“The Loves of the Tortoises” — Italo Calvino

“The Loves of the Tortoises”


Italo Calvino

There are two tortoises on the patio: a male and a female. Zlack! Zlack! Their shells strike each other. It is their mating season.
The male pushes the female sideways, all around the edge of the paving. The female seems to resist his attack, or at least she opposes it with inert immobility. The male is smaller and more active; he seems younger. He tries repeatedly to mount her, from behind, but the back of her shell is steep and he slides off.
Now he must have succeeded in achieving the right position: he thrusts with rhythmic, cadenced strokes; at every thrust he emits a kind of gasp, almost a cry. The female has her foreclaws flattened against the ground, enabling her to raise her hind part. The male scratches with his foreclaws on her shell, his neck stuck out, his mouth gaping. The problem with these shells is that there’s no way To get a hold; in fact, the claws can find no purchase.
Now she escapes him; he pursues her. Not that she is faster or particularly determined to run away: to restrain her he gives her some little nips on a leg, always the same one. She does not rebel. Every time she stops, the male tries to mount her; but she takes a little step forward and he topples off, slamming his member on the ground. This member is fairly long, hooked in a way that apparently makes it possible for him to reach her even though the thickness of the shells and their awkward positioning separates them. So there is no telling how many of these attacks achieve their purpose or how many fair, or how many are theater, play-acting.
It is summer; the patio is bare, except for one green jasmine in a corner. The courtship consists of making so many turns around the little patch of grass, with pursuits and flights and skirmishing not of the claws but of the shells, which strike in a dull clicking. The female tries to find refuge among the stalks of the jasmine; she believes—or wants to make others believe—that she does this to hide; but actually this is the surest way to remain blocked by the male, held immobile with no avenue of escape. Now he has most likely managed to introduce his member properly; but this time they are both completely still, silent.
The sensations of the pair of mating tortoises are something Mr. Palomar cannot imagine. He observes them with a cold attention, as if they were two machines: two electronic tortoises programmed to mate. What does eros become if there are plates of bone or horny scales in the place of skin? But what we call eros—is it perhaps only a program of our corporeal bodies, more complicated because the memory receives messages from every cell of the skin, from every molecule of our tissues, and multiplies them and combines them with the impulses transmitted by our eyesight and with those aroused by the imagination? The difference lies only in the number of circuits involved: from our receptions billions of wires extend, linked with the computer of feelings, conditionings, the ties between one person and another. . . . Eros is a program that unfolds in the electronic clusters of the mind, but the mind is also skin: skin touched, seen, remembered. And what about the tortoises, enclosed in their insensitive casing? The poverty of their sensorial stimuli perhaps drives them to a concentrated, intense mental life, leads them to a crystalline inner awareness. . . . Perhaps the eros of tortoises obeys absolute spiritual laws, whereas we are prisoners of a machinery whose functioning remains unknown to us, prone to clogging up, stalling, exploding in uncontrolled automatisms. . . .
Do the tortoises understand themselves any better? After about ten minutes of mating, the two shells separate. She ahead, he behind, they resume their circling of the grass. Now the male remains more distanced; every now and then he scratches his claw against her shell, he climbs on her for a little, but without much conviction. They go back under the jasmine. He gives her a nip or two on a leg, always in the same place.


“Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock” — Wallace Stevens

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H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu sketch

A review of Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Lathe of Heaven

The City I Dream, Victor Brauner

George Orr is not well. The meek protagonist of Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Lathe of Heaven abuses prescription drugs in a desperate and unsuccessful attempt to stop himself from falling asleep. Orr doesn’t want to sleep because he believes that his dreams come true—that they literally alter reality—but in such a way that no one but Orr realizes that the world has changed. Orr gets caught using a “Pharmacy Card” that doesn’t belong to him, and is court-ordered to begin treatment with a sleep research psychiatrist, Dr. William Haber. Although Haber initially doesn’t believe Orr’s claim to be cursed with “effective dreams” that transform reality, he soon realizes that Orr’s dreams somehow do come true. Then, via hypnotic suggestion (and an “Augmentor” device), Haber begins wielding Orr’s gift/curse as a clumsy tool to “better” the world.

