“To Read or Not to Read” by Oscar Wilde
Books, I fancy, may be conveniently divided into three classes:
1. Books to read, such as Cicero’s Letters, Suetonius, Vasari’s Lives of the Painters, the Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, Sir John Mandeville, Marco Polo, St. Simon’s Memoirs, Mommsen, and (till we get a better one) Grote’s History of Greece.
2. Books to re-read, such as Plato and Keats: in the sphere of poetry, the masters not the minstrels; in the sphere of philosophy, the seers not the savants.
3. Books not to read at all, such as Thomson’s Seasons, Rogers’s Italy, Paley’s Evidences, all the Fathers except St. Augustine, all John Stuart Mill except the essay on Liberty, all Voltaire’s plays without any exception, Butler’s Analogy, Grant’s Aristotle, Hume’s England, Lewes’s History of Philosophy, all argumentative books and all books that try to prove anything.
The third class is by far the most important. To tell people what to read is, as a rule, either useless or harmful; for, the appreciation of literature is a question of temperament not of teaching; to Parnassus there is no primer and nothing that one can learn is ever worth learning. But to tell people what not to read is a very different matter, and I venture to recommend it as a mission to the University Extension Scheme.
Indeed, it is one that is eminently needed in this age of ours, an age that reads so much, that it has no time to admire, and writes so much, that it has no time to think. Whoever will select out of the chaos of our modern curricula ‘The Worst Hundred Books,’ and publish a list of them, will confer on the rising generation a real and lasting benefit.
After expressing these views I suppose I should not offer any suggestions at all with regard to ‘The Best Hundred Books,’ but I hope you will allow me the pleasure of being inconsistent, as I am anxious to put in a claim for a book that has been strangely omitted by most of the excellent judges who have contributed to your columns. I mean the Greek Anthology. The beautiful poems contained in this collection seem to me to hold the same position with regard to Greek dramatic literature as do the delicate little figurines of Tanagra to the Phidian marbles, and to be quite as necessary for the complete understanding of the Greek spirit.
I am also amazed to find that Edgar Allan Poe has been passed over. Surely this marvellous lord of rhythmic expression deserves a place? If, in order to make room for him, it be necessary to elbow out some one else, I should elbow out Southey, and I think that Baudelaire might be most advantageously substituted for Keble.
No doubt, both in the Curse of Kehama and in the Christian Year there are poetic qualities of a certain kind, but absolute catholicity of taste is not without its dangers. It is only an auctioneer who should admire all schools of art.
IN THIS RIFF:
Nine stories published in 1962:
“The Insane Ones”
“The Garden of Time”
“The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista”
“Thirteen to Centaurus”
“Passport to Eternity”
“The Cage of Sand”
“The Watch Towers”
“The Singing Statues”
“Man on the 99th Floor”
1. “The Insane Ones” (1962)
Psychology, and particularly subliminal psychology, remained a major theme throughout Ballard’s writing career. “The Insane Ones” is a thought-experiment that examines what might happen if libertarianism were taken to its most extreme:
The Mental Freedom legislation enacted ten years earlier by the ultraconservative UW government had banned the profession outright and enshrined the individual’s freedom to be insane if he wanted to, provided he paid the full civil consequences for any infringements of the law. That was the catch, the hidden object of the MF laws. What had begun as a popular reaction against ‘subliminal living’ and the uncontrolled extension of techniques of mass manipulation for political and economic ends had quickly developed into a systematic attack on the psychological sciences. Overpermissive courts of law with their condoning of delinquency, pseudo–enlightened penal reformers, ‘Victims of society’, the psychologist and his patient all came under fierce attack. Discharging their self–hate and anxiety onto a convenient scapegoat, the new rulers, and the great majority electing them, outlawed all forms of psychic control, from the innocent market survey to lobotomy. The mentally ill were on their own, spared pity and consideration, made to pay to the hilt for their failings. The sacred cow of the community was the psychotic, free to wander where he wanted, drooling on the doorsteps, sleeping on sidewalks, and woe betide anyone who tried to help him.
“The Insane Ones” isn’t a particularly good story—as is the case with many of the tales in The Complete Stories, it’s mostly an excuse to tease out a speculative notion—but its conceit of a lack of adequate health care set against the backdrop of reactionary politics seems particularly germane today.
