Essays

Of Mondegreens and Eggcorns: Language Keeps Talking About Itself

1. When the writer Sylvia Wright was a child, her mother would read to her from Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, including this stanza: Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands, Oh, where hae ye been? They hae slain the Earl Amurray, And Lady Mondegreen. Writing in 1954 for Harper's Magazine, the grown-up Wright recalled tears coming to her eyes over the tragic image of the Earl Amurray and Lady Mondegreen clasping hands as they perished together. Though the poem described the Earl at great length, it didn't mention Lady Mondegreen before or after that moment. But that fact didn't strike Wright as odd at the time. She knew all she needed to know about Lady Mondegreen's fatal loyalty to the dashing Earl from one simple line. It was only later in life that Wright learned what was already clear to anyone who had read the poem in print rather than heard it recited aloud: There is no Lady Mondegreen. The line that begat both her existence and her demise actually reads "And laid him on the green." In honor of her misinterpretation, Wright coined the term mondegreen for instances of mishearing a word or phrase in a way that gives it a new, unintended meaning. Language is laced with such legends about itself. If someone falls victim to a mondegreen, is corrected, but stubbornly insists on continuing with the error, we call that a mumpsimus. The term stems from a Catholic priest who flubbed the Latin term sumpsimus during mass and then continued saying mumpsimus thereafter. This story was first relayed by the theologian Erasmus in a letter dated 1516. And here we are 500 years later, with mumpsimus appearing on a Huffington Post listicle of "10 Useful Words for Work." (The blended word listicle is a portmanteau, a term coined by none other than Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass.) The name of the recalcitrant priest is long since forgotten, but the relic of language he inspired lives on. 2. If you search for information about mondegreens, you may fall down a linguistic rabbit hole, following mondegreento homophonyto heteronym. The churning sea of language raises its watery head to look around and then dives back into itself, splashing out words like litotes, genericide, and yes, metaphor. I collect these terms like Easter eggs, thrilled to have names for the ways we outfit our messages with color, rhythm, and nuance. There are those of us who worship language and what it can do, arriving at the altar at a young age. As we learn, we stack up vocabulary into semantic pyramids -- to forget is an infinitive is a verb; forgotten is a past participle is an adjective (sometimes) is a modifier (usually). We are the ones who read ahead in our English textbooks and who sign up for high school Spanish and French classes to see if other people in other corners of the world wield language differently from our own clumsy grips. We become readers to consume language and writers to spread it and editors to protect it. Those early dissections, slicing language into sentences and paragraphs and extracting subjects and predicates, are our first lessons in the vocabulary of language's favorite subject: itself. Lewis Thomas writes in Et Cetera, Et Cetera, his collection of meandering etymological essays, "The language keeps talking about itself, cannot seem to have enough of itself. At a guess, I'd say there are more roots for the various ways of using language than for all other human activities together, some of them hidden away inside longer words that seem to be designed for other purposes, most of them standing baldly out in full view." ­ 3. Mondegreens are particularly prevalent in song lyrics. (Consider all the people who thought Taylor Swift was singing about lonely Starbucks lovers.) When a mondegreen involves song lyrics from another language, it's called soramimi. When a mondegreen results in a nonsensical phrase, it's called a malapropism. But if the ersatz word or phrase makes some sort of twisted sense, such as "old-timer's disease" in place of "Alzheimer's disease," it's an eggcorn (itself an eggcorn for acorn). Language cares about these subtle distinctions. It digests the complicated things we try to do with it and feeds us back distilled linguistic pearls, from anacoluthon to zeugma. It looks in the mirror and describes its patterns (hypallage, paligogy); it opens its mouth and listens to how it sounds (fricative, glottal). It teases apart its letters only to coax them back together more closely (blend words) or in a different order (metathesis), lop some letters off (haplology), or add new ones (paragoge). It tracks the movement of its words across questions and responses (pied-piping, wh-movement). For every linguistic guideline, there’s a word coined to denote how to skirt that guideline for rhetorical effect. “I came, saw, and conquered” just doesn’t have the same decisive intonement without the phrase-beginning repetition of anaphora, nor would we still be singing Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman” had he not employed the phrase-ending repetition of epistrophe. Language flexes and adapts. It knows it will be both mangled and elevated, depending on who wields it -- quite often by the same person. The damage of careless or misleading words can be immensely far-reaching, as history has borne again and again. At its worse, language can be used to confuse facts and cloud intention, sowing fear, hostility, and oppression. But at its best, it’s the ultimate form of synecdoche, when a term for part of something refers to the thing in its entirety. Language lets us use things as small as phonemes to represent our entire world. Image Credit: Flickr/Thomas Quine.
Essays

The Rise of the Sad Flâneur

Michel Houellebecq’s latest English language poetry collection, Unreconciled,  evokes a strange nostalgia. While this relentlessly downbeat collection is entirely composed of poems from between 1991 and 2013, it feels far older than that. In contrast to the current moment, the images Houellebecq uses to conjure up the bleakness of capitalism -- commuters, isolated from each other by their Walkmen; microwave dinners for one -- feel a little toothless. They make you want to laugh-sob over one beer too many: “remember when we thought things were bad for workers?” Which makes it all the more striking that one aspect of Houellebecq’s work makes it a must-read for the present day -- his depiction of the Sad Flâneur. This figure is freakin’ everywhere in this book. Trudging past an old beggar being kicked in the head, wandering through a car park, reluctantly navigating the tourist district, he consistently registers somewhere between numb and suicidal. He’s worlds away from what’s normally associated with the flâneur -- somebody who takes joy from immersing themselves in the crowds and the hustle and bustle of the city. As such, he feels like the inevitable rebuttal to Walter Benjamin’s vision of the flâneur, who simultaneously protests capitalism with its emphasis on hurry and productivity by taking a turtle for a walk in the Arcades and allowing the turtle to set the pace of movement, and who functions as a connoisseur of capitalism.  ("For the masses as well as the flâneur, glossy enameled corporate nameplates are as good a wall-decoration as an oil painting is for the homebody sitting in his living room.”) This vision of the flâneur feels appropriate now -- undermining as it does, one interpretation of the flâneur’s most hopeful aspect: that he will act as a witness for the horrors of the past and trigger the “redemptive repair that can correct the past in hopes of a better future.” Of course, Houellebecq didn’t invent this figure. The Sad Flâneur can be seen through all manner of literature, from the recent (for example, Tao Lin’s 2013 novel, Taipei) to the older (as with Esther Greenwood in Sylvia Plath’s only novel, The Bell Jar). It’s no coincidence that the figure appears in literature in times in which capitalism is at its most ruthless: at his most powerful, the Sad Flâneur lays bare the relationship between capitalism and depression. All three works feature characters who move through the city with a certain weird sadness. Despite Esther acknowledging that her summer in New York is a gift for someone as suburban and inexperienced as herself, she never reaches the dizzy heights of flânerie. Instead, we get motion minus emotion: “I just bumped from my hotel to work and to parties and from parties to my hotel and back to work like a numb trolley-bus.” Even when she attempts to deviate from her schedule, as when she lets a group of strange men take her and her attractive friend for drinks, she still expresses her feelings via metaphors for a sort of melancholy movement: “It’s like watching Paris from an express caboose heading in the opposite direction…rushing away from all…that excitement at about a million miles an hour.” Paul, Taipei’s man-child protagonist is the inverse of Esther. He lives in New York full-time, his life is mysteriously all leisure (though, much like that classic New York sitcom trope, like in Friends or Sex and the City, his finances don’t really add up) and his motion expresses that: we follow him from party to party, with his arrival only leading to the realization that he wants to be somewhere else. It’s clear Paul doesn’t think of himself as a slacker. He’s constantly inventing tiny tasks or goals, as if to lend a sense of industriousness to what is, effectively, just goofing off. He’s not wandering the city, he’s going to buy an avocado or to buy drugs, or else he’s going to a reading. He never seems to enjoy the city or motion itself so much as a sense of having something to check off his to-do list. Meanwhile, Houellebecq’s flâneur narrators are perhaps the most openly lugubrious about their lifestyle. In the poem “The Core of the Malaise,” the narrator states wistfully that when "one is dealing with a 'simple stroll,' that ‘direction is…alas very rare.” But if he hates walking with no clear goal, why do it? Earlier in the poem he clarifies for us. The view outside his room “doesn’t make you feel like going out, but staying in the room is disastrously boring.” If at this point, you’re chalking this up as the Gauloises n’ cynicism pose of a French writer of a certain age, read through the entire volume and you’ll gradually get worn down. He’s serious. If you’re “well, duh”-ing the above, you’re not wrong. After all, one of the tasteless side effects of Plath’s death is that she’s become a poster girl for literary depression, while Houellebecq has been public about his own struggle with depression, which was so serious it led to “several stays in psychiatric units.” Lin has been equally candid, referring to his depression on several different occasions (although he has stressed he’s never been “officially” diagnosed with the illness due to embarrassment about consulting a doctor). So maybe I’m overegging this omelette. Maybe wandering through New York and Paris sounds terrible and exhausting and crushing because, quite simply, we’re seeing these cities through perspectives that have been soured by depression. Yet none of these authors are shy about linking their works to a larger political picture. It’s no coincidence that Plath opens her novel on a sentence that neatly yokes together city, politics, and depression: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” By the Rosenbergs, Esther is referring to, of course, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted of and executed for conspiring to commit espionage with information about the Atomic Bomb for the Soviet Union at the height of McCarthyism. Plath goes on: I’m stupid about electrocutions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers…It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves. Esther’s “It had nothing to do with me” feels disingenuous. It hardly seems a coincidence that the protagonist’s name is so strikingly similar to Ethel Rosenberg’s maiden name, Esther Ethel Greenglass. Besides which, the gruesome, half-botched execution that would go on to mark the height of McCarthyist paranoia in America is described here in a way that anticipates the electroshock therapy Esther undergoes for her depression (“with each flash a great jolt drubbed me till I thought my bones would break and the sap fly out of me like a split plant”). It’s hard not to conclude that Esther’s depression is, in part, that hoary old chestnut: a sane reaction to an insane world, or in this case, political climate. It’s a similar story in Taipei. On a skim read, it seems apolitical. Barring the use of recreational drugs, Paul doesn’t feel passionately about anything and is so exhaustingly ironic that it’s hard to imagine him holding anything within a mile of a deeply-felt political belief. But that one exception is more meaningful than it first seems: in Audrea Lim’s acute LARB essay on Taipei, she notes how Lin swerves “conventional drug genres of bacchanal and cautionary tale” and makes reference to “what Michel Foucault calls ‘technologies of the self’-- techniques that individuals enact upon their bodies, minds, and behavior in order to transform themselves.” Her emphasis is on the way drugs make us productive and our reality bearable and this, I believe, is where Taipei makes its politics known. Because Taipei is the first really convincing novel about the modern precariat worker. The term was popularized in Guy Standing’s 2011 work The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class and refers to the millions of people "flanked by an army of unemployed and a detached group of socially ill misfits," working zero hour contracts and without any of the benefits (sick leave, pensions, maternity leave) enjoyed by those in stable, seemingly permanent roles. Which all feels distinctly familiar when reading Taipei, which was publicized as “an ode -- or lament -- to the way we live now” that would concentrate on “what it means to be…on the fringe in America, or anywhere else for that matter,” and in which Paul and his friends are united by the precariousness of their work. There are no stable salaried roles here, instead we get friends who wait tables (fine, but hard to fathom how to eke out a living from such a role in New York), work as a gig-by-gig research assistant for a ghostwriter and almost-copywriter for a band, or work as a freelance journalist whose pitch emails languish unanswered. Writer Paul is perhaps the most financially comfortable person of his generation in the novel, but make no mistake, he’s aware of his success being evaluated on a series of one-off performances. Paul’s most pressing motivation to take drugs isn’t to let off steam, but to repress his social anxiety to a point where he can be talkative at the events on his book tour: To determine what amount of what drugs…he should ingest, on what days, to minimize anxiety and boredom for himself and others, he’d edited the seven page itinerary from his publisher to fit on one page…He’d printed a final draft…that said he should ingest something…before twenty-two of his twenty-five events and some miscellaneous things such as the day a writer from BlackBook was writing an article about ‘hanging out’ with him while doing that. The success (or lack thereof) of Paul’s attempts to self-medicate are made explicit when he states: I mean…the world is good enough, based on evidence, because I haven’t killed myself…Since the urge to kill myself isn’t so strong that I actually kill myself, the world is worth living in. In a world in which the U.S. president appears to be about to roll back workers’ rights with regard to enforcing labor laws and cracking down on wage theft, in which almost a million Britons work zero hour contracts while their banks get propped up by the taxpayer, this feels like Paul has internalized the right-wing idea of what the standard of life for the average precariat worker should be. Just good enough so that you’re not pushed over the edge into brutal self-harm. Given Paul’s use of drugs to function professionally -- in contrast to Walter Benjamin, who looked to hashish, much as he looked to his rambles through the city for “profane illumination” -- Paul’s inability to move through the city without inventing small to-dos seems a symptom of an America in which productivity has taken priority over humanity. Houellebecq is more explicitly savage about what he sees as the false promises of politics. He has no faith in the benevolence of institutions, and we see this in the geography of his latest collection. In Unreconciled hospitals are: …asylums of suffering Where the forgotten old turn into organs Beneath the mocking and utterly indifferent eyes Of interns who scratch themselves, eating bananas. After death, the “council-flat old” are buried in “the crematorium/In a little cabinet with a white label” in contrast to “the too-rich old ladies” who are buried in cemeteries “surrounded by cypresses and plastic shrubs.” Clearly, only money permits you to escape being buried at the bureaucratic heart of the city. The fruits of capitalism are cold comfort for inequality: there’s only “Supermarkets and urban routes,/The immobile boredom of holidays.” It’s worth stressing that half of the collection was written at the peak of publicity surrounding the plight of the French precariat -- when working conditions at Orange (formerly the state-owned France Telecom) became increasingly stressful after a push for efficiency following privatization led then-boss Didier Lombard to announce he would cut 20,000 jobs. Lombard is suspected of trying to speed up job losses by unsettling staff with a forced relocation scheme and staff were subject to the stress of “a reduced workforce being asked to produce better results…the threat of site closures and job losses, and an atmosphere of increased competition between workers.” There were 35 suicides between 2008 and 2009 (and further waves of suicides up until midway through 2016), with employees leaving suicide notes implicating the management. Given the implied politics of these works, the reason for these flaneurs’ strange, numbed sadness becomes clearer. How could these characters take pleasure in ambling across the city they’re based in, when these same cities are effectively the visual form of the same system that’s crushing them? Because it’s worth stressing that the connection between capitalism and depression isn’t as woolly as it sounds. In recent years there has been a growing acceptance that the two are linked. Research from the World Health Organization and the U.S. National Research Council and Institute of Medicine support the idea that links between poverty and mental and physical health problems exist, while first-person narratives support the thesis and the Guardian publishes articles honing the argument: it’s not capitalism, but selfish capitalism we have to look out for. Which makes returning to these works -- starting with Houellebecq’s new collection -- more than worthwhile. If you want to know what Donald Trump thinks about a work-life balance, refer to the man himself: “If you’re interested in ‘balancing’ work and pleasure, stop trying to balance them. Instead make your work more pleasurable.” And yet, it doesn’t sound as if work will become more pleasurable under Trump -- as Professor Raymond Hogler has observed, his economic policy overlaps with right-to-work ideology (workers’ right not to be required to join a trade union), which statistically tends to correlate with “lower rates of union membership, lower levels of human development, lower per capita incomes, lower levels of trust and less progressive tax schemes.” Cities will change under Trump. How could they not? We’re talking about the man whose hotels have altered the skylines of cities around the world, whose primary passion is real estate, whose security detail around Trump Tower in New York means Manhattan midtown traffic jams for the next four years. But it won’t just be about buildings, but people. Sure, Walter Benjamin was from a wealthy family and Charles Baudelaire spent much of his life living off his mother’s money, but still: I think we can all agree that making the city so prohibitively expensive that only philosophers and artists with family money can afford to idle their way round the streets curtails the revolutionary potential of flânerie. So look to Houellebecq, Lin, Plath for a glimpse into the crystal ball. In a world where business interests will dominate the urban landscape, it’s hard to imagine the happy flâneur will be any more prevalent in literature -- or life -- than any other endangered species. Image Credit: Pexels.
Essays