The world of The Lathe of Heaven is grim, gray, dystopian. Published in 1971 and set in Portland in the palindromic year of 2002, Le Guin’s novel is depressingly prescient. Not only does she capture the onset of seventies malaise (the ashes of hope that burned out in the sixties), she also points to a future of environmental catastrophe:

Very little light and air got down to street level; what there was was warm and full of fine rain. Rain was an old Portland tradition, but the warmth—70° F on the second of March—was modern, a result of air pollution. Urban and industrial effluvia had not been controlled soon enough to reverse the cumulative trends already at work in the mid-twentieth century; it would take several centuries for the CO2 to clear out of the air, if it ever did. New York was going to be one of the larger casualties of the Greenhouse Effect, as the polar ice kept melting and the sea kept rising…

This is also a world of urban sprawl, overpopulation, malnutrition, and total war (a clusterfuck in the Middle East, wouldn’t you know). The government is a vague and menacing presence here—vaguely totalitarian, vaguely Big Brotheresque. We learn of the “New Federal Constitution of 1984,” one of many references to Orwell’s book. (The most obvious is our passive hero’s name).

So it’s no wonder that Haber sets about to create a utopia, right? Wouldn’t you, like, try to make the world a better place if you could? Haber is repeatedly described as a “benevolent man”—Le Guin withholds the word dictator—but the central theme comes through repeatedly: Is it possible to alter reality for the greater good? Or do we simply exist in nature, a part of everything around us?

Haber’s experiments with Orr’s mind have unintended consequences. How might we, say, cure overpopulation? How about an awful plague. Orr’s “effective dreams” revise history, rewrite reality, remap consciousness. But he’s never quite able to pull off the massive tasks Haber sets for him—end racism, end war, cure the damaged ecosystem (Le Guin is extremely pessimistic on this last front). Orr is burdened with the consciousness of multiple realities, and feels deep guilt for his role in uncreation. He starts to go crazy:

“I am cracking,” he said. “You must see that. You’re a psychiatrist. Don’t you see that I’m going to pieces? Aliens from outer space attacking Earth! Look: if you ask me to dream again, what will you get? Maybe a totally insane world, the product of an insane mind. Monsters, ghosts, witches, dragons, transformations—all the stuff we carry around in us, all the horrors of childhood, the night fears, the nightmares. How can you keep all that from getting loose? I can’t stop it. I’m not in control!”

Continue reading “A review of Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Lathe of Heaven”

“The Sandman” — E.T.A. Hoffmann

Illustration for E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Sandman” — Mario Laboccetta

“The Sandman”


E.T.A. Hoffmann
English translation by John Oxenford


Certainly you must all be uneasy that I have not written for so long—so very long. My mother, I am sure, is angry, and Clara will believe that I am passing my time in dissipation, entirely forgetful of the fair angel-image that is so deeply imprinted in my heart and mind. Such, however, is not the case. Daily and hourly I think of you all, and in my sweet dreams the kindly form of my lovely Clara passes before me, and smiles upon me with her bright eyes as she was wont when I appeared among you. Alas, how could I write to you in the distracted mood which has hitherto disturbed my every thought! Something horrible has crossed my path of life. Dark forebodings of a cruel, threatening, fate spread themselves over me like dark clouds, which no friendly sunbeam can penetrate. Now will I tell you what has befallen me. I must do so, that I plainly see—but if I only think of it, it will laugh out of me like mad. Ah, my dear Lothaire, how shall I begin it? How shall I make you in any way sensible that that which occurred to me a few days ago could really have such a fatal effect on my life? If you were here you could see for yourself, but now you will certainly take me for a crazy ghost-seer. In a word, the horrible thing which happened to me, and the painful impression of which I in vain endeavour to escape, is nothing more than this; that some days ago, namely on the 30th of October, at twelve o’clock at noon, a barometer-dealer came into my room and offered me his wares. I bought nothing, and threatened to throw him down stairs, upon which he took himself off of his own accord.

