Mark Dunn, Ella Minnow Pea (Anchor, 2002)

On Monday, July 17, a most intriguing thing took place: one of the tiles from the top of the cenotaph at town center came loose and fell to the ground, shattering into a good many pieces. A young girl here, one Alice Butterworth, discovered the fallen tile at the base of the statue, carefully gathered up the bits and shards, and quickly conveyed them to the offices of the High Island Council. Tiny Alice delivered these fragments into the hands of Most Senior Gordon Willingham who promptly called an emergency meeting of that lofty body to glean purpose and design from this sudden and unexpected detachation.
This aforementioned gleaning – this is important.

My reaction to this novel went through a number of revisions as I read. I started out amused by the premise: a tiny island nation off the South Carolina coast, a nation named for and dedicated to the (fictitious) deceased creator of the quick-brown-fox pangram, interpreted the tiles falling off his cenotaph as a message that those letters should no longer be used, and thus language becomes more and more restricted. I’m not really a fan of the epistolary novel in general, but it’s the perfect form for this tale, as the text itself reflects the linguistic difficulties posed by the loss of each letter in turn.

I formulated the following reaction early on: “A clever one-page satire expanded into a 200 page YA-dystopia novel.” I rather dreaded reading through another 170 pages of shrinking alphabet. Fortunately, Dunn is far better writer than that, and he soon changed my mind. And the ending – and I mean, the very end, the last five pages – it really landed.

Although the central progression is the deletion of letters of the alphabet, a lot more happens. Ella, our title character, views the loss of the first letter – Z – with some amusement, but her friend Tassie is more alarmed. Sure enough, Ella discovers all books in the library have been destroyed. The punishment for using the forbidden letters is, for the first offense, a rather stern talking-to, but then gets draconian: second offense, whipping or being placed in the stocks in the village square (offender’s choice); third offense, banishment from the island, or death. Offender’s choice.

One family, condemned for a second offense as a unit, made a special request:

“We also wish to be flogged in the presence of as many town residents as choose to be in attendance. And if this produces no outcry – especially the laying of leather tassel upon the youthful backs of my nine-year-old twin daughters Becka and Henrietta – then please trundle us without delay from this island of cringe and cowardice, for we no longer wish to belong to such a Despicable confederacy of spinal-defectives.”

Neighbors start turning each other in. Mail is read (by a French savant who knows no English but can recognize the forbidden letters). The Council drives eminent domain into high gear. Various means of reversing the edict are proposed, and meet obstacles. Throughout there are subtle ironies and humorous passes that might escape notice, such as when one resident defends the edict (and her tendency to squeal on anyone who happens to accidentally let a forbidden letter pass their lips):

I sincerely believe, as do several who have joined me for biweekly talk group sessions, that Nollop, as one who put great emphasis upon the word, is now attempting to pry us away from our traditional heavidependence on linguistic orthodoxy. Through this challenge, he hopes to move us away from lexical discourse as we now know it, and toward the day in which we can relate to one another in sweet pureplicity through the taciteries of the heart.

And when this leopard-eating-faces-party supporter finds the leopard eating her own face, there’s a moment of forgiveness so pure, it would surely make Jesus weep.

I was impressed at how forward momentum was maintained in what could have been the one-trick-pony book I initially expected. And, even though the last twenty-five pages got pretty hard to read, by then it was impossible to stop.

The ending – not only a plot resolution but a bit of linguistic philosophy – left me laughing and shaking my head in disbelief. By the end, this had become minimalist fiction. The language restriction forced it, to some extent, but a typical novel would’ve had another thirty pages of everyone discussing what had happened and what was going to happen and how they felt about it all. But none of that was necessary. Paring down the letters also pared down discourse, as predicted, to the simplest possible presentation: here, this is how it ends, bye now. It’s perfect.

But I was left with one question: Is there such a thing as a reverse McGuffin?

As I understand it, the McGuffin, as described by Hitchcock, is an item that generates motive but in itself is essentially unimportant: “the device, the gimmick, if you will, or the papers the spies are after….the engine that sets the story in motion.” What I am calling a reverse McGuffin (which others have already wondered about; feel free to google about) is, to my mind, something that enters unobtrusively, has no role whatsoever, until, at the end, it suddenly becomes the Key to Everything. It’s a tricky thing to do. I remember The Grasshopper King in which a certain character’s traits seemed clumsily inserted in preparation for their final role; here, the technique works so much better. In fact, its unobtrusiveness is the key to its success. To say more would be a spoiler.

Although this book was first published in 2001, some of the themes and elements seemed particularly suited to the present moment. Elements such as:

∘ The dangers of oligarchy, gerontocracy, theocracy, and various brands of authoritarianisms;
∘ Interpretation of events in mystical terms;
∘ Conflict between science and religion;
∘ Resistance and backlash;
∘ Censorship;
∘ Hero worship of a figure whose background is obscured by time and, perhaps, deliberate deceit;

By the way – you think it’s hard to launch a new book in the middle of a pandemic? Try in the month after 9/11. That this one succeeded – primarily by word of mouth – is a testimony to how good it is. By the way, the subtitle was changed between hardcover and paperback versions: from “A Progressively Lipogrammatic Epistolary Fable” to “A Novel in Letters”. I find that interesting and… disappointing. Given the voice of the letters – initially just a more formal and old-fashioned to the contemporary ear, relying more and more on esoteric vocabulary as common words must be stricken, and resorting at last to phonetic spellings that sometimes only come close to conveying the meaning – the first title seems far more appropriate. A marketing decision, perhaps? I see Dunn has written several novels since this, his first (he was originally a prolific playwright), and a lot of them have rather wacky descriptions. I may have to check these out.

This book came to my attention last March via a Twitter prompt from last March about books to be read while self-isolating. Dear @timtfj, you had me at “arbitrary banning of various letters of the alphabet” but “society collapses” helped, too.

Ayşe Papatya Bucak, The Trojan War Museum and Other Stories (Norton, 2019)

“I would like to tell a story,” Emineh said and everyone turned to her, surprised.
She tried to make the nightingale’s sound, but her voice came out as sharp as the cold wind on the top of the eastern mountains.
Once there was and once there wasn’t, in the time when genies were jinn and camels were couriers, during that time there was a baby bird who broke its wing and so could not make the winter migration to warmer air. And so the baby bird’s mother went first to the oak tree to ask if it would shelter her baby bird in winter, but the oak tree said no. And then she asked the walnut tree. And the olive tree. And every tree she could find, but they all said no. Until finally she asked the pine. And the pine made a nest among its needles for the baby bird, and all winter long, it kept the baby bird warm and safe by not dropping its needles. And ever since that winter, the pine tree has never shed its needles.
“It would have been kinder to let the bird die,” Mother Zeyno said. “It probably grew up weak and coddled and couldn’t take care of itself.”
“I think that’s very cruel,” Emineh said.
“Then you take care of the baby bird,” Mother Zeyno said, and all the others laughed.

“Little Sister and Emineh”

Folk tales; elaborated stories about real, if obscure, people; timelines that reach from antiquity to today and even a bit beyond; stories containing stories; stories that address the reader; stories with mystery and tragedy and love: it’s all in here. This is a collection for those who want to hear a storyteller when they read, who want to get a peek at the unusual alongside the ordinary. Interested in chess-playing automatons? A Turkish wrestler on tour? A man who got rich harvesting sponges and never bothered to contemplate his life? An art collection full of stories? A series of museums created by the Gods of Olympus? The poetic, the harsh, the episodic, the subtle, the overt? It’s in here.

Back in 2014, I fell in love with Bucak’s story “Iconography” after reading it in Pushcart XLVIII. When I saw this collection hit the market last year, I put it on my list, but wanted to wait for the paperback. I just find them easier to carry around and to read. And I see via Twitter that Bucak has the same preference, one of several minor intersections between us.

The “storyteller voice” is prominent in these stories, which sometimes include little preludes and/or postludes that use storyteller formulas or revert to first-person. In her FWR interview, Bucak explains she’s drawn to that style, and discusses an Armenian folk tale formula for ending a story:

With a couple of stories I wanted to end with the storyteller addressing the reader more overtly, which is something I think I stole from Armenian folktales, which often end “Three apples fell from heaven” and then usually include some variation on “one for the storyteller, one for the listener” and one for some odd third. I like the breaking of the wall that happens there.

Interview with Natalie Rowland at FWR

That closing formula is another intersection I have with Bucak, one with particular power for me. The Portland (Maine) Public Library, just a couple of blocks from where I sit, a sculpture
by local artist and teacher John Ventimiglia titled “Three Apples Fell from Heaven” decorates the elevator niche on the first floor. Folds of metal form an alphabet based on Armenian calligraphy of a bygone century, and cast shadows on the wall behind the piece. The artist’s statement explains how it honors the traditional folk tale formula. I’ve loved that scupture for years. In 2011, in fact, when I was in my Zin Kenter phase (if you don’t know, you don’t want to, trust me) I wrote a goofy flash about an Armenian man who, while looking for a book elsewhere in the library, finds himself drawn back to that sculpture, and to his own story, by the yarn of his own sweater which caught on it as he walked past. Alas, Prick of the Spindle is no more so I can’t link to it, but it was there.

Bucak links that third apple to her sense, as someone of mixed heritage (her father was Turkish, her mother American), of writing from “the third position of being both.” All of the stories feature Turks, usually as main characters, and in her Rumpus Book Club chat she admits she’s amused, having been raised in America, that readers might get the impression she’s more culturally Turkish than she is. “I suspect American readers notice the Turkishness a lot more than they notice the Americanness,” she says, which was, for most stories, the case for me. I’d love to know the impression of Turkish readers!

I’m always interested in how a collection is put together. She’d written two stories – “The History of Girls” and “Iconography’ – before she started thinking in terms of a collection. She wanted variety, so moved away from girls to “A Cautionary Tale” featuring a wrestler, then a Southern story, perhaps the most traditional narrative in the book. She started fitting stories within stories, which created some wonderful effects. When things started to feel “too magical” she went back to reality. Then came the process of ordering the stories:

Actually the decision to put “Gathering of Desire” at the end came very late. My agent and I went back and forth a few times on the order. She wanted a more contemporary story at the end, but I didn’t have that many contemporary stories. And originally “The History of Girls” was more toward the middle. But that was the first story I wrote for the book so it had been out a while and I knew firsthand that it was my most reader-friendly story, so I suggested we put it first—as a kind of warm greeting, everybody welcome kind of story. But then I wanted “The Trojan War Museum” to be last as it’s my personal fave (Julie was not so keen on that idea). Then I realized on albums—when we used to listen to those—I often liked the sixth song best… so I put “The Trojan War Museum” sixth. And at that point, it felt like “Gathering of Desire” could work as anchor, and in fact more people would notice the story (which is maybe my second favorite) if it was at the end.

I now want to go through all my favorite albums and see what the sixth cut is. The problem is: whereas she’s of the age when album probably meant CD, I gathered my music in the vinyl age, and the sixth cut tends to be right at the side flip, which probably has some impact on the song chosen for that spot – either the last song on side A or the first on side B. In any case, I find her stories to have such intriguing beginnings, and such strong endings, I’d be fine beginning and finishing the collection with any one of them.

How about a more detailed look at some of the stories.

The History of Girls (available online at LitHub)

While we waited we were visited by the ghosts of the girls who had already died. Those who were closest to the explosion, in the kitchen sneaking butter and bread when the gas ignited, the ones who died immediately, in a sense without injury, the girls who died explosively.
The dead girls waited with us, amidst the rubble, our heads pillowed on it, our arms and legs canopied by it, some of us punctured by it. The rubble was heavy, of course. The weight of it made us wonder what happened to the softer things. Our sheets and blankets, our letters from home, our Korans, our class notes, the slips of paper we exchanged throughout the day, expressing our affections and disaffections for each other, for our teachers, for the rituals of our contained life. What about the curtains on our windows? we thought.… The explosion, it seemed, turned everything to stone. Except us. We were soft then, softer than we ever were.

Given my fondness for unusual narrative points of view, of course I was enchanted by this first-person-plural story. Then, at the end, it shifts into singular, a change Bucak made at the urging of one of her early readers. It’s interesting that she chose an accident, rather than malfeasance, for the cause of the explosion. Throughout, the girls show caring for each other – whether living or dead – and fear is pushed into the background. They produce their own hope, and they aim to survive, even when that seems unlikely. This is the history of girls.

As a bonus, Bucak followed this up with “Microeditorial: The History of Girls, Part II”, also available online, a contemplation of the difference between Anne Frank and Malala based on a conversation she had with her mother, and how hard it is for girls to find the right balance between power and humility. Or, more accurately, how difficult it is for the world to see girls who don’t fit the expected balance. Just ask any female political candidate; it doesn’t get easier with age.

A Cautionary Tale

I imagine that before the collision, on the boat, Yusuf must have thought often of reaching home. He was ready to retire. But I imagine, too, that he was afraid. He had some money, he had a family to return to, but it was all unknown; he had spent his life wrestling, traveling. He was famous, of course, but he had daughters he barely knew and a wife who had grown accustomed to living without a husband. He had things to be ashamed of. He had never had much of a life outside of wrestling, So what would it be like to no longer have wrestling?
It would be nice to imagine that in the water he did not think of his fights with men but, rather, of how he used to train against nature, and how though he never defeated it, nature always made him stronger. How beautiful if he was able to remember his home with the cypress trees, the wind from the east, and the fields full of filberts and pistachios and chestnuts, later to be roasted in a fire.

There was, in the late 19th century a real Yusuf Ismail, a Turkish wrestler whose life did follow the path outlined in this story. That in itself would be an interesting story – Ismail is what tactful sources often refer to as colorful – but what makes it really work is that it’s being told, by an immigration officer, to an applicant during an entry interview:

You don’t like my asking you questions, do you?
You’re just doing your job.
Yes. But you don’t like it.
It’s not what I expected.
What did you expect?
Different kinds of questions.
What kind?
About my work. About where I’ll live. About, I don’t know, paying taxes, obeying the law.
We’ll get to those.
Do you tell everybody these stories?
I tell everybody stories.
But not these stories.
No, not these stories.

We have no information about the officer or the applicant, other than their conversation about Ismail’s story, which lets us as readers tell the real story ourselves. It’s hard to resist, given the present moment in which we are living, putting a malevolent spin on the officer, but it’s possible he (or she) has some understanding of the transitions involved in immigration, and is hoping to reduce expectations a bit. Bucak shared her motivations in an interview with Joshua Graber for Asterix:

The interview style of this story was inspired by the young adult novel I am the Cheese by Robert Cormier. There’s an interviewer/interviewee format to much of the novel that I found hugely [word(s) omitted]. So I wanted to try it. On the simplest level, the border agent (as I imagine him) is offering the interviewee a cautionary tale about leaving home. And while I view the interviewer as a fairly negative force, trying to control things he shouldn’t, I wrote the story out of the ambivalence that I know my father felt about having immigrated to the United States. He never really knew if he wanted to be here or there. I worry now about how this story will be read in an unnuanced world that doesn’t necessarily have room for the idea that immigration doesn’t always work out. But it doesn’t always work out. (That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be allowed, of course.)

Interview at Asterix

Having read quite a few stories by immigrants about immigrants, I’ll agree that there’s often at least some ambivalence involved, even in cases where they go to great lengths to get here. Literary fiction, re-nuancing the world one story at a time. It’s a great use of the story-within-a-story technique.

Mysteries of the Mountain South

As much as I continue to love “Iconography,” this story is stiff competition for my favorite of the collection. It’s quite different from most of the other stories in several ways. First, it’s set in the present, with blogs and drones and computer simulations, all of which are critical to the turn of events. Second, though it’s set in the rural South, it doesn’t borrow much from folk tales. Third, its Turkish content is minimal, though it does have a powerful theme around race and ethnicity. But other similarities remain, in particular the storyteller voice, though in more subdued form. And it does have a pov-switching coda at the end, including a final paragraph that shook loose all the tears I had stored up.

Edie is a recent college graduate who expected to go to Mountain View and code 24/7, but she ends up in Mountain Home, North Carolina, instead, due to her grandmother’s terminal illness and need for a caretaker. Armed with a video-equipped drone, she puts her technical expertise to work creating Virtual Valley, a computer simulation of the area.

Her relationship with her grandmother blossoms, and she finds out her great-great-grandfather was black. Or, rather, Melungeon, as her grandmother explains. I’d never heard of Melungeons, people of mixed ethnicity that’s described as white, black, and Indian, maybe Portuguese and Turkish. Edie reacts to this, but carefully – “trying to sound nonchalant, utterly and absolutely unsurprised, nothing that could make her sound insensitive or racist. Because she wasn’t!” This is such an incredibly authentic thought I had to smile.

This thickens when Grandma starts planning for her green funeral. Edie meets Michael, the young, and black, owner of the local mortuary which specializes in “environmentally sustainable practices and death midwifery – but also the regular stuff, if you want it.” After some paperwork, Michael goes over a delicate issue with Edie:

“She understands,” he said, “that I’ll be the one to prepare her?
“Prepare her how?”
“Her body,” he said.
“I’m sure she understands. That’s why we called you. What are you saying?”
“It’s just that sometimes… people think they aren’t prejudiced, and they thing they can handle” – he paused again – “a black man washing their body, but then suddenly they can’t.”
“Well, she’ll be dead anyway, right?” Edie said, her voice rising in pitch. God, how she hated that.
“Right,” he said and looked at her.
“So you mean me? Do I understand?”
“You and your family.”
“We’re not racist,” Edie said. “My grandmother’s black. Melungeon. Whatever.” How convenient to have this information to wield! She was not a racist! How could she be! She kept going: “My father’s grandfather was black. No, my grandmother’s grandfather was black. My great-great-grandfather or something, was black. Melungeon.”
Michael laughed.
“So you’re black?”
“What do you mean, preparing the body?” Edie asked suddenly. She nearly stumbled right into him, as if her words were spewing her rather than the other way round.

She stumbles into him, all right. Again I had to laugh at the perfection of this interaction. In her FWR interview, Bucak worries that she’s lost her dialog-writing skills, but it seems like she found them again for this section. It’s exactly that awkward conversation that would happen. I’m relieved Edie stumbled into Michael in private, face-to-face, rather than over Twitter, where she would immediately be eviscerated and Cancelled. Here, there’s a chance for someone to give her the benefit of the doubt, and accept there’s a learning curve. May we all stumble into someone who will give us that break.

This is one of those stories that makes me wish we had something like General Electric Theater, a way of making short stories into half-hour or one-hour television spots (movies involve too much money) so maybe people will learn to love short stories, like this one, again.

The Trojan War Museum (available online at Guernica)

Sing to me now, you Muses, of armies bursting forth like flowers in a blaze of bronze.
Soldier: I begged for sleep, and if not sleep, death. I was willing to settle for death. Then again, I’ve never felt more loved.
He looked at his father, a veteran; his grandfather, a veteran; his uncle, a veteran; his sister, a veteran; and he saw his future foretold, no different than birds and snakes foretelling nine more years of war.
Think: museums turn war to poetry. So to poets. So to war.
You know, Athena forgot Odysseus was out there.
Oh Muses.

This beautifully imaginative piece gives us a series of Trojan War museums – the first one being “not much more than a field of remains” – run by the Gods of Olympus, from antiquity to the 22nd century as a meditation on the wisdom of glorifying war. In recent days, there’s been a lot of discussion about soldiers as losers and as heroes. I’d never think of anyone who volunteers for service out of duty, or family tradition, or because it’s the only path to a job or college, as a loser. But lionizing dead soldiers also bothers me, because I have to wonder if it creates more dead soldiers. What if war was a rare necessity rather than a chance for glory? What if monuments to schoolteachers were as common as those honoring military figures? Even without the present impinging on it, it’s a beautiful story, poetic and allusive. And yes, there’s a real irony to poeticizing a story that critiques the romanticizing of war.

The Dead (available online at Bomb)

In Key West, Arapian was known as the Turk, though he was Armenian.
The extraction of fingernails; the application of burning irons to the breast; the pinching of skin with burning clamps; boiled butter poured into wounds; the tearing off of genitalia; the penetration of orifices with swords, with brooms, with flesh; the sawing off of hands and feet, arms and legs; the bayoneting of babies; the slitting of throats, the exhibition of the massacred.
The difference between Turk and Armenian? The Turk extracted the Armenian’s fingernails. The Turk applied burning irons to the Armenian’s breast. The Turk pinched the skin of the Armenian with burning clamps. Or he had the Kurd do it.
Turkey for the Turks, they said.
In Key West, sponges made Arapian a millionaire, one of the richest men in America at the time, an immigrant from the Ottoman Empire, which would have killed him if it could.
Bow down to the almighty sponge! Either the highest order of plant or the lowest order of animal.

Although it may not seem like it from those opening lines, this is less a story about genocide than it is a story about what seems to be true versus what is true, which is, now that I think about it, the story of the Armenian genocide after all. And it’s about the violence that pervades our lives, in ways large and small: “…his men smoked to cover up the terrible smell of sponges, which, after all, were living creatures beaten to death with clubs before they were bleached.” Arapian’s wife indicates, somewhat subtly but clearly enough, that she’s ready to die, and he misreads her, either deliberately or through inattention. Then there’s the societal violence: “People would remember the starving Armenians, but more as a chastisement to eat their own dinners than to sacrifice those dinners on the Armenian’s behalf,” just as American kids are told to “think of the starving children in Europe/Asia/Africa” (depending on their generation) and clean their plates, not to do anything to actually benefit starving children.

The Sponge King and his wife are hosting a party for Anahid, who escaped those who would murder her. Though he himself could have been in her shoes, he shows no particular compassion towards her, but only uses her as a focus of the party. Anahid is rather incapacitated by trauma, so others take her place, at the party, and in the commercialization of her story. She’s based on Aurora Mardiganian, who was an actual escapee, and was likewise commercialized beyond her actuality.

It’s a story with a lot of layers and many subtleties, yet it’s a compelling narrative.

The Gathering of Desire

And once there was, and once there wasn’t,
in the time when magic was mystery and science was fact,
in the time when God’s hand could arm man’s puppet,
when miracles were seen to be believed, and schemes were believed to be seen,
there was the Ottoman Turk, the chess playing mechanical man.

And again we have this wonderful blend of folk tale and reality, delivered with several varieties of chiasmus from the traditional opening to the text itself.

There was a Mechanical Turk, a chess-playing automaton built in the late 18th century, and it was of course a fake; there are automatons, and some of them can perform very complex maneuvers, but they weren’t computers. At the time of the story, hidden inside the cabinet was a former chess master, here referred to as S. but known to be William Schlumberger. He was past his prime but still able to consistently beat non-masters. And, like most of us, he’s a little confused about his fate: “When all options were open to him, he desired only chess, but now that only chess is open to him, he desires everything else” (I told you, chiasmus).

And there was a woman who beat him, here unnamed but recorded in chess history as Mrs. Fisher (in fact, the game they played has been recorded as well). The unnamed woman in the story has two children and a husband who was lost for months and then died, the circumstances unknown. The children see him while she’s playing the Turk. There are times when she feels him “emanating from the machine opposite her.”

To deepen these characters with backstories is not an unusual technique; Bucak has done it in many of these stories. But it’s what she does with the Turk that makes this special: “The Turk knows that inside each of us is a black light and a love without end. He wishes he could tell her so.”

I hate to go all sappy and romantic here, but it’s a story about our desires and our hopes and grief and love and whatever there is, be it in us, around us, or be it us, all tempered by placing it within a chess match between a has-been, a widow, and… something else.


Never does the Starving Girl think of herself as anything but hungry. It is the others who give her act drama, and meaning, which, in the end, she is happy to accept.

This is the story I’d encountered in Pushcart 2014. In my post about it from six years ago, I blathered at length about the narrator. That seems a bit silly to me now (hey, it could have been worse; the further I go back in this blog, the more embarrassed I get), but I’d like to think it’s a good thing I’ve developed a better sense for the storyteller voice, a subtype of third-person narration – with accents of first-person – Bucak uses so effectively throughout this collection. It’s still a great story about projection, our need to fit others into roles that suit our needs. But it’s also about a girl who comes to understand what matters.

I’ve always been partial to fiction that teaches me something about the world, and every story here held something new for me to discover. It was a collection worth the six-year wait.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosopy Won’t Go Away (Vintage, 2015)

When I was a child I was addicted to science fiction, and my favorite science fiction required the reader to accept just one preposterous premise, and then everything else made sense. That is what the dialogues of this book ask of the reader. Just accept the one preposterous premise that Plato could turn up in twenty-first century America, an author on a book tour, and everything else, I hope, makes sense.

I wasn’t aware of that “preposterous” premise when I decided to read this book. It’s the sort of thing that might immediately put some people off as gimmicky, but it would’ve sold me from the get-go. What would Plato have to say about computer technology, how would he be as a guest on a cable news show or on a discussion panel, as an advice columnist, or when confronted with contemporary neuroscience?

Overall, the book tries to answer the question in the title: is philosophy, as imagined 2400 years ago, still relevant? If not, why does everyone still know the names Plato and Socrates? And if it is still relevant, that’s almost worse: doesn’t that mean philosophy has made no real progress at all?

While the 21st century Plato chapters are both informative and entertaining, they only form half the book. The chapters proceed in pairs: first there’s a more traditional chapter on some aspect of Plato’s life and work, and then a chapter further illuminating the concepts via a contemporary setting. As such, instead of thinking of it as a ten-chapter book, look at it as five modules with two sections each. The chapters, by the way, are accounted by Greek letters (α, β, γ, δ, etc) rather than numbers, which makes me smile since I just recently started a course on ancient Greek and have just become somewhat comfortable with the alphabet. But it’s another of those things: some people see fun and charm, others see gimmicks.

The first module looks at how Plato saw the purpose of philosophy:

Plato didn’t think the written word could do justice to what philosophy is supposed to do . And yet he did write; he wrote a great deal. And the literary form he invented for his writing should give us an indication of what he thought philosophy was supposed to do .
And what is it, according to Plato, that philosophy is supposed to do? Nothing less than to render violence to our sense of ourselves and our world, our sense of ourselves in the world….
Progress in philosophy consists, at least in part, in constantly bringing to light the covert presumptions that burrow their way deep down into our thinking, too deep down for us to even be aware of them.

This last sentence brought to mind the central metaphor from Sophie’s World, the wonderful YA novel-about-philosophy that, almost thirty years ago, first got me (and a lot of other people I’ve encountered) interested in philosophy, except that it’s the reverse: in Gaarder’s book, most people are burrowed deep down into the rabbit’s fur, while it’s the philosophers who climb out to the tips of the hairs to stare the Magician in the face as he pulls it all out of a hat.

We then join Plato on his book tour in the company of Cheryl, his author escort showing him around the Google complex where he’s to give a book talk. They encounter tech-bro Marcus, and though Cheryl tries to prevent it, Plato invites him to join them. It’s a demonstration of the Socratic method at work, and the eventual effect is to break down some of Marcus’s smugness and get even super-focused Cheryl thinking about more than the schedule and the book sales that will result from the upcoming presentation – which we never see, because it’s this impromptu seminar, the kind so often featured in the Dialogs, that takes center stage.

The chapter is somewhat difficult reading, because it’s told via a narrator who’s listening to Cheryl give her account of the afternoon; quotes are omitted and dialog tags are sparse, but it’s worth it: What starts simply with Marcus’s need for orthodonture, and the question of who gets to decide, travels through having algorithms for ethical questions (and where do the algorithms come from?) to the value of super-arguers, aka philosophers, working on complicated issues and finding the errors in the initial arguments, and finally landing on the question of how changing attitudes towards slavery, so acceptable in Plato’s day and so anathema today (it still is anathema, isn’t it?) are an example of whether argument changes feelings or feelings create the argument, and when it’s in the decision-makers’ interests to maintain the status quo, how do you break through that, until we get to the kicker:

…[H]ow do we know we aren’t any different above all sorts of things we feel perfectly okay about right now because it’s in our interest to feel perfectly okay about them? Why should we be different from people in the past?

And of course we aren’t. We’re seeing this play out in real time with #MeToo, how “back then” it was ok to grab women or make salacious comments to subordinates at work or pin teenaged girls down at drunken parties because boys will be boys, and suddenly it isn’t. Some day maybe we’ll be amazed, like Keiko on ST:TNG, that people actually ate real meat from dead animals, or that people could die from poverty and it would be their own damn fault.

The next pair of chapters looks at how cultures have viewed what makes a life worth living, and the role of the state: is it to protect, or perfect, the citizenry? The expository chapter lays out the Axial Age, the five centuries during which, all around the world, cultures began looking at the meaning of life. The world religions were born during this period: very different religions, from Confucius and Lao Tse, Buddha and Hinduism, Jain and Zoroastrianism to the monotheism of Judaism that would become Christianity and Islam, to the philosophy of Golden Age Athens. Which one of these is not like the others? Only Greece, which was replete with gods and religion, looked to humans to define what made life worth living. Goldstein shows how this evolved, from Homeric kleos to arete, and how Platonism not only established itself and sent offshoots into different directions but met up with Christianity several centuries hence.