Did Vladimir Nabokov Write the Great Refugee Novel?

How many seminal works of 20th-century literature were created by refugees? Just judging by the Nobel laureates who were exiles from their homeland -- a list that includes Thomas Mann, Elias Canetti, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Czesław Miłosz, and Joseph Brodsky -- one might assume that themes of exile and homelessness permeated the modernist literary canon. But that wouldn’t be true.  Many writers continue to inhabit their native soil in their imagination long after they have moved beyond its borders.  Thomas Mann never wrote a novel about the plight of a German exile on the shores of Malibu. Alas, I wish he had. Solzhenitsyn continued to devote his energies to writing about Mother Russia even after spending 18 years in southern Vermont.  The model for these writers is the great James Joyce, who left Dublin in 1904 only to obsess about it for the rest of his life. For every writer who grappled with the refugee experience in fiction, as did Singer, you will find a half dozen who skirted over it with indifference, even as they lived through the trauma of a displaced life. As strange as it sounds, if I were forced to identify the defining literary works on the subject, almost every one on my list would be an old epic or scripture: The Odyssey (oddly enough, Joyce’s own role model for Ulysses) with its account of the hero’s exile from Ithaca; The Aeneid, with its tale of refugees from Troy; Paradise Lost, which opens with Satan and his crew receiving an eviction notice from Heaven; and, of course, the Book of Genesis, which kicks into high gear when the protagonists are sent packing from the Garden of Eden. But these are not novels, and none of them deal with the modern experience of exile. For that I turn to Vladimir Nabokov and his novel Pnin. This Russian émigré would seem an unlikely candidate to focus on the plight of refugees. Nabokov left his homeland behind at the end of his teen years, was educated at the University of Cambridge, and was so successful at assimilation that he learned to write the Queen’s English better than the Queen -- and her subjects too. If one is seeking a success story from the ranks of the displaced, Nabokov is the ideal candidate. Not only did he survive as a writer in his new language, but he became that greatest of rarities, an American literary lion who was also a bestseller. Yet Pnin arrived at bookstores before Nabokov had tasted these successes.  And even literary acclaim could never assuage the bitterness of displacement and family tragedy. Nabokov’s father was killed in 1922 by another Russian exile and his brother Sergei later died in a German concentration camp. Around the time of his father’s death, the young author’s engagement to Svetlana Siewert was broken off because of her parents’ concern that Nabokov could not earn enough to support their daughter.  His subsequent marriage to Véra Evseyevna Slonim brought with it subsequent risks because of her Jewish antecedents.  When Nabokov left for the in the U.S. aboard the SS Champlain on May 19, 1940, he had already spent two decades of nomadic existence as a man without a country. He was not coming to America to seek fame and fortune, but rather as a last desperate move to escape the Nazis, who would enter Paris in triumph a few days later. These experiences set the tone, of bitterness mixed with nostalgia for a vanished world, that permeates the pages of Pnin. The main character, Timofey Pavlovich Pnin, is a comic figure on the campus of Waindell College. His old-fashioned continental ways and thick Russian accent are mimicked and ridiculed. His improvisations and mispronunciations turn familiar terms into extravagant variants -- for example, his order of whisky and soda ends up sounding like “viscous and sawdust.”  When asking for the receipt in a restaurant, the best he can come up with is a request for the “quittance.”  His appearance, his gestures, and his general lack of awareness of American manners are fodder for campus gossip and mockery. Pnin has much to offer the college community, but his Old World erudition is not valued at Waindell. The students have little interest in what he teaches, and the faculty treat him as an amusing distraction. Nabokov clearly turned to his own life story as the basis for this book, and I suspect that many of the jokes at Pnin’s expense are drawn from those the author experienced firsthand.  His willingness to turn his quasi-autobiographic protagonist into a comic figure is extremely brave -- readers can’t help wondering whether they are getting an invitation to laugh at Vladimir Nabokov himself. But as the book progresses, the tone gradually shifts. During the first hundred pages, you might even assume that this is a comic novel. But as the tragedy of Pnin’s life unfolds, in flashbacks and reminiscences, the reader is shocked into a deeper awareness of the reality of the refugee’s life in exile. The more we understand Pnin, the better we grasp how the whole fabric of his existence has been torn apart by the whims of history. The novel ends with us watching a professor offer a caustic impersonation of Pnin that goes on and on and on. But, by this juncture, we are no longer laughing. Pnin, like any refugee, is just one many.  He is, as Nabokov reminds, a small part of “the active and significant nucleus of an exiled society which during the third of a century it flourished remained practically unknown to American intellectuals.” And why were these individuals so greatly misunderstood?  Well, for the very same reasons that refugees are feared today: because of the danger they pose to society. For Americans of the Cold War years, “the notion of Russian emigration was made to mean by astute Communist propaganda a vague and perfectly fictitious mass of so-called Trotskyites (whatever these are), ruined reactionaries, reformed or disguised Cheka men, tided ladies, professional priests, restaurant keepers, and White Russian military groups, all of them of no cultural importance whatever.” For Nabokov, who usually makes his views known indirectly in his novels, such plain-spokenness is unusual.  This is a raw novel from a polished author, but raw in the best sense of them all. Nabokov may have been a great success at mastering the nuances of English and navigating through the U.S. publishing industry, but he had deep scars from his forced nomadic life, and refused to hide them in the course of this deeply moving book. In many ways, this novel is a deeply personal as his memoir Speak, Memory. Although Nabokov is far better known today for Lolita, Pnin was his breakout book, the work that brought him to the attention of the U.S. literary community. Even before he could secure an American publisher for Lolita, Pnin found a receptive audience and got rave reviews.  His previous writing in English had garnered little notice, but now he was seen as a rising literary star. The first printing of Pnin sold out in just one week, and Newsweek proclaimed Vladimir Nabokov as "one of the subtlest, funniest and most moving writers in the United States today." You could still read Pnin for the humor today, but I think that misses much of the point. Nabokov originally wanted to call this book My Poor Pnin, and I suspect that he found more to weep over than laugh about in his refugee’s story. Nabokov would occasionally return to themes of nomadism and exile in later works -- in Pale Fire, or even Lolita, which is very much a novel of wandering and homelessness. But in their evocation of the lost life of the exile, they never match the power of this 60-year-old book. Nor did any other writer of that era. There are other outstanding 20th-century novels that address the plight of the immigrant. W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, Willa Cather’s My Ántonia and Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club make it on my shortlist of must-read books on the subject. And in the 21st century, the refugee novel has emerged as a important category of fiction in works by Viet Thanh Nguyen, Mohsin Hamid, and others. But Nabokov’s Pnin gets my nod as the great forerunner of these works, the 20th-century masterwork on displacement in a time of sociopolitical upheaval. In a tumultuous period that found millions forced out of their homeland, and even more dead because they stayed behind, Nabokov was the most acute at turning these cumulative tragedies into a deeply personal novel that rings true on every page. In the current day, when exiles find themselves even less welcome wherever their sad fate sends them, we do well to remember that earlier generation, and how much we owe them. Perhaps we should also consider how often we still misunderstand the refugee’s plight.  This book is a very good place to start that process.
Essays