2. “The Garden of Time” (1962)
“The Garden of Time” is an oddity in Ballard’s oeuvre. Most of his short stories take cues from Edgar Allan Poe, but “The Garden of Time,” a direct allegory, is pure-Hawthorne territory, a dark fairy tale with fantasy tropes unusual for Ballard. Count Axel and his darling wife live in a perfect Edenic space that they maintain by picking flowers that “freeze” time. At the periphery, a mechanized mob approaches:
At first glance, the long ranks seemed to be progressing in orderly lines, but on closer inspection, it was apparent that, like the obscured detail of a Goya landscape, the army was composed of a vast throng of people, men and women, interspersed with a few soldiers in ragged uniforms, pressing forward in a disorganized tide. Some laboured under heavy loads suspended from crude yokes around their necks, others struggled with cumbersome wooden carts, their hands wrenching at the wheel spokes, a few trudged on alone, but all moved on at the same pace, bowed backs illuminated in the fleeting sun.
I’m not sure how to read the tale—it seems that Ballard identifies the horde, the mob, as a dumb, dim force of history, a consumer society that will destroy the last vestiges of High Culture embodied by the graceful Count and his wife, the aristocrats who understand Truth and Beauty and Art &c. I think there’s a streak of conservatism here, a tendency that we might not immediately think of when we think of Ballard the futurist.
3. “The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista” (1962)
Another Vermilion Sands story, “Stellavista” takes on architecture. This is basically a haunted house story; the Ballardian trick here is the psychotropic house, dwellings that echo “every shift of mood and position of the occupants.” Young couple buys house, house is haunted, etc. The conceit is interesting, but again, Ballard’s not particularly inclined to write it in anything outside of a standard pulp fiction (or doesn’t seem to know how to yet).
Ballard’s treatment of his female characters is what I find most interesting here. As always, they seem to be divided into just a few classes: The wife, an unimaginative nag; the mysterious (and impossible to understand) ingenue; the mad, abandoned old woman (shades of Miss Havisham); and the abject, consuming Villain-Woman. Ballard often combines the last three types, but they are always set in opposition to the housewife. More on this in a moment.
4. “Thirteen to Centaurus”
“Thirteen to Centaurus” belongs in what I’ve been calling The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard, a collection of the best stuff here. Each Ballard story is essentially a trick or a thought experiment—the tale is just a delivery system, a frame. Ballard here employs a metaframe; sure, the story is still composed in the tropes and language of pulp fiction, but Ballard shows signs of breaking out. In some ways, “Thirteen to Centaurus” is a rewrite of “Manhole 69″ (which I also suggested is Essential). I haven’t described the plot and won’t—I think the story is probably better read without preview or explication.
5. “Passport to Eternity” (1962)
“Passport to Eternity” highlights Ballard’s greatest imaginative failure. This is a guy who can conceive of every kind of fantasy trip—extraterrestrial adventures, private-war-as-vacation, space safari (the occasion for the story here is a list of surreal vacations; the story would read much, much better as just that list). Yes, Ballard can conceive of any kind of future, except one where a woman is something other than a house wife:
For several centuries now the managerial and technocratic elite had been so preoccupied with the work of government that they relied on the Templars of Aphrodite not merely to guard their wives from any marauding suitors but also to keep them amused and contented. By definition, of course, their relationship was platonic, a pleasant revival of the old chivalrous ideals…
Even if Ballard is poking ironic fun here (and I don’t think that’s the case), his framing is aggressively chauvinistic; not only does the “managerial and technocratic elite” appear to exclude women, the underlying anxiety of cuckoldry manifests in a social structure that must manage (and contain) women’s passions and sexualities. There’s something aggressively misogynistic here, a streak that finds its twin in Ballard’s abjectification of women elsewhere in the stories (I wrote above that he only conceives women as house wives—not quite true—they can also be consuming monsters in the Ballardverse).
6. “The Cage of Sand” (1962)
Astronauts. Ecology. Etc. Pass.
7. “The Watch-Towers” (1962)
“The Watch Towers” is basically an extended riff on how churches institutionalize power and regulate behavior. Ballard’s trick here is to elide or omit any language that would directly evoke religion or spirituality though. The story also gets its power comes from its bare simplicity, its lack of ornamentation—one can sense Ballard’s restraint here. The story would likely be more successful stripped even further—something closer to Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” which it echoes. There are also shades here of a particularly English brand of hauntology—The Prisoner and The Wicker Man come to mind.
8. “The Singing Statues” (1962)
“The Singing Statues” feels like a rewrite of several of Ballard’s Vermilion Sands stories. I suppose collected together in their own volume, the Vermilion Sands tales might read like a novel-in-stories, a work through of central themes, images, and ideas—but dispersed in The Collected Stories they get swallowed. They read like repetitions. Stale.
9. “Man on the 99th Floor” (1962)
Ballard handles subliminal suggestion much better in the next tale, “The Subliminal Man.” So I’ll take a pass on this one in anticipation of one of Ballard’s best
“Eleonora” by Edgar Allan Poe
I AM come of a race noted for vigor of fancy and ardor of passion. Men have called me mad; but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence—whether much that is glorious—whether all that is profound—does not spring from disease of thought—from moods of mind exalted at the expense of the general intellect. They who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night. In their gray visions they obtain glimpses of eternity, and thrill, in awakening, to find that they have been upon the verge of the great secret. In snatches, they learn something of the wisdom which is of good, and more of the mere knowledge which is of evil. They penetrate, however, rudderless or compassless into the vast ocean of the “light ineffable,” and again, like the adventures of the Nubian geographer, “agressi sunt mare tenebrarum, quid in eo esset exploraturi.”
We will say, then, that I am mad. I grant, at least, that there are two distinct conditions of my mental existence—the condition of a lucid reason, not to be disputed, and belonging to the memory of events forming the first epoch of my life—and a condition of shadow and doubt, appertaining to the present, and to the recollection of what constitutes the second great era of my being. Therefore, what I shall tell of the earlier period, believe; and to what I may relate of the later time, give only such credit as may seem due, or doubt it altogether, or, if doubt it ye cannot, then play unto its riddle the Oedipus.
She whom I loved in youth, and of whom I now pen calmly and distinctly these remembrances, was the sole daughter of the only sister of my mother long departed. Eleonora was the name of my cousin. We had always dwelled together, beneath a tropical sun, in the Valley of the Many-Colored Grass. No unguided footstep ever came upon that vale; for it lay away up among a range of giant hills that hung beetling around about it, shutting out the sunlight from its sweetest recesses. No path was trodden in its vicinity; and, to reach our happy home, there was need of putting back, with force, the foliage of many thousands of forest trees, and of crushing to death the glories of many millions of fragrant flowers. Thus it was that we lived all alone, knowing nothing of the world without the valley—I, and my cousin, and her mother.
From the dim regions beyond the mountains at the upper end of our encircled domain, there crept out a narrow and deep river, brighter than all save the eyes of Eleonora; and, winding stealthily about in mazy courses, it passed away, at length, through a shadowy gorge, among hills still dimmer than those whence it had issued. We called it the “River of Silence”; for there seemed to be a hushing influence in its flow. No murmur arose from its bed, and so gently it wandered along, that the pearly pebbles upon which we loved to gaze, far down within its bosom, stirred not at all, but lay in a motionless content, each in its own old station, shining on gloriously forever.
The margin of the river, and of the many dazzling rivulets that glided through devious ways into its channel, as well as the spaces that extended from the margins away down into the depths of the streams until they reached the bed of pebbles at the bottom,—these spots, not less than the whole surface of the valley, from the river to the mountains that girdled it in, were carpeted all by a soft green grass, thick, short, perfectly even, and vanilla-perfumed, but so besprinkled throughout with the yellow buttercup, the white daisy, the purple violet, and the ruby-red asphodel, that its exceeding beauty spoke to our hearts in loud tones, of the love and of the glory of God.
And, here and there, in groves about this grass, like wildernesses of dreams, sprang up fantastic trees, whose tall slender stems stood not upright, but slanted gracefully toward the light that peered at noon-day into the centre of the valley. Their mark was speckled with the vivid alternate splendor of ebony and silver, and was smoother than all save the cheeks of Eleonora; so that, but for the brilliant green of the huge leaves that spread from their summits in long, tremulous lines, dallying with the Zephyrs, one might have fancied them giant serpents of Syria doing homage to their sovereign the Sun.
Hand in hand about this valley, for fifteen years, roamed I with Eleonora before Love entered within our hearts. It was one evening at the close of the third lustrum of her life, and of the fourth of my own, that we sat, locked in each other’s embrace, beneath the serpent-like trees, and looked down within the water of the River of Silence at our images therein. We spoke no words during the rest of that sweet day, and our words even upon the morrow were tremulous and few. We had drawn the God Eros from that wave, and now we felt that he had enkindled within us the fiery souls of our forefathers. The passions which had for centuries distinguished our race, came thronging with the fancies for which they had been equally noted, and together breathed a delirious bliss over the Valley of the Many-Colored Grass. A change fell upon all things. Strange, brilliant flowers, star-shaped, burn out upon the trees where no flowers had been known before. The tints of the green carpet deepened; and when, one by one, the white daisies shrank away, there sprang up in place of them, ten by ten of the ruby-red asphodel. And life arose in our paths; for the tall flamingo, hitherto unseen, with all gay glowing birds, flaunted his scarlet plumage before us. The golden and silver fish haunted the river, out of the bosom of which issued, little by little, a murmur that swelled, at length, into a lulling melody more divine than that of the harp of Aeolus-sweeter than all save the voice of Eleonora. And now, too, a voluminous cloud, which we had long watched in the regions of Hesper, floated out thence, all gorgeous in crimson and gold, and settling in peace above us, sank, day by day, lower and lower, until its edges rested upon the tops of the mountains, turning all their dimness into magnificence, and shutting us up, as if forever, within a magic prison-house of grandeur and of glory.
The loveliness of Eleonora was that of the Seraphim; but she was a maiden artless and innocent as the brief life she had led among the flowers. No guile disguised the fervor of love which animated her heart, and she examined with me its inmost recesses as we walked together in the Valley of the Many-Colored Grass, and discoursed of the mighty changes which had lately taken place therein.
At length, having spoken one day, in tears, of the last sad change which must befall Humanity, she thenceforward dwelt only upon this one sorrowful theme, interweaving it into all our converse, as, in the songs of the bard of Schiraz, the same images are found occurring, again and again, in every impressive variation of phrase.
She had seen that the finger of Death was upon her bosom—that, like the ephemeron, she had been made perfect in loveliness only to die; but the terrors of the grave to her lay solely in a consideration which she revealed to me, one evening at twilight, by the banks of the River of Silence. She grieved to think that, having entombed her in the Valley of the Many-Colored Grass, I would quit forever its happy recesses, transferring the love which now was so passionately her own to some maiden of the outer and everyday world. And, then and there, I threw myself hurriedly at the feet of Eleonora, and offered up a vow, to herself and to Heaven, that I would never bind myself in marriage to any daughter of Earth—that I would in no manner prove recreant to her dear memory, or to the memory of the devout affection with which she had blessed me. And I called the Mighty Ruler of the Universe to witness the pious solemnity of my vow. And the curse which I invoked of Him and of her, a saint in Helusion should I prove traitorous to that promise, involved a penalty the exceeding great horror of which will not permit me to make record of it here. And the bright eyes of Eleonora grew brighter at my words; and she sighed as if a deadly burthen had been taken from her breast; and she trembled and very bitterly wept; but she made acceptance of the vow, (for what was she but a child?) and it made easy to her the bed of her death. And she said to me, not many days afterward, tranquilly dying, that, because of what I had done for the comfort of her spirit she would watch over me in that spirit when departed, and, if so it were permitted her return to me visibly in the watches of the night; but, if this thing were, indeed, beyond the power of the souls in Paradise, that she would, at least, give me frequent indications of her presence, sighing upon me in the evening winds, or filling the air which I breathed with perfume from the censers of the angels. And, with these words upon her lips, she yielded up her innocent life, putting an end to the first epoch of my own.
Thus far I have faithfully said. But as I pass the barrier in Time’s path, formed by the death of my beloved, and proceed with the second era of my existence, I feel that a shadow gathers over my brain, and I mistrust the perfect sanity of the record. But let me on.—Years dragged themselves along heavily, and still I dwelled within the Valley of the Many-Colored Grass; but a second change had come upon all things. The star-shaped flowers shrank into the stems of the trees, and appeared no more. The tints of the green carpet faded; and, one by one, the ruby-red asphodels withered away; and there sprang up, in place of them, ten by ten, dark, eye-like violets, that writhed uneasily and were ever encumbered with dew. And Life departed from our paths; for the tall flamingo flaunted no longer his scarlet plumage before us, but flew sadly from the vale into the hills, with all the gay glowing birds that had arrived in his company. And the golden and silver fish swam down through the gorge at the lower end of our domain and bedecked the sweet river never again. And the lulling melody that had been softer than the wind-harp of Aeolus, and more divine than all save the voice of Eleonora, it died little by little away, in murmurs growing lower and lower, until the stream returned, at length, utterly, into the solemnity of its original silence. And then, lastly, the voluminous cloud uprose, and, abandoning the tops of the mountains to the dimness of old, fell back into the regions of Hesper, and took away all its manifold golden and gorgeous glories from the Valley of the Many-Colored Grass.
Yet the promises of Eleonora were not forgotten; for I heard the sounds of the swinging of the censers of the angels; and streams of a holy perfume floated ever and ever about the valley; and at lone hours, when my heart beat heavily, the winds that bathed my brow came unto me laden with soft sighs; and indistinct murmurs filled often the night air, and once—oh, but once only! I was awakened from a slumber, like the slumber of death, by the pressing of spiritual lips upon my own.
But the void within my heart refused, even thus, to be filled. I longed for the love which had before filled it to overflowing. At length the valley pained me through its memories of Eleonora, and I left it for ever for the vanities and the turbulent triumphs of the world.
I found myself within a strange city, where all things might have served to blot from recollection the sweet dreams I had dreamed so long in the Valley of the Many-Colored Grass. The pomps and pageantries of a stately court, and the mad clangor of arms, and the radiant loveliness of women, bewildered and intoxicated my brain. But as yet my soul had proved true to its vows, and the indications of the presence of Eleonora were still given me in the silent hours of the night. Suddenly these manifestations they ceased, and the world grew dark before mine eyes, and I stood aghast at the burning thoughts which possessed, at the terrible temptations which beset me; for there came from some far, far distant and unknown land, into the gay court of the king I served, a maiden to whose beauty my whole recreant heart yielded at once—at whose footstool I bowed down without a struggle, in the most ardent, in the most abject worship of love. What, indeed, was my passion for the young girl of the valley in comparison with the fervor, and the delirium, and the spirit-lifting ecstasy of adoration with which I poured out my whole soul in tears at the feet of the ethereal Ermengarde?—Oh, bright was the seraph Ermengarde! and in that knowledge I had room for none other.—Oh, divine was the angel Ermengarde! and as I looked down into the depths of her memorial eyes, I thought only of them—and of her.
I wedded;—nor dreaded the curse I had invoked; and its bitterness was not visited upon me. And once—but once again in the silence of the night; there came through my lattice the soft sighs which had forsaken me; and they modelled themselves into familiar and sweet voice, saying:
“Sleep in peace!—for the Spirit of Love reigneth and ruleth, and, in taking to thy passionate heart her who is Ermengarde, thou art absolved, for reasons which shall be made known to thee in Heaven, of thy vows unto Eleonora.”
IN THIS RIFF:
Stories published in 1960:
“Zone of Terror”
“The Voices of Time”
“The Last World of Mr. Goddard”
1. “The Sound-Sweep” (1960)
Ballard’s strong suit isn’t characterization. In his later writing, he transcends this apparent weakness, employing a style and rhetoric that dispenses with—or nakedly accepts, in some cases—the flatness of his characters. Ballard works in types: the scientist, the madman, the artist, the detective, the ingenue, the explorer, the has-been. Most of his characters are driven by very basic desires—curiosity, madness, revenge. There’s a thin line though between archetypal placeholders and hackneyed stereotypes, and Ballard occasionally stumbles over it in some of these early stories. “The Sound-Sweep” is one such story, plodding along over too many pages, asking its readers to care about characters that lack emotional or psychological depth. And while I don’t think we read Ballard for emotional depth, necessarily, we do read Ballard’s best work because it plumbs the contours of human psychology colliding into nascent technological changes that affect the most basic human senses.
As its title suggests, “The Sound-Sweep” is another early Ballard tale that takes on the sense of sound. The short version: This is a story about noise pollution, and also about how we might sacrifice an artistic way of listening in favor of apparent convenience. As is often the case in these early stories, Ballard constructs the tale to explore the fallout of one particular idea. In this case, that’s “ultrasonic music”:
Ultrasonic music, employing a vastly greater range of octaves, chords and chromatic scales than are audible by the human ear, provided a direct neural link between the sound stream and the auditory lobes, generating an apparently sourceless sensation of harmony, rhythm, cadence and melody uncontaminated by the noise and vibration of audible music. The re–scoring of the classical repertoire allowed the ultrasonic audience the best of both worlds. The majestic rhythms of Beethoven, the popular melodies of Tchaikovsky, the complex fugal elaborations of Bach, the abstract images of Schoenberg – all these were raised in frequency above the threshold of conscious audibility. Not only did they become inaudible, but the original works were re–scored for the much wider range of the ultrasonic orchestra, became richer in texture, more profound in theme, more sensitive, tender or lyrical as the ultrasonic arranger chose.
To tease out this idea, Ballard employs a washed-up opera singer, Madame Giaconda (a heavy base of Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond with a heavy dash of Miss Havisham and cocaine), and Mangon, a mute orphan, the titular sound-sweep (should I wax on the Blakean undertones here? No? Okay).
“The Sound-Sweep” plods along over far too many pages, even divvying up the plot into chapters, asking us to care about the relationship between Giaconda and Mangon. The story would probably have made an excellent episode of The Twilight Zone, where performers might give life to some of the flat dialogue here and the constraints of television might compress the plot. The most interesting thing about “The Sound-Sweep”: The tale in some ways anticipates the mp3 and the ways in which music will be consumed:
But the final triumph of ultrasonic music had come with a second development – the short–playing record, spinning at 900 r.p.m., which condensed the 45 minutes of a Beethoven symphony to 20 seconds of playing time, the three hours of a Wagner opera to little more than two minutes. Compact and cheap, SP records sacrificed nothing to brevity. One 30–second SP record delivered as much neurophonic pleasure as a natural length recording, but with deeper penetration, greater total impact.
2. “Zone of Terror” (1960)
Edgar Allan Poe’s “William Wilson” is a much better doppelganger story. “Zone of Terror” reads like a very rough sketch for some of the stuff Ballard will do in his 1962 novel The Drowned World. (Both “Chronopolis” and “The Voices of Time” also clearly anticipate The Drowned World, each with much stronger results).
3. “Chronopolis” (1960)
“Chronopolis” offers an interesting central shtick: Clocks and other means of measuring and standardizing time have been banned. But this isn’t what makes the story stick. No, Ballard apparently tips his hand early, revealing why measuring time has been banned—it allows management to control labor:
‘Isn’t it obvious? You can time him, know exactly how long it takes him to do something.’ ‘Well?’ ‘Then you can make him do it faster.’
But our intrepid young protagonist (Conrad, his loaded name is), hardly satisfied with this answer, sneaks off to the city of the past, the titular chronopolis, where he works to restore the timepieces of the past. “Chronopolis” depicts a technologically-regressive world that Ballard will explore in greater depth with his novel The Drowned World, but the details here are precise and fascinating (if perhaps ultimately unconvincing if we try to apply them as any kind of diagnosis for our own metered age). Ending on a perfect paranoid note, Ballard borrows just a dab of Poe here, synthesizing his influence into something far more original, far more Ballardian. Let’s include it in something I’m calling The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard.
4. “The Voices of Time” (1960)
“The Voices of Time” is easily the best of the early stories in the collection. Ballard allows himself to dispense almost entirely with plot, or at least the kind of plot he’s been thus-far constrained by. Instead of the neat concision of his nineteenth century forebears (Chekhov and Poe), Ballard moves to something far more Ballardian (excuse the repetition), opening his text to a range of images and phrases that will repeat throughout his career—the word terminal, drained vessels, cryptic designs and sequences, a kind of psychic detritus the reader is left to account for and monitor. The loose threads in “The Voices of Time” are too many to enumerate. There’s a mutant armadillo and a girl named Coma. Mass narcolepsy and cacti that absorb gold from the earth as a shield against radiation. And sleep. And de-evolution:
…thirty years ago people did indeed sleep eight hours, and a century before that they slept six or seven. In Vasari’s Lives one reads of Michelangelo sleeping for only four or five hours, painting all day at the age of eighty and then working through the night over his anatomy table with a candle strapped to his forehead. Now he’s regarded as a prodigy, but it was unremarkable then. How do you think the ancients, from Plato to Shakespeare, Aristotle to Aquinas, were able to cram so much work into their lives? Simply because they had an extra six or seven hours every day. Of course, a second disadvantage under which we labour is a lowered basal metabolic rate – another factor no one will explain. …
… It’s time to re–tool. Just as an individual organism’s life span is finite, or the life of a yeast colony or a given species, so the life of an entire biological kingdom is of fixed duration. It’s always been assumed that the evolutionary slope reaches forever upwards, but in fact the peak has already been