This idea of what makes a life worth living, and the state’s role in the arete of its citizens, is dramatized by a panel discussion at the 92nd Street Y with Plato, a Tiger Mom, and a Jungian analyst. Should parents push their children to be the parents’ version of exceptional, or create the circumstances under which children will find their own exceptionality, though it might be more humble? This mirrors the questions about the State, about which character traits the State might want to encourage, and how it might do that, or whether it just holds invaders at bay and makes sure there’s bread for all.

As you might expect, a lot came up that rang with contemporary urgency, from Plato admitting “[W]hat I have not been able to figure out yet is if the Internet itself strengthens your democracy or weakens it” (yeah, we’re still working on that one, too) to the role of reality in a State:

PLATO: And, conversely, when I say that it is right that the guardians should be those who are capable of apprehending reality, and most importantly the aspects of reality that account for goodness and justice and wisdom, then I would expect that you would concur with me. Let it be reality that chooses the powerful, rather than the powerful who choose reality. Isn’t that less tyrannical?
MUNITZ, still speaking uncharacteristically softly: But then you enthrone reality as the tyrant.
PLATO: It is a better tyrant than any one of us, certainly with more of a right to impose itself on our minds than any human being possesses.

Having seen the effects of ignoring reality, that seems to be a good way to think of it. But then there’s the Noble Lie. Nothing with Plato is ever simple or absolute.

In another creative (or gimmicky, you pick your adjective, I’ll pick mine) attempt to illuminate Plato, Goldstein provides in this chapter what she believes would be his answers on the Myers-Briggs personality inventory, developed with Jungian principles. I was surprised that the two axes on which I score the most definitively coincide with the philosopher’s.

I’m a little confused about the next pair of chapters. Ostensibly, they’re about philosophy as the pursuit of Eros (it figures this would be what trips me up), and spends considerable time on who Socrates and Plato might have had the hots for (Alcibiades? Dion?) but is really about whether morality should define the state, or the state should define morality:

Is the best state the one that maximally allows arete to flourish, where arete is independently defined? Or is areteto be defined in terms of the qualities that will allow a person to become justifiably notable in the polis, the qualities of an individual that best allow the values-setting polis to exist and to flourish ? …. Plato moralized political theory, while the Athens to which he objected politicized morality – or at any rate it politicized arete. And it judged Socrates to be severely lacking in the qualities that would conduce to the flourishing of his polis, which made him, though notable, not justifiably notable, and so deficient in arete.

The contemporary chapter gives Plato the role of consultant to a popular advice columnist (the importance of Ann Landers’s Rolodex is emphasized) and shows how he approaches a variety of interpersonal issues.

Then we come to the death of Socrates, the history and politics in play, and Plato as a guest on a cable news show based on Bill O’Reilly’s show at the time. I found it so annoying I couldn’t finish the chapter. Draw your own conclusions.

The final pair of chapters is all about reality, our perception of same, Socrates’ Daimon, epistemology, and a very detailed look at the myth of the Cave. This lends itself nicely to imagining Plato in conversation with a neuroscientist and a cognitive scientist. Those who are familiar with my love of neuroscience will understand why these were my favorite chapters (though I did love the first two as well). The contemporary chapter is in the form of a dialog, complete with clear tags this time, and references where/if the brain ends and the mind begins, determinism vs free will and the implications of both, and whether morality can be determined by algorithm (the neuroscientist’s view). And it contains my favorite half-page in the book in a discussion of whether something besides an algorithm could be needed to explain why Socrates went peacefully to his death rather than avoiding it:

PLATO: So then what my friend ought to have said is something along the following lines: The reason that I am lying here on this jailhouse bed is that my default mode network, interacting with memories stored in my hippocampus and medial temporal lobe, generates patterns of activity that correspond with various future scenarios, including fleeing and staying put. The staying-put pattern generates a conflict signal in my anterior cingulate cortex, because the ACC also receives a prepotent response from midbrain limbic circuits that causes the organism to struggle to escape confinement. The signal is then relayed to my dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which engages in information processing to resolve the conflict. The DLPFC sends and receives signals from my ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which contains information about my long term goals and also connects to areas in the right superior temporal sulcus that allows me to simulate the actions of other people. The information in this network causes the DLPFC to resolve the conflict by sending signals to the premotor and motor areas, which caused the muscles of my body to leave me in the jail cell.
SHOKET: OK, now I’m officially amazed. What have you been doing, auditing classes?

And I KNOW WHICH MOOCs – I’VE TAKEN THEM! Dartmouth’s Libertarian Free Will: Neuroscientific and Philosophical Evidence is the most on-point (by the way, philosophical libertarianism is completely unrelated to political libertarianism), complete with ACC and DLPFC and all the other cortexes and modules and nodules.

While all this circuitry is well and good, this leads directly to the invocation of the field of embodied cognition, the study of interplay between the brain, the body, and the world, to truly understand Socrates’ action:

PLATO: Do you not see what is missing from the explanation of my friend’s action? We cannot explain why my friend did what he did unless we understand what that action meant both to him and to others, how he saw it and what value he placed on it and how he saw how others would see it and what values they would place on it, both in his day and later, back and forth in spiraling loops of values and meanings.
AGATHA: The way the philosophers at the cognitive Science Center would put it is that you can’t explain his action unless you view it in the context of value and meaning in which his behavior is embedded.

Ok, so not everybody loves this neuro stuff, but remember there was the advice columnist and the cable tv show and the Googleplex and the 92nd Street Y as well? Surely there’s something in there for everyone.

So why doesn’t philosophy go away? I think this might be revealed in Goldstein’s introductory chapter:

His words sound natural in conversations that will be familiar to the reader , and this is a testament to the surprising relevance he still has – but not because his intuitions always ring true to us. His relevance derives overwhelmingly from the questions he asked and from his insistence that they cannot be easily dispensed with in the ways that people often think…. I rarely give him the answers, and I think this is true to the man. The thing about Plato is that he rarely presented himself as giving us the final answers . What he insisted upon was the recalcitrance of the questions in the face of shallow attempts to make them go away . His genius for formulating counter reductive arguments is at one with the genius that allowed him to raise up the field of philosophy as we know it.

Maybe the point isn’t to answer questions, but to engage people in asking them. This is in fact what happens in the Googleplex chapter: both the tech-bro and the author escort move out of their comfortable assuredness into query mode. I thought of Emily Dickinson’s “I Dwell in Possibility”, a poem I haven’t thought about for a long time: the point is to ask questions, not write down Answers for All Time. Maybe there are answers for one set of circumstances, and maybe not for another. Maybe an answer that once worked, no longer does. The work is to keep asking, and that’s why we still read Plato: because we still have questions, and always will.

This is the third Goldstein book I’ve read, and I find them all wonderful in different ways. Fortunately, there are several more geared towards general readership. I do make a conscious effort to read other philosophical explainers and apologists to keep from getting stuck in a rut, but I have to admit a fondness for her humor and style.

Physics for Poets MOOC

Course: How Things Work: An Introduction to Physics
Length: total ~14 hours
School/platform: UVA/Coursera
Instructor: Louis A. Bloomfield

An introduction to physics in the context of everyday objects: It’s essentially case study physics, an introduction to physics in the context of everyday objects and activities. My goal is to make physics useful, and to help you understand and manage the physical world around you.

In the 1994 Law & Order episode “Big Bang,” ADAs Ben Stone and Claire Kincaid are investigating a physics professor whose defense involves serious particle physics. In private, Stone confesses to Kincaid: “You know what I took for my science requirement? Physics for Poets.” Kincaid confesses back: “Elementary Geology. Rocks for Jocks.” This course is essentially Physics for Poets: general concepts peeled down to their simplified forms, presented via concrete examples with minimal math.

It’s one of the oldest classes on Coursera’s roster, making its debut back in 2013, and I’ve been thinking about taking it since about then. But stubbornly, I kept trying the “real’ physics courses and quitting by week 3 when I still couldn’t keep joules, newtons, and watts straight. Now that I finally cried Uncle and got here, I wish I’d done it sooner.

Each of the six weeks focuses on an object that demonstrates a related group of concepts. Skateboarding, for example, introduces force, inertia, and acceleration. I’d never considered weight as a force before (it’s usually ignored in favor of mass), but it makes a lot of sense in this context. And by spending a couple of weeks focusing on force – that is, newtons – I was much better able to grasp the idea of joules when we got to energy later on. For me, that alone was worth taking the course.

The other objects are falling balls, ramps, seesaws, wheels, and bumper cars. I can say I saw a lot of things more clearly, such as what’s a force and what isn’t, and what properties are conserved. By comparing linear velocity and momentum to angular velocity and momentum, the course helped me keep a lot more organized. I’m still a little confused about some stuff, but it’s not a total jumble.

The professor is very hands-on – and feet-on and butt-on – as he skateboards, rolls on a cart, tosses balls out of windows and across rooms, tips small levers and puts TAs on seesaws, pulls wagons around, plays air hockey to simulate bumper cars, and does everything he can to demonstrate various kinds of forces and accelerations while also showing off the UVA campus. There is some math, but very little, and it’s of the a=b*c variety, very simple even for me. In fact, after I finished the course, I went back and dragged out the formulas that tended to get buried in the long runs of explanation. This also was a very worthwhile process for me.

The course starts with a Preliminary Assessment before any teaching takes place. This is graded; for those of us who don’t sign up for the “Certificate Experience” (I guess they gave up on verification), this is the only grade you’ll see. There are ungraded (but very useful) questions embedded in the videos. Each week ends with a quiz that you can take if you’re auditing, but you can’t find out what you got right or wrong (unless you’re determined and creative, in which case you might discover students from years before have left a trail of breadcrumbs some of us might find useful. And some of us might find, for those intending to earn a grade for this, to be cheating, if relatively worthless cheating). A final exam similar (at times identical) to the Preliminary Assessment finishes things off in Week Seven.

There are some tricky concepts, but it’s basic mechanics presented in such a way as to give students more of a sense of what is actually happening than the equations they’ll see in a more typical physics course. I’m going to take another stab at a physics course, and see how much of a difference this made. I’m hopeful.

Imani Perry, May We Forever Stand (UNCPress 2018)

The ways we tell history often make transitions from one period to the next seem permanent and strict. But in truth every moment and movement bleeds with the ink of a previous era. This truth emerged dramatically as I researched the history of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” It was the epic anthem embraced by black institutions as well as black and multiracial social movements. Although the tides shifted, and ideologies and tactics rose and fell, the anthem kept people afloat. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” moved with social history, but it also always stands as a sign of a particular racial identity and culture. Even as it was embraced by widely divergent political actors, some aspects of its meaning were and are resilient. It tells the singer to see herself or himself as emerging magnificently through struggle. It nurtures an identity rooted in community. It is a song that moves regionally and internationally, yet holds fast to a sense of particular belonging. It has had a remarkable longevity due to both its beauty and its vision. Perhaps most important, it was and is the song of a people, my people. In the following pages I will trace its journey and with it I will trace a story of African American life over 115 years.

This past June, the confluence of the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, the birthday of Rosamond Johnson, and Juneteenth had this book, published in 2018, popping up on my Twitter feed regularly. I love the song, and I remember how much I’d enjoyed learning the story of how Julia Ward Howe wrote the lyrics to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” when I took the Pre-Modern Women Poets mooc, so I ordered it.

When I say “I love the song” I have to admit I don’t remember when I first heard it, or when I became aware of it as the Black National Anthem; I’m guessing a TV program (I don’t get out much). But I remember the last time I heard it: it was sung in the Sunday service of the local Unitarian Church when I was in the choir there. I got goosebumps; it’s a wonderful song, musically and lyrically. And I say that as a little old white lady whose taste generally runs to folk and classical. My current favorite version is by the a capella group Committed (even if you have your own favorite version, listen to the last 30 seconds for some truly fine vocalizing), but there are hundreds of other options on Youtube, from soloists to choirs, jazzy to hip hop.

The book spends some time on the writing of the song and its first performance in 1900, and on the two brothers, James and Rosamond Johnson, who wrote the words and music. Both were trained in their disciplines, James as a writer, Rosamond as a musician; this wasn’t their first collaboration, nor would it be their last, though they eventually went their separate professional ways. For James, Spanish sonnets influenced the form, and, most interestingly, Kipling (or, more accurately perhaps, a pushback to Kipling) served as inspiration for some of the content: “Perhaps we ought to consider ‘Lift Every Voice’ as a processional in contrast to Kipling’s ‘Recessional,’ in terms of both substance and form.” Rosamond’s music references the march and the dance, rising and falling with the lyrics. And that minor note in the bridge is nothing short of brilliant.

But the primary focus of the book is on the anthem’s place in the cultural, social, and political milieu of the black community over the last century-plus from the collapse of Reconstruction, to the mid-century push for civil rights, to the right-wing reaction to the election of President Obama. It’s quite a story.

“Lift Every Voice and Sing” would become an important feature of a cultural practice that I refer to as “black formalism.” Black formalism emerged in the late nineteenth-century United States. It is a term I am using here to describe the performance and substance within black associations and institutions. Black formalism includes ritual practices with embedded norms, codes of conduct, and routine, dignified ways of doing and being….
I argue that black formalism is distinct from the politics of respectability. Black formalism describes practices that were primarily internal to the black community, rather than those based upon a white gaze or an aspiration for white acceptance. It was engaged in across class lines rather than being rooted in a belief in white and middle-class superiority and pushed from the middle class top down to the poor, as was the politics of respectability. The source material for my account of black formalism is made up of thousands of documents—school and church programs, graduation ceremonies, works of literature, oral histories, material culture and images—that revealed a captivating cultural landscape within black communities from the late nineteenth century on, which included not only a striking vernacular culture of spirituals, blues, and the like but also a similarly compelling formal culture of pageantry, oratory, and ritual.

Since I, like a lot of people, think the world started when I was born, I was surprised to read about the numerous organizations formed by black people starting right after Reconstruction. There was conflict in these organizations, just as there was conflict between Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois in what direction education should take. Of course people with this level of gravitas have different thoughts, see different priorities, have different ideas of how to attain goals. Somehow that makes me feel better about the conflict between black leaders we see today.

This extents to disagreements between cultural icons: I wasn’t aware of Jackie Robinson’s disapproval of Paul Robeson’s vocal activism (a disapproval he later regretted; this one’s for you, Roger Goodell), but it doesn’t surprise me, given the wide range of opinion we see aired today. And again, it makes me feel better: things are not falling apart, there was always diversity of view within the community.

Perry includes a reference to Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings that directly references the anthem: the eighth-grade graduation story. If you’ve read Angelou’s book, you know what I’m talking about; it’s an almost cinematic moment, a journey of a community from joy and anticipation, to shame and humiliation, and back to pride and confidence led by a boy giving his valedictory speech based on Hamlet (it sounds weird, but it works) and the singing of a song that can’t help but uplift.

Another section about the 1948 Democratic primary between Henry Wallace and Harry S Truman also speaks to the current moment:

Racist intimidation was also often political intimidation in the 1930s and 1940s. The widespread assertion that Wallace was a “red,” a charge repeated by not just segregationists but also the executive director of the NAACP, was a sign of the McCarthyism that was coming to sweep the nation. But more than that, it signaled the coercive power of postwar liberalism. Liberalism framed the outer limits of the kind of calls for justice black people were “supposed” to make. At times, this meant going further than encasing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in Americana; it meant rejecting the very idea of a black anthem….
[A]t the 1948 Democratic Party convention Truman was silent on civil rights, despite his knowledge that black voters would be a decisive force in the presidential election that year. Truman’s support only went so far. He didn’t want to rock the boat with southern white Democrats, whom he considered an essential constituency.

The Democratic party, scared of losing even one white voter for three quarters of a century.

Perry describes the tumult of the 50s and 60s, and the competing anthems, particularly “We Shall Overcome.” There’s also a divide between black people in the North, and those raised in the South even after the Great Migration: those in the North weren’t familiar with the anthem. But it still survived.

Perry makes use of advertising to make a wonderfully effective transition. It turns out Miller Beer was trying to sell beer to black men. As part of the project, they commissioned posters with the song and a record (this was 1984) of LEVAS featuring contemporary stars like Al Green, Deniece Williams, with Roberta Flack and Melba Moore on backup (!). Producer Deborah McDuffie has made some takes on Youtube. Perry takes a more jaded view of the hoopla, and transitions into something completely different:

In this era, to be “for” black people, nominally, could mean absolutely nothing of substance. It might simply mean somebody was trying to sell something, or, in the tradition of Reagan, it might actually mean a paternalistic damnation. Frank speech was needed to clear away the underbrush of race in America.
Then came hip-hop.

This leads us to the opening moments of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing: “The movie begins with a solitary horn playing strains of ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing,’ and then suddenly actress Rosie Perez bursts on to the screen, dancing hard and fast to ‘Fight the Power.’”

As R&B music lost nearly all of its political content in the 1980s, and became increasingly sentimental and “smooth”, hip-hop was unflinching and explicitly both hard and political, even when it didn’t have an overt political message. It was the music of the young people dispossessed by the Reagan era. It was the music of migrants and their descendants, from the Caribbean and the South, from the country to the city, who arrived to far less opportunity than hoped for, and with only their resilience and rich cultural archive to rely upon.
The introduction of hip hop into black popular culture must be understood alongside the diminishing sphere of black institutional life.

And then there’s Bill Clinton. Perry notes the negative effects of his welfare and crime legislation on the black community, the increases in poverty and mass incarceration, the weakening of parental and community support for the “village” it takes to raise a child, and notes “It is somewhat ironic, then” that he claimed to know all three verses, and, at the ceremony awarding Rosa Parks the congressional Medal of Freedom, indeed did sing all the words, in effect “doing a duet” with Jessye Norman as she led the Anthem.

Clinton’s intimacy with rituals of black space, one that he was afforded by virtue of his many years in the South living with close ties to black communities, one that earned him a good deal of trust from black constituents, was increasingly unavailable to young black people who came of age during his presidency.

This, too, has an eerie connection to the present moment, when a lot of people are talking (and expressing “concern”, a word that may take on a whole new meaning after this) while making sure nothing of substance changes. I wonder how we’ll view today from 2050, assuming anyone’s around to get there, and assuming the actual history of the moment hasn’t been erased, rewritten, or diluted by those with reason to obscure truth; or, at least, the closest we can come to truth.

It’s a strange experience writing this now. And by now, I mean this week, I mean today, Wednesday, August 26, 2020. Six months, a year from now, what will this day mean? If you have no idea of the significance then (or now, for that matter), google Kenosha, see what comes up. Maybe it’ll be just another day, another place, by then, like August 9, 2014, like Ferguson, MO, like February 26, 2012, like Sanford, FL like August 28, 1955, like Money, MS, like so many other dates and places, but maybe it’ll mean something, this way that with tears has been watered.

I’m recalling yet again the Emily Dickinson bit about “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” I find I learn a lot more about history when coming at it from an angle. I’ve said this about much of the fiction I’ve read set in the Renaissance or the earliest centuries of Christianity or the Thirty Years’ War (usually in the process of cross-checking for historical accuracy), this ability to drive home a direction through a character that a history book might reduce to dry rhetoric. I’ve seen it in the nonfiction I’ve been reading, whether about salt or the US Territories. And again, here: Telling the history of a community, and the nation’s regard of that community, by means of this Anthem somehow makes it more comprehensible, more impactful than a straight-on history-of-black-America book would be. Show, don’t tell, manifest. Good job, Dr. Perry. And good job, Johnson brothers.

Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (Mariner edition 2000)

In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together. Early every morning they would come out from the house where they lived and walk arm in arm down the street to work. The two friends were very different. The one who always steered the way was an obese and dreamy Greek. In the summer he would come out wearing a yellow or green polo shirt stuffed sloppily into his trousers in front and hanging loose behind. When it was colder he wore over this a shapeless gray sweater. His face was round and oily, with half-closed eyelids and lips that curved in a gentle, stupid smile. The other mute was tall. His eyes had a quick, intelligent expression. He was always Immaculate and very soberly dressed.

Once again, I was surprised that a book I expected to be tedious and difficult turned out to be engrossing and wonderfully readable from the first sentence.

I chose to read this book at this time as the end result of a conversation about authenticity and appropriation that started with Alan Gurganus’s essay “I Confess: My Cultural Misappropriation” in Pushcart 2020. Jake Weber and I have been having a long, ongoing conversation about appropriation, and in the comments to my blog post on Gurganus’s essay he pointed me to a 2016 TNY article by Sarah Schulman that gave McCullers as an example of a white writer who was able to portray black characters – many different types of characters, in fact – as individuals, as people instead of ideas. Schulman writes, after considering McCullers’ possible sexual identity as what today would be considered gay or transgender:

It may be that the “ease” with which Carson McCullers was able to inhabit any kind of person, in a manner that was recognizable to a reader as sophisticated as Richard Wright, did not come from empathy. No, perhaps it came from the simple fact of having an identity that history had not yet discovered. And, because she didn’t know who she was, she had no place to stand. So she could stand with others who officially did not exist.

Sarah Schulman, “White Writer”, TNY 10/21/16,

The descriptions of the characters in the article, as well as the near-universal praise McCullers has received for bringing them to such full, vivid life, made me want to read the book. But, as I implied, I expected a novel set in the Depression-era South to be a bit of a slog. How delightful to be wrong about that. But be forewarned: there are events – and language – in the book that reflect the era. So it’s often painful reading.

It’s something of a stranger-comes-to-town story, except the stranger was already in town, just in another part. The flip side of the stranger comes to town is usually the hero sets out on a quest, except Singer isn’t really a hero and he’s not questing for anything.

The first chapter sets the ball rolling: Singer and his Greek friend Antonoupolis have been living together for ten years. They’re complete opposites except for their deafness, but have a connection that’s a powerful blend of family and love.

Singer was always talking to Antonopoulis. His hands shaped the words in a swift series of designs. His face was eager and his gray-green eyes sparkled brightly. With his thin, strong hands he told Antonopoulis all that has happened during the day.
Antonopoulos sat back lazily and looked at Singer. It was seldom that he ever moved his hands to speak at all – and then it was to say that he wanted to eat or to sleep or to drink. These three things he always said with the same vague, fumbling signs. At night, if he were not too drunk, he would kneel down before his bed and pray awhile. Then his plump hands shaped the words ‘Holy Jesus’, or ‘God,’ or ‘Darling Mary.’ These were the only words Antonopoulis ever said. Singer never knew just how much his friend understood of all the things he told him. But it did not matter.

This is the first indication of a motif that seems to be part of everyone’s life in the book: everybody’s talking, whether anyone’s listening or not. Usually not. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves: in this first chapter, “trouble came to the two friends.” Antonoupolis, deaf and possibly retarded or mentally ill (or both), begins decompensating, and is committed to a state institution by his cousin over Singer’s desperate pleas. This is how Singer comes to the other side of town, to a boarding house run near a diner where he lives and eats and goes to work and minds his own business. Or would, except four townspeople find him an excellent sounding board.

Singer, who is, remember, a deaf man, becomes a major listener to four who become the focus of the novel. He rarely indicates anything other than smiling and nodding, but they keep coming back and find the exchange immensely satisfying. It’s also interesting that we find out Singer isn’t actually mute; he just found no need to talk after Antonoupolis came into his life, and he continued that policy out of habit. Most of the time he keeps his hands, the instrument of his voice, hidden in his pockets, since the only person who can “hear” him is gone.

The bulk of the novel follows the four people through their lives in the town over the course of about a year. Biff Brannon owns the diner where Singer takes his meals. He seems like an Everyman who thinks deeply about many things and notices a lot of details. He also has some sexual quirks that are more hinted at than described. He and his wife barely see each other since they cover the diner at different times, but he’s impotent anyway so it doesn’t seem to matter. He notices a drunk stumbling around the diner, and watches as Singer takes care of him.

He was glad he had not told Alice about what had happened to the drunk. He had wanted to talk to somebody about it, because maybe if he told all the facts out loud he could put his finger on the thing that puzzled him. The poor son-of-a-bitch talking and talking and not ever getting anybody to understand what he meant. Not knowing himself, most likely. And the way he gravitated around the deaf-mute and picked him out and tried to make him a free present of everything in him.
Because in some men it is in them to give up everything personal at some time, before it ferments and poisons–throw it to some human being or some human idea. They have to. In some men it is in them – The text is ‘All men seek for Thee.’ Maybe that was why – maybe – He was a Chinaman, the fellow had said. And a nigger and a wop and a Jew. And if he believed it hard enough maybe it was so. Every person and every thing he said he was –
Biff stretched both of his arms outward and crossed his naked feet. His face was older in the morning light, with the closed, shrunken eyelids and the heavy, iron-like beard on his cheeks and jaw. Gradually his mouth softened and relaxed. The hard, yellow rays of the sun came in through the window so that the room was hot and bright. Biff turned wearily and covered his eyes with his hands. And he was nobody but – Bartholomew – old Biff with two fists and a quick tongue – Mister Brannon – by himself.

“All men seek for thee” could be a subtitle of the book, as Singer looks more and more like a Christ figure. After all, even the most devout have to admit that if one “hears” an answer to a prayer, it’s in the heart/head, not the ears. Maybe God is a deaf mute. Maybe we create him in our own image, as the four visitors do with Singer: he’s Jewish, or a music lover, or a Communist, or someone who’s figured it all out.

The second of the four spiritual pilgrims is Mick Kelly, the thriteen-year-old daughter of the boarding house owner. She’s an adventurer and a dreamer, full of hopes and the future, and she’s discovered music in a big way, thanks to Beethoven’s Eroica symphony and Mozart. And Mr. Singer has a radio, a radio he can’t hear, but he got it to provide entertainment for the four who visit him so often. “Mister Singer reminded her of this music.” She’s trying to turn a ukelele into a violin and wants to learn to read music, and she climbs up on the very top of the house that’s under construction – “But no matter how many Keep Out signs were put up, they couldn’t run kids away” – and sometimes wishes she were a boy. She’s claimed as McCullers’s most autobiographic character.

M.K.–That was what she would have written on everything when she was seventeen years old and very famous. She would ride back home in a red-and-white Packard automobile with her initials on the doors. She would have M.K. written in red on her handkerchiefs and underclothes. Maybe she would be a great inventor. She would invent little tiny radios the size of a green pea that people could carry around and stick in their ears. Also flying machines people could fasten on their backs like knapsacks and go zipping all over the world. After that she would be the first one to make a large tunnel through the world to China, and people could go down in big balloons. Those were the first things she would invent. They were already planned.

Jake Blount is a bit of a vagabond and a drunk. He shows up at the diner while Singer is having dinner, and Singer takes him back home with him so he can sleep it off. “The mute’s face was in his mind very clearly. It was like the face of a friend he had known for a long time.” He sticks around town for the year working at what I imagine is a mini-carnival consisting of one ride, a flying jinny. He’s also a devout Communist, and preaches the evils of communism in a desperate attempt to get people to “know” their labor is being exploited.

Words came to him and he dreamily spoke them aloud to himself. ‘Resentment is the most precious flower of poverty. Yeah.’
It was good to talk. The sound of his voice gave him pleasure. The tones seemed to echo and hang on in the air so that each word sounded twice. He swallowed and moistened his mouth to speak again. He suddenly wanted to return to the mute’s quiet room and tell him of the thoughts that were in his mind. It was a queer thing to want to talk with a deaf mute. But he was lonesome.

Dr. Benedict Mady Copeland, a highly educated black man (his children are named Portia, William, Harrison, and Karl Marx), is the doctor for the black folks in town, and is passionate about the betterment of the Negro race. Sadly, he hasn’t been that successful in bettering the lives of his own children, and his wife left him years ago. He met Singer briefly outside the diner, when Singer lit his cigarette for him, something no white man had ever done before. “He remembered the white man’s face when he smiled behind the yellow match flame on that raining night – and peace was in him.” Later he describes his desire to better the race to his daughter over coffee:

“The Negro race of its own accord climbs up on the cross on every Friday,” said Doctor Copeland.
Portia’s hands shook and coffee trickled down from the saucer she was holding. She licked it from her arm. “What do you mean?”
“I mean that I am always looking. I mean that if I could just find ten Negroes – ten of my own people – with spine and brains and courage who are willing to give all that they have – “
Portia put down the coffee. “Us was not talking about anything like that.”
“Only four Negroes,” said Doctor Copeland. “Only the sum of Hamilton and Karl Marx and William and you. Only four Negroes with these real true qualities and backbone – “

If this sounds familiar, it’s because of the story of Lot pleading with God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah for the sake of fifty – no, forty-five – no, forty – no, ten righteous men.