You suspect that only relations of the most peculiar kind, and exerting the greatest influence over my life can give any import to this occurrence, nay, that the person of that unlucky dealer must have a hostile effect upon me. So it is, indeed. I collect myself with all my might, that patiently and quietly I may tell you so much of my early youth as will bring all plainly and clearly in bright images before your active mind. As I am about to begin I fancy that I hear you laughing and Clara saying: “Childish stories indeed!” Laugh at me I beseech you, laugh with all your heart. But, heavens, my hair stands on end, and it seems as if I am asking you to laugh at me, in mad despair, as Franz Moor asked Daniel.But to my story.

Excepting at dinner time I and my brothers and sisters saw my father very little during the day. He was, perhaps, busily engaged at his ordinary occupation. After supper, which, according to the old custom was served up at seven o’clock, we all went with my mother into my father’s work-room, and seated ourselves at the round table. My father smoked tobacco and drank a large glass of beer. Often he told us a number of wonderful stories, and grew so warm over them that his pipe continually went out. I had to light it again, with burning paper, which I thought great sport. Often, too, he would give us picture-books, and sit in his arm-chair silent and thoughtful, puffing out such thick clouds of smoke that we all seemed to be swimming in the clouds. On such evenings as these my mother was very melancholy, and immediately the clock struck nine, she would say: “Now children, to bed—to bed! The Sandman is coming, I can see.” And certainly on all these occasions I heard something with a heavy, slow step go bouncing up the stairs. That I thought must be the Sandman. Once that dull noise and footstep were particularly fearful, and I asked my mother, while she took us away: “Eh, mamma, who is this naughty Sandman, who always drives us away from papa? What does he look like?” “There is no Sandman, dear child,” replied my mother. “When I say the Sandman comes, I only mean that you are sleepy and cannot keep your eyes open,—just as if sand had been sprinkled into them.” This answer of my mother’s did not satisfy me—nay, in my childish mind the thought soon matured itself that she only denied the existence of the Sandman to hinder us from being terrified at him. Certainly I always heard him coming up the stairs. Full of curiosity to hear more of this Sandman, and his particular connection with children, I at last asked the old woman who tended my youngest sister what sort of man he was. “Eh, Natty,” said she, “do you not know that yet? He is a wicked man, who comes to children when they will not go to bed, and throws a handful of sand into their eyes, so that they start out bleeding from their heads. These eyes he puts in a bag and carries them to the half-moon to feed his own children, who sit in the nest up yonder, and have crooked beaks like owls with which they may pick up the eyes of the naughty human children.” Continue reading ““The Sandman” — E.T.A. Hoffmann”

“How Jack O’Lanterns Came To Be” — Zora Neale Hurston

From Zora Neale Hurston’s novelization of folklore, Mules and Men:

It was slavery time, Zora, when Big Sixteen was a man. They called ‘im Sixteen  cause dat was de number of de shoe he wore. He was big and strong and Ole Massa looked to him to do everything.

One day Ole Massa said, “Big Sixteen, Ah b’lieve Ah want you to move dem sills Ah had hewed out down in de swamp.

“I yassuh, Massa.”

Big Sixteen went down in de swamp and picked up dem 12 X 12’s and brought ’em on up to de house and stack ,em. No one man ain’t never toted a 12 X 12 befo’ nor since.

So Ole Massa said one day, “Go fetch in de mules. Ah want to look ’em over.”

Big Sixteen went on down to, de pasture and caught dem mules by de bridle but they was contrary and balky and he tore de bridles to pieces pullin’ on ’em, so he picked one of ’em up under each arm and brought ’em up to Old Massa.

