The Ouroboros

The Recursive Rhetorical Situation of Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation

After the runaway success of Being John Malkovich, Charlie Kaufmann turns the focus of his next film not on his ostensive subject, Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, but on himself, dissecting and examining the creative process while trying to adapt an unadaptable book into a film. He paints a portrait of the artist caught in paroxysms of self-doubt, as though he is indeed an insect under the entomologist’s knife. Sweaty, pacing, cowardly with women and in the face of any intimations of joy, the Charlie Kaufman of the film casts his doleful eyes around in paranoid terror while a running inner dialogue hounds his ambient environment. Such a pathetic specimen won’t be well-liked by the audience, so Charlie gives himself a gentler, more centered but commercially-oriented twin brother Donald as a foil. As Charlie, literate and patronizing at first, falls under the influenced by his naïve, puppyish brother, the film’s plot changes direction, veering from an artistic, abstract, pretentious exploration of humans and flowers to an action-driven romantic thriller.

After Donald enters the scene, the movie proliferates with foils. Like the time-lapse photography of plants rearing from the ground, foils begin to grow everywhere, even out of the corpses of previously real-to-life characters. Indeed, the further we get into the plot, the more each character, whether real or imagined, appears to be Kaufman in another guise. They begin as themselves because Kaufman is struggling to see his characters as discrete beings with subjective inner lives, but by the end they are helplessly inducted into his psyche. Even his real-life subject Orlean (played luminously by Meryl Streep) and her subject, the eccentric horticulturalist John Larouche, both end up as phantoms of Kaufman himself, with the former an embodiment of the artist’s sad, luxuriant yearning for Truth and Beauty, and the latter as the incarnation of Kaufman who is pushy and crass, preferring action to self-pity, who has passion and drive and is unflinchingly himself, accepting good and bad alike.

Solipsistic? Definitely. Ego-maniacal? Perhaps. But the film’s solipsism has a point. I am reminded of the quotation, attributed (perhaps apocryphally) to Winston Churchill that “It doesn’t take all kinds, there just are all kinds.” While each character ranges from pathetic to loathsome to unrealistically pure and good, none is complete unto herself. But taken in aggregate, the viewer cannot help but think that it does indeed take all kinds to get a film out of an author and into the world. If the film chronicles the creative process in all its agony and ecstasy, then it pushes acceptance, flexibility, and fusion—adaptation—as the engine that drives creativity. The central drama of the film is not whether Orlean will find the elusive ghost orchid; nor whether she will become a drug addict or ruin her life through her affair with Larouche; nor whether Charlie will overcome his fear of both failure and happiness and “get the girl”; nor whether Donald will wise up to his brother’s resentment. Rather, all aspects of a single person are needed to finish the script, which is the film’s central problem that must be solved (and the viewer is watching the finished product—she knows it happens—but that knowledge does little to undercut the tension). It isn’t the tropes of film genre that drive the action—not the guns, car crashes, deaths, chase sequences, though the film has all those. They feel artificial by design, a scaffold to support the true drama. Time is the enemy that dogs the author—he’s past his deadline, he’s written nothing—and time that creates the plot’s propulsive energy.

So Kaufman needs to adapt to succeed. He needs to adapt the book into a film, sure, but the adaptation he truly needs is personal and mimics the evolution of flowers to make their own niche within the specifics limitations of their environments. Kaufman needs to understand and work within his rhetorical situation, though he doesn’t actually find it until the end. He needs to broker an accord between the aspects of his personality. What we are watching is a film about the artistic process, and the way artists write (or paint or play or nurture) their way into their own rhetorical situations, and the film honors and lampoons this process in equal measure. The story finds its own center through recursive experimentation and iteration, many abandoned and left behind. It’s no wonder the film posters show Kaufman as a plant falling out of a broken flower pot. A final reclamation of sorts happens at the very end, and indicates to the viewer that success has been achieved; voiceovers, so prevalent at the start of the film, stop abruptly when the crusty screenwriting guru Robert McKee says in a lecture “Never use voiceover,” but the final image of the film is of a smiling Kaufman in his car, talking to himself in voiceover and accepting it as his own artistic choice. He has adapted, and the serpent of the film has circled around to grasp its own tail. The book has been adapted, sort of. We can now let time go, landing on a final image of time-lapse flowers growing and dying in front of a backdrop of city traffic.

Evolution achieved.

In Exemplo Est

The Treachery of Art in the Story of Byblis

Byblis in exemplo est, ut ament concessa puellae,
— Ovid, Metamorphoses

“Byblis is a warning,” Ovid asserts in the opening lines of his tale of Byblis “in order that young girls might love lawfully.”[1] Or, as Horace Gregory translates (losing a great deal of the meaning), “That is a story of how girls should not fall in love at all” (Gregory, Myers, 244).

However we translate it, the opening lines lead readers to anticipate a cautionary tale about forbidden love. But Byblis is in Book Nine of Metamorphoses, so by now we’re well acquainted with Ovid’s sly humor, and we know he doesn’t suffer laws or taboos gladly. We trust that he’ll ultimately undermine that Byblis is in exemplo, at least about unlawful love. Indeed, he does make Byblis—desperately in love with her twin brother—a cautionary tale. But the warning concerns art, not the sin of incest. Like the author, Byblis is an artist. Words are her currency. Through his brilliant narration, Ovid works a considerable amount of dramatic irony into the framework of the story, distancing us from his subject. But some of the most powerful scenes are the scenes when we feel closest to Byblis, when Ovid throws his ventriloquist’s voice into her mouth. She becomes a sort of doppelganger for Ovid, and she, like Ovid later in his life, takes the hit for being too artful, too rhetorically slick. Ovid’s Byblis, when she speaks, is a rich, relatable heroine whose very self-doubt wins reader’s hearts and minds, even though her argument is unsupportable. Like Macbeth (who can credit Byblis as an antecedent), she is a master equivocator, talking herself—and sometimes her readers—into some pretty shady seduction plans. The story is not without meta-irony: Ovid himself was banished on account of his own excessive rhetorical artistry some time after the publication of his Metamorphoses, when his writing was considered subversive enough to be treasonous.

Byblis knows that her desires are transgressive. But she is such a skilled wordsmith that she talks herself into a disastrous course of action. She builds and keeps the sympathy of her readers with a surfeit of skill, even as we understand that her venture is doomed. We can’t condone the incest, but by the end of the myth, by the time the repeatedly spurned Byblis is metamorphosed into a fountain, we feel almost wholesale sympathy for her. Her most indignant detractors must confess that by the end that they admire and pity her. Indeed, such is the power of her rhetoric and the beauty of her words, that her brother Caunus is the only character unmoved by her suffering. Byblis is indeed in exemplo. Her tale cautions against self-delusion: beware, young girl, of your creative artistry! Morality, for the artist, is a semi-permeable boundary, across which she can venture, but at her own peril.

When we meet Byblis, she is an innocent. She doesn’t at first identify her feelings for Caunus as love. She doesn’t question the kisses and embraces that she gives her brother, a little too frequently and lingeringly:

Illa quidem primo nullos intellegit ignes,
Nec peccare putat, quod saepius oscula iungat,
Quod sua fraterno circumdet brachia collo:
Mendacique diu pietatis fallitur umbra. (9.457-60) 

At first she did not think such heat was love.
Although her greatest pleasure was to play
A game at kissing him, her arms around his neck.
She thought these gestures sisterly affection (Gregory, Myers, 244).

Soon she comes to understand her blossoming sexuality. Ovid makes use of a familiar puberty trope to do this. But while such desire for Apollonian young men befits girls Byblis’ age, her lust transgresses: neither contemporary readers nor Roman ones could condone sex between twins. And her sexual fantasies are all the more forbidden because they lurk under the guise of familial piety. But little by little, “declinat Amor” (9.461), “love goes astray,” and Byblis has troubling and prurient dreams: “…visa est quoque iungere fratri / corpus et erubuit, quamvis sopita iacebat” (9.470-1): “Often she saw her body joined to her brother.” Even in innocent sleep she blushes because she understands the fundamental taboo. No translation I’ve encountered makes proper use of the past participle “sopita,” which connotes being knocked out by a blow, indicating the strength of Byblis’ passion. When she wakes, she charms her readers by examining her feelings carefully, and balancing them against the social reality. In “Ovid Through Shakespeare: The Divided Self,” Edward Milowicki and Rawdon Wilson discuss the social construct surrounding transgression myths, and assert that “…characters reflect, or otherwise mirror, a public reality accessible on its own terms outside of the text and… the most valid analysis [of it] would follow an empirical-descriptive method…” (Milowicki, Rawdon, 218). Byblis has too much integrity to ignore a personal truth, and sets about weighing her desires against the empiricism of her social reality. But she has too little integrity to hide her feelings when they are balanced and found lacking. Such is the conundrum of the poet! She indulges an impulse that will destroy her: her skill at manipulating truth to justify her actions. She draws upon her treasury of words to explore the limits of her desire and the ramifications of crossing them. Then, through a series of recursive arguments, she slowly inoculates herself against doubt.

Her argument follows a cyclical, rather than linear, trajectory. Concentric circles of logic ripple from the center. The outermost line of reasoning concerns the appropriateness of the match. She dismisses the matter of blood:

O ego, si liceat mutato nomine iungi,
Quam bene, Caune, tuo poteram nurus esse parenti
Quam bene, Caune, meo poteras gener esse parenti (9.487-9).

 If, by changing my name, I were permitted to marry you
What a perfect daughter-in-law I might make for your parent, Caunus
Caunus, what a perfect son-in-law you might make for mine.

The subjunctive mood captures her agony: on balance, their shared blood is the only obstacle standing in the way of their union. Instead of making one another’s fathers happy by the match, they must share a father.

Next, Byblis finds a precedent for incest. The Gods frequently marry their sisters, including Saturnus and Jupiter. She acknowledges that humans are bound to different laws than gods, but leaves the question open-ended as to why: “…Quid ad caelestia ritus / exigere humanos diversaque foedera tempto?” (9.500-1): “The gods / Have other laws than ours: how can I balance / Human mores against them?” (Gregory, Myers, 245). In asking “quid”, she highlights their hypocrisy. Why, she asks, may the gods do as they like? Is there any compelling reason for humans not to follow their example?

After such equivocation, she worries that Caunus might share her feelings, but perhaps they’re both too ashamed to admit to them. She reasons that were the roles reversed, and he came wooing her, she wouldn’t dream of turning him away, incest notwithstanding. Thus, she cannot imagine the worst—his utter rejection of her. To fail to speak, she thinks, would injure her more than the consequences of a confession:

Sit tamen ipse mei captus prior esset amore,
Forsitan illius possem indulgere furori
Ergo ego, Quae fueram non reiectura petentem,
Ipsa petam…! (9.511-12)

If he were already captured by love of me,
Maybe I would be able to indulge this madness
Therefore, since I would never reject him if he came wooing
I myself must woo…!

Here we realize her error in judgment. She’ll never win with these arguments. But we can’t help but admire her passion and skill as a rhetorician, even if she is motivated by self-deception.

Finally, she decides that while shame might hold her tongue, she can still rely on the persuasive powers of her writing. She commits her feelings, in all their circularity, to a letter for her brother. The letter, we sense, is the agent of her ruin.

Here Ovid showcases his own writing chops with a verbal portrait that could be called “Woman in Doubt.” In the word-picture he paints, we warm to Byblis, albeit with extreme ambivalence. Ovid portrays an artist’s exquisite agony over crafting the perfect prose. Almost every word is a verb of doubting and hesitating, proviso, negotiation, translation. She pours in concentration over her artful letter. Byblis starts, stops, condemns and approves of her words:

Incipit et dubitat, scribit damnatque tabellas,
Et notat et delet, mutat culpatque probatque
Inque vicem sumptas ponit positasque resumit (9.523-5).

She began, and then doubted what she’d written
She wrote, and then cursed the words.
She inscribed and erased, and changed, condemned, approved.
As soon as she picked the tablets up, she put them back down.
Putting them down, she picked them back up.

By switching to the point of view of omniscient narrator, Ovid allows for dramatic irony. We see Byblis is in pain. Her hesitation makes her human. She is clever and well-spoken. Nevertheless, we see what she can’t: that her gamble will fail. Not because it is immoral (for love in this story is amoral), but because she has credited the world—and her brother—with greater sensitivity than they deserve. We watch her agonize over the letter, knowing it will be poorly received. We know this not even having met Caunus. The reader watches her scribble in the wax in horror, praying for her to change her mind.

The logic of the letter follows a circular course, mirroring her private thoughts. In the letter she touches upon a new key point: She assumes that Caunus will care more about saving her from suffering than about rules. He could have read her feelings, she says, had he been attentive to her pallor and her thinness and her perpetually-wet eyes, and all those un-sisterly kisses. Moreover, she assures him that,

…Non hoc inimica precatur
Sed quae, cum tibi sit iunctissima, iunctior esse
Expetit et venclo tecum prepriore ligari” (9.548-50)

…It’s not an enemy imploring you
But the girl who is now the most joined to you,
Seeking to be joined by an even tighter chain.

She concludes the letter with a plea that he not reject her and be the cause of the inscription on her tomb. A manipulative move, and one that further complicates our feelings about her. She hands the tablets over to a trembling slave, saying, “…Fer has, fidissime, nostro” / Dixit , et adiecit longo post tempore “fratri.” (“’Most faithful servant, carry these to my—‘ and she waited a long time before adding, ‘—brother.’”) As she hands the tablets over, they clatter to the ground. This is a sure omen. Her endeavor will fail. Byblis’ failure in logic is that she, an artist, anticipates an artist’s response: she can’t imagine Caunus’ hardheartedness. She typifies the trope of the artist, misunderstood in an artless world.

For all the text’s circularity, the letter stands in as the central element. It’s the story’s concretization of the character’s desire and struggle. The tale is organized around the letter as an object. It is, in fact, the only real cause of harm for her. Her fantasies (as all fantasies) are morally neutral, and the text goes so far as to suggest that unspoken desire is natural: to “put it in writing” is where it gets sticky. In “The Writing in (and of) Ovid’s Byblis Episode”, Thomas E. Jenkins creates the below schema to illustrate the organizing power of the letter in a text otherwise circular and cyclical:

455-473: Introduction: Byblis’ dream and desire for her brother
            474-516: Internal monologue of Byblis and the conception of the letter
                      517-563: The composition of the letter                     
530-584: The secret letter of Byblis
                        564-584: The delivery and rejection of the letter
            585-629: Internal monologue of Byblis and regret over the letter
630-665: Conclusion: rejection of Byblis’ desire and metamorphosis (Jenkins, 440).

We have seen the verse take a circular form that mimics the inner workings of the human mind, recursively (somewhat monomaniacally) hashing and rehashing the same evidence to construct an airtight argument that is impervious to reality. But, as noted above, the structure of the story as a whole is highly organized. The moment Byblis releases the letter into the world, she truly dooms herself and her endeavor. It is like her desires have tremendous potential energy. As long as they remain in her fevered brain, they can do no harm. But the moment she releases the tablets into the hands of her trembling slave, they fall, giving a sure omen that they have become harmful kinetic energy. Next, we leave Byblis for the first (and last) time and follow the slave. We finally meet Caunus. We aren’t impressed. We realize the scope of Byblis’ mistake. Caunus is not a poet, and shows himself to be pitiless and obsessed with decorum:

Vixque manus retinens trepidantis ab ore ministri,
'Dum licet, o vetitae scelerate libidinis auctor,
Effuge!' ait 'qui, si nostrum tua fata pudorem
Non traherent secum, poenas mihi morte dedisses.' (9.574-9)

Scarcely restraining his hand from the trembling slave’s face
He says “Flee while you can, Pimp: I would kill you now
If your death wouldn’t drag my good name down with it.”

Caunus is an ambassador from a world without art. His icy—even violent—response to Byblis, although he has the moral high ground, causes readers to side even more dramatically and compassionately with infelix Byblis. Her brother loses our sympathy most when mere etiquette keeps him from killing the messenger. He stays his hand only because it would drag his shame down with him (note his use of the word “shame” in line 9.579 as compared with Byblis’ gentle concern that shame was holding her mouth. The two verbs, “tenabit” and “traherent” illustrate the differences in the roles of shame in their twin lives, and the use and purpose of words for them both).

The last portion of the poem involves Byblis’ struggle with her passion in the face of violent rejection. Caunus is in a rage. Byblis pales and briefly regrets the letter and the feelings, but slowly they creep back into her mind. She allows them to enter, and soon indulges them again:

…neque enim est de tigride natus
Nec rigidas silices solidumve in pectore ferrum
Aut adamanta gerit, nec lac bibit ille leaenae.
Vincetur! (9.613-17)

                                    …Dear Caunus

Is not a tiger’s cub, nor is his heart steel-bound
Or cut from rock, nor did a lioness
Give him her breast to suck. He will be won! (Gregory, Myers, 249).

Once again, she makes the argument that Caunus cannot possibly be as cruel as the evidence has proven he is. Perhaps, she suggests, it was the fault of the slave, who approached him at an inopportune time, or perhaps she chose the wrong day (these poor, poor slaves!) “Byblis,” says Jenkins, “blames not the unpalatable message, but the medium of writing itself” (Jenkins, 447).

Perhaps, she laments, were she to have seen him in person, he would have been won over by her. If she used more ambiguous words, equivocated better, he would have been convinced. If her stratagem were sounder, he would be her lover. We know her cause is hopeless, but we watch her commit herself to further humiliations. She is so good with words that she can still talk herself into actions that work against her own self-interest. Ovid is not telling a cautionary tale about loving appropriately, but about the misappropriation of art. One suspects that Byblis might have left herself less vulnerable if she spoke less well, and didn’t have the skill to convince herself of anything.

Ovid’s Byblis transgresses. The reader must agree with the odious Caunus on this. Byblis has an irrepressible desire for something society can’t allow her to have. Ovid, in his fashion, sets us up to expect a cautionary tale about loving unlawfully. But while “Byblis in exemplo est,” his thesis doesn’t concern lawful loving. Ovid is neutral about incest and doesn’t explore the ethics of incest taboos. He merely exploits them to create tension in the story. He endows his doppelganger-poet with so sympathetic a voice that we root for her. After being spurned, Byblis wanders the wilderness, tearing the clothes from her breast and wailing. We feel her tragedy acutely. The story does not focus on the sin. It focuses on the triumphs—and the pitfalls—of rhetorical dexterity. Byblis uses her talent to inoculate herself against the doubt she should feel. Her creativity parallels—unwittingly perhaps—her creator’s talent. Ovid uses the tools of omniscient narrator, combined with his signature ventriloquism, to persuade title character and reader alike into thinking that what she desires is above morality. Our desires, Ovid warns, if artfully enough expressed, can override ethics. He warns the artist, therefore, about what happens if they fail to anticipate a world hostile to art. Given his imminent banishment, he might have learned better from his own cautionary tale!

Cited Sources 

Jenkins, Thomas E., “The Writing in (and of) Ovid’s Byblis episode”, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol. 100, (2000), 440

Milowicki, Edward J., Wilson, R. Rawdon, “Ovid Through Shakespeare: The Divided Self”. Poetics Today, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Summer, 1995). 218

Ovid. Metamorphoses: Book 6-10. Anderson, William Scovil, ed. University of Oklahoma Press: Norman.  1972. 119

Ovid, The Metamorphoses. Horace Gregory, and Sara Myers, trans. Signet Classics. New York: New American Library. 2009. 244

[1] Unattributed translations are the author’s own

Sympathy for the Devil

Did I request thee Maker, from my clay
To mould me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?”
— Satan, Paradise Lost, John Milton

Knowledge smarts. Knowledge has consequences.

In John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan tempts Adam and Eve with the apple, and mankind is banished from the Garden of Eden, burdened with the gift—and the curse—of knowledge. “…The day ye eat thereof,” says the serpent to Eve of the tree of knowledge, “then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil” (Milton 131-2). Once she takes the fateful bite, there’s no return to innocence: some things can’t be unlearned. John Milton’s Satan is a familiar agent provocateur, offering his familiar quid pro quo—wisdom for the loss of innocence.

Until Milton adapted the monster for his own purposes, Satan spent centuries as an archetype, personifying evil, mutiny and original sin in the Abrahamic religions. But he wasn’t static. He evolved along with the cultures that spawned him, engaging with their evolving fears. This is what monsters do: they mirror back the dread and desire of a culture in flux. In Paradise Lost, Satan is a fiend uniquely situated in his time and place: post-medieval England, when European society was unhooking itself from the constraints of papal Christianity, embracing rationalism, and asserting its sovereignty over nature—each a bite of the "fruit of knowledge.” Milton's Satan represents the consequence of this pursuit. He stands at the crossroads, finger crooked, beckoning. He ushers us out of the garden and into a new era of empirical science and self-determination—one from which we can never return. Milton's Satan is an heroic anti-hero, the perfect Renaissance monster, at once embodying freedom from God and the alienation that such freedom creates. He is prophetic, revealing the anxieties and priorities of a society at the precipice of modernity.

In “Monster Culture: Seven Theses,” Jeffry Jerome Cohen explores the role of monsters in their historical contexts. He thinks monsters tell the story of, “…a certain cultural moment… a time, a feeling and a place” (4), the specific, unvoiced fears and longings of the culture that created them. Monsters are made of the stuff we are afraid we are—or are becoming—the "…loci that are rhetorically placed as distant and distinct but originate Within” (Cohen 7) They are used, Cohen suggests, to give voice to our own unutterable selves. The monster “…polices the borders of the possible” (12), delineating the morals we most long to violate, but that we’re not quite ready to give up. We’re anxious and excited that the monster refuses to conform to society’s moral guidelines. He challenges—frighteningly but necessarily—the notion that morality is universal, static in time and space. Through the proxy of the monster, society explores its taboos, enjoys the "freedom from constraint" of breaking them, and then delights in the punishment of the transgressor, a transgressor that is really our disguised selves. He is both projected wish and cautionary tale. "We distrust the monster," says Cohen, "at the same time we envy its freedom and perhaps its sublime despair" (17). The monster is a sort of mass cultural id, "[Inhabiting] the gap between the time of upheaval that created it and the moment into which it is received…" (4). In retrospect, we can see the monster is a prophecy of what man was becoming.