In my travels of general commentary on this book, I found an interesting structural note (and now I’ve lost the link, sorry, it’s out there somewhere). I’d already figured out that Part I set the stage; Part II, the bulk of the book, shows what happened as it all falls apart; and Part III, very short, wraps up loose ends as a denouement. But wait, there’s more. If you take the first chapter off Part I, the next four chapters introduce the primary characters in the order I’ve listed them above. Then in Part III, the four characters are bid adieu in reverse order, and we see how the year has changed them. They’ve all lost their Christ, their confessor, their center (I’ve seen Singer described as the spoke of the wheel) as Singer is gone (I won’t say how, some things need to stay unspoiled). Dr. Copeland is dying without his Christ; Mick is working in a five and dime instead of dreaming of the future, her family having fallen on hard times and the music in her growing dimmer; Jake Blount is moving on to another town after losing his Christ; and Biff, well, Biff the everyman, having lost his Christ, is still trying to figure things out:

The silence in the room was deep as the night itself. Biff stood transfixed, lost in his meditations. Then suddenly he felt a quickening in him. His heart turned and he leaned his back against the counter for support. For in a swift radiance of illumination he saw a glimpse of human struggle and of valor. Of the endless fluid passage of humanity through endless time. And of those who labor and of those who—one word—love. His soul expanded. But for a moment only. For in him he felt a warning, a shaft of terror. Between the two worlds he was suspended. He saw that he was looking at his own face in the counter glass before him. Sweat glistened on his temples and his face was contorted. One eye was opened wider than the other. The left eye delved narrowly into the past while the right gazed wide and affrighted into a future of blackness, error, and ruin. And he was suspended between radiance and darkness. Between bitter irony and faith. Sharply he turned away.

This is all of us in 2020, the year of our disaster.

What none of them knew, of course, was that war was only a couple of years away, and America would reshape itself afterwards in various ways. Many of the changes would not be welcomed by these people. But Dr. Copeland would find there are far more than four Negroes with spines, Mick would find other ways to approach her dreams, and Jake would probably end up in prison during the Red Scare years. But Biff, he’d keep trying to figure out what was going on, and who knows, maybe he’d come up with something.

There’s no one single event that carries the narrative of the story; it’s just a slow collapse of the important parts of the five characters’ lives. They struggle, but it seems inevitable. There is no safety net for these folks. Somehow, even though it’s pretty depressing, it still is engrossing to the last page.

I can see why it’s used as an example of “good appropriation.” The characters vary, even when related by race or class. All have flaws as well as assets, and they’re all very individual in their preferences and their reactions. Even when the four main characters have similar attachment to Singer, it’s always tailored to the individual quirks of each person.

There’s another aspect to my reading of this book that has little to do with the text itself. I bought a used copy, as I usually do with older books, and I found some hand-written notes inside. Often I find some underlinings or a word or two, but these were more extensive and seemed cohesive, like the former reader was comparing the book to something. I just can’t figure out what, so I’ll report, and hope either someone will recognize the references, or someday I’ll see something that brings me back here with a big “Aha!”

On the first page, containing only blurbs, is the notation “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men P. Agee.” I assume that should be J. Agee? I’m not familiar with it, but it seems Agee and photographer Walker Evans put this book together as part of a WPA project to document the South during the Depression era. The text is described as “inscrutable’ (having read some of it, I agree); the photos show exactly what you’d expect, the poor in their homes. But only white people; I remember reading somewhere that the face of poverty was, at that time, white, and poverty was a far more sympathetic state, and remedies far more acceptable, than when that face later became black.

Next to that notation is an outline:

I. Seeing – Joy (maybe Jox)
II. Suffering – Paz
III Needs & Wants
IV. Justice
V. Freedom
VI. Getting There

This doesn’t seem to refer to the plot of the book itself, or to the Agee/Evans book either.

In Part I chapter 4, right after Jake gets his job with the flying jinny, he’s on his way home: the book reads “Dusk softened the outline of the houses…”. There’s another note: “Hunger blurred the outline of the dead chicken”. There’s no chicken in the text, and nobody’s hungry. Could this refer to a photo, to another story?

In Part II, Chapter 2, Biff is buying black ribbon for mourning and cleaning out his dead wife’s clothing to give away; a marginal note reads, “Locky’s death vs pigs death”. This could be Lucky. Again, I have no idea. A few pages later, he’s visiting sister Lucille, and he thinks of his wife but can’t remember her face; the text reads, “The only thing about her that was clear in him mind was her feet…” and a marginal note reads “Mind was bacon”. Now I’m thoroughly confused.

In Part II Chapter 5, as Bubber watches Baby just before the tragedy that will take down the Kelly family, the text reads “Baby looked like a fairy or something in the picture show ….with her yellow hair she was all pink and white and gold – and so small and clean that it almost hurt to watch her. But she won’t talk to them or even look at them.” The marginal note: “It hurts to see what’s really happening to animals, but the pain is nothing comp. to theirs.”

There are other notes, but those are the most content-relevant ones. If anyone has any ideas, please let me know. This is one of the biggest bonuses of buying used books, by the way: it’s almost like a discussion, but, as in the book, you’re never sure if anyone’s hearing you, or if you’re hearing right.

The title is taken from the poem The Lonely Hunter by Fiona Macleod, who was eventually revealed to be the pen name for William Sharp. The final verse:

O never a green leaf whispers, where the green-gold branches swing:
O never a song I hear now, where one was wont to sing
Here in the heart of Summer, sweet is life to me still,
But my heart is a lonely hunter that hunts on a lonely hill.

Fiona Macleod/William Sharp, “The Lonely Hunter”

An embarrassing admission: until I read the article Jake pointed out, I’d thought the book was some domestic drama involving neighbors hungrily eyeing each other in secret, or maybe no-so-secretly, and the flare-ups that caused. If I’d known it was such a good book, I would’ve read it decades ago. Learn from my mistakes!

Happiness is a Chinese Philosophy MOOC

Course: The Path to Happiness: What Chinese Philosophy Teaches us about the Good Life
Length: 13 weeks, 1-2 hrs/wk
School/platform: Harvard/edX
Instructor: Michael Puett

Today, finding happiness is about mindfulness and discovering your true self. You may have heard that happiness is found by looking within. Ancient Chinese philosophy challenges all of these modern assumptions. From Confucianism to Daoism, the philosophies developed over two thousand years ago are among the most powerful in human history.
This course brings voices from the past into modern contexts to explore the path to a good life today. The philosophical concepts discussed provide tools to change your life and increase personal happiness by focusing on your actions, the power of ritual, and the importance of sensing the world around you.

The world is full of wonders, and one of them is that just as I, determined anti-self-helpist, started reading a self-help-disguised-as-American-philosophy book about William James, Class Central tweeted about a self-help-disguised-as-Chinese-philosophy mooc. I couldn’t let a Chinese philosophy mooc pass me by, self-help or no. Especially when the instructor is Michael Puett.

I first discovered Michael Puett through Harvard’s ChinaX series when I took the first few parts of it about four years ago. I’m not sure what it is that makes him such a wonderful speaker: he’s not dynamic, or funny, or even particularly attractive (hey, we all go there sometimes), at least in ways we usually think of in terms of great speakers. But I sometimes just look for videos on youtube where he’s explaining something, even something I don’t understand (Chinese history, rather than philosophy, is his academic area, though the two aren’t all that separable). In this particular course, he has a somewhat Mr. Rogers vibe, and it’s mesmerizing. And soothing. ASMR for philosophy geeks.

And of course it’s even better that he’s talking about Confucius. And Mencius. And Zhuangzi. And Mozi and Laozi and Xunzi and Hanfeizi and how they all relate to one another, how they’ve all developed ways of going through life.

Only a very narrow slice of the scholars’ works is under discussion. There are other courses go into broader and deeper views, but the point here is to present one aspect of a philosopher’s work that can be turned into thought or action for contemporary day-to-day living. I think it would play just fine for those without any prior exposure to Chinese thought, and as someone who’s had some prior exposure to the basics of Chinese thought, I liked it as a quick review of the high points. The lectures seemed a bit repetitive, but for someone encountering the material for the first time, I suspect that would be a plus.

The time estimation of 13 weeks seems wildly excessive to me, but that’s fine, I suppose you could stretch it out; I went through it in about a week, doing maybe 90 minutes a day (hey, I like this stuff). The graded parts of the course – quizzes after each lecture – are unavailable to audit students; the Verified track costs $99. But in a course like this, grades aren’t really the point.

The self-help aspect of the course is actually quite useful as a pedagogical tool: a Self-Reflection diary follows each video segment and stores the student’s input as a PDF that can be downloaded complete at the end of the course. It starts from the beginning – what habits do you have? – and shows up after each lecture video. What patterns do you notice in others close to you? What can you identify in your life that could become a ritual space? What activities would you like to do spontaneously? These questions stem from the content of the lecture (habits, patterns, ritual spaces, spontaneity) and help emphasize the meanings of those terms in the context of the philosopher under discussion. For example, the dinner table or a business meeting can become a ritual space; playing a musical instrument or a sport can, after a lot of focused practice, become spontaneous. So it, too, serves as reinforcement for the particular vocabulary.

Whether you want to take the life advice or just learn something about Chinese philosophy, it’s an informative and pleasant way to do it. And soothing.

John Kaag, Sick Souls, Healthy Minds: How William James Can Save Your Life (PUP, 2020)

Today, William James is known in philosophical circles as the founder of pragmatism, arguably the only distinctively American school of philosophy…. James did not, from the start, have pragmatism in view as a philosophical tradition. Instead, he slowly, thoughtfully, sometimes gropingly, made his way through early adulthood. Even his groping, however, was deeply meaningful, the stuff that can, I think, save a life or make a soul a little less sick: his struggle with determinism, his excavation of free will, his emphasis on action and habit formation, his sensitive study of the stream of consciousness. These were the different vectors of meaning that helped James make it to middle age. Yes, pragmatism happened on the way, but it appeared so gradually that its formation actually took James by surprise at the beginning of the twentieth century.

I’ve had John Kaag on my list for a couple of years now for his general-readership philosophy books with intriguing titles – Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are, and American Philosophy: A Love Story. And, now, this book, which was published just this year. I follow several academic philosophers doing online academic outreach, and they were talking about this book. I was dubious: it sounded like self-help (the official description even says it “may be the smartest and most important self-help book you’ll ever read”) and I’m really, really not into self-help books, having gone through that phase in my youth and realized they’re all someone else’s self-help, not mine.

But I also realized I know very, very little about William James. His name comes up once in a while (though not so much in philosophy classes though it did come up in philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s novel 36 Arguments for the Existence of God), his brother was the writer Henry James, and… that’s about it. So I thought it might be a good way to make his acquaintance, get an introduction to his ideas.

It didn’t really work out that way. The book is primarily a biography, secondarily a memoir of Kaag’s personal interaction with James’s work, and only then a presentation of James’s contributions to science, psychology, and philosophy. And it is all told from a self-help perspective. I was warned; I should’ve listened. That being said, I don’t mean to imply that it wasn’t useful or enjoyable, just that it wasn’t the type of thing I would normally read. And yet, I did discover some very interesting points along the way.

Point one: James was a depressive mess from a very young age.

“I am a low-lived wretch. I’ve been prey to such disgust for life during the past three months as to make letter writing almost an impossibility.” William James was on the brink of adulthood and, as he confessed to his friend Henry Bowditch in 1869, on the brink of collapse. In the coming two decades, James would write – letters, essays, books – incessantly, like his life depended on it. He’d become the father of American philosophy and psychology, but when he wrote to Bowditch he couldn’t foresee any of it. Actually, he often struggled to see the next day.
….Today, James is usually described as a man who faced mental illness without the help of doctors.
That isn’t exactly true : he was the doctor. William James’s entire philosophy, from beginning to end, was geared to save a life, his life. Philosophy was never a detached intellectual exercise or a matter of word play. It wasn’t a game, or if it was, it was the world’s most serious. It was about being thoughtful and living vibrantly. I would like to offer the reader James’s existential life preserver .

The image on the cover of the book (which is nicely produced, by the way: a ¾ paper slip over full cloth binding) is a self-portrait in red crayon, with the title “Here I and Sorrow Sit”. This dates from the late 1860s, so James would have been in his 20s. Kaag mentions and dismisses the “poor little rich boy” quality of his early life (and I know enough about endogenous depression to concur), and points out the pressures: his brothers served in the Civil War while he could not due to physical problems; his father was an avowed Calvinist (making James’s work on determinism all the more interesting), and while he was an excellent student, he struggled mightily with chemistry (I can sympathize). That Kaag sees the work he produced as being in service of his own mental health is interesting.

James began in biology, and worked his way through comparative anatomy to psychology and then philosophy. His first work was to dismember determinism, the idea that, since everything is the result of what has come before, free will is an illusion and we are merely playing out parts already written. This has gone through some interesting twists with physics, first supporting determinism, then making it less likely. Is free will an illusion we were destined to believe in from the moment of the Big Bang? Or do we truly choose? By the way, there’s a mooc for that, combining contemporary neuroscience and physics with philosophy.

But James’s approach was more direct: “My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.” Which brings us to another interesting aspect of his work, the power of belief, of faith in the absence of evidence, as shown in his lecture “The Will to Believe”:

This address, given to the Divinity School at Yale in June of 1896, is usually understood as a contribution to the philosophy of religion, and argument for voluntarily adopted faith. When empirical evidence is insufficient to prove the reality of the Divine, James argued that one could still will belief, and that this does not violate the strictures of reason. The belief itself, according to James, can change a believer’s world such that the belief is validated over time.
….What is often overlooked in commentaries on “The Will To Believe” is the way that this linchpin of classical American philosophy applies to the maintenance of meaningful human relations, relations that can be lost on the sick souls of the world. …
He is explaining how a certain sort of truth – like the truth about love – comes to be. It doesn’t just emerge fully formed in the head of a lover or beloved. Instead, it grows – or doesn’t – between two people in there actively meeting halfway. And this communion requires a bit of faith, or at minimum an act of optimism.

If you’re wondering how we went from religious faith to romantic love, it’s linked via the account of James’s relationship with the woman who would become his wife, and Kaag’s own personal history as well. Not only can we make a Kierkegaardian Leap to Faith in God, we can approach another person with openness and generosity instead of cynicism and caution, and in doing so, allow reciprocal love, if it is there in seedling form, to flourish.

I thought I heard echoes of “Fake it ‘til you make it,” one of the Twelve-Stepper’s mantras, in this. In any of the Anonymous groups, you’re welcome to be skeptical, but advised to pretend “as if” it works; the idea is to be open to the possibility that it might. The “maybe” is also one of James’s watchwords: when he doubted that life was worth living, he found the “maybe” could get him through another day.

The echoes of “as if” are not my imagination. I discovered that the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous read James’s later work, Varieties of Religious Experience, and incorporated it into his vision of the Higher Power that has become a central tenet of AA.

I also found some echoes of Chinese philosophy in James.

James concludes his analysis of habit by underscoring its possible transcendence, writing in the Principals, “Genius, in truth, means little more than the faculty of perceiving in an unhabitual way.“ Following his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, James believes that every individual is imbued with this rare and beautifully disruptive faculty. We just have to exercise it.

I happened to be taking a mooc that, guess what, turns ancient Chinese philosophy into self-help, so I was probably unusually susceptible to hearing Confucius’ idea of “overcoming the self” – that is, breaking out of habits – and learning to pay closer attention to the world itself in order to react to reality rather than act out of habit. James wanted to break out of the same ruts. Too bad European philosophers (looking at you, Kant) dismissed the idea that non-white people might have philosophies worth learning about.

James also delved into what today we call “the hard problem of consciousness”: how can we analyze consciousness since we must be conscious to analyze? James apparently tried some tricks with nitrous oxide to experience the edge of consciousness, but that isn’t really a good idea, is it. What is it about the neurons in the brain that turns it into a thinking mind that experiences the world in an exquisitely personal way? While I was reading this section, a marvelous comic take on this comment came across my Twitter feed (and again, thank you serendipity):

Over the past century, scientists have unlocked many of the most profound secrets of bacon, eggs, oatmeal, and avocado toast, advancing our understanding of the day’s most important meal and ushering in a golden age of innovation.1 Yet there remains one problem that has proven frustratingly resistant to our efforts at resolution: What is often referred to as The Hard Problem of Breakfast.
The stubborn fact remains that, no matter how deeply we probe into the nature of bacon, eggs, oatmeal, and avocado toast — to say nothing of shakshuka, grits, bear claws, or dim sum—or the interactions between these fundamental building blocks and, say, orange juice or coffee and the morning paper, we simply have no convincing theory to explain how such disparate, seemingly inert components give rise to the phenomenon we subjectively experience as “breakfast.”

Jonathan Bines, “The Hard Problem of Breakfast” at Nautilus

One aspect of James’s work that is in contemporary practice today is his understanding of the relationship between physical states and emotions.

“We don’t laugh because we’re happy, we’re happy because we laugh.” The action itself is enough to bring about a particular affective state.
James had studied Physiology long enough to begin to understand what today we call “biofeedback,” The mutual reinforcement of the expression of emotion and its subjective feeling, and he had concluded, for a number of different reasons, that certain bodily activities and responses gave rise to the “coarser emotions”: regret, anger, fear, and joy. This is at the core of what became known as the James-Lange theory of emotion.

While he was going through a divorce, Kaag reread a passage about changing one’s posture from “moping” to upright, with chest raised and shoulders back. He decided to accept a colleague’s suggestion that he try yoga, and he noticed that the “Sun Salutation” series of Ashantaga Yoga forces the posture into different forms, including the upright stance. I myself remember a semi-therapeutic singing group for seniors that included some yoga-like activities prior to vocalizing, and one of them was exactly this chest-out, chin-up pose. The purpose was not to enhance breathing, but to instill confidence and openness. And anyone who’s watched Grey’s Anatomy remembers the “superhero pose improves performance” episode that does, in fact, have a research study to support it (whether or not the results have been replicated, I can’t say).

This idea of controlling emotions through physical posture – and through changing thought habits, noticing when you think “I always screw up” and changing it to “I made a mistake here so I can improve on that” – is part of various behavioral therapies today. So this saving-your-life thing isn’t made up out of whole cloth.

My disappointment in the book had more to do with James’s research. At one point Kaag cites bench research done in the 1880s in the pursuit of consciousness, and I’d love to know what that was. I suppose I’ll have to read James to find out, but… I don’t want to go through a 1200-page book from the 19th century. My other disappointment was in connection to pragmatism.

James’s most fundamental contribution to philosophy was pragmatism. I’d love to give you a clear, concise definition, but the closest I found in the book is “Truth in ideas is their power to work.” That didn’t really give me a good idea of what we’re talking about. And yes, there’s the Stanford online encyclopedia of philosophy, a truly authoritative and wide-ranging work that gives me a headache every time I read more than one sentence. So for those of us who aren’t up to Stanford levels, I found a video by a lesser professor who at least got me to the ball park, if not (yet) into the game: a true idea means it fulfills some purpose for you. He uses the example of directions to his house: they are true if they get you there.

The process of writing this out has been useful, as these posts often are (if anyone else finds them useful, that’s fine, but it’s a side effect of their benefit for me). I debated not writing this book up at all, just listing it as one of the “mistakes” I made in choosing my in-between reading this year. It’s a short book, about 200 pages, the size of a trade paperback, with generous margins and spacing, so it’s a quick read. It’s pleasantly written, even in places it deals with depression. And once I started going through my notes, I found a great deal to write about, and found numerous connections to other areas of interest, from Confucius to humor to television.

Maybe this wasn’t the book I wanted it to be; maybe some things remain for me to find elsewhere. But clearly, this read was not a mistake. And for someone who is looking for self-help, something grounded more in science than in a celebrity’s idea of the good life, it might be perfect.

Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Trans. Michael Henry Heim (Harper, 1984)

The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it: to think that everything recurs as we once experienced it, and that the recurrence itself recurrs ad infinitum! What does this mad myth signify? 
Putting it negatively, the myth of eternal return states that a life which disappears once and for all, which does not return, is like a shadow, without weight, did in advance, and whether it was horrible, beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean nothing.
….This mitigating circumstance prevents us from coming to a verdict. For how can we condemn something that is ephemeral, in transit? In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.

Authorial intrusion used to be a common enough practice, but for the most part it’s fallen out of favor to the point where a writer can be scolded in workshop for indulging. But not here: Kundera begins his novel with an exegesis on Nietzsche’s Eternal Return, and pops in over and over again to explain what his characters are doing, why they’re doing it, and how it relates to Nietzsche. It’s disconcerting, sort of like reading a self-analytic novel.

But at least it gives the reader a chance to understand what’s going on. And, if you need more, the internet is full of explanations of Eternal Return (including several short and simple Youtube videos). Basically, it’s a thought experiment: what if you had to live your life over and over, just as you had lived it, without any chance to change anything? If you knew that was the case, you’d be weighted down by every decision. But we only live once, which implies a kind of lightness, but also brings some kind of meaninglessness, and even blanket absolution for the mistakes we make, since we only had one chance. Obviously this gets more convoluted – it’s Nietzsche, he can’t order breakfast without convolution – but the gist is that the price of weightlessness is meaning, and the cost of meaning is heaviness.

I have to take issue with the idea that life is meaningless because it is lived once. On an individual level, our choices often stay with us, haunting us if they were bad choices, uplifting us if they were good. As a personal example – and yes, I know I’m neurotic as hell – I often recall something nasty I said in high school, something I doubt anyone else remembers, but it sticks with me and affects my current emotional state and behavior. Our decisions likewise have effects that persist, whether for good or bad. And on a grander scale, what we do affects others, and has resonances that carry forward. Some of these might be greater than others, and some might be so minor as to be overwhelmed by other resonances, but the present is the sum of the past.

I decided to read this book because it kept coming up in connection to Mad Men, in which so many characters become who they want to be without looking back. Don Draper, of course, who literally became someone else, then told Peggy, as she recovered from a pregnancy she’d been unaware of until she went into labor: “It will shock you how much this never happened.” Then there’s Harry telling would-be writer Paul to forget his crappy Star Trek script, his long slide down the advertising ladder into unemployment, his absurd dalliance with Hare Krishna, and go to California: “You don’t understand what it’s like out there. This failure? This life? It’ll all seem like it happened to someone else.” I see the connection now. But all those characters, they still carried the past with them.

So back to the book: It’s a good thing we start with something thoughtful, because otherwise, the first quarter of the book is just a domestic drama about a guy justifying his need to screw as many women as possible while in a committed relationship with one woman who’s working out big-time mommy issues while the tanks roll in after the Prague Spring. If that gives the impression it’s not a philosophico-political novel, that impression will be corrected by the second half of the book.

If every second of our lives recurs an infinite number of times, we are nailed to each Hermitude as Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross. It is a terrifying prospect. In the world of eternal return the weight of unbearable responsibility lies heavy on every move we make. That is why Nietzsche called the idea of eternal return the heaviest of burdens (das schwerste Gewicht.
If eternal return is the heaviest of burdens, then our lives can stand out against it in all their splendid lightness.
But is heaviness truly deplorable and lightness splendid?

Rod Dreher of The American Conservative called it “A Dirty Book for Philosophy Geeks.” As much as it pains me to agree with anything in The American Conservative, he’s not wrong. I have a fairly low tolerance for fiction that tries to turn sex into something with mystical, psychosocial, or existential meaning. Sometimes sex is just sex, y’know? But there’s so much in this book aside from that, it’s well worth reading anyway. And, of course, for those who think Freud didn’t psychologize sex enough, hey, enjoy yourself.

Considering my lack of interest in the primary characters of the first two sections, I was surprised by how fond of them I was by the end of the book. Tereza and Tomas meet by chance in her small town, flirt just as he’s lightly fluttering away, and she turns up at his Prague apartment bringing her heaviness and her emotional baggage with her in the form of an overpacked suitcase. Tomas doesn’t let her get in the way of his mission to sleep with as many different women as possible, but he improbably falls in love with her and does modify some of his rules: they sleep together, holding hands. He even marries her. She becomes a photographer. They move to Zurich to get out of the way of the tanks (there are other women in Zurich, after all, and he’s a doctor, he can go jut about anywhere), but Tereza is unhappy and returns to Prague. And to his own surprise, Tomas follows her.

For seven years he had been bound to her, his every step subject to her scrutiny. She might as well have chained iron balls to his ankles. Suddenly his step was much lighter. He soared. He had entered Parmenides’ magic field: he was enjoying the sweet lightness of being.

On Saturday and Sunday he felt the sweet lightness of being rise up to him out of the depths of the future. On Monday, he was hit by a weight the likes of which he had never known. The tons of steel of the Russian tanks were nothing compared with it. For there is nothing heavier than compassion.

Yes, it was unbearable for him to stay in Zurich imagining Teresa living on her own in Prague.

Unbearable lightness, indeed.

This compassion Tomas feels is a bit more involved than we might think, as Kundera explains in one of his intrusions. He distinguishes between the Latin-derived word compassion, and non-Latinate words from other languages, including Czech (the language in which he originally wrote the book), where the meaning is emotionally broader and less condescending:

All languages that derive from Latin form the word “compassion” by combining the prefix meaning “with” (com-) and the root meaning “suffering” (Late Latin, passio). In other languages, Czech, Polish, German, and Swedish, for instance – this word is translated by a noun formed of an equivalent prefix combined with the word that means “feeling”.
In languages that derive from Latin, “compassion” means: we cannot look on coolly as others suffer; or, we sympathize with those who suffer. Another word with approximately the same meaning, “pity”, connotes a certain condescension towards the sufferer. “To take pity on a woman” means that we are better off than she, that we stoop to her level, lower ourselves.
That is why the word “compassion” generally inspires suspicion; it designates what is considered an inferior, second-rate sentiment that has little to do with love. To love someone out of compassion means not really to love.
In languages that form the word “compassion” not from the root “suffering” but from the word “feeling,” the word is used in approximately the same way, but to contend that it designates a bad or inferior sentiment is difficult. The secret strength of its etymology floods the word with another light and gives it a broader meaning: to have compassion (co-feeling) means not only to be able to live with the other’s misfortune but also to feel with him any emotion—joy, anxiety, happiness, pain. This kind of compassion (in the sense of soucit, współczucie, Mitgefühl, medkänsla) therefore signifies the maximal capacity of affective imagination, the art of emotional telepathy. In the hierarchy of sentiments, then, it is supreme.

I happen to know a native Czech speaker (hi, Andrew!), and he confirmed this, so it’s not just a technicality only a linguist would know, but is in fact part of the life-as-lived understanding of both words. Kundera wrote this book in Czech, while living in France (he started writing in French later on), and I would imagine this became an interesting point of translation. I have to wonder if the prospect of translation made this intrusion necessary. It’s rather a crucial point to realize Tomas’ connection to Tereza was not one of pity, but a bond over the entire range of emotions. He did not pity her; he connected with her. He wasn’t trying to help her or save her; he was trying to love her.

Another motif at play in the scene, and elsewhere, is courtesy of Beethoven. Though Tomas has obviously had more formal education, it’s Tereza who introduces him to the string quartet charmingly designated Op. 135. The final movement is titled “Der schwer gefasste Entschluss,” which can translate as “The difficult decision” or “The Weighty Resolution.” Keep in mind that resolution can be a musical term for the completion of a phrase in melody or harmony. The score itself reflects multiple resonances, as the musical phrase labeled “Muss es sein?” (Must it be?) is followed by the musical phrase “Es muss sein!” (It must be!). Musician Martin Saving goes into some depth about the quartet on the Elias String quartet blog, a piece well worth reading to better understand what Beethoven might have meant (nobody’s sure) and, more importantly, its relevance to Tomas’s decision to return to Prague and Tereza. Did it have to be? Free will, or fate?

Lest you think Tereza and Tomas are the only characters in the book, let me introduce Sabine and Franz. They are another heavy/light couple, though in this case, Sabine is the light one and Franz the heavy. Sabine, a painter, intersects with both Tomas, as a lover, and Tereza, as a kind of artistic mentor for a short time. Sabine moves to Zurich and takes up with Franz, a married professor who keeps her a secret. He goes through some kind of epiphany in which he decides to “live in truth” and informs his wife, who says don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out, and Sabine, who takes of running for Paris. It’s ok, because he finds an undergrad with big glasses who worships him.

Sabine, the character most dedicated to lightness, despises kitsch, defined as what shows the good side and ignores the bad. The art mandated by the Communist regime, for example: smiling happy people praising the Movement. She does a different kind of painting, one she wasn’t free to do until she got out of Prague:

Here is a painting I happened to drip red paint on. At first I was terribly upset, but then I started enjoying it. The trickle looked like a crack; it turned the building site into a battered old backdrop, a backdrop with a building site painted on it. I began playing with the crack, filling it out, wondering what might be visible behind it. And that’s how I began my first cycle of paintings. I called it Behind the Scenes. Of course, I couldn’t show them to anybody. I’d have been kicked out of the Academy. On the surface, there was always an impeccably realistic world, but underneath, behind the backdrop’s cracked canvas, lurked something different, something mysterious or abstract. After pausing for a moment, she added, On the surface, an intelligible lie; underneath, the unintelligible truth.

After leaving Franz, she is overcome with melancholy, the unbearable part of lightness. Still she travels the world, unwilling to be weighted down. My take is that too much lightness makes you float away.

Franz is the comic disaster of fakery, a study in trying to be heavy but really being a fool. After Sabine leaves him, he takes part in The Great March, a highly publicized trek of celebrities, intellectuals, and a few doctors to war-torn Cambodia on a mission to be famous treat sick people and the war-wounded. Alas, they aren’t allowed in, but Franz imagines Sabine watching him, following his great gesture of humanity, though she has been oblivious to him since she left him. He ends up murdered in Thailand because he’s a fool. Franz is the embodiment of kitsch, the kitsch Sabine despises.