He says, “Big Sixteen, if you kin tote a pair of balky mules, you kin do anything. You kin ketch de Devil.”

“Yassuh, Ah kin, if you git me a nine-pound hammer and a pick and shovel!”

Ole Massa got Sixteen de things he ast for and tole ‘im to go ahead and bring him de Devil.

Big Sixteen went out in front of de house and went to diggin’. He was diggin’ nearly a month befo’ he got where he wanted. Then he took his hammer and went and knocked on de Devil’s door. Devil answered de door hisself.

“Who dat out dere?”

“It’s Big Sixteen.”

“What you want?”

“Wanta have a word wid you for a minute.”

Soon as de Devil poked his head out de door, Sixteen him over de head wid dat hammer and picked ‘im  up and carried ‘im back to Old Massa.

Ole Massa looked at de dead Devil and hollered, “Take dat ugly thing ‘way from here, quick! Ah didn’t think you’d, ketch de Devil sho ’nuff.”

So Sixteen picked up de Devil and throwed ‘im back down de hole.

Way after while, Big Sixteen died and went up to Heben. But Peter looked at him and tole ‘im to g’wan ‘way from dere. He was too powerful. He might git outa order and there wouldn’t be nobody to handle ‘im. But he had to, go somewhere so he went on to hell.

Soon as he got to de gate de Devil’s children was playin’ in de yard and they seen ‘im and run to de house, says, “Mama, mama! Dat man’s out dere dat kilt papa!”

So she called ‘im in de house and shet de door. When Sixteen got dere she handed ‘im a li’l piece of fire and said, “You ain’t comin’ in here. Here, take dis hot coal and g’wan off and start you a hell uh yo’ own.”

So when you see a Jack O’Lantern in de woods at night you know it’s Big Sixteen wid his piece of fire lookin’ for a  place to go.

Don DeLillo: The Word, the Image, the Gun (Documentary)

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry from October 16th, 1837

October 16th.–Spent the whole afternoon in a ramble to the sea-shore, near Phillips’s Beach. A beautiful, warm, sunny afternoon, the very pleasantest day, probably, that there has been in the whole course of the year. People at work, harvesting, without their coats. Cocks, with their squad of hens, in the grass-fields, hunting grasshoppers, chasing them eagerly with outspread wings, appearing to take much interest in the sport, apart from the profit. Other hens picking up the ears of Indian corn. Grasshoppers, flies, and flying insects of all sorts are more abundant in these warm autumnal days than I have seen them at any other time. Yellow butterflies flutter about in the sunshine, singly, by pairs, or more, and are wafted on the gentle gales. The crickets begin to sing early in the afternoon, and sometimes a locust may be heard. In some warm spots, a pleasant buzz of many insects.