Milton wrote Paradise Lost in the middle of great political and economic upheaval, and much of the anxieties of the era centered on religion. The influence of religion over the spheres of politics, economics and education was beginning to fray. Previously, faith and God, via the leadership of the Catholic Church, had the final vote on society’s decisions. The Renaissance marked the emergence of Reason, not God, as a prime mover. Paradise Lost, says David Hawkes in an introduction to the book, “…tells of how the universe that God made came to be alien to Him, and how it came to seem autonomous and self-generating to its inhabitants” (xxx). To account for new findings in science, the invention of labor economics and the schism between religion and politics, man had to change the way he interpreted the bible. As the various spheres rent apart, says Hawkes, we felt the growing pains of our chaotic new weltanschaung, and Satan, our reliable monster, could be found everywhere. He was in the banker seeking the pound of flesh; he oiled and turned the gears of the new machines; in the sciences, he plucked God from nature’s equations. Without God, man feared an inevitable moral decay. “The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,” says Hawkes, “witnessed a pan-European…panic over what was perceived as Satan’s vastly increased practical power in the world (xxxii). That power represented an autonomy that many feared might make God superfluous to man.

In Paradise Lost, Satan claims independence from his creator—a grave sin in the God’s eyes—and is cast from heaven. He is richly conflicted, tortured with doubt and loneliness. He is, paradoxically, the truly human character of the story. In response to the pain of God’s rejection, he laments;

Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep
Still threat’ning to devour me, opens wide,
To which the hell I suffer seems a heaven (109).

He has traded in God’s love for an independent and self-determined future. He questions his very existence: even as he hatches the prideful, self-consciously rebellious plot to tempt Adam and Eve out of the Garden, he longs for the God he has alienated. "Oh then at last repent:" he implores God, "Is there no place left for repentance? None for pardon left?" (109) Upon seeing the beauty of the garden and the innocence of Adam and Eve, he is overcome with envy: "Sight hateful, sight tormenting,” he says while he watches them, "Thus these two / Imparadised in one another's arms… Shall enjoy their fill of bliss on bliss: while I to hell am thrust" (124). Like Satan, Enlightenment man traded God's unconditional love for the ambiguity—and isolation—of science and rational self-interest: the darkness of ignorance for the blinding light of Reason. We relate to the despair that Satan feels, at the same time we reject and hate him.

Satan stands at a teleological crossroads, or, as Cohen puts it, he possesses an “ontological liminality” (14). On the one side, man’s purpose is related to a divine plan. On the other, he claims the right to fulfill his own potential. The former is God's mysterious way: the latter, Satan's eternal font of self-referential knowledge. "Knowledge forbidden?" says the devil of the tree of knowledge, "Suspicious, reasonless" (Milton 124) Later, he refers to the apple as powerful and virtuous: “Oh Sacred, wise and wisdom-loving plant / Mother of science, now I feel thy power / Within me clear…” (Milton 285). Monsters, says Cohen, “…bear self-knowledge—human knowledge, and a discourse all the more sacred as it arises from the Outside” (20). It is obvious that Satan bears human knowledge: he is the consequence for choosing knowledge over faith, superstition, and the capriciousness of an inexplicable God. Satan’s fall from grace demonstrates the penalty we pay if we step outside our boundaries, if we abandon God for what Hawkes refers to as self-worship (xxxii). With this penalty—original sin and the isolation of individualism—come great rewards, in the form of progress, prosperity and the joys of self-determination.

But in following Satan, we trade something precious and irredeemable. We become Satan, that proud, independent, self-deifying monster. When we go the way of the monster, says Cohen, we risk "… attack by some monstrous border patrol or (worse) to become monstrous [ourselves]" (12). The apple allows man "…Not only to discern / Things in their causes, but to trace the way / Of highest agents, deem'd however wise (Milton 285). Now, post-apple, nature and our minds belong to us, and not to God. We lose God’s tyranny, but also his fatherly love. The monster, a bit more individual than we are allowed to be, reveals to us what we are becoming. Cohen perches the monster on a metaphorical edge, always standing “…at the threshold… of becoming” (20).

Cohen highlights the eroticism and eeriness of the monster, the terror and pleasure we suck from its bones. But he also implies that monsters have practical powers of prediction. Think: in the clarity of the garden, one can almost see the apple, after Eve bites into it, dropping into the real world, into Milton’s world. Impelled downward by gravity for twenty years, it lands on the head of Isaac Newton and becomes immortalized, once again, in his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica. Satan has shown us how to be lords in our own garden. “To reign is worth ambition though in hell:” he says, “Better to reign in hell, than serve in heav'n" (Milton 19). And he almost persuades us (or, at least, he predicts what will soon be persuasive to us). Stripped of the necessity to fulfill our duty to God, we’re free to improve our own lives. The unprecedented American Revolution mirrors Satan's rebellion. Other revolutions follow from Satan's trailblazing: the industrial revolution; the adoption of scientific empiricism; the new, self-generating attribute of money; belief in a heliocentric universe; the transition from agrarian to labor economies—all the changes that make modern man able to reconstruct himself and his society in his own image.

Satan, that sad and incandescent villain, shows humans the lonely way to independence. His egoism mirrors the desires and fears of his time and place. But he warns us too: freedom is not just a happy state: it comes with a cargo of agonies and doubts. Satan, a perfect distillation of Cohen’s monster thesis, stands at the threshold of the industrial revolution. He represents more than fear and desire: he tells the future; he represents what a culture is becoming; rejecting the old morals for a new set, he tempts man to do the same. And so modern man limps forward on his own two feet, freighted with the atomizing ideas of the Enlightenment, perhaps longing still for the garden. Satan might have caused this sorry state for man, but he suffered the same fate. The expulsion of Adam and Eve—An echo of Satan’s expulsion from heaven—can be understood as the pain of trading blissful ignorance for progress: the delicious terror of individualism.

Works Cited

American Bible Society, The King James Bible: Genesis., (Sept. 23, 2008)

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome, “Monster Culture: Seven Theses.” Monster Theory: Reading Culture. Ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 1995.

Hawkes, David, Introduction: Paradise Lost. Barnes and Noble, New York, NY, 2004.

Milton, John, Paradise Lost. Barnes and Noble, New York, NY, 2004.

The Gospel Truth

The New Testament makes a radical break from the Old.

Just how radical? That is the question, one with different answers according to the different authors of the Gospels. Rather than endeavoring to understand God’s relationship with a select group of chosen followers (the primary preoccupation of the Old Testament), the New Testament concerns itself with the unification of all people under the worship of God’s semi-human ambassador, Jesus of Nazareth. The Hebrew Bible continually sets the Israelites apart from other tribes and races, reinforcing their exalted status in the eyes of a sometimes-approving, sometimes-punishing deity. It spends a lot of airtime punishing Israelite attempts to forge connections, political and familial, with outsiders—condemning miscegenation and reliance on foreign powers as expedient allies, for their tendency to become God’s competition. Christianity places Jesus in this continuum while opening the religion to converts. Thus, authors of the New Testament Gospels were under dual pressures to make Jesus’ teachings relevant to Jews raised on the Tanakh’s messianic prophesies and to Gentiles raised on entirely different worldviews, with different pantheons and teleologies. Each of the Gospels—Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John (for that is the likely order in which they were written)—reflects shifting needs in the establishment of an organized church, responding to the unique demands and conflicts of its time, location, and target population it addresses. While some, such as Matthew, endeavor to forge connections between Old Testament stories, prophesies, and preoccupations, making Jesus into the fulfillment of earlier promises, others, such as Luke, focus on Jesus’ proselytizing as a model for the church’s missionary purpose. All the Gospels are needed, however, to define and inculcate the meaning of a new religion of unification; they are the connective tissue between the old and the new, between disparate classes, cultures, and races, and together they create a religion of truly global scope.

One way to account for the differences between the Gospels is the fact that from their first telling to their canonization, the stories of Jesus’ life and teachings transitioned from oral traditions to codified written ones. In “Can the Gospels Be Trusted?” Reverend Samuel McComb observes that “More than a Generation separated the writers from the facts,” and very little was written before the Gospels (347). In an oral history, there is inevitable slippage between one teller and another, even more so as the original stories were translated into different languages. Further, the same stories take on various meanings and emphases as they are adapted for one audience to the next. What makes sense, for instance, to an illiterate rural cStephommunity would necessarily need to be changed to appeal to an educated urban elite. In a period of transition from oral accounts to writing, we might expect legends to creep in to the historical text, and meanings to shift in response to the needs of a changing church. In Understanding the Bible, Stephen L. Harris notes that, “Until a tradition is finally fixed in writing, it is characterized by extreme fluidity, changing with each fresh recitation,” and the Gospels, in aggregate, are this kind of text, containing “a wide range of variation in what appear to have been the same sayings” (328). For instance, Matthew credits Jesus with saying that “whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Matt. 12:30). Mark records an opposite—and, one could argue, mutually exclusive—contention with, “Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40). This discrepancy suggests not that one Evangelist was lying or incorrect: rather, it points to differences in the ways individuals interpreted or translated an oral saying. Matthew’s author was addressing Jews who were raised on stories of their own uniqueness in God’s eyes, and so his interpretation reflects this exclusivity. Luke’s audience, on the other hand, are Gentiles, being welcomed into Jesus’ ministry, so the message is one of universality. Whatever Jesus actually said, the world is richer, not poorer, for these disparate interpretations.

In addition to the natural evolution of orally-transmitted stories, we might examine the order in which the Gospels were written—as opposed to the order in which they appear—to provide some clues as to why they diverge. According to Harris, Mark’s is the oldest (though it appears second in the Gospels themselves), and is known as the “wartime” Gospel, written between 66-70 CE (328). It is terse, to the point, and draws a relationship between Jesus’ holy suffering and the suffering of the Jews around the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Next were the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, composed between 80-90 CE, who expand, in the leisure of peacetime, on Mark and the recorded sayings of Jesus. They each adapt their styles to their target audiences. Matthew generates links to Isaiah and other Old Testament Prophets, while Luke’s style enfranchises other races and cultures, redefining God’s “chosen people” as all people who worship Jesus. John, which diverges dramatically from the synoptic Gospels, was composed between 90-100 CE, and is much more preoccupied with establishing Jesus as the Son of God, thus splitting irrevocably from what came before. John’s author tells the stories with a greater emphasis on Christ’s exceptionality in history, and “The extent to which John depicts the mortal Jesus as already manifesting divinity is unique to his Gospel” (Harris 323). Thus, we see an increasing emphasis on Jesus as an infallible, supernatural entity. We see Him in the increasing splendor of his divinity, until His greatness can hardly be contained within the pages of the book. John’s author concludes his account with the words, “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I supposed that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25). By now, Jesus has grown larger than life. The dilation of Jesus from a very special man who exists along the continuum of the Old Testament prophets to the end-all-and-be-all of the Christian faith—the single point of human access to the divine—is a journey readers trace when reading the Gospels chronologically.

While the discrepancies between the Gospels might cause skepticism among those of us raised on modern concepts of scientific and empirical truth, the New Testament feels like a more honest account of humanity’s struggle with meaning than a contemporary biography, with its emphasis on confirmed fact and citation. McComb goes so far as to say that the search for truth originates in disagreement—indeed, needs disagreement. He notes that “law-courts resound daily with… contradictions [like those in the Gospels], yet nobody think of giving up the search for truth and justice” (349). His point is well-taken. In Matthew, the author offers an anecdote about Jesus’ comments at a wedding, focusing on the expulsion of inappropriate guests to illustrate that, in the end, “many are called, but few are chosen” (Matt. 22:14). Luke, on the other hand, wants the wedding to be a metaphor for how all are welcomed to the metaphorical wedding: “when you give a banquet,” he says, “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:13-14). The actual events of an actual wedding are, at this point, immaterial. The meaning we make of these accounts are all that is important. In the distinction between these two wedding accounts, we see Matthew’s author upholding the Old Testament tradition of group cohesion and rule-following. Luke, the author of which never claims to be an eye-witness to this wedding, and has already seen the effects of Christ’s teachings on converts, represents the aims of a church that wishes to welcome the whole world to salvation. McComb smells a rat in unbroken consensus, saying, “substantial truth in circumstantial variety is so much the character of human testimony that any exact agreement of witnesses is regarded with suspicion” (349). The disagreement between the Gospels makes him trust them more, not less.

All Gospels agree that “Jesus was not an ordinary figure of history but a person of supernatural abilities whose teachings and sacrificial death had the power to confer salvation and immortality on those who believed in him” (Harris 322). McComb contends that the picture of Jesus that emerges from the Gospels is actually quite unified. In his words, Jesus is:

A true Son of Man, who… was the consistent foe of materialism and conventionality in religion… [and] the true servant of humanity who loved all men with a sacred passion in the strength of which on their behalf he laid down his life (350).

Indeed, the variety within the Gospels likely accounts, in part, for Christianity’s rise in the world: they have a little something for everyone. They diverge, but are holistic in their rendering of their holy figure. “Each Evangelist,” says Harris, “arranges his story of Jesus primarily to convey a particular understanding of Jesus’ theological significance” (324), though the centrality of Jesus is key to all the Gospels. Says McComb: “Matthew’s picture [of Jesus] is ‘prophetic,’ Mark’s is ‘realistic,’ Luke’s is ‘idealistic;’ yet these are not three pictures but one” (350). A unified church, a unified portrait, the Gospels nevertheless allow for a flexible interpretation of Christ’s divinity and message, and thus pave the way for the establishment of a new, profoundly different church, connected to, but radically distinctive from, what came before.

Works Cited

Behan, Warren Palmer. “The Trustworthiness of the Gospels—A Brief Catechism.” The Biblical World, Vol. 26, No. 5, Nov. 1905, pp. 364-77.

Harris, Steven L. Understanding the Bible, 8th Edition. New York: The McGraw Hill Publishing Group, Inc., 2011.

McComb, Samuel. “Can the Gospels Be Trusted?” The Biblical World, Vol. 30, No. 5, Nov. 1907, pp. 346-51.

The New Oxford Annotated Bible. Edited by Michael T. Coogan et al. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007.

Shored Against Our Ruins

One of the cleverest attributes of T. S. Eliot’s iconic poem The Waste Land is the tension between the chaos of its textural surface and the order of its underlying structure. This tension perches the poem precariously between the World Wars, as on the one hand it frets over the loss of unity that art and mythology provide—focusing on the ruin of society, and the “modern” ascendency of meaninglessness—and, on the other, anticipates (some might argue overmuch) the “aestheticization of politics” tendered by fascism and the second World War. Perhaps this is the reason there is so much critical ambivalence toward the poem. The period between the wars, in Eliot’s estimation, resembles the blighted earth after trench warfare, psychologically barren and devoid of pleasure, for the poem’s characters certainly, but also, maybe, for its readers. But look closer: What appears at first to be a trash heap of the useless shards of Western Civilization—used in the deployment of a meaningless irony so in step with interbellum fashions—becomes, under scrutiny, the attempt to resurrect our old coordinating myths and belief systems. These fragments, “shored against [our] ruins” (Eliot 42), become a radical innovation: A Modernist clockwork that serves to reinstate a more organic cultural grand narrative—that advocates for a synthesis of tradition and modernity.

Many readers don’t—or can’t—get past the poem’s surface. In “The Waste Land Reconsidered,” Lewis Turco describes his first reaction to the poem: it “seemed obscure, confusing, pretentious, pompous, artsy-craftsy” (289). This perfectly describes my own initial reaction to it, and the reaction of students and critics everywhere. Why jumble all this high and low art into such a senseless mess? Why create this modern-day Babel of monuments, images, and languages unless to showcase one’s own erudition and critical (rather than poetic) sensibility? The young Turco describes his reaction to Eliot’s endnotes: “What kind of poem needed all these notes to explain it? If Eliot were a poet, not a scholar, wouldn’t he have put the information of the notes into the poem?” (289). Indeed. In similar vein, in “Withered Stumps of Time: The Waste Land and Mythic Disillusion,” R. V. Young writes that the poem strikes “most readers as a defiant, outré assault by a modish cynic on all the decencies of English literature and society” (24). But, like me, Turco and Young reappraise the poem from the vantage of greater age. Turco concludes that the poem’s power lies in its symphonic sweep, in the music of its syntax, a collaboration between Eliot and Pound that credits il meglior fabbro for the poem’s artistic success. My reassessment lies closer to Young’s. What coordinates this poem beneath its fractured surface is its almost Romantic longing for spiritual fulfillment and religious salvation. “Despite its ‘modernist’ techniques,” says Young, “the poem implies a prophetic denunciation of the secularism, rationalism, and materialism of the modern era” (25). Though Eliot’s own conversion to Christianity was years off, we can see his thirst for it here, exemplified literally by the emotionally sere, secular desert of post-war Europe, for “Here is no water but only rock… / There is not even silence in the mountains / but dry sterile thunder without rain” (40).

Yes, The Waste Land is barren and joyless. But Eliot encrypts the solution to this barrenness interstitially within the text. In virtually every passage, every image of the emotionless clinging to “winter,” deserts, and interior deadness is set against its antidote. The abovementioned quotation, for instance, though it comes later in the text, is reversed by this:

There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising before you (Eliot 31-2).

A familiarity with the bible is needed to fully decode this passage. There is the Messianic prophesy of Isaiah as explained in the endnotes, but one might also know that “Adam,” in Hebrew, means “red earth/dust” and that Jesus Christ is known as the “second Adam,” and also as a “rock or stone.” Someone hidden is pointing the way out of our morass. Salvation is possible, but unavailable—indeed invisible—says Young, “to those who prefer winter to April” (27). Similarly, Madame Sosostris, “the wisest woman in Europe,” wields a “wicked pack of cards,” (Eliot 32) and her Tarot cards clearly contain wisdom. Her cards presage some events in the poem (such as the drowned sailor with pearls for eyes). But, slick and superstitious, she lacks the sight to read them, and her customers aren’t looking for truth anyway. She is ultimately blocked from finding “The Hanged Man,” the point of access to sight—and to grace. In Acts 5:30 of the King James Bible, Jesus is referred to as “Hanged on a Tree.” Unable to see beneath the surface of her cards to their emotional Truth, the cynical Modernist Madame Sosotris can nevertheless see the suffering around her: she sees people “walking round in a ring,” evoking the antechamber of Dante’s Inferno, where, in Young’s words, “those who were neither good nor evil spend eternity going around in a futile circle” (27). The characters that people this poem lack true sight, but the key to their salvation is all around them—all around us. Eliot himself backs up this claim in a later work, “Notes Toward a Christian Society,” in which he claims that industrialization creates men and women who are “detached from tradition, alienated from religion and susceptible to mass suggestion: in other words, a mob” (17), similar to the mob crossing London bridge in fog, or Sosostris’ shuffling circle (Eliot 32). Salvation is non-rational, bearing more in common with myth than fact. Modernism is concerned merely with fact and empiricism. If we blind ourselves to our non-rational traditions, we can see the world, but we can't feel it. We might gain some insight about how to read this poem if we harness some of Joseph Campbell’s observations about myth in The Hero with a Thousand Faces: “The symbols of mythology are not manufactured; they cannot be ordered, invented, or permanently suppressed. They are spontaneous productions of the psyche, and each bears within it, undamaged, the germ power of its source” (4). Eliot makes observations about the dire, Godless state of postwar Europe, but he also alludes to the “germs” (or perhaps the “tubers”) that might save us, so long as we aren’t ruled solely by Modernist individualism and rationality.

For clarification about how the poem’s tension between structure and chaos works upon our psyches, we might look to Frederic Jameson’s genre theory. In The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, Jameson proposes two approaches to genre: a semantic read of genre concerns the essence, or core, of that genre, the production of a set of feelings and sensations each genre sets out to create (tragedy makes us feel pity, terror, and catharsis; comedy makes us laugh; etc.) A syntactic read of genre concerns the surface trappings, the bells and whistles that signal to us, the readers and audiences, what kind of story we are reading or watching, conventions to which we are highly, if unconsciously, attuned (104). What distresses us is a discordance between these two generic categories. The Waste Land can be understood as intentionally throwing semantic and syntactic genre into the blender. The poem is semantically cohesive, syntactically fragmented. Built upon a bedrock of tradition, it employs Modernist tropes—not in order to advocate for Modernism but to combat it. Eliot’s realism does not serve to advance the cause of realism, as we have come to expect Modernist poetry to do. Rather, his opus harkens back to the lost and largely denigrated genre of romance. Where Modernism is cynical, romance is idealistic. As Jameson notes,

Romance is a wish-fulfillment or Utopian fantasy which aims at the transfiguration of the world of everyday life in such a way as to restore the condition of some lost Eden, or to anticipate a future realm from which the old morality and imperfections will have been effaced (110).

Why would Eliot blend categories like this, hiding a romance within Modernist trappings? Why might he create a text full of “The ruins of a monument, still noble and radiating significance” (Young 25) without explicating that significance? Eliot uses the idiom of his day to escape the trap of his day: his lost Eden is still out there, but we can't get back to the ignorance of the garden, and nor should we. But we also can't forget the garden. The waste land is real, but realism—mere observation—is not cutting it, spiritually: The City of Man, which worships human self-sufficiency, still cannot erase the old coordinating myths that allow us to see past our own shadows, that bubble up among the dry rocks if we do not blind ourselves to them. For, says Young, “To escape the waste land means learning to live in it without being its subject or citizen” (35). We live in Modernism, but we have the romantic tools all around us to forge a new way. Jameson, too, remarks on the insufficiency of realism as a Modernist tool:

The ideal of realism is a narrative discourse which in one form or another unites the experience of daily life with a properly cognitive, mapping, or well-nigh scientific perspective. Yet in the context of late capitalism, realism loses much of its ability to come to grips with various differential layers of the real. That is, it has undergone a gradual reification in late capitalism. It is in this context that romance, as often opposed to the realist ethos that has turned restrictive and repressive, comes to be felt as the place of narrative heterogeneity and of freedom from the reality principle (104).

Modernism is excellent at observing misery and deconstructing the human condition. But it has no power to reconstruct. The Waste Land argues that we should not abandon our old tools while integrating the honesty and brutality of Modernism into our way of thinking about our world. The syntactic and the semantic genres of the poem do not agree, but maybe they should. Maybe a synthesis of Modernist and traditional modes is what is required.

Modernism is a great observer. Emerging from advances in science, the rise of Darwin and Freud, it provides us to the tools to see the world as it is. But it doesn’t quite offer us a way to change our lot, and that, Eliot suggests, is what is hurting us. Perhaps this is why, as a product of my age, I have come to appreciate the tension between form and content in Eliot’s poem. While I still feel alienated at times by the obscurity of his references, by the vertigo-inducing non-sequiturs and mish-mash of high and low art, by his pretentions and digressions, I still see this poem as a largely idealistic and hopeful work of prescience and yearning. I, too, share Eliot’s longing for a coordinated world in which we can see past the shadow that rises out of men to the architecture of an older, more ordered universe. We can use those old fragments, it’s true, paired with Modernism’s keen observation and adherence to truth, to shore against our ruins.

Works Cited

The Bible. Authorized King James Version, Oxford UP, 1998.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Bollingen Series XVII, Princeton UP, 1973.

Eliot, T. S. Christianity and Culture.  Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1949.

Eliot, T. S. The Wasteland, Prufrock, and Other Poems. Dover Publications, 1998, pp. 31-42.

Jamison, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Cornell UP, 1981.

Turco, Lewis. “The Waste Land Reconsidered.” The Sewanee Review, Vol. 87, No. 2, Spring, 1979, pp. 289-95.

Young, R. V. “The Withered Stumps of Time: The Waste Land and Mythic Disillusion.” Intercollegiate Review, Vol. 38, No. 2, Spring/Summer 2002, pp. 24-36.

Outcast from Life’s Feast

Epiphanies False and True in James Joyce’s “A Painful Case”

James Joyce peoples the universe of Dubliners with tattered lives, rendering the moment when the characters realize they are irreparably broken. These moments are epiphanic, but the epiphany, rather than showing the characters their potential, shows them their limitations, and the delusions under which they are doomed to live. Epiphany does not free these characters from the bleak paralysis in their souls. The stories in this slim book move from childhood through the sexual initiations of adolescence to meditations on aging and dying, but each concerns a character confronting himself and finding himself and his belief system lacking, even injurious. A strong exemplar of this pattern is “A Painful Case,” a story about a middle-aged bank clerk, Mr. Duffy, whose staid, “adventureless” life, in his own estimation, suits him (Joyce 71), until the possibility of love comes his way. When he repulses it, the ensuing tragedy sets him face to face with his botched life. The tragedy of his epiphany is threefold: first, the realization comes at the cost of his love interest’s life, and his only opportunity for potential escape; second, Mr. Duffy’s dawning awareness of his faults makes him also aware of his culpability; and finally, his epiphany stops short of where traditional literary epiphanies lead us—for Mr. Duffy, there will be no redemption. His paralysis allows access to knowledge and voice, but not to change.

Most of Joyce’s stories give us some dramatic irony, and this one is no exception. Mr. Duffy has so little self-awareness, that we must understand him through his environment. Unlike Mr. Duffy himself, we see the paucity of his life as exemplified by where he lives: he occupies “an old somber house and from his windows he could look into [a] disused distillery” (Joyce 70). In Dubliners, the buildings are often more eloquent about the souls of their occupants and neighbors than the people are, who, until their grim moment of realization, are as blind and mute as the empty building’s windows. Mr. Duffy’s soul is like that unused distillery, full of the intellectual potential for generation and fruitful production, but shut down for reasons of self-protection, a victim of Dublin’s “paralysis.” As Michael West and William Hendricks note in “The Genesis and Significance of Joyce’s Irony in ‘A Painful Case,’” “The austerity of [Mr. Duffy’s] room is not merely economical but satisfies his aesthetic soul” (707), and, further, the arrangement of his books, which are “arranged from below upwards according to bulk” (Joyce 70) suggests an intellectual poser rather than a true intellectual, proposing that “Duffy is more interested in [the books'] appearance than their contents” (West and Hendricks 707). Moreover, Joyce says of his anti-hero, Mr. Duffy “had neither companions nor friends, church nor creed” (70-71). Mr. Duffy’s “saturnine” exterior does all the talking for him, and though he fancies himself a writer and intellectual, the rotten apples on his desk tell us that he rarely sits at it (Joyce 70).

Image courtesy of

Mr. Duffy finds a voice eventually. When he meets Mrs. Emily Sinico at the opera, a woman whose husband “had dismissed [her] so sincerely from the gallery of his pleasures that he did not suspect anyone else would take an interest in her” (Joyce 72), he begins to emerge from layers of insulating armor. The two talk, and “He lent her books, provided her with ideas, shared his intellectual life with her. She listened to all” (Joyce 72). In a Romantic tale, this—or perhaps a relationship less narcissistic and one-sided than this—would be the recipe for love. But this is a starkly Modernist tale, and the love must contend with Mr. Duffy’s repression, moral rectitude, and obsession with appearances, defense mechanisms he comes to loathe by the end of the story, after it is all too late. Such defense mechanisms, he comes to see, are results of cowardice, not goodness. In “Isolation as Motif in ‘A Painful Case,’” J. Mitchell Morse remarks that Mr. Duffy “dooms himself to sterility and a woman to death through presumption and pusillanimity” (186), and this fight between sterility—which surrounds Mr. Duffy’s life and neighborhood like a miasma—and fertility, as exemplified by plant imagery once he meets Mrs. Sinico, becomes a fight to the death. Death, of course, wins, for both characters, and this—the fact that both have suffered as a result of this cowardice—is the story’s true “painful case.”

The relationship between Mr. Duffy and Mrs. Sinico begins auspiciously enough. They take walks, meet frequently in her parlor with the permission of her absent husband, and the language Joyce employs undergoes incremental changes. “Little by little” says Joyce, Duffy “entangled his thoughts with hers” (72). The images of empty, angular, man-made sterility as exemplified by the disused distillery give way to images of natural growth, “entanglement,” eventually even lushness. Mr. Duffy comes to regard his friendship with Mrs. Sinico as “like a warm soil about an exotic,” and it “emotionalized his mental life” (Joyce 73). As their talks move from the intellectual to the personal, following a familiar trajectory of a burgeoning, scholarly, middle-aged love, we feel hope for the healthy growth of this “exotic,” narcissistic as he might be, for even Mr. Duffy is a preferable companion for Mrs. Sinico than a husband who has no interest in her. But when Mrs. Sinico violates the terms of the friendship by making it physical, pressing Mr. Duffy’s hand against her cheek (a gesture that merely borders on sexual passion), his reaction is cold—and terrified. He spurns her, and Joyce’s language once again takes a turn, this time with religious overtones: he calls their union a “ruined confessional” (73). Mr. Duffy cuts off all contact with her. It takes four years—and Emily Sinico’s death—for him to realize his mistake. She is hit by a streetcar as she crosses the street, drunk, for after their break-up she developed a habit. In keeping with the religious overtones, Mr. Duffy is primed to receive his epiphany.

For the first time, he begins to question his beliefs and behavior. This is new to a man such as Mr. Duffy, who lives, out of fear, a life free of self-examination. Sitting in the bar, Mr. Duffy’s thoughts undergo an almost religious transformation from judgement to empathy. The reader cannot help but note their significance. For one, these are his thoughts. He doesn’t need buildings and rooms to speak for him any longer. He first thinks of Mrs. Sinico as “unfit to live… one of the wrecks upon which civilization is reared” (Joyce 76). He is embarrassed of her and ashamed of himself for spending any time with her.  But after a few drinks in a bar he experiences an increasing disquiet with his own fictions, and begins to feel “ill at ease.” Finally, he thinks, “Now that she was gone, he understood how lonely her life must have been” (Joyce 76). The apotheosis of his epiphany occurs as Mr. Duffy is walking home through the park:

He looked down the slope and, at the base, in the shadow of the wall of the Park, he saw some human figures lying. Those venal and furtive loves filled him with despair. He gnawed the rectitude of his life; he felt that he had been outcast from life’s feast (Joyce 77).

Life’s feast: his lost opportunity with Mrs. Sinico. This is an epiphany about his human weaknesses—about how the strengths he had always been proud of (though never out loud) were actually based on timidity and failure—not strengths at all. In a final bout of dramatic irony, we come to see that even Mr. Duffy’s epiphany is tainted, as it does not include a path to self-recovery. As West and Hendricks contend:

Enmeshed in a web of authorial irony, the automaton Duffy scarcely becomes human, even in his final anguish and remorse. For these feelings Joyce resolutely limits our sympathy by making them deluded, exaggerated, and temporary. The ending thus completes a pattern of ironic disjunctures with which Joyce bedevils this unfortunate character from the beginning of the story (706).

Mr. Duffy takes full responsibility for Mrs. Sinico’s alcoholism and death, but even this concession rings false and narcissistic. Mrs. Sinico developed her habit two years after their break-up, and Mr. Duffy forgets that she has been living with a husband who ignores her. His epiphany is useless because it is only a part of the picture: it, too, lies.

The true irony in Joyce’s epiphanies is this: they are true—but only to a point. They are not—the reader wants to shout at the characters—deterministic, and they could be leveraged as a point of access to grace. But the characters do not read them that way, and herein lies the true tragedy of paralysis—knowledge about ourselves does not make us better or happier. It offers no relief, because it offers no future. As Seamus Perry notes in “City, Paralysis, Epiphany: An Introduction to Dubliners,” “The stories are studies in incapacity and self-replicating unhappiness.” In this, the author says more about the effects of the city in which these hapless occupants live and less about the occupants themselves. Perry goes on to note that Joyce “liked to present himself heroically as a kind of stiff cathartic medicine, purging the Irish imagination of its toxins, surrounded by lesser talents peddling an obsolete kind of romanticism.” Romantic tale of religious conversion this story is not. Indeed, none of the stories in Dubliners are. The false epiphanies that plague the characters in its pages are not true epiphanies.

The epiphanies in Dubliners belong not to the lost eccentrics populating the book, but to the reader, who might yet find grace—with a little purging of the toxins of modernity.

Works Cited

Hendricks, William. “The Genesis and Significance of Joyce’s Irony in ‘A Painful Case.’” ELH, Vol. 44, No. 4, Winter 1977. 701-727.

Joyce, James. Dubliners. Dover Thrift Editions, 1991. 70-77.

Morse, J. Mitchell. “Isolation as Motif in ‘A Painful Case.’” James Joyce Quarterly, Vol. 3, 1966. 186.

Perry, Seamus. “City, Paralysis, Epiphany: An Introduction to Dubliners.” Discovering Literature: 20th Century. British Library Publications Online, 25 May 2016.

Art and the Void

As a student I wondered at it. As an English instructor I find it an indispensable font; a reminder I can dip into again and again that the goal is to practice empathy, not dogma. Empathy is a lesson one has to learn again and again, especially at a college with over half of its students from disadvantaged or marginalized backgrounds. "It" is “Sonny’s Blues,” in my opinion James Baldwin's opus. My students nod their headsthe lessons contained here are familiar to them. But I wonder anew with every rereading.

Baldwin's short story (publication date, 1957) is a tapestry, tightly woven of complementary motifs and themes, rich and dense. Not a word out of place. How to land on a single topic to discuss? Here is one obvious motif: on it’s surface, it’s a story of the prodigal’s return. A comfortable trope, certainly rife with cultural resonance, and still worthy of exploration. The unnamed narrator—the straight brother—has escaped his circumstances through stalwart moral rectitude: he fights for country, marries well, educates himself, and teaches at-risk boys in his old, ailing neighborhood of Harlem a few decades after its Renaissance and before the Civil Rights movement. He is circumspect in all things. Emotional distance is the cost of his prudence. He grapples with ungenerous feelings toward his dreamier, more inward-looking and self-destructive brother, Sonny. Even though his mother has entrusted our narrator to look after the wayward boy, he can’t bring himself to reach out. Sonny confounds him. The narrator commits the sin of silence, which, the story suggests, is complicity with the void. He doesn’t even write when Sonny, a heroin addict, goes to prison. Sonny, to the narrator, is merely a ghetto stereotype, is an affront to him, the escapee, and all the work he's done to elevate his people. But ultimately it is the narrator’s moral righteousness that the story questions, not Sonny’s transgressions, just as the bible story stacks our prejudices against the resentful brother, angered not to have been granted primacy in the family hierarchy as payment for his piety.

Baldwin carefully crafts a world of sinister, inhuman evils. In Harlem, unnamable malignancies bare their teeth from every tenement building. They poison the very air. They drag the inhabitants into darkness, even the ones that have escaped (through drugs or through education or through music). Against this evil, Baldwin’s people have only communication—art, music, stories—to fight with. It is Sonny, the narrator realizes, who has all along been battling these ominous forces. The narrator apprehends this while Sonny is playing his blues, and his moment of epiphany is heartbreaking. Over the course of the song he experiences a sudden dilation of perception. The chasm between himself and his brother is bridged a little, for a little while. It is, the story suggests, the best we can hope for: a rickety, temporary bridge between people.

“Sonny’s Blues” remains above cynicism, even though it suggests that life—not just life in economically depressed areas, but everywhere—is unbearable. This gives the story its power. As we face the abyss, we develop coping strategies. We escape however we can. The narrator escapes through what he deems proper channels. Sonny escapes with drugs and music. The narrator is surprised to find that his own strategies are not qualitatively better. His erudition is not superior to the strategies he condemns. Sonny, with music, talks back to the void. He tries to explain it. “There’s no way not to suffer,” Sonny tells the narrator. “But you try all kinds of ways to keep from drowning in it."

Image courtesy of

The first relief from drowning in it occurs when the narrator hears, between the derisive cursing and laughing of adolescent boys, one boy whistling. He likens it to birdsong, barely holding its own through all the evil talk. The paragraph serves as a miniature of the structure of the story itself, in which a thin, futile good threads through all the reduplicated evil. Empathy breaks open in the narrator’s heart, if only for a moment, a break of sunlight through a crack in the blinds. This boy’s whistle initiates a metaphor carried through the story with remarkable consistency (because in Baldwin, not a single word is missing or extraneous). The whistle is a rebellion, and a refuge. Later, the narrator listens to the singing of a barmaid whose life is otherwise doomed. Another refuge. Sonny sends a condolence letter from prison, conferring sympathy for the death of the narrator’s daughter (both events precipitate a change in the narrator’s worldview: create the conditions for deepening empathy). Finally, in the ultimate scene, music provides temporary sanctuary from the darkness outside. These coping strategies are communiqués in both directions. They speak to the chaos that exists beyond our control, darkness beyond words, saying you will not have me yet. And of course, they talk to the living. The narrator’s tale, the reader realizes by the final paragraph, is the last of these communiqués, shared with us, and we are duly honored by it.

“Sonny’s Blues”, notably, has no human cruelty in it. The void, discrete from human agency, does have a metonymy within the story: it is silence. It is a formless, motiveless entity that does harm, but makes the communion between souls all the more precious for its inevitability. Death takes us; terror and loathing win in the end. The transcendence of the story is not mastery over the inevitable. There is, however, transcendence in the temporary staving off. The antidote to cruelty is not its eradication. Rather it is the creation of spheres of intimacy, patterns of survival. Silence is the story’s villain. Silence is redeemed through art, a sanctuary. A sanctity.

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. "Sonny's Blues." The Jazz Fiction Anthology. Edited by Sascha Feinstein and David Rife. Indiana UP, 2009. 17-48.

More Truth Than Fact

Finding Truth in an Allegorical Read of the Bible

God is… an amalgam of several personalities in one character. Tension among these personalities makes God difficult, but it also makes Him compelling, even addictive.
— Jack Miles, God: A Biography
Fiction here is likely to contain more truth than fact.
— Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own

Human beings, in our meaning-making toolbox, have truth and we have fact. But are “Truth” (in the Platonic sense) and “fact” synonyms? Nothing makes the distinction between these words greater than when we apply them to the bible, a work that is almost impossible to categorize as “fact.” When we endeavor to literally interpret the bible, we get into some trouble. Quite a few wars have been fought (and continue to be fought) over literal interpretations of the bible. There is a reason fiction and mythology are more suited to the exploration of ethics and the building of cohesive cultural memories than historical, scientific, or “divinely-authored” texts. When reading metaphorical or allegorical texts, readers don’t need to get bogged down by accuracy: They feel the moral repercussions more immediately, their place in the world more tangibly. Fiction creates a safe space for readers to explore, without the need to refute or prove, cultural history, cultural taboos, the law, and human beings’ place in this confusing cosmos. Certain sects of Christianity, of course, argue that the bible is the literal word of God—the Logos—meaning that God is not merely the story’s protagonist; He is also its author. But one need only glance at the bible’s first book to see overwhelming evidence that it was written over a long period of time by multiple (human) authors. Were it truly the word of God, we would expect to see greater internal consistency in style and content. We might expect God’s character to remain constant for the duration of the story. But the bible means much more for being a work that harnesses the power of fiction and myth—a work that is living, growing, accretive, rather than static; interpretive rather than absolute—to impart a sense of faith and awe, even if, for non-believers, that awe is more literary than spiritual.

The first piece of evidence that the bible is neither Logos nor history is the lack of internal consistency in its narratives. In Understanding the Bible, Steven Harris points out many of them. Rather than being the work of a single author, like the Quran, the bible is, according to Harris, “the product of a long process of composition, revision, and repeated editing by different writers and redactors,” which account for the multiple “duplications, contradictions, and other discrepancies” that litter the text (Harris 62). Similarly, in the introduction to the New Oxford Annotated Bible, editor Michael Coogan notes that “modern scholarship has persuasively argued that each [book of the Pentateuch] is composite, consisting of many sources from different periods of Israel’s history” (3). Take the first story of the creation of the world. First, God creates the world and then creates human beings in His image: “In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1.27). But a few lines later he creates woman from Adam’s rib: “And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man” (Gen. 2.22), suggesting that only man was created in God’s image. Coogan, in his annotation of this section, calls this shift unfortunate: “The man’s rule over the woman… is a tragic reflection of the disintegration of original connectedness between them” (15). Why would an infallible divine author create two discreet origin stories that fail to cohere? As Harris contends, the “documentary hypothesis” of biblical authorship—largely undisputed among scholars—assumes that the old testament has at least four authors, each with a slightly different goal that correlates with the political and spiritual issues that were contemporary to the writing (67).


This multiple-author hypothesis is borne out by the bible’s syntactical and grammatical style shifts that clearly divide the prose into distinct categories. As Harris points out, most scholars assume that the Old Testament is a mash-up of four authors’ words and he credits the varying styles in grammar and syntax as evidence to support this theory: J, or the “Yahwist” author (because that is what he calls God, God's actual name), is likely the oldest and in it God is anthropomorphic, quasi-human, interacting freely with His creations (67-9); E, or the “Elohist” source (“Elohim” is what he calls God—the plural for the generic term for "god"), creates a more standoffish deity, who nevertheless finds ways to communicate, directly and indirectly, with humans, though he doesn’t walk-and-talk with them (69-70); D is the Deuteronomist source, and is concerned with an inculcation of Jewish law (70); and P, or the “Priestly” source is the most recent of the biblical authors, and retroactively sanctifies the tradition and authority of priests, while simultaneously solidifying the structure and purpose of the Pentateuch after the Babylonian exile (70-71). Indeed, “When sources are separated,” says Harris, “they not only reveal internal consistencies in style and vocabulary… each of the Torah’s different literary strands consistently exhibits grammatical and other traits characteristic of a particular stage of Hebrew language development” (67). The earlier sources likely come from the oral tradition, and bear more relationship to creation myths of older cultures than do the more recent redactions, which are far more concerned with establishing laws and practices, justifying the rule of specific bloodlines, and post facto justifications of wars, murders, and—in some cases—genocides.

The duality and placement of the stories, moreover, suggest that what these authors meant to communicate is something other than factual. One early anachronism in Genesis contends that Cain, after killing his brother (and reducing the number of human beings on earth—if one parses out the etiology—to three), the Lord “put a mark on Cain so that none who came upon him would kill him” (Gen. 4.16). It’s just possible to imagine that this mark protects Cain from his own parents until section 17: “Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch; and he built a city” (Gen 4.17). Unless his wife is also his mother, we see here that the story of Cain and Abel belongs in another part of the bible, after the world has been populated. But it is more likely that the bible’s redactors gave the story pride of place because it has a special resonance or importance. As in Medieval artwork, where the more important figures are larger than the lesser figures, the bible is arranged more symbolically than realistically. It’s a text that creates a literary hierarchy among the players and events that emphasize their relative importance in the ordering of events. Straight chronology can’t do this. The placement of the Cain and Abel story by one of the biblical authors, in other words, has a significance that makes the anachronism worth it.  Presumably, something can be read into God’s unexplained preference for Abel’s sacrifice of animal flesh over Cain’s in other senses equal sacrifice of harvested grain. Perhaps, as some scholars suggest, the text is showing God’s preference for a nomadic people over a settled people. In Traditions of the Bible, Talmudic scholar James Kugel suggests that this could correlate to when this story was composed: God approves of the nomadic sacrifice, right when the Israelites were expelled from the land of Canaan, and forced into nomadic exile (54). One cannot argue that this is a factual telling: But that does not mean it is barren of some form of Truth.

God, too, changes as much as the styles change. In fact, even He doesn’t seem sure what he is or what he wants from biblical book to biblical book. In God: A Biography, Jack Miles treats the Abrahamic creator as a fictional character, and goes so far as to suggest that “much that the bible says about [God] is rarely preached from the pulpit, because, examined too closely, it becomes a scandal” (6). God makes mankind in his own image, but then expects mankind to behave according to His laws, even before the laws are written or expressed. That becomes difficult for creations who are only privy to God’s character as man’s creator. God provides no account of his own adventures that don’t relate directly to man, and God seems preoccupied only with the doings of mankind. Such is the lot of the solitary Creator: for a pantheon of other gods might provide some company, sure, but also some context: what is this deity like? If the purpose of the bible is to instruct human beings on how to build themselves in God’s image, created and creator both seem to learn by trial and error what God’s image actually looks like. In Miles’ words:

That quest [of man becoming God-like], arising from the protagonist’s sole stated motive, drives the only real plot that the Bible can be said to have. But that plot, God’s attempt to shape mankind in his image, would be far more comprehensible if God had a richer subjective life, one more clearly separate from, more clearly prior to, the human object of his shaping (87).

Despite this, Miles says, or maybe because of this, the West trusts a flawed, inconsistent character more than a complete, comprehensible one. Whether God created us in His image, or we created Him in ours, the relationship is fraught, but not without love, understanding, and the ability to learn and grow on both sides, somewhat like a new parent with his (His?) children.

Along with inconsistency in the story, grammar, and character, the bible’s lessons feel more concerned with creating an ongoing sense of cultural cohesion and united purpose than casting God and humanity as stable and unchanging. That goal is more in line with today’s philosophical valence than the stable eschatology and worldview espoused by Medieval and Renaissance theologians. We’ve seen, in the 20th century, a movement from the search for capital-T “Truth,” in the Platonic sense, to the ascendancy of the “micronarrative,” which, Deconstructionists like Jean-Francois Lyotard contend, can, in aggregate, get us closer to Truth than a single history-by-consensus. After all, he says in The Postmodern Condition, a unified history almost always serves the powerful, not the truth, and “facts” and “stats” are the worst offenders (Lyotard 504). If we want truth, the deconstructionists say, we need contradictions, paradoxical as that might sound. What is the bible, if not a series of loosely connected micronarratives, rife with comforting contradiction?

In an environment that rich in fiction, that is where we might find some Truth.

Works Cited

Harris, Steven L. Understanding the Bible, 8th Edition. New York: The McGraw Hill Publishing Group, Inc., 2011.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. “The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.” Modernism to Postmodernism: An Anthology. Ed. Lawrence Cahoone. Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1996. 481-513.

Kugel, James L. Traditions of the Bible: A Guide to the Bible as It Was at the Start of the Common Era. Cambridge, MA:  Harvard UP, 1998. Pp. 54-7.

Miles, Jack. God: I Biography. Kindle Ed. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1996.

The New Oxford Annotated Bible. Edited by Michael T. Coogan et al. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. London: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1929.

The Abyss Gazes Back

Madness, Blindness, and Armageddon in King Lear

…nothing himself, [he] beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
— Wallace Stevens, “The Snow Man”

The 20th century finally invited King Lear in off the heath. Its post-industrial bleakness found him apt company, bid him come out of long exile to rest his weary bones next to his spiritual brethren: “The Snow Man,” Endgame, Beyond Good and Evil, and all the other nihilistic works of existentialism, deconstruction, and Eastern ideas of “nothing” as a desirable state—much of the work to spring from the late Victorian era to the present. It took long enough. Early modern audiences found the play’s godless rejection of Christian eschatology unbearable; Nahum Tate produced a grotesque comedy out of it (which was what people read and produced for centuries); Samuel Johnson could stand to read it only once, after which he quickly edited it; even A. C. Bradley, who admired the play, called it “Shakespeare’s greatest work, but not… the best of his plays” (248). In “King Lear or Endgame,” Jan Kott remarks of Lear that “All that remains at the end of this gigantic pantomime is the earth—empty and bleeding” (112), and that, like the listener in “The Snow Man,” fits just fine in the 20th century. We can take it. God is dead, after, all; the world is brutal and uncaring and ruled by competition for survival; and we all know that, in Beckett’s words, “We give birth astride the grave.” The very fact that the word “nothing” appears 34 times in the play makes it a great fit within the worldview of late-stage capitalist meaning-making, where we watch the procession of simulacra with horror, but without recourse. In King Lear, Shakespeare presents an abyss that, when we gaze into it, truly gazes back into us.

One of the most powerful scenes in the play, for its raw, crazed energy, is Lear in his initial stages of madness on the heath, provoking the storm to do its worst:

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks. Rage, blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned our cocks.
You sulph’rous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers of oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head. And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Crack Nature’s molds, all germains spill at once
That makes ingrateful man. (III.ii.1-9).


Lear’s rage at the storm is pointless… and admirable. Lear, abandoned by his children, fallen, in less than a month, from king to pauper, makes believe that he is controlling the weather, in a heartbreaking negotiation with the pathetic fallacy. He is at once child-like and god-like. On the one hand, he exercises a child’s omnipotence fantasy, imagining he has control of forces out of his control; on the other, the audience wonders if he is indeed controlling the weather—if the tempest in his own mind has actually been expressed outside himself. It is an act that inspired awe in the Romantic poets. This is a roiling I suspect we all feel at times: faced with the void, what are we to do but imagine we can control it? In King Lear in Our Own Time, Maynard Mack comments on the universal appeal, to 20th century man, of Lear: the “…abysses of the play,” he says, “are in fact wrapped in the enigma of our own ignorance of the meaning of existence, its peals echo with cries of triumph and despair so equivocal that we are never sure they are not ours” (84). One can see why the suggested meaninglessness in the cosmology of the play would have distressed early modern audiences (and Restoration audiences even more), leading to its exile. After all, the Medieval and Renaissance worldview was one of an ordered universe with a just and comprehensible God. Lear offers no such comfort. Mack goes on to opine that the play has no true hero in the traditional tragic sense. Moreover, the lack of a hero, he says, sits “…more easily with our present sensibility (which is pathologically mistrustful of heroism) than the heroic resonances of the usual Shakespearean close” (Mack 84). We don’t believe in heroes, and, as in Waiting for Godot, the play gives us none, just the all-too-human struggle of a man stripped bare and forced to confront the often-malign indifference of the universe.

Blindness, too, like frenzied madness, is a current that runs through the play, this time exemplified literally by the story’s secondary plotline. Blindness and madness seem to be the only clear paths to a rarified kind of sight: self-knowledge, true love of others, and freedom from the fear of death. They, metaphorically or literally (the play does not make it entirely clear), prepare the old for a peaceful—at least a resigned—death. Lear’s ally Gloucester, blinded and, like Lear, abandoned by his child, somehow finds the mad Lear on the heath, and there begins a journey of the blind truly leading the blind. The culmination of Gloucester’s plot is his “suicide” off the cliffs of Dover. Gloucester is with his disguised son, Edgar, but does not recognize him. Edgar describes the terror of the void below them:

Come on, sir; here’s the place: stand still. How fearful
And dizzy ‘tis to cast one’s eyes so low!
The crows and choughs that wing the midway air
Show scarce so gross as beetles. Half way down
Hangs one that gathers samphire, dreadful trade!
…The murmuring surge
That on the unnumb’red idle pebble chafes
Cannot be heard so high. I’ll look no more,
Lest my brain turn and the deficient sight
Topple down headlong (

The problem? He is lying. They are not at the cliffs of Dover, but on a small rise near the cliffs, and he is not describing what is actually below them: he is describing a seascape to a blind man, in order that he might jump, and survive, and be metaphorically reborn. Gloucester does jump, and does survive, and is reborn in what Edgar (now pretending to be a fisherman down on the beach) labels a marvel: “Thy life’s a miracle. Speak yet again,” he says ( This prepares Gloucester for a loving reunion with the former king, and finally, his own actual death. A cold comfort, perhaps, but the only one afforded the old man, even though the audience feels more ambivalent about his ordeal. In our contemporary world, within the Weltanschauung of existentialism/deconstruction, we can hope for little more than a brief access to grace before we die. The play understands us—clearly more than it understood our antecedents.

Along with human disaster—blindness and madness—the entire world of the play seems to be careening toward eminent catastrophe, and the ending does not correct that trajectory. Everywhere are allusions to Armageddon. As Mack says, “Intimations of World’s End run through [the play] like a yeast. In the scenes on the heath, elements are at war as if it were indeed Armageddon” (85). Armageddon has agency and energy, unlike the passive depression of, say Hamlet, which presents a foul, stilted world in need of resurrection. The characters in Lear, in contrast to Hamlet, (and at times the weather and the environment are characters), all seem to be heading toward a precipice of non-being, but it is a place of creative action, not stasis. Says Mack:

Under [the play] run tides of doomsday passion that seem to use up and wear away people, codes, expectations, all stable points of reference, till only a profound sense remains that an epoch, in fact a whole dispensation, has forever closed… To this kind of situation, we of the mid-twentieth century are… sensitively attuned (86).

This apocalyptic rhetoric also includes, in Mack’s words, a “strong undertow of victory” (87). In Gloucester’s case this victory arrives with his rebirth on the false cliffs; for Lear in his erroneous belief that his daughter, after their heartrending reunion, has been resurrected. For both, the victory is illusory, but no less poignant—and no less real a triumph—for not being true. When he is reunited with Cordelia, Lear finally abandons his power and releases himself into the care of family, and to true grace:

…Come, let’s away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies (V.iii.8-13).

When Cordelia perishes, and Lear holds her in his arms, he says, “Do you see this? Look, her lips, / Look there, look there” (V.iii.312-13). He then expires. In all the “nothings,” this small hint of a “something” must suffice… a hint at redemption, or resurrection (though perhaps not in a Christian sense). Lear dies, perhaps, thinking that his child lives, and as such he dies happy. The world, at the end of Lear, is not restored to rights by a tragic death (for Mack is right: there is no hero here to sacrifice himself for the restoration of equilibrium). Rather, we are in a world still heading we know not where—a world of teleological uncertainty—that eerily resembles the world that we now know ourselves to inhabit. After revolutions in science, after World Wars and cosmological upheaval, after the invention of massive weapons of destruction, and the knowledge that we are the tiniest speck in an immense universe, after the knowledge that the universe will likely end with a whimper and we will not even be a footnote—in this world, the barren heath of Lear finally makes sense to us.

King Lear confronts the abyss, is chewed up by it, and finds a way to make meaning anyway. It finds a way to live with it. Finding a way to live with it is something we are all of us trying to do: existence is, by definition, uncertainty. We have left the garden of blissful ignorance, and no system of beliefs feels complete any longer: religion, once comprehensive and far-reaching, has been sufficiently contradicted by science for reasonable doubt to creep in (except in our most stalwart adherents to faith—and maybe even in them). If we need to deceive ourselves into surviving in all this uncertainty—whether through the pathetic fallacy, through intentional blindness, through madness, through (ideally) love and kindness, or through self-delusion—so be it. Welcome home, Lear.

Cited Sources

Bradley, A. C. Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth.
2nd ed. London: Macmillan, 1905.

Kott, Jan. “King Lear or Endgame.” Shakespeare Our Contemporary. Methuan, 1963, pp. 100-33.

Mack, Maynard. King Lear in Our Time. Routledge, 2005.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. Tr. Helen Zimmern. Millennium Publications, 2014. 41.

Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Signet Classic, Published by New American Library, Penguin Group, 1972.

Our Small Forever

Code Confusion as Female Trope in Louise Erdrich's The Round House

“Gynocide… is known by the colonized peoples of yesterday… the nations… off whose backs the history of men has made its gold.”
           — Hélène Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa”

Our guide through Louise Erdrich’s novel The Round House is a young man. But Joe Coutts—real, tangible, effervescent teenager that he is—is birthed, definitively, from a female mind. Erdrich, in a move of great virtuosity, creates a tale that exists in both cyclo-mythical time and in linear time; in which the language and alternative reality of the spirit world coexist and intermingle with the language of the law; through which Christian crosscurrents traverse and mingle with shamanistic codes; and in which characters are both their corporeal, temporal selves, and universal archetypes who must repeat ancient patterns. Cultural stories radiate from the main narrative like ripples in a pond. And at its center—the round house. It’s no coincidence that the pivotal object is circular in shape: it is the novel’s many-chambered heart, and the story, in a sense, “orbits” around this richly symbolic monument to good and evil.

 We might call Erdrich’s inclusive, circular narratives characteristic of “feminine” writing, a genre Hélène Cixous defines in her essay, “The Laugh of the Medusa.” The feminine writer’s speech, she asserts, “…even when ‘theoretical’ or political, is never simple or linear or ‘objectified,’ generalized: she draws her story into history” (Cixous 881). In Erdrich’s world, we aren’t allowed to make phallocentric hierarchies of information or codes: varying systems coexist and compete, resisting synthesis. Neither Erdrich nor her characters are subordinate to western/patriarchal history’s “truth,” but by collaborating with it they manage to achieve a deeper truth. Years after his mother is brutally raped on a reservation and he enacts lethal revenge, Joe retells the story in complex layers, weaving folklore and supernatural intervention into a text also brimming with legal realities that we—Erdrich and her readers—must objectively measure and judge in our “real” world. According to Sarah Deer’s article, “Sovereignty of the Soul: Exploring the Intersection of Rape Law Reform and Federal Indian Law,” the Justice Department has in fact under-reported the statistic that one in three native women will be raped in her lifetime (almost always by non-native men): “…the rates of sexual assault” she says, “…are actually much higher… [and] elders in Indian country [say]… that they do not know any women in their community who have not experienced sexual violence [emphasis mine]” (456). The matter is real. The matter is urgent. But Erdrich makes us feel this “gynocide” all the more acutely for not letting it fall merely into the “simple or linear… history” of legal or journalistic language. We feel it, as Cixous might say, in the body.

How does Erdrich accomplish this distinctly female corporeality in her writing? In “Reading Between Worlds: Narrativity in the Fiction of Louise Erdrich,” Catherine Rainwater explores Erdrich’s ability to create an almost physical sense of “temporary marginality” in her readers. Erdrich’s texts, she says, contain structural features that “frustrate narrativity,” and that, “This frustration amounts to a textually induced or encoded experience of marginality as the foremost component of the reader’s response." Erdrich achieves this effect, Rainwater contends, chiefly through her use of “code confusion” (Rainwater 406). For instance, in the novel time works both cyclically, in what Rainwater refers to as “ceremonial time,” and linearly, in what readers understand as chronological time. Joe’s story begins with him uprooting the saplings “attacking” the foundation of his parent’s house, and ends with him, innocence lost, family shattered, driving out of town after the time-stopping rape and murder, and into a paradox: “…in a sweep of sorrow that would persist into our small forever” (Erdrich 317). In between, we hear an account of events in the order in which they occurred. But bits of family lore, dream sequences, tribal memories and ghosts—vestiges of “ceremonial time”—festoon the narrative, enriching it, complicating it, radiating from its center, or floating above it, in ghostly parallel. Early in the novel, when Joe and his father realize that his mother is missing, Joe remarks that, “…her absence stopped time” (Erdrich 3). In a sense, from the moment her absence is registered to the moment the family drives off the reservation, time is both suspended and sequential: the narrative alerts us early to time’s malleability. We are told at the outset that Mooshum, Joe’s eccentric grandfather and teller of a parallel legend of filial love and revenge, lives “…in a timeless fog” (Erdrich, 4), and that is the vantage from which he dispenses his crucial wisdom. Rainwater notes that Erdrich’s temporal idiosyncrasies hint at the narrative limitations of chronological time: “…linearity,” she says, “is often disrupted by many flashbacks, lateral narrational pursuits, flights of free association, and other indications of the failure of chronology to contain the story” (414). This kind of time confusion—combined with these pyrotechnics of craft—reminds us of Cixous’s theory about feminine writing: “Woman,” she says, “un-thinks the unifying, regulating history that homogenizes and channels forces, herding contradictions into a single battlefield” (882). Ceremonial time set against linear time may disorient readers, but it’s this temporal vertigo that makes us feel these events—these conflicts—in our very bones.

Through marginality we come to understand the intersection of tribal, spiritual and legal justice. Each of these legal systems is incomplete: none alone manages to achieve perfect justice, but by forcing us to examine them all together, Erdrich creates a patchwork that approaches justice, however asymptotically. In a seminal scene, Joe’s father spends a few pages educating Joe, and the readers, on the history of Native American jurisprudence since European settlement, the slow, unsatisfying climb to tribal sovereignty. He informs us of Oliphant v. Suquamish, which “Took from us the right to prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes on our land” (Erdrich 229). In “Sovereignty of the Soul,” Deer remarks that since Columbus landed, rape has been used as a “tool of colonization and a tool of war against Native peoples and… as a weapon of conquest” (458). Fighting back against what Deer refers to as “…attack[s] on the human soul” is no easy task for Joe and his father, or for real indigenous peoples armed with limited legal tools. But the book proposes an alternative route to justice for Joe: what his grandfather refers to as “wiindigoo justice.” Wiindigoog, explains Mooshum, are “people who lost all human compunctions in hungry times and craved the flesh of others” (Erdrich 213-14). A wiindigoo must be killed by tribal consensus, and when Joe kills his mother’s rapist, his father, the judge, argues that there is a “traditional,” rather than a legal, precedent for the murder: “It could be argued,” says Joe’s father, “That [the rapist] met the definition of a wiindigoo, and that with no other recourse, his killing fulfilled the requirements of a very old law” (Erdrich 306). We have here another example of Rainwater’s “code confusion.” The simultaneous presence of cultural codes—legal and traditional—that are “…epistemologically, experientially and teleologically different,” contends Rainwater, “…vexes the reader’s effort to decide upon an unambiguous, epistemologically consistent interpretive framework. Encoded ‘undecidability’ leads to the marginalization of the reader by the text” (407). Erdrich unsettles her readers by refusing to place tribal justice on a higher moral plane than legal justice (or vice versa). Even Mooshum warns that wiindigoo justice is often undertaken rashly or unjustly when tribal elders aren’t consulted, and in a queasy scene toward the end of the book, Joe realizes that with a bit more investigation the rapist would have been caught, and that western law might have garnered Joe’s family sufficient justice without recourse to murder. In this way, Erdrich’s narrative resists code hierarchy. “Narrativity usually includes an impulse to resolve… textual tensions through privileging of one code or through synthesis,” says Rainwater, “but Erdrich’s texts preclude both options for dealing with these conflicting… paradigms” (409). This resistance to pat resolution falls in line with Cixous’ analysis of the “woman militant”, who splits struggle open, “…so as to prevent… struggle for the liberation of a class or people from operating as a form of repression” (882). Arguably, the privileging of one system of justice over the other would operate as a form of phallocentric repression in that it reduces the importance of one code, implying the necessity of creating code hierarchy. Here neither traditional nor western law takes primacy. But nor do they synthesize: they remain discrete, incompatible codes, and the refusal to choose one over the other causes discomfort in characters and readers both. It causes, in Rainwater’s words, a “…permanent state of irresolution” (409).

Another set of conflicting codes Erdrich explores is the intersection between Christianity and indigenous shamanism. “Competing with the syntagmatic chain of references to Christianity,” says Rainwater, “is another chain of references to Native American beliefs about material and spiritual life, which… are not as distinctly separate as they are according to Christianity” (408). Nowhere is this juxtaposition of faiths felt more strongly than in the round house itself, a space devoted to native worship which, pre-1978, when traditional religions were outlawed on the reservation, could be hastily converted into an ersatz church. The space is a liminal crossroads between creeds, between good and evil, and between legal jurisdictions. Mooshum, talking in his sleep, explains its origins: a raffish figure of legend, Nanapush (a figure the reader is often urged to compare to Joe himself), was communing with a female spirit of the disappeared buffalo, who sacrificed herself that Nanapush might have meat to eat and the shelter of her body in a storm. “Your people were brought together by us buffalo once…” she says. “Now we are gone, but as you have once sheltered in my body, so now you understand. The round house will be my body, the poles my ribs, the fire my heart” (Erdrich 214). The round house is a sacred cadaver: loss and memory inspired its creation. Ceremonies conducted at the round house still heal Joe and his Ojibwe people. But in this novel, what heals also harms, and what kills also saves, and we the readers must live with these contradictions. The rapist selects the round house as the scene of his crime because by doing so he will almost surely avoid prosecution: the land on which it sits is a tangled boundary of state, federal and tribal jurisdiction. When Joe visits the scene of the crime, we hear the round house “speak:” “There was a moment of intense quiet,” Joe remarks, “Then a low moan of air passed through the cracks in the silvery logs of the round house. I started with emotion. The grieving cry seemed emitted by the structure itself” (Erdrich 59). The house, a living character in its own right, speaks to the novel’s protagonist from a tortured Native American past, both ancient and recent, spiritual and legal. Later, Joe gets direction from Father Travis, the reservation’s Catholic priest, about “Sins Crying Out to Heaven for Vengeance” (Erdrich 250). Both traditional and Christian codes cry out with voices that are almost human, pulling our hero in different directions, neither one louder or more persuasive than the other. Joe makes his fatal decision within the clamor of this chorus of voices. Rainwater notes that, “With several avenues of meaning remaining open, the text does not overdetermine one avenue of interpretation and thus endorse one theological view over the other” (410). Not even the novel’s characters definitively favor a single dogma: many reservation inhabitants, in response to Christian pressures to convert, “…decided to hedge their bets by adding the saints to their love of the sacred pipe." (Erdrich 250).

Time, religion, the law, exist on multiple planes, dipping, circling, weaving, intermingling with alternative codes in what Cixous considers a distinctly feminine manner. The woman writer, she contends, discovers a new history through the “…process of becoming in which several histories intersect with one another… woman always occurs simultaneously in several places” (882). Paula Gunn Allen, author of The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions, comments on the inherent femaleness of Native American life and storytelling: “Traditional tribal lifestyles [and literature],” she argues, “are more often gynocratic than not, and they are never patriarchal… American Indians [base] their social systems, however diverse, on ritual, spirit-centered, woman-focused worldviews” (2). This is a good thing, because the specter of male-dominated colonial tyranny and coercion hangs ominously over the world of Erdrich’s novel—over the round house, over Joe and his mother, over the Ojibwe people, over Erdrich herself—and Erdrich, as a warrior in Cixous’ feminine army, refuses to fight this enemy with the enemy’s weapons alone. In “American Histories, Native American Narratives,” ethnographer Arnold Krupat outlines the difficulty of squaring Native American history—which includes magic, circular narratives and ceremonial time—with western ideas of “legitimate” history:

Is it possible, then, to write history ethnocritically, somehow reconciling competing narratives and values? The question is of acute importance both to native people and to postcolonial historians who do not wish their work to be part of an ongoing record of might establishing right. For there is little doubt that the rationalist-secularist paradigm for writing history in the West has unfailingly trivialized native, indigenous, and traditional ways of doing and living knowledge, presenting to Native people the impossible choice, “be yourself or choose knowledge”(Kraput 168-9).

Erdrich proves that it is possible to write an ethnocritical novel. To tell Joe’s story in linear time alone, to subordinate traditional justice to American law, to give up native religious tropes for the tropes of Christianity, or to privilege any code over another in an effort to avoid code confusion—all of these would be examples of might establishing right: of subordination to the phallocentrism of the male western narrative. It is Joe who negotiates this razor’s edge of history, carves a semblance of justice into his “small forever.” but it is Erdrich herself who wears Cixous’ righteous armor, fighting her good fight, placing at the center of her novel—at the center of all these great, rippling narrative ellipses—an object that beats with a female heart: the round house, container and creator of stories, time and history.


Cited Sources

Allen, Paula Gunn. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Beacon Press. Boston. 1986. Print.

Cixous, Hélène. "The Laugh of the Medusa." Trans. Keith and Paula Cohen. Signs. Vol. 1, No. 4. Summer 1976. Print.

Deer, Sarah. “Sovereignty of the Soul: Exploring the Intersection of Rape Law Reform and Federal Indian Law.” Suffolk County Law Review. Vol 38. 2005. Print.

Erdrich, Louise. The Round House. Harper Collins. New York. 2012. Print.

Krupat, Arnold. “American Histories, Native American Narratives.” Early American Literature. Vol. 30, No. 2. 1995. Print.

Rainwater, Catherine. “Reading Between Worlds: Narrativity in the Fiction of Louise Erdrich.” American Literature. Sep 90, Vol. 62 Issue 3. Print.

Trickster in the Modern City

In Science Fiction Studies’ “Symposium on Slipstream,” authors and critics spill a fair amount of vitriolic ink raging against the codification of the slipstream genre (when not raging against the genre itself). Neil Easterbrook quips that the impulse to create a stable and static definition of it is the point at which “taxonomy becomes taxidermy” (13), and Jonathan Lethem urges us to reject “…brand new nomenclatures, apparently expressing the yearning for brand new self-referential politics of exclusion, defiance, caste-shame, and resentment” (15). So censorious is the polemic against slipstream that these authors do more to prove its dastardly hold over the psyche of the millennium than to reject it. It’s a genre that has, apparently, hit a nerve. Perhaps, like jazz, if you have to ask what it is, you’ll never know. We know—and many of us are affected by—slipstream when we see it. And boy do we see it in Michael Swanwick’s Dragons of Babel. Dragons is a novel that, through its fusion of realism and mythology, suggests slipstream might be an emergent phenomenon, rising organically from the ashes of modernity in order to synthesize the two halves of our fragmented modern souls.

Joseph Campbell can be seen everywhere in Dragons. His hero-orphan thwarts the dragon, discovers his noble parentage, and is apotheosized when he assumes the mantle of king. In parallel to this template of the monomyth, in almost every paragraph, our protagonist Will navigates our world: the dismal hyper-realism of late capitalism, full of urban blight; democratic principles stagnating in a swill of bureaucracy; institutionalized bigotry; and relentless, brutal, and meaningless war. We know this latter world—we recognize it as our own—even as we yearn for the former, the mythic. We have gritty, indifferent New York City. We long for its magical analogue, Babel. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell warns us that in current progressive societies around the world, “…every last vestige of the ancient human heritage of ritual, morality, and art is in full decay,” and that, within such a structure, “the timeless universe of symbols has collapsed” (Hero 334). He talks about the deterioration of social cohesion: that which served as the ethical, religious and mythological memory-keeper has been replaced by individualism and the secular state, engaged in “…hard and unremitting competition for material supremacy and resources” (Hero 334). Where is the magic—where are the heroes—in this world of “rationalized avarice” (Hero 337)?

Most fantasy novels (The Lord of the Rings is a prime exemplar) provide respite from the “real.” Readers, nostalgic for something they sense but haven’t experienced, seek refuge in fantasy in order to luxuriate for a time in a world alive with “grand narrative”—Campbell’s “human heritage of ritual, morality, and art.” Such novels replace the modern with a world unified and organized by myth. What Swanwick gives us—what perhaps the best of slipstream fiction gives—goes beyond pleasurable escape. He asks us to imagine our contemporary world with our old coordinating mythologies intact, by superimposing one upon the other. We know dragons don’t exist in this world of science and rationality, but we still have what dragons are a metaphor for—violence, greed, the seductively dangerous will to power. Swanwick literalizes the metaphor, making the dragon at once a sentient animal, capable of malice, persuasive discourse, and abuses of power, and a war machine, running on jet fuel and requiring a pilot: he is both the potential evil in the human mind and the machines of war such a mind creates. John Kessel, co-editor of Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology, notes that one of the hallmarks of slipstream fiction is the literalizing of metaphor (“Symposium” 15), and Swanwick literalizes everywhere, from the crusty old drunk who has fused bodily with her seedy downtown bar to the solipsistic power-monger who creates a whole army out of thin air so he can watch his soldiers die. With such literalization, Swanwick strives to resurrect Campbell’s “universe of symbols,” but his signifiers aren’t mere backward-pointing diversions. Rather, he endeavors to make these hieroglyphs legible in today’s world. It’s no surprise that when Will slays the dragon he merely internalizes the evil—he doesn’t vanquish it—a particularly modern trope of psychology’s “control and mastery” theory. Through narrative maneuvers like this, Swanwick shows us that our metaphors still have juice, still have the power to unify and organize our experience into coherent, interpretable shape. He invents a hero who, in Campbell’s words, attempts to “bring to light again the lost Atlantis of the co-ordinated soul” (334). Our souls may be different now, but they can still be understood—co-ordinated—through metaphor; through pointing to the signified (which is modernity-proof) with the rich signifiers of our heritage.

In addition to literalizing the god-and-monster metaphors, Swanwick literalizes the holistic nature of Campbell’s monomyth. His characters are self-consciously drawn from mythologies the world over. Classical Centaurs, Germanic elves, Japanese onis and Southern American haints coexist—often imperfectly—in the melting pot that is the novel, and the city Babel (like the languages in its biblical namesake). Such democracy evokes Campbell’s “hero’s journey,” which transcends any particular tradition, touching on the universality of human experience. This is our story, all of us, this negotiation between our heritage, in the form of myth, and the bleak here-and-now, in the form of progress and modernity. There isn’t a single place on earth—no remote forest tribe, no Himalayan village—safe from the encroachment of industrialization, a reality to which we have no choice but to adapt. Now that our world has globalized, and we all face many of the same enemies, our belief structures must negotiate not just with industrialization but with each other. Rationality has freed us all from what Campbell ironically calls the “bondage of tradition” (334): it strives to jettison myth—all that is “untrue”—from our lives. But, Dragons suggests, we might just need our myths, our resplendent metaphors, to guide us through the rites of passage in a world where individualism has replaced the group. In “Symposium on Slipstream,” Lance Olsen suggests that the art that connects us to earlier forms of reality-representation offers antidotes to the “hypermediatized, late-stage capitalist ‘reality’ that is no longer perceived as real” (16). Though we know they aren’t strictly “true,” our myths can lend a foundational reality the “real” no longer has; and by not privileging one mythological pantheon over another, Swanwick suggests that it hardly matters which symbolic framework we choose to organize our experience: we just need one of Campbell’s myths, those “spontaneous productions of the psyche” (Hero 2), or many of them—or all of them.

Campbell describes an emergent phenomenon when he says myths emanate spontaneously from the psyche, because the psyche, in this case, stands in for both the individual’s psyche and the collective one (2). In Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software, Steven Johnson explains that emergent phenomena are decentralized processes whereby millions of units of individual input make, collectively, decisions for the good of the whole, without benefit of leaders, or “pacemakers” (17). Myths, like cities, grow of their own accord out of the needs of the many. Intelligent decisions appear like magic, but “who,” asks Johnson, “is doing the conjuring?” (33). Once again, Swanwick literalizes the metaphor, here in the form of the emergent city. An urban denizen informs Will that Babel was built not as a city, but “…the framework of one—a double-helix of interlocking gyres…” where “Buildings are thrown up and torn down as needed, but the city goes on” (Swanwick 122). The city, in essence, is a character with a will (Will?) and a genotype, and at the same time it isn’t—it’s a swarm of self-interested individuals doing what they do to get ahead. Like the dragon, it exists as two things at once, its scientific taxonomy and the living idea for which it’s a metaphor. Johnson reminds us that even in science this “couple-coloredness” can exist, for a city is literally the sum of its residents, and also “…more than the sum of its residents—closer to a living organism, capable of adaptive change” (52). The process of myth-making, like the living city, arises out of the collective unconscious, and it’s just possible to see slipstream as a manifestation of a very specific human gene: our myth-making gene, our need for an organized social cohesion, sired not by our “pacemakers” but by our hearts.

To this end, Swanwick conflates two hero archetypes in the novel: the king and the trickster. While traditionally the king is a “pacemaker” who restores order and inculcates the law, the trickster’s job is to queer the pitch, or, as Campbell notes in the short film “Mythology of the Trickster,” he serves as the “Disruptor of Programs.” The trickster is the best man for the job of synthesizing the modern and mythological, because, by operating “bottom up” rather than “top down,” he endeavors to integrate a new way of thinking, not replace the old one. He is a catalyst for emergence. In “Trickster: Shaman of the Liminal,” Larry Ellis calls the trickster, “a creature of low purpose who establishes precedent, [and] dabbles in the creation of the world that will be” (55). Moreover, he notes the invaluable place of the trickster in myth:

The world of myth is a place of creation in which things and events, from the seemingly insignificant to the momentous, are altered in preparation for the world to come. Trickster is a figure of myth, and in singular fashion sets out to change the mythic landscape in every area imaginable (Ellis 57).

Nat, Will’s father and the novel’s absent king, primes his son to be this catalyst, ready to reach “every area imaginable.” He explains the role of the trickster this way: “We keep things stirred up. Without us, the world would grow stale and stagnant. Every life we’ve touched today has been made richer and stranger” (Swanwick 234). What Will learns about kingship is that its main function is not to embody justice and power, as his advisors counsel; nor to destroy the evil Babylon, as the dragon within him urges; nor to impose order over a chaotic city, as the citizens of Babel expect. No. Nat puts the king’s role best when he contends that, “It isn’t for me to increase or decrease the total amount of virtue or vice in the world—just to keep things stirred up. To keep us all from dying of predictability” (Swanwick 234). Swanwick could be teaching us to negotiate a world whose prime directive is to slaughter magic and erect the static “real” in its place. Or, correspondingly, he could be writing a treatise on slipstream itself.

Whatever we call slipstream—magical realism, metafiction, experimental fiction, counter-realism—it is, like the trickster himself, our agent provocateur, the “Disruptor of Programs,” the creature “of low purpose” who changes the world. Many signifiers, the rational and the irrational, can point to the same signified, and no single definition is sufficient—is even possible. No wonder the folks of the slipstream symposium are enraged with the necessity of pinpointing, of defining a category genetically blueprinted to resist stasis. How do you create a taxonomy when the basis is manifold, when the genre emerges out of spiritus mundi to fulfill whatever collective need produced it? Pinning it down changes it—makes it taxidermy rather than taxonomy. Will realizes that after he changes the world he must disappear, because the world needs a disruptor, not a pacemaker. So he does, only to resurface later, as legends do, when they’re needed, to start the cycle over again. He, and slipstream itself, are Campbell’s modern heroes, “…rendering the modern world spiritually significant” (Hero 334) by allowing the myth-making half of our soul to sooth the restless, rational, post-modern half, the one hungry for co-ordination, for our lost “universe of symbols.”

Cited Sources

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Novato, California: New World Library. 2008. Print.

Campbell, Joseph. “Mythology of the Trickster.” Magic, Myth and Folklore Videos. BOAS Network. Feb 17 2014. Web. Dec 6 2015.

Easterbrook, Neil. “Symposium on Slipstream.” Science Fiction Studies. Vol. 38, No.1. March 2011. Print.

Ellis, Larry. “Trickster: Shaman of the Liminal.” Studies in American Indian Literatures. Ser. 2, Vol. 5, No. 4. Winter 1993. Print.

Johnson, Steven. “The Myth of the Ant Queen.” Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software. New York: Scribner. 2001. Print.

Kessel, John. “Symposium on Slipstream.” Science Fiction Studies. Vol. 38, No.1. March 2011. Print.

Lethem, Jonathan. “Symposium on Slipstream.” Science Fiction Studies. Vol. 38, No.1. March 2011. Print.

Olsen, Lance. “Symposium on Slipstream.” Science Fiction Studies. Vol. 38, No.1. March 2011. Print.

Swanwick, Michael. The Dragons of Babel. New York: Tor Books. 2007. Print.

Die to Live

Tragic heroes have death to purify them. Death sets all to rights. Comedies have no such recourse: whatever transgressions have upset the social balance must be restored to rights by a wedding, a trope of the comic genre. But some comedies delve into waters too murky to fix with marriage alone. While no one can speak to authorial intent, it’s tempting to imagine Shakespeare’s interweaving of the two narratives into Much Ado About Nothing as an exploration of such murky waters, deliberately contrasting two different philosophies of love. In our sympathies, the text critiques one and exalts the other. One constellation of characters represents a Medieval template of chivalric love, wherein men of solid virtue (galvanized by war and homosocial bonds) woo women of blemishless honor—women who deign to step down from their pedestals only in acceptance of a decorous marriage proposal. Reputation weighs more, in this lofty love-trope, than human trust and respect. Don Pedro, Claudio, and Hero are of this category, and they are doomed to failure within the worldview of the play. In fact, their decisions go so terribly awry that a simple marriage isn’t enough to redeem them. A tragic death is necessary. Hero doesn’t really die, but her faked death, like the real death in a tragedy, restores the play’s moral equilibrium, and with it the play makes its main point: that the false ideal of courtly love should—indeed must—“die” to give room to more human-scale notions of sympathy, parity, and understanding in conjugal relationships.

To help us to this valuable lesson, we get the play’s other love prototype, Benedick and Beatrice. These lovers woo on equal footing to one another, and are well-matched in intelligence, agency, individuation, and humor. They are people, not abstractions. Their relationship is based not on any template of love, but on the true meeting of minds. The audience relishes their courtship, and the stilted relationship between Claudio and Hero becomes a low-fidelity shadow in comparison, moving to the back of the viewer’s mind. It is almost as if Beatrice and Benedick have been imported into Much Ado from a different play. To sweep out the cobwebs, perhaps?—to shine light into the dark corners of convention? They do to the language of the play what they do to its ethos—queer the pitch; lend their all-too-human wit and vitality to the tired rhetoric of courtship; fuel the drama with their inexhaustible, bawdy joy—and they do it with such panache that they are, for many viewers, the only memorable part of the play. See how, when Benedick is in the room, the language of the others changes. In Act I, when Claudio and Don Pedro speak, they follow the script of chivalric codes: Claudio asks of Hero, “Can the world buy such a jewel?” To which Benedick quips, “Yea, and a case to put it in” (I.i.175-6). Don Pedro attests to her “worthiness” as well, in a lordly dialect that matches Claudio’s (I.i.220). But within a few pages Benedick has them all talking with low-brow humor of sexual appetites, women’s infidelity, brothels and “horn-mad” husbands, making the mannered jargon of the previous pages feel stilted and out-of-date (I.i.250-60): he cannot help but replace ideals with life, real life, and this makes the audience his ally. This happens virtually any time Benedick is in the scene, and when he isn’t, the characters fall joylessly to their practiced scripts. Likewise, Beatrice runs circles around her dullard cousin with her wit until she fluffs Hero up into the same kind of boisterousness that keeps her real and lovable—and too large and human to fit into the two-dimensional “virginal maiden” schema.

It is unsurprising that masks and masquerades thread through this play, for the conflict between role-playing and authenticity lies at the crux of the drama. The scales fall from the eyes of our beloved hero and heroine when they trade in their sharp tongues—tongues that have insulated them from vulnerability—for self-knowledge and the authentic love of and for one another. For the characters still beholden to the Platonic shadows of the Romance genre, the transformation comes at a greater cost. The audience watches in horror as Claudio publicly shames Hero. We don’t cringe because he is wrong (though he is—on virtually every level), but because, the play suggests, this outcome is the inevitable result of holding a lover to unrealistic standards. The chivalric code forces us to be perfect, and to expect perfection from our potential spouse. That, Shakespeare suggests, isn’t tenable. We fall hard when we have that far to fall. Claudio becomes nearly irredeemable at his public humiliation of Hero, but Hero, for agreeing to play the part of the slandered maiden, is culpable as well. After all, if you play in a world where masks are more important than reality, a seeming betrayal, hid by the “sign and semblance of… honor” (IV.i.41) makes you as guilty as a real one: the seeming is everything. So she must be punished (it’s rather a shame that Claudio isn’t punished more, for his cruelty to a grieving father if not his unnecessary cruelty to a lover). She, like the de casibus hero (Hero?), must die. But her death is a kind of purgation, releasing the play from the stranglehold of the past, allowing her and her lover to be “re-born” into the more winsome world of Beatrice and Benedick.

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William. Much Ado About Nothing. Signet Classics, 1998.

Parsing Our Discontent

Shakespeare's titular Richard III reveals his rhetorical brilliance in the play's very first line. “Now is the winter of our discontent” (I.i.1). Winter, in poetry and art, represents death, ending, hibernation, and privation—it is a catch-all metaphor for loss and melancholy. But he thwarts our expectations upon finishing the sentence. It is not winter, it is the winter (read: death) of our discontent. Richard creates, in effect, a rhetorical double-negative, suggesting that what is ending or dying is not the mortal body or the natural landscape, but the unhappiness that has subsumed England during the protracted War of the Roses. But his word choice—the double-negative aspect of it—suggests that this death of discontent might be, for him, a “winter” in a more traditional poetic sense. He goes on: “Made glorious summer by this son of York” (I.i.2), which carries the seasonal metaphor to its logical conclusion, yes, but also manages to slip some further wordplay into the mix: a theater audience might hear “son” as “sun,” and might be further aware that Richard’s brother Edward IV’s emblem was “three shining sunnes” (Henry VI, Folger Shakespeare). This single line takes us on a rollercoaster of emotions, from death, to the death of unhappiness, to the radiant and temperate warmth of the sun and summer, to perhaps admiration that this has all been accomplished with such verbal economy. Richard’s brilliance (and perhaps his untrustworthiness) are revealed in his first line and maintained throughout the speech. He’s clever. He’s a master wordsmith. He knows how to make allies, and he has already made allies of us (it almost feels the “our” in “our discontent” refers to the audience and Richard, rather than to those sharing his story, so chummy and intimate are his “honeyed” words). Or perhaps, as the speech goes on, we become not his allies, but his aiders and abettors, complicit in his crimes.

Richard spends thirteen lines total on metaphors of violence giving way to gentle calm, and then there is a turn in his rhetoric. This turn invites us further into his machinations, for we alone are privileged with his intimate private thoughts:

But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking glass…                                    
                                           Sent before my time
Into this breathing world scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them…
I… have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to see my shadow in the sun
And descant on my own deformity (I.i.14-27).

He has warmed us with the sun of his words, but now he reveals that he alone cannot enjoy the “sun” of his brother’s newfound peace. The lofty, chummy “we” has given way to a series of “I” statements, preceded by the word “but.” We might suspect, by now, that Richard is building a syllogistic argument, and it sounds like he is building it on solid logical grounds. The foundation? His is a body not built for peace. The winter of our discontent is the “spring” of his. This section lasts fourteen lines, in balance with the first thirteen. So far so cogent. He has won our sympathies—or at least our fascination—by “descanting” on his physical disfiguration (so dramatic that dogs howl when he passes). By the time we get to the soliloquy’s second turn—the “therefore” in the syllogism—we are his creatures. He seduces us as easily as he seduces the hapless Lady Anne later in Act I. No matter that this last part of the speech proceeds on logically fallacious grounds.

The final fourteen lines of Richard’s soliloquy bypass logic altogether. He draws a conclusion from the data he presented in the previous sections (the discontent is over; he is physically unable to enjoy the ensuing content), and his conclusion sounds logical:

And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasure of these days (I.i.28-31).

No one has given Richard binary options—enjoy peace or be a villain—but that is where his equivocation leads, and we’re there with him. Or, more accurately, a step or two behind him. When we finally catch up, Richard has revealed that his dastardly plans are not occurring in some vague future, they are already in motion. He has set his brother king against his other brother Clarence. We don’t know yet (but suspect) that he has designs to steal the throne by removing all those before him in the line of succession, and he means to use wit, deceit, and subterfuge to do so, just as he’s done to us in the speech. By his own admission, he is “subtle, false, and treacherous” (I.i.37), a word trio that is manifest in his dealings with us so far, but which does little to alienate our sympathies. We want to watch him succeed through sheer willpower, even as we know that this fiery brand of intelligence, because it is built on such shaky ground, will burn itself out. A tragic fall is inevitable.

A savvy reader might here return to ponder the soliloquy’s first line again: “Now is the winter of our discontent.” Since winter is a process, not an end state, we can see the statement as both an observation first about the current state of affairs at the opening of the play, second a commentary about where the play is heading, and lastly an observation about history in general: it’s going to get worse before it gets better. We need to endure a lot more winter—in the form of murders, betrayals, deceptions, and the loss of Richard’s bantering confidence—before we get to the play’s conclusion, when the good and noble (but much less likeable) Richmond wrests the crown from Richard’s deformed hand. The seasonal metaphor suggests a cyclical, not teleological, end, which is more like actual history—tyrants and just leaders rise and fall, rise and fall, in a cycle almost as predictable as the seasons. The metaphorical War of the Roses, ergo, never ends. After this play’s winter, we get an ending that feels inevitable, and that is ethically satisfying, but that leaves us a little queasy. How could we have spent so long supporting a character who is wicked by his own admission? How come the flat affect of Richmond doesn’t stir us the way the villain’s sparkling and dangerous intellect does? We’ve been accomplices to evil, and in that sense the play warns us about the deceptive power of equivocation (a concept about which there was much anxiety in the Elizabethan era). But it also, in the words of one of our classmates, gives us “a joyride with the bad guy,” and that feels good. Maybe we all need a shot of “proxy evil” now and then to help keep us on the straight and narrow? Just a thought. Or maybe it’s I who’s equivocating.

Cited Sources

Shakespeare, William. Richard III. The Folger Shakespeare Library, 1996.

Feminism's Uncertainty Principle

In the 1970s, my mother wore do-rags, men’s trousers and no bra. She breast-fed my little sister in public. Her legs were unshaven. She was outspoken about the subjugation of women, and spoke with embarrassing nonchalance about the pill, Fear of Flying and female sexuality. I adored my mother. But when I was a teenager, her uniform-like brand of feminism began to mortify me. I didn’t understand until later that my mother was rejecting the gender expectations she carried from her family, that as a woman she existed to be merely decorative. Her feminism was appropriate to her context, inappropriate to mine.

By the time I was politically aware, forcing myself into the shape of my mother’s feminism seemed as claustrophobic as my mother felt in pancake makeup and a beehive. Her feminism seemed to promote agitation for agitation’s sake, not as a means to social change. I also found that it equated strength with masculinity, which seemed a self-defeating paradox. When I became a young adult, I adopted the left-wing-yet-politically-inactive affect of practiced, erudite cynicism, like my other “Generation X” compatriots.

I am older now, and hopefully wiser, but I still cringe inwardly when I come across essays such as Jane Gallop’s “Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment.” My mind rebels against her whiny, narcissistic meanness, even as I agree in part with her thesis. She argues that a woman, by definition, cannot be guilty of sexual harassment because sexual harassment is a symptom of male domination. It occurs in societies where men wield institutionalized power over women. As a feminist issue, it concerns gender, not power. “Feminists took up the issue because we saw it as a form of sex discrimination,” says Gallop, “but sexual harassment is increasingly understood as having no necessary link to either discrimination or gender” (844). Though Gallop makes a compelling point, I recoil from the idea that she, as a feminist, is morally pure by definition, and thus beyond reproach. I show the article to my mother, who, at sixty-five, is dignified, beautiful, and scholarly (I cannot now imagine what ever embarrassed me about her). She dons her reading glasses, scans the essay, and shakes her head sadly. “I wish it was easier to like Gallop,” she says, “but she is doing feminists a disservice. She is using her position of authority to excuse her own bad behavior. That’s just what men do.”

And so I begin to rethink my prejudices about feminism. After all, fundamental rights such as suffrage, property ownership, and access to education are luxuries purchased for me by the activism of previous generations of feminists. My mother’s generation championed sexual liberation, acknowledged gender-based wage discrepancies and began to tackle such endemic social problems as sexual assault and sexual harassment in the workplace. So I cannot credit my reaction to Gallop’s essay to a distaste for feminism itself. What bothers me is that Gallop has not evolved along with feminism, which has been evolving since long before she was born and will continue to evolve when I am no longer here to critique her. There is an unfortunate and specifically contemporary distortion of feminismand sexual harassment, and many other formerly noble civil rights movementswherein the creation of oppressors and victims has taken on more importance than their elimination, and where the “oppressed” need take no responsibility for their actions. In the past, when women were subject to draconian and hypocritical moral laws, a respite from responsibility might have served us well. In 1994, Gallop’s essay does not.

Gallop uses a feminist pretext to exonerate herself from charges of sexual harassment filed against her by her own graduate students. This motive would be suspicious even if she disclosed the nature of the offenses. That she remains secretive about them discredits her further. In her own argument, she cannot possibly be wrong because she is a feminist. Now that feminists are faculty members, “…students can experience their feminist teachers as having power over them. And that makes it possible to imagine a feminist teacher as a sexual harasser” (841). Her gender and her job are cited as evidence in her favor, though it is clear, even to a reader who has read no other accounts of the charges, that she has abused her power. Gallop weakens her valid points about the dangers of turning harassment into a gender-neutral issue by arrogantly excusing herself from any misconduct. She has taken on the posture of male hegemony. Her behavior imitates the most shameful qualities of the oppressor.

In our society, it is still a fact that women are at a physiological and economic disadvantage. They are more vulnerable to sexual attack and coercion. The combination of men’s physiology and their social position makes them more likely to be sexual harassersand get away with itthan women. Gallop takes issue with the law and the public for refusing to distinguish between the genders. We cannot pretend that men and women have equal faculty to exploit one another, but we also should not pretend that women are incapable of abusing their authority. An abuse of power is what it is, whoever the perpetrator. Until there is true equality, and despite the inefficiency of such measures, our current world calls for separate offenses to be named separately.


Women are granted unprecedented equality by sexual harassment laws. The legal definition of sexual harassment, according to The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission notes that, “…the victim as well as the harasser may be a woman or a man.” Gallop and I reject this definition of sexual harassment. Audre Lorde, in her essay “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference”, says succinctly, “…it is… not black lesbians who are assaulting women and raping children in our community…” (122). But if I want justice, I am obliged to practice what I preach. Lorde is not saying that black lesbians cannot commit abuses, just that they are less likely to commit certain kinds of abuses. We all must decide through common sense what is too intangibletoo subtly shadedto write into law.  “Too often,” says Lorde, “we pour the energy needed for recognizing and exploring difference into pretending those differences… do not exist…” (115).

Legal definitions, though indispensable, will always lag behind. They are not substitutes for truth and should not hold back the progress of thought. Over the last 200 years, feminism has changed on a decade-by-decade basis. For the first fifth of the 20th century, women couldn’t vote. Now one can earn a degree in Women’s Studies from most universities. This is progress, from a feminist standpoint. Now we move on to the next issue, and the law must eventually, clumsily follow. In physics, an electron’s position and momentum cannot be simultaneously ascertained, and likewise the definition of feminism is subject to its own “uncertainty principle:” when we define it, we change it. We must understand the limitations of a single definition, and we must even more elegantly and humbly sidestep the pitfalls of legal definitions. In fact, the only definition we can apply with any certainty to feminism is that it is a messy, evolving business that must change constantly as values and priorities change, and, most importantly, as goals are achieved.

My mother knows this. She puts Gallop’s essay aside as she orders her fish, asking the waitress fifteen questions about how ethically it was caught. She is pretty in a blue Chinese silk blouse and slim black slacks. She no longer needs the “uniform” of 70s feminism to know that she is a feminist. She is not fragile and vulnerable, and she is not a bully. “Feminism’s in your hands now,” she jokes. She is not wrong.

I would like to save feminism from both the oppression of institutionalized sexism and from those, like Gallop, who would sully feminism by committing abuses in its name. It is time for a more evolved definition of feminism, one that accounts for the inherent uncertainty involved in defining itself. Our objective is equality, our enemy is the inequality that still exists, and our challenge is to be ethical people without an exact blueprint for what an ethical person is. We cannot use the standards set up for us by our oppressors. Lorde puts it beautifully when she notes “…the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (123). Women have not yet achieved parity with men. Such parity is my task, and the task of future generations of feminists.

Cited Sources­­­

Gallop, Jane. “Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment.” The Examined Life. Class Handout. 839-845

Lorde, Audre. “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference.” Sister Outsider. New York: The Crossing Press, 1984

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission EEOC, 28 Feb 2007

Swigart, Jane. Personal Interview. 5 March, 2007

For Our Sins

Even though contemporary theories about Shakespeare's Hamlet often overlook its historical context, opting instead for a psychoanalytic read of its title character, it can also be read as a psychomachic exploration, building multiple cultural anxieties into a single psyche. Hamlet is a character of great sympathy, but one, perhaps, unfit for kingship, and not for the reasons he himself lays out (that he should be more like Fortinbras, acting for the sake of action). Difficulties of legitimate succession set the play within a constellation of political struggles that plagued England at the time of its writing, but that were illegal to openly discuss. A reading of Hamlet through this lens can therefore provide insight both into the play and into the political climate of Shakespeare’s day. Fin de siècle Elizabethan anxieties about succession predated Elizabeth I. They weren’t resolved (were perhaps intensified) by the end of her rule. She was, after all, the issue of the unpopular Anne Boleyn, who had been put to death for treasonous incest; she never married or conceived an heir; and she presided over a country deeply divided over religion. Hamlet, it could be argued, becomes a scapegoat for succession anxiety itself, presenting an inner debate that safely—that is, without threat of treason—explores issues of rightful kingship.

Anne Boleyn

Hamlet is naturally squeamish about his mother’s “o’erhasty marriage” (II.ii.57). The play evinces an almost prurient fixation on the couple’s “enseamed bed” (III.iv.94), driving home again and again the incest of the union. The former squeamishness can of course be explained away by grief for the lost father and the latter by the reality that marrying a sibling’s former spouse was legally forbidden at the time. But to an early modern audience the question must have cut deeper, resonating on a more proximate and politically dangerous level. Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, used the incest excuse on two separate occasions, first to sever from his wife Catherine (his brother’s former wife), and second from Elizabeth’s mother, whom he executed for the crime of incest. She may or may not have bedded her own brother, but in “The Fall of Anne Boleyn,” G. W. Bernard notes that the detailed voyeurism of the court transcripts show a country obsessed with the “rank sweat” of the antecedent of Gertrude’s “enseamed bed” (584). Hamlet overflows with language both fascinated and disgusted by incest. Contemporary theorists read Oedipal obsession into this detail, but front-and-center in an early modern consciousness was the incest trial of Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth’s legitimacy, it goes without saying, was compromised by the accusations against her mother, and continued to plague her during her rule. Her dying father wrote her back into the line of succession while still maintaining her illegitimacy—an old man’s last-ditch attempt to keep his own blood in the throne of England (Bernard 586). Hamlet’s Denmark has what England had been longing for: a savvy, intellectually astute, legitimate male heir of marriageable age. But Hamlet does not, mysteriously, inherit the throne. Rather, some sort of under-explained voting process has led to his murderous uncle’s ascendancy.

Thus the play confronts the reader with the question: why isn’t Hamlet king? In Saxo Grammaticus’ source material for the play, Geste Danorum, the hero Amleth kills his fratricidal uncle and assumes the crown. The restoration of bloodline sets all to rights (Grammaticus 128). Even if Hamlet had acted in time, the play does not assure us he would have been a strong leader. Hamlet is a puer aeternis, battling, literally, with the ghost of a dead father. He is far more obsessed with death and the dead than with life and the living. Further complicating the issue is the fact that Shakespeare renders Claudius as a shrewd politician, capable of intelligent decisions (where Hamlet’s father slaughters his enemies, Claudius avoids war through diplomatic avenues). Claudius gives Hamlet the pragmatic warning that “to persever / In obstinate condolement is a course / Of impious stubbornness. ‘Tis unmanly grief” (I.ii.92-4). He might be heartless and self-serving, telling Hamlet to stop mourning his dead father, but his advice to look forward instead of backward is politically appropriate: were Hamlet to become king, his solipsistic grief would conflict with affairs of state.

Hamlet’s refusal to give up the mien of grief appeals to our present-day sensibilities. In the Oxford lecture series “Approaching Shakespeare,” Emma Smith discusses how Hamlet is more comfortable in our contemporary world than in his own. Many critics, she says, credit Hamlet’s 20th century success to Shakespeare’s prescience: he was anticipating the existential angst of the modern psyche. She describes Hamlet’s soliloquies, in today’s conception of them, as the “completely overdetermined articulation of man caught in the process of emotional and intellectual formation” (Smith). She notes that this is not an early modern read: to the Elizabethan, Hamlet’s unhealthy and backward-looking preoccupation with the “golden age” of his father make him a poor choice for leadership, since a sovereign was the only one allowed to look forward. To imagine an “after” in the rule of a king was to imagine his death and thereby to commit treason (Bernard 601), whereas a king needed to make the arrangements for his own succession. Hamlet cannot look forward. Were he to inherit the crown, he could not do what a king must do. The play spends a lot of airtime on Hamlet’s ghost-fueled fantasy of a prelapsarian paradise wherein the play’s other “Hamlet,” the dead king, could sleep, unafraid, in a garden (an obvious biblical allusion, complete with serpent). This until, equally biblically, Claudius befouls the paradise by committing a crime with “the primal eldest curse upon’t / A brother’s murder” (III.iii.37-8). The “hyperion” father so overshadows the young Hamlet that he finds himself unable to succeed, both in the sense of legal succession and in the sense of personal success. Tellingly, Shakespeare deviates from the source material by doubling the name “Hamlet.” The first time we hear Horatio refer to “valiant Hamlet” (I.i.84) he is speaking of the dead king, not the living son, and this doubling is mirrored in the play’s foils, Fortinbras and his son. The younger Hamlet, we come to see, is paralyzed with hero-worship. Young Fortinbras' flaw is unreflecting. At a time in history when generations of monarchs were failing to produce legal heirs, and legal justifications were needed to name a successor (almost never without bloodshed), the play calls into question the notion that blood determines legitimacy. It does this within a well-established theatrical idiom that almost always makes the opposite point: the revenge play.

Finally, the play explores, in a circumspect way, themes of religion, creating a religious tension between a father whose very existence is “illegal” and a son struggling for legitimacy. The ghost returns to earth, “Doomed for a certain term to walk the night, / And for the day confined to fast in fires, / Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature / Are burnt and purged away” (I.v.10-3). In Shakespeare’s day, purgatory was a banned belief. Hamlet must struggle with what must have been a recognizable conundrum to an English audience: Catholic fathers and their Protestant sons privately struggling to reconcile the enforced worldview shift—for to struggle publicly with it was to commit treason. Though Shakespeare needn’t name the university Hamlet attends, he goes out of his way to put him in school in Wittenberg, a city inextricably linked to Martin Luther and the protestant revolution. Horatio, too, is a student at Wittenberg, and warns Hamlet not to fall for the ghost’s tricks: “What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord, / Or to the dreadful summit of a cliff” (I.iv.69-70). He sees the ghost as the potentially dangerous vestige of a forbidden practice. Early modern audiences, too, would have been acutely aware of the issues of conflicting religions and the political dangers therein.

Shakespeare renders up Hamlet as a sort of sacrificial lamb to the prevailing anxieties of the day. He does so in part to get around the Bishop’s Ban, which prevented the exploration of similar themes reserved for the history play genre (Smith). Poor Hamlet dies for our sins. But he can rest easier in his grave: his suffering over the course of the play does for audiences what all great art does: it allows us to wrestle with our angels without threat to our persons, working through the tough questions in a kind of “trial run” in which no real person is sacrificed. He takes the fall for the anxieties of his time. And as with truly great art, he also allows contemporary audiences the same benefit: what we see in Hamlet is not what the early moderns saw, but as a character he provides as much grist for our contemporary mill as he did for our predecessors’, and who knows? Maybe Shakespeare was prescient enough to anticipate more issues of generations yet to come. Maybe Hamlet will reveal yet more of heaven and earth than is dreamt of in our philosophy…

Works Cited

Bernard, G. W. “The Fall of Anne Boleyn.” The English Historical Review: Vol. 106, No. 420 Jul., 1991. 584-610.

Grammaticus, Saxo. Gesta Danorum, Book 3-4. Tr. Oliver Elton. David Nutt, 1894.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Signet Classics, 1998.

Smith, Emma. “Approaching Shakespeare: Hamlet.” University of Oxford Podcasts. Mediapub, 2012.

Entirely in Your Hands

The Search for Authority in Moore and Gibbon’s Watchmen

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
Who guards the guardians themselves? [1]
— Decimus Junis Juvenal, Satura VI

The question Just who are the watchmen? sounds facile when asked of Dave Gibbons’ and Alan Moore’s graphic masterpiece Watchmen. The superheroes, of course: this is, after all, a comic book. But a closer examination of the title, like so much else in the book, reveals its complexity. The reader sees the Juvenal quote scrawled on walls and storefronts in virtually every chapter of the novel, diegetically referring to the masked vigilantes. But then it finally appears in epigraph (epitaph?) alone on the final page, after the world has been “saved” by its masked heroes. Neither generational cadre of superheroes calls itself “The Watchmen” (the older generation dub themselves “The Minutemen;” the younger group, ridiculously, “The Crimebusters”). The book’s epigraph, taken from the Tower Commission Report (post facto even from the standpoint of the book’s publication), places the question unsettlingly into our world. The characters, too, seem alarmed at the intrusion of the “real” world into their comic book universe, where morality is meant to be a simple choice; where good prevails, evil is thwarted, due to the drive, determination, and cooperation of the heroes. The moral framework of the protagonists is as unwavering as it should be in the superhero genre. The problem is they don’t share the same moral framework, and thus find themselves embroiled in a battle royale of warring philosophies—not the dialectic of good and evil we all expect from comics, but in the messy and godless way it plays out in the world around us—between and among the “good guys.” Ozymandias embodies utilitarian principles; Rorschach is a deontologist, exercising the categorical imperative; and Dr. Manhattan becomes a kind of reductio ad absurdum Übermensch—but at the novel’s heart lies the unsettled and, by all measures unsettlable, question of authority: who gives authority to the watchmen, who polices them, and, more unsettlingly still, who, at the end of the day, at the end of the story, are the watchmen?


Extra-diegetically, the watchmen are almost certainly not the superheroes. The novel’s “winner,” “savior,” “villain,” as you like, is Ozymandias, the superhero moniker of Adrian Veidt, a man of almost superhuman intelligence and physical prowess, possessed of an ego to match. The only thing distinguishing him from a supervillain is that instead of seeking world domination when he destroys New York City via a lab-manufactured monster, he is seeking (no, really) world peace. Veidt successfully staves off nuclear war between terrestrial enemies by forcing warring nations to unite against a common alien enemy. He doesn’t even want credit in the traditional sense; he’s satisfied to quietly pull the strings from the sidelines. His actions are utilitarian in the extreme, in that they enact, perfectly, “the greatest good for the greatest number:” he kills a few million to save billions. His maniacal self-aggrandizement, however, complicates beyond repair our sympathies. He delivers a protracted, two-chapter speech about his plot, first to his dead servants and then to other masked comrades (his servants he kills, along with the others who know his machinations; his comrades he spares only because he has stalemated them into silence). This speech, too, compromises his heroism, for the simple reason that, per the comics trope, prideful oration is commonly (and hubristically) delivered by villains. Instead of a comeuppance at the close of the speech, as the trope would have it, Ozymandias reveals that his plan already happened: “I’m not a republic serial villain,” he says in response to the threat of being stopped, “Do you seriously think I’d explain my masterstroke if there remained the slightest chance of you affecting the outcome?” (Moore & Gibbons 375). Some readers might be sympathetic to the ends-justify-the-means philosophy of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, but the comics conventions curtail the sympathy of such readers for Veidt.


Rorschach, the “true” identity of one Walter Kovacs, has a worldview that stands in direct opposition to Veidt’s. He is beholden to a rigid, unflinching moral code, and feels obsessively duty-bound to carry it out. He outlines it in his journal: “There is good and there is evil, and evil must be punished. Even in the face of Armageddon I shall not compromise in this” (Moore & Gibbons 32). In the carrying out of this code, he reasons, he must break a few eggs. Most of the eggs are the fingers of criminals, but he doesn’t balk at taking their lives either. He, like the traditional superhero, is a true Kantian, in that the moral imperative by which he lives is entirely without compromise (Kant 21). But his heroism, like Veidt’s, is compromised— by reality: for who gives any one of us the right to decide what deserves punishment? The social contract forbids such vigilantism, and for good reason: we must make such decisions collectively or risk the arbitrary judgment of others, however mentally unsound (Hector Godfrey, the gruff, right-wing editor of the New Frontiersman quips, significantly, when his assistant Seymour reads him the first few lines of Rorschach’s journal, “Jesus, who’s it from? Son of Sam?” [Moore & Gibbons 338]). When, at the end of the book, Rorschach is asked to go along with Veidt’s plan, he repeats his mantra, though he knows, this time, it is literal: “Not even in the face of Armageddon. Never compromise” (Moore & Gibbons 402). He will reveal the plot even at the cost of his own life and the lives of the billions saved from nuclear apocalypse, because for a Kantian, no one man (let alone millions) can ever be a means—humans, in Kant’s moral universe, are all ends in themselves (Kant 21). Rorschach’s stalwart adherence to a code, however perverted, makes him far more of a tragic antihero than Veidt, and the reader pities him when Dr. Manhattan implodes him outside Veidt’s artic lair, Karnak.

Dr. Manhattan

Friedrich Nietzsche

In Dr. Manhattan, Moore and Gibbons give us a true superman. Nietzsche might not recognize his Übermensch. But Dr. Manhattan behaves in ways the theoretical Übermensch, taken to its logical conclusion, likely would behave: he is depicted throughout the book as a man locked in a losing battle with his own indifference to human morality, agency, politics, and allegiances. If humanity did evolve, as Nietzsche speculated, into something mentally and physically superior, with the attributes of a god, he might, instead of becoming a ruler of men, become another species entirely, losing interest in men and their small preoccupations. And indeed, after Jon Osterman’s nuclear accident transforms him into Dr. Manhattan, giving him actual superpowers, he acts first as a political tool, aligned, by default, with American interests: he wins the Vietnam war and allows himself to be used to intimidate the rest of the world into submission to America’s will (allowing for a fourth term for Richard Nixon). But, as he can see and understand matter on an atomic level, isn’t beholden to time’s linearity, and is functionally immortal, he loses interest in the petty, violent, short-sighted dramas of human politics and emotions. When asked about Dr. Manhattan’s political allegiance in an interview, Veidt quips: “Which do you prefer, red ants or black ants?” (380). Russians, we assume, are the red ants in his metaphor. Lest we fail to see that this Übermensch is by all measures a god, we see him, in his final moments before leaving earth forever, walking on water, after one of his only smiles—at the sleeping bodies of his former lover in the arms of another (this is the book’s subtle suggestion that human love, frailty, and sympathy are the only causes worth fighting for, putting to shame the lofty abstractions of philosophy). After walking on water, Dr. Manhattan then engages in the following exchange with Veidt:

DR. MANHATTAN: Human affairs cannot be my concern. I’m leaving this galaxy for one less complicated.
VEIDT: But you’d regained interest in human life.
DR. MANHATTAN: Yes, I have. I think perhaps I’ll create some (Moore & Gibbons 409).

After this comes one of the most profound exchanges in the book, when Veidt’s confidence falters, and we see the shortsightedness of his plan (the shortsightedness that curses all mortal beings):

VEIDT: I did the right thing, didn’t I? It all worked out in the end.
DR. MANHATTAN: “In the end?” Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends (Moore & Gibbons 409).

That the two are standing in front of an orrery is surely no accident, for earlier in the novel Dr. Manhattan opines that the universe is a “makerless mechanism,” a clockwork that runs without end, bereft of a creator (Moore & Gibbons 138). And here, in front of this clockwork solar system, he decides to become, at last, a watchmaker.

The book's final panel

The haunting strains of “Nothing ever ends,” and the imagery that unites the book’s closing with its opening, prompt the reader to reread the book. Rereading Watchmen is crucial to understanding it, so on a fundamental level, Dr. Manhattan is right: even the book, in a sense, doesn’t end. It’s an ouroboros swallowing its own tail. The cyclical impulse causes some of the clockwork pieces, on a second and third read, to fall into place. The book opens with an image of a smiley face, its bilateral symmetry violated by a bloodstain: the pin worn by The Comedian, whose murder sets the book’s events in motion. In text boxes above the images we get Rorschach’s rambling journal. The final scene shows Seymour of The New Frontiersman, reaching toward the “crank pile,” where Rorschach’s journal lies (a journal exposing Veidt’s plan), waiting to be burned. Seymour wears a smiley face shirt, and we watch ketchup spill over the smiley face’s eye in the exact pattern of the book’s opening. We can’t help but wonder whether the book’s events have been told in retrospect by the furthest thing from a hero: Seymour, the chubby, right-wing slob with buck teeth and very little demonstrated agency. Godfrey’s words accompany Seymour’s reaching hand, prompting him to choose from the crank file whatever he wants to run in the magazine: “I leave it entirely in your hands” (Moore & Gibbons 414). Has Seymour been the orchestrator of the book’s omniscient narration? The idea seems implausible, but it’s there in his name—a homophone for “see more” —and yes, if he sees the contents of the journal, he “sees more” than any other living being in the book, whose view of events are partial, contingent, or compromised (even Dr. Manhattan cannot see futures beyond his own, and thus does not anticipate Veidt’s potential failure). His name might also be prompting us, the readers, to “see more” through another read. So, is Seymour, as potential omniscient narrator, a possible Watchman (the “watch-man” or watchmaker who turns the gears of the plot)? Has he already orchestrated the destruction of the world by exposing Veidt’s plan? Or is he one of many cogs?


The superheroes, no Watchmen, are clearly cogs in this clockwork universe. Countries, with their petty policies, are cogs of even less significance (in our world as well as the novel’s world). Even Dr. Manhattan apprehends himself as a cog (though one with the power to uncog himself, should he choose): he tells his ex-girlfriend, “We’re all puppets… I’m just a puppet who can see the strings” (Moore & Gibbons 285). The characters themselves, though they may believe in their own omniscience, are held captive by that most tyrannical of despots: the omniscient narrator. Though each superhero is a storyteller, through journals, monologue, or dialogue, though many narrative frames are layered together, diegetically and meta-diegetically, providing a patchwork of possible truths, the truths are all at the mercy of some mysterious, remarkably literate narrative voice, who titles chapters, chooses epigraphs, and obtains the rights to various copyrighted materials to compile information for us (this narrator is beholden to copyright law, apparently, suggesting that he or she is a diegetic member of the cast). At the novel’s close, Godfrey’s voice says the future is “entirely in your hands.” “Godfrey,” of course, is a homophone for “god” and “free,” no less significant than “Seymour” considering the book’s questions about theology and free will. The final panel before the Juvenal epigraph is the moment at which readers become aware, as they always do on a final page, that they are holding a book, that a book is literally in their hands, and that straightening out the ouroboros of events, untangling the multiple narrative layers, determining which philosophical standpoint is right, or at least the least evil, falls to them. Moreover, the books epigraph reminds us that we live in a world far more nuanced, violent, and ideologically fractious than the book’s tapestry (as referenced by the real-world Iran-Contra allusion). We, then, the readers—the “Seymours,” not the “great men,” in our big, complicated clockworks—are Watchmen, witnessing all our human philosophies fail us on the page (just as they do in real life), and wondering, as we’ve all wondered since Juvenal: who, if not us, is authorized to appoint, watch, or be, the watchmen?

Cited Sources

Juvenal, Decimus Junis. Satura VI. The Latin Library, 27 Nov. 2016.

Kant, Immanuel. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals with On a Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns. 3rd Ed. Tr. James W. Ellington. Hackett, 1981.

Mautner, Thomas. The Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy. Penguin Books, 1998.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Harper Collins, 1993.

Moore, Alan, and David Gibbons. Watchmen. DC Comics, 2004.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spake Zarathustra. Tr. Walter Kaufman. Penguin, 1954.

[1] Translation Mine

Truth in the Gutter

Metonymy and Memory in Spiegelman’s Maus

Figure 1

Art Spiegelman ushers us into the second chapter of the second volume of Maus: A Survivor’s Tale with a visual pun. The title page contains mice, their partially-anthropomorphized mouths agape with torment, their eyes round with terror, surrounded by flames or gas (Fig. 1). The title, hand-drawn in Teutonic block letters, reads “Auschwitz: (Time Flies).” The “S” is bent and angular as in the Nazi logo. These letters hang above the image, and blend with it in conceptual (if not emotional) harmony. It could be a movie poster for our tacitly agreed-upon, collective narrative of the holocaust, with its cast of stock characters, images, and icons. But around the image—violating it, contaminating it—buzz drawings of flies (the “flies of time,” perhaps). They are the size they would be in our world, the wr­iter’s world, and they crawl over the image, over the blank space around the image, partially obscuring the genteel “Chapter Two” above it. They remind us that the text is a superimposition of the author’s own memories, experiences, and biases over the memories of his father. While the words are Vladek’s, the pictures are Spiegelman’s triply-mediated account of those words. The flies become a metonymy for many things at once: the corruption of memory by time; the rank, guilt-poisoned writer’s block preventing Spiegelman from completing the second volume; and the contamination of our culturally-ingrained holocaust iconography, which, the novel seems to suggest, we must carefully protect from becoming prurient melodrama instead of what it is—sacred cultural and personal truth.

Figure 2

Spiegelman inoculates against this corruption with his triple-narrative strategy—a strategy unique to comics. Through deliberate artificiality, he replaces brittle fact with lush Truth; not the surface truth of raw data, but the invisible Truth (in the Romantic sense) at the core of those data. The first narrative is Vladek’s recollection of the Holocaust. It is harrowing, largely chronological, and often recognizable in its iconography. The second, existing interstitially within the first, and often out of sequence, is Spiegelman’s record of obtaining his father’s story. His father in this narrative layer, unlike the hero of the Holocaust narrative, is domineering, difficult, manipulative, selfish, and sometimes cruel. At times, Spiegelman must wrest the narrative from his father’s clutches (clutches so strong that Vladek, who never throws anything away, has destroyed his wife’s journals—the only thing that could contradict his account of events). It could be a dirty business, to coopt someone’s greatest trauma and repurpose it to one’s own ends, but Spiegelman always fesses up, makes the theft transparent, creating a narrative tier that, while casting doubt on the accuracy of his father’s memory, serves not to contradict Vladek but to allow more than one reality to exist at once—to gently expose the fallibility and limitations of memory. In Figure 2, Spiegelman draws two tiers of time. The first, on the right side of the page, records a present-day conversation between Artie and his father in which Vladek recounts marching out of Auschwitz. On the left-hand side of the page, Spiegelman draws the marching prisoners, and includes an orchestra in the background, a fact about which he has read in other accounts of the camps. His father protests: “From the gate guards took us over to the workshop. How could it be there an orchestra?” (Spiegelman 54). Spiegelman grumbles that the facts are well-documented, but concedes by redrawing the march in a panel right below the first, filling in the orchestra’s space with marching prisoners. But the reader can see the tips of the instruments in the background. The ghost of the orchestra is still nestled there: Spiegelman keeps it as one amid a palimpsest of memories. In this way, he includes both his father’s lower-case “t” truth, and the lower-case truth of other survivor’s documented histories. In image form, these two truths, which should contradict one another, instead coalesce. Together, through the imperfection of each, they show that we can approach a capital “T” Truth, however asymptotically. And Spiegelman both complicates and resolves these interwoven tales with his third tier of narrative representation; a metanarrative that exists outside the story—outside of time itself.

In Understanding Comics, one of the most approachable textbooks on semiotics ever written, Scott McCloud tells us that simplified images, with detail stripped away, have a singular power to represent ideas rather than forms. He remarks that:

By de-emphasizing the appearance of the physical world in favor of the idea of form, the cartoon places itself in the world of concepts. Through traditional realism, the comics artist can portray the world without… and through the cartoon the world within (McCloud 41).

Figure 3

Spiegelman leverages this phenomenon throughout the novel by rendering different races and nationalities as different animals, and by creating the world in simple, blocky, crosshatched line drawings. But nowhere do we see this effect used to such perfection as in Spiegelman’s third tier, in which he creates a pure “world within,” and lets it both interact with the world outside and exist free of it. The flies, which are now operating on numerous levels through visual pun, follow us from Chapter 2’s title page into the chapter itself, as does the assertion that “Time Flies…” We are confronted with the artist, slumped over his drafting table. He isn’t a mouse, but a man in a mouse mask (for to expose the artificiality of the storytelling is a classic metanarrative strategy). Flies circle around him, and after a few panels we pan back to see that the drafting table rests on a pile of emaciated human/mouse bodies (fig. 3). The flies have become a triple metonymy—for the passing of time, for artistic stagnation, and for the feeling Artie has that his book has defiled the dead. We have reached a narrative level that exists outside of temporal logic: this is an artist visually grappling with interior demons in the purely sensory space where emotions intersect with ideas. He gives us a unique front-row seat to someone else’s timeless reservoir of identity, the place in which we wrestle with and invent ourselves, and this space can best be explored through the tension between words and images. The words here give one set of data—we learn Vladek has died, that several years have elapsed since the publication of the first volume of Maus, and that it was a critical and commercial success—but combined with the images we see an entirely different data set: we see an identity ripped asunder; a success that feels like murder; a profound guilt that the author has profited from his family’s tragedy. Such conceptual tripling isn’t accomplishable with words alone. Only the interplay of images and words can weave so many layers together.

Spiegelman elbows in on truth by braiding these multiple localized and highly personal narratives together, including his own. French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard would approve. It is what, in “The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge,” he calls “small narrative.” He offers “small narrative” as an antidote to “grand narrative,” or history-by-consensus, which tends to calcify into overly-simplistic tropes of good and evil, written and maintained by the victors (or survivors) of any given conflict. He insists that:

Consensus has become an outmoded and suspect value… We must thus arrive at an idea and practice of justice that is not linked to that of consensus… it must be local, in other words, agreed upon by its present players and subject to eventual cancellation… limited in space and time (Lyotard 504).

Figure 4

Spiegelman fights the over-simplification of the past through, paradoxically, simplification: his images are metaphoric and metonymic—they are, in other words, so simple they are patently “untrue.” Men are not mice; we do not live in a sketchy black-and-white world; and the swarms of reporters stepping over the dead bodies in Spiegelman’s apartment amidst buzzing flies are there only in Artie’s imagination (Fig. 4). In the same image, these reporters, who cheapen and trivialize the war in their quest for profit, lob their solicitations at a masked Artie, while he shrinks and shrinks until he is child-sized, emitting an infant’s “WAH!” This is not strict verisimilitude, we all know, but we also see how it gets at something deeper, something that exists on a purely experiential level, and that collapses the strict hierarchy we like to maintain between “history” and “emotion.” Simplified forms, as McCloud notes, illustrate the complexity of the concepts.

Spiegelman is wise to use the comics form to tell his threefold tale: comics offer what other mediums can’t, in that the reader becomes a collaborator. McCloud makes much of what he terms the “gutter,” or the space between the panels in a cartoon, as a space where readers commit “closure.” “Comics panels fracture both time and space,” he says, “offering a jagged, staccato rhythm of unconnected moments. But closure allows us to connect these moments and mentally construct a continuous, unified reality” (McCloud 67). What better way to reconstruct a shared Truth than to make the reader complicit by asking her to add her own interpretations to a story at risk of becoming clichéd by concensus? McCloud remarks that comics is, “…a medium where the audience is a willing and conscious collaborator and closure is the agent of change” (65). If the project is to present multiple, local, Lyotardian “small narratives” in order to patchwork facts and feelings into a unified (if sometimes contradictory) history, the best way to do so is to make the reader an aider and abettor. History, in our postmodern world, must be apprehended in aggregate, not by consensus, or we risk corrupting it, and the most honest way of getting at it is asking us all to participate. This is our story, Spiegelman seems to say—all of our history. The Truth, in other words, is hidden in the gutter, among the flies.

Works Cited

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. “The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.” Modernism to Postmodernism: An Anthology. Ed. Lawrence Cahoone. Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1996. 481-513.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. 1993.

Spiegelman, Art. Maus, A Survivor’s Tale II: And Here My Troubles Began. Pantheon Books. 1991.

Landscape and Loneliness

Images of Alienation in Adrien Tomine’s “Translated, from the Japanese,”

The bullet train shoots through Tokyo. Snow sidles down from the hazy ochre sky above the electrical wires, and the muted scene expresses a world in winter. Cold seeps off the page. The handwritten text that hovers far above the drab cityscape (in a sky that takes up 4/5 of the page) is close and so neat it’s almost right- as well as left-justified. It clearly expresses, like the scene, a heart in winter. The text begins a circumspect and somewhat cagey second-person narration indicating that the speaker is a parent, taking her child to California against the wishes of her family. But we get a sense of distance and loneliness from this first panel, a sense that the text alone doesn’t reveal. Or perhaps that the visual of the text reveals.  Though she mentions people, this world is free of them. The only life in the image is the life of machines.

Tomine blends clarity in word and image with mystery, and this has something to do with the way the words and images interact. The images are meticulously drawn, and evoke a certain kind of commercial art. They feel vaguely instructional, like the diagrams that show airplane passengers how to disembark in case of a water landing. Perhaps that’s what this story is: a representation of a state of emergency, carefully rendered, but about which its characters are in denial, and toward which their hearts are frozen. The words throughout the… (what do we call this? A graphic short story? A series of vignettes? A visual haiku? I can’t find an apt term) …the words throughout the piece acknowledge some form of confusion and heartbreak, but mother and child interact with people in nearly every panel in a normal, neighborly way. The Osaka professor sitting next to the child on the plane is kind and generous, and we get quite a bit of detail about him in the text; the stewardess mistakes him for the speaker’s husband, and when they disembark, he becomes again the stranger that he was before the flight; the child’s father, from whom, we learn, the speaker is estranged, embraces the child and has made arrangements for the two of them to stay in California; the family drives together, eats together, and the speaker makes reference to the birthday party the child will enjoy the following day. But juxtaposed with the images, this text betrays the speaker’s internal loneliness, which her interactions with the other characters cannot penetrate. Combined with the images, the text shows us a world of precision and cleanliness, but an empty world, a world of supreme isolation, bereft of humanity. We get no faces on the plane, just physical details of the space and the tops of heads. When our speaker reports that the professor “laughed very much at the strange things you said” (Tomine 77) all we see is an airplane tray table littered with candy and a notebook; when she asks the man to look after the child, we see the overhead baggage compartment, and in the bottom left corner the top of someone’s head; the closest we come to seeing the child is his/her arm, clutching a child’s blanket, while in a separate seat the speaker holds a cup of coffee, cut off by the image border. When our speaker looks at the world, the story suggests, she sees only fragments of objects, the gorgeous heartache of everyday things. In this way the images defy their verisimilitude: they appear true to life visually, but, filtered through the speaker’s emotional state, they have been unpeopled to an unrealistic degree. In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud analyzes the way abstraction takes us out of the real world: “By de-emphasizing the appearance of the physical world in favor of the idea of form,” he says, “the cartoon places itself in the world of concepts. Through traditional realism the comics artist can portray the world without… and through the cartoon the world within” (41). In this case, however, we are confronted with extreme realism in the images, but with elisions we can’t square with realism. The speaker’s mind rejects the people around her. But does she admit that to us when she speaks? She can’t. This character is crippled by her inability to get through the frozen landscape of her emotions, and the world she observes reflects her inner state. This cognitive dissonance foreshadows the revelation on the final page.

The barely-perceptible shadow of death lurks here and the devil, as always, is in the details. The second-to-last panel is of a light fixture, seen from below. The lamp’s cover is missing, exposing its innards. There are fittings for two bulbs, but only one bulb present. “I fell asleep in my clothes on the floor beside you,” says the narrator, “listening to the sound of your breath” (Tomine 81). The fixture, we assume, is what she’s looking at as she lies there awake beside her sleeping child. Reporting about a broken marriage and an impending abandonment, what her brain registers is a broken object with two of its parts missing. The story that is implied in this image is not the one the narrator tells us (that two things will soon be missing from her own life). McCloud says that, “The platonic ideal of the cartoon may seem to omit much of the ambiguity and complex characterization which are the hallmarks of modern literature, leaving them suitable only for children. But simple elements can combine in complex ways… great power is locked in [a] few simple lines. Releasable only by the reader’s mind” (45). Tomine’s brown-drab world has, if anything, more complexity than a true-to-life image would. His images, combined with his words, show, experientially, a very specific mind in crisis, a coy mind, a mind struggling with the unnameable.

We are left with the most beautiful panel in the piece. A view of San Francisco, at night, green fog rolling in above a city warm with lights. But we, the speaker and the reader, are on the other side of an unbridgeable divide: the dead, dark-olive Bay separates us from the life on the other side. Eight stars peek out above the cityscape. Here we get the revelation that the images foreshadowed: “I wonder how old you are now,” says the speaker. “How long have I been gone?” (82). She is no longer with her child. There is the same clarity… and the same mystery. Is she dead? Has she hidden the note for the child to find? Why doesn’t she know her child’s age? We, like the speaker, are exiled, on the other side of the cold Bay—a divide as metaphorical as it is literal—and our hearts remain in winter.

I highly recommend Adrian Tomine's collection of illustrated short stories from which this story comes, titled Killing and Dying.

Cited Sources

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. 1993. Print

Tomine, Adrian. Killing and Dying. US: Drawn and Quarterly, Client Publisher of Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. 2015. Print

Pioneers of Design Collaboration

CHARLES AND RAY EAMES ARE HOUSEHOLD NAMES. I mean that literally. It’s difficult to visit a household that doesn’t contain at the very least a nod to their bold, modern, clean industrial design, in the form of furniture, textiles, or architectural flourishes. From their molded plywood chairs to the iconic Eames Lounger, the husband-and-wife team collaborated to create some of the most recognizable shapes of our contemporary world. They so embodied the 20th century spirit of design and collaboration that they are, in some sense, emblems of very best of modernism itself. And they did it as a team. The modernist vision is a utopian one: designers can, it suggests, harness good design in order to effect positive social change. It is no surprise that Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO and author of Change by Design, heralds the Eames’ as exemplars of what he dubs “design thinking,” a mode of approaching design that identifies (and works within the constraints of) the overlapping needs of designer, consumer, and culture to develop products that serve all three (Brown 18). Cooperation is essential to “design thinking,” and the Eames leveraged one another’s skillsets to produce collaboratively: they even, in a sense, collaborated with the public to replace the the “lone design genius” archetype with a new focus on teamwork, respect, and compassion.

Collaborating with other human beings was how the Eames’ got their start. In “War Furniture: Charles and Ray Eames Design for the Wounded Body,” Jason Weems describes how the Eames’ “tuned in” to the needs of wounded soldiers. This became a major contribution to contemporary design philosophy, one that at the time went entirely against the grain of the modern, industrial, technophilic design paradigm: a focus on empathy and the needs of the unidealized human body. The Eames’s first product to go into large-scale fabrication was not a chair, but a leg splint for wounded soldiers. In 1942, the United States commissioned the duo to design lightweight plywood traction splints for the broken bodies of injured soldiers. “Rethinking the body as a once complete form now broken and compromised…” says Weems, “pushed the Eames’ into a new mindset… [because] The etiology of broken bodies… was as much cultural and psychological  as it was physical” (47). The Eames created a product that safeguarded the body and the self-respect of the injured soldier. Their splints didn’t just contour perfectly to the body, its design also jettisoned previous design aesthetics, splints which made little effort to hide the artificiality of their structure and materials. The Eames’ splints became nearly invisible. Moreover, they had a “…tactile naturalism [that] provided a psychological armature that stabilized the spirit,” and that “positioned the body—and more importantly the subject—as the proper focus in the Man-Machine amalgam” (Weems 47). In short, the splints were light, strong and difficult to identify as prosthetics. This “collaboration” with the human form was the first of a lifetime of human-centered designs.

Weems goes on to explore how this “human-centered” ethos carried over into the Eames’ other projects, notably their chairs, which they adapted to the needs of the “weary body” (47). In “Charles and Ray Eames,” Esther McCoy remarks that, “Most of the Eames furniture came out of needs we did not know we had” (25). Brown, too, discusses the need for “human-centered design:” he asks design thinkers to identify the unspoken, unrecognized needs of actual human beings, by watching for how they create “workarounds” for the products that don’t work right (39). People can’t voice needs they don’t know they have, he says, and thus these needs can be gleaned only by careful observation (Brown 43). The Eames clearly employed this technique, and after months (and sometimes years) of collaborative ideation, the resulting furniture they  created balanced the requirements of the human body with the aesthetic and financial demands of the modern world. And this ability to balance, says Brown, is the keystone of “Design Thinking” (18).

In her article “Living Images: Charles and Ray Eames ‘At Home,’” Rachel Stevenson remarks that because the Eames’ chairs were made to be mass-produced and affordable, “they went on to be purchased in extraordinary numbers by offices, schools, and universities, pervading American culture and beyond” (36). The Eames became synonymous with utopian social values because they privileged humanity over fame and profits. Stevenson discusses the humility that Charles and Ray Eames evinced in their corporate philosophy, which signified another departure from prevailing ideas about art and industry. The couple moved the hero-architect image away from Ayn Randian grandiosity, the “larger-than-life figure toward whom an awed admiration seems to be the demanded response” (Stevenson 32), toward a more intimate, humble, and cooperative relationship between designers, their creations, and their audience. Stevenson uses as the exemplar a photograph of the Eames’ in their Case Study House #8, a project commissioned by ­­­Arts and Architecture Magazine to create a post-war solution to housing shortages. The couple, seated comfortably on the floor, inhabit the space and invite other actual humans to envision themselves in the space with them. Says Stevenson:

In this [photograph] the presence of Charles and Ray Eames is clearly compelling, but it is not distracting. In fact, they seem essential to the shot. Their image becomes caught up with that of the house, and it becomes difficult to separate the image of the house from the image of its inhabitants” (35).

case study 2.jpg

Once again, the couple places the human being in the center of the equation, moving away from the tradition of portraying buildings and design elements as “objects of art,” which exist, in photography and advertising, as almost Platonic ideals, without the sullying effects of human activity. By making humans as important as (or more important than) their objects, the Eames’s were responsible for “moving modern architecture into the public domain” (Stevenson 36), an idealistic endeavor, and yet more proof that “The Eameses were on a moral campaign to improve the world through good design” (Stevenson 37). Stevenson goes on to elaborate on the way the Eames’s saw their own fame, and its relationship to their creations—the objects that we surround ourselves with, and which are designed to fit seamlessly into our everyday lives:

The Eames’s fame is not a fame of personal aggrandizement that aims to lift the artist above others to a position of unique isolation. Instead, the vehicles by which their fame travels… are everyday things with which it is easy to identify. A lifestyle is projected that offers a domestic aesthetic in which ordinary objects are elevated and given worth through personal creativity and choice. Living is placed at the center of architecture (Stevenson 41).

For the first time, the Eames’ created beautiful things for everyone to enjoy. They made human-scale artifacts, but harnessed technology in the form of mass factory production to make these artifacts widely available. They often employed the aesthetic of machines. As McCoy notes, “Much of the Eames imagery is from the archives of American machinery or from standard catalogues of machine parts… Their appeal is in the mixture of familiarity and surprise” (29). The Eames’ wed the needs of the human with the beauty of the technological age.

eames 7.jpg

The Eames’s humility was manifest in all their design practices, not just their products. In an interview with Owen Gingerich in 1977, Charles Eames discusses his reasons for deciding not to patent his products. He draws on the Bhagavad Gita for his inspiration: “Work done with anxiety about results is far inferior to work done in the calm of self-surrender” (328). Because some things are not patentable, he says, the projects they developed early on, when they still took out patents, tended to be designed to maximize patent profits. This, Charles remarks, hampered creativity. Gingerich seems alarmed at the Eames’s refusal to patent, but Eames’ response is

surprising. He remarks that “each time a copy appeared, the sales of the original went up” (328), and, when pressed about his feelings about industrial plagiarism, he cited an even more striking surrender to the philosophy of design collaboration: “You don’t mind if someone carries out your idea further in a better way” (Eames 329). His collaborators, in other words, are all people willing to improve on his design. It’s a magnanimous collaborator who “surrenders” his own ideas to the whole world. And it’s why there are so many Eames products and knock-offs, both good and bad, that flood the market. Eames is truly a household name, because the Eames’ made a product literally anyone can acquire, even if it’s not an original.

As collaborators, the two were inseparable and ever-respectful of one another. Charles was fond of saying “Any I can do Ray can do better,” remarks Martin Coomer in “Charles and Ray Eames: Four Things You Didn't Know About the World's Best Design Pair,” and, as Pat Kirkham notes in “Introducing Ray Eames,” “the interchange of idea between these two enormously talented individuals is particularly difficult to chart because their personal and design relationship was so close” (132), and, by mutual agreement, “They only ever took on jobs which they felt were morally worthy” (Kirkham 134). Moreover, they each contributed a unique skillset to their partnership, which is apparent in their work: Ray was an abstract expressionist artist, and Charles was an architect by training (Kirkham 134). They combined their talents and designed together as a harmonious couple for decades, and their personal harmony can be seen in the harmonious lines of their products. A good design partnership, Brown reminds us, can push individuals to be better than they are alone.

Charles and Ray Eames exemplify “design thinking,” in that they created enough space and time to experiment and prototype; they balanced their products’ desirability with its viability and feasibility, producing work that was beautiful, useful, affordable, and iconic; they willingly embraced restrictions, because, after all, “Without constraints design cannot happen” (Brown, 17); and they did all this together, as a team—all at a time when women weren’t on equal footing with men. They inspired Tim Brown to develop his novel way of approaching collaborative design, and inspired a whole new culture of aesthetic solutions to challenges faced by the modern world.

“Eames” deserves its status as a household name.

Cited Sources

Brown, Tim. Change by Design. New York: Harper Collins. 2009. Print.

Coomer, Martin. “Charles and Ray Eames: Four Things You Didn't Know About the World's Best Design Pair.” Timeout London. Oct 16 2015. Web.

Eames, Charles. “A Conversation with Charles Eames.” Interview with Owen Gingerich. The American Scholar Vol. 46, No. 3. (Summer 1977). 326-337. Print.

Kirkham, Pat. “Introducing Ray Eames.Furniture History Vol 26. (1990). 132-141. Print.

McCoy, Esther. “Charles and Ray Eames.” Design Quarterly No. 98-99. (1975). 20-29. Print.

Stevenson, Rachel. “Living Images: Charles and Ray Eames ‘At Home.’Perspecta Vol 30. (2005). 32-41. Print.

Weems, Jason. “War Furniture: Charles and Ray Eames Design for the Wounded Body.” A Journal of California Vol. 2 No. 1. (Spring 2012). 46-48. Print.



The Nothing That Is

Nihilism and Its Discontents on Wallace Stevens’ “The Snow Man”

The dandy is nothing if not conspicuous, even in the wilderness.
— R. P. Blackmur, “The Substance That Prevails”
It can never be satisfied, the mind. Never.
— Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems

One must have a certain kind of mind—of winter perhaps—to allow Wallace Stevens' famous little double-helix of a poem to do its work. To the receptive mind, “The Snow Man” winds its self-contradictory way around the byzantine conduit of the brain, implanting little rhetorical, linguistic, and grammatical inconsistencies along the way, and bringing the reader, finally, to the paradox—the something, or nothing, or something-and-nothing, or nothing-as-something—nestled unsettlingly at its center. One need only read the critics to see how consternating this twelve-line Imagist classic is: they spill prodigious ink disagreeing about its meaning, realigning the grammar to propose alternate readings, restructuring the syntax, redefining the words, applying various philosophical frameworks to decode its deceptively simple, crystalline word-play. Each critic has a reasonable but, I would hazard, incomplete interpretation. Stevens (that dandy—the only bit of color in his stark winter landscape) has written a poem that works on so many levels at once—intellectual, emotional, Romantic, Buddhist, existential, Cartesian, Jamesian, neo-Platonic—that to encompass them all might not be possible, or even desirable. The true mind of winter embraces (“be-holds”) the contradictions, the multiple readings, allowing them to stand in for all the irreconcilable realities that plague our human lives on this earth: lives for which we must struggle to find meaning with the abyss yawning ever beneath us.

Many critics see Stevens’ “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is” as a nihilistic battle royale between an individual and the void. Samuel Jay Keyser puts it beautifully when, in a segment for All Things Considered he suggests that when parsed, the poem becomes a “…perfectly balanced mobile,” and this mobile, spinning, forces “…readers to reanalyze what they have just read again and again,” until one reaches reality: the emptiness at the core of things (NPR). In “Wallace Stevens: Form and Meaning in Four Poems,” Keyser delves further into how the poem’s structure informs its meaning:

The poem is in its structure precisely what it talks about in its content. It demands of readers that they reanalyze in order to see the truth of its syntax and this is what Stevens claims one must do with respect to one’s perception of the world in order to perceive the truth of the world’s reality (“Form and Meaning” 597).

Stevens’ Platonic aim, Keyser suggests, is to shed the “pathetic fallacy” and see the world as it is, bare of human emotional projection. There is no “misery” in Nothing, because there is nothing in nothing. John P. Wargacki agrees that Stevens wants to strip away the human to reach the nothing beneath. In “Reduction and Negation in Emily Dickinson’s ‘There’s a Certain Slant of Light’ and Wallace Stevens’ ‘The Snow Man,’” he likens the poem to a palimpsest (as resonant a metaphor as the mobile): “[Stevens’] process of reduction has been… likened to the removal of a surface painting upon which another painting beneath the first is revealed” (Wargacki 91). What is revealed, he goes on to say, through constant reduction and negation—constant “unnaming”—is the “universal blank of nothingness,” (Wargacki 94), and that “…what is and what is not ultimately reduces itself into the same nothingness, blank or void [emphasis mine]” (Wargacki 95). Stevens himself reinforces Wargacki’s metaphor (though not the void) when he talks about the “first idea.” In The Letters of Wallace Stevens, he says, “If you take the varnish and dirt of generations off a picture, you see it in its first idea. If you think about the world without its varnish and dirt, you are a thinker of the first idea” (Letters, 426-427). Harold Bloom writes about the connection between the “first idea” and the pathetic fallacy in “Wallace Stevens: Reduction to the First Idea:” one needs the mind of winter, he argues, “…in order to avoid indulgence in the fallacy of imputing human ‘misery’ to the wind and leaves” (54). He disagrees with Keyser and Wargacki, however, on the definition of “Nothing:” the poem’s “nothing,” he posits, “…is the most minimal and abstracted of fictions, yet it is still a fiction” (Bloom 55). It isn’t the void: It’s an alteration of the first idea to get as close to the void as a human being can get without being destroyed by it. So why approach the void at all, if we can hardly survive it? In “Grammar and Rhetoric in Criticism,” Robert Browne reinforces Plato’s contention that “knowledge, even of the void, is preferable to ignorance” (153). Stevens, then, is doing the brave, the necessary, with his imperative that we “must” develop a wintry mind, one that can withstand the Awful Truth.

Other critics argue that Stevens, rather than trying to expose the Platonic void (or the just-bearable minimal fiction of that “Nothing”), is trying to gain mastery over it. In “Wallace Stevens and the Symbolist Imagination,” Michel Benamou sees transcendence in Stevens’ “lexical opulence” (36): “The poetry of the beautiful surface with the dark terror beneath,” he remarks, “does not… escape the facts of death and suffering. It is a means of overcoming [the] terror [of them]” (Benamou 36). So, unlike Keyser, Wargacki, and Bloom, Benamou argues that our imaginations safeguard us, however provisionally, against the void: “The imagination,” he says, “is man’s best protection against the vast spaces ready to engulf him” (37). But the darkness is real, is ever near. Stevens, Benamou suggests, denudes this winter scene as an act of “linguistic askesis,” creating an aesthetic, “…similar to a glacier both transparent and denying transparence to the poet it will eventually paralyze” (55). We can overcome terror through imagination, but we cannot overcome the reality of the terror’s cause. In similar vein, Helen Vendler argues for Stevens’ mastery of the void in “Wallace Stevens: Hypotheses and Contradictions:”

…in spite of his frequent thematic bleakness, Stevens was above all a poet of fertility of verbal invention. His swerves, hypotheses… accretive elaborations, and asymptotic progressions establish… a mental landscape anything but bleak, one that matches the distributed richness of the material world with its own unfailing wealth of emotional, intellectual, and linguistic forms (117).

Thus, Vendler argues, there is an inherent contrast between the richness of Stevens’ landscapes and the painful subject matter with which he contends, and in fact, by creating the contrast, he “…attempts to contest his nihilistic deadness even as he voices it” (108). He is R. P. Blackmur’s dandy, a conspicuous creator within the wintry wilderness of the human condition (Blackmur 107). Both Benamou and Vendler celebrate the almost feminine fecundity of Stevens’ images.

Robert Randolph takes it a step further in “‘The Snow Man:’ Nausea or Numin?” He attributes a sort of divinity to the triumph of the human over the nihilistic. At the end of the poem, “Rather than Nothing… one is left with the ‘new transcendent fact’ that paradox does not necessarily destroy being… One can [survive paradox] through the use of symbol, or, as Stevens has it, image. Moreover, this sort of transcendence… carries with it a numinosity” (Randolph 121). Even Robert Browne, more firmly in the nihilist camp, admits that, “It is a paradox… that none of the misery signified by the sounds is in any way altered; but it is brought under control of the mind” (155). Art controls—or at least temporarily tames—the terror of the void.

Much of the debate between those who argue nihilism and those who argue transcendence comes down to one small question: whether the viewer (the “one” in the poem who “regards” and “beholds”) is the same as the listener “who listens in the snow,” and whether these are the same as the speaker. To Keyser, Wargacki, and Bloom, these three are all the same character, a character who must shed his human limitations in perception one by one in order to give himself a mind of winter, capable of apprehending stark reality and emptiness; the Nothing that is. The poem, to these critics, is a treatise on how to get ourselves out of Plato’s cave—to steel ourselves against revelations of the void. But others see important distinctions between speaker, observer, and listener. Browne sees the characters as discrete, inferring a lesser intellectual/perceptual capacity to the viewer than to the listener: “…the imperceptive viewer and the perceptive listener are much alike; both stand in the snow, both ‘see nothing:’ the viewer through lack of insight, the listener precisely because he has insight” (153). This “Capital-N Nothing” is more Buddhist than nihilistic, and provides the listener, who embodies enlightened patience (after all, says Browne, he is not “…born with a mind of winter but acquires it through long exposure” [147]) with a kind of connection to the world to which a regular human hasn’t access. In this interpretation the mind of winter is both achievable and desirable. To Ronald Hoag, by contrast, in “Wallace Stevens’ ‘The Snow Man:’ An Important Title Pun,” the listener is an actual man made out of snow, “This No-Man” (a homophonic reassembly of the title syllables), who is only divorced from the scene’s misery because he isn’t human: “…the snow man himself, mindless and devoid of imagination, beholds (embraces) both ‘Nothing that is not there (no-thing but the scene) and ‘the nothing [no-thing] that is’ (himself as a part of that scene)” (Hoag 91). Thus, Hoag suggests, we shouldn’t feel bad about being miserable in such a scene: the aesthetic beauty of this wintry bareness can only be enjoyed by an entity “created from the landscape” (91).

Like Hoag, David Hesla argues for the inescapability of human emotion in “Singing in Chaos: Wallace Stevens and Three or Four Ideas,” this time from a philosophical standpoint. He vehemently disagrees that the persona of the poem is, in tone, “…that of a steely-eyed positivist calling upon us to distinguish facts from feelings; nor is it that of a dialectical ontologist courageously facing the abyss of nothingness” (Hesla 251). Hesla argues for a Jamesian, rather than Platonic/Cartesian, reading. He notes that the mind does not exist in a vacuum, as Descartes would have it—it exists on a continuum of its own created reality and the world that informs it (Hesla 257). “James,” says Hesla, “eliminated the abstract dualism of mind and body, thought and things, and replaced it with the single, vital, complex concept of ‘pure experience…’ so the experience of a winter landscape may include the emotion of misery” (248). He concludes that the poem’s speaker, unlike the listener, the reader and, perhaps, the poet, is “…bemused, even appalled, by the fact that there can be people who have so far forgotten their humanity as to be unmoved by a winter landscape” (Hesla 251). Stevens is, Hesla suggests, condemning the Keysers, the Wargackis, the Blooms of this world, who have “forgotten their humanity” enough to think the void exists, is knowable, and—worse—is worth dashing ourselves against.

Glauco Cambon, too, fundamentally disagrees with the nihilists about the nature of the Nothing. In “Nothingness as Catalyst: An Analysis of Three Poems,” he identifies two extremities with opposite emotional valences in Stevens’ work. “Winter as deathly purity,” he says, “summer as exuberant fulfillment, constitute for Stevens the two poles of the terrestrial condition, beyond which there is no other… [thus] the absolute perceptual blankness Stevens’ observer [in ‘The Snow Man’] reaches by hypnotism is an end unto itself” (Cambon 97). So, like Browne’s Buddhist “Nothing,” the nothing at the end of Cambon’s reading is a goal worth achieving, a state of mind that cleanses, bringing “purity” and peace, and that one must “hypnotize” the self to attain. One imagines intense prayer, fasting, Sufi dance (or perhaps Benamou’s “linguistic askesis”), and the way these are used to stimulate a spiritual condition of non-being (the “No-Thing” the listener enjoys in the poem). Moreover, this state exists as but one of two necessary polar states. Cambon’s “deathly purity” is not a terminal, absolute “Truth,” the final stasis of the Romantic/Platonic/Cartesian search. Rather, it’s part of a duality of contingent truths represented by the fertile, procreative summer and the purgative winter. Benamou, too, finds “poles” in Stevens’ work, both equally necessary, and in this case gendered: his “constellating images of the South, the Moon-Woman, vegetation, summer, nature, music…,” which give way to “the masculine constellation of the Day, North, men… winter” (Benamou 37). These poles, Cambon and Benamou argue, are the extremes in the orbit of Stevens’ poetry, which is essentially center-seeking: “The centripetal imagination of Stevens,” says Benamou, “moves toward a pure center where it will find peace” (60). But does the reader—can the reader—ever get there?

Richard Blessing is the critic with perhaps the most humanist approach to the blank Stevens leaves us to decode in “The Snow Man.” In “Wallace Stevens and the Necessary Reader: A Technique of Dynamism,” Blessing argues that “The Snow Man” is indecipherable without its final indispensable ingredient—the dynamic engagement of the reader:

Stevens… is able to force the reader into participation in the poem—a participation which mirrors that of the scientist who discovers that, try as he will, his human act of observation has altered whatever it was that he was trying to observe without alteration. Even more disconcerting, the reader may find that in the process of reading he has discovered a poem which means something quite different from what it says that it means” (252).

So Blessing contends that the paradoxes Stevens leaves us with are there to stimulate, to make us search for our own meanings. The void, while it entices us with its simplicity, exists as a red herring, for, “While Stevens pretends to be directing us toward ‘Nothing’ with one hand,” Blessing reminds us, “he is making sure we don’t get there with the other” (252). Stevens does this verbally and syntactically as well as conceptually:

…our reactions to the world destroy our neutrality as surely as the poet’s choice of words adds meaning and value to the landscape he describes. The words “shagged,” “rough,” and “glitter” agitate the mind, force judgments upon us, cause us to add the colors of the emotions to the event which we are trying to see without emotion (Blessing 253).

So, Blessing argues, we can never achieve a mind of winter. We are human, after all, and while human beings can imagine the void, to imagine the void without a sensation of misery—that is going too far. We cannot and should not expect it of ourselves. We have a human’s perceptual apparatus and a human’s perceptual limitations. We are not snow men, and we haven’t “minds of winter.” Blessing and Hesla see the poem as a celebration of our humanity, not a turning away from it.

Who among this cacophony of criticism is correct? To this reader, they all present viable but incomplete readings: their mobiles, palimpsests, polar dualities and philosophical applications are useful, representing the full engagement of human endeavor. Perhaps that is Stevens’ intention. At the end of the day, only one thing is certain: “The Snow Man” resists easy decryption. It is, I suspect, built that way. In Hesla’s words:

For every position there is a negation, for every assertion a denial, for every denial a denial. Stevens’ poetry is a poetry of ideas and the men who thought them, but it is not a dignified debate among gentlemen. It is a wrestling match, it is a combat zone” (261).

And reading the critics’ vociferous disagreements is indeed mentally challenging—and mentally exhausting. But I like to think of Stevens as the dandy who incites the fight, who throws the wrench into the works of his own machine, in order to make us think. The paradox, to me—the nothing that is—is the constant, unwinnable battle between ourselves and the void; the byzantine complexity of our world and our human experience as the merest fragment of that world; and the jostling we must do between the things we need to know and our inability to know them.

Stevens said it best: “It can never be satisfied, the mind. Never.”

The Snow Man
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
— Wallace Stevens, "The Snow Man"

Cited Sources

Benamou, Michel. “Wallace Stevens and the Symbolist Imagination.ELH Vol. 31, No. 1. (Mar 1964). 35-63. Print.

Blackmur, R. P. “The Substance That Prevails.” Kenyon Review XVII. (1957). 107. Print.

Blessing, Richard. “Wallace Stevens and the Necessary Reader: A Technique of Dynamism.Twentieth Century Literature Vol. 18, No. 4. (Oct 1972). 251-258. Print.

Bloom, Harold. “Wallace Stevens: Reduction to the First Idea.Diacritics Vol. 6, No. 3. (Autumn 1976). 48-57. Print.

Browne, Robert M. “Grammar and Rhetoric in Criticism.Texas Studies in Literature and Language Vol. 3, No. 1. (Spring 1961). 144-157. Print.

Cambon, Glauco. “Nothingness as Catalyst: An Analysis of Three Poems.”  Comparative Literature Studies Special Advance Number. (1963). 91-99. Print.

Hesla, David H. “Singing in Chaos: Wallace Stevens and Three or Four Ideas.” American Literature Vol. 57, No. 2 (May 1985). 240-262. Print.

Hoag, Ronald Wesley. “Wallace Stevens ‘The Snow Man:’ An Important Title Pun.” American Notes and Queries Vol. 17, Issue 6. (Feb 1979). 91. Print.

Keyser, Samuel Jay. “In Praise of Wallace Stevens.All Things Considered: National Public Radio. 29 Nov. 2005. Radio.

Keyser, Samuel Jay. “Wallace Stevens: Form and Meaning in Four Poems.” College English No. 37 (1976): 578-98. Print.

Randolph, Robert. “’The Snow Man:’ Nausea or Numin?” ANQ Vol. 3 Issue 5. (1990). 119-121. Print.

Vendler, Helen. “Wallace Stevens: Hypotheses and Contradictions.Representations Vol. 81, No. 1 (Winter 2003). 99-117. Print.

Stevens, Wallace. The Collected Poems. New York: Knopf. 1954. Print.

Stevens, Wallace. The Letters of Wallace Stevens. Ed. Holly Stevens. New York: Knopf. 1966. Print.

Wargacki, John P. “Reduction and Negation in Emily Dickinson’s ‘There’s a Certain Slant of Light’ and Wallace Stevens’ ‘The Snow Man.’” The Explicator Vol. 69. No. 2 (2011). 90-99. Print.