That leaves us with Tereza and Tomas, who end up running afoul of the Communist regime once they’re back in Prague. They can’t leave because the borders are now closed (I was unaware the borders were ever open under the Soviet regime, so I learned something). Tomas writes a letter to the editor that has a special resonance in the current era:

Anyone who thinks that the Communist regimes of Central Europe are exclusively the work of criminals is overlooking a basic truth: the criminal regimes were made not by criminals but by enthusiasts convinced they had discovered the only road to paradise. They defended that road so valiantly that they were forced to execute many people. Later it became clear that there was no paradise, that the enthusiasts were therefore murderers.
Then everyone took to shouting at the Communists: You’re the ones responsible for our country’s misfortunes (it had grown poor and desolate), for its loss of independence (it had fallen into the hands of the Russians), for its judicial murders!
And the accused responded: We didn’t know! We were deceived! We were true believers! Deep in our hearts we are innocent!
In the end, the dispute narrowed down to a single question: Did they really not know or were they merely making believe?
It was in this connection that Tomas recalled the tale of Oedipus: Oedipus did not know he was sleeping with his own mother, yet when he realized what had happened, he did not feel innocent. Unable to stand the sight of the misfortunes he had wrought by not knowing, he put out his eyes and wandered blind away from Thebes.
When Tomas heard Communists shouting in defense of their inner purity, he said to himself, As a result of your not knowing, this country has lost its freedom, lost it for centuries, perhaps, and you shout that you feel no guilt? How can you stand the sight of what you’ve done? How is it you aren’t horrified? Have you no eyes to see? If you had eyes, you would have to put them out and wander away from Thebes!

This goes out to all those concerned senators who aren’t quite concerned enough to do anything about what they’re so concerned about.

Tomas goes through some machinations involving his son from his first marriage after the letter is published, and is eventually demoted from neurosurgeon to window washer. He’s still pretty much ok since it’s amazing how many women you can screw as a window washer. But that gig eventually is barred to him as well, and he and Tereza head for the hills: that is, the countryside, to work on a collective farm. And here is where Tomas finally settles down with his wife and their dog, Karenin.

The dog’s death is highly emotional, partly because, sure, I’m a sucker for a dying pet, but because of how the changes in Tomas and Tereza are demonstrated: he has become less light, and she less heavy. Nietzsche with Aristotle’s Golden Mean. Amor Fata, another Nietzscheism: love whatever fate brings you, the good and the bad. No kitsch. From Karenin’s Smile to the end of the book, I loved these people who I’d merely tolerated pages earlier. Because the stories are interwoven between various characters, we’ve already seen ahead what will happen; the book stops just before then, leaving a poignant ache as the last page turns. I can’t believe it worked on me, but it did.

Seven years earlier, a complex neurological case happened to have been discovered at the hospital in Tereza’s town. They called in the chief surgeon of Tomas’s hospital in Prague for consultation, what’s the chief surgeon of Tomas’s hospital happened to be suffering from sciatica, and because he could not move he sent Tomas to the provincial hospital in his place. The town had several hotels, but Tomas happened to be given a room in the one where Teresa was employed. He happened to have enough free time before his train left to stop at the hotel restaurant. Teresa happened to be on duty, and happened to be serving Tomas’s table. It had taken six chance happenings to push Tomas towards Tereza, as if he had little inclination to go to her on his own.

Amor fati. Whether it’s a dying dog, or a girl who just happens to blow your way and teaches you to hold hands in bed. It might take years, it might change your life into something you barely recognize, but love it anyway, because whether it’s guided by fate or our own choices, it’s the only life you’ve got.

Cell Biology MOOC (Part 1: Transport)

Course: Cell Biology: Transport
Length: 4 weeks, 4-6 hrs/wk
School/platform: MIT/edX
Instructor: Rebecca Lamason, Frank Solomon

This is the first cell biology course in a four-part series. Building upon the concepts from biochemistry, genetics, and molecular biology from our 7.00x Introductory Biology and 7.05x Biochemistry MOOCs, these cell biology courses transition to a comprehensive discussion of biology at an experimental level. How do we know what we know about cells at a molecular level and how can we use that knowledge to design experiments to test hypotheses in cell biology?…You will embark on a lively journey through cellular transport mechanisms and learn how to apply key concepts and themes of this dynamic experimental science to understand the fundamental workings of cells.

I’ve said many times how much I like the way MIT does bio courses, so I was thrilled when I saw they had a new one. And this is Part 1, with three more parts to follow!

I wasn’t sure what Transport was going to cover. Turns out, it’s how proteins (mostly) get from one compartment of a cell to another: from ribosomes that form them to the endoplasmic reticulum, the Golgi, or maybe to vesicles that will transport them somewhere else; and how stuff gets in and out of the nucleus. So there’s a lot about signal sequences, about channels and pores, and about enzymes, chaperones, and all kinds of supporting players. I’m still amazed every time I get even a peek at how complicated it is to keep us alive.

These videos must have been recorded quite recently – this calendar year – because COVID-19 came up twice, once in connection with how an RNA virus moves its genome out of the nucleus (a student asked if viral infection was being covered because of the pandemic; no, it was a routine part of the course) and once in conjunction with the lab technique of using detergent to destabilize a cell’s bilayer lipid membrane to solubilize transmembrane proteins – just like washing our hands destroys the outer coating of the virus.

For me, the material was a bit easier because there was less quantitative work as there was with biochemistry: no worrying about pH or equilibrium, no MATLAB. Yet I found the lectures themselves a bit more disjointed than expected. Part of this might be that there were two instructors; I also felt that the videos themselves were a bit more cut-and-paste (it’s not unusual for individual videos to show edits, removing classroom issues for instance), thought that’s just an impression. We started off with lectures on experiments, and with little context, I had no idea what it was we were experimenting on. Once the more process-oriented material started I was able to catch on, but it was a tough few hours there. Then again, I have the disadvantage of having never been in a lab, so I’m always a little behind the eight ball when lab work is the topic. I’m beginning to get it, though: biochem mashes things up and assays for products; genetics creates mutations and assays for function; and cell biology often uses microscopy, including some very cool fluorescing techniques.

Each video is followed by a set of “check” questions; these count in grading, but in most cases have unlimited attempts so are pretty much free points. Three quizzes make up the bulk of the grades, and these are, of course, more difficult and in most cases only offer one attempt. The Audit version of the course does not allow access to the third quiz; that requires paying for Verified access. But the Check questions and the first two quizzes give a pretty good idea of how well you’re understanding the material.

I thought I was moving along pretty quickly through the course, but kept discovering the deadlines coming up fast. I have always found the time estimates to be on the skimpy side for these courses, this one included though it wasn’t as pronounced a gap since there was less quantitative material.

This series includes several fun features. Wiltrout Questions, named for one of the off-screen professors, are open-ended “What do you think about this” questions that invite students to figure out how something might work, to “encourage active engagement in thinking about cell biology and a deepened understanding of a specific concept or approach”. After each unit, students are invited to submit Mudslips indicating “the muddiest, or least clear aspect of that class period.” Then there were the “Neat Experiments” videos, detailed and carefully animated explanations of historically important lab work in cell biology that nailed down a principle or used a new technique. These aren’t new features, of course; questions in both directions have always been part of these courses (Journal Club in another course, for example), and experiments have always been central in these courses. But it’s a nice touch to formalize them.

Another fun aspect was the naming of the proteins. One set was named Mens, Manus, and Cor; it turns out the MIT motto is the first two, “mind and hand”; the “heart” was added because, well, it’s about time (and there was a third protein that needed naming). Another set was named after Greek muses or fates or something, I don’t remember. Each of these courses has little personalizing details like this; it isn’t as though there’s strong pedagogical impact, but they’re part of what makes these courses so engaging.

I have no idea what the other three parts of Cell Biology will cover – I had no idea what Transport would cover until I took it – but I’m looking forward to them!

Salman Rushdie, Quichotte (RH 2019)

There once lived, at a series of temporary addresses across the United States of America, a traveling man of Indian origin, advancing years, and retreating mental powers, who, on account of his love for mindless television, had spent far too much of his life in the yellow light of tawdry motel rooms watching an excess of it, and had suffered a peculiar form of brain damage as a result. He devoured morning shows, daytime shows, late-night talk shows, soaps, situation comedies, lifetime movies, hospital dramas, police series, vampires and zombie serials, the dramas of housewives from Atlanta, New Jersey, Beverly Hills, and New York, the romances and quarrels of hotel fortune princesses and self-styled shahs, the cavorting of individuals made famous by happy nudities,…
As a consequence of his near-total preoccupation with the material offered up to him through, in the old days, the cathode-ray tube, and, in the new age of flat screens, through liquid-crystal, plasma, and organic light-emitting diode displays, he fell victim to that increasingly prevalent psychological disorder in which the boundary between truth and lies became smudged and indistinct, so that at times he found himself incapable of distinguishing one from the other, reality from “reality”….

What kind of book is this? A road novel? A romance? A buddy story? A family saga? A science fiction tale? An homage, a pastiche, a picaresque, an indictment of contemporary American culture and attitudes? Yes.

I’ve seen some pretty tepid reviews out there. “Strenuous and grating” says NYT. “Internetitis” as The Guardian puts it. I can’t disagree. But I’m more with Jason Sheehan for NPR: “So Quichotte, as a book, is a mess. But it is a beautiful mess.” He also feels it’s so convoluted you might need one of those “boards made of index cards and string just to unpack the plot.” I happen to have the MSWord equivalent, because, he’s right. So? I do that with books that I expect to get complicated.

I’ve never read Rushdie before, so I have no idea how this fits into his oeuvre, and I’m not sophisticated enough to look at questions like “is it good literature.” My own yardstick is this: given my enthusiasm for the original Don Quixote, which I explored for a few months last Fall with the help of an OCW, a mooc, and a couple of supplementary texts, in preparation for reading this novel – an enthusiasm that has had me seeing the hidalgo in multiple stories ever since – did the present novel honor the past? Do I welcome it into the web of interrelated thoughts about DQ? Am I happy I invested the time in all of this?

Decidedly so.

The author of the preceding narrative – we will call him Brother – was a New York-based writer of Indian origin who had previously written eight modestly (un)successful spy fictions under the pen name of Sam DuChamp. Then in a surprising change of direction he conceived the idea of telling the story of the lunatic Quichotte and his doomed pursuit of the gorgeous Miss Salma R, in a book radically unlike any other he had ever attempted. No sooner had he conceived this idea then he became afraid of it. He could not at first fathom how such an eccentric notion had lodged in his brain, and why it insisted so vehemently on being written that he had no choice but to start work. Then as he thought about it further, he began to understand that in some fashion that he did not as yet fully grasp Quichotte – the loner in search of love, the loser-nobody who believed himself capable of winning the heart of a queen – had been with him all his life, a shadow-self he had glimpsed from time to time in the corner of his eye, but had not had the courage to confront.
His next thought was even more alarming: to make sense of the life of the strange man whose latter days he was setting out to chronicle, he would have to reveal himself alongside his subject, for the tale and the teller were yoked together by race, place, generation, and circumstance. Perhaps this bizarre story was a metamorphosed version of his own. Quichotte himself might say, if he were aware of Brother (which was impossible, naturally) that in fact the writer’s tale was the altered version of his history, rather than the other way around, and might have argued that is “imaginary” life added up to the more authentic narrative of the two.

The book crams in everything but the kitchen sink. The Odyssey to The Bachelor. Three countries on three continents. The opioid crisis, Elon Musk, violent racism. Family issues from trivial to tragic. Attar of Nishapur’s 12th century Persian poem, “The Conference of the Birds” and Ionescu’s play, Rhinoceros (while I was kind of impressed with myself for recognizing so many of the literary references, these last two were new to me, so thank you Wikipedia). I think, if I had to construct a pre-reading list, I’d only include Arthur C. Clarke’s story “The Nine Billion Names of God” which is probably not widely read (I happen to have his collection of the same name on my shelf; it’s a favorite story of mine). Everyone’s seen the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, right? And I assume the basics of DQ’s story – crazy guy thinks he’s a knight, adventuring to win the heart of the non-existent Dulcinea, sidekick Sancho Panza – are pretty much part of the general consciousness.

Let’s do some compare/contrast on those crucial points of intersection with the original. Where DQ was obsessed with romances about knight-errantry – the dime-store romances of his day – our more modern Quichotte has become obsessed with television, particularly reality TV featuring real housewives, Kardassians, and all the rest. DQ invented Dulcinea, his lady love, as an amalgam of damsels in distress, and went questing to prove his owrthiness of her. Quichotte is enamored with a former movie star from Bombay and current New York daytime talk show host, Salma R. Where DQ co-opted his neighbor, Sancho Panza, into serving as his squire with the promise of governorship of an island at some point in the future, Quichotte conjures up a son of his own at Devil’s Tower (hence, Close Encounters), a teenager named Sancho.

Going a little beyond those basics was very rewarding for me. One of the aspects of DQ I enjoyed the most – and would never have recognized had it not been for the Yale lectures – was the puzzle of narration. The first narrator bows out after eight chapters and we find ourselves reading the work of another narrator, plus a translator. Stories about storytellers telling stories. And, of course, Cervantes, the author behind it all. And behind him? If it’s turtles all the way down, it’s narrators all the way up. God, no longer the Unmoved Mover, but now the Unnarrated Narrator.

I know things. Educated things. But how do I know so much, being the teenage son of a seventy-year-old, and born just the other day? I guess the answer is, I know what he knows.…
There’s something else. It’s the strangest thing. Sometimes, when I’m in here, rummaging around in my own head, using the words he gave me and the knowledge he passed down , uncovering my memories which are his memories, his life story which I could claim as my own if I weren’t smart enough to know better …just sometimes, not every time …I get the weirdest sense that there’s someone else in here. Crazy, right?
I’m as crazy as he is, the old guy. But who or what is this third person? I’m just going to say this the way it comes to me just say it, even though it makes no sense and makes me sound…unreliable. It feels to me, at those moments when I have this sense of a stranger, as if there’s somebody under slash behind slash above the old man. Somebody – yes – making him the way he made me. Somebody putting his life, his thoughts, his feelings, his memories into the old man the way the old man put that stuff inside me. In which case whose life am I remembering here? The old man’s or the phantom’s?

Quichotte (which Rushdie goes to some effort to inform us, in “A Quixotic Note on Pronunciation,” is best pronounced “key-SHOT”) begins with “Chapter 1: Quichotte, an old Man, falls in Love, embarks on a Quest, & becomes a Father.” The descriptive chapter titles are another nod to the original DQ; they also help keep the reader focused in a book that does everything it can to derail focus. But in “Chapter 2: An Author, Sam DuChamp, reflects upon his Past, & enters new Territory” we learn Quichotte is a character in a book, which explains how a son, a “monochrome boy” could just appear out of nowhere. And we learn that Sam DuChamp is a pseudonym the writer has used for a series of spy novels; he refers to himself generally as Brother. In the next few chapters we learn about Quichotte’s inamorata, a TV star named Salma R, about Brother’s Sister, about Quichotte’s cousin and erstwhile employer, Dr. Smile, before returning to hear more from Sancho, the black-and-white son.

See? Even though there’s a lot going on, this is a nice introductory sequence to show you who each character is. If you can remember only Brother and Sister are actual people, while everyone else is a character in a book Brother is writing… oh, except, yeah, Brother and Sister are characters, too, but in the book they’re… hmmm.

An interjection, kind reader, if you will allow one: It may be argued that stories should not sprawl in this way, that they should be grounded in one place or the other, put down roots in the other or that one and flower in that singular soil; yet so many of today’s stories are and must be of this plural, sprawling kind, because a kind of nuclear fission has taken place in human lives and relations, families have been divided …And inside the broken families are broken people, broken by loss, poverty, maltreatment, failure, age, sickness, pain, and hatred, yet trying in spite of it all to cling to hope and love , and these broken people – we, the broken people! – may be the best mirrors of our times , shining shards that reflect the truth wherever we travel, wherever we land, wherever we remain. For we migrants have become like seed-spores, carried through the air, and lo, the breeze blows up where it will come up until we lodge in an alien soil, where very often – as for example now in this England with its wild nostalgia for an imaginary golden age when all attitudes were Anglo-Saxon and all English skins were white – we are made to feel unwelcome, no matter how beautiful the fruit hanging from the branches of the orchards of fruit trees that we grow into and become.

There’s a wonderful line in the book defining lunacy as “the inability to separate what-is-so from what-is-not-so.” This generally gets applied, aptly, to American culture and society throughout, but it often applies to the reader. It’s hard to keep straight who is and who is not, particularly since, ultimately, nobody is. As the novel progresses, the book-within-the-book and the author’s story converge more and more, increasing the potential for confusion. Maybe reading this book will give us a bit more compassion for those who fall down rabbit holes of misinformation, given it is so often presented alongside and in similar style to information.

The reader becomes aware of new elements and relationships slowly; often these change presumed motivations. There are brother/sister rifts; by coincidence I happen to be one party in a brother/sister rift, and even more coincidentally (really!) I wrote my estranged brother about a month ago for the first time since, oh, maybe the early 90s, before I started reading the book and knew about this element. I still haven’t heard a reply, but the letter (snail mail, how quaint!) hasn’t been returned as undeliverable, so I suppose that’s an answer of a sort. Moving on: Quichotte until recently worked for his cousin, Dr. Smile, who has made a bundle developing a sublingual Fentanyl derivative and he’s exactly as crooked and evil as that sounds. This sets up a connection between brothers and sisters that takes us through the later parts of the book.

“Is that what you believe,” Son asked him, “that life is meaningless and we are turning into animals without morality?”
“I think it’s legitimate for a work of art made in the present time to say, we are being crippled by the culture we have made, by its most popular elements above all,” he replied. “And by stupidity and ignorance and bigotry, yes.”
“So what have you done about it?” Son demanded. “What’s your contribution? What sort of mark do you think you’re leaving on the world?”
“I did my work, and then there’s you,” he said, hearing as he spoke the weakness of his reply.
Son shrugged and headed for the car. “OK,” he said. “Let’s move on.”
Your son, your grand inquisitor.

The Rhinoceros episode deserves special attention. It appears in the chapter titled “A Sequence of absurd Events during a brief Sojourn in New Jersey,” and features rampant panic as people are turning into mastodons. I was convinced the mastodon – an old, extinct form of elephant – was a pretty direct reference to the Republican party, but in an Interview with Dolen Perkins-Valdez at the Politics and Prose Booktore, Rushdie denied that was his intent. He says he deliberately kept the name of a certain President out of the book, because he didn’t want it to be about that; he wanted it to be about America.

By the way, in a different interview with Walter Isaacson for Amanpour & Co., he tells us his original vision did not include the writer’s story; he would just write the Quichotte story straight. The process of recognizing the story – which started, even more oddly, with a set of science-fiction scripts written for an abandoned cable TV project – is always fascinating, and here, with the intertwining of two stories and so many references, is miraculous.

The death of Don Quixote felt like the extinction in all of us of a special kind of beautiful foolishness, an innocent grandeur, a thing for which the world had no place, but which one might call humanity. The marginal man, the man laughably out of touch and doggedly out of step and also unarguably out of mind, revealed in his last moment as the one to care most about and mourn most deeply for. Remember this. Have this above all in mind.

As I came to the last chapters, I was surprised at the emotion I felt. the chapter “In which the Question of Sancho is Answered” was unexpectedly moving. The events were in the neighborhood of foreseeable; nevertheless, I didn’t see my reaction coming. I had to put the book down for a day to absorb it. And in the penultimate chapter, “Concerning the Author’s Heart,” a revelation is made so casually that its reverberation was again a shock, but this time, the entire book shifted for me. A line from a review of Mad Men came to me: “Who’d have guessed that in the end, it’d be all about family?” Of course, it was always about family, but the true point of origin, the knot that ties it all together, is left until just about the end.

And that leaves the very end, which, well, you’ll just have to read it for yourself. Anything else would be unfair.

N. K. Jemisin, How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? (Hachette, 2018)

Once upon a time, I didn’t think I could write short stories.
How Long ‘Til Black Future Month Takes its name from an essay that I wrote in 2013…. It’s a shameless paean to an Afrofuturist icon, the artist Janelle Monáe, but it’s also a meditation on how hard it’s been for me to love science fiction and fantasy as a black woman. How much I’ve had to fight my own internalised racism in addition to that radiating from the fiction and the business. How terrifying it’s been to realize no one thinks my people have a future. And how gratifying to finally accept myself and begin spinning the futures I want to see.
Now I mentor up-and-coming writers of color wherever I find them …And there are so many to find. Now I am bolder, and angrier, and more joyful; none of those things contradict each other. Now I am the writer that short stories made me.
So come on. There’s the future over there. Let’s all go.

~~ N. K. Jemisin, Introduction

I haven’t read much contemporary science fiction. Nearly every year now, BASS and Pushcart have stories that use science-fiction elements, particularly near-future dystopias predictable by current climate science. But they still read as literary fiction rather than science fiction. I’ve never understood the sharp line of demarcation between them, but it’s there. The point is, I’m out of my element. The most recent SF/F writer I’ve read to any degree is Harlan Ellison (I did read Sagan’s Contact if that counts); my bookshelves hold an assortment of Golden Age collections and anthologies: Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, etc.

Be that as it may, I greatly enjoyed nearly all of the stories in this collection. I’m a bit overwhelmed, in fact, since there are twenty-two stories. I take three months and twenty-two posts to consider a BASS anthology; most collections include maybe ten or twelve stories. So I’m off-balance, not sure how to communicate how beautifully something like “The Ones who Stay and Fight” or “Cloud Dragon Skies” or “The Narcomancer” worked, or how much fun “The Effluent Engine” was, or how deeply “Red Dirt Witch” touched me. There are many, many professional reviews of this volume, so I can stick to my own method of reacting and analyzing my reaction. But still, how to do that with so much to react to?

I decided to let Jemison lead the way via her Introduction.

As she mentions above, the title is from an essay available on her website, an essay inspired by her childhood sense of being excluded from a genre she loved, and by Janelle Monáe’s video
“Tightrope”. It starts with her noticing, as an adult, the cartoon The Jetsons doesn’t include any black people at all. The future was all white.

So Jemisin created a future with black people in it. Even black women. In many of the stories, race isn’t a primary issue, it’s just one of the many features of a character, a feature that brings along a history and a culture and preferences, which is true of white characters as well (surprise!).

<div On rereading my fiction to select pieces for this collection, I've been struck by how hesitant I once was to mention characters’ races. I notice that many of my stories are about accepting differences and change …and very few are about fighting threats from elsewhere. I’m surprised to realize how often I’d write stories that are talking back at classics of the genre.

~~ N. K. Jemisin, Introduction

That “talking back” made the first story, “The Ones Who Stay and Fight,” unforgettable. It’s talking back to Ursula LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, a story published in 1973. I just read it a few months ago. LeGuin’s story “Pity and Shame” appeared in BASS 2019. I hadn’t read her before (stop judging) and it didn’t seem commensurate with her reputation, so I went looking for something to get a better idea of her work. “Omelas” it was, a story that shows the ugly truth that beneath any Utopia is an ugly Dystopia, a story that kicks Utilitarianism to the curb (I just this week am reading Bentham’s presentation of felicific calculus for a philosophy mooc and I couldn’t get either of these stories out of my mind).

But where LeGuin honors those who walk away from Omelas – forego the pleasures of a Utopia built on the suffering of another person – Jemisin challenges us to do more: to stay and fight. Her situation is a bit different, as she’s dealing with the pollution caused by the ugly idea that some people are worth more than other people. For me, it brought in the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil from the original Utopia, which makes the case that, if people are going to be more than mindless automatons, evil is going to happen. So do you throw up your hands and give up? Do you accept it in the “what a shame” category? Do you walk away? Jemisin’s Paris Review interview makes the case that, at this time, there’s really no place to go that isn’t benefiting from the underpaid, suffering-laden labors of others – that is, those who have been “othered.” That leaves staying, and fighting to change things.

Perhaps you will speak of Um-Helat to others, and spread the notion farther still, like joyous birds migrating on trade winds. It’s possible. Everyone—even the poor, even the lazy, even the undesirable—can matter. Do you see how just the idea of this provokes utter rage in some? That is the infection defending itself . . . because if enough of us believe a thing is possible, then it becomes so.

Literary conversations are a great tradition. Sometimes they span centuries, sometimes years, sometimes months.

Another story I read as not really pushing back but running along the same lines is “Non-Zero Probabilities”. I thought of Heinlein’s story, “The Year of the Jackpot” when a statistician noticed all the cycles he keeps track of – the 54-year cycle, the 18.3, the 9+ year cycles, the 41 month cycle, and all the others – would peak and trough at a single moment in the near future. He predicted massive acts of random craziness, such as people taking their clothes off for no reason (which is the instigating incident in the story).

Adele, the protagonist of Jemisin’s story, is obsessed with luck. She prays in the tradition of several religions, uses special herbs, wears a St. Christopher medal and personal good-luck charms, things she happened to be wearing when something good happened.

And for good reason: New York is experiencing an upswing in the occurrence of very-low-probability events, which all seem to be happening. Some are bad (a train derailment downtown) (but some are, arguably, good (cancer remissions, more lottery winners). Adele finds herself in the middle of one of these events, a concatenation of unlikeliness involving a child, a frisbee, and a snowcone vendor.

“I work on Wall Street,” says another woman, who speaks briskly and clutches a bag of fresh fish as if it’s gold. Might as well be; fish is expensive now. A tiny Egyptian scarab pendant dangles from a necklace the woman wears. “Quantitative analysis. All the models are fucked now. We’re the only ones they didn’t fire when the housing market went south, and now this.” So she’s going to pray, too. “Even though I’m kind of an atheist. Whatever, if it works, right?”
Adele finds others, all tired of performing their own daily rituals, all worried about their likelihood of being outliered to death.

I love this idea of non-zero probability. No matter how low it is, if it’s not zero, it can happen. I still remember a science teacher long ago telling us about uncertainty and randomness in physics, and how it’s possible that all the oxygen molecules in the room in which you’re sitting will move to one side and leave you gasping for breath. Possible, yes. Of course, there really isn’t enough time in the history of the universe for this to have happened anywhere in the universe, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen.

While the math in Heinlein’s story provided lots of fun in other stories (“The Crazy Years” came up frequently), the plot was romance, as the statistician and the impulsive ecdysiast find themselves, unlikely as it is, in love. Jemisin’s story goes in a deeper direction, as she confronts the idea that maybe this isn’t all bad:

She still plans her mornings around her ritual ablutions, and her walks to work around danger spots – but how is that different, really, from what she did before? Back then it was makeup and hair, and fear of muggers. Now she walks more than she used to; she’s lost ten pounds. Now she knows her neighbors’ names. …
Some people react to fear by seeking security, change, control. The rest accept the change and just go on about their lives.

I connected that with the current moment. We can acknowledge the tragedy and loss of the past few months: so many have died, have long-lasting symptoms, have financial catastrophes, and for families with children there’s incredible stress. But there are also some moments of wonder, brilliantly creative work coming across the internet, examples of neighbors helping each other, nature’s residents reclaiming empty streets, some people finding the slower pace of life without the running to the gym and appointments after work is kind of nice. Maybe some of us might want to keep some aspects of lockdown.

I’m sure there are other correlations I don’t recognize given my thin repertoire of SF/F reading. For example, Jemisin gives “Walking Awake” as a response to Heinlein’s Puppet Masters, which I haven’t read.

<div On If you're coming to these tales as someone who primarily knows me through my novels, you're going to see the early forms of plot elements or characters that later got refined in novels. Sometimes that's deliberate, since I write “proof of concept” stories in order to test drive potential novel worlds….sometimes the re versioning is completely unconscious And I don't realize I've trodden familiar ground until long after. The world of the Broken Earth trilogy wasn't my first time playing with genii locorum, for example – places with minds of their own. The concept appears in several of my stories, sometimes flavored with a dash of animism.

~~ N. K. Jemisin, Introduction

I haven’t read Jemisin’s trilogy, but I recognize immediately the stories she’s referring to here. One is “The City Born Great,” a tale of a New York street kid who discovers he has a role to play in a great drama: “This is the lesson: Great cities are like any other living things, being born and maturing and wearying and dying in their turn.” This isn’t a metaphor; it’s an actual quickening and he’s instrumental in the birth. One of the later stories, “Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters” gives us a young man struggling to stay alive in New Orleans during Katrina; he, too, discovers a city can be more than roads and buildings.