Crossed the fields near Brookhouse’s villa, and came upon a long beach,–at least a mile long, I should think,–terminated by craggy rocks at either end, and backed by a high broken bank, the grassy summit of which, year by year, is continually breaking away,and precipitated to the bottom. At the foot of the bank, in some parts, is a vast number of pebbles and paving-stones, rolled up thither by the sea long ago. The beach is of a brown sand, with hardly any pebbles intermixed upon it. When the tide is part way down, there is a margin of several yards from the water’s edge, along the whole mile length of the beach, which glistens like a mirror, and reflects objects, and shines bright in the sunshine, the sand being wet to that distance from the water. Above this margin the sand is not wet, and grows less and less damp the farther towards the bank you keep. In some places your footstep is perfectly implanted, showing the whole shape, and the square toe, and every nail in the heel of your boot. Elsewhere, the impression is imperfect, and even when you stamp, you cannot imprint the whole. As you tread, a dry spot flashes around your step, and grows moist as you lift your foot again. Pleasant to pass along this extensive walk, watching the surf-wave;–how sometimes it seems to make a feint of breaking, but dies away ineffectually, merely kissing the strand; then, after many such abortive efforts, it gathers itself, and forms a high wall, and rolls onward, heightening and heightening without foam at the summit of the green line, and at last throws itself fiercely on the beach, with a loud roar, the spray flying above. As you walk along, you are preceded by a flock of twenty or thirty beach birds, which are seeking, I suppose, for food on the margin of the surf, yet seem to be merely sporting, chasing the sea as it retires, and running up before the impending wave. Sometimes they let it bear them off their feet, and float lightly on its breaking summit; sometimes they flutter and seem to reston the feathery spray. They are little birds with gray backs and snow-white breasts; their images may be seen in the wet sand almost or quite as distinctly as the reality. Their legs are long. As you draw near, they take a flight of a score of yards or more, and then recommence their dalliance with the surf-wave. You may behold their multitudinous little tracks all along your way. Before you reach the end of the beach, you become quite attached to these little sea-birds, and take much interest in their occupations. After passing in one direction, it is pleasant then to retrace your footsteps. Your tracks being all traceable, you may recall the whole mood and occupation of your mind during your first passage. Here you turned somewhat aside to pick up a shell that you saw nearer the water’s edge. Here you examined a long sea-weed, and trailed its length after you for a considerable distance. Here the effect of the wide sea struck you suddenly. Here you fronted the ocean, looking at a sail, distant in the sunny blue. Here you looked at some plant on the bank. Here some vagary of mind seems to have bewildered you; for your tracks go round and round, and interchange each other without visible reason. Here you picked up pebbles and skipped them upon the water. Here you wrote names and drew faces with a razor sea-shell in the sand.

After leaving the beach, clambered over crags, all shattered and tossed about everyhow; in some parts curiously worn and hollowed out, almost into caverns. The rock, shagged with sea-weed,–in some places, a thick carpet of seaweed laid over the pebbles, into which your foot would sink. Deep tanks among these rocks, which the sea replenishes at high tide, and thenleaves the bottom all covered with various sorts of sea-plants, as if it were some sea-monster’s private garden. I saw a crab in one of them; five-fingers too. From the edge of the rocks, you may look off into deep, deep water, even at low tide. Among the rocks, I found a great bird, whether a wild-goose, a loon, or an albatross, I scarcely know. It was in such a position that I almost fancied it might be asleep, and therefore drew near softly, lest it should take flight; but it was dead, and stirred not when I touched it. Sometimes a dead fish was cast up. A ledge of rocks, with a beacon upon it, looking like a monument erected to those who have perished by shipwreck. The smoked, extempore fire-place, where a party cooked their fish. About midway on the beach, a fresh-water brooklet flows towards the sea. Where it leaves the land, it is quite a rippling little current; but, in flowing across the sand, it grows shallower and more shallow, and at last is quite lost, and dies in the effort to carry its little tribute to the main.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry from October 16th, 1837. From Passages from the American Note-Books.

Read “Rothschild’s Fiddle,” a short story by Anton Chekhov

“Rothschild’s Fiddle”


Anton Chekhov

English translation by Constance Garnett


The town was a little one, worse than a village, and it was inhabited by scarcely any but old people who died with an infrequency that was really annoying. In the hospital and in the prison fortress very few coffins were needed. In fact business was bad. If Yakov Ivanov had been an undertaker in the chief town of the province he would certainly have had a house of his own, and people would have addressed him as Yakov Matveyitch; here in this wretched little town people called him simply Yakov; his nickname in the street was for some reason Bronze, and he lived in a poor way like a humble peasant, in a little old hut in which there was only one room, and in this room he and Marfa, the stove, a double bed, the coffins, his bench, and all their belongings were crowded together.

Yakov made good, solid coffins. For peasants and working people he made them to fit himself, and this was never unsuccessful, for there were none taller and stronger than he, even in the prison, though he was seventy. For gentry and for women he made them to measure, and used an iron foot-rule for the purpose. He was very unwilling to take orders for children’s coffins, and made them straight off without measurements, contemptuously, and when he was paid for the work he always said:

“I must confess I don’t like trumpery jobs.”