Travesty and American Usage

1. Just what possessed those millions of voters in the free and mostly fair 2016 election we can never be sure. But one thing was unmistakable: not only had the worst candidate won; it was the worst possible candidate. It was disgraceful, absurd, a low-brow shock; the gloating man himself reminiscent of a comment below an article written by a woman on the Internet. Given that the “hallmark of our democracy” is a peaceful transition, the term for what to otherwise resist was given: normalization. As jargon goes, it could have been worse, but I wasn’t sure I’d ever used the word before, and had to wonder if it was quite right. Since then our politics have tended to bottleneck and stop, preceded and eclipsed by a dispute over words themselves: racist, sexist, supremacist. If an epithet, the answer is Who, me? If a term of ideology -- alt-right, PC, fake news, identity politics -- each means something precisely different to every speaker. One of the goals of the new administration is strictly rhetorical -- to draw false equivalences, rob words of their meaning. The credibility of the press is constantly attacked, especially when it deigns to describe what the administration’s policies do, or read back what it has said. In David Foster Wallace’s “Authority and American Usage,” ostensibly a long review of a dictionary, he describes a “Crisis of Authority in matters of language,” one set off by prescriptivists and descriptivists, grammar’s conservatives and liberals, give or take a few analogy-ruining specifics (the white working-class doesn’t wear bow ties, and none of the signs at the Women’s March read “All usage is relative.”). Point is, language is political. Arriving at its rules and conventions is an endless tug-of-war -- what is the “correct” way to use the language and who is to judge? -- which in Wallace’s view said usage dictionary artfully and persuasively irons out. To explain how, Wallace begins by reading off the rhetorical menu like so: there’s the “Logical Appeal ( = an argument’s plausibility or soundness, from logos),” and the “Pathetic Appeal ( = an argument’s emotional impact, from pathos).” In a sense, “A&AU” is a rave review of A Dictionary of Modern American Usage’s author Bryan A. Garner’s third way. [Garner’s] main strategy involves what is known in classical rhetoric as the Ethical Appeal. Here the adjective, derived from the Greek ēthos, doesn’t mean what we usually mean by ethical. But there are affinities. What the Ethical Appeal amounts to is a complex and sophisticated “Trust me.” It’s the boldest, most ambitious, and also most democratic of rhetorical Appeals because it requires the rhetor to convince us not just of his intellectual acuity or technical competence but of his basic decency and fairness and sensitivity to the audience’s own hopes and fears. To these we can make a recent addition: the Unethical Appeal ( = an argument’s capacity to provoke, humiliate, and deflect, as well as flatter the “rhetor” with claims of persecution for his outspokenness.) The Unethical Appeal may be used to lie, rile, and show contempt for the very reaction it seeks. It longs to drink “Liberal tears.” Recent, though hardly unfamiliar, the Unethical Appeal is the primary rhetorical style of the new administration. Punditry has been slow to come around; there have been slightly embarrassed defenses -- almost as if making a grammatical correction -- of norms. The most oft-repeated sentiment was surprise that Trump had not disqualified himself repeatedly. It was a series of bewilderments: first, that one could insult; then, that one could lie; and even then that one could be exposed. Nothing seemed to matter the way it used to (“You couldn’t make it up”). As of this writing, we’re still trying to catch the president and his aides in the act, as if they were particularly shy about vandalizing the free world. Does this swamp look drained to you? we ask of some late hypocrisy. Yes, they say, all drained. When they go high, you go low. Blame three million illegal voters -- a massive horde of ghosts -- for losing the popular vote. In response to anti-Semitism, casually fly a false flag. When Trump says, “Obama founded ISIS,” it is not meant to be verifiably true. It is meant to be rhetorically uncompromising, to valiantly prove its own point about what can be said. A common complaint among his supporters is this perceived inability to say anything -- some mysterious, impolitic truth at the core of their resentment. (“Merry Christmas.”) But that sense of grievance is readily voiced in various online subcultures, by Gamergaters or viral craftsmen of reactionary Periscopes. Still, the “ironic bigotry” of a YouTube star remains unknown to most anyone who doesn’t watch him play video games online. It’s fair to ask what the boards at 4chan have to do with Trump carrying Pennsylvania. Suppose the influence of alt-testosterone has been indirect, meme-driven -- purely rhetorical. The unspeakable unites the disparate parts of Trump’s constituency: the red hats at the rallies, the 53 percent (of white women), the fake-news factories, the Twitter eggs, and the spineless skin-crawling Priebuses of the Republican establishment who came out regardless of Trump’s objective repulsiveness. A metastasized rhetoric connects people who don’t believe what they’re saying with those who hear what they want to hear. The Unethical Appeal will be linked from a Facebook post; it will show up in replies to a tweet expressing sorrow for the Holocaust; it will be shouted at people just to see who will startle; it will come from the White House Press Briefing Room, and from the president himself. 2. As Wallace wrote “Authority and American Usage,” he made note of every grammatical infelicity he happened upon (“10 items or less,” etc.). In the same vein, it took me just a few hours on November 9 to produce a list of singular reasons for the calamity. White people Racism Bigotry Xenophobia Sexism People who did not vote Democrats who stayed at home Every media outlet that normalized Trump “Young men came to these online groups for tips on picking up girls & came out believing that it was up to them to save Western civilization” (Siyanda Mohutsiwa) Your neighbors and relatives “Race, gender, or class, fucking newsflash: it’s about all three” (Michael Lutz) Trump fed on outrage “America’s neglect of its own health comes directly from its stubborn insistence that nothing is as bad as it looks.” (@absurdistwords) Virulent hatred Let it burn TV news Republicans and Democrats who treated him like a joke 53 percent of all white women Jill Stein The whole idea of a single cause for the election result didn’t stick -- it was even subject to Unethical Appeals (“This is why you lost”). But if a singular diagnosis presented itself, it centered on a lack of “empathy” for Middle America. Our polarization seemed to address the election-forecast models’ inaccuracy. The prescription essentially has been to make more logical and pathetic appeals to one another. Accordingly, facts, such as the number of acts of terrorism carried out by Syrian refugees in the U.S. (zero), should be cited; and we should, on the basis of those facts, bid the travel ban’s proponents have an ounce of shame. But the whole expository gymnastics -- our filter bubbles, the disaffection of the white working-class, the gaming of the media -- is predicated on explaining to the earnest world why so many would celebrate a liar for his honesty. We could have hardly expected the entire country’s “Crisis of Authority” to apply to the truth itself, but this ship has sailed something fierce. Which calls for a certain vigilance. “Now is the time to talk about what we’re actually talking about,” wrote Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. “Resistance starts with plain speaking,” tweeted Alex Steffen. This characterizes much of the protest rhetoric that meets a now-familiar litany of race-baiting and broad-daylight falsities. Wallace spends a good part of “A&AU” self-consciously parsing the fact that “language is by its very nature public.” What we’re actually talking about -- the information conveyed -- is inflected by the expression of ourselves by other means. Variables include the several dialects (“Urban Southern,” “Maine Yankee,” and/or “Standard Written English”) in which a speaker is versed, and the idea that “the dialect you use depends mostly on what sort of Group your listener is part of and on whether you wish to present yourself as a fellow member of that Group” (a dry response to the right-wing talking point about words liberals supposedly refuse to say i.e. “radical Islamic terrorism”). Wallace, who was male and very white, recounts his delivery of his patented remedial grammar spiel to a bright young black student as a means of painfully demonstrating how rhetoric is conjoined with whoever is making the argument -- or “privilege.” Suffice it to say the road to meaning is long and winding. And all this amounts to a necessary inconvenience: the community decides what is plain, and now what is, in rhetorical terms, plainly true. “U.S. Presidential Campaign” is also a dialect: straitlaced, clipped, pompous -- and repetitive! It’s a dialect the Obamas were able to temporarily elevate but that the Unethical Appeal ultimately made mincemeat of. Adichie identifies “balanced,” “alt-right,” “liberal bubble,” “identity politics,” “women” as words that have had their use diverted, and are worth setting straight. But the Unethical Appeal is in the business of sabotaging these meanings. An Iowan’s conviction that a system takes her tax dollars and redistributes them to undeserving people from Chicago is profoundly racist to us. But the U.S. electorate, as a community, is swayed by the unethically appealing idea that racism is a hysterical accusation -- and not the American legacy. The debate is framed and reframed ad nauseam -- should we seek to convert our fellow citizens, or speak to the courage of our convictions (and risk alienating swing voters)? A paradoxical stalemate is quickly reached, where either party accepts the other is right in principle. Such is life in an unacceptable democracy. Words should be used clearly, without buzzy euphemism or fear. But it remains that there is no language above the fray, especially not when it comes to supposedly private meanings -- hateful, privileged, woke. After stints reporting on Bay Area tech gentrification and Oberlin College, Nathan Heller has a more abstract imperative: “Let’s drive our language out of private circles, back toward the public sphere.” Until we do, what is said loud and clear will fall on ears not exactly deaf, but tuned to a different reality of subjective truths, and now will not be the time. 3. “Jokes were a superior way to tell the truth,” wrote Emily Nussbaum, nostalgic for satire that didn’t seem as insufficient as its target is broad -- a “Drumpf” hat atop the ash heap of history. The joke in play was well-known to combatants in recent culture wars, the campus politics beat, and all heavy users of Twitter. Precisely, it’s always both a joke and a supposedly trenchant critique of those too censorious to think it funny. This was novel enough to shock mainstream political reporters, unfamiliar with “how dangerous it could be for voters to feel shamed and censored -- and how quickly a liberating joke could corkscrew into a weapon.” (“I don’t understand how the president can make an attack like that.” -- Jake Tapper, emphasis mine. The dirt-simple answer for which is overlooked by a seasoned reporter like Tapper because he is seasoned.) The Unethical Appeal is the song of adolescence: the rise out of you is all that matters. As rhetoric, it’s less of an attempt to persuade than a bomb threat to get school canceled. Not everyone laughed out loud, but Trump’s voters walked out of class anyway. Even worse, the joke is direly unfunny -- it needs to be explained. This was an election won -- and an administration conducted -- in bad faith. What a person feels in their heart of hearts is for them to know, but Trump has done much worse than bear personal animus. “Birtherism” rested on the assumption that those who don’t look like you must have cheated, that they do not deserve what should be reserved for people who do look like you and are from the same place you come from. Possibly not even “racism” does justice to this vicious selfishness. The President of the United States names and points, telling his supporters who to blame, a rallying call -- against immigrants, Muslims -- that human beings aren’t good enough or strong enough to resist. It’s no secret that he does this not out of some ideology with which we might disagree, but in order to stay on TV and hear distant cheers. The true reason for his illegitimacy -- Russian interference or not -- is that he makes America worse. The Unethical Appeal is a permanent part of Internet culture -- its founding rhetoric, perhaps. It’s a cheat code, nonbiodegradable trash. A rhetoric is a kind of technology, and we would just as soon vanquish the Unethical Appeal as we would bring back factory jobs, or speak to one another on the phone. Its pervasive role in the election -- and the elevation of those for whom the Unethical Appeal is their sole expertise -- is what’s truly unprecedented; I imagine it also accounts for the distinct feeling that we’re living in a revenge porn of a country. But people who reject the Unethical Appeal are still subject to it. Identity politics and “political correctness” are defended on their antagonists’ terms. Troubleshooting techniques on hand -- leaning on the targeted to sign off, fact-checking on HillaryClinton.com, or waiting for corporate social media to act in our best interests -- have all been found wanting. But an almost anti-rhetorical show of strength seems to be working. Service was nonexistent at the Women’s March in D.C. -- it’s possible I hadn’t read a tweet in hours. At a burger joint sometime after five, when a newscast showed Chicago and L.A. and London, a cheer went up. During its rocky organization, and while the zeitgeist was scanned for its after-effects, it was said that the march could have been better articulated; perhaps that is as it should be: a powerfully inarticulate expression of opposition. 4. The recommendations of “Authority and American Usage” are just maybe instructive for the historical moment. When A Dictionary of Modern American Usage makes its case for the value of prescriptive grammar, Wallace fawns over Garner’s style -- reasonable, democratic, and so much less pointy-headed and elitist than somebody. Searching for a way to describe it, Wallace looks up “authority” in the dictionary. After the first definition -- about the right to power, obedience, and judgment -- he finds this: “2. Power to influence or persuade resulting from knowledge or experience.” In his op-ed defending BuzzFeed’s decision to publish the “golden shower” dossier, editor-in-chief Ben Smith argued that a gatekeeper’s secrecy makes less sense than trusting his audience enough to show them a document that had already been in the possession of both their representatives in government and news organizations for some time. The “purity and incorruptibility” of traditional reporting he dismisses out of hand. A lot is at stake here -- and let’s allow that the responsibility for false equivalences lies ultimately with those who make them (“FAKE NEWS”) and not with those who may have invited them. Transparency -- showing readers your journalistic work -- is an interesting, open question to Smith. For whatever reason, credibility -- a reader-citizen’s capacity to trust that which she hasn’t seen with her own eyes -- is not. A contempt for the media is nearly unanimous; it’s a song lyric, a night tweet from the current White House, and a lament of the resistance Left. The remark is typically made without any consideration of where a media absent authority leaves us. With max efficiency we were delivered to the bottom of a slippery slope -- Facebook made fraud easy and profitable; fakes were seen more than real news was read. Twitter proved a brutally effective technology for the siege -- propaganda, harassment -- but not the besieged. The question is how to restore the authority of journalism -- not as a given, but according to the “knowledge or experience” with which it performs its role in our democracy. CNN and Fox News on mute at the airport does not an informed citizenry make. We might want to subscribe to a magazine with more full-time fact-checkers than the zero employed by companies with cool native ad templates. Or we could read that newspaper the president says is on its last legs. When I ran this argument by a friend of mine, he thought I was “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.” None of this is going to be easy; I don’t imagine I make it any easier on myself by mounting a defense of elite journalism and calling for throwing out at least part of the baby. Still: now is the time to say that the disruption of journalism was led by tech companies that are moral failures. An authority is one that can tell us which rule is truly arbitrary and which rule preserves meaning. “People who eat that kind of mushroom often get sick.” -- Wallace’s own pithy demonstration of grammatical value. (If you can spot that error, try to parse: “By law he can’t have conflicts.”) Twitter and Facebook were created to fill market niches, not to do the things that they are most often used for. This “open platform” ideology held even as they proved to be optimized primarily for rampant abuse and the generation of profitable user data. Their significant potential for political organizing is skewed by self-congratulation. “Twitter’s amplification of marginal voices and contributions to comedy stand alone. (Facebook -- its user growth at an all-time high -- is, as ever, described by its most devoted users as a complete waste of time.) Together, the two are offering us little but mushrooms that often make us sick. “A&AU"'s other recommendation comes at the outset: a “Democratic Spirit,” defined as a “passionate conviction plus a sedulous respect for the convictions of others.” I doubt it’s just me who finds this ethic concedes that which we can no longer afford. “The premise for empathy has to be equal humanity,” wrote Adichie -- a premise impossible to square with Trump’s 63 million votes. What could it mean otherwise? The American cultural divide is literal, geographical: rural and urban. If we live inside bubbles, we should ask ourselves if at least something on those glistening surfaces represents a value worth holding on to. In the last few years, I’ve spent a good deal of time in the Midwest. The people are lovely, we shake hands, I’m welcomed into their homes. But in the places they live, there’s less countryside and more vast parking lots of chain stores, sprawl in neon and gray. It is American culture as advertised from sea to shining sea, in long aisles where people -- who have been told that they are all different -- confront a market-scape made for everyone indistinguishably. In contrast, urban America offers all sorts of people one hasn’t met before, and a cultural distinctiveness that, while it may include $18 cold brews ripe for parody, is vital, diverse. Living in cities best embodies the Democratic Spirit -- again, a nearly impossible argument to make during a real-estate boom that’s done much to make our country almost feudal with inequality. Writing about Obama’s invocation of Selma in his farewell speech, and his longstanding rhetoric about American unity in general, Ezekiel Kweku noted, “The victories won by those marchers weren’t about consensus, about ‘our’ decision to change; they were about one vision of what America should be confronting and defeating a competing vision. ‘We, the people’ wasn’t all of us.” Part of the election-shock came from the lingering presumption that a people, or a country itself, could be, by nature, good. This is a mistake, a misplaced modifier, an obvious typo even. It might take a while for the truth to prevail. But if we hold out for the word that belongs to us all, and to which we are all equally subject, the truth is, it won’t. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Essays

Escaping the Waste Land: On Flannery O’Connor and T.S. Eliot

1. Early in her novel Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor describes protagonist Hazel Motes, leader of the Church without Christ, by the silhouette he casts on the sidewalk. “Haze’s shadow,” she writes, “was now behind him and now before him.” It’s a strange way to situate a character -- skulking between his shadows -- but it’s not unprecedented. In The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot’s narrator refers to “Your shadow at morning striding behind you/Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you.” Coincidence? Nobody can say for certain. But in the rare case of a critic linking O’Connor and Eliot, Sally Fitzgerald (O’Connor’s close friend) wrote that “it was Eliot and his Waste Land who provided for her the first impetus to write such a book as Wise Blood.” Harold Bloom, the literary critic who thrives on making such connections, famously argued that great writers, burdened by what he called the “anxiety of influence,” subconsciously misread established literary giants to achieve originality. But in this case, O’Connor is not misreading Eliot. She’s answering him. The Waste Land delivers a darkly poetic proposition. Every line relentlessly reiterates the theme that, in the wake of World War One, hope had been leached from life. Existence, in the poem’s assessment, culminates in a word one rueful lover repeats in The Waste Land’s second section: “Nothing . . . Nothing. . . nothing . . .nothing . . .Nothing.” O’Connor was a Catholic whose literary ambitions hewed to an active faith. For her, nothing could come from nothing. She embraced The Waste Land’s despair but refused to accept its emptiness. In her essay “The Church and the Fiction Writer,” she wrote, “I have heard it said that belief in Christian dogma is a hindrance to the writer, but I myself have found nothing further from the truth. Actually, it frees the storyteller to observe.” This belief -- informed by a desire to observe from a Christian angle -- compelled her to both absorb the meaningless in Eliot’sThe Waste Land while, at the same time, offering a response. Of Hazel Motes, she once wrote, “His search for a physical home mirrors his search for a spiritual one, and although he finds neither, it is the latter search which saves him from becoming a member of the wasteland and makes him worth 75,000 words.” In both Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away, O’Connor -- as Harold Bloom would expect one to -- evokes Eliot’s wasteland by replicating its prominent themes. She transplants the desolate urban iconography of The Waste Land’s to the small rural enclaves of the American South. O’Connor’s southern landscape is the “upsidedown half of the world,” a sad and painful sprawl of land where “each weed that grew out of the gravel looked like a live green nerve.” At times her landscape seems on the verge of exploding into flames and, in least one instance, at the end of The Violent Bear it Away, does just that. But in the midst of this desolation and conflagration she confronts Eliot’s dried-up nothing with a flood of something. Decisively, if jarringly, she proposes a vision -- albeit a strange vision (Eliot once said of O’Connor, “She has certainly an uncanny talent of high order but my nerves are just not strong enough to take much of a disturbance”) -- of human redemption. Eliot delivers the ruins. O’Connor preserves them, navigates them, and then, inspired by Catholicism, discovers in them an original form of grace. 2. Whatever anxiety O’Connor experienced over mimicking Eliot (probably not very much), she didn’t attempt to hide it. In O’Connor’s second (and final) novel, The Violent Bear It Away, the 14-year-old Francis Marion Tarwater receives from his aging uncle, with whom he lives in a countrified wasteland, careful instructions on how to bury his large dead body when he eventually keels over in their isolated abode. After digging what the uncle insisted had to be a proper hole (“I want it ten foot”), Tarwater was then, according to the uncle’s directions, instructed to “prop me with some bricks so I won’t roll into it and don’t let the dogs nudge me over the edge before it’s finished. You better pen up the dogs.” In The Waste Land’s single reference to burial, a soldier home from war in London sees a former comrade walking across London Bridge and asks, “That corpse you planted last year in your garden,/‘Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?” And then: “Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to man/Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again.” In both instances, in both wastelands, dogs are banished from the graveside. They will not be set loose to complete Antony’s famous order, delivered in Act III, Scene I of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, at Caesar’s funeral, to “let slip the dogs of war.” That act would miss the point in these mirrored wastelands because, as both Eliot and O’Connor suggest, whatever justice is to be attained is, alas, pointless. The body is interred. The play is over. Death is death. Dust is dust. The dogs must be locked away. 3. Perhaps the only prospect worse than death is, for both authors, eternal earthly life. It’s a prospect that both Eliot and O’Connor symbolize in the form of a shriveled, miniaturized body. The Waste Land opens with an epigraph that declares (in part): “Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi in ampulla pendere.” Translation: “Now I myself with my own eyes saw the Sybil of Cumae hanging in a jar.” According to myth, the Sybil of Cumae asked Apollo for eternal life but, in so doing, forgot to ask for eternal youth. Wish granted, the Sybil ages forever, shrinking to the point that she fits in a glass jar. The image is reliably referenced later in the poem as a symbol of existential hopelessness (“You ought to be ashamed, I said, to look so antique.”) What worked for Eliot worked for O’Connor. In Wise Blood, Enoch Emery, the trickster sidekick whose friendship Haze Motes rejects, steals a mummified dwarf (displayed in a glass case) from a local museum and delivers it to Sabbath Lily Hawks, the nymph lover of Motes, in a paper sac. Enoch wants Motes, despite his bad attitude, to have the desiccated and shrunken mummy as a “new jesus” symbol for his Church Without Christ. Earlier in the novel, when Enoch first sees the mummy, he approaches it cautiously, after reading a sign on the wall that tells him “he was once as tall as you or me.” As with Eliot’s Sybil, the mummy has diminished in size over time. The scene ends when a mother walks into the museum with two boys, both of who approach the glass and peer at the blackened figure. O’Connor, again in Wise Blood, practically completes Eliot’s scene for him. In Eliot’s epigraph (which inexplicably switches to Greek), two boys approach the Sybil in the jar (some think this was the inspiration for Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar), just as the boys do in O’Connor’s museum. They ask her, “What do you want?” and the Sybil replies, in true Eliot fashion, “I want to die.” O’Connor grants the Sybil her wish when, after Sabbath showed Motes the mummified new Jesus, he “snatched the shriveled body and threw it against the wall.” Upon impact, “the head popped and the trash inside sprayed in a little cloud of dust.” Few words are more evocative of The Waste Land than that carefully considered word: dust (a mote of dust). If there is a line that best captures the depth of the poem’s existential terror it comes when the narrator promises, “I will show you fear in a handful of dust” -- or, as O’Connor suggests, maybe in the shattered head of a purloined dwarf. 4. O’Connor’s novels also follow Eliot’s lead on the theme of blindness. The inability to see, partially or completely, pervades The Waste Land. The “hyacinth girl,” from section one, describes a moment of potential romantic happiness when the girl notes of her possible lover, “we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden,/Your arms full and your hair wet.” It’s one of the poem’s only moments of hope. But it’s immediately dashed when the hyacinth girl recalls how, quite suddenly, “I could not speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither/Living nor dead, and I knew nothing.” Later in the same section, the prophetess “Madame Sosostris,” consults her “wicked pack of cards” -- is there any hope in there? -- and finds a Phoenician sailor with “pearls that were his eyes” as well as a “one-eyed merchant.” The merchant on the tarot card carries something possibly significant on his back, but it turns out to be something for which Madame Sosotris must confess, “I am forbidden to see.” Some prophetess -- she’s without foresight. Sight, or lack thereof, is even more central to inner mechanics of Wise Blood. Hazel Motes, who can see normally when we meet him, eventually blinds himself in an act of spiritual rage. Motes’s antagonist, the preacher Asa Hawks, also sees normally, but fakes blindness as a ruse to foster donations. When naming her characters, O’Connor must have had in mind “seeing like a hawk” and the biblical “why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” (And maybe even King Lear.) Either way, the theme of compromised sight is even in peripheral scenes. When Motes and Sabbath encounter a caged black bear at Tennessee gas station (don’t laugh, I once saw a caged ostrich an east-Texas gas station), we learn that “the bear had only one eye.” Enoch Emery’s landlady was “almost totally blind but moved about by an acute sense of smell.” Sabbath Lily says to her father about Haze, “I like his eyes. They don’t seem to see what he’s looking at, but they keep on looking.” 5. The similarities continue in other areas as well. They appear when Tarwater is raped in The Violent Bear it Away, and in Tarwater’s sadistic baptism (which results in drowning the feeble initiate). But, in the end, O’Connor isn’t content with simply mimicking Eliot’s hellscape of despair. Instead, she yanks us in the opposite direction -- from a ghastly landscape to a strange paradise of redemption. And she does so in a way that, indeed, made her a true original -- at once devout, humorous, and spiritual. It is in that last description of Motes’s eyes -- “but they keep on looking” -- that O’Connor’s faith intervenes, her Catholicism asks to be honored, and she lays an eccentric basis for hope. Eliot ends his poem with a spiritual assessment of a wasted land that’s so devoid of life (specifically water) that it even dries out any prospect of Christ’s resurrection and, by extension, the rest of humanity. “After the agony in stony places/The shouting and the crying/Prison and palace and reverberation/Of thunder of spring over distant mountains/He who was living is now dead/We who are living are now dying.” To be sure, Motes doesn't escape death. He dies in the back seat of a cop car. But before his death, after his blindness, as his spiritual vision intensifies towards something, he takes to staging his own crucifixion (wrapping himself in barbed wire and filling his shoes with rocks), and attempts his own conversion experience through a painful form of redemption. The book ends with Motes’s corpse propped in a chair at the home of his landlady. Her name -- evoking the water that never quenched The Waste Land -- is Mrs. Flood, and her final observation -- that she thinks (with her eyes shut) she sees “a pin point of light” in his dead eye sockets -- is the twinkle of hope that you can search for throughout The Waste Land and never find. It is O’Connor’s way of answering, and escaping, The Waste Land. It is her way of resurrecting Motes, and ensuring that his quest for meaning never loses significance. Image Credit: Wikipedia.
Essays

John Morris and His Astonishing Century

My father’s father, John Morris, was born at a place called Goochland Court House, Virginia, on June 23, 1863.  Nine days later an uncle of his, also named John Morris, got his left leg blown off and died fighting for the Confederacy at the Battle of Gettysburg.  At the time, my grandfather’s father, Charles Morris, was serving as a quartermaster in Richmond, supplying Southern troops with food and ammunition and horses, safely removed from the escalating slaughter.  The family home was a place called Taylor’s Creek, built in nearby Montpelier in 1732 by a Welsh immigrant named William Morris, and worked by slaves. There is a black-and-white family photograph taken in November of 1952, the month the United States detonated the first thermonuclear device, precursor to the hydrogen bomb.  The photograph shows my grandfather, hair as white as sugar, wearing a three-piece suit and an expression of delight mixed with terror, for on his right knee he’s balancing a swaddled infant who has the bewildered, bug-eyed look of a space alien.  I am the infant. Three years later, my grandfather died at the age of 92.  I have no memories of the man, but even as a boy I marveled at the changes he must have witnessed in his long lifetime.  He was born during the Civil War and died at the peak of the Cold War.  When he was born, the dominant technologies were the railroad, the telegraph, and photography.  He grew up in a world lit by kerosene and candles, he traveled by foot and horseback and wagon on dirt roads, drank water hauled from a well, used an outdoor privy.  He went on to study Latin and Greek and German, and he became a lawyer, a philologist, and a college professor first in Virginia and then, for more than half a century, at the University of Georgia.  Along the way, he lived through Reconstruction, women’s suffrage, urbanization, Prohibition, labor unrest, the Great Depression, two world wars, the atom bomb and the Korean War.  He was among the original users of the telephone, radio, automobile, phonograph, airplane, elevator, moving pictures, typewriters, subways, safety razors, television, penicillin, pasteurized milk, electric lights, refrigeration, antibiotics, and central heat and air-conditioning.  He endured the grim rigors of Jim Crow, unhappily.  He was in Germany to witness Adolf Hitler’s rise, also unhappily.  He wrote scholarly articles for obscure journals and spent decades producing a German-English dictionary that never got published.  It seems that he dealt with all this dizzying change by remaining firmly rooted in the 19th century, an unapologetic member of the old school, a sugar-haired gentleman scholar in a three-piece suit.  For all that, he held remarkably progressive beliefs on race, child rearing, women’s rights, and religious freedom. As I grew older, my boyish sense of wonder spawned an allied suspicion: I came to doubt the oft-repeated mantra that, as a Baby Boomer, I was living in a time of unprecedented change.  Yes, we curled up under our school desks as a pathetic way of preparing for nuclear Armageddon, and, yes, I lived to see the civil rights movement, interstate highways, the Vietnam War, a man on the moon, the flowering of feminism and gay rights, Watergate, personal computers and the Internet and the smart phone.  These are not trifles.  But my inventory led to an unassailable conclusion: not all that much has changed in my lifetime, really, and certainly not in the fundamental ways my grandfather’s day-to-day life changed. For years I carried around these vague ideas until, by chance, I discovered a new book that put flesh on the bones of my theory.  The Rise and Fall of American Growth: the U.S. Standard of Living Since the Civil War by Robert J. Gordon is that rarest thing: a work of densely researched macroeconomics that is compulsively readable.  (Thomas Piketty’s surprise 2014 hit, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, is another exception to the rule that macroeconomics tends to be a snore.)  Gordon’s monumental book is guided by two central premises: that the years from 1870 to 1970, very nearly the dates of my grandfather’s birth and death, comprised “the special century,” a spurt of great inventions and economic growth in the United States that is unmatched in human history; and that since 1970, change has been far slower and it has been confined to the much narrower spheres of entertainment, communications, and information.  Gordon argues persuasively that future growth and innovation will continue to be stunted by a relatively recent, and seemingly irreversible, development: “the rise of inequality that since 1970 has steadily directed an ever larger share of the fruits of the American growth machine to the top of the income distribution.”  In other words, the game has been rigged for years, and with Donald Trump in the White House and Republicans in control of the federal government it’s not going to get unrigged anytime soon.  The rich will keep getting richer, the middle class will continue to wither, innovation will continue to stagnate, and we’ll all be poorer for it.  The “special century,” it turns out, was a one-off. Books come out of books, and the best books lead us to new books.  American Growth has led me to more than a dozen titles – histories, memoirs, reportage, novels.  One of the closest in spirit to Gordon’s enterprise is Victorian America, a delightful work of popular history by Thomas J. Schlereth, who is guided by Sigfried Giedion’s dictum that “for the historian there are no banal things.”  Indeed Schlereth, like Gordon, is determined to write history from the bottom up rather than from the top down, focusing on the way day-to-day life in America changed in the four decades leading up to the First World War.  Schlereth’s chapter headings reflect his approach: “Moving,” “Working,” “Housing,” “Communicating,” “Striving,” “Living and Dying.”  The book opens with the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876 and ends with the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco in 1915.  On the eve of the First World War, Schlereth writes, “Americans played more, put greater stock in education and engineering, and found themselves living in a culture more homogeneous and urban, more incorporated and interdependent, than their counterparts who had visited Philadelphia in 1876.”  In 1915 the sun was setting on American isolation and innocence, an underlying theme of E.L. Doctorow’s great novel Ragtime.  The San Francisco Exposition, according to Schlereth, “reflected a final sentimental, opulent display of American Victorianism.”  After that, the deluge. My grandfather lived to see it all -- the bloodbaths of two world wars, the Holocaust, the dawn of the nuclear age, the gargantuan horrors of Jim Crow.  But he did miss one truly momentous change.  Less than a month before my grandfather died, a 14-year-old black boy named Emmett Till was brutally tortured and murdered by white men in Money, Miss. Till’s sin?  He was accused of grabbing a white woman who worked as a cashier in a local market then whistling at her.  Till’s killers were acquitted.  In The Blood of Emmett Till, a new book by Timothy B. Tyson, Till’s white accuser, Carolyn Bryant, has finally admitted that she lied on the witness stand during the trial of Till’s murderers.  Bryant tells Tyson that Till never “grabbed her around the waist and uttered obscenities,” as she had testified in court.  Bryant added, “You tell these stories for so long that they seem true, but that part is not true.” Two months after my grandfather died, Rosa Parks, a black seamstress in Montgomery, Ala., refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger, as required by Jim Crow statues in place since the turn of the century.  A year-long boycott of the city’s buses by black citizens ensued, and finally, grudgingly, the Montgomery bus system was integrated.  Far more important, the death of Emmett Till and the courage of Rosa Parks provided the match that ignited the smoldering civil rights movement. So my grandfather missed one of the most uplifting, violent, disappointing -- and ongoing -- narratives in all of American history.  Other than the civil rights movement, though, John Morris didn’t miss much.  His century was more than merely special.  It was an astonishment.
Essays

My Body Is Mine

1. It was 2010, six months after returning to Portland, Ore., from a stint of working as a stripper on the Pacific island of Guam. My car radio was tuned to NPR on my drive home from a boring office job. “This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross,” the familiar voice sounded from the speakers quietly as I turned out of the parking lot. I listened passively, as I always did, while stuck in traffic at this time of day. My apartment was only a two-minute drive -- extended to 10 minutes in traffic. “I've always wondered who responds to ads like this one,” Terri Gross continued, “which was in the back of the Village Voice: Attractive, young woman wanted for nurse role-play and domination. No experience necessary, good money, no sex. Well, my guest actually answered that ad and spent four years as a professional dominatrix in midtown Manhattan. And now, she's written a memoir about it called Whip Smart.” I turned up the radio and wished for the traffic to worsen, to be stuck in my beat up silver Kia for the duration of the interview. I wanted to know everything, but not just because the guest had been a dominatrix, but because she wrote about it. I couldn’t imagine writing about my experience as a stripper, but especially my experience working in Guam, despite the fact that my plan was to major in creative writing. I’d write about lots of things, I’d thought. Just not that. I wanted to know about the kind of person that would write about it and then go on NPR. Then Terri Gross said, “It may be the first dominatrix memoir that mentions growing up listening to NPR.” The author was Melissa Febos. I was hooked. I got home even faster than I anticipated. I sat in my car, turned off the windshield wipers and watched the rain pitter-patter before me. I listened for the next half hour, without moving, close to crying but not exactly sure why. At the close of the interview Gross questioned Febos about whether her academic and career prospects might be damaged by her publishing Whip Smart. Not only had she been a dominatrix, but she was also a recovering heroin addict. I leaned into the radio, my own potential future breathing down my neck -- I’d long been terrified that my five year career as a stripper might hold me back. It was the primary reason I felt I couldn’t write about it. “I have no idea if they're going to interfere, but there's nothing I can do about that. I'm sure that there are certain universities that would object to hiring me because of those experiences, but that doesn’t affect my view of their value,” Febos answered. As I had so many other times in my life, I wished I could be that bold. During the interview, I learned that Febos attended The New School -- a university I’d never heard of before. It was located in the West Village, not far from NYU. As soon as the interview ended I did two things: purchased Whip Smart and Googled The New School. I realized immediately that it was the university for me. Ten months later I started my studies there as my family scoffed that I’d never be able to survive in New York. I read Whip Smart in a single night. Febos wrote about sex work in a way I’d never read before. That in the beginning everything about it makes one feel powerful, but how that feeling erodes with time, never fading completely away. But eventually there is acceptance that there are disempowering as well as empowering aspects to the work. I read the memoir Strip City, too, in which Lily Burana defines this for exotic dancers as “stripper damage.” I love that characterization, but it still feels a little too simple, too boiled down. As the years go on, more than anything, dancing settles into a routine -- just like any other job. It loses the intrigue, mystery, the newness and glittering of the taboo. Things that were once novel or shocking become dull and meaningless. There is a getting-through-the-day that takes over. Febos writes: When people asked me how the work affected me, my line was: “I don’t know yet; ask me in ten years.” When I thought about how long I would do it for, I assumed that there would come a day when I simply couldn’t anymore, when everything about it had become banal and sad and I was done. I felt similarly about dancing, and yet the times I tried to force an ending didn’t work. I couldn’t find a straight job or a straight job didn’t pay enough or I’d have a good straight job for a few months and then get laid off because of the economy. At the time I heard Melissa Febos’s interview I’d claimed I’d retired. I had two part-time office jobs, a full time school schedule, but still picked up shifts at the club I’d grown to consider my “home club” in Portland. I needed to save for my move to New York City. But it was an extreme way to live. Sometimes I was up for 48-hours at a time in order to manage it all. I kept stripping a secret at the time. It seemed necessary after living in Guam. I had discovered upon my return that everyone that loved me had been worried. I didn’t talk about it much. I was accused of doing things I hadn’t (mainly prostitution). No one knew exactly why I went nor would they listen nor was I fully willing to be honest anyway. When I started to dance again I insisted silently to myself it was just about the money, but the moment I stepped back in the club, the moment I slithered into my favorite piece of sheer pink lingerie, brushed black mascara onto my eyelashes, and slipped into my eight-inch platform shoes, I felt relieved. I felt home. I was addicted. Febos, too, felt addicted to sex work. In some ways it was worse then her heroin habit because she couldn’t kick it, like she did the drugs. Febos turned to her sober roommates looking for advice when she wanted quit sex work, but wasn’t able to: …when I went to my roommate and expressed my reluctance, she looked at me in disbelief. “Yeah he sounds really annoying. But fifteen hundred dollars? Come on. I would do it if I could.” What she meant was if she had the opportunity. At this point, I was starting to know better...I could not imagine my roommate going through what I knew a session entailed. For fifteen hundred dollars. For an hour’s work. It sounded amazing, when you don’t know what the work meant, or when you pretended not to. In Whip Smart, it starts to feel like she loathes the dungeon and judges everyone around her for participating in it -- even though she, herself, is part of that world. I often made fun of the desires of my strip club regulars, not considering the fact that I was participating in exactly what they wanted of me. During one session, Febos suddenly feels that she and her client were brought together by some unknowable force. That there must be something more to her being in those rooms with men hoping for humiliation and her pleasure in doling it out: Who was this man? What did we have in common to have both ended up in this room? I teetered over his face, peering into it for a dizzy moment. In what direction had this man come from, and where was he going? It was a feeling too objective to be compassion, but I suddenly felt on equal footing with him. For a moment, we formed two halves of a perfectly balanced scale. And then I looked down at his erection and realized that the feeling was probably not mutual. Years after the publication of Whip Smart, Febos published an essay in the "Sex, Again" issue of Tin House titled “My Melissa.” In it she explores the ways her lovers rejected her identity as a person who worked as a dominatrix: After he read the memoir I’d written, he said, I think of her as a different person. Not my Melissa. He preferred me shy. So I distanced myself from the woman I’d written about. …He drew a line between the body I wrote about and the one he loved. This is common. One man I dated found what I had done in my past disgusting. When money was particularly tight I told him I was considering going back, and he said he’d leave me and then refused to talk to me for the rest of the day. I wasn’t that girl anymore, he asserted. I was someone else. But I was. I was always the girl that stripped and so much more. Febos ends her essay: There are not two of me. I am not four times removed from myself. There is Melissa. The one who still dims the lights before she undresses. The one who once put her foot inside a man’s asshole. The one who wrote that book, and the next one. The one who prefers making love to bodies that look like her own. Who was never allowed to love her own body. What I mean is, the next lover who tells me it wasn’t me won’t be a lover I’ll keep. And if you want to know how it felt to spank someone, I will tell you how it feels to be asked such a question. 2. “Kettle Holes,” another essay, was published in Granta six months before the release of Febos’s new collection of essays Abandon Me. “Kettle Holes” explores her attraction to the dungeon. The foundation, she discovered, was in her formative adolescent years when a boy she had known spit on her -- later it became a fetish that she acted out in the dungeon. What do you like? the men would ask. Spitting, I’d say. To even utter the word felt like the worst kind of cuss and I trained myself not to flinch or look away or offer a compensatory smile after I said it. In the dungeon’s dim rooms, I unlearned my instinct for apology. Febos found the idea of spitting on someone without consent unthinkable, but for men who wanted it? Who asked for it? It was, in a way, a loophole. As a stripper, I never wanted to hurt the men I danced for, but like Febos, when they asked for torture, I delighted in complying. One man wanted me to smoother him with a pillow for hours, another had me crush his testicles with my eight-inch stiletto heel repeatedly. I glowed after both of these interactions, happier about the fact the interaction had happened, than the hundreds of dollars they’d paid. I insisted I wasn’t angry, that I actually loved men, and here again are parallels: You must work out a lot of anger that way, they suggested. I never felt angry in my sessions, I told them. I often explained that the dominatrix’s most useful tool was a well-developed empathic sense. What I did not acknowledge to any curious stranger, or to myself, was that empathy and anger are not mutually exclusive. After I’d quit dancing, I also came to believe that my attraction to stripping had much to do with my adolescence. I was sexually abused as a child. I developed early and was told many times, starting at the age of 12, that I oozed sex. That I was sex. That sex embodied me. Stripping was a way to control the thing people asserted I was, whether I wanted it or not, and then have the power to control it. I learned how to say no to men as a stripper. Before getting naked in front of groups of strangers, I hadn’t yet realized that my body was mine: In the dungeon, my identity was distilled once again to its objective meaning. And those men, like all the men before them, prescribed my body’s uses. But this time, my job was to deny instead of acquiesce, to say no instead of yes. Maybe this was the best way to learn how to form those sounds in my own mouth. 3. The essays in Abandon Me explore several of Febos’s important personal relationships: with her adopted sea captain father, the love affair with a woman named Amaia, her brother, and meeting her biological father -- a member of the Wampanoag tribe. These pieces culminate in the 173-page title essay, “Abandon Me.” It is within this section that alongside her love affair with the married Amaia, Febos meets her birth father. Each relationship bounces off the other. The relationship with Amaia rips apart while the relationship with her biological father, painfully and slowly, stitches together. The essay opens: “Every story begins with an unraveling. This story starts with a kiss. Her mouth the soft nail on which my life snagged, and tore open.” I devoured these pages. Curled up on my coral-colored couch, I sometimes looked up as if someone might catch me in the act of crawling into her mind and living there for a while. It felt like I was being folded into her prose. Six months before I started reading Abandon Me, I’d learned who my father was, and that he had passed away seven years prior. Even with the theme of abandonment so clear, I wasn’t expecting to find something so specifically relatable. I expected that of Whip Smart. Of "My Melissa." Of "Kettle Holes." And many of the elements leading up to the title essay I had grabbed onto, lived within, but here was where Febos tore me open and never let me go. Abandon Me doesn’t have graphic, shocking scenes like Febos’s first, instead she goes further into the messy vulnerable, human parts of herself. In “All of Me” Febos writes of her propensity for secrets, she created a “secret world in drugs and desire.” She didn’t acknowledge her desire to be seen, but wrote and published Whip Smart anyway: “a story full of things I’d never spoken aloud to anyone.” She comes to terms with the fact she’d always wanted to be seen. “It’s a violent way to emerge, to tell a secret,” she goes on. Right now, I’m grappling with the possibility of exposing my own secrets. Seven years after I heard Febos’s NPR interview, I’m in the middle of revisions on my memoir about working as a stripper on the island of Guam. I wonder if I can muster the courage to put it into the world, still unsure that what I want is to be seen. But, I’m comforted that Febos found the courage to do so. It makes me feel understood. And in a small way, I’m emboldened by it.
Essays

The Man Behind the Masks: On Nabokov’s Forewords

Imagine a man introducing himself to you, repeatedly. The man is a novelist, and he tells you that he is going to fill you in about his novels. This he does, in part -- but he also frequently digresses, informing you about some particular of lepidoptery -- the collecting and studying of butterflies -- or else waxes lyrical about the game of chess. In the course of telling you about his writings, he regularly seems to be insulting your own ability to read. He is certainly insulting towards readers by profession -- critics, academics -- and he also has many unkind words for some of the most celebrated writers in modern history. Yet despite the condescension, there is some residual warmth in his words. This man is Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov, author of Lolita and Pale Fire and well over a dozen other novels. At least, this is Nabokov as you might read him across the many forewords and introductions that he wrote for his own works. It is a strange thing that an author should find himself in the position of introducing his own writing as thoroughly and as many times as was Nabokov, and it might be equally as strange, too, that any author should want to do so. But the fact remains that, after the enormous and explosive success of Lolita in 1955, and as he and his son Dmitri Nabokov were beginning the process of translating the first of his Russian novels into English in 1959, Nabokov, aged 60, took it upon himself to acquaint properly his English-speaking readers with his works. Nearly all of the nine forewords to the translations, beginning with Invitation to a Beheading (first published in Russian in 1936), address the fact that the novels are the products of an artist in exile. The wealthy aristocratic Nabokov family was, when the writer was young, forced to flee Russia during the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. They took up in London at first (and Vladimir and his brother attended university in Cambridge) before they settled in Berlin. During the Berlin years, Nabokov lost his father to a political assassination, and gained a wife, the love of his life, Véra Nabokov. Nabokov spent 15 years in Berlin, the city where he published the majority of his Russian-language novels -- novels that feature the haunting cityscapes of Nabokov’s Berlin, but which were also part of the author’s ongoing long-distance relationship with the Russia he had left behind. “What joy!” he wrote in a letter of the period, on the occasion of remembering his home country; “What agony, what heart-rending, provoking, inexpressible agony.” But with mounting political tensions in Berlin at the end of the '30s, the Nabokovs were once more forced to emigrate -- first to France, and then, in 1940, to the United States. From that point on, he wrote all his novels in English. What do the manifold forewords to his translated works tell us about reading Nabokov’s novels? One of their most striking and most consistent features is not that they are an exercise in how to read, but rather that they instruct in how not to misread. That is to say, Nabokov’s phrasing is often extremely negative. Take his remarks upon himself in the foreword to Bend Sinister: I am not ‘sincere,’ I am not ‘provocative,’ I am not ‘satirical.’ I am neither a didacticist nor an allegorizer. Politics and economics, atomic bombs, primitive and abstract art forms, the entire Orient, symptoms of ‘thaw’ in Soviet Russia, the Future of Mankind, and so on, leave me supremely indifferent. This litany of "am nots" is extraordinary, but not unique in the forewords. Nabokov elsewhere repeatedly insists, as he does in Bend Sinister, that his books “are not carriers of this or that ‘idea.’” “Despair,” for instance, “in kinship with the rest of my books, has no social comment to make, no message to bring in its teeth.” Nabokov’s warning: do not hunt for truth! You will only come away disappointed, or (more importantly for him) with the wrong idea about the author. Not content with turning the reader away from social and political truth, Nabokov also wants to dissuade us from drawing comparison between himself and other writers. “Spiritual affinities,” he writes, in the foreword to Invitation to a Beheading, “have no place in my conception of literary criticism.” And it is just as well that Nabokov is unlike other writers, because the majority of the so-called "greats" are anything but great in his eyes. For him, “Literature of Ideas,” is nothing other than “topical trash coming in huge blocks of plaster” (he has in mind Honoré de Balzac, Maxim Gorky, and Thomas Mann). Franz Kafka and George Orwell are repeatedly presented as opposites: Kafka the “great German writer,” Orwell “the mediocre English one.” Kafka “that great artist,” Orwell a purveyor of “illustrated ideas and publicistic fiction.” Some of Nabokov’s best, most barbed comments in the forewords relate to his fellow writers: I presume there exist readers who find titillating the display of mural words in those hopelessly banal and enormous novels which are typed out by the thumbs of tense mediocrities and called ‘powerful’ and ‘stark’ by the reviewing hack. (Lolita) This is an especially cutting statement. Not content with assaulting the Literature of Ideas, Nabokov has turned his gaze to the judgment of reviewers and readers. It is this kind of outrageous comment that, in the forewords, bleeds into Nabokov’s actual and direct insults to the intellect of his readers. Here, for example, is how Nabokov introduces hints about the coded imagery of The Luzhin Defense in its foreword: “I would like to spare the time and effort of hack reviewers -- and, generally, persons who move their lips when reading and cannot be expected to tackle a dialogueless novel.” This is cutting, to be sure, and it is also very funny. But there is a more significant feature here, which is that the hints and tips he is about to share with us, the things we might have missed in the novel, are not real. He describes things that are simply not in the novel. We must, by necessity, all join the ranks of lip-moving readers, because there is no way we could have caught Nabokov’s uncatchable details. If, therefore, we are expecting the forewords to be some safe space, untainted by the lies and mistruths of the novel form, we should clearly think twice. The foreword is, for Nabokov, a place in which to play as much as any of his more properly fictitious works -- at times more so -- and Nabokov delights in blurring the line between the inside and the outside of a text. Consider Pale Fire, a 999-line poem that only becomes anything like a "novel" once it is read within the frame of the preceding (fictional) foreword and the subsequent (fictional, and greatly substantial) commentary text. Or consider Lolita, in which the fate of the novel’s male and female leads is only revealed, subtly and in an off-hand manner, within its own fictional foreword. This foreword, an academic pastiche penned by one "John Ray, Jr., Ph.D.," has got the better of at least one major publisher to date -- Penguin had thousands of copies of its deluxe hardback reissue of Lolita pulped after the publishing house discovered that the foreword -- which it had mistaken for an academic yawn from yesteryear and had chosen to discount -- was in fact a vital part of the novel. Major online booksellers still, confusingly, list "John Ray" as a secondary author of the Penguin edition. But perhaps we should have a little pity on the wayward printers of Nabokov’s novels. After all, he hardly made it easy to determine text from paratext in his works, and he made it all the more difficult with his later fore/aftword "Vladimir Nabokov on a Book Entitled Lolita" (it would surely have been a foreword had it not interfered with the fictional one already in place). The essay, tucked at the back of reprints of the novel, begins: “After doing my impersonation of suave John Ray...any comments coming straight from me may strike one == may strike me, in fact -- as an impersonation of Vladimir Nabokov talking about his own book.” Vladimir Nabokov: author, narrator, object, reader (“may strike me, in fact!”). Nabokov's presence is, at such moments, discernible at every layer of his book, and this ensures that we can never be certain where he really is -- or isn’t. He toys with this a lot. Here is, for instance, the amusing table of “Other Books by the Narrator” from the first pages of Look at the Harlequins! (1974), the last novel published before his death: In Russian: Tamara (1925) Pawn Takes Queen (1927) Plenilune (1929) Camera Lucida (Slaughter in the Sun) 1931 The Red Top Hat (1934) The Dare (1950) In English: See Under Real (1939) Esmeralda and Her Parandrus (1941) Dr. Olga Repnin (1946) Exile from Mayda (1947) A Kingdom by the Sea (1962) Ardis (1970) You don’t need a depth of knowledge about Nabokov to recognise that those are all transformations of his own novels, and that his narrator (Vadim) is a sort of Dostoevskian doubling of the author himself. Lolita becomes A Kingdom by the Sea, lifted from the second line of Edgar Allan Poe’s "Annabel Lee" (Humbert Humbert claims that the precursor to Lolita was an "Annabel Leigh"). Some are Russian puns -- Nabokov’s The Gift was Dar in Russian, here The Dare of 1950. My favorite is Camera Obscura, which went under the title of Laughter in the Dark in the U.K, and is here receives the subtitle Slaughter in the Sun. The point of such paratextual fancies is to have us question whether a book really begins on its title page, whether it really ends on the words "THE END." And what about Nabokov’s "hack reviewers" and critics? It might seem surprising, to anyone with an academic background at least, that there exists no work of "Collected Prose" with all his introductions, nor "Nabokov: The Forewords." But perhaps his academic readers are shamed into inactivity by the forewords themselves; they are, after all, an attempt to get in the last word in an ongoing dispute between author and critic. And critics, academics, and reviewers take a beating in Nabokov’s pre- and post-ambles. The essay on Lolita tuts over the “careless” approach of reviewers; after noting a few niceties in his own book that critics appear to have missed, Nabokov grumbles “It is most embarrassing for a writer to have to point out such things himself.” The essay itself is a warning against tiresome interrogation by academics: “Teachers of literature are apt to think up such problems as ‘What is the author’s purpose?’ or still worse ‘What is this guy trying to say?’” It is worth remembering that both Nabokov and Humbert Humbert were teachers of literature at universities -- “English literature, where so many poets end as pipe-smoking teachers in tweeds.” Perhaps the most damning anti-critical comment of this kind, though, is found in the surprisingly self-reflexive foreword to Bend Sinister: Well-wishers will bring their own symbols and mobiles, and portable radios, to my little party; ironists will point out the fatal fatuity of my explications in this foreword, and advise me to have footnotes next time (footnotes always seem comic to a certain kind of mind). In the long run, however, it is only the author’s private satisfaction that counts. Is it indeed! We are on the threshold of a novel, and here is its author telling us pre-emptively that our response to it will not count. We can do all the symbol-hunting we want, but this book remains Nabokov’s party. Amongst the schools of literary criticism, psychoanalysis is uniquely singled out for a stern thrashing by Nabokov. In fact, Sigmund Freud’s name appears in almost every one of the forewords, and where he is not named he is alluded to. Let’s savour just a few choice dismissals: All my books should be stamped Freudians, Keep out. (Bend Sinister) The Viennese delegation has not been invited. If, however, a resolute Freudian manages to slip in, he or she should be warned that a number of cruel traps have been set here and there in the novel. (King, Queen, Knave) My books are not only blessed by a total lack of social significance, but they are also mythproof: Freudians flutter around them avidly, approach with itching oviducts, stop, sniff and recoil. (The Eye) The disciples of the Viennese witch-doctor will snigger over it in their grotesque world of communal guilt and progresivnoe education. (Invitation to a Beheading) The attractively shaped object or Wiener-schnitzel dream that the eager Freudian may think he distinguishes in the remoteness of my wastes will turn out to be on closer inspection a derisive mirage organized by my agents. (Despair) The little Freudian who mistakes a Pixlok set for the key to a novel will no doubt continue to identify my characters with his comic-book notion of my parents, sweethearts and serial selves. (The Luzhin Defense) At the close of the catalogue, we have a portrait of a man who loathed the idea that some autonomous scholar with training in psychoanalysis might rummage around in his works and discover, against the author’s wishes, some unplanned truth or other. Part of the grumble relates to method. As Nabokov writes in the essay on Lolita: Everybody should know that I detest symbol and allegories (which is due partly to my old feud with Freudian Voodooism and partly to my loathing of generalizations devised by literary mythists and sociologists. Actually, Freudian Voodooism and literary critical generalizations amount to much the same thing in Nabokov. In his famous lecture on "Good Readers and Good Writers," he tells us that "In reading, one should notice and fondle details. There is nothing wrong about the moonshine of generalization when it comes after the sunny trifles of the book have been lovingly collected." For Nabokov, Freud and his ilk were getting it the wrong way round, by hurling ideas at the human mind or at a book, and trying to make them stick. But ultimately, Nabokov’s contempt for psychoanalysis seems less a critique of the validity of the psychoanalytic method (though it is in part that), but more a real anxiety on his part. By attacking Freud so thoroughly and so consistently, he expresses a real fear that his works might be misinterpreted or wrongly appropriated (surely Freud would have plenty to say about the surfacing and resurfacing of this very anxiety?). Nabokov is also clearly and deeply concerned about his own reputation, and that, above all, is what the forewords are: a steady and consistent retroactive effort to save face. After the storms of Lolita, Nabokov’s name would forever be associated with the themes of his novel, and commentators would routinely suggest that Humbert Humbert and his author were closer in nature than Nabokov would have liked people to know (Nabokov recalls in a letter a suspicious sea captain who wanted to know why the author had chosen such a salacious subject -- “he was rather calé on Freud; he had not read Lolita”). Nabokov knows as well as any follower of Freud that there is plenty to be read into the often outrageous content of his works -- perhaps the best he can do is resignedly play games with readers who are interested in analyzing his psyche through his prose. Consider the foreword to his own "literalist" translation of Eugene Onegin, in which he takes to task reviewers who praise above all else "readability: “'Readable,' indeed! A schoolboy’s boner mocks the ancient masterpiece less than does its commercial poetization.” Whatever we think of the criticism, this is an intrusion rendered hilarious through its lack of necessity, and one might well wonder what Freud would have said. Beyond baiting psychoanalysts, what did Nabokov want to achieve with his various forewords? The further bafflement of his readers? The presentation of the "right sort" of truth? Probably he wanted precisely the proliferation of questions I am now asking, and not to provide answers. The forewords are, at any rate, a sort of literary mask -- the "impersonation of Vladimir Nabokov" -- and it is one that extends well beyond Nabokov’s writings and into his life. It is well known that Nabokov meticulously prepared answers to television interviews; he explains, in a foreword to the collection of his essays and interviews Strong Opinions, that “I think like a genius, I write like a distinguished author, and I speak like a child.” He would prepare a “typescript to be presented as direct speech” for his in-print interviewers. In the film Nabokov: My Most Difficult Book, the author, and close friend of Nabokov, Edmund White incisively remarks upon the character of these masks as a product of the fall from aristocratic dignity into the double exile of Germany and then America: “a lot of the aloofness that you see in Nabokov is a kind of wounded pride.” The wounded pride is that of an émigré writer. After all the humorous huffing and puffing, all the tricks and traps and underhand maneuvers on the author’s part, the forewords exist, after all, to locate the English-language versions of Nabokov’s books within the context of a person in exile. In his essay on Lolita, before he had taken up the task of translating and introducing his previous works, he writes that the best of his Russian novels “are not translated into English, and all are prohibited for political reasons in Russia.” Nabokov believed, at this point, that the readers of his best works didn’t live in Russia, but also that they weren’t native English speakers. They were émigrés. They were the “tremendous outflow of intellectuals that formed such a prominent part of the general exodus from Soviet Russia” that he writes about in the foreword to Bend Sinister. They are outsider readers for an outsider writer, one who, perhaps, never quite managed to come to terms with his own celebrity. He built masks to be playful, yes; but he built masks to stay where he felt comfortable: on the outside. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Essays

Chasing Hemingway’s Ghost in Havana

1.In Havana, Ernest Hemingway’s restless ghost lingers more palpably than in any of the other places in the world that can legitimately claim him: Paris, Madrid, Sun Valley, Key West. Havana was his principal home for more than three decades, and its physical aspect has changed very little since he left it, for the last time, in the spring of 1960. I’ve been traveling to the city with some regularity since 1999, when I directed one of the first officially sanctioned programs for U.S. students in Cuba since the triumph of Fidel Castro’s 1959 Revolution. As an aspiring novelist, I’ve long been interested in Hemingway’s work, but I had no idea how prominently Havana figured in the author’s life -- nor how prominently the author figured in the city’s defining iconography -- until I began spending time there. Well-preserved Hemingway locations abound in Havana. They include the Hotel Ambos Mundos, where the author lived throughout the '30s in a room that is now a small museum; the Floridita, which serves overpriced “Hemingway daiquiris,” and contains a life-size bronze likeness of the writer with its elbow on the bar; the Bodeguita del Medio, which has Hemingway’s signature on the wall and claims to have been his favorite place for a mojito; and La Terraza, the restaurant overlooking the small harbor that was the point of departure and return for Santiago’s epic voyage in The Old Man and the Sea. These sites are not just tourist spots, though they certainly are that. They also serve as shrines and landmarks in the city’s defining mythology. The essence of this mythology is captured in the black-and-white photos taken in the months following the 1959 Revolution, later made into postcards. These feature images of Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos -- and Ernest Hemingway. 2. To get a feel for the author’s Cuba years, let us begin with a single one: 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression. By the third week in July of that year, according to Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story, Carlos Baker’s comprehensive 1969 biography of the author, Hemingway had notched his 100th day of fishing in the waters north of Havana. He’d caught more than 50 marlin, including a 750-pounder he’d brought to hand within casting distance of the Morro, the white stone fortress presiding over the entrance to Havana Bay. The yacht he’d rented had been rammed so many times by swordfish that it was starting to leak, so he decided to buy himself a new one, a diesel-powered, 38-foot cruiser from Wheeler Shipyards in Brooklyn. He named it the Pilar, which was also his secret nickname for his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer -- whose family money, as it happened, was financing the couple’s highly mobile lifestyle: a revolving calendar of stays in Havana, Madrid, Paris, New York, Key West, and the Serengeti. Already a literary star on the strength of his first two novels, The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell to Arms (1929), Hemingway chose Havana as his base that summer because of its proximity to one of the planet’s best places to pursue big game fish. As he later wrote in Holiday magazine, he was drawn to the Gulfstream, that “great, deep blue river, three quarters of a mile to a mile deep and sixty to eighty miles across.” He was especially captivated by the marlin, which, from the flying bridge of the Pilar, looked “more like a huge submarine bird than a fish.” The author had first visited Havana in April of 1928, for a brief stop on his steamer journey back from Europe at the end of those romantic Paris-based years he later portrayed so vividly in The Moveable Feast (1964). It proved to be a significant layover for Hemingway -- and for Havana -- because he discovered something about the place that made him want to return. The central ambition of Hemingway’s life was, as he wrote in Esquire in 1934, to create novels and stories “truer than if they had really happened,” and he was continually in search of gritty, colorful, and intense experience that would serve as fodder for this quest. Cuba, like Spain, was an ideal setting for this sort of experience, not only because of the excellent fishing, but also because it was a flashpoint for political upheaval. In April 1931, a general uprising in Spain had resulted in the fall of the Bourbon monarchy, marking the beginning of a new Republic, and in August 1933, a popular uprising in Havana overthrew the dictatorship of President Gerardo Machado. Hemingway, who had a lifelong distaste for authoritarian rule, joined in the celebration of both events, but the turmoil that followed in their wake would have enduring impacts on his creative life. In the '30s, according to Carlos Baker, Hemingway was feeling increasing career pressure as an author. The New York critics had savaged his most recent books, Death in the Afternoon (1932) and Winner Take Nothing (1933).  He’d written enough stories about sport and animal dismemberment, they complained. Why didn’t he move on to something new? He wrote another novel, To Have and Have Not (1937), and it was a decent story -- but decent wasn’t enough. A young novelist from California, John Steinbeck, was garnering critical attention and threatening to usurp Hemingway’s rightful place atop the pantheon of American writers. Hemingway needed a book as great as The Sun Also Rises or A Farewell to Arms -- as great, more pressingly, as Of Mice and Men (1937) or The Grapes of Wrath (1939). He needed a masterpiece, and he was worried that he’d lost his ability to write one. All these factors contributed to his decision, in 1936, to go cover the Spanish Civil War as a filmmaker and newspaper journalist. He joined a score of other international correspondents based in the Hotel Florida, in Madrid. He fell in love with a tall blonde writer and war correspondent named Martha Gellhorn, and naively allowed himself to become implicated in some unsavory intrigue with a ring of Soviet advisors to the Republican high command. It was an exhilarating time for Hemingway. He took every opportunity to observe the fighting, both at a distance and up close. The ground shook with daily barrages of Fascist artillery, reducing the Gran Vía to rubble, and he felt more alive than he had in years. Eventually, the tragic war lurched toward its close. By the winter of 1939, with the triumph of Fascism looking inevitable, Hemingway decided it was time to get back to writing. He packed up his copious notes and booked his passage home to Havana, intending to work on a collection of three long stories or novellas. Instead, he was struck by a sudden inspiration for the story that would become his majestic novel of the Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). As the words began to pile up in his old fifth floor room at the Hotel Ambos Mundos, his excitement grew. He could feel it. This was the masterpiece he’d been hoping for. In April of that year, he was joined by Martha Gellhorn, who was to become his third wife. Unwilling to live permanently in a hotel room, she located a down-at-the-mouth estate 15 miles from Old Havana called the Finca Vigía. Though the house was in need of work, it was favorably positioned on a hill washed by cool sea breezes, with distant views of the bone-white city and the glittering blue Straits of Florida beyond. In 1940, For Whom the Bell Tolls was published to critical and popular acclaim. His authorial confidence restored, Hemingway resumed the life of a migratory sportsman, with Martha as his companion and the newly renovated Finca Vigía as his long-term base. Once the accolades died down, however, he sank into another valley of malaise. As he’d long been predicting, hostilities broke out in Europe. The fighting spread rapidly, and as of December 7, 1941, America too became involved. He’d written his masterpiece, sure, but now the entire world was consumed by war. He’d been a first-hand witness in two of the century’s defining military clashes. The idea of sitting this one out was unimaginable. Still, he wasn’t quite ready to abandon Cuba, or the good fishing, or his comfortable life at the Finca Vigía. He was on good terms with top officials at the U.S. Embassy in Havana. With their approval, he put together a counterintelligence operation to address the infiltration of Cuba by Nazi spies. It was believed that the spies had found accessories among the many Cubans who supported the new Spanish dictator, Francisco Franco. The situation was seen as particularly dangerous because of the “wolf-pack” of German U-boats preying on Allied shipping throughout the Caribbean. Operations began in the summer of 1942, with the Finca as headquarters and a collection of fishermen, bartenders, prostitutes, gunrunners, exiled noblemen, Basque jai-alai players, and long-time drinking buddies forming the personnel of Hemingway’s counterspy ring. But intelligence proved an unsatisfying pursuit. Yearning once again to experience the dangers of combat, he showed up at the embassy with an audacious proposal. He would staff the Pilar with a well-armed crew and patrol the island’s north coast, posing as a team of scientists gathering data for the American Museum of Natural History. Inevitably, his reasoning went, they would be stopped by a U-Boat, at which point they would wait for the Nazi boarding party to emerge. His machine-gunners would mow down the boarding party, and his retired Basque jai-alai players would lob short-fuse bombs down the sub’s conning tower. All he needed to make it work, he told the ambassador, was good radio equipment, arms and ammunition, and official permission. Amazingly, the ambassador approved this far-fetched scheme. The Pilar was outfitted with a powerful radio, a set of .50-caliber Browning machine guns, grenades, bombs, and a variety of small arms. Martha suspected that it was all just a ruse to fill the Pilar’s tank with strictly rationed wartime gasoline so Hemingway could resume his fishing trips, and in reality the detachment of faux scientists never did encounter a U-boat. But the author’s experiences during that period gave him some terrific material for fiction. The novel that resulted, Islands in the Stream (1970) -- unfinished in his lifetime and only published posthumously -- contains portrayals of tropical seascapes that rank among the best passages of nature writing in fiction. When Martha left to become a war correspondent in London, Hemingway remained in Havana, his drinking on the rise, and the Finca Vigía in a state of increasing disarray. The truth was, he was torn. A part of him felt strongly that he should be following Martha off to the war, but another part was deeply reluctant to leave the place that he’d come to consider home, his beloved cats, his friends, his record player, the long days out on the Pilar, and the mojitos and daiquiris at his Havana haunts. Still, when Collier's offered him a job covering the Allied invasion of Europe, he managed to pull himself together. He placed the cats in good homes and shuttered the Finca Vigía for a long absence. Like many other episodes in his colorful life, Hemingway’s experiences in World War II make for an interesting story, though that story is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that participating in yet another war seemed to give his spirit a fresh infusion, and he returned from Europe in May of 1945 with his fourth wife, Mary Welsh. Together they resumed the wandering life, alternating seasons in Havana and Sun Valley with frequent trips to Africa, Italy, and Spain. The Finca Vigía now had a staff of seven full-time servants and a well-stocked bar and kitchen. Houseguests included Hollywood luminaries such as Gary Cooper and Ava Gardner, whom he’d gotten to know in Sun Valley and from working on the movie versions of For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) and To Have and Have Not (1944). In December of 1950, he finally got around to writing a story he’d long had in mind, about an old fisherman from the Cuban town of Cojímar. He knew the town well; it was where he kept the Pilar, and he was a frequent patron of an eating and drinking establishment called La Terraza, which overlooked the small harbor featured in The Old Man and the Sea (1952), the last major work of fiction published in Hemingway’s lifetime. It won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954, providing a fitting capstone to a great career. Throughout the 1950’s, the author’s health was declining. Worse, he was losing confidence in himself as a writer. In 1953, on safari in Africa, he and Mary were involved in a disastrous double plane crash, and he received a head injury from which he never fully recovered. It’s also fair to assume that his health and mental acuity were adversely affected by long-term alcohol abuse. People who saw him in the latter part of the decade were shocked by how old and frail he looked compared to the image of the vigorous sportsman and war reporter that had taken root the popular imagination. Still, he was managing to live an intermittently happy life, taking special pleasure in the company of the latest generation of the 57 cats that lived at the Finca Vigía during his decades there. “A cat has absolute emotional honesty,” he famously wrote. “Human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feelings, but a cat does not.” 3. The emotions behind Hemingway’s enduring legacy in Cuba click more clearly into focus when you talk to those who knew him when they were young. I spoke to an octogenarian fisherman in Cojímar who’d once been invited up to the Finca Vigía, along with several other young locals, to talk about his daily life and fishing practices, undoubtedly as background research for The Old Man and the Sea or Islands in the Stream. On the way back from his outings in the Pilar, Hemingway would throw towropes to local fishermen, saving them half a week’s wages in valuable gas. Indeed, the author went out of his way to maintain good relations with many working men -- taxi drivers, bartenders, fishermen -- with whom he was more at ease than the awestruck international visitors who were constantly knocking on his door. The Cuban government has honored the author’s memory by preserving the Finca Vigía exactly as it was when he left it in the spring of 1960. It’s a profoundly evocative place. Hemingway’s well-stocked bookshelves are exactly as he kept them; the magazines strewn about the tables are all from 1959 and early 1960. His spectacles lie open on a side table; the typewriter where he worked rests on a shelf; several enormous pairs of shoes hang toe-down in a closet rack. The walls of the pleasantly airy and light-filled house display several of his big game trophies, including the actual physical remains of the animals that played starring roles in “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” (water buffalo), and The Green Hills of Africa (kudu). You can see the author’s handwriting on the bathroom wall, where he periodically inked his fluctuating weight during those difficult waning years. 4. The onset of the Cuban Revolution worried Hemingway -- the explosion of a nearby munitions depot broke windows in the Finca Vigía -- but according to Carlos Baker’s biography he was pleased in January of 1959, when Fulgencio Batista fled the country and Fidel Castro’s bearded revolutionaries rolled in to Havana. Hemingway was disgusted by Batista’s corrupt dictatorship, and he saw the Revolution as a positive change: “I wish Castro all the luck,” he said.  “The Cuban people now have a decent chance for the first time ever.” He did meet Fidel Castro, in November of 1959, at a fishing tournament west of Havana. The young Revolutionary leader won the tournament, and Hemingway presented the trophy. Castro said that he’d kept a copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls in his backpack during the years of guerilla insurgency in the Sierra Maestra, which must have been thrilling for Hemingway to hear. “I always regretted the fact that I didn’t...talk to him about everything under the sun,” Castro later remarked. “We only talked about the fish.” 5. At the Finca Vigía, downhill from the main house through shaded gardens, a walkway leads to the author’s voluminous pool. Drained now, it’s a dangerous-looking abyss, the slanting cement bottom painted blue, blown leaf litter piled in the deep end. Just below the pool, where the tennis court used to be, the Pilar rests in dry dock beneath a high tin roof. Bolted to the top of the boat is Hemingway’s custom-designed flying bridge, where he could steer the yacht and stand lookout for marlin, or U-boats. This few square feet of decking, upon which the author spent so many avid hours, is perhaps the place in Cuba where Hemingway’s troubled ghost bleeds through the thin tissue separating the living from the dead most unmistakably. It’s impossible not to visualize him standing there, gazing out over the prow as he steered the Pilar among the azure channels and white-sand keys of the island’s northern coast, as reflected in this passage from Islands in the Stream: The water was clear and green over the sand and Thomas Hudson came in close to the center of the beach and anchored with his bow almost up against the shore. The sun was up and the Cuban flag was flying over the radio shack and the outbuildings. The signaling mast was bare in the wind. There was no one in sight and the Cuban flag, new and brightly clean, was snapping in the wind. 6. One of the chief traits of Havana that makes it irresistible to visitors is the city’s elegant decay: the fact that its long isolation from the architecture-purging mainstream of the world economy has preserved a striking carapace of multi-layered history. Havana is a kind of massive time capsule in which, depending on the neighborhood, one barely has to squint to be transported back to the 17th century, the Art Deco 1930s, the 1950s gambling era dominated by the American mafia, and of course the forbidden Soviet Cuba of the Cold War. It’s ironic, and perhaps fitting, that Hemingway’s single-minded pursuit of vivid real-life experience that he could immortalize in fiction is what led to him to Havana. Because despite his best efforts, the life could never quite match the intensity of the fiction, and that truth may have contributed to killing him. In Havana, the spirit of Hemingway endures, much like the architecture of the city itself, a fading reminder of what was and what might have been. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Essays

American Contrasts: Poe and Emerson

It's hard to imagine two more different temperaments than those of Edgar Allan Poe and Ralph Waldo Emerson, contemporaries who, even in their own lifetimes, were conceived in opposite terms: darkness and light, illness and health, extreme depression and unbridled optimism, self-destruction and self-affirmation. Emerson was thought to be an emblem of America the Symbol: America the new birth of freedom, the unlimited frontier of possibility. But Poe's surreal, claustrophobic, and weirdly rationalistic American Gothic, his world of vice, madness, and murder somehow put into motion by dark applications of reason, depicts an America that is no less real than Emerson's, though also no more real. Poe was a well-known literary critic, but not so well-known that Emerson -- the most famous and beloved American literary figure of his day -- couldn't afford to ignore him. He did take enough time out to dismiss Poe -- no doubt on the basis of "The Raven" -- as a "jingle man." Like many of the literary lights of the time, he probably regarded Poe as tasteless. For his part, Poe regarded Emerson, with "reverence," as extremely tasteful, and boring in his tastefulness: "It is Taste on her death-bed -- Taste kicking in articulo mortis." Poe portrayed himself as an enemy of the Transcendentalists at least to the extent of often sneering at them. He called Emerson "over-rated" and remarked on the lack of basic logic and rationality in his philosophy. Poe opposed the Transcendentalists' brand of abolitionism and their individualism; he thought they were derivative, harboring plagiarists (Poe saw plagiarism everywhere) and thought Emerson himself a pale imitation of Thomas Carlyle; he sneered at their apparent unanimity, and thought of Concord, Mass., as a nest of overvalued mediocrities. He asserted that Nathaniel Hawthorne was the best writer in America, but urged him, hilariously yet violently, to get the hell out of Concord: "Let him mend his pen, come out from the Old Manse, cut Mr. [Bronson] Alcott, hang (if possible) the editor of 'The Dial', and throw out of the window all his odd numbers of 'The North American Review.'"1 Here is a typical sally of literary brutality directed at Transcendentalist Margaret Fuller and fellow travelers Cornelius Mathews and William Ellery Channing. Miss Margaret Fuller, some time ago, in a silly and conceited piece of Transcendentalism, which she called an “Essay on American Literature,” or something of that kind, had the consummate pleasantry, after selecting from the list of American poets, Cornelius Mathews and William Ellery Channing, for especial commendation, to speak of Longfellow as a booby, and of [James Russell] Lowell as so wretched a poetaster “as to be disgusting even to his best friends.” All this Miss Fuller said, if not in our precise words, still in words quite as much to the purpose. Why she said it, Heaven only knows -- unless it was because she was Margaret Fuller, and wished to be taken for nobody else. Messrs. Longfellow and Lowell, so pointedly picked out for abuse as the worst of our poets, are, upon the whole, perhaps, our best -- although [William Cullen] Bryant, and one or two others are scarcely inferior. As for the two favorites, selected just as pointedly for laudation, by Miss F. -- it is really difficult to think of them, in connexion with poetry, without laughing. Mr. Mathews once wrote some sonnets “On Man,” and Mr. Channing some lines on “A Tin Can,” or something of that kind -- and if the former gentleman be not the very worst poet that ever existed on the face of the earth, it is only because he is not quite so bad as the latter. To speak algebraically: -- Mr. M. is ex ecrable, but Mr. C. is x plus 1-ecrable. Not only does this skewer Fuller's so-Emersonian individualism, but it is written in a style that no Transcendentalist could ever have countenanced: diabolical literary homicide, a darkly hilarious twisting of the blade, redolent of hostility and delight in negation. The Transcendentalists were quite relentlessly affirming. We might compare, from a century later, John Dewey vs. H.L. Mencken: the inspiring optimist and the withering uproarious cynic. Really, no Transcendentalist could have written anything that Poe wrote, at least until the very end of Poe's authorship, as we'll see. He was at once more rationalistic and more pathological than any of them. It is a remarkable combination: surreal psychological horror paired with the remarkably clear deductions of Poe's detectives, scientists, cryptographers, and even of his murderers. His darkest characters examine themselves rationally as psychological case studies. The Transcendentalists wrote to bring light and hope to the world; Poe showed that light makes shadows. Emerson conceived human beings as fragments of a perfectly good God. The following is quite characteristic: As a plant upon the earth, so a man rests upon the bosom of God; he is nourished by unfailing fountains, and draws, at his need, inexhaustible power. Who can set bounds to the possibilities of man? Once inhale the upper air, being admitted the absolute natures of justice and truth, and we learn that man has access to the entire mind of the Creator, is himself the creator in the finite. Poe's view of human nature was quite a bit more....complex. In the crypto-scientific paper/tale of murder "Imp of the Perverse," he asserts that one of the basic human impulses is to do compulsively what is against what is demanded of us, or against our own commitments, or against our own interests. "We act," he writes, "for the reason that we should not...I am not more certain that I breathe, than that the assurance of the wrong or error of any action is often the one unconquerable force which impels us." I imagine the saint and sage of Concord reading that and not knowing what the hell the man was talking about. But of course the yin-yang is a symbol of the interdependence of opposites. At the center of the light is a seed of darkness, and at the center of the darkness a seed of light. Both Poe and Emerson faced the loss of beloved wives (Ellen and Virginia, respectively), Emerson also of his son Waldo. Poe endured the death of almost everyone he ever loved. I think it is not necessarily what they experienced that accounts for the difference of their philosophies, though overall Emerson had the easier road in life (few writers have ever had a harder road than Poe). I think, rather, their respective writerly personae represent what they were as human beings before they ever wrote anything for publication, and embody the strategies they developed to deal with their own suffering: transcending it with hope, or facing it in its every dark twist. In both cases, the intrinsic temperament became a picture of their own nation and of the whole universe. Indeed, Poe's last major work was a very serious theory of everything: the 'prose poem'/story/essay Eureka, in which he advocates -- quite as Emerson might have -- an understanding of the universe based both on the latest science and speculative acts of poetic intuition. He proves the efficacy of this technique, at least as applied by himself, giving what I believe is the first clear statement of the idea of big bang, and a picture of the universe as undergoing cycles of expansion and contraction from a "primordial particle" and back again, under the influence of gravity. Characteristically, he thought the universe is now in its collapsing phase, but uncharacteristically he ecstatically understands the collapse as a unification of all things, all spirits, all bodies, all oppositions, into oneness, and into God. He says that we are fragments of the Divine, being pulled by gravity into unity. And he leaves us with this, after all that terror, self-loathing, and loss: When "the universe of stars" again becomes a singular point, the "myriads of individual Intelligences" will be "blended into One." The sense of individual identity will be gradually merged in the general consciousness -- [and] Man, for example, ceasing imperceptibly to feel himself Man, will at length attain that awfully triumphant epoch when he shall recognize his existence as that of Jehovah. In the meantime bear in mind that all is Life -- Life -- Life within Life -- the less within the greater, and all within the Spirit Divine. It could have been written by Emerson.   1. [The Old Manse was Emerson's childhood home in Concord, then being rented by the Hawthorne family. Bronson Alcott was the Transcendentalist educator and father of Louisa May. The Dial was the Transcendentalist periodical edited by Margaret Fuller and by Emerson himself. The North American Review was published in Massachusetts, perhaps enough to earn this bit of derision.]