Then there’s “Cloud Dragon Skies” which isn’t about a city but about the Earth deserted by most after an ecological catastrophe. Those who remain have made a life for themselves, a life different from before, but a life they enjoy and celebrate:

I was a child when the sky changed. I can still remember days when it was endlessly blue, the clouds passive and gentle. The change occurred without warning: one morning we awoke and the sky was a pale, blushing rose. We began to see intention in the slow, ceaseless movements of the clouds. Instead of floating, they swam spirals in the sky. They gathered in knots, trailing wisps like feet and tails. We felt them watching us.
We adapted. We had never taken more than we needed from the land, and we always kept our animals far from water. Now we moistened wild cotton and stretched this across our smoke holes as filters. Sometimes the clouds would gather over fires that were out in the open. A tendril would stretch down, weaving like a snake’s head, opening delicate mist jaws to nip the plume of smoke. Even the bravest warriors would quickly put such fires out.

But those who left Earth for an artificial ring habitat think they’ve figured out a way to fix Earth. The people who live there want nothing of it. Turns out, Earth wants nothing of it, either. It’s a story where we’re never sure if the cloud dragons and the reactions of the sky are natural or supernatural; it could play either way, which is a delightful trick.

I’m guessing the world imagined in “The Narcomancer” is at least related to Jemisin’s Dreamblood novel series. It’s a wonderful story that blends characters with different viewpoints into a single mission, and requires each of them to do something for the other. It is one of the few “threat from without” stories, but it also has several threats from within that are strung along the thread of the rescue mission. I was surprised to find myself tearing up a bit at the end.

I can’t close this post without mentioning a few other stories that don’t fall into one of these categories. “The Elevator Dancer” is very short, pretty much a current-day story with fascist overtones about a guy who’s just run out of enthusiasm for life and maybe, just maybe, rediscovers it while monitoring the elevator security cameras.

It is shameful and sinful to question the will of God. Still, the guard cannot help wondering. He does not want to think this thought, but it’s like, like temptation, it comes anyhow. And, well …
if …
if a tree falls …
if a tree falls and there’s no one around to hear it (but God)…
would it really bother with anything so mundane as making a sound?
or would it

One of the longest stories is “The Effluent Engine” which I have discovered is a Steampunk Romance. I’ve finally read something Steampunk! It’s set in New Orleans in the early 19th century (I’m gathering) and features a spy who is a Haitian woman trying to help her country get back on its feet following the slave rebellion that freed her people. That she falls in love with a Creole woman is the icing on the cake. Some of the escapes and double-crosses are a little facile, but it’s very enjoyable.

“Cuisine des Mémoires” is a natural for this former Top Chef addict. The cooks and judges on the show always talk about how the greatest food evokes emotion and memory; Jemisin turns that into a story that’s part mystery and part delicious. It features a very special restaurant, and a very curious diner who just can’t leave well enough alone:

The hunger to know burned in me right alongside the warm satisfaction of the meal itself, and underneath all of that lay anger. It was irrational anger, I knew. Someone had looked into my heart and found a long forgotten moment of love, plucked it forth and dusted it off and polished it up and shoved it back in, sharp and shiny and powerful as it had been on the day of the memory was made. But I didn’t have Angelina anymore, and that turned the memory from one of sweetness into one of pain.
So I had to know how they done it.

As a special treat, you can listen to LeVar Burton read the story at Stitcher.

There’s another cuisine story, “L’Alchemista”, on more of a Chopped theme. A stranger shows up with a bag of strange ingredients and a recipe. What do you think might happen?

I could go on about nearly all the stories. Several involve computers, AI, robots, and the like. Some are about the struggles to stop abuses of power. Some are about skills they don’t teach in computer programming classes. And, of course, race and power: “Red Dirt Witch” takes a look at the future from the past, and a mother makes the wisest decision a mother ever made: to believe in the hope of her daughter, even when her own hope has run out.

If this is contemporary science fiction, maybe I should be reading more of it.

Robert Long Foreman: I Am Here to Make Friends (Sundress, 2020)

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

— Emily Dickinson

The stories in I’m Just Here to Make Friends are not what the stories are about. Wait, let me say that better. The stories – at least most of them – feature a character rather obsessed with something. Maybe it’s watching a woman give birth in order to experience awe. Or getting a random trinket appraised at an Antiques Road Show event. Or reading someone else’s dream journal. But it turns out, what the character is obsessed with, is not what the story is about; the story is about what’s going on while the character chases down pregnant ladies willing to give birth in front of a stranger, or invades an ARS venue and accidentally sets up shop as an appraiser, or reads a dream journal which itself has to be the product of someone who was in a story about something else.

A line from Mad Men comes back to me: “People will do anything to alleviate their anxiety.” [I had a long bit in here about how new iPhones every two years and designer coffees are distractions to keep us from noticing how everything’s going to hell, and how college debt isn’t a bug but a feature since by the time a kid racks up $20, $100, $300 grand of loans, she’s going to be distracted from social justice and instead worrying about the stock market and how that homeless guy is devaluing her property, but it seemed… inappropriate. So I cut it.] That these stories foreground the anything only highlights the anxiety in the background. The stories tell the truth – but tell it slant.

The thing is, the distractions, the surface stories, are mesmerizing. They’re bright shiny lights and Led Zeppelin and the man on the flying trapeze. And the Truth is quietly sitting alone under a tree, easy to miss.

After the first few stories, I was really confused. I knew I was missing the Truth, but I didn’t know how or where. So I went to story sherpa Jake Weber’s post, which I’d been so careful not to read other than a couple of phrases about bemused narrators and warm-hearted stories. And I saw what my problem was: I needed to stop looking for the usual landmarks.

We’re so used to the cycle of want, followed by inability to achieve the wanted thing, followed then by some kind of epiphany that allows the character to achieve what he wants–the “tyranny of the epiphany” as Jim Shepard calls it–that it’s entirely arresting to read Robert Long Foreman’s short story collection I Am Here To Make Friends (Sundress Publications, 2020, 215 pages). Arresting, because most of the stories involve a protagonist who breaks the rules by not being sure what they really want, mostly being passive and misunderstood, and yet every one of the stories is a joy with more than enough forward momentum to keep the reader happily flipping pages to the end….
Much more than this, though, is the way these stories remind us how appropriate it is to feel disoriented.

– Jake Weber at Workshop Heretic

If there was ever a time when we needed to be reminded that disorientation is a normal reaction to disorienting circumstances, it’s 2020.

The title of the collection isn’t the title of a story; it isn’t a quote from a story. It’s just the title of the collection. That’s not unheard of – I found a couple of examples on my own bookshelves – but it’s unusual. It plays off the reality-TV trope I’ve heard so many times on Top Chef and Project Runway, the well-armored, obnoxious contestant assuring viewers “I’m not here to make friends” but to win, because somehow they can’t conceive of doing both successfully. In this context, it’s more ironic: the characters in these stories may truly want friends, but their efforts are ineffective or counterproductive. Still, in most of the stories they connect: maybe not with the important people in their lives, maybe not with themselves, but with the reader. Maybe we see our own thrashing through their lives.

My curiosity about the title, some other questions that cropped up during my reading (as questions always do), and a few prior conversations with Foreman led me to ask if he’d be willing to answer a few questions for this post. Turns out he would. I don’t often do author interviews, mostly because few authors would bother with me, so when I have the opportunity I jump at the chance. I’m very grateful for his willingness to spend time answering what might seem some pretty strange questions:

1 The title – it looks like it’s not in the text anywhere (if i missed it, please let me know); obviously it’s not a title of a story. I’m assuming it’s an overall title – So many of the characters are losing relationships while they’re distracted by goofy stuff, or they’re distracting themselves from their relationships with goofy stuff, is it more of an overall title about all these people? With the melting snowman, it makes me so sad – like Frosty the Snowman, hurry up and make friends with me before I melt! Anything you want to say about it?

You’re right; the title is not in the text. I had thought of calling it Here to Make Friends; my friend Kate suggested adding I Am Here since all the stories are in the first-person, since it would indicate something about the collection. At first I just thought it would be a funny title, but then I realized it’s actually an accurate statement about me. I am indeed here to make friends! And my hope is that something else comes out in it, too, a sense of something bordering on desperation, which I think the narrators in the stories feel. They tell their stories because they want so badly to be better understood, and there’s so much about themselves they don’t see.

2 I often have trouble telling if the narrator/main char is male or female. Is that deliberate? It could be a statement about gender fluidity, or it could be, well, just the byproduct of first person narration.

I think it’s mostly the latter–a consequence of first-person narration. But I don’t usually make it a priority to identify the narrator’s gender. Sometimes you have to make gender apparent for the sake of clarity, but I like the idea of a story being read differently based on what you perceive the narrator’s gender to be. I’ve been told I need to make it clearer when my narrator is a woman, because I’m a man, but I still don’t usually do that.

3 Story order, selection – how did you decide the order of the stories? It seemed to me the last two stories are the most “traditional”. Is that a matter of your writing evolving, or a deliberate choice? How did you decide what stories to include or leave out?

I put the longest story last; that seemed to make sense. For the longest time, in earlier drafts of the collection, I had “Cadiz, Missouri” first in the collection, because it won a Pushcart, and is therefore the most decorated story, maybe the best one. But I think that was holding it back; it’s a subdued, essayistic story, and doesn’t leap out at the reader. “Awe” is a story that does, and once I put it first I found the collection got a much better reaction–was a finalist for a contest, was published by Sundress. I didn’t think that mattered for the longest time, that I needed to ensnare a reader quickly. But I did! Anyway, I mostly just wanted to make sure the collection was ordered in a way that would keep the reader interested, keep surprising them. It’s all about justifying putting the stories together in a collection by creating a book-length experience that you can’t get by reading each story out in the wild.

4 When was Gunmen written? In an interview after The Man with the Nightmare Gun, you said you’d lost interest in guns, couldn’t write it that way now (then). The scenario is very different, of course, but you did return to guns, was that to change the conversation the earlier story started, or was it more about reality calling for a reaction?

It’s true; I finished writing my other gun story in the collection right before I found out Trayvon Martin was shot, and I was then more repulsed by guns as a fact of American life than I ever was before. I felt gross for having written about guns with even a character’s fictionalized fascination, even if I still think that’s a good story. But then guns never went anywhere, and years later people were talking seriously about arming teachers. I was a teacher at the time, and knew what a horrible, stupid idea that was and still is. So I felt compelled to write about how I think that might actually look in practice, with all the decent people leaving the profession and the only teachers left being rotten and vacuous, hanging onto their jobs just because they’re willing to carry firearms into classrooms. I was also feeling really out-of-place in academia, which I then left, and that informs the story, too.

5 I’ve never read Cormac McCarthy, if I had, would I have noticed all kinds of connections and references in Gunmen? As much as I liked the story, I wonder if I missed a whole world.

I don’t think you missed too much. There are some jokes that are funnier if you’ve read McCarthy’s novels, like how the narrator says The Orchard Keeper is a terrible novel that no one should read. But all you really need to know is how McCarthy is perceived, as a kind of man’s man of writers, who writes about guns and horses, to get why he’s in that story.

6 This isn’t a question, though you’re welcome to respond if you’d like. I guess the Rob Save America tour is cancelled; too bad, I was hoping it would work. We’re screwed now. And I was hoping you’d get to Maine, though I communicate much better online than in person. I feel so bad for all of the writers who’ve worked so hard, and had their book releases coincide with this crap.

It’s not a great time to have a book coming out! Let alone to have two coming out (my novel’s out in October). I’m not with any big, monied presses, so it’s hard to get much attention on my books as it is; one way that works is to make personal appearances in different places. And that’s not possible right now. I wish I could do Rob, Save America! and visit all fifty states; it was always meant to be a comical way to set myself up for failure, since I have kids at home and lots of work always and can barely leave the house to do anything ever. But I would have liked to go to a few places. I really wanted to, like, go to Lawrence, Kansas with a map of the US and just two thumbtacks on it to mark the states I’ve been to, in November, and talk about how hard it would be to get to 48 more states by December 31st, and ask the audience if they knew anyone in Montana who owned a bookstore that could host me.

7 Is there anything you wish someone would ask you so you could say something in an answer?

I wish people would ask why I’m the way I am all the time. Like, what’s it like to wake up in the morning and be like that? My answer is that it’s really terrible, I hate being like this.
– Interview with Robert Long Foreman, July 2020

As to that last: I have no idea what it means, but to me it brings up Thomas Nagel, Stevie Smith, and BoJack Horseman (which I haven’t really watched, but my blogging buddy Jake Weber keeps dropping pearls of wisdom he’s found in it, so, like Cormac McCarthy, it’s one of those things I may need to grit my teeth and tolerate for a while to get to the good part). Rob’s whole Twitter feed is like this, I’m never sure if I should be laughing at a joke that went over my head, or calling a suicide hotline.

But let’s go back to his stories. Some of my favorites:


Had I known the gunman was on his way, had I known what I was dreaming when I dreamt his arrival in advance, I would have prepared for his coming. I would have stashed an extra gun in the desk at the front of the room and ensured that the students knew it was there. I would have planted a claymore at the entrance to the classroom, just above the door. I would have rigged a steel trap that might have kept the gunman from bringing any harm to the students I was meant to keep safe.
Better yet: I would have told the students not to come in that day. Had I known not only that he would come, but when, I would have cancelled my class and saved the lives of nine people.

Don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler; it’s the first paragraph. This is the last story of the book – Foreman refers to it as a novella, and, at 62 pages, that makes sense – but I wanted to start off with it in case readers get discouraged by the length of this post and stop reading (who am I kidding; too late) to make sure at least this one gets on their radar screen. There’s a huge range here: one bit about adjuncts had me giggling, another about trademark violations got a full-blown snort; the climactic scene had me hyperventilating and brought me to the edge of a panic attack. And it almost has me wanting to read Cormac McCarthy. But not quite.

It’s a campus novella with a terrifyingly possible alternative-present premise: teachers at all levels are required to carry guns. Our protagonist is an English professor, and a pretty crappy one at that. When the Must Carry law went into effect, most of the professors quit, so he’s what’s left. To his credit, he knows he’s not much of a scholar or a professor. His students keep complaining that the World Literature course he’s teaching only covers Cormac McCarthy novels. He hopes that somehow, in a class with students fresh with ideas, he’ll find an idea worth writing about.

His transition to arms hasn’t gone totally smoothly. His girlfriend left him because he started checking for dangers everywhere, and talked about gunmen in his sleep. But he’s found the bright side of Must Carry: respect.

… before we had guns I’d found that the respect I was supposed to get as a professor eluded me….
The United States had always seemed to look on its teachers as an enormous population of lay-about distant cousins, living liabilities to the sensible and business-minded world. We were bad examples to the children, they seemed to think, and should have all gone to school for business and opened a business.
That attitude changed, when we got our guns. Everything changed, except how much students didn’t like the things I assigned them to read. They kept not liking any of that.

I’ve never read McCarthy, but I suspect I’d find multiple intersections. In fact, I noticed one even from my unenlightened state: the lack of quotation marks. Foreman uses them in other stories, so it’s a choice not to use them here. McCarthy wasn’t the first to eliminate quotation marks in his writing, but he’s rather famous for it (since even I know about it). The three epigraphs from Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West come into play. Wiki lists them and Shmoop tells me they’re about the continued savagery of the human animal even as we become supposedly more and more civilized. That certainly plays in a story about arming English professors and holding gun fairs on campus so they can choose their University-supplied firearms, because (and I’m editorializing here) it’s more profitable for campaign contributors than getting military weapons away from people who might be crazy enough to shoot up a classroom.

One comment the professor makes about McCarthy’s writing style also seems in line with the story:

When McCarthy has the novel trudge along the way it does, with significant events mixed with insignificant events, indiscriminately, in a perfectly linear fashion, it makes the narrative seem more real. It makes it plain that McCarthy is anchoring his imagination to a historical record.

This seems particularly appropriate when he interrupts an account of a class discussion to inform us that Philip, one of his students is black. Not only is it a bit of a digression, but he relates it directly to writing. And it’s one of those writing issues that gets tossed around once in a while: will a reader assume all characters are white unless they have characteristics associated with black people, and in that case, isn’t that stereotyping, etc etc. In the context of the story it’s more about how a McCarthy narrative suddenly stops and a long passage about a horse ensues, but it’s also a genuine social issue that’s pretty front-burner right now. The whole story is chock full of front-burner issues. Then again, right now just about everything is a front-burner issue.

And about Philip: it seems to me he’s the reason the students were still in the classroom when the gunman burst in. The narrator never states it outright, but does indicate Philip’s course evaluation was very long and they probably would have left earlier if he hadn’t been so diligent at outlining the Professor’s weaknesses. Which gives us a deeper answer to the question, who was the real reason the students were in the room? And then leaves us with, why the hell should it matter how long they were there, or why, since the real issue is why isn’t the classroom safe no matter how long they say?

At the center of all of it is the professor, whose name we never know, someone who isn’t up to his job or his relationship or much of anything, really. And he knows it, and seems to accept it without feeling a need to do anything about it. At the end, he’s alone, but he seems to have some direction for the future. Or at least, he knows one thing he doesn’t want to to do, which is a start.


Maybe he was right, I thought, and I could use some awe in my life. It was making Gary glow. What could it do for me?

This is a story that could have been written another way – a more traditional way – and it would have been sweet and sad and moving, but written this way, it’s kind of like white-water rafting (at least, as I imagine it, since I’ve never been anywhere close to white water nor have I ever been within shouting distance of a raft).

I happen to be very fond of awe, in the Edmund Burke sense (he’s kind of a jerk otherwise, but he knew awe), and I always feel like I find it in places I’m not supposed to. The night sky is beautiful, but awe? Naw. Ditto for the Grand Canyon. People who find awe there, are they serious? Then again, I’ve never been, so who knows. No, where I find awe is in an animation of DNA replication, in all of biology really: we need oxygen for the last of around 30 steps that somehow just happen, in every cell of our bodies, not because molecules make decisions but because positive and negative attract. It’s amazing we’re alive, let alone reading books and having babies. But people look at me like I’m weird when I say stuff like this.

Our narrator – nameless, again – gets some advice from a friend: get some awe in your life, watch a baby get born. The friend just watched his son being born, which it seems to me is a very different experience from watching a stranger give birth, but our guy doesn’t have a son in the oven, so he uses Craigslist to find a woman willing to give birth in front of him. I wasn’t kidding when I said these stories were full of bright shiny lights and stuff.

And then there’s the Truth, sitting in the corner smiling a half-smile:

“I haven’t touched a camera in a year,” I said. “Not since my last subject. She died. She killed herself.” With a half smile, I said, “I guess that’s what I get for making a film about people on the brink of suicide.”

Life and death weave around each other throughout the story, amid sinks and semicolons and a house that looks “as if Frank Lloyd Wright had designed it after banging his head and forgetting what century he lived in.”

As the first story in the collection, it sets the tone. It’s not as baffling as some other ones – there’s an actual resolution – but it’s not your standard How I Came Through the Darkness thing either. At the beginning of the story he’s recovering from having seen something awful. At the end, he’s healed by having seen something aweful.


I went to the Antiques Roadshow with my mother’s green marble frog in the inside pocket of the jacket of the black suit I wore to her funeral that morning. I had taken the frog from her house. I wanted to know what it was worth.

One of the best pieces of advice in the hundreds of pages Miss Manners has published (I love Miss Manners) is about answering a question like, “Would you like to see some pictures of my grandchildren?” A literal answer would almost always be “No,” but she fudges it by looking at “the truth of the situation, rather than the crude literal surface truth.” The grandparent is really asking for communication, sharing, some kind of connection, and only a heartless bastard would refuse that.

The problem is, Antiques Roadshow assumes that, when you show up with a useless trinket, you want to know the actual value of the thing. They don’t know it’s your mother’s, and that you just buried her hours before. They only know it’s worthless crap.

Our bereaved narrator (need I mention he is unnamed) tries to drink off his disappointment, but is mistaken for one of the appraisers. “I imagined that most of the Roadshow appraisers weren’t equipped to take harsh truths and soften them for the ones they told them to. They were like bad eulogists, one of which I heard that morning. It was my dad.” But he has more freedom than the appraisers, so he starts giving out more uplifting judgments. He gets more and more elaborate as time goes on – the “Sears” doesn’t refer to the store, but to subversive artists making a statement – and also more and more generous. “A theme of extinction ran through my late appraisals.” Of course it did.

The end feels wrenching, like any tragedy worth its salt.

The Vinyl Canal

I’ve spent enough of my life listening to weird men talk about things that matter to them but that don’t really matter at all.
How much more of my life would I spend doing that – sitting patiently while someone like Ben told me all about something that really meant something – to him?
How much longer would it be before I had a man living inside my head, droning on about records, or traffic, or the independent comedy scene, for the independent literature scene, or the independent scenery scene, whenever there wasn’t a real man around to do it? How long before I had a man living in my apartment, who would serve the same purpose?

Sometimes, the distraction of the story is, in fact, a lot more interesting to me than the story itself. In fact, I’m not even sure what the Truth is, besides this woman going through some lousy relationships she’s only half paying attention to, because they aren’t worth it. And because the Vinyl Canal is a lot more interesting.

The Vinyl Canal starts out as a way of skipping over tracks of a record you don’t like. I miss records. I still have a few, though I got rid of most of them, things that could be replaced, a long time ago. Records would develop their own quirks over time: skips, repeats, and so forth. Those of us with cheap phonographs (and cheap records that could be replaced) balanced quarters on the tone arm to keep the stylus in slightly damaged grooves, even though this resulted in more damage.

Ben found a way to use those skips to his advantage: by creating canals that would move across cuts he didn’t want to listen to. That’s pretty brilliant; I have to wonder if Foreman actually did this at some point, or knew someone who did. But Ben discovers it’s a lot more work to carve these canals than it is to just let the record play as it was made (by the way, there were turntables available from the late 70s that offered programmable track selection with linear tracking tonearms; my husband had a couple); thus the term Vinyl Canal evolves to mean a way of avoiding something you don’t want to deal with, but actually causing yourself more trouble than if you’d just gone ahead and faced it like a grownup.

This meaning keeps expanding, and he applies it to a wide variety of societal ills: The poisoned water in Flint, MI; the Iraq war; police violence; defunding libraries. It’s maybe the story most broadly pertinent to today, and by today, I mean literally today, this week, 2020 in general, as we’re at 130,000 deaths and the fourth month of pandemic affecting people’s lives every day because someone (we won’t name names) thought it would be better to ignore it. We’re in the Vinyl Canal right now.

The story is available online at Willow Springs, along with a contributor note from Foreman:

What surprised me most as I wrote the story was that it didn’t end where I meant it to, at first. I thought the narrator’s exit from the radio station, about 2/3 of the way into the story, would be the right place to leave her. I realized, when I extended the story to where it ultimately went, that it wasn’t until later that the story’s animating tension was resolved, or its anxiety soothed (I don’t like the word “conflict”). It seemed to me that the right place to leave the narrator was at the mouth of the canal her weird acquaintance had dug. And so I learned a lot from continuing to work on this story, even after I saw I could have decided it was finished and moved on. I used to be less patient than that.

~ Robert Foreman, contributor note

It seems to me that the shorter version makes the narrator the focus, and the longer version makes Ben the primary character; I far prefer it that way, since I have no idea what the narrator’s issues are. I’m too distracted by the Vinyl Canal. See, it works.

On Brian’s Dreams of Submarines

I told some of these dreams to Brian – my husband Brian – as we ate breakfast, but he wasn’t interested. It takes him an hour every morning to be ready to engage with the world, and he’d only been awake for thirty minutes when I relayed my dreams to him , so that was part of it , but I also think he just didn’t care.
I developed a theory, that dreams are interesting to people other than their dreamer only when they’ve been written down and processed through the act of writing into something more concrete. If I wrote down my dreams and left them in a folder in the apartment, Brian might find them when I was dead or at a conference, and he might be as engrossed in my dreams as I was in those had by work-Brian

I always feel inadequate when I read a story about dreams, because my dreams aren’t anything like the dreams in stories or books. I have categories of dreams (house dreams, still-married nightmares, pain dreams) but I never have the same dream, or even close to the same dream twice. And my dreams are very fragmented, but the fragments rarely connect.

In spite of my inferiority complex around dreams, this was another fascinating story with a brilliant distraction. It reminded me a lot, in fact, of “The Vinyl Canal” except to me it worked better as a story, since I understood the narrator’s underlying Truth: her marriage was dying of disinterest.

The narrator is tasked with cleaning out the desk of Brian, who quit his job precipitously some time ago. She finds a notebook which she initially thinks is a technical manual of some kind: it’s typed and has charts and diagrams. It turns out to be Brian’s dream journal. The charts are ways of categorizing his dreams by themes, by gender or race of the population in the dream, by deaths in the dream, etc. These charts are reproduced in the book, by the way; I can only assume that Mid-American Review also reproduced them when they printed the story in 2013, and offer them a high-five for doing so; it’s the sort of thing that befuddles text-only litmags, but allows so much to blossom forth from fiction.

The narrator’s husband is also named Brian. This is not the first time I’ve sensed Foreman playing with doubling. In this case, there’s a hint of the narrator being work-wife and home-wife, even though she and work-Brian rarely interacted. That just emphasizes how distant she and her husband have become.

The title refers to a series of submarine dreams, in which everyone on board is killed. There’s a lot of concern about whether this includes Brian, if he’s the crew, as the dreamer, or if he’s the captain, or something else. These aren’t just plug-in dreams, these are detailed examinations, which makes the story work. I’m reminded of Seth Fried explaining he kept a notebook of creative ways for people to be killed when writing his story “Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre,” and at one point he got worried that if he left the notebook somewhere and someone else found it, they might call SWAT on him. Work went into these dreams. And it wasn’t Brian’s work.

Our narrator comments at one point she thinks this journal might be a practical joke played by her boss to freak her out. That sounds like a fun story right there.

The diary turns out to affect the narrator’s life as she and her husband discuss the submarine dreams. It’s a delightful pun on the cliché about marriage being founded on shared dreams. The graph that results from that evening (hey, I can’t reveal everything) makes a delightfully happy ending to a story.


I’ve followed Foreman on Twitter for quite some time, and usually have no idea what he’s talking about (I understand less and less of what’s on Twitter every day; pretty soon, it’ll be like a stream of undecipherable language, but I’ve arranged it so that I get lots of pretty pictures, which comfort me). I read his essay collection last year, and it surprised me: I always figured he was just too cool for me, but I discovered we have lots of intersections. This story collection sometimes gets beyond me, but much of it hits the target perfectly: I am these people, way too much. His novel, Weird Pig, is scheduled for release in October 2020.

Bridget Quinn, Broad Strokes: 15 Women Who Made Art and Made History (in That Order) (Chronicle, 2017)

Great lives are inspiring.
Great art is life changing.
The careers of the fifteen artists that follow run the gamut from conquering fame to utter obscurity, but each of these women has the story, and work, that can scramble and even redefine how we understand art and success.

It strikes me that we might need a little caveat here before getting started. Can we agree at the outset to lay down our qualms about Ye Olde Arte Hystore at the door of this book? Put them down. Walk away. Let us agree that together we shall fear no corsets, nor nursing saviours, nor men in top hats and cravats, nor vast expanses of peachy dimpled thighs.
Let us withhold judgment until we know more.

Last year, I read Nell Painter’s book Old In Art School and found I enjoyed reading about art. The OCW about Don Quixote examined a Velázquez painting (Las Meninas) in great detail as part of the discussion of the narrator/subject, and I found that fascinating. But then, whenever I tried to find an article on some artist, or a video on a style, I would lose interest almost immediately. Art has its own language and its own values (just like writing), and the sources I found just barreled ahead and started lecturing about what makes this part energetic and this part ominous and… well, I can take their word for it, but I can’t understand it.

But I keep trying. Towards the end of last year, I read The Millions “A Year in Reading” entry by Grace Loh Prasad (about whom I really know nothing, but I love these year-end briefs). This was the first book she described:

Quinn seamlessly weaves together biography, art history, memoir, and incredible storytelling, such as in the chapter on Edmonia Lewis and the rediscovery of her long-lost sculpture The Death of Cleopatra. Her writing is intimate and unstuffy, and it makes learning about important and overlooked artists feel like having a conversation with a smart, badass friend.

Grace Loh Prasad

Who doesn’t love a smart, badass friend. So I ordered it. And I have to agree: it’s a marvelously unstuffy book that talks about art in language I can understand, and even more importantly, talks about artists in ways that make me interested in their lives and work.

The artists discussed are all women, but there’s great diversity beyond that, in era, race/ethnicity, artistic medium and style, and life story. I was surprised to discover that I’d heard of a couple: I got interested in Kara Walker while reading Painter’s book, and Ana Mendieta showed up in an art mooc I took (and hated) back when I started doing moocs; I didn’t remember her name, but I did remember her siluetas, so the class wasn’t a complete loss.

I enjoy Quinn’s approach. It is, indeed, less stuffy than most, sometimes irreverent, sometimes poignant. She’s a good storyteller, whether she’s relaying an artist’s life, the story of a painting, or the moment she herself discovered the artist. The chapters are fairly short; it’s easy to read two or three in one sitting. I even started to understand some art, thanks to her inclusion of comparisons and contrasts; yes, this was another book I read at the computer so I could look up the works mentioned but not included.

The images are wonderful: full-color reproductions of several works by each artist. Each chapter begins with a full-page illustration of the artist by Lisa Congdon. It’s nice to have an image of the artist under discussion, and interesting to compare these with the self-portraits that sometimes show up in the chapter.