Apart from his trade, playing the fiddle brought him in a small income. Continue reading “Read “Rothschild’s Fiddle,” a short story by Anton Chekhov”

Dream delivers us to dream, and there is no end to illusion (Emerson)

Dream delivers us to dream, and there is no end to illusion. Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and as we pass through them they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus. From the mountain you see the mountain. We animate what we can, and we see only what we animate. Nature and books belong to the eyes that see them. It depends on the mood of the man whether he shall see the sunset or the fine poem. There are always sunsets, and there is always genius; but only a few hours so serene that we can relish nature or criticism. The more or less depends on structure or temperament. Temperament is the iron wire on which the beads are strung. Of what use is fortune or talent to a cold and defective nature? Who cares what sensibility or discrimination a man has at some time shown, if he falls asleep in his chair? or if he laugh and giggle? or if he apologize? or is infected with egotism? or thinks of his dollar? or cannot go by food? or has gotten a child in his boyhood? Of what use is genius, if the organ is too convex or too concave and cannot find a focal distance within the actual horizon of human life? Of what use, if the brain is too cold or too hot, and the man does not care enough for results to stimulate him to experiment, and hold him up in it? or if the web is too finely woven, too irritable by pleasure and pain, so that life stagnates from too much reception without due outlet? Of what use to make heroic vows of amendment, if the same old law-breaker is to keep them? What cheer can the religious sentiment yield, when that is suspected to be secretly dependent on the seasons of the year and the state of the blood? I knew a witty physician who found the creed in the biliary duct, and used to affirm that if there was disease in the liver, the man became a Calvinist, and if that organ was sound, he became a Unitarian. Very mortifying is the reluctant experience that some unfriendly excess or imbecility neutralizes the promise of genius. We see young men who owe us a new world, so readily and lavishly they promise, but they never acquit the debt; they die young and dodge the account; or if they live they lose themselves in the crowd.

From Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Experience.”

The primary meaning of the gothic romance, then, lies in its substitution of terror for love as a central theme of fiction

The primary meaning of the gothic romance, then, lies in its substitution of terror for love as a central theme of fiction. The titillation of sex denied, it offers its readers a vicarious participation in a flirtation with death—approach and retreat, approach and retreat, the fatal orgasm eternally mounting and eternally checked. More than that, however, the gothic is the product of an implicit aesthetic that replaces the classic concept of nothing-in-excess with the revolutionary doctrine that nothing succeeds like excess. Aristotle’s guides for achieving the tragic without falling into “the abominable” are stood on their heads, “the abominable” itself being made the touchstone of effective art. Dedicated to producing nausea, to transcending the limits of taste and endurance, the gothic novelist is driven to seek more and more atrocious crimes to satisfy the hunger for “too-much” on which he trades.

It is not enough that his protagonist commit rape; he must commit it upon his mother or sister; and if he himself is a cleric, pledged to celibacy, his victim a nun, dedicated to God, all the better! Similarly, if he commits murder, it must be his father who is his victim; and the crime must take place in darkness, among the decaying bodies of his ancestors, on hallowed ground. It is as if such romancers were pursuing some ideal of absolute atrocity which they cannot quite flog their reluctant imaginations into conceiving…

Some would say, indeed, that the whole tradition of the gothic is a pathological symptom rather than a proper literary movement, a reversion to the childish game of scaring oneself in the dark, or a plunge into sadist fantasy, masturbatory horror. For Wordsworth, for instance, heir of the genteel sentimentality of the eighteenth century, gothic sensationalism seemed merely a response (compounding the ill to which it responded) to the decay of sensibility in an industrialized and brutalized world—in which men had grown so callous that only shock treatments of increasing intensity could move them to react.

From Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel.