break into to break into (arguably) the second-hardest industry to break into. I’ve decided—thanks to a resume whose main body attempts to explain how being a “guitar player” can bring value to your company—to try and get paid doing one of the few things I know I can do well: writing.

Because being a musician—a decade of noes and passes, of agents and managers and labels and distributors and venues and bigger bands and producers telling me (in their kindest boilerplate language) that they’d rather not work with me—wasn’t enough, I’ve decided to have another go at failure in an attempt to start a writing career.

2.

In the 18 months since I gave up on a job search and threw myself headlong into trying to get paid enough to make a living as a writer, I’ve enjoyed a modicum of success. I’ve had a bunch of stories published online via sites great(ish) and (very) small. I’ve written for The New York Times and Catapult. Some publications have paid very, very well. Most have not. Every day, I apply for full-time work as a staff writer. I write and rewrite pitches. I query editors.

But I’m making a living—thanks, no doubt, to relocating from Lower Manhattan to the much less expensive Chapel Hill, N.C.—solely from writing.

There are the good gigs. The thrilling stories and the personal essays I hope to one day publish as a collection. There are the bad gigs. The dreaded listicles and the less-dreaded SEO work that pay the bills more regularly than anything else.

I write about sports and about wine. I write about the local flair of my adopted hometown and about the Italian-American food that is my family’s heritage. I write about my son, 18 months old and nearly half as tall as his mom.

Last summer, I pecked away every morning at a story about him, about her, and about me, and emerged with a 45,000-word manuscript of which I am very proud. I wrote it for myself. I wrote it for my mom, who’s been dead half a decade, and for my family, who are still here. I wrote because I felt that I had a story I had to write. I wrote for all the reasons the half-cocked self-help gurus tell you to write; “Don’t write the story because you want to get published. Write the story because you need to write the story.”

I needed to write that story. But I also wrote it with the intention of selling it to a publisher. Because fuck the self-effacing, pre-failure refrain of writing only to write because the story needs to be written. Because I want this story to be successful and I want it to be read and passed on and, at best, I want it to resonate with people. Because I want to be paid for my work. Because I want the book tour and the trappings that come with some bit of success.

Because I want it to be a book. Not just a manuscript. And I feel not an ounce of shame in saying that.

And it will. Someday. I have little doubt.

But first I have to wade through another cycle of the endless noes and passes, as the 50-plus literary agents whom I’ve queried and the 50-plus more that I’ve yet to query tell me in their kindest boilerplate language that they’d rather not work with me.

And while I recognize that most aspiring writers’ unsuccessful queries number in the dozens, if not the hundreds, and while I’ve already had dozens, if not hundreds of editors pass on my story pitches, it doesn’t take the sting out of the Thanks-But-No-Thanks responses that litter my inbox at present.

3.

It took seven years and 600 shows for the wind to leave my sails as a rock ‘n’ roller. Seven years and 600 shows and three full-length albums and four EPs and two tapes and dozens upon dozens of sessions, interviews, and videos for the noes and the passes and the boilerplate letters to cause me to crumble under the endless weight of denial, under the endless reminder that my music just wasn’t quite good enough.

So I still have some time. I still have hundreds of queries to send and editors to pitch and more manuscripts to write and more people to bug with my endless optimism. And if after seven years, my resolve is destroyed by the noes and the passes and the boilerplate letters, I can always try out for the Mets.

It can’t possibly be harder than trying to write for a living.

Image: Scott Warman

Ten Ways to Live Forever

1.Before ISIS toppled the minaret of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Anbar Province, or threaded the Mosul tombs of Daniel and Jonah with incendiary, Utnapishtim was somewhere in the desert. He was there before the Americans with their hubristic occupation, in some cave while soldiers in Kevlar patrolled the banks of the Tigris, M1 tanks of the Third Infantry rolling toward Baghdad and F-22s of the 101st Airborne cutting across the skies of Karbala. Utnapishtim survived Saddam’s reign, with his mustard gas, torture chambers, and the invasion of Kuwait; he’d seen men burnt alive on Highway 80 by the Americans; he’d endured the brutal war with Iran, when tanks got stuck in the mud of Dezful and Khorramshahr was turned into a city of blood; he was there when the Ba’athists overthrew the Hashemite monarchy.

Utnapishtim lived through the British Mandate of Mesopotamia, when Sir Percy Cox drank G&T’s at the officer’s club; he’d lived when Iraq was a backwater of the Ottomans, and he saw Mamluks, Jalayirids, and Mongols steer their horses across the desert; he witnessed Genghis Khan in Khwarizmi, more centaur than man. He snuck unseen into the Baghdad of the Abbasids, city of gardens and astrolabes, where he discussed Hadith with the humane Mu’tazila and parsed Aristotle with Ibn Sina. Prior to the Islamic Golden Age, Utnapishtim was in Ctesiphon when Yazdegerd III fled as the Arabs marched into the Sasanian Empire, the Zoroastrian mages unable to prevent the course of history (true of all of us). He was there when Trajan marched columns of iron-armored Roman centurions into Parthia, and when Alexander the Great established Seleucid.

Witness to when Cyrus the Great freed the Jews of Babylon, and when Hammurabi’s scribes chiseled the law into stone. Utnapishtim had endured Chaldeans, Babylonians, Assyrians, Akkadians. Our primogeniture, the oldest of men, born in Sumer; as old as cuneiform pressed into wet clay, as old as sunbaked cities and the farming of wheat on the Euphrates’s banks, as old as the words themselves. Enki of the stars and An of the sky, Enlil of the wind and Ninhursag of the mountains molded Sumer, and by the banks of Eden birthed humans like Utnapishtim. Our only refugee of that before-time, the only person to survive when the fickle gods conspired to destroy the world by flood shortly after having created it.

He dwelled when Iraq was Uruk, before civilization’s keystone was set, when the firmament was new. Utnapishtim survived leaders and conquerors, presidents and dictators. Breathing before Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Muqtada al-Sadr, George W. Bush, Saddam Hussein, and the Ayatollah Khomeini; talking before King George V and Kaiser Wilhelm II; walking before Mehmed II, the Abbasid caliphs, and Genghis Khan; older than the Prophet Muhammad; older even than Yazdegerd III, Alexander the Great, Cyrus the Great, Darius II, Sargon of Akkad, and Ashurbanipal. He witnessed the inundation of ziggurats, the collapse of towers, the immolation of temples. For the thousands of reigns he lived through, the kings innumerable and emperors forgotten, only one had ever sought his counsel. Despite being two-thirds divine, a king who would ultimately die like the rest of us; a fearsome ruler named Gilgamesh.

2.The tale of a righteous man visited by a god who warned him of rising waters—who in response builds an ark, venturing forth when a dove that he’s released confirms that dry land has reemerged—may strike you as a story that you’ve heard before. Norman Cohn parses the purpose of these stories, writing in Noah’s Flood: The Genesis Story in Western Thought that “large areas of what used to be Mesopotamia…were frequently devastated by flood. When torrential rain combined with the melting of the snows… the Tigris and Euphrates could burst their banks.” Cohn explains that in “ancient times this phenomenon gave rise to a powerful tradition: it was believed that here had once been a flood so overwhelming that nothing was ever the same again.” But if Genesis focuses on sin and punishment, the anonymously written Epic of Gilgamesh has no moral, save for a brief on why we must die at all (or at least why most of us must).  

Unlike Noah, who even with the antediluvian extremes of 950 years did ultimately die, Utnapishtim was gifted (or cursed) by the gods with immortality. Some other differences with the Bible’s account, for Genesis records nothing of having to fight scorpion-monsters to reach Utnapishtim. Gilgamesh was stricken over the death of his best (and arguably only) friend, Enkidu, the wild man domesticated by the priestess Shamhat with sex and beer (as so many people are). For the ruler of Uruk, Utnapishtim promised something that can’t be purchased in gold, the possibility of Enkidu’s resurrection and Gilgamesh’s immortality. In Stephen Mitchell’s reimagining Gilgamesh: A New English Version, Utnapishtim queries the ruler: “who will assemble/the gods for your sake? Who will convince them/to grant you the eternal life that you seek?”

Utnapishtim tasks Gilgamesh, the man who defeated the mighty ogre Humbaba, that immortality is his if he simply stays awake indefinitely. Despite quasi-divinity, powers temporal and physical, authority and prestige, Gilgamesh can’t defeat slumber. Utnapishtim mocks the king, “Look at this fellow! He wanted to live / forever, but the very moment he sat down, / sleep swirled over him, like a fog.” All of human weakness and desires—our need to eat, our need to shit and piss, our need to fuck—signal that our lot is not that of Utnapishtim or of the gods who created him. Even if you can defeat Humbaba, the Epic of Gilgamesh reminds us, sooner or later you’ll nod off.

Finally, Gilgamesh is informed that the only means of living forever is to acquire a magic plant growing at the bottom of all rivers’ sources, which the ruler promptly finds, only to have the wily serpent (at the start of an auspicious career) snatch the fruit away from him. Enkidu’s death has left the king raw and lonely, but Utnapishtim’s example is illusory and dangerous, for it “postpones Gilgamesh’s necessary acceptance until a time when he is more ready for it,” as Mitchell writes. Gilgamesh realizes that immortality is not literal; one does not live forever at the world’s eastern edge, but rather in deeds, memories, and in words. We’re told by less mature voices to rage against the dying of the light, but the earliest story has Gilgamesh confront immortality’s mirage, understanding how “now that I stand / Before you, now that I see who you are, / I can’t fight.”

Ironically, Utnapishtim’s story was forgotten for millennia (if filtered through other myths). “Though it is one of the earliest explorations of these perennial themes,” writes David Damrosch in The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh, “this haunting poem isn’t a timeless classic.” Hidden just as surely as Utnapishtim in his orchard, the influence of The Epic of Gilgamesh is subliminal in our cultural memory. Preserved on a few broken kiln-burnt tablets strewn about the floor of the Akkadian king Ashurbanipal’s library, The Epic of Gilgamesh wasn’t rediscovered until the 19th century by British archeologists. Of that, Utnapishtim’s discourse on eternity occupied only a few lines on the 11th tablet.

Literary historian Michael Schmidt in Gilgamesh: The Life of a Poem describes the epic as constituting “the first road novel, the first trip to hell, the first Deluge.” So much has come after what that nameless scribe wrote; it predates Homer and Virgil, Dante and John Milton, William Shakespeare and Jane Austen, Anne Bradstreet and Emily Dickinson. Even though ignorant of Gilgamesh, they worked and aspired to the same timelessness, for as Schmidt writes, it “prefigures almost every literary tone and trope and suggests all genres, from dramatic to epic, from lament to lyrics and chronicle, that have followed it.”

The Epic of Gilgamesh reminds us that there have been many floods, many apocalypses, many deaths, and virtually nobody has ever come out the other side alive. To live forever may be a myth, yet for our lack of eternity, even after all these millennia, we are still “Wandering, always eastward, in search / of Utnapishtim, whom the gods made immortal.” 

3.Sex evolved before death. Arguably the former was a prerequisite for the latter. Sexual reproduction, genetic material exchange resulting in a new individual, was first practiced among simple prokaryotes—unicellular organisms lacking membrane and nuclei—about two billion years ago. Birds do it, bees do it, educated fleas do it, and apparently even prokaryotes do it. Such hobbies introduce beneficial genetic variations that the date-night loneliness of asexual reproduction simply doesn’t allow for. When celibate organisms reproduce through mitosis, they’re cloning themselves—the individual is the species. If you squish an asexual prokaryote, there are millions more just like it—death is meaningless; it is fundamentally immortal. But once sex exists, the loss of any one thing can be considered the irretrievable death of something completely unique, no matter how simple it may be. As the old joke at my alma matter has it, “Sex kills. If you want to live forever, go to Carnegie Mellon.”

Immunologist William R. Clark explains in Sex and the Origins of Death that “Obligatory death as a result of senescence—natural aging—may not have come into existence for more than a billion years after life…programmed death seems to have arisen at about the same time that cells began experimenting [with] sex…It may be the ultimate loss of innocence.” From the first orgasm came the first death gasp—at least proverbially. Human culture has subsequently been one long reaction to that reality, debating whether it was a fall or a Felix culpa.

That sex precedes death isn’t just a biological fact, but it has the gloss of theological truth about it as well. Such is the chronology as implied by Genesis; though there was debate as to if Adam and Eve did have sex in Eden, there seemed little doubt that they could have (though St. Augustin said it could only be facilitated through pure rationality, and not fallen passion). That all changes once Utnapishtim’s wily serpent makes a reappearance, and God tells Eve that He will “greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children.” Only three verses later, and God tells Adam that “dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” Sent beyond Eden’s walls to live out their finite days in the desert, their only consolations are sex and death.

Eros and Thanatos endures in the human psyche. Since the 16th century, the French have referred to orgasm as la petite mort, the “little death.” When that phrase first appeared, Europe was in the midst of syphilitic panic. A disease of replacement: silver noses pressed into the viscus putty of a rancid face, and of the tics and mutterings of those who’ve gone insane. Anthropologist Jared Diamond writes in Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies that when syphilis “was first definitely recorded…in 1495, its pustules often covered the body from the head to the knees, caused flesh to fall from people’s faces, and led to death within a few months.” If scolds were looking for the connection between sex and death, syphilis was a ready-made villain. Always a moralizing faith, Christianity was made a bit more so with the arrival of syphilis; in 15th-century Florence the fanatical Dominican Girolamo Savonarola taught that it was God’s punishment for decadent humanism; a generation later and the Protestant Martin Luther would concur with his Catholic forebear.

In Naples they called it the “French disease,” and in Paris it was an Italian one, but epidemiologists have configured it as American, noting its arrival shortly after Christopher Columbus’s return from the Caribbean. Syphilis was an export alongside potatoes and tomatoes; an unwitting revenge for the smallpox introduced into the Western Hemisphere. If modernity signals its own fall, than syphilis was perhaps an indiscriminate punishment, for as historian Roy Porter writes in The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity, syphilis “should be regarded as typical of the new plagues of an age of conquest and turbulence, one spread by international warfare, rising population density…[and] the migrations of soldiers and traders.” Sacrificed immortality was the price that living creatures paid for the possibility of connection, for if eternity was once a biological process, then its opposite was as well.

4.Ponce de Leon looked for immortality in Florida, it’s true. Somewhere near where tourists stroll eroding Miami Beach, soccer moms pick their children up from Broward County strip malls, or hearty adventurers visit Pensacola gator-parks, the conquistador had obsessively searched for the Fountain of Youth. According to (apocryphal) legend, de Leon was fixated on stories told by Native Americans of a mythic source water whose curative properties would restore men to youth—indefinitely. Immortality by water fountain if you will. “Ponce de Leon went down in history as a wishful graybeard seeking eternal youth, like so many Floridians today,” quips Tony Horowitz in A Voyage Long and Strange: On the Trail of Vikings, Conquistadors, Lost Colonists, and Other Adventures in Early America.

Arawak and Taino spoke of a spring named “Bimini,” located everywhere from the Bahamas to the Yucatan. De Leon looked for it in the future Sunshine State, though you’ll note that he did not find it. If you’ve ever visited the Old Town of San Juan, Puerto Rico with its charming, crooked stone streets that meander by colonial buildings painted in pinks and blues, you’ll find that far from achieving immortality, de Leon is buried inside of the white-walled Cathedral of San Juan Bautista. In 1521, somewhere between Florida’s hidden Fountain of Youth and immortality, de Leon found himself in the way of a manchineel poisoned arrow wielded by a Calusa warrior.  

When de Leon envisioned a bubbling creek that could restore him to lost youth (probably better to have just enjoyed the original more), by what mechanism did he see such a thing as working? Chemical or alchemical, natural or supernatural? Horowitz writes that a “Spanish historian later claimed that Ponce de Leon [searched]…as a cure for his impotence,” which gives us an emotional register for the conquistador’s obsession, if not the pharmaceutical specifics. Since no such fountain actually exists, the question of whether it’s magic or science is easier to answer—it’s neither. Or, perhaps, better to think of it as a magical belief about science; the idea that the fountain’s waters have mineralogical or medical properties is fundamentally just a mask for our supernatural inclinations, the fountain not so different from Gilgamesh’s restorative plant.

As early as the fifth century before the Common Era, and Herodotus would declaim in The Histories that the mythic Macrobians living on the Horn of Africa could live as long as 120 years with the assistance of a particularly pure spring. He writes of a “fountain, wherein when they had washed, they found their flesh all glossy and sleek, as if they had bathed in oil—and a scent came from the spring like that of violets…their constant use of the water from it [is] what makes them so long-lived” (gerontologists agree that 120 years seems to be the upper-limit natural expiration date for humans, if free of disease and accident).

Alexander the Great and the imaginary Christian king Prester John, whose realm was supposedly somewhere deep in either pagan Asia or Africa, are associated with the myth. The 14th-century faux-exploration narrative The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, a post-modern picaresque or autofiction written before postmodernism and autofiction were things, claims that a similar spring exists in India, “a beautiful well, whose water has a sweet taste and smell, as if of different kinds of spices.” Some of the author’s accounts of Egypt and China conform to what we know about those places during the Middle Ages, and yet Mandeville’s claims about whole tribes that have Cynocephaly (they’re dog-headed) or of groups of Epiphagi (people with heads in their chests) strain credulity. How are we to trust such a source about the Fountain of Youth?

What these examples should demonstrate is that de Leon had a ready-made script. Not a dissimilar process to how Spanish colonists saw the ancient Greek legend of the Amazons in South America, or the Portuguese fable of the Seven Cities of Cibola in the red-baked American southwest. Theirs was never a process of discovery, but of the endless use and reuse of their own dusty legends. Who knows what Bimini really was? The conquistadors had their imaginings from Herodotus and Mandeville, and they were going to impose such a concept onto America. Immortality, regardless of whether it’s to be found in India, the Horn of Africa, or south Florida, is an obsession. Yet what the obsessive obsesses over tells us more about the obsessed than the obsessee.

5.Virginia Woolf didn’t wish to acquire immortality, far from it. A disservice to Woolf, not to mention the millions of those who suffer from depression, to reduce her 1941 suicide to allegory or symbol. When weighted down with rocks she walked into the Ouse near her East Sussex home, Woolf was not providing us with gloss on life and death. “I am doing what seems the best thing to do,” Woolf writes in the note left for her husband, “I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came.” That, in its straightforwardness, says the most important thing about Wolfe’s suicide—that it was the result of her disease. Depression is not allegory, it is a disease, and oftentimes it kills people. Woolf did, however, supply her thoughts on immortality some 13 years earlier, in one of the greatest meditations ever supplied on the subject, her novel Orlando: A Biography.

Woolf depicts an English courtier born during the reign of the Tudors, who, despite the limitations of having a finite body, is somehow able to will himself (and then herself) into immortality. Orlando may be a subject of Queen Elizabeth I, but by the end of the novel she’s able to fly over her manor house in an airplane. In the interim, the character experiences the Frost Faire of 1608 (when the Thames froze over and merchants plied candied apples and roasted walnuts on its surface), an affair with a beautiful Russian noblewoman, placement in an English embassy in Constantinople, adoption by a group of Roma, and marriage to an eccentric gender nonconforming sea captain with the unimaginably great name of Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine. And then around the age of 30, Orlando transforms from being a man into a woman as she slept one night.

No magic plants or springs, rather a sense that Orlando’s personality is so overabundant that it can’t be constrained through either sexuality or time. “Orlando had become a woman,” Woolf writes simply, “there’s no denying it.” A masterpiece of both temporal and gender ambiguity, in Orlando the author doesn’t desire immortality for herself, but she imagines it for her character, what her biographer Hermione Lee describes in Virginia Woolf as its quality of being a “masterpiece of playful subterfuge.” Unlike Gilgamesh with his overweening bloodlust, or de Leon with his immature obsession, Woolf envisions immortality as a radical, subversive, creative state; as Hill puts it, a “magnificent, surrealist erection.” For Woolf, immortality is better understood as an aesthetic act, living one’s life so fully, with such pure, unmitigated, wondrous agency that the contours of normal years and decades simply must expand to fit our enormity. With relativistic insight Woolf observes that “An hour, once it lodges in the queer element of the human spirit, may be stretched to fifty or a hundred times its clock length; on the other hand, an hour may be accurately represented on the timepiece of the mind by one second,” a phenomenon that she cheekily claims “is less known than it should be and deserves fuller investigation.”

Orlando’s great negative capability is that Woolf describes depression without the novel losing sight of a certain wondrous enchantment. She writes that “At the age of thirty…this young nobleman had not only had every experience that life has to offer, but had seen the worthlessness of them all. Love and ambition, women and poets were all equally vain.” Such emptiness and disinterestedness—the sheer fact of being so tired—is the medium of depression. But the narrative itself is what demonstrates the illusoriness of such emotions, even if in the moment they feel to us to be inviolate. Orlando thinks that they have experienced everything, but have they been to Constantinople? Have they flown over Sussex in a plane? Not yet—and therein lay the rub. Life has a charged abundance, even if brain chemistry and circumstance sometimes deny us that.

Orlando was a roman à clef upon the great love of Woolf’s life—Vita Sackville-West. The character shares Sackville-West’s androgynous beauty, her poetic brilliance, and her aristocratic forbearance. Most of all, Orlando and Sackville-West are united in having lived their lives with such jouissance, with such unbridled life, that death itself seems to indefinitely pause to take them. An existence where we can observe in the Thames “frozen to a depth of some twenty fathoms, a wrecked wherry boat… lying on the bed of the river where it had sunk last autumn, overladen with apples,” the frozen corpse of the saleswoman visible in her blue-lipped magnificence at the bottom. What a strange, terrible, and beautiful thing this life is, that if we were to fully inhabit every single blessed second of it, we’d be as eternal as it were ever possible to be, within the very universe of a moment. How fortunate we are.  

6.On the road from Santiago de Compostela in 1378, the French alchemist Nicholas Flamel and his wife Perenelle met eternity. According to almost certainly fabricated accounts written in the 17th century, the wealthy Parisian bookseller’s study of magic helped him to (among other things) derive the philosopher’s stone, and thus generate the so-called “Elixir of Life,” which granted him immortality. Flamel had journeyed to Spain, that liminal place between east and west, Europe and Africa, Christian, Jewish, and Islamic, under the assumption that some mage could interpret a manuscript he purchased in Paris. Flamel wasn’t so fortunate in finding assistance while actually in Spain, but on the road home a Jewish converso recognized the occult text for what it was—an original copy of the powerful grimoire The Book of Abramelin.

As with all such guides, The Book of Abramelin makes big promises. Within there are “the actual rules to acquire this Divine and Sacred Magic…therein find certain examples and other matters which be none the less useful and profitable unto thee.” It parsed the intricacies of summoning your guardian angel, how to bind demons, and how to walk underwater (which as impressive as it is, doesn’t really match the first two). There are a lot of magic squares scattered throughout. And, of course, there is the recipe for the philosopher’s stone. As with the stories about Flamel himself, The Book of Abramelin seems to be another 17th-century invention. The author is supposedly the German Kabbalist Abraham of Worms, who traveled to Egypt to confer with the reputed mystical master Abramelin himself. “And having written this with mine own hand,” writes the author (since we’re unsure of whose hand penned that line), “I have placed it within this casket, and locked it up, as a most precious treasure; in order that when thou hast arrived at a proper age thou mayest be able to admire, to consider, and to enjoy the marvels.”

No version of the text has been found that predates 1608, and the earliest copies are in German rather than Hebrew; all of which seems to indicate that just as with Flamel, the reputation of The Book of Abramelin is a fantasy borrowing authority from medieval exoticism. A fashionable Hebraism developed during the Italian Renaissance, and quickly spread throughout Europe, so that references to the Kabbalah could impart a degree of authenticity for Christian occultists. Gershom Scholem writes in Alchemy and Kabbalah that the “name of this arcane discipline became a popular catchword in Renaissance and Baroque theosophical and occult circles, having been declared and revered as the guardian of the oldest and highest mystical wisdom of mankind by its fist Christian mediators.” All the greatest stories about Kabbalah may be set in the Middle Ages, but for the Christian occultists who appropriated it, the subject was very much a Renaissance affair.

For alchemists and occultists like Paracelsus, Johann Reuchlin, or John Dee, Flamel was an instructive example. Knowledge was supposed to be the road to eternity, as surely as a Parisian scribe could return from Compostela, and perhaps the bookseller was somewhere wandering like the converso who gave him the secret to never dying. Could Flamel be glimpsed, in the court of the occult emperor Rudolf II in red-roofed Prague, discoursing on astronomy with Johannes Keppler and Kabbalah with Rabbi Judah ben Lowe? Would he be found on those curving stones of dark Cambridge with Thomas Vaughan, or among the sun-dappled courtyards of Florence with Giordano Bruno?

In reality, Flamel was moldering underneath the nave of the Church of Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie in the fourth arrondissement. His tombstone now sits in the Musée de Cluny; the year of Flamel’s expiration was 1418. By all actual accounts, he was a loving husband and a successful merchant. Flamel’s fate, in all of its beauty, was the same as everybody’s. The psychoanalyst Marie-Louise von France gives a charitable reading of the Renaissance theorists of immortality, explaining in Alchemy: An Introduction to the Symbolism and Psychology that the desire for this knowledge “was actually the search for an incorruptible essence in man which would survive death, an essential part of the human being which could be preserved.” An accurate definition for poetry.

7.Enoch’s story is recounted across only four lines in Genesis. The King James Version of the Bible sets the cryptic tale of a man who ascended bodily to heaven, presumably having never died and still living immortally somewhere in the astral realm, in just 53 words. Father of Methuselah, who was himself so remarkably long-lived that his name has long been conflated with extreme seniority, Enoch simply never died. We’re told at Genesis 5:24 that “Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him.” Such is the entire explanation of what happened to this man of the seventh generation. What an odd bit of poetry this is. For. God. Took. Him.

Even if the Bible is tight-lipped about Enoch, the copious fan-fic about him (which scholars call “apocrypha”) lacked a similar reticence. From the mystics of antiquity to the occultists of today, Enoch achieved not just immortality but actual apotheosis, seated next to a God who liked him so much that he transformed the mortal into a “lesser Yahweh.” Such is a description of his career change from a pseudographical rabbinic text called 3 Enoch, which is dated to the fifth century after the Common Era. Scholem provides gloss on this unusual book in his Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, writing that “[his] flesh was turned to flame, his veins to fire, his eye-lashes to flashes of lightning, his eye-balls to flaming torches, and who God has placed on a throne next to the throne of glory, received after this heavenly transformation the name Metatron.” There is a venerable occult tradition that holds that Enoch become immortal, was elevated above even the archangels, became the very voice of the Lord, and was given a name that sounds like that of a Transformer.

Enochian literature can be traced back to three apocryphal texts from the first centuries of the Common Era that all elaborated on the terse passage from Genesis. 3 Enoch (also amazingly called The Revelation of Metatron) is joined by the Book of Enoch, written in Ge’ez and still held canonical by the Orthodox Tewahedo Church in Ethiopia, and the Second Book of Enoch which only survives in Old Bulgarian (I’m not making that up). The last book’s alternate title is actually even better than The Revelation of Metatron, it is often referred to as The Book of Secrets. From translator Willis Barnstone’s version of The Book of Secrets, as included in his incredible anthology The Other Bible, Enoch speaks in the first person, telling us that “I know all things and have written them into books concerning the heavens and their end, their plentitude, their armies, and their marching. I have measured and described the stars, their great and countless multitude. What man has seen their revolutions and entrances?”  

Metatron was the amanuenses of God’s thoughts, the librarian of reality who noted all that had, would, or could be done. A scribe as surely as Flamel was—Metatron was a writer. Enoch was the first figure in scripture to ascend to heaven, though he was not the first. Midrash actually records eight people as having achieved immortality this way, including the prophet Elijah who is consumed entirely up into a whirlwind; Sarah, whom is blessed by her grandfather Jacob with “May you live forever and never die;” and Ebed-Melech the Ethiopian who saved the prophet Jeremiah’s life during the Siege of Jerusalem. Catholics believe that the Virgin Mary ascended bodily, though after her death on Earth (a minority claim she was taken while still alive). Christianity more generally teaches that Christ rose to heaven, though he also died first, of course; while Muslims teach that both Muhammad and Jesus ascended.

Immortality, these accounts remind us, is a miracle. Perhaps no more so than with Enoch, for those other examples concern the ascension of prophets and the messiah, but the lowly man of the seventh generation was just some guy. A quiet beauty to the account, for why did Enoch walk with God? What about Enoch was so agreeable to the Lord that He would take him? What cracked beauty is there in a human gifted the ability to see the universe in its resplendence, so that as concerns the stars, Enoch speaks in a voice of awe from the Book of Secrets that “Not even the angels see their number, yet I have recorded all their names.”

8.While writing theater reviews for the Dublin Evening Mail, a 28-year-old graduate of Trinity University named Abraham Stoker would be the unlikely author of a gushing fan letter sent on Valentine’s Day 1876 to an American poet with an address in the distinctly unglamorous locale of Camden, New Jersey. That wasn’t Stoker’s first attempt at writing to Walt Whitman; he’d penned an effusive, borderline-erotic missive some four years earlier but kept the epistle in his desk out of embarrassment, before finally sending the original with a new note of introduction.

“Do not think me cheeky for writing this,” Stoker, who now went by “Bram,” wrote in the new letter, but “I believe you will like it,” he said regarding his original message. Whitman is a “man who can write, as you have written, the most candid words that ever fell from the lips of a mortal man.” For Stoker, only 9 when Leaves of Grass was first printed (and as of then completely unknown in Britain or Ireland), Whitman had “shaken off the shackles and your wings are free.” With a tragic pathos still clear more than a century later, Stoker confesses (which has afforded no shortage of literary gossip) that “I have the shackles on my shoulders still—but I have no wings.”

As obsequious as Renfield, Stoker tells Whitman that “You are a true man, and I would like to be one myself, and so I would be towards you as a brother and as a pupil to his master.” Perhaps he was, as there is something almost vampiric in Whitman’s 1891 revision of his poem “Trickle Drops,” done a year before his death and six before his protégé would publish his most famous novel. “Trickle drops! my blue veins leaving!…drip bleeding drops, / From wounds made to free you when you were prison’d / From my face, from my forehead and lips, / my breast…Stain every page, stain every song I sing, every word I saw, bloody drops,” Whitman enthuses. Stoker’s titular character in Dracula concurs with the American bard: “The blood is the life!”

Strange to think of the consummate rugged individualist with his broad shoulders and his Old Testament beard as influencing Stoker, but as an unconventional bohemian, Whitman may have shared more with Dracula than has been supposed. Biographer Barbara Belford notes in Bram Stoker and the Man Who Was Dracula that “the vampire at times resembles Whitman. Each has long white hair, a heavy moustache, great height and strength, and a leonine bearing.” Perhaps less superficially, “Whitman’s poetry celebrates the voluptuousness of death and the deathlike quality of love.” Whitman, with the gleam of the vampire in his eyes, promises in his preface to Leaves of Grass that the “greatest poet…drags the dead out of their coffins and stands them again on their feet.”

Leaves of Grass is a work that enthuses about immortality, albeit more in the transcendentalist sense than in the vampiric one. “The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,” Whitman writes, “And if there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it…All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses, / And to die is different from what anyone supposed.” Whitman fully expected a metaphysical immortality whereby his very atoms mingle into the streams and stones, the rocks and the rambles. Admittedly a different type of immortality than that surmised by Stoker, yet he borrowed from Whitman the poet’s charged, fully realized, erotic, bohemian persona. The Irishman noted that Whitman was the “quintessential male,” and its hard not to see some of that projection onto Dracula.

The immediate historical influence for Dracula was the 15th-century Wallachian prince Vlad Tepes, more popularly known as the “Impaler” after his favored pastime. Eros and Thanatos again, a bit of sex and death in that nickname. Radu Florescu and Raymond T. McNally note in their classic In Search of Dracula that the “ruler notorious for mass impalements of his enemies…was in fact called Dracula in the fifteenth century, and we found that he even signed his name that way.” From Whitman, Stoker took the transcendent nature of immortality, and from Vlad the blessed violence, bound together in the transgressive, bohemian personality of the aesthete. Literary scholars Joanna Levin and Edward Whitley write in Whitman Among the Bohemians that from the “bohemians to contemporary hipsters, Whitman still commands center stage, providing an ever-magnetic focal point for countercultural self-fashionings,” something that any goth can tell you is true of Dracula as well. As a reader, Stoker is able to comprehend that Whitman’s celebration of immortality must by necessity also have its drawbacks, that the vampiric can’t help but pulse through any conception of life beyond the grave.

With the smallest sprout in mind, Stoker writes that it’s a “strange world, a sad world, a world full of miseries, and woes, and troubles.” Yet we can “all dance to the tune…Bleeding hearts, and dry bones of the churchyard, and tears that burns as they fall—all dance together to the music.” Immortality kindled in the space of human connection, our lives able to exist indefinitely through others. Dracula does this literally, sucking upon the blood of innocents, but we ideally all do it when we ingest the words of others, and respond in kind. Whitman wrote back to Stoker. “I am up and dress’d, and get out every day a little, live here quite lonesome, but hearty, and good spirits.” He concluded the letter with, “Write to me again.”

9.Many lines are on the CV of the biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey: graduate of Trinity College Cambridge with a Ph.D. awarded for his dissertation The Mitochondrial Free Radical Theory of Aging; Fellow of the Gerontological Association of America, Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technology, and the American Aging Institute; adjunct professor at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, and most famously the chief science officer at the California-based Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence. Added to that, under “Skills,” could be “Still Alive.” Don’t knock it as an entry; the vast majority of people who have ever lived can no longer claim the same. De Grey, whose name is almost ridiculously on the nose, would argue that “Still Alive” could be easily translated into “(Effectively) Immortal,” for the researcher claims that death is a terminal illness that will one day be preventable, and that any dismissiveness to that is a case of sublimated religious nostalgia.

He looks the part of an immortal, more prophet than scientist. With a long, tangled, greying auburn beard that is positively druidic, de Grey appears as if he were Merlin or Galahad, some Arthurian immortal. If anything, that epic beard calls to mind those who’ve joined us already—the good, grey bearded ruddy complexioned poet Whitman, and de Leon with his face burnt from the Florida sun with unshorn hair poking out from his metal cap; Enoch’s cascading white mane (or so one imagines) and Utnapishtim’s curled black beard hanging in plaits from his gaunt, severe face.

De Gray has an advantage over all of these men, and that’s that he is still alive (or even exists in the first place). That may, however, be his ultimate disadvantage, for unreality has a type of immortality that biology can’t approach. Of no concern to de Grey, writing alongside Michael Rae in Ending Aging: The Rejuvenation Breakthroughs that Could Reverse Human Aging in Our Lifetime, he argues that his field is “inhibited by the deeply ingrained belief that aging was ‘natural’ and ‘inevitable,’ biogerentologists had set themselves apart from the rest of the biomedical community by allowing themselves to be overawed by the complexity of the phenomenon that they were observing.” Not without some justification, de Grey argues that aging and death are biological problems and thus have biological solutions.

Utnapishtim had his magic plant and de Leon his spring of rejuvenation, but for de Grey immortality was an issue of his “own idea for eliminating intercellular garbage like lipofuscin [combined with]…making mitochondrial mutations harmless…for addressing glycation, amyloid accumulation, cell loss, senescent cells and cancer.” When it comes to the hodgepodge of techno-utopians who fall under the broad term of “transhumanism,” de Grey is positively a traditionalist in that he’s still focused on these meat bags filled with blood, piss, shit, and phlegm. More radical transhumanists have gone digital, arguing that consciousness could be downloaded to computers, the eternal soul an issue of making sure that your files are backed up.

Engineer Ray Kurzweil is one such evangelist for the coming of robot-Jesus, when Artificial Intelligence will be able to assist in the downloading of your mind, and the resurrection of those who’ve already passed before us (through purely material, scientific, technological means of course). He writes in The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology that when that eschaton arrives (always in just a few decades), it will “allow us to transcend these limitations of our biological bodies and brains. We will gain power over our fates. Our mortality will be in our own hands. We will be able to live as long as we want.” Apparently, such a project is easier than halting climate change, or at least the hyper libertarian funders of such transhumanist schemes, from Elon Musk to Peter Thiel, would have you believe such. The desire for immortality is a deeply human one, but with the irony that its achievement would serve to eliminate the human entirely. Ask not for whom the computer chimes, simply upload your soul to the cloud.

10.About two weeks ago from the time of my writing, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi announced that the legislature was “moving forward with an official impeachment inquiry” of Donald J. Trump. Pelosi’s announcement was broadcast on all major networks, on PBS and MSNBC, CNN and (even) FOX. In a vacuum, electromagnetic radiation travels at 186,000 miles per second; Albert Einstein’s theory of special relativity tells us that nothing may go faster. That means that this happy bit of news can be heard as far as 225,327,187,473.16 miles away, and counting, though unfortunately what’s in that space is mostly dust and rock. The closest star system to us is Alpha Centauri, which is a positively minuscule 4.37 light years away, meaning that for any lucky extraterrestrials there Barack Obama is still president.

In EZ Aquarii, they just heard President Obama’s acceptance address in Grant Park; any planets near Procyon will have just been informed of the 2008 financial collapse, and at LPP 944-020 they’re leaning of the invasion of Iraq. At MU Arae they’ve discovered that humans made the puny jump to the Moon (as well as listening to Abbey Road for the first time), HR 4864 just heard Walter Cronkite deliver the sad news about President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and Zeta Virginis is now aware that the Second World War is over. In just a little less than a decade, assuming that such weak electromagnetic waves hadn’t been absorbed by the dust and rock that reigns supreme in interstellar space, Guglielmo Marconi’s first transatlantic radio broadcast of the letter “s” repeatedly tapped out in Morse code would be arriving at K2-18b, a massive “super-earth” exoplanet some 120 light years away.

Earth is surrounded by an electromagnetic halo, our missives in radio and light that grow ever weaker with distance, but which send our thoughts ever further into interstellar space with every passing year. Music, entertainment, news, communication, all of it sent out like so many dandelion spores into the reaches of the black cosmos. The continual thrum of that pulsating meaning—what Whitman could have described as “Out of the cradle endlessly rocking, / Out of the mocking-bird’s throat, the musical shuttle”—a record of our having been here that can never be erased, though it’s ambiguous if there is anyone out there to listen. “O rising stars!” Whitman wrote, “Perhaps… [I] will rise with some of you,” an offering made up in a frequency between 88MHz-108Mhz. There is an immortality, disembodied and ethereal, that does turn to be out in the heavens—just in a form that may have been difficult for Enoch to imagine.

A harder chunk of our finality exists out there as well, the Golden Record included on both of the Voyager 1 and Voyager II spacecraft launched by NASA, which having passed into interstellar space beyond our solar system in respectively 2012 and 2018 are the furthest things that have ever been touched by human hands. Conceived of by the astrophysicist Carl Sagan, the Golden Record is a phonographic LP encoded with both images and a little under six and a half hours of sounds, meant to express our sheer enormity. For any extraterrestrials that should happen to find the record—Voyager 1 is about 40,000 years out from Gliese 445—Sagan and his committee’s record may serve as the only tangible example of our eternity, our only vehicle for immortality. In being able to select the contents of such a canon, Sagan is arguably the most influential human to ever live.

Any future listeners will be able to hear pianist Glen Gould’s transcendent interpretation of Johan Sebastian Bach’s mathematically perfect Brandenburg Concerto, the mournful cry of blues-singer Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground,” the Bavarian State Orchestra playing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and Chuck Berry absolutely shredding it on “Johnny B. Goode.” Sagan reminisces in Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space that “any alien ship that finds it will have another standard by which to judge us.” Astronomer Jim Bell writes in The Interstellar Age: The Story of the NASA Men and Women Who Flew the Forty-Year Voyager Mission that “If the messages aboard the Voyagers ended up being the last surviving artifacts of our world, they would signify the brighter sigh of human nature…[we] wanted to send out sign of our hopes, not our regrets.” Unless Voyager 1 or 2 should slam into some random star or fall into a hidden blackhole, unless some bit of flotsam should smash it up or some wayward creature should use it for target practice, both probes will continue unimpeded for a very long time. Space being mostly empty, their lifespans will be such that they’re effectively immortal.

Fifty-thousand years from now, after climate change renders us extinct, the interglacial period will end and a new ice age will descend on Earth. In two million years, the coral reefs of the world will have had time to recover from ocean acidification. Sixty million years from now, and the Canadian Rockies will have eroded away. Geologists predict that all of the Earth’s continents will coalesce into a supercontinent 250 million years from now. Five hundred million years in the future they’ll have separated again. A little more than a billion years from now, and stellar fluctuations will increase temperatures so that the oceans will be boiled away. In 1.6 billion years the last of our friends the prokaryotes will most likely be extinct. By 7.59 billion years, the sun will reach its Red Giant phase, and what remains of the Earth will most likely fall into our star. Through all of that, slowly moving along in blackness, will be the Golden Record. “Better was it to go unknown and leave behind you an arch, a potting shed, a wall where peaches ripen, than to burn like a meteor and leave no dust,” Woolf wrote. Voyager, however, leaves dust, no matter how scant.

Our solar system will be dead, but somewhere you’ll still be able to hear Ludwig von Beethoven’s Symphony Number 5 in C Minor. Sagan’s satellite is as if Ashurbanipal’s library was buried in the desert of space. As these things have moved us, perhaps somehow, someway they will move minds that have yet to exist. In a lonely universe, the only immortality is in each other, whomever we may be. Included within the Golden Record are a series of sentences in various languages, including Akkadian. Only 19 seconds into the record, and for billions of years listeners may hear a human speaking in the language of Utnapishtim, delivering the benediction that “May all be very well.”

Images: Mark Tegethoff, Greg Rakozy, Kristopher Roller, Aron Visuals, Ewan Robertson, NASA, Franck V., Drew Graham, Maksym Gryshchenko

The Joys of Reading with a Second Grader

“Why do you only read one book at a time?” my eight-year-old daughter asked me recently.
It isn’t true. I have piles of books stacked around the house, some homework for my writing projects, others written by friends, a few I have the best intentions for but just can’t seem to finish. She’s right, though, that there is usually one book whose call is strongest, and when we read side-by-side for pleasure, that’s the one I grab. I’m a slow reader, so my daughter has time to get attached to my choices. Three years later, she never fails to point out Lisa Ko’s The Leavers in bookstores, like it’s my long-lost friend, which, in a way, it is.
I have limited time to read usually—on the train, if I’m lucky enough to get a seat, or a few pages in bed before my eyelids grow heavy. Anyone who’s ever written a book knows you can accomplish great things via incrementalism, but reading slowly can feel like a grind. This year I’ve been sticking to shortish books that I can fly through. But recently I had some extra time and knew it was my chance to start Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, a multi-generational epic about Koreans living in Japan. I needed a good run of hours to devote to its 497 pages, and finally I had it. My daughter fingered the book’s shiny cover, tracing the mountains and valleys hidden in the folds of the woman’s hanbok.
“I want to read one of your books,” she said, eyeing the shelves in my bedroom.
I looked up, thinking of all the sex and violence housed there, subjects my girl will need to understand eventually, but slowly and carefully and not yet. Then I saw it: the Anne of Green Gables series. Last year I’d asked my mom to ship the books to me. I’d wanted my daughter to have those stories about the plucky red-haired orphan sent to live with a bachelor and his spinster sister on Prince Edward Island. But there’d been no space for them in her bedroom, where every horizontal surface is crowded with Ivy and Bean and Dr. Seuss and Star Wars and Roald Dahl.
“Those ones,” I said to her, pointing at the eight-book series nestled among the other Ms on my shelves. My daughter would need a chair to reach them, and I could see it was this fact—not my personal endorsement of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s classics, frequently and freely offered over the preceding months—that sold her on them.
My aunt gave me Anne of Green Gables, the first in the series, in 1982 (“Hope you enjoy reading this book as much as I did more than 20 years ago!” inscribed on the inside flap), and I remember finding the book one summer afternoon as I lay, bored out of my mind, on the floor of my room. Its green cover seemed to twinkle at me from under the bed. I don’t remember how it ended up there in the first place, but I can hazard a guess.
In the four years since my daughter first learned to read, I’ve been hoping to teach her the joys of reading for pleasure. No one wants to be nagged into enjoying themselves or doing something that’s good for them. Instead, I turn off the TV, grab the dog and a blanket, and make a nest so cozy the FOMO sucks in my daughter. You’d be surprised how often it works. But even for a lifelong reader like me—with the responsibilities of middle age: the emails to send, checkups to schedule, sitters to book, pages to write, and bills to pay—it can be difficult to access anything like joy. Contentedness? Sure. Admiration for an author’s achievement and the gratitude that comes with having your world increased and your knowledge deepened? Of course. But the joy in discovering a book that’s too good to resist? That’s been rare—until I started reading with my daughter.
To a second grader, reading is like throwing confetti in the air and getting back music or diamonds; sometimes, on a bad day, only dust motes. My girl isn’t a purist like her mother. I prefer the book as a physical object, novels preferably, the bound pages humming with secrets. But she’ll read anything: comics and graphic novels, chapter books, e-books on her Kindle (she has one; I don’t), engineering manuals, visual encyclopedias, books her dad and I made for her, stapled-together pages she’s started writing and will likely never finish, stories she’s started on my laptop. In the early days, I thought it all a performance, a child’s idea of what reading was supposed to be. I didn’t know then that pretending (to read, to write, to cook, to dance) was the beginning of the thing itself.
It’s incredible that children are so good at beginnings because so often the difficulty with reading books is surviving the beginning. It’s a huge investment for an adult to make—let alone an 8-year-old—to learn about a whole new set of people and places. Somehow it’s worse if the last book you read was one you loved. You have to start over in completely unfamiliar territory and trust that you will get your bearings, that you will fall in love twice (or three times, or a hundred times) and have fun again.


My daughter opted to read Anne of Green Gables to herself at first, slowly, diligently, but I could see she was starting to get bogged down by its rhapsodic passages. One Sunday, I rounded up the dog and the blanket and I offered to read a few pages to her. She was tired from her morning’s adventures, or she never would have acquiesced. As I read aloud, I grew nervous. I knew she’d be on safe ground once Anne meets her bosom friend, Diana, but first we had to outlast the buggy ride from the train station with Anne’s new guardian, Matthew. What would my city kid make of all this rapture over ponds and blossoms: “a glory of many shifting hues—the most spiritual shadings of crocus and rose and ethereal green”? She would need all the ballast I could muster, and I gave it my all: varying my tone and volume, telegraphing true delight. Still, the journey felt as if it might go on forever, with nothing but a mere mention of Diana’s house on the other side of Barry’s Pond. Even Anne knows it’s a drab name for a pond, so she rechristens it the Lake of Shining Waters. “Yes, that is the right name for it,” she tells Matthew. 

“I know because of the thrill. When I hit on a name that suits exactly it gives me a thrill. Do things ever give you a thrill?” Matthew ruminated.

 So did we. We pondered the word thrill until it almost lost all meaning.
When Matthew starts to point to Green Gables, Anne interrupts him and begs to be allowed to guess which house will be her new home.

They were on the crest of a hill. The sun had set some time since, but the landscape was still clear in the mellow afterlight. To the west a dark church spire rose up against a marigold sky. Below was a little valley and beyond a long, gently-rising slope with snug farmsteads scattered along it. From one to another the child’s eyes darted, eager and wistful. At last they lingered on one away to the left, far back from the road, dimly white with blossoming trees in the twilight of the surrounding woods. Over it, in the stainless southwest sky, a great crystal-white star was shining like a lamp of guidance and promise.

My daughter was rapt, becalmed by the crystal-white star. Now we had it, that swoosh of momentum that carries you past the letters on the page, straight into the heart of a story, like the wave in the painting that lifts the Narnia kids out of England and onto the deck of the Dawn Treader. My daughter and I were both swept up in Anne’s reverie, as charmed by this dreamy orphan as silent Matthew is, as I’d been when I first read the book during the Reagan years. The magic held. We flew to the end of the chapter.
“Keep going or stop here?” I asked.
“Keep going,” she said.
We read five chapters like that, coming to a delicate little cliffhanger, scanning the title of the next chapter (“Anne’s History,” “Marilla Makes Up Her Mind”), deciding to go on.
And then, as often happens on a really good reading day, my daughter rolled over and slipped into a delicious nap.
Now it was my turn. I picked up my copy of Pachinko. The paperback was heavy in my hands. I was more than a little afraid that it would defeat me with its length or its sterling reputation as a must-read 10 years in the making. What if I could only read the same two pages over and over again until I, too, fell asleep? What if I didn’t love it or admire it? Or worse, what if I felt like a failure as a writer? What if I felt like giving up? It had been a rough year, and I wasn’t sure I could handle the disappointment.
But two pages in, here was Hoonie, the beloved and only surviving son of an old fisherman and his wife, “this steady, beating organ” his parents shared. Here was the matchmaker, whose “black flinty eyes darted intelligently,” correctly tallying the family’s fortunes from the stacks of rice on the shelves and chickens in the yard. Here was Hoonie’s mother, salting radish “with a flick of her thick wrist,” careful to guard her emotions. And, at last, here was the promised bride, Yangjin, “the last of four girls and the easiest to unload because she was too young to complain, and she’d had the least to eat.” As I got to the end of each chapter, the novel’s gentle pangs urged me forward, until I forgot my to-do list, forgot myself, forgot everything but the warmth of the sleeping girl next to me. I had my own momentum now, born happily aloft to a land and a time far, far away.

Image: Nong Vang

The Greeks Aren’t Done with Us: Simon Critchley on Tragedy

We know that ghosts cannot speak until they have drunk blood; and the spirits which we evoke demand the blood of our hearts.—Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Greek Historical Writing, and Apollo (1908)

Thirteen years ago, when I lived briefly in Glasgow, I made it a habit to regularly attend the theater. An unheralded cultural mecca in its own right, overshadowed by charming, medieval Edinburgh to the east, the post-industrial Scottish capitalI was never lacking in good drama. Also, they let you drink beer during performances. Chief among those plays was a production of Sophocles’s Antigone, the final part of his tragic Theban Cycle, and one of the most theorized and staged of dramas from that Athenian golden age four centuries before the Common Era, now presented in the repurposed 16th-century Tron Church. Director David Levin took the Attic Greek of Sophocles and translated it into the guttural brogue of Lowlands Scotts, and in a strategy now deployed almost universally for any production of a play older than a century, the chitons of the ancient world were replaced with business suits, and the decrees of Creon were presented on television screen, as the action was reimagined not in 441 BCE but in 2007.

Enough to remind me of that headline from The Onion which snarked: “Unconventional Director Sets Shakespeare Play in Time, Place that Shakespeare Intended.” The satirical newspaper implicitly mocks adaptations like Richard Loncraine’s Richard III which imagined the titular character (devilishly performed by Ian McKellen) as a sort of Oswald Mosley-like fascist, and Derek Jarman’s masterful version of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II, which makes a play about the Plantagenet line of succession into a parable about gay rights and the Act Up movement. By contrast, The Onion quips that its imagined “unconventional” staging of The Merchant of Venice is one in which “Swords will replace guns, ducats will be used instead of the American dollar or Japanese yen, and costumes, such as…[the] customary pinstripe suit, general’s uniform, or nudity, will be replaced by garb of the kind worn” in the Renaissance. The dramaturgical perspective behind Levin’s Antigone was definitely what the article parodied; there was nary a contorted dramatic mask to be found, no Greek chorus chanting in dithyrambs, and, as I recall, lots of video projection. The Onion aside, British philosopher Simon Critchley would see no problem with Levin’s artistic decisions, writing in his new book Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us that “each generation has an obligation to reinvent the classics. The ancients need our blood to revise and live among us. By definition, such an act of donation constructs the ancients in our image.”

Antigone, coming from as foreign a culture as it does, still holds our attention for some reason. The story of the titular character—punished by her uncle Creon for daring to defy his command that her brother Polynices’s corpse be left to fester as carrion for the buzzards and worms in the field where he died because he has raised arms against Thebes—would seem to have little to do with Tony Blair’s United Kingdom. When a Glaswegian audience hears Sophocles’s words, however, that “I have nothing but contempt for the kind of governor who is afraid, for whatever reason, to follow the course the he knows is best for the State; and as for the man who sets private friendship above the public welfare—I have no use for him either” a bit more resonance may be heard. Critchley argues that at the core of Greek tragedy is a sublime ambivalence, an engagement with contradiction that classical philosophy can’t abide;as distant as Antigone’s origins may be, its exploration of the conflict between the individual and the state, terrorism and liberation, surveillance and freedom seemed very of the millennium’s first decade. Creon’s countenance of the unthinkable punishment of his niece, to be bricked up behind a wall, was delivered in front of a camera as if George W. Bush announcing the bombing of Iraq from the Oval Office on primetime television. “Evil sometimes seems good / To a man whose mind / A god leads to destruction,” Sophocles wrote. This was a staging for the era of the Iraq War and FOX News, of the Patriot Act and NSA surveillance, and of the coming financial collapse. Less than a year later, and I’d be back in my apartment stateside watching Barack Obama deliver his Grant Park acceptance speech. It was enough to make one think of Antigone’s line: “Our ship of fate, which recent storms have threatened to destroy, has come to harbor at last.” I’m a bad student of the Greeks; I should have known better than to embrace that narcotic hope that pretends tragedy is not the omnipresent condition of humanity.

What could Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus possibly have to say in our current, troubled moment? Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us is Critchley’s attempt to grapple with those disquieting 32 extant plays that whisper to us from an often-fantasized collective past. What survives of Greek tragedy is four less plays than all of those written by Shakespeare; an entire genre of performance for which we have titles referenced by philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, with only those three playwrights’ words enduring, and where often the most we can hope for are a few fragments preserved on some surviving papyri. Critchley emphasizes how little we know about plays like Antigone, or Aeschylus’s Oresteia, or Euripides’s Medea; that classicists often hypothesized that they were born from the Dionysian rituals, or that they focused on satyr psalms, the “song of the goats,” giving tragedy the whiff of the demonic, of the demon Azazel to whom sacrifices of the scapegoat must be made in the Levantine desert.

Beyond even tragedy’s origin, which ancient Greek writers themselves disagreed about, we’re unsure exactly how productions were staged or who attended. What we do have are those surviving 32 plays themselves and the horrific narratives they recount—Oedipus blinded in grief over the patricide and incest that he unknowingly committed but prophetically ensured because of his hubris; Medea slaughtering her children as a revenge on the unfaithfulness of her husband; Pentheus ripped apart by her frenzied Maenads in ecstatic thrall to Dionysius because the Theban ruler couldn’t countenance the power of irrationality. “There are at least thirteen nouns in Attic Greek for words describing grief, lamentation, and mourning,” Critchley writes about the ancients; our “lack of vocabulary when it comes to the phenomenon of death speaks volumes about who we are.” Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us is Critchley’s attempt to give us a bit of their vocabulary of excessive lamentation so as to better approach our predicament.

Readers shouldn’t mistake Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us as a conservative defense of the canon; this is no paean to the superior understanding of the ancients, nor is its highfalutin’ self-help. Critchley’s book isn’t Better Living Through Euripides. Easy to misread the (admittedly not great) title as an advertisement for a book selling the snake-oil of traditionalist cultural literacy, that exercise in habitus that confuses familiarity with the “Great Books” as a type of wisdom. Rather, Critchley explores the Greek tragedies in all of their strange glory, as an exercise in aesthetic rupture, where the works of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides configure a different type of space that renders a potent critique against oppressive logic. His task is thus the “very opposite of any and all kinds of cultural conservatism.” Critchley sees the plays not as museum pieces, or as simple means of demonstrating that you went to a college with diplomas written in Latin, but rather as a “subversive traditionalism” that helps us to critique “ever more egregious forms of cultural stupefaction that arise from being blinded by the myopia of the present.” This is all much larger than either celebrating or denouncing the syllabi of St. John’s College; Critchley has no concern for boring questions about “Western Civilization” or “Defending the Canon,” rather he rightly sees the tragedies as an occasion to deconstruct those idols of our current age—of the market, of society, of law, of religion, of state. He convincingly argues that any honest radical can’t afford to ignore the past, and something primal and chthonic calls to us from those 32 extant plays, for “We might think we are through with the past, but the past isn’t through with us.”

Critchley explains that the contemporary world, perhaps even more so than when I watched Antigone in Glasgow, is a “confusing, noisy place, defined by endless war, rage, grief, ever-growing inequality. We undergo a gnawing moral and political uncertainty in a world of ambiguity.” Our moment, the philosopher claims, is a “tragicomedy defined by war, corruption, vanity, and greed,” for if my Antigone was of its moment, then Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us could only have been written after 2016. That year, and the characters it ushered into our national consciousness, can seem a particular type of American tragedy, but Critchley’s view (even while haunted by a certain hubristic figure with a predilection for the misspelled tweet) is more expansive than that. In his capable analysis, Critchley argues that tragedy exists as a mode of representing this chaos; a type of thinking at home with inconsistency, ambiguity, contradiction, and complexity. It’s those qualities that have made the form suspicious to philosophers.

Plato considered literature in several of his dialogues, concluding in Gorgias that the “effect of speech upon the structure of the soul / Is as the structure of drugs over the nature of bodies” (he wasn’t wrong), and famously having his puppet Socrates argue in The Republic that the just city-state would ban poets and poetry from their affairs for the aforementioned reason. Plato’s disgruntled student Aristotle was more generous to tragedy, content rather to categorize and explain its effects in Poetics, explaining that performance is the “imitation of an action that is serious, and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself…with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions.” Aristotle’s view has historically been interpreted as a defense of literature in opposition to Plato, whereby that which the later found so dangerous—the passions and emotions roiled by drama—were now justified as a sort of emotional pressure gauge that helped audiences purge their otherwise potentially destructive emotions. By the 19th century a philosopher like Friedrich Nietzsche would anticipate Critchley (though the latter might chaff at that claim) when he exonerated tragedy as more than mere moral instruction, coming closer to Plato’s claim about literature’s dangers while ecstatically embracing that reality. According to Nietzsche, tragedy existed in the tension between “Apollonian” and “Dionysian” poles; the first implies rationality, order, beauty, logic, and truth; the second signifies the realm of chaos, irrationality, ecstasy, and intoxication. Nietzsche writes in The Birth of Tragedy that the form “sits in sublime rapture amidst this abundance of life, suffering and delight, listening to a far-off, melancholy song…whose names are Delusion, Will, Woe.” For the German philologist that’s a recommendation, to “join me in my faith in this Dionysiac life and the rebirth of tragedy.”

As a thinker, Critchley Agonistes is well equipped in joining these predecessors in systematizing what he argues is the unsystematizable. Faculty at the New School for Social Research,and coeditor for The New York Times philosophy column “The Stone” (to which I have contributed), Critchley has proven himself an apt scholar who engages the wider conversation. Not a popularizer per se, for Critchley’s goal isn’t the composition of listicles enumerating whacky facts about Hegel, but a philosopher in the truest sense of being one who goes into the Agora and grapples with the circumstances of meaning as they manifest in the punk rock venue, at the soccer stadium, and in the movie theater. Unlike most of his countrymen who recline in the discipline, Critchley is a British scholar who embraces what’s called “continental philosophy,” rejecting the arid, logical formulations of analytical thought in favor of the Parisian profundities of thinkers like Jacques Derrida, Emanuel Levinas, and Martin Heidegger. Critchley has written tomes with titles like The Ethics of Deconstruction: Derrida and Levinas and Ethics-Politics-Subjectivity: Essays on Derrida, Levinas, & Contemporary French Thought, but he’s also examined soccer in What We Think About When We Think About Football (he’s a Liverpool fan) and in Bowie he analyzed, well, Bowie. Add to that his provocative take on religion in Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology and on death in The Book of Dead Philosophers (which consists of short entries enumerating the sometimes bizarre ways in which philosophers died, from jumping into a volcano to love potion poisoning) and Critchley has announced himself as one of the most psychedelically mind-expanding of people to earn their lucre by explaining Schopenhauer and Wittgenstein to undergraduates.  

What makes Critchley such an engaging thinker about the subjects he examines is both his grounding in continental philosophy (which asks questions about being, love, death, and eternity, as opposed to its analytical cousin content to enumerate all the definitions of the word “is”) and his unpretentious roots in working class Hertfordshire, studying at the glass-and-concrete University of Essex as opposed to tony Oxbridge. Thus, when Critchley writes that “there is an ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry,” it seems pretty clear that he’s a secret agent working for the latter against the former. He rejects syllogism for stanza and embraces poetics in all of its multitudinous and glorious contradictions. The central argument of Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us is that the form “invites its audience to look at such disjunctions between two or more claims to truth, justice, or whatever without immediately seeking a unifying ground or reconciling the phenomena into a higher unity.” What makes Antigone so devastating is that the title character’s familial obligation justifies the burial of her brother, but the interests of the state validates Creon’s prohibition of that same burial. The tragedy arises in the irreconcilable conflict of two right things, with Critchley explaining that Greek drama “presents a conflictually constituted world defined by ambiguity, duplicity, uncertainty, and unknowability, a world that cannot be rendered rationally fully intelligible through some metaphysical first principles or set of principles, axioms, tables of categories, or whatever.”

This is the central argument: that the “experience of tragedy poses a most serious objection to that invention we call philosophy.” More accurately, Critchley argues that tragedy’s comfort with discomfort, its consistent embrace of inconsistency, its ordered representation of disorder, positions the genre as a type of radical critique of philosophy, a genre that expresses the anarchic rhetoric of the sophists, rather than their killjoy critic Socrates and his dour student Plato. As a refresher, the sophists were the itinerant and sometimes fantastically successful rhetoricians who taught Greek politicians a type of disorganized philosophy that, according to Socrates, had no concern with the truth, but only with what was convincing. Socrates supposedly placed “Truth” at the core of his dialectical method, and, ever since, the discipline has taken up the mantle of “a psychic and political existence at one with itself, which can be linked to ideas of self-mastery, self-legislation, autonomy, and autarchy, and which inform the modern jargon of authenticity.” Tragedy is defined by none of those things; where philosophy strives for order and harmony, tragedy dwells in chaos and division; where syllogism strives to eliminate all contradiction as irrational, poetry understands that it’s in the complexity of inconsistency, confusion, and even hypocrisy that we all dwell. Sophistry and tragedy, to the recommendation of both, are intimately connected; both being methods commensurate with the dark realities of what it means to be alive. Critchley claims that “tragedy articulates a philosophical view that challenges the authority of philosophy by giving voice to what is contradictory about us, what is constricted about us, what is precarious about us, and what is limited about us.”

Philosophy is all arid formulations, dry syllogisms, contrived Gedankenexperiments; tragedy is the knowledge that nothing of the enormity of what it means to be alive can be circumscribed by mere seminar argument. “Tragedy slows things down by confronting us with what we do not know about ourselves,” Critchley writes. If metaphysics is contained by the formulations of the classroom, then the bloody stage provides a more accurate intimation of death and life. By being in opposition to philosophy, tragedy is against systems. It becomes both opposite and antidote to the narcotic fantasy that everything will be alright. Perhaps coming to terms with his own discipline, Critchley argues that “it is necessary to try and think theatrically and not just philosophically.” Tragedy, he argues, provides an opportunity to transcend myths of progress and comforts of order, to rather ecstatically enter a different space, an often dark, brutal, and subterranean place, but one which demonstrates the artifice of our self-regard.

A word conspicuous in its absence from Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us is that of the “sacred.” If there is any critical drawback to Critchley’s argument, it seems to be in the hesitancy, or the outright denial, that what he claims in his book has anything to do with something quite so wooly as the noumenal. Critchley gives ample space to argue that, “Tragedy is not some Dionysian celebration of the power of ritual and the triumph of myth over reason,” yet a full grappling with his argument seems to imply the opposite. The argument that tragedy stages contradiction is one that is convincing, but those sublime contradictions are very much under the Empire of Irrationality’s jurisdiction. Critchley is critical of those that look at ancient tragedy and “imagine that the spectators…were in some sort of prerational, ritualistic stupor, some intoxicated, drunken dumbfounded state,” but I suppose much of our interpretation depends on how we understand ritual, religion, stupor, and intoxication.

His claims are invested in an understanding of the Greeks as not being fundamentally that different from us, writing that “there is a lamentable tendency to exoticize Attic tragedy,” but maybe what’s actually called for is a defamiliarization of our own culture, an embrace of the irrational weirdness at the core of what it means to be alive 2019, where everything that is solid melts into air (to paraphrase Marx). Aeschylus knew the score well; “Hades, ruler of the nether sphere, / Exactest auditor of human kind, / Graved on the tablet of his mind,” as he describes the prince of this world in Eumenides. Critchley, I’d venture, is of Dionysius’s party but doesn’t know it. All that is argued in Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us points towards an awareness, however sublimated, of the dark beating heart within the undead cadaver’s chest. “To resist Dionysius is to repress the elemental in one’s own nature,” writes the classicist E.R. Dodds in his seminal The Greeks and the Irrational, “the punishment is the sudden complete collapse of the inward dykes when the elemental breaks through…and civilization vanishes.”

Absolutely correct that tragedy is in opposition to philosophy; where the latter offers assurances that reason can see us through, the former knows that it’s never that simple. The abyss is patient and deep, and no amount of analysis, of interpretation, of calculation, of polling can totally account for the hateful tragic pulse of our fellow humans. Nietzsche writes “what changes come upon the weary desert of our culture, so darkly described, when it is touched by…Dionysius! A storm seizes everything decrepit, rotten, broken, stunted; shrouds it in a whirling red cloud of dusty and carries it into the air like a vulture.” If any place best exemplifies that experience, and this moment, it’s Euripides’s The Bacchae, to which Critchley devotes precious little attention. That play depicts the arrival of that ambiguous god Dionysius to Thebes, as his followers thrill to the divine and irrational ecstasies that he promises. It ends with a crowd of those followers, the Maenads, mistaking the ruler Pentheus for a sacrificial goat and pulling him apart, his bones from their sockets, his organs from their cavities. Until his murder, Pentheus simultaneously manifested a repressed thrill towards the Dionysian fervor and a deficiency in taking the threat of such uncontained emotion seriously. “Cleverness is not wisdom,” Euripides writes, “And not to think mortal thoughts is to see few days.” If any didactic import comes from The Bacchae, it’s to give the devil as an adversary his due, for irrationality has more power than the clever among us might think.

Circling around the claims of Critchley’s book is our current political situation, alluded to but never engaged outright. In one sense, that’s for the best; those demons’ names are uttered endlessly all day anyhow. It’s desirable to at least have one place where you need not read about them. But in another manner, fully intuiting the Dionysian import of tragedy becomes all the more crucial when we think about what that dark god portends in our season of rising authoritarianism. “Tragedy is democracy turning itself into a spectacle,” and anyone with Twitter will concur with that observation of Critchley’s. Even more important is Critchley’s argument about those mystic chords of memory connecting us to a past that we continually reinvent; the brilliance of his claim about why the Greeks matter to us now, removing the stuffiness of anything as prosaic as canonicity, is that tragedy encapsulates the way in which bloody trauma can vibrate through the millennia and control us as surely as the ancients believed fate controlled humans. Critchley writes that “Tragedy is full of ghosts, ancient and modern, and the line separating the living from the dead is continually blurred. This means that in tragedy the dead don’t stay dead and the living are not fully alive.” We can’t ignore the Greeks, because the Greeks aren’t done with us. If there is anything that hampers us as we attempt to extricate the Dionysian revelers in our midst, it’s that many don’t acknowledge the base, chthonic power of such irrationality, and they refuse to see how violence, hate, and blood define our history in the most horrific of ways. To believe that progress, justice, and rationality are guaranteed, that they don’t require a fight commensurate with their worthiness, is to let a hubris fester in our souls and to court further tragedy among our citizens.

What Medea or The Persians do is allow us to safely access the Luciferian powers of irrationality. They present a more accurate portrayal of humanity, based as we are in bloodiness and barbarism, than the palliatives offered by Plato in The Republic with his philosopher kings. Within that space of the theater, Critchley claims that at its best it “somehow allows us to become ecstatically stretched out into another time and space, another way of experiencing things and the world.” Far from the anemic moralizing of Aristotelian catharsis—and Critchley emphasizes just how ambiguous that word actually is—that is too often interpreted as referring to a regurgitative didacticism, tragedy actually makes a new world by demolishing and replacing our world, if only briefly. “If one allows oneself to be completely involved in what is happening onstage,” Critchley writes, “one enters a unique space that provides an unparalleled experience of sensory and cognitive intensity that is impossible to express purely in concepts.” I recall seeing a production of Shakespeare’s Othello at London’s National Theatre in 2013, directed by Nicholas Hytner and starring Adrian Lester as the cursed Moor and Rory Kinear as a reptilian Iago. Dr. Johnson wrote that Othello’s murder of Desdemona was the single most horrifying scene in drama, and I concur; the play remains the equal of anything by Aeschylus or Euripides in its tragic import.

When I watched Lester play the role, lingering over the dying body of his faithful wife, whispering “What noise is this? Not dead—not yet quite dead?” I thought of many things. I thought about how Shakespeare’s play reflects the hideous things that men do to women, and the hideous things that the majority do to the marginalized. I thought about how jealousy noxiously fills every corner, no matter how small, like some sort of poison gas. And I thought about how unchecked malignancy can shatter our souls. But mostly what I thought wasn’t in any words, but was better expressed by Lester’s anguished cry as he confronted the evil he’d done. If tragedy allows for an audience to occasionally leave our normal space and time, then certainly I felt like I was joined with those thousand other spectators on that summer night at South Bank’s Olivier Theatre. The audience’s silence after Othello’s keening subsided was as still as the space between atoms, as empty as the gap between people.

True Fake Fact: Donald Trump Is Andrew Jackson

Sometimes we open a book hoping to learn one thing and wind up getting bushwhacked by something completely unrelated and unexpected. I’m having that unnerving experience right now with Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America.

I started reading the book as research for a nonfiction book I’m writing about a man who was born into a slave-owning family in Virginia during the Civil War and died at the age of 92 at the peak of the Cold War. I was looking for insights into the origins and evolution of Virginia’s (and America’s) class system and, specifically, for evidence supporting my long-held belief that the United States never was and never will be a classless society.

Though Isenberg has solid credentials—she wrote the well-received Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr, coauthored Madison and Jefferson, and teaches American history at Louisiana State University—I’ll admit I approached White Trash with some trepidation. That “400-Year Untold History” claim in the subtitle smelled of over-reach, and the early chapters failed to convince me that my nose was malfunctioning. Then I came to chapter five, “Andrew Jackson’s Cracker Country: The Squatter as Common Man.” After a meandering description of the landless, uncouth “crackers and squatters” who led the young republic’s expansion beyond the Appalachian Mountains, Isenberg comes to her central character: Andrew Jackson, Old Hickory, the raw-boned Tennessee scrapper and warrior who would become the seventh president of the United States. Isenberg’s sketch of Jackson opens hot and quickly catches fire: “Ferocious in his resentments, driven to wreak revenge against his enemies, he often acted without deliberation and justified his behavior as a law unto himself…Jackson’s personality was a crucial part of his democratic appeal as well as the animosity he provoked. He was not admired for statesmanlike qualities, which he lacked in abundance in comparison to his highly educated rivals…His supporters adored his rough edges…Using violent means if necessary, and acting without legal authority, Jackson was arguably the political heir of the cracker and squatter.”

That was when the gong went off. It was impossible to miss. Isenberg was not merely sketching Andrew Jackson; she was, chapter and verse, sketching the personal and political biography of…Donald Trump. As I continued reading, I found myself subconsciously substituting Trump’s name for Jackson’s, and other players in our contemporary political shitshow for the 19th-century actors in the Jacksonian soap opera. The parallels were so precise they were spooky. Here, with italics marking my mental edits, was what I read:

“Trump’s was a career built on sheer will and utter impulse…Controversy, large and small, seemed to follow the man. Because Trump had relatively little experience holding political offices, his run for the presidency drew even more than the normal amount of attention to his personal character. A biography written for campaign purposes…focused on his volatile emotions. He certainly lacked the education and polite breeding of his presidential predecessors.”

At this point, a suspicion sprang to life. Could it be that Isenberg was writing a cleverly coded takedown of Donald Trump? But I soon learned that this was nearly impossible because White Trash was published five months before the 2016 election, when just about no one, least of all Hillary Clinton and The New York Times, thought Donald Trump had a snowball’s chance of winning the presidency. So Isenberg was not writing in code. The uncanny parallels between our seventh and 45th presidents are the fruit of deep scholarly research. They are actual facts. Isenberg continues, again with my italics:
Prominent critics insisted on a congressional investigation. The powerful Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, demanded the president’s censure. Trump damned the established legal authorities…Confirmed rumors circulated that Trump had threatened to cut off the ears of some senators because they had dared to investigate—and humiliate—him on the national stage.
Of course, both besieged presidents had their defenders:
Trump’s nomination provoked “sneers and derision from the myrmidons of power at Washington,” wrote one avid Trump man, who decried “the degeneracy of American feeling in that swamp.” Trump wasn’t a government minion or a pampered courtier, and thus his unpolished and un-statesmanlike ways were an advantage. In 2019, in a speech before Congress, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky used this kind of language to reproach members of the House for investigating Trump’s activities…The men and women censuring Trump, whom the Kentucky senator mocked as the “young sweet-smelling and powdered beau of the town,” were out of their league. With this clever turn of phrase, McConnell recast Trump’s foes as coastal elites, the classic enemies of flyover country.
Just when I started thinking it was time to get some sex into this parallel-universe narrative, Isenberg obliged: “The candidate’s private life came under equal scrutiny. His irregular marriage became scandalous fodder during the election of 2016…In the ever-expanding script detailing Trump’s misdeeds, adultery was just one more example of his uncontrolled passions. Having affairs with porn stars and then paying them hush money belonged to the standard profile of the backwoods aggressor who refused to believe the law applied to him…He simply took what he wanted, and was even willing to, by his own admission, ‘grab them by the pussy.’”

Even staggering ignorance of international affairs was seen as a virtue by these presidents’ supporters, as Isenberg notes: “If his lack of diplomatic experience made him ‘homebred,’ this meant he was less contaminated than former ambassador to the Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch by foreign ideas or courtly pomp. The class comparison could not be ignored: Hillary Clinton had been a first lady and a secretary of state, while Trump was ‘sprung from a common family,’ and had written nothing to brag about. Instinctive action was privileged over unproductive thought.”

That “common family” claim required a little more massaging in Trump’s case than in Jackson’s, and Trump’s minions have been happy to oblige. “Partisans of Trump claimed that he was from backwoods stock,” Isenberg writes. “This was untrue. Trump was born into an elite New York real-estate family, and though he had briefly been a resident of Queens, that five-bedroom Tudor had been abandoned long ago in favor of Trump Tower.”

It’s likely that Trump, like Jackson before him, has brought lasting changes to the American scene. As Isenberg puts it: “Trump’s candidacy changed the nature of democratic politics. One political commentator noted that Trump’s reign ushered in the ‘game of brag.’ Another observer concluded that a new kind of ‘tweeting country politician’ had arisen, who could tweet for hours before having finally ‘exhausted the fountain of his panegyric on President Trump.’”

As I reached the end of chapter five in White Trash, I dimly remembered hearing that Donald Trump is a big fan of Old Hickory. A little digging reminded me that early in his presidency, in March 2017, Trump had visited Jackson’s estate, the Hermitage, near Nashville to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Jackson’s birth. In one of his keener readings of history, Trump declared, “I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War.” Hard to fact-check that whopper because Jackson died 16 years before the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter. No matter. Trump added that he admires Jackson—and he has Jackson’s portrait on the wall in the Oval Office—because he was “a very tough person” with a “big heart.” Tell that to the 150 human beings Jackson owned at the time of his death, some of whom he hunted down personally when they tried to escape from bondage. Or tell that to the thousands of Native Americans and black slaves who perished during Jackson’s enforced relocation known as the Trail of Tears, an act of genocide by any other name.

But let’s not get bogged down with true facts when the world is bursting with so many fake facts. And let’s not lose sight of the completely unexpected lesson in Isenberg’s book. The republic survived Andrew Jackson—and Andrew Johnson, Warren Harding, Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. Surely it will survive Donald Trump? We might get the answer to that question sooner than anyone expected, shortly before the swearing in of President Pence.

Image: Wikimedia Commons