I kept trying to figure out a way to summarize the individual chapters without doing a full paragraph on each one, but they are all quite different and all deserve full attention. So forgive the length of this post; the book is nowhere near as cumbersome.

The first chapter about Artemisia Gentileschi shows how easily Quinn moves from art to biography to social commentary. It opens with a discussion of Gentileschi’s Judith Severing the Head of Holofernes, a Biblical story of a Jewish woman using what skills she has – seduction – to destroy the leader of the forces massing to slaughter her people. “The two women work in dispassionate exertion. They could be Julia Child and Alice Waters deboning a turkey.”

From there, she takes us to the rape of the seventeen-year-old Gentileschi at the hands of one of her art teachers, the legal climate in which the wrong was done, not to her, but to her father, and the trial her father brought against the rapist which involved obstetric examinations and, best of all, torturing Gentileschi with thumbscrews to ascertain the truthfulness of her version. As a result she was married off to another painter and ended up in Florence, which turned out to be good for her career. Quinn also discusses the poor renderings of female nudes by even such experts as Michelangelo, for lack of models. I hadn’t known this until I looked up his sculptures for the New Sacristy of San Lorenzo as mentioned in the text. The other female hero Gentileschi paints is Susanna, another biblical rape story.

But the artistic centerpiece of the chapter is her Self-Portrait as La Pittura, the embodiment of the art of painting. Here she maintains the existing traditions as regards hair, jewelry, and dress, but does not include the usual gag in the mouth symbolizing the muteness of art. As Quinn puts it:

Artemisia Gentileschi was never quiet. She was instead the heroic center of her own art, fashioning a new language of womanhood, in action and in form.
Her heroic women are not man-eaters, but man-beaters. That’s one reason why her Judith Severing The Head Of Holofernes appalled so many for so long. Not only is a woman depicted performing a heinous act on a man, but also it’s a woman daring to depict it.
Artemesia refused the gag. And from four hundred years away she speaks to us still, saying: Dare to be great.

Judith Leyster’s chapter starts with an art gallery adventure. The Louvre acquired a painting by Franz Hals, only to discover upon cleaning that the signature was not Hals at all. At first it was thought to be the work of Hals’ brother, but it eventually was resolved that the then-unknown Leyster was the artist. Quinn quotes Germaine Greer’s observation: “At no time did anyone throw his cap in the air and rejoice that another painter, capable of equaling Hals at his best, had been discovered.” Legal action and recompense followed quickly.

Her Self-Portrait is amusing for the paintbrush aimed at the crotch of the male musician she is shown painting, but more importantly, it’s been revealed through infrared examination that the figure was originally a woman, possibly a self-portrait within a self-portrait. “In other words, Leyster predicted her own erasure from the history of art.”

The chapter on Adélaïde Labille-Guiard traces her clever maneuvering through the years before and during the French Revolution

There was an 18th century version of trolling that supported an entire economy of the most vicious satire. As a woman artist, Labille-Guiard was an easy target.
….For women artists the leap from intimacy with a man to being an untalented slut has, in the public eye, never been a big one.
Slut or not, she was shrewd. With no husband to defend her, or support her financially, Labille-Guiard defended herself. Between 1782 and 1783 she showed six portraits of important male Academicians. It was a brilliant stroke, securing valuable eyewitnesses to her talent. If any man admired his portrait, he must admire Labille-Guiard’s ability as well.

When the winds shifted, she painted portraits of the power forwards of the Revolution. But she still had to burn one of her paintings, her greatest masterpiece. It’s here that I discovered the hierarchy of classical French painting: still life at the bottom, history painting (“big ass canvases with a story to tell” as Quinn puts it) at the top. There’s also a great deal of compositional strategy in this chapter: why what is behind the subject of a painting may be as important as the subject itself.

The story of Marie Denise Villers has two focal points and a wonderfully humorous accent. When Quinn was in grad school for art history, the objective was connoisseurship: “Basically: knowing who made what, just by looking at it. To be able to perceive, by attitude, gesture, mood, and style, what belongs to whom.” In a discussion with Professor Alfred Moir, this was developed and evolved:

“You know the problem with connoisseurship?”
I did not. I had no idea there was a problem with connoisseurship.
“It doesn’t take into account the artist waking up on the wrong side of the bed.” He leaned forward and lifted a finger, as if to shake it in my face. “It doesn’t consider the really shitty day.”
….Later it would occur to me, what about the opposite? The Day When Everything Goes Right. The Fucking Excellent Day.

Turns out Villers had one of those when she painted Portrait of Charlotte du Val d’Ognes. Again, this turns into a comedy of errors: in 1917 the New York Met aquired a gift of what was thought to be a painting by Jques Louis David. In the 40s it was discovered this could not be a David, and by 1951 it was tentatively attributed to another woman painter. At this point critics came out of the woodwork to point out flaws which, when the painting bore the imprimatur of David, had been unnoticed. It wasn’t until 1996 that Villers was credited as the artist, by comparison with two of her other works.

And here the plot thickens. Quinn looks at those other works in detail, and proclaims them “bland” and lacking magic. I can’t really tell the difference. She goes to some trouble to show the difference in interpretation of the Portrait as painted by a man (sexual anxiety) and by a woman (artistic anxiety). But the point is that Villers and her student Charlotte happened at a special moment; soon thereafter France became far more restrictive to women, and, Quinn writes, “by 1804, Napoleon had shut down every avenue of official education and exhibition for women artists in France.”

So a singular moment in time is the secret of Villers’s marvelous, moving painting: two young women longing to make art found themselves in a brief period of opportunity, when instruction, exhibition, and even fame were possible.
And in that moment, perfection happened. A Fucking Excellent Day. Longing and kinship and ability became great art. A masterpiece.

I regret that I’m unable to see the perfection. But I’ll take her word for it.

Rosa Bonheur painted a very different subject: horses and bulls. It seems she was very popular towards the end of the 19th century, to the point of children playing with Rosa Bonheur dolls. She became friends with Buffalo Bill, meeting him when he was in Paris. And she was gay: Quinn compares her and her companion Natalie to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. She had an official permit for crossdressing – that is, wearing pants – at a time when only women who could defend the need for pants could legally wear them. A monument to her stands in France: not a sculpture of the artist, but of a bull like those she painted.

The only flaw in this book occurs in this chapter. Her painting, The Horse Fair, is spread across two pages, a necessary choice to see anything close to the details. But that means the gutter of the pages runs down the center, making the crucial central figure – the only non-mustachioed figure, thus possibly a woman, even a stand-in for Bonham – hard to see. Fortunately, the Internet offers numerous options.

With Edmonia Lewis, we get our first look at art outside of painting; that is, sculpture. And we happen upon another fascinating story of an outstanding piece of art being lost. The Death of Cleopatra had been missing for a century in the 1980s when curator Marilyn Robinson started looking for information on Lewis for her own work. She sent out (pre-internet) feelers.

A curator at the Metropolitan Museum of art, perhaps lingering over bagels and orange juice some lazy Sunday, happened to see it and recalled a recentish letter from one Frank Orland, a dentist/history buff from a Chicago suburb, who’d written to the Met looking for information on the very same Edmonia; he thought he might have something of hers. The museum curator, feeling generous, sat down the juice and contacted the number listed in the Times.
Richardson pounced on the lead. She called. And called. She left messages. They were not returned. So what would any academic on an independent scholar’s salary do? Damn straight – she got on a plane, then in a car, and then marched up Frank Orland’s front steps and rang his bell.
A now-pliant Orland led Richardson to a barren corridor in a nearby suburban shopping mall. Hardly the place one might expect to find, say, a monumental marble statue of an Egyptian Queen. …
Orland leaned into the storage room and flicked on the light.
There sat Edmonia Lewis’s The Death of Cleopatra, a regal monarch limp on her marble throne. Tragic, moving …and, noted Richardson, “surrounded by holiday decorations and papier mache turkeys and Christmas lights and Christmas elves.”
Richardson was shaking.
A celebrated work by one of nineteenth-century America’s most important sculptures, lost for a hundred years, was now quite suddenly found.

If a shopping mall storage room is an unusual place to find a marble sculpture, Edmonia Lewis might also be considered an unusual prospect for fine art. She was born of a Chippewa mother and Black father, orphaned at age nine, kicked out of several schools, and as the Civil War started, was beaten severely and left for dead in a field. Nevertheless, she persisted, and through William Lloyd Garrison, met a teacher and went to Rome.

In addition to the qualities of Lewis’s work, particularly her Hiawatha sculpture, Quinn discusses the implications of white marble. It was, in Lewis’s time simply what sculpture was made of, but in antiquity, the Greeks and Romans painted their statues. The worship of whiteness came later.

Paula Modersohn-Becker painted what Quinn calls the “first female nude self-portrait in Western history”, while Alice Neel may have painted the oldest nude self-portrait; she was eighty at the time. Given Neel’s early life – she was hospitalized for suicidal behaviors in her 30s, her first child died, and the second was taken by her husband when he abandoned her to live in Cuba, a lover burned and slashed hundreds of her works – it’s a triumph she made it to eighty, so as far as I’m concerned she can paint anything she wants. Her most notable work was of gay men and couples, mostly from the Warhol Factory.

Vanessa Bell painted her sister, Virginia Woolf, without a face, yet “captures something essential in her, opposed or a way of being in the world as distinctive as her facial features. …She ignored mere features, capturing her sister’s essence instead.” She did the original covers for Woolf’s books, including the highly phallic image for To the Lighthouse. She served as a sort of base for a couple of Woolf’s characters, including the painter Lily Brisco in Lighthouse.

The chapter on Lee Krasner spends a fair amount of time on her marriage to Jackson Pollock, and credits her with discovering him and introducing him to those who would support his rise to artistic stardom. Her own work seemed to get lost in the mix. The images presented in the book are all very different – from Self Portrait (1930) to Seated Nude (1940) to Composition (1949) to Milkweed (1955). Surprisingly, I like the later three works far better, and here’s where I try to grapple with the language of Abstract Expressionism:

Ab Ex as perfected by Pollock was all about doing. According to influential critic Harold Rosenberg, “At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.”
Abstract art is sometimes described as a departure from reality, but a better way to say it might be that it seeks to express a different reality. The reality behind our visible world. …
You wouldn’t think of a jazz musician as a fraud trying to trick you into thinking noise was really music. No, because you feel music intuitively: your soul and spirit (and even body) understand its message. The same is true of abstract art if he will give it time and attention. It will work on you, if it’s good.

I’d never heard of Louise Bourgeois, but I recognized her Femme Maison works: literally, “housewife”, they are half woman, half house, and express a feminist reaction to the expectations women live under.

Bourgeois’s feminism may have been born at the dinner table where her father verbally abused her in front of whatever company happened to be there. As an example, take a look at the video
“Louise Bourgeois Peels a Tangerine”. She seems to have returned the disfavor, though much later, with her sculpture Fillette. It means “little girl” but the work is a 2-foot penis, looking remarkably like the preserved corpses I’ve viewed for anatomy moocs: brown/orange and rough. Robert Maplethorpe took an iconic photo of her holding the sculpture, “her right hand cupped beneath the glans penis as if it were the muzzle of a small dog… She might be any lady who lunches in midtown, one who doesn’t go anywhere without her little pet.” Quinn associates it with DaVinci’s Lady with Ermine, a painting from half a millennium prior which is also loaded with sexual symbolism.

While some of the women, particularly those from earlier centuries, were from artistic families yet never attained any kind of status in the art world, the opposite is the case with Ruth Asawa. Her father was a truck farmer in California; when she was sixteen, he was arrested and she was interned with so many other Japanese Americans in one of America’s most revolting acts. She found the benefit in it, however, since a casual school formed which included interned artists. She eventually went to a small teacher’s college, but found that, in her fourth year, she was not allowed to do the practicums required so she had to leave without her degree. She made some contacts through her sister, who was studying Spanish in Mexico, an found the Black Mountain College, an experimental school with a superstar roster of instructors including John Cage and Buckminster Fuller, who became her mentor. Her work includes wire art based on folk techniques she learned in Mexico, and more traditional fountains in San Francisco, where a High School for the Arts is named after her.

The chapter on Ana Mendieta begins with a scene from Law & Order:

In the hot early morning of September 8, 1985, a doorman working the night shift in Greenwich Village heard a woman’s voice pierce the night, screaming, “No, No, No, No,” then moments later, the sound of a large object striking somewhere nearby.
Artist Ana Mendieta, thirty-six years old and married less than a year to renowned sculptor Carl Andre, fifty-two, had just plummeted from the bedroom window of their nearby apartment – thirty-four stories – and died on impact.
Because Mendieta is known for the ethereal self-portraits-cum-crime-scene-outlines she called siluetas – and because the police took no photos – it’s tempting to imagine the scene. Rather than gruesome, I want to picture Mendieta as she was in her very first silueta: a naked body covered in white flowers, all ripeness and purity, associating her own procreative forces with the power of the Great Goddess.
….Even Andre doesn’t seem to know exactly what happened; over the years, he’s given three very different accounts. …A celebrated pioneer of minimalist sculpture, Andre and his brilliant career were affected not at all.

Quinn, fully aware of Andre’s sculpture, discovered Mendieta in 1992 at the Guggenheim opening in NY, where protesters objected to the white male palette (one woman, no artists of color) and the inclusion of the famous sculptor who many believed had murdered his wife.

Mendieta came to the US in 1961 from Cuba; she and her sister, young teens, lived in a series of temporary homes in Iowa. She is known for “earth art”: using the planet itself as a canvas:

Earth Art tended toward the massive and the masculine, requiring big machines and accompanying egos….If there were an ancient prototype for the new art, it would be Stonehenge way back in the Neolithic, impressive and lasting, at least in part because it’s just so damned big. The Neolithic inspiration for Mendieta runs more to the plastered skulls of Jericho and myriad great goddess images found all over the world.

As I mentioned, I was aware of Kara Walker from other sources. Her silhouettes, as Quinn notes, have the appearance of lighthearted gaiety on first glance, but when examined more closely, they contain a shocking – and damning – portrait of the sexual and physical exploitation of black people. “The silhouette says a lot with very little information, but that’s also what the stereotype does,” Walker has explained.

But the chapter starts with a very different piece of art:

At the behest of Creative Time, Kara E. Walker has confected:
A Subtlety
or the Marvelous Sugar Baby
An Homage to the unpaid and overworked
Artisans who have refined
our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the
Kitchens of the New World
on the Occasion of the demolition of the
Domino Sugar Refining Plant.

It’s a giant sphinx-like sculpture made out of sugar, with a head fashioned to evoke a “mammy” with clearly black features, and, in the back, ten-foot-tall vulva protruding over curled toes. This is an artist who goes there. The sculpture combines the histories of whiteness, blackness, sexuality, industrialization, and capitalism, probably a few other things I’m not sophisticated enough to see. There’s a reason Walker won a MacArthur “genius” grant at twenty-seven.

In the final chapter, we learn of Susan O’Malley turning the pain of her mother’s degenerative illness into art by enlarging and mounting notes she wrote – “Love you Baby”. O’Malley’s specialty was textual art: the careful placement of words in surroundings that emphasize or contrast with the meaning. She created a series of nine signs for the Montalvo Arts Center, titled A Healing Walk: at various places on the trail there are wooden signs reading “You are Here, Awake and Alive,” “This Beautiful Moment”, and similar sentiments. Quinn compares it to Dante:

Nine was the number favored by Dante in structuring his Divine Comedy, which begins with a walk: In the middle of our lives / I found myself in a dark woods / the right road lost. Dante’s guide is the poet Virgil; in A Healing Walk, the artist O’Malley is ours. And just as Virgil takes Dante through Hell, then on a steep path up until they see the stars, O’Malley’s path culminates in the summit overlooking the quiet balm of the natural world.

I’m a little dubious of this interpretation overall, but some of the pieces indeed fit.

O’Malley died suddenly at the age of thirty-eight; the Montalvo Arts Center made her installation permanent.

Quinn finishes with a brief postscript:

Our story began with my finding sixteen women artists in the third edition of H. W. Janson’s seminal History of Art. I’ve presented fifteen here. Why one short?
I’ve left room for myself. For you. For anyone who wants it.
Insert yourself here.
….Hell, insert anything you like – poet, architect, filmmaker, actor, brain surgeon, astronaut – and run with it. Great lives in great works are endless: we just have to look for them. And of course create them.

I’m delighted to have found this book, a book that made the artists come alive for me, and that did, in spite of my lack of artistic comprehension, make sense of many aspects of art.

It turned out that Quinn, while studying art history and connoisseurship, came to be inspired most by Adélaïde Labille-Guiard in an unusual way. Her professor gave her an assignment of high honor, a request to authenticate a Labille-Guiard painting. “I had already decided to follow Labille-Guiard, not study her. I wanted to be like her, to explore what talent might lie inside me with passion and courage.” No, not painting; she left art to become a writer, which is how this book came to be, and probably why it is far more enjoyable for someone like me than the entries written by those who achieved full connoisseurship.

Weike Wang, “Chemistry” (Vintage, 2018)

The Chinese word for chemistry is hua xue. The first character means to change, transform, melt. The second character means to learn. Said with a different inflection, xue could mean snow, hua could mean speech, and chemistry becomes the melting of snow, becomes the learning of speech.

No, this isn’t a chemistry text, nor is it a Chinese language guide; it’s a novel about a woman who comes to several dead ends in her life, and has no idea what to do next. In her NYT review, Alexandra Alter called it an “anti-coming-of-age story: Instead of figuring out how to be an adult, the narrator learns to live with uncertainty and indecision.” Wang pushed back on that a little in her Asia Society blog interview: “the novel ends in the middle of [the narrator’s] development. She’s on the upswing as far as potential for change, but you don’t see the victory dance.” I’m not sure I like “coming of age” for someone who’s well into adulthood, but there is a coming-to-terms with, or at least a recognition of, a number of problematic relationships she’s been at the mercy of: with her mother, her father, her boyfriend, her career goals, and her identity as a Chinese-American woman and daughter.

I didn’t notice until I read the Penguin Reader’s Guide that only the boyfriend Eric is named. That’s interesting. Except for the narrator – who, naturally enough in a first-person story, doesn’t refer to herself as anything other than “I” – everyone but Eric is referred to by their relationship to her: parents, best friend, lab mate, math student. It almost feels like this is an inversion of the usual thing where the named characters are the most important. That Eric’s relationship isn’t labeled fits with both the odd relationship they had at the outset, and his departure midway through the novel.

The brittle humor and style – many smallish sections, about a page or so – keep things from edging into sentimentality, but there’s plenty of emotional territory covered. As well, some scenes are downright hilarious. Early on, our narrator loses her place in grad school; whether it’s because she’s just not a good enough chemist, or because she doesn’t love chemistry enough to do it well, is one of the issues she’s struggling with. Best Friend tries to help:

The best friend has sent me a present. It is a stuffed doll with yellow yarn for hair and two Xs for eyes and a line for a mouth. It is called a Dammit Doll. I am to grasp this doll by the legs and whack the stuffing out of it, while shouting, Dammit, dammit, dammit. I try, but the doll has proven to be made from industrial grade stuff. I have named it Science, You Motherfucker.

I can sympathize; mine would be named Math.

The beginning of the novel finds our narrator working outrageously long hours as a graduate student in her chem lab, yet unable to produce the result she needs. The confidence she felt as an outstanding student in high school is long gone, and she’s losing the love she had for the field:

Coming in, I think myself the best at chemistry. In high school, I win a national award for it. I say, cockily, at orientation, Yes, that was me, only to realize that everyone else had won it as well, at some point, In addition to awards I have never won.

I am a senior in college when I decide to go into synthetic organic chemistry. I am mesmerized by the art of it. The purpose of this kind of chemistry is to build a molecule that is already present in nature, but to build it better than nature, in the least number of steps, with a beautiful key step. Technique is everything. Percent yield is everything. For months I am running the same reaction over and over again, the seventh step of a twenty-four-step synthesis, just so I can get the yield up from 50 percent to 65 because anything under 60 is unacceptable to the advisor. Then for months, I am running step eight. Then for years, the advisor is asking, Do we have it, the molecule? And I say, no, it is still at large.
In time, you find yourself no longer mesmerized.

I’m reminded of an article by Kamil Ahsan about the falling-out-of-love-with-biology that happens when you “inspect a single protein or a single gene every day for six years.”

Add to this her sense that her boyfriend’s academic career is soaring, and she feels left behind. “Please stop, just for a little while, and let me catch up. How do you expect me to marry you if you never let me catch up?” she whispers at night as he sleeps.

Then there are parental expectations, both expressed and unexpressed. Her father has set a high bar by example:

My father’s is the classic immigrant story.
He is the first in his family to go to high school and college and graduate school and America. He is the first to become an engineer. …
But such progress is made in one generation that to progress beyond him, I feel as if I must leave America and colonize the moon.

Her mother has a very different story.

My mother’s mother was one of the best architects in Shanghai.
In the late 1970s, she helps reconstruct the Bund. During this time, she tells my mother, still a teenager, that if she were ever to settle down and have children, she need only had daughters. Daughters have more chu xi and xiao shun, she says. Chu xi is the ability to succeed. Xiao shun is filial piety. My grandmother believes this because she was one of those daughters – having accomplished a great deal, having married well, raised two kids, and taken care of her parents in the last years of their lives.
But to follow my father to America, my mother inevitably gives up both.
And for this reason, I think she believes herself to have failed.
Then the moment of shock sets in. A daughter? You must be mistaken. I do not have a daughter. And if I did, how would I raise her if I cannot set for her an example?
Upon putting that car in reverse and leaving, she thinks, finally, a chance to start anew. But then she realizes that she cannot get very far without my father. There are many things she cannot read or say. And money, she doesn’t have her own money.
Maybe she also comes back because of you, the shrink says. The maternal instinct kicking in.
If she does, she never shows it.

This not only sets up high expectations – anything less than a PhD is unacceptable – but adds to the narrator’s reluctance to marry Eric and follow him when he is offered the job of his dreams at Oberlin.

All of this culminates in a meltdown (chemistry, the study of melting) in the lab and the breaking of beakers. She is put on medical leave and sent to a shrink, then cut from the program. Eric gets his dream job and moves without her. Now what?

Now what turns out to be continuing therapy, watching her best friend have a baby and leave her husband when he cheats on her, and working as a math and science tutor. Without the pressure of the lab and the exhausting work schedule, without the constant self-comparison to Eric, and without the pressure to decide about marriage, some things start to sort themselves out. Her memories of her parents grow less damaging. Her confusion about how to keep her Chinese identity while remaining American starts to become less burdensome. And she starts to enjoy teaching.

Science is used as example and metaphor throughout the novel.

Biologically, physical strength comes from mitochondria, which are organelles that generate all of our body’s energy. A unique feature of mitochondria is that they have their own DNA. Whereas the rest of the body is built on code that is half paternal and half maternal, mitochondrial DNA is entirely maternal and passed down from the mother.

Thus the narrator, instead of fearing she will disappoint her mother, can claim the strength she has inherited from her. Finding a different path does not have to mean failure; it can mean success is redefined, and becomes more fulfilling.

And if you think in terms of the nuclear family, physics teaches more than equations:

For a long time, scientists did not know why the nucleus of an atom held together. Theoretically, it should not. It is made up of all positive charges that should repel, but somehow, it persists.

It’s not by accident Wang chose science for the background of her first novel. She did her undergraduate work at Harvard in Chemistry, completed a doctorate in Public Health, and then picked up an MFA from Boston University. It’s interesting, in this STEM-focused era, how some people find their way back to the humanities.

I put this book on my TBR list when I first heard about it a couple of years ago; the blend of science and cultural adaptation appealed to me. Then I came across Wang’s story “Omakase” in last year’s BASS. Interestingly, it involves a woman moving to another city for a man, a man who annoyed me greatly. In my wrap-up post for the volume, I said I wasn’t sure about it yet; that’s still the case, but it was enough to move this novel from list to bookshelf for this year’s read.

I think the style was used to great effect here; a novel with a more fluid style, scene transitions and more filled-out prose, would have felt unduly heavy and almost trite. Instead, the novel bubbles and bounces, leaving its marks in concentrated packets. Of course, I enjoyed the use of science. And it turns out I like academic novels even when they stop being academic halfway through.

Balinese Music: Gamelan mooc

Course: World Music: Balinese Rhythms
Length: 10? weeks, 6-7? hrs/wk
School/platform: edX/MIT
Instructor: Evan Ziporyn, Dewa Alit

This course provides an introduction to Balinese music, and the role of music in Balinese culture. Students will have the opportunity to both learn about and watch Balinese performances, as well as start to learn and practice the rhythms and techniques of Balinese gamelan online, using the “Jamelan” game. The “Jamelan” game, developed by MIT Professor of the Practice Eran Egozy, consists of rhythm recognition software similar to that used in ‘rhythm-based’ video games such as Guitar Hero and Rock Band, which Egozy also developed. Using the Jamelan, learners’ progress is tracked and measured so that they can play along, hearing their accuracy audibly, but also having that accuracy measured digitally. By merging hands-on pedagogical tools based on traditional Balinese teaching methods, with new digital tools based on the gaming industry, the resulting learning experience is potent.

What, you never heard of Balinese gamelan music? Yeah, neither had I, and I’m still trying to process that MIT has a music department – and a music department deep enough to have a world music section, one that’s willing to put on a mooc, to boot.

It’s one of those courses that just drifted irresistibly across my feed, whispering enroll, you know you want to. I was a little daunted by the “10 weeks, 6-7 hours/week” time estimation, but I figured, what’s the worst that could happen, I don’t finish. In retrospect, I’m not sure where they got those numbers from. All the material is released at once; it’s a six-lecture course, with one or two videos totaling about 20 minutes, and two or three jamelan exercises each. The jamelan will take a while to get used to, and I found it helpful to repeat the exercises every day or so. Still, I would consider the time estimate wildly inflated: I finished it all in a little more than a week, a couple of hours a day at most.

Gamelan turns out to be a type of music involving predominantly percussion instruments, particularly various kinds of metal or bamboo marimba-like instruments. Sometimes dance is involved, either solo or group. There’s a small subset of gamelan that’s used to accompany shadow puppet plays. The music can have religious or secular purposes.

One of the most interesting aspects, and the one emphasized by the design of the mooc, is the way new musicians are taught. There’s no musical notation. Musicians might play their instruments, particularly the mid-size iron gangsa we used, with their very young children on their laps. Later, a student will sit across from a gangsa and imitate the instructor’s movements: the rhythms, the notes, and damping techniques to keep the sound crisp. For the purposes of this mooc, they created a digital gangsa (designed by the Guitar Hero guy, I discovered) dubbed the Jamelan for us to learn a few parts by imitating Dewa Alit, master gamelan musician and MIT Artist-in-Residence for the past decade. It was great fun. At times my aging fingers failed me, but it was still quite an experience.

Lectures were provided by Prof. Evan Ziporyn, who in 1993, founded Gamelan Galak Tika (get it? Say it fast), MIT’s gamelan ensemble. Yeah, here I go again, MIT has a gamelan ensemble and has had one for twenty-seven years?? I’ve got to get out more. He described some of the traditional and modern uses of gamelan, as well as musical elements such as the structure of interlocking parts and the importance of damping.

I struggled a bit with the lingo. It’s not just that it’s in an unfamiliar language; I found it hard to organize it all: this is a type of music, this is an instrument, this is a subset of that type. I posted a question on the discussion board, along with a crude outline of what I thought the divisions were, and received a prompt and helpful reply the next morning. My biggest confusion was about the word “gamelan” itself: is it a type of music, or a type of instrument? Turns out it’s sort of both, similar to how Western music might use the term “string quartet” to describe a type of music with a certain structure played by certain instruments. That helped a lot.

One of the extraordinary benefits of moocs – and one overlooked in the age of “get skills and a certificate to improve your job prospects” – is the ability to check out things you’ve never heard of before and might never have otherwise heard of. This mooc succeeds wildly on this dimension. It was one of those completely unexpected moocs that sometimes crop up, one of the best aspects of moocdom. I wouldn’t say it was the best mooc I’d taken, but you know what, teaching music is hard, putting up moocs is hard, and teaching music in asynchronous mode to people from all over with a wide range of musical experience is really hard. I love that they did this, and I love that they have other courses in the works.

Bart D. Ehrman: Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife (S&S 2020)

When I’ve told people the title, they have often been puzzled or even slightly offended. But let me be clear: I am not saying that a literal heaven and hell have experienced historical changes. I’m saying that the ideas of heaven and hell were invented and have been altered over the years.
And I think that can be proved. There was a time in human history when no one on the planet believed that there would be a judgment day at the end of time. At another time, people did believe it. It eventually became a standard Christian teaching and is accepted as orthodox truth by many millions of people today. Between the time no one believed it and many people did, someone came up with the idea. That is, it was invented. So too with every idea of the afterlife. That doesn’t make the ideas wrong. It just means that they were ideas that once did not exist and then later did.

I’ve mentioned my misspent youth as a fundamentalist before. In the years since, my interest in religion has been more academic and historical (and, musical: I love church music from Palestrina to Mozart and standard Protestant hymns; I bounce in and out of various churches periodically because that’s where the music is). This book is just another attempt to make sense of a pretty insane path that, in spite of the difficulty of pinning anything down, keeps affecting our daily lives for better or worse. And it’s less prone than Dante to give me nightmares (once the Pentecostals get into your brain, you can never completely get them out).

My impression – and I haven’t done the careful study that would be necessary to confirm this – is that this book at least generally follows the flow of thought as presented in the Yale OCW’s I went through last year, and has at least some elements in common with the mooc “Early Christian Outlook and its Jewish Matrix: Narratives of Gospels and Acts”, which looked at Christianity as a Jewish sect and examined the influences in the Jewish world that would have been in play at the time. That is: Judaism itself, under the pressures of exile and Roman rule, underwent a shift towards anticipating a Messiah and into apocalypticism in the late Second Temple period; that shift influenced both the message of Jesus and Paul; early Christianity had many different beliefs, and what ultimately became today’s Christianity was also influenced by apocalpyticism generated by, among other things, Roman persecution and the need for unity to expand and maintain the church. I still think there’s another phase of development: the Roman Christianity that used hierarchy and strict obedience to orthodoxy to maintain power. But I’m just a dilettante, though I prefer to think of myself as a learner at an elementary level.

The book starts at the end: In Chapter 1, Guided Tours of Heaven and Hell, Ehrman looks at the early Christian period, between the time of Jesus and the original apostles and the codification of the Canon, a time when many varieties of Christianity existed in widely separate places. We learn about “the earliest Christian forerunner to Dante’s Divine Comedy”, the Apocalypse of Peter, attributed to the disciple but written some time around 100 to 150 CE, too late to have come from his pen. Several other works are included here to underline the second-century belief in a hell of torment versus a heaven of paradise. Then comes the kicker:

None of these visions can be found in the Bible, because they do not, in fact, represent the earliest Christian views of the afterlife. The ideas of a glorious hereafter for some souls and torment for others, to come at the point of death, cannot be found in either the Old Testament or in the teachings of the historical Jesus. To put it succinctly: the founder of Christianity did not believe that the soul of a person who died would go to heaven or hell.
But this became the standard Christian view over time, and it will be helpful to see where it ultimately came from, when it started to be adopted, and why it seemed so attractive….To see where this belief originated, we will need to begin our explorations many years before Christianity – before even the most ancient writings of the oldest parts of the Bible.

The rest of the book is the examination of how we got to this view of heaven and hell, essentially the one most commonly held today in Western Christianity. We start in 2100 BCE with the Epic of Gilgamesh, considered the first extant written literature in the world, to look at the fear of death. Enkidu goes to great lengths to find a way to cheat death, but ultimately fails. In several philosophy and religion moocs I’ve encountered the idea that the fear of death – the very impossibility of imagining what it is to be dead – may have been the motivation for imagining an afterlife; this seems to jibe with Ehrman’s thinking. I’ve also frequently seen the idea that the lack of justice in this world may have motivated consideration of judgment in the afterlife, where those who were wicked but went unpunished or even profited from their wickedness would finally get their just desserts. Again, this fits with the ideas in this book, though it comes in much later.

Another idea I encountered in some mooc along the way – I wish I could remember where – is that Virgil invented the hell of punishment in the Aeneid. Ehrman concurs with this as well, showing how, in Homer, the shades lived in Hades as sort of depleted, bored people, but weren’t punished, except for a very few (Tantalus, Sisyphus, Tityus); the pleasant Elysian Fields await heroes (or perhaps offspring of the gods, favored of the gods, it seems to shift). Then, several centuries later, comes Virgil, who turns the afterlife into reward and punishment galore.

Some six or seven centuries after the Homeric epics, Virgil does not populate Hades with shades that all experience the same boring and pleasure-free existence. He writes of hellish torments for some and heavenly glories or others. Most have to be punished for their sins before being given a second chance at life. Why such a change from Homer? What has led to this invention of heaven and hell?
It is hard to say what among the enormous changes in the political, social, and cultural worlds between seventh century Greece and first century Rome might have affected the shift in thinking. But it is relatively easy to see what happened in the realm of ethical thought. Equity has become an issue. …The wicked, no matter how powerful and revered in this world, will pay a price in the next. Those who have done what is right, however, will be rewarded.
By the time of Virgil, these ideas had been around for centuries, popularized most importantly by the greatest philosopher of antiquity, Plato.

I was glad to see that my hazily-recollected notion was confirmed, and that further explanation was forthcoming. We spend a few pages looking at Greeks and early Roman philosophers before arriving at the main event: the Biblical view of what happens when we die.

Ehrman’s primary point is that throughout much of the Hebrew bible (what Christians refer to as the Old Testament), resurrection concerns not individual people but the nation of Israel. In later books and in the apocryphal books such as the Maccabees, a more apocalyptic view comes into play, possibly a reaction to the Babylonian captivity and/or the growing awareness of Hellenistic philosophy – specifically, Platonism – in Jewish thought. While resurrection of the body and soul becomes more prevalent, the punishment for sin is annihilation: death, in other words. Torment isn’t part of the picture yet.

In a very interesting section subtitled “What Did Jews Believe at the Time of Jesus”, Ehrman gives us an overview of the work of Pieter Willem van der Horst, who examined a thousand epitaphs that have been preserved in the archaeological record in a thousand-year period of Jewish life leading up to Jesus. He points out what an extremely small sample this is. In fact, the conclusion doesn’t go much beyond noting the variety of beliefs about resurrection. We then take a look at the work of Josephus, the first-century historian who wrote extensively about the Jews as a people and a nation. This gives us three distinct groups with differing views on the afterlife: the Essenes, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees. These views boil down to “annihilation, immortality, or resurrection.” This is where we start with Jesus and the Greek bible (the New Testament).

I get antsy whenever someone, anyone, points to a Biblical verse and declares what it means, whether it’s a PhD who’s studied six ancient languages and knows the history and archeological findings of the area of ancient Israel, or a country preacher who is sure he has a direct connection to God via prayer. Let’s face it, we’re dealing with documents written by people in a very different time and culture, in a different language, and, to boot, those documents were recopied over and over, broken apart, reunited, and so may or may not closely resemble the original texts. We in the US can’t agree on interpretations of the Constitution, which was written in our language a mere 200 years ago and is buttressed by a fair amount of supportive documentation including the explicit Federalist Papers; how can anyone claim to know the exact meaning of esoteric references in documents far more alien to us?

But we have what we have, and Ehrman goes through the hot spots of afterlife theology in the gospels: Gehenna, sheep and goats, poor man Lazarus and the rich man. He ends up here:

One of the other criteria I take very seriously is the need for any saying of Jesus to fit well into his own early first-century historical context as a Jew from Galilee. I have pointed out that for over a century now critical scholars have been widely convinced that Jesus subscribed to a thoroughly apocalyptic worldview. My contention in this chapter is that his apocalyptic understanding of his world extended to his view of the afterlife. Jesus did not focus on what would happen to an individual at the point of death. He was principally concerned with that great act of God that was coming soon with the appearance of a cosmic judge from heaven, the Son of Man, who would destroy the evil powers in control of this world and establish a great, utopian, and eternal Kingdom. Those who lived as God wanted to them to – loving their neighbors as themselves, doing good for others in need – would enter into that Kingdom. Those who lived lives of self-centered sin and wickedness, on the other hand, would be destroyed, never to exist again.
Like other apocalypticists of his day, Jesus believed this day of reckoning was coming very soon ….But what happens if it doesn’t come? Then adjustments have to be made, and those who accept Jesus’s teachings have to reinterpret and possibly even alter them – maybe a little at first but then, possibly, more thoroughly. …It will be these later developments that lead to the views of heaven and hell still believed by so many of Jesus’s followers in our day.

We then go on to look at the books of Paul, and how it seems he might have changed his view when he began to realize the End of Time might not come before his death. It’s one thing to talk about what happened to some other people who die before the Return; but when it seems it might be your fate as well, maybe you reconsider. However this mostly concerns whether, at death, souls go into a kind of hibernation until the Return, or whether they immediately go on to be judged and rewarded or destroyed (because annihilation is still the punishment for sin, not eternal torment).

One of the topics I found most interesting was the discussion of 1 Corinthians on the new incorruptible and eternal body that will be given to the righteous at the resurrection. This draws from the transitory state of matter in neo-Platonic thought and removes that problem from the afterlife by a “mystery”: “We shall be changed.” This interests me for a musical reason: I remember all those Messiah performances, as a singer and an audience member, hearing that phrase from “The Trumpet Shall Sound” and not having a clue what “we shall be changed” meant but loving the sound of it. Paul turns it into an act of God that allows the resurrection of the body in incorruptible form.

So Ehrman considers that the actual words of Jesus and Paul indicate a heavenly afterlife for the righteous, and destruction, eternal death, for the wicked. He then looks at how the notion of torment crept into both the scripture and thinking of earliest Christians. This is the section that is likely to cause the most discomfort for those whose belief follows from the King James Version of the Bible. I can appreciate that discomfort on two levels. Spiritually, if you’ve been raised with a belief, it’s hard to hear that maybe Jesus didn’t say that, or maybe this piece here was appended to that part there three centuries later by a Roman empire now adjusting to Christianity. And aesthetically, the KJV is, in many places, beautiful to those of us whose first language is English, so saying it’s wrong is like editing Shakespeare. But we’re looking at analysis here.

And, of course you knew we’d get here eventually, there’s the book referred to as Revelation, or, if you prefer, The Revelation of St. John the Divine. Ehrman points out that this is not whoever wrote the Gospel of John, as the writing is very different (“a bit like reading a page from a Dickens novel and then another from a sophomore in a creative writing class”). There are also some important points about the genre that affect how it is read.

This book, like all books of the Bible, was written both in and for its own day, and if we want to understand what its author meant, we have to place his book in its own historical context.
In addition, we have to understand better what kind of book it is. I will be arguing that it is not a prediction of what was to happen thousands of years after the author’s day. He was describing what he thought would take place in his own time. He did so by using a literary genre common at the time, called the “apocalypse,” a genre found in a number of works, especially during the four-hundred-year period between the Maccabean revolt and the end of the second Christian century.

In other words, the Whore of Babylon isn’t whatever scandalous actress is making gossip sheets these days, nor is it your least favorite politician; it’s Rome. And the Beast isn’t Hitler, it’s Nero. The Lake of Fire is a symbol. Just as Gehenna was a dump used to burn trash, the wicked were destroyed, not tormented.

So how did we get to burning forever? The post-Biblical period; the apocalyptic books; and the earliest communities of Christians who every once in a while faced a new round of persecutions from Rome. And a sense of justice. He even mentions apocatastasis, Origen’s theory that no one is in Hell forever but all are eventually purged of sin and saved. I learned about this back when I read Jo Walton’s Lent, and wish Augustin hadn’t dispatched it to the dustbin of theology.

I was a bit disappointed that the book ended here. I suppose it is the end of the story, since we’ve now got people going to heaven when they die, then being reincarnated for the Final Judgment, and the wicked being punished forever. But it seems to me heaven and hell continued to develop in different ways, as reflected, not only in religious and academic discourse, but also in fiction. Look at Dante, at Milton, and, yes, at Walton.

I chose to read this book after seeing a blog post Jim Harris about a previous Ehrman book. We’d just crossed paths discussing BASS stories, so I was intrigued my new friend was, like me, interested in religion as an academic rather than a spiritual pursuit; that is, more interested in the history of Christianity than it its truth or guidance. He mentioned this book would be published soon, and since I’d so enjoyed Walton’s Lent just months before, I put a hold on it at my local library.

That brings us into a bit of contemporary drama. I placed the hold in late February 2020, knowing the book was scheduled for release on March 31. In late February, COVID-19 was something happening in China and, maybe, Italy. On March 15, 2020, the Portland Public Library shut down the physical building (online services continued) following the diagnosis of two cases in Maine; what we now refer to as lockdown followed within days. I forgot about this book; I was still working on Pushcart and had a shelf of other reading, and the closure was only for two weeks (we were so naïve).

During the first week of June, the library announced it would open a “Library-to-go” service, initially to distribute books that had been placed on hold before lockdown by appointment only, staggered to reduce the number of people at the library at once. The pickup notice I found in my email delighted me, as 1) I’d forgotten all about it, and 2) the library was waking up! On June 11, stepped into the library building for the first time in months; it was only for about 30 seconds, but it was wonderful.

This has nothing to do with Ehrman’s book, of course, but does show how unexpected events can influence one’s viewpoint. I probably have a positive bias towards this book because of its place in my personal COVID history, minor as it is. So I have no trouble imagining the impact exile, destruction of the Temple, or persecution could have on one’s point of view. And for those who find these kinds of man-created-God thoughts offensive, that’s fine; there’s plenty of other stuff you can read.

James Alan McPherson: Elbow Room (Fawcett, 1979)

Background image: Ben Wohlberg, Original Oil Illustration, McPherson's “Why I Like Country Music” from Elbow Room

Background image: Ben Wohlberg, Original Oil Illustration, McPherson’s “Why I Like Country Music” from Elbow Room

A point of information. What has form to do with caste restrictions?
You are saying you want to be white?
A narrator needs as much access to the world as the advocates of that mythology theory.
You are ashamed then of being black?
Only of not being nimble enough to dodge other people’s straitjackets.
Are you not too much obsessed here with integration?
I was cursed with a healthy imagination.
What have caste restrictions to do with imagination?
A point of information. What is your idea of personal freedom?
Unrestricted access to new stories for me.
Have you paid strict attention to the forming of this present one?
Once upon a time there was a wedding in San Francisco

As is evident to those who read here often, I’m fond of switching up narrative approaches to short stories. So I’ve got to hand it to a story that presents a kind of metanarrative of an editor questioning a narrator/writer along with the story itself about two young people searching for their own stories, and one of them finding it, perhaps, in their child. This is the title story of Elbow Room, a story that looks at stories, how we find and create them in our lives, and how we hear and use language in ways meaningful to us, all while protecting ourselves from walking into a shitload of pain.

It’s the last story in the collection, and I think that’s a good choice, partly because it’s a terrific story, and partly because we’ve had a chance to see other ways McPherson writes. There’s outright hilarity, irony, social commentary, warm and gentle memoir, and some bro-lit as my blogging buddy Jake likes to call it. The themes of language and storytelling come up often, as do ideas of hiding what is true behind a façade and self-protection against emotional damage. In this last story, it all comes together. Along with, in a central position, the n-word.

“I’m black. I’ve accepted myself as that. But didn’t I make some elbow room, though?” She tapped her temple with her forefinger. “I mean up here! Then she laughed bitterly and sipped her tea. “When times get tough, anybody can pass for white. Niggers been doing that for centuries, so it ain’t nothing new. But shit, wouldn’t it of been something to be a nigger that could relate to white and black and everything else in the world out of a self as big as the world is?” She laughed. Then she said, “That would have been some nigger.”

It’s a word I will quote, obviously, but won’t use. It’s not just that I’m uncomfortable with it or that I feel it isn’t a word I have title to use (though both of those are true), but more that I don’t want to get used to using it; I want it to remain a word that’s difficult for me to speak or type. That’s my choice. But in this story, it becomes very important, so can’t be overlooked. Not that the word isn’t used in other stories; it is in many. But if this were the first story in the collection, showcasing the significance of the word, it might become the central issue of the book before the foundation is laid. Here, after having read story after story about people who view their own blackness in different ways, who experience blackness in the world differently, it becomes more of a climax, or an epiphany. At least, for me.

I chose to read this book after reading, in Pushcart 2020, Allen Gee’s memoir of McPherson, “Old School”. McPherson was Gee’s teacher, then mentor, at the Iowa MFA program, then friend for almost thirty years until McPherson’s death in 2016. It was through this essay that I learned McPherson was the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction with this very book. I was embarrassed that I was unaware of him, so chose it to fill in yet another gap in my reading history.

Many of the stories deal with differences in the generational and geographical expectations of individual black people – and, for that matter, in the white community both within itself and as it interacted with the black community. As brought out most clearly in the final story, younger people were now writing their own stories of their lives and especially laying the groundwork for the next generation to be free to write its own story; the older generations had trouble catching up. There’s a terrific thought experiment in the story about an African mask in an art museum, and how to convince customers that it’s beautiful, since all the other art dealers think it is not.

That thought experiment, by the way, is a scene between the narrator and one of the characters. Throughout the story, I kept wondering if the narrator was a person he knew, or if this was more of a metaphor for a writer creating characters who sometimes do surprising things. I know a lot of writers who claim to talk with their characters. I can’t decide; maybe both, and that ambiguity is one of the reasons I liked this story so much.

The collection starts off with “Why I Like Country Music”, a wonderfully heart-warming story about a childhood crush. Even here, though, there is depth, starting from the beginning when our unnamed first-person narrator, decades and half a country removed from his South Carolina grade school, tries to explain his musical taste to his wife. It’s all about Gweneth, the little girl he pined for when he was ten. And, possibly, because square dancing is the only kind of dancing he has ever learned – from, or because of, Gweneth.

In those days, down in our small corner of South Carolina, proficiency in dance was a form of storytelling. ….But, sadly, I could do none of it. Development of these skills depended on the ministrations of family and neighbors. My family did not dance; our closest neighbor was a true-believing Seventh Day Adventist. Moreover, most new dances came from up North, brought to town usually by people returning to riff on the good life said to exist in those far northern places…. Each of their movements, as well as their world weary smoothness, told us locals meaningful tales of what was missing in our lives. Unfortunately, those of us under strict parental supervision, or those of us without northern connections, could only stand at a distance and worship these envoys of culture. We stood on the sidelines – styleless, gestureless, danceless, doing nothing more than an improvised one butt shuffle – hoping for one of them to touch our lives. It was my good fortune, during my tenth year on the sidelines, to have one of these Northerners introduced me to the square dance.

The plot concerns a school pageant including both a maypole dance and a square dance, and our narrator’s foiled attempts to squire Gweneth. His rival is the ebullient Leon Pugh whose father and brother told him “to git anything’ in this world you gotta learn how to blow your own horn.” Leon does that quite well. Our narrator, not so much. The stern teacher plays a role in all this, possibly the foiler, possibly the subtle, behind-the-scenes enabler. But it’s mostly a spotlight on our narrator’s ten-year-old heart, and powerful desire to do-si-do and allemande with Gweneth.

Included in the story are the differences between Northern and Southern Negroes, as already hinted at. That our narrator is now in New York shows how that works. He describes Gweneth in a wonderful way: “I remember the rainbow of deep, rich colors in which she lived.” The colors are the brown of her neck and the black of her hair against the white of her collar, and sometimes the blues or reds of the hair ribbons she wore on her braids. Black and brown as part of a color palette have a particular implication here.

Within this recognition of North and South is the realization that in this town there are two cultures that, somehow, coexist yet don’t:

Still, our school books, our required classroom songs, our flags, our very relation to the statues and monuments in public parks, negated the story that these dreamers from the North had ever come. …Given the silent circumstances of our cultural environment, it was ironic, and perhaps just, that we maintained a synthesis of two traditions no longer supportive of each other.

Like I said, it’s a lot deeper than a schoolboy crush.

“The Faithful” deals directly with what we used to call the generation gap back in my day. A barber / preacher can’t adjust to Afros or to more contemporary sermons. “The Story of a Dead Man” is more of a character gap between two cousins, one following the straight and narrow, one who’s constantly in trouble. The title hung over the whole story for me: who is the dead man? Then I found a wonderful paper from 1988 by the now late Prof. Jon Wallace that had an intriguing idea: does that last line echo Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener”?

In looking into McPherson’s background, I discovered he was in law school when he published his first story. He graduated but apparently never practiced. In a few stories his legal background shows, once in a humorous tone, and once more somberly.

“Problems of Art” concerns one Mrs. Farragot who is facing a revocation of her drivers’ license for driving under the influence. The story begins with Milford, her lawyer from Project Gratis, interviewing her at her home; she’s insisted on a white lawyer, wanting someone who can “make logic” out of the story her witness tells. And it’s quite a story; I couldn’t quite follow it, except it involved her not wanting to “walk a line” because she was in her nightie. It’s a (very funny) story about making order out of chaos, but at the same time, about the false façade that order can create, masking the chaos underneath:

Milford’s suspicion of an undisclosed reality was heightened by the figure in the painting on the wall across the room. It was the portrait of a sad eyed Jesus.…A disturbing absence of nuance undermined the face: the small brown eyes were dimensionless, as if even they did not believe the message they had been calculated to convey….In the entire face, from forehead to chin, there was not the slightest hint of tragedy or transcendence. To appreciate it, Milford concluded, required of one an act of faith.

When her lawyer hears the witness, he’s kind of enchanted, but agrees that he can’t possibly testify: “And as colorful as were the circumstances of her case, there was not the slightest possibility that any responsible lawyer could include them in her defense.” Again I’m tweaked by word colorful. It’s clear that a court of law is no place for color. And Milford gets a bit of a surprise at the end – or maybe it’s just confirmation of what he suspected all along.

This theme of the law being white is played out far more seriously in “A Sense of Story”. Robert Charles, the black defendant, is charged with the murder of Frank Johnson, his boss at an auto repair shop. An outburst by the defendant forces the judge to dismiss the jury and issue a verdict based on the transcripts; we watch over his shoulder as he reads documents that glow with hints and nuance about the relationship between Charles and Johnson: Charles invented an engine lubricant that would work in foreign cars, but Johnson shut him down, or possibly stole it. At one point, Johnson hands out paychecks, which include a raise for one man but not for Charles, and mutters, “I’m white.” If Charles is convicted, he will be the first death row prisoner under a new law; his lawyer is arguing mitigation to reduce that to a prison term. The transcript is full of assumptions about Negroes and how ‘they’ are. The mitigation seems to focus on such points, like Charles drinking and carrying a gun, rather than any genuine circumstances of mitigation. As the judge reads the transcript the narration tells us, “The specially treated glass in the picture window made the sky seem more bright and blue than it really was.”

I still wasn’t sure what I was reading here, so I went poking around as I tend to do, and found a highly relevant passage in the book Whispered Consolations: Law and Narrative in African American Life by the late Jon-Christian Suggs, a professor of African American History at CUNY. He puts it right out there:

That is, the transcript to which we have access shows nobility of character, perfectionism, commitment to hard work, genuine creative intelligence, and patience on the part of Charles and the blind racial insensitivity, class privilege, institutional racism, and personal betrayal in the larger world around him. We come away with solid intimations of the theology of the crime. But of course, that is not in any way admissible, nor was it even visible to Charles his own attorney. Nor did the judge admit it even on his review of the transcript. What was allowed to be told was enough to convict, though not enough to create an accessible and “true” story of a man’s life….McPherson’s story argues once again a larger point, one we saw in Wright, Motley, Bell, and Williams: the law is no lens through which to view the lives of African Americans. In McPherson’s text we see perhaps more clearly than in the others where the narrative shortcomings of the law may lie.

Whispered Consolations::Law and Narrative in African American Life By Jon-Christian Suggs

As Mrs. Farragot’s lawyer said, colorful is not for the courtroom.

McPherson turns his pen on economic inequality in “A Loaf of Bread”. Harold Green, a white grocer, has three stores, one in a black neighborhood. His black customers discover his prices are significantly higher in this store (55 cents vs 39 cents) than his prices in a wealthier neighborhood, or in a neighboring poor white area. The story is loaded with subtle commentary on ways capitalism screws over black folks while spinning credible excuses. When the customers picket, Green mutters, “Where do they get so much power?” He gives the obligatory “I’m not a racist” speech pointing out his name, and finishing with, “Green is the only color I’m interested in.” The association of green with money, of course, gives a double meaning to that remark. Then his brother-in-law has a suggestion to ease the situation:

“How would it be if you visited one of their meetings and chalked out, on a blackboard, the dollars and cents of your operation? Explain your overhead, your security fees, all the additional expenses. If you treat them with respect, they might understand.”
Green frowned. “That I would never do,” he said. “It would be admission of a certain guilt.”
The brother-in-law smiled, but only with one corner of his mouth. “Then you have something to feel guilty about?” he asked.
The grocer frowned at him. “Nothing! he said with great emphasis.

As in “Elbow Room”, there’s a wonderful thought experiment here, this time about a man buying a used stove. Green thinks it’s exonerating, but it’s actually quite damning, approving of exploitation. We, as readers, are given information the customers in the story don’t get: Green’s other two stores, the ones with lower prices, are basically subsidized by the higher prices at this one, so his rationale of paying more for security bars and such falls flat.

The story turns when his wife insists he run the store for one day selling everything for free. She also suggests he not buy any meats or expensive items beforehand to mitigate the loss, but otherwise give away anything anyone comes in to buy. She will leave him, and take his children, if he doesn’t do this. Talk about exploitation. He follows through, and the titular loaf of bread comes in at the very end in a spectacular way: even when being given a break, he has to tweak just a little more out of it.

“The Story of a Scar” features two people vying to tell a story only one of them knows. At one point I wrote “mansplaining!” in the margin. Something about the male figure seemed almost Satan-like to me, but I don’t see that anywhere else, so I’ll mark it as my idiosyncratic experience. At heart it’s about good people who seem bad, and bad people who seem good.

“I am an American” is another very funny story about a black couple touring Europe

One reason might have been our having grown tired of being mere tourists. In the Louvre two mornings before, among a crowd of American tourists standing transfixed before the Old Masters of Renaissance painting, I had suddenly found myself pointing a finger and exclaiming to Eunice, “Hey, didn’t they name a cheese after that guy?”
“Leroy, they did no such a-thing!” Eunice had hissed.
The other tourists had laughed nervously.
Eunice had pulled me out of the Louvre though not by the ear.
That same morning I had decided to wire one of a list of London people suggested to us by friends back home in Atlanta.

There’s a great deal of confusion over national identity of everyone: this guy might be Bulgarian because of the coat he wears, are the Orientals Chinese or Japanese, and one couple keeps asking what tribe in Africa the couple is from; the situation gets compounded when the husband tries to answer in what he thinks is Japanese. I had so much fun reading it, I didn’t really want to dissect the overriding necessity some people feel of figuring out who’s what. And then there’s the frequent refrain, “Eunice was right.” Now you’re talking.

There were a couple of stories that I couldn’t do much with. “Just Enough for the City” seems to be about religious alienation, but it could be anything; I kept wondering what city has that many proselytizers of so many widely different sects showing up every day. The language theme intrigued me, but I couldn’t connect with it; maybe I’ll run into something later on that will jog something loose. “The Silver Bullet” was too bro-lit; whereas “The Story of a Dead Man” was also strongly tough-guy, it had a center to return to. I started letting my eyes skim over sentences of “Bullet” and never really saw where it was going. That’s more or less a personal preference, or bias, if you will, and doesn’t reflect on the story as much as on my difficulty with certain styles.

I’m so glad I discovered McPherson, late as it is. I wondered why I haven’t seen this book out there more. Then I remember. Well, here it is. Yes, it’s more than 40 years old. Sadly, some things haven’t changed, and this book is a great touchstone for realizing how important it is that they do.

Doug Mack: The Not-Quite States of America (Norton, 2018)

The United States of America is not just a nation of states but also – legally and officially – of those scattered shards of earth and populace that make up our outposts far from the North American continent: the territories of the Virgin Islands of the United States, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and Puerto Rico, along with the uninhabited Minor Outlying Islands.
They have U.S. National Parks and American Legion posts and U.S. post offices – just a standard first-class stamp gets your mail there; it’s all the same country. Their millions of citizens earn American dollars and pay into Social Security and Medicare and serve in the U.S. military at impressively high rates. They participate in the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee and receive Pell Grants and play Little League baseball and have 4-H Clubs and serve as United States Ambassadors. They pledge allegiance to the American flag, even if Old Glory hasn’t made room for them.
Yet for the average resident of the states (lowercase s – because States would be the whole nation), the territories are all but forgotten. They’re extant but inconsequential, vestiges from another era whose ongoing existence is a cultural curiosity, like Tab soda or professional mini-golf. They flicker into our consciousness here and there – an offbeat news story, a friend’s tropical-island vacation photos, a passing reference in the fine print of a governmental form – and for a moment we think, oh, right …we have territories. Then, just as quickly, they disappear from our minds once more.
The territories are not part of our conception of ourselves.

I know we’re all dealing with multiple crises at the moment – pandemic, police violence, economic disruption, racism finally under national examination – but try to remember back in 2017. Man, that was a long time ago. Ok, hurricanes, especially Maria, that devastated Puerto Rico (and the US Virgin Islands, but somehow that never really got on our radar screen), the President of the United States throwing rolls of paper towels at people whose homes and livelihoods had been destroyed, Jose Andre’s World Central Kitchens feeding an island while politicians sat on their thumbs, a corrupt deal with an out-of-its-element electrical company to repair the Puerto Rican grid, and it went on and on for months until we got bored and started looking for new outrages, which, sadly, are always available.

Somewhere in that time frame, a tweet by Doug Mack crossed my path. The question about the citizenship of Puerto Ricans kept coming up, and it seems his book about the US Territories had been published earlier that year and answered a lot of the questions that were coming up. Not just about Puerto Rico, but about all the territories, however many there were, because most of us had no idea.

I got that book for last year’s in-between reading period, but I never got to it (appropriately enough) so I rolled it over to this year. I was a little unsure, since I’m not really interested in “travel books”. Turns out it’s not a travel book at all. Oh, there are some tales of people and interesting places and a chance encounter with a CIA-trained chef (that’s the Culinary Institute of America, not the spy shop, for those who didn’t spend years mesmerized by Top Chef), but it’s really a book about history and culture and American colonialism and why we don’t know anything about the US Territories.

Mack became interested in researching the Territories after an encounter with “the Quarters of Destiny”: you know, those special-issue quarters each state has, with a specific image carved on the back. Turns out the Territories have them, too, which he discovered looking at a portfolio of the quarters. Then a few days later he read something about American Samoa, and thought, “That’s one of those mysterious places on the quarters.”

Until very recently, I couldn’t even list the territories, let alone tell you anything about them. And if there’s anyone with no excuse for this, it’s me, a travel writer with a college degree in – ahem – American Studies.
My obsession with Americana runs deep, pulsing through my childhood in Minneapolis ….Years later, at Carleton College, amid the prairies and cornfields of southern Minnesota, I channeled this fascination into actual academics. I could rattle off esoteric facts (about the states ) and tell you the name of just about every capital (of the states). I graduated with the self-satisfied confidence of the newly diploma: I am a credentialed expert on all things American.
When I started out as a writer, my gaze turned overseas. I filed stories from Rome, from Ecuador, from a tiny Icelandic island. I was ever on the lookout for Americana and how it translated abroad ….
Yet in all this time, it never occurred to me, Mr. American Studies Guy, Mr. Globally Aware Travel Writer, that there was more of my very own country to consider. Parts of the USA about which I was not just fairly ignorant but almost wholly unaware. Places I could not reliably find on a map, within a thousand miles or even, in some cases, within the correct hemisphere.
And then one day I encountered what I now think of as the Quarters of Destiny….
It also seemed that, right around the turn of the twentieth century, the territories were part of the national mythology and the everyday conversation….It was one of the focal points of the 1900 presidential election, between Republican William McKinley and Democrat William Jennings Bryan.
A century or so ago, Americans didn’t just know about the territories but cared about them, argued about them. But what changed? How and why did they disappear from the national conversation? Was there a compelling reason why they mattered for the present day USA, or were they just remnants of a long-past historical moment?

These questions form the backbone of the book. Some of the answers may surprise you. For instance, in some ways they seem an awful lot like… colonies, can that be true? What’s a commonwealth, anyway? What’s the difference between an American national and an American citizen? What does guano have to do with all this?

It all started with the Guano Islands Act of 1856, when farmlands needed fertilizer and all these uninhabited islands covered in bird poop were just sitting around waiting for the taking. We still have Navassa (Haiti thinks they have it, and we’re pretty much in a stalemate that nobody seems to care too much about) though mining ended in the 19th century. From there, it became a game of I’m a Big Boy Now, as the US decided to make its mark on the world by acquiring non-contiguous lands; at the same time, the Navy wanted to become King of the Pacific, ceding the Atlantic to Great Britain. War seems to be a major motivation. Some territories were picked up after the Spanish-American war. Others became strategically important in the World Wars.

Mack goes through the territories one by one, while continuing the overall theme of answering those questions of how we came to have territories and why we don’t think of them now. Just when you think you’ve had enough of the history, he switches over to a nice little dinner he had with some people he met in a bar and we find out more about the attitudes towards the US and some of the culturally important aspects of island life. And then we’re back to political analysis and maybe a little economic scrutiny, ending with another group of new friends in “the rain forest version of Cheers. It’s a fascinating way to write a book, keeping a full-length narrative running while delving into details for each individual territory. It’s also very successful at keeping me turning pages.

Some details I found interesting:

The US Virgin Islands

In terms of the overall structure, Mack focuses his attention in this chapter on why the territories were acquired to begin with (guano), while delving into the USVI specifically.

On St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands, the St. Thomas Historical Trust Museum is a paean to “Danish industry and Manor life” and pretty much ignores the indigenous peoples and the more recent colonial struggles, including a major slave revolt in the 18th century. There’s a reason for this:

[Danish tourists] come to the territory in droves, specifically for the history, for the portal to their 19th century glory days. The American tourists come for the beaches and the shopping. The museums and historic sites, intentionally or not, reflect this imbalance and tailor their content to their ticket-buying audience: the Danes. History is written not just by the victors but by those who are most eager to underwrite it.

Next time someone tries to tell you only White Christian Europe has ever produced anything important, remember all the peoples and things that have been left out, overshadowed, or appropriated to create that impression.

American Samoa

This seems, to me, like the most appealing of the islands Mack discusses. Again, he contributes to the overall story by focusing on the Imperial Moment and Insular Acts of the early 20th century, with the assistance of Columbia Law Professor Christina Duffy Ponsa.

Ponses answers all pointed back to the turn of the twentieth century, the USA’s so-called Imperial Moment. “That’s what the historical actors at the time see as the question: can we do empire?” she said. “In the wake of the Civil War, the federal government has become more powerful and the United States is now flexing its muscle on the international stage and European powers have been annexing colonies, so the question arises, Do we do this, too?
The nation’s answer: “Let’s go for it!”

This leads to constitutional questions: does the Constitution follow the flag? The Supreme Court, in its wisdom, left that up to Congress. Yeah. There’s also some routine racist stuff about how alien races can’t possibly be included with Anglo-Saxons. Fortunately, it’s a well-constructed book, it can handle being thrown across the room a few times.

Turns out American Samoa made the decision to decline citizenship – they are American nationals – to avoid possible “outsider land-grab”. The Lapita have been here for 3500 years, and trace their ancestry back another 3500 before that. They aren’t giving that up for a Marriott and a bunch of designer outlets. “There was pressure, even duress, but the fact remains – and American Samoans are deeply proud of this fact – that these islands were granted to, not claimed by, the USA.” They’d rather keep fa’asamoa – the Samoan way.

One surprising fact is that American Samoa – the Territories in general, in fact – have a much higher rate of military enlistment than any state. The NFL and professional wrestling also have an outsized proportion of Samoans. And: they have fa’afafine, the third gender, a person who is born male but identifies as female. Maybe they could help some mainland Americans understand how that works.


The prominent overall theme of this section is the general public’s waning interest in the Territories:

The Spanish-American war had helped put the United States on the global stage, and soon there were much bigger battles, literally, than what was going on in these small islands. The United States became more deeply involved than ever before in goings-on across the globe, at the same time that the ever-growing mass media was covering ever more stories in ever more distant places. The territories were overshadowed by the competition. These “foreign” islands were no longer the most interesting foreign lands.

We always have been suckers for bright shiny new objects.

One of those goings-on was a little thing called WWII, and Guam bears the scars. They may have the world’s largest Kmart (not sure if that’s still the case) and watch out for karaoke clubs (they aren’t really about karaoke) but they also have the War in the Pacific National Historical Park, where signs warn you to stay on the trail because there may be unexploded ordnance in the brush.

When Guam fell to the Japanese in the early days of WWII, the Chamorros were put in rapidly constructed, crude concentration camps, or just murdered.

Nearly twelve hundred Chamorros died during the years of Japanese occupation and the Battle of Guam. (If you think about the standard narrative of the war in the Pacific, it’s always USA versus Japan, with little acknowledgement that many of these islands were already populated by people caught in the middle.)
The South Pacific Memorial Park was established in 1970, a joint Japanese-Chamorro project. There’s no ill will here, just a mutual sorrow.

“Nearly a million Japanese citizens visit Guam every year.” Guam also has a very high rate of US military service; in the Iran and Afghanistan wars, the casualty rate for troops from Guam was six times higher than any state. I’m trying to understand these things.

The Northern Mariana Islands

In terms of the overall arc of the book, this section looks at some of the legal and political issues the Territories have dealt with in more recent decades, including the growing discomfort the US began to feel with their role as colonizers. Yet, as you might imagine, when a group of people can’t vote for President and have congressional representation that can’t vote on anything, there’s little motivation to cater to their needs and opinions. Alas, the territories can’t seem to agree themselves on their relationship to the US.

“Saipan is the most welcoming place on the planet,” Angelo had told me in an email before I arrived, and every day I met people who proved him right. And the landscape really was gorgeous, with the sky so pristinely blue that it felt manufactured and seemingly endless flame trees, ablaze with bright orange flowers.
But there was also an unmistakable sense that all was not well on Saipan, a disquieting feeling that the whole island had been burned, hardcore.
It was often the stillness of abandonment: empty houses, empty shops, entire vacant factory complexes, with broken windows and the occasional tree growing out of a roof.
I pulled my Hyundai to a halt when I saw an entire abandoned mall. …
The more modern the ghost town, the more disconcerting it is. Pompeii has a certain charm area Chernobyl does not. Recent ruins indicate research, relatable failings: THIS COULD BE YOU. Here, not too long ago, were vigor and joy and laughter and big plans. And then something went horribly wrong.

I’ve read this chapter three times now, and I still am not sure what it is that went wrong. It seems to be the predictable aftermath of Congress using the territories to experiment with economic approaches. One Speaker of the House called it his “Galapagos Island.” Mack has a particularly juicy way of describing it: “Imagine that you used a Club Med brochure and Atlas Shrugged as your manuals for constructing a new economy in a place with a long history of insularity and colonialism. What’s the worst that could happen in this laissez-faire Shangri-la?” Then there’s this tidbit, which I find shocking: “On Saipan, the tap water for most residents is not potable.”

The wartime history of this island again echoes the “caught in the middle” tragedy. It’s not just the mass suicide of the Japanese who realized they were losing the island. It’s the ghost of the North Field airbase on the small, now mostly abandoned island of Tinian, where Little Boy and Fat Man were loaded into the Enola Gay and Bockscar. Mack incorporates these aspects of the island with great sensitivity.

On the softer side, there’s the ubiquitous laundromat/poker room combination, and a lovely evening that included “Fanta with a Founding Father.” But overall, it’s the bleakest chapter.

Puerto Rico

The overall sense of this chapter is a summary. Mack presents his nine points answering the question of why no one cares about the Territories any more, one of those points being “it can get ugly so let’s not think about it.” That might be the ultimate American attitude towards everything, from colonies to race to COVID testing.

The chapter starts out, however, with an anecdote that delighted me: a visit to artist Samuel Lind’s house and a close look at his sculptures and prints celebrating the bomba dance. This charmed me because, four years ago in Pushcart 2016, I read a fascinating short story featuring bomba as both a plot and structural element: a dance with doctors in the interests of patient advocacy. As the header image, I chose a Lind print. All of this was out of a place of complete ignorance; I had to google “bomba” to learn what it was and why it was pertinent, and my choice of Lind was completely random. But it stuck with me, and now, four years later, I run into it again. This is why I blog what I read; it makes it more likely I’ll remember it later.

The main issue here is the conflict within the territory about its relationship to the States. The three sides – status quo, independence, and statehood – are passionate about their positions. The politics goes a little beyond me. The humanity doesn’t.

This is also where, by sheer accident, Mack ran into the CIA-trained chef (“I was Emeril’s sous chef in Orlando”), as well as an architectural student who, along with his photographer wife, got them into what might be the most opulent home Mack had ever seen – including “around eighty handmade tiles telling the story of Don Quixote.” There was a year when everything I read or did ended up connected to Norway; this year seems to be all about Don Quixote. And, fun fact: Puerto Rico has the highest concentration of Walgreens in the US, and the highest concentration of Walmarts in the world, which depresses the hell out of me.

The territories are neither united nor states nor part of either American continent, which makes it hard for them to assert their legitimacy as part of the United States of America. It’s understandable that so many people think of them – implicitly or explicitly – as foreign. But when you consider everything tangled up in the territories – issues of basic human and political rights, issues of immigration and military readiness, issues of regional politics and our reach in the world – it’s clear that they are integral to our national story, even today. And there’s the rub: the territories are the most important domestic policy issue Americans aren’t talking about, precisely because we don’t think of them as a domestic policy issue at all.

Yes, the territories are, in fact, modern day colonies. Of course they are. This fact has not changed since the Imperial moment. And that’s a problem, one that we, the United States of America, must resolve.

This was, in terms of the political content, a more intense read than I was prepared for at the moment. Turns out, it was a good read anyway. I learned a great deal about the Territories (beginning with what they are), actually found them on maps, figured out the difference between Micronesia and Polynesia (sort of), and felt everything from sorrow to amusement to delight. It’s not a travel book, but it’s not a history book, either; it’s somewhere in the middle, which is so appropriate for the subject of places somewhere in the middle of us and them.

Vladimir Nabokov: Pnin (Vintage International edition, 1989)

How should we diagnose his sad case? Pnin, it should be particularly stressed, was anything but the type of that good-natured German platitude of the last century, der zerstreute Professor. On the contrary, we was perhaps too wary, too persistently on the lookout for diabolical pitfalls, too painfully on the alert lest his erratic surroundings (unpredictable America) inveigle him into some bit of preposterous oversight. It was the world that was absent-minded and it was Pnin whose business it was to set it straight. His life was a constant war with insensate objects that fell apart, or attacked him, or refused to function, or viciously got themselves lost as soon as they entered the sphere of his existence. He was inept with his hands to a rare degree; but because he could manufacture in a twinkle a one-note mouth organ out of a pea pod, make a flat pebble skip ten times on a the surface of a pond, shadowgraph with his knuckles a rabbit (complete with blinking eye), and perform a number of other tame tricks that Russians have up their sleeves, he believed himself endowed with considerable manual and mechanical skill. On gadgets he doted with a kind of dazed, superstitious delight. Electric devices enchanted him. Plastics swept him off his feet. He had a deep admiration for the zipper. But the devoutly plugged-in clock would make nonsense of his mornings after a storm in the middle of the night had paralyzed the local power station. The frame of his spectacles would snap in mid-bridge, leaving him with two identical pieces, which he would vaguely attempt to unite, in the hope, perhaps, of some organic marvel of restoration coming to the rescue. The zipper a gentleman depends on most would come loose in his puzzled hand at some nightmare moment of haste and despair.
And he still did not know that he was on the wrong train.

How come no one ever told me how wonderful this book is?

I don’t even remember why I added it to my in-between read list this year; I vaguely recall reading somewhere something like “the novel about the very funny Professor Pnin.” I could be imagining that, but since I have a longstanding fondness for “campus novels” (a subgenre I didn’t realize, until I read David Lodge’s 2004 commentary on the novel, only came into existence in the early to mid-1950s, and thus of which Pnin serves as an early example) I would have been tempted by such a description.

It worked both as a casual surface read – wonderful turns of language, amusing characters, arpeggios running from preposterously funny entanglements to heartbreaking pathos, the incorporation of poignant phrases done so subtly it’s almost as if they were accidental – and, with some help from those more perceptive than I, as an example of literary skill as well.

It’s fairly short for a novel – less than 200 pages for my trade paperback edition – and divided into seven episodic chapters. It comes close to being the “novel in stories,” in fact. And I discovered there’s a reason for that: four of those chapters were serialized in The New Yorker over the course of a couple of years in the mid-fifties, before its publication as a novel in 1957.

Thanks to the paper “A Resolved Discord” by Gennady Barabtarlo, I discovered an additional structure to the inner chapters (excluding the first and seventh, which have a different relationship): they begin and end in ways to strengthen their themes:

Chapter Two opens to the tune of the Waindell College chimes, replaced by the ringing of the Clementses’ telephone (Pnin calls to inquire about renting a room in their house), and ends with a close-up of Joan Clements abstractly examining the cover of a local magazine with the Waindell belfry on it, while Pnin yields to utter despair.
Chapter Three begins with a description of Pnin’s uncomfortable, sound-leaking lodgings and closes at the point when Pnin will have to vacate the first room in which he feels really at home.
Chapter Four, which is central both compositionally and thematically, has been studied more thoroughly than any other chapter. Victor Wind dreams of his imaginary father, a lonely and betrayed King, at the beginning; at the end, Pnin (Victor’s water father, as his real father, Eric Wind, jokes, perhaps more aptly than he may suppose) sees a sequel to Victor’s fantasy in his own dream….
In Chapter Five the woods of “beautiful New England” fan out most tranquilly as far as the view from a watch-tower can afford. Towards the end of the chapter, however, they change gradually into, and then are replaced by, the ominous German forest where Pnin’s sweetheart was murdered in one of the extermination camps situated inside a serene environment, at the core of a German cultural memorial.
At the beginning of Chapter Six, a new semester at Waindell starts on its routine autumn course, and Pnin finds a suitable home at long last; at the end, he must give up his position at the university and the sweet hope of settling in the house for good.

~ Gennady Barabtalo: “A Resolved Discord”

The first and last chapters are something like bookends, giving us our first and last glimpses of both Pnin, and the narrator. Barabtalo calls them “outward facing,” a phrase I don’t quite understand but quite like, and notes they also face each other, a concept I can see more clearly and will get to presently.

The one writing technique I noticed on my own was the question of the narrator’s identity. In fact, the story often became less important to me than the question of who is telling the story, and it’s not a question that is ever definitively answered.

And, incredibly enough, this ends up relating to language, translation, pain, and … Don Quixote! Stephen Casmier ties them all together in his 2004 paper (2004 seems to have been a banner year for Pnin analysis, I’m not sure why), “A Speck of Coal Dust: Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin and the Possibility of Translation.” His thesis, as I interpret it (and I could be misreading; it’s a bit above my pay grade) is that Nabokov conceived of this novel while giving a series of lectures on Don Quixote (one of which is referred to, by the way, in Jason Brown’s “The Last Voyage of the Alice B. Toklas” from Pushcart 2020), and was intrigued by Quixote’s pain, how it was narrated, translated into language, alongside Wittgenstein’s and Scarry’s concepts that pain confounds language; all of this gets wrapped up in Pnin, who teaches Russian language and mangles English in hilarious ways (whisky and soda comes out as varnish and sawdust, yet his landlady knows exactly what he means).

In many ways, pain is the white noise of Pnin, a constant pulse, throbbing in the background. Pnin is a man in unrelenting, unforgettable and often unexpressed pain.

~ Stephen Casmier: “A Speck of Coal Dust: Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin and the Possibility of Translation”

Let’s start with pain; then we’ll look at narration, and let Casmier tie everything together.

Pnin’s narrator reveals his pain several times. Even his name – he gives explicit instructions on the pronunciation of his first name, Timofey, but we never know the correct way to say Pnin – speaks to the garbled language of pain. Several specific instances stand out to me. In the first chapter, for example, as he is struggling to get to a speaking engagement but has found himself on the wrong train, he suffers some kind of seizure, one of those moments of extreme emotionality in the middle of a comedic episode.

In the second chapter, we meet his ex-wife, a piece of work if there ever was one. That she is a psychiatrist is the icing on the cake. When they are still living in Europe, she dumps him for another guy, gets pregnant, claims to want Pnin back in order to use his possession of a special visa to obtain passage to the States, and sends the cuckolder to dump him again on board the ship even as Pnin is enthusiastically planning the adoption of his child. Now, thirteen years later, she shows up, insults his lodgings, his clothing, his salary, and asks him to send money monthly to the child, a gifted teen artist in boarding school, as she is again divorcing. It’s painful to read. Even as he agrees to her request, Pnin recognizes her flaws, and after she leaves, he contemplates the downside of heaven as being reunited with her. Then he encounters a highly symbolic squirrel:

He seemed to be quite unexpectedly (for human despair seldom leads to great truths ) on the verge of a simple solution of the universe but was interrupted by an urgent request. A squirrel under a tree had seen Pnin on the path. In one sinuous tendril-like moment, the intelligent animal climbed up to the brim of a drinking fountain and, as Pnin approached, thrust its oval face toward him with a rather coarse spluttering sound, its cheeks puffed out. Pnin understood and after some fumbling he found what had to be pressed for the necessary results. Eyeing him with contempt, the thirsty rodent forthwith began to sample the stocky sparkling pillar of water, and went on drinking for a considerable time. “She has fever, perhaps,” thought Pnin, weeping quietly and freely, and all the time politely pressing the contraption down while trying not to meet the unpleasant eye fixed upon him. Its thirst quenched, the squirrel departed without the least sign of gratitude.
The water father continued up on his way ….

I’ve noticed several commentators refer to the frequent appearance of squirrels in the book, but this is the only one that I noticed, perhaps because it has a neon sign flashing “I’m recreating the prior humiliation!” It’s not irrelevant that the ex-wife, when she told Pnin about the pregnancy, referred to Pnin as the boy’s “water father” because of the ocean voyage.

In Chapter 5, the émigré weekend at The Pines, a deeper agony is revealed. Pnin recalls his first love, Mira, who was lost to him by circumstances beyond their control: “The Civil War of 1918-22 separated them: history broke their engagement.” They each married others, and ran into each other in Berlin some time later. This might seem like enough pain, but we’re just getting started:

In order to exist rationally, Pnin had taught himself, during the last ten years, never to remember Mira Belochkin — not because, in itself, the evocation of a youthful love affair, banal and brief, threatened his peace of mind (alas, recollections of his marriage to Liza were imperious enough to crowd out any former romance), but because, if one were quite sincere with oneself, no conscience, and hence no consciousness, could be expected to subsist in a world where such things as Mira’s death were possible. One had to forget—because one could not live with the thought that this graceful, fragile, tender young woman with those eyes, that smile, those gardens and snows in the background, had been brought in a cattle car to an extermination camp and killed by an injection of phenol into the heart, into the gentle heart one had heard beating under one’s lips in the dusk of the past.

If Pnin suppresses his pain, he has not forgotten it, as we see in Chapter 6 when he, at his most buoyant in the novel, giving a “house-heating” party for his new home, looking forward to a new semester, unaware he is about to be fired, makes enthusiastic plans with the dean who is about to do the firing:

You and I will give next year some splendid new courses which I have planned long ago. On Tyranny. On the Boot. On Nicholas the First. On all the precursors of modern atrocity. Hagen, when we speak of injustice, we forget Armenian massacres, tortures which Tibet invented, colonists in Africa …The history of man is the history of pain.

This is also where he mentions he has been advised by doctors, upon x-ray examination, that there is “a shadow behind the heart.” There sure is. By the way, it’s interesting reading the above paragraph on a weekend when statues of slaveholders, slave traders, racists and exploiters of various nations are being torn down by those tired of honoring evil.

Now about that narration. Things start out as typically third-person omniscient, a narrator who has insight into Pnin’s thoughts and knowledge of all his past and present actions. Sometimes it seems to address the reader a bit – “Now a secret must be imparted,” we’re told, the secret being that Pnin is on the wrong train. “How should we diagnose his sad case?” as an introduction to an encapsulation of Pnin’s overall personality and manner. The narrator refers to him as “our friend”. All of this could be seen as a stylistic approach to a standard narration, a style generally abandoned over a hundred years ago when somehow it was decided that narrators should blend into the woodwork, but it seemed a bit odd to me beyond the now-abandoned technique of having a pseudo-personality as narrator.

And sure enough, about two-thirds of the way through chapter 1, in discussing the episode of physical distress Pnin experiences when he realizes the complexities of getting to his lecture on time and with his paper, the narrator coalesces into a person, though an unidentified one: “I do not know if it has ever been noted before…” leading into a metaphorical discussion of Pnin’s distress. “Was his seizure a heart attack? I doubt it. For the nonce, I am his physician, and let me repeat, I doubt it.” I was led astray by this sentence, and thought the narrator was indeed Pnin’s physician, thus could conceivably have more access to the material revealed. But that was a misreading. “For the nonce” makes physicianship a momentary function of the narrator, not their relationship. I would like to believe this was a deliberate misdirection on Nabokov’s part, but since I don’t see reference to it anywhere else, I will have to put it upon myself and my less-than-sophisticated reading skill.

This personhood of the narrator, though not the identity, is nailed down at the end of the first chapter, when we find he would have preferred to see more pain for Pnin:

Some people – and I am one of them – hate happy ends. We feel cheated. Harm is the norm. Doom should not jam. The avalanche stopping in its tracks a few feet above the cowering village behaves not only unnaturally but unethically. Had I been reading about this mild old man, instead of writing about him, I would have preferred him to discover, upon his arrival to Cremona, that his lecture was not this Friday but the next. Actually, however, he not only arrived safely but was in time for dinner ….

This narratorial intrusion (can that be a thing, please) continues throughout the book, but we don’t get a clue as to the identity of the person until the last chapter, when we discover he is an incoming Waindell professor, a replacement to Hagen, I presume, and claims to have met Pnin several times over his life, the first when they were children (though Pnin disputes those accounts). And here’s where the Casmier paper becomes an excellent guide to this mystery:

Nabokov uses several techniques to create a profoundly unsteady literary landscape—casting aspersions on the first-person narrator and what he actually knows about his subject, Pnin, and thus hopelessly alienating Pnin from the narrator and the instance of narration. Readers learn, for example, that Pnin leaves the scene at the same moment that the narrator enters the timeline of his own narrative. Pnin drives off down the highway while the narrator pursues him by foot, never catching up. Because of this, the reader surmises that knowledge that the narrator has about Pnin must be second-hand and garnered through the mostly unreliable sources of Waindell.
Indeed, by the end of the novel, it becomes manifest that much of what the reader knows about Pnin could have been made up just so the narrator could flaunt his own, brilliant writing abilities. In essence, Pnin (the character) seems like a horrible translation, presented by a translator with a dubious relationship to his subject.

~ Stephen Casmier: “A Speck of Coal Dust: Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin and the Possibility of Translation”

That last scene, literally the last page of the book, is so wonderful, it’s worth quoting here:

Hardly had I taken a couple of steps when a great truck carrying beer rumbled up the street, immediately followed by a small pale blue sedan with the white head of a dog looking out, after which came another great truck, exactly similar to the first. The humble sedan was crammed with bundles and suitcases; its driver was Pnin. I emitted a roar of greeting, but he did not see me ….I hurried past the rear truck, and had another glimpse of my old friend, in tense profile, wearing a cap with earflaps and a storm coat; but next moment the light turned green, the little white dog leaning out yapped at Sobakevitch, and everything surged forward – truck one, Pnin, truck two. From where I stood I watched them recede in the frame of the roadway, between the Moorish house and the Lombardy poplar. Then the little sedan boldly swung past the front truck and, free at last, spurted up the shining road, which one could make out narrowing to a thread of gold in the soft mist where hill after hill made beauty of distance, and where there was simply no saying which miracle might happen.
Cockerell, brown-robed and sandaled, let in the cocker and led me kitchenward, to a British breakfast of depressing kidney and fish.
“And now,” he said, “I am going to tell you the story of Pnin rising to address the Cremona Women’s Club and discovering he had brought the wrong lecture. .”

This brings us back to the beginning (I love circular structure; the first and last chapters facing each other, indeed) but, more importantly, it indicates there is a possible source for the material the narrator could not know: Jack Cockerell, fellow professor and skilled Pnin mimic (and possibly rooster-man), who has bored more than one party (such as the one in Chapter 2) with far too many re-enactments shading from humorous to caricature to cruelty. So not only could the writer/narrator be making things up to show off his literary skill (though his reluctance to change the Cremona ending to suit his taste for a more tragic ending might hint against that) but his source is likely exaggerating simply to give himself better performance material. And of course there could be other sources in addition to Cockerell.

What does this have to do with Don Quixote, with translation? The issue isn’t one of language translation, but of character translation from reality to page, via a writer and, possibly, a narrator. Then Casmier looks at how the character himself leaves the work and becomes something on his own, something outside the control of the writer, narrator, or anyone other than whoever is creating him in their mind, memory, and imagination. DQ with its multiple layers of narration – an original manuscript, a second manuscript, a translation, and someone who put it all together, reaching back to the creator of the universe, for that matter – is how Casmier sees the narrative structure of Pnin, all metaphorically reflecting how our pain gets conveyed. Philosophers would start using words like qualia – conscious experience, such as pain, that simply can’t be transferred from one to another but only described, the ultimate problematic translation – but I’m already way over my head here so I’ll just drop that there.

But let me drop in one more observation, one I didn’t recognize until I started putting together the header image for this post featuring the book cover of the edition I read. I confess that it is my favorite cover of the options I see, though it’s mere coincidence that this is the cover I ended up with; I ordered it used, sight unseen. Yet here I see Pnin, the title, author, and bow tie, is neatly encased in a frame or shadow box, which is neatly encased on a shaded background. Did the layers of narration make it to the cover art, or is this merely aesthetics?

None of this is really necessary to enjoy the book. There isn’t much plot; most of it is coming to know more about Pnin through his interactions with colleagues, landlords, his ex-wife, and her child. Some may find the wordiness annoying, in this age when minimalism rules, but that’s one of the things I liked most. I enjoyed the mystery of the narrator, the blend of joy and agony, Pnin’s rise to bliss, and if I’m sad that this bubble was popped at the end, I understand he shows up again in Pale Fire and so has landed on his feet. A happy ending, narrator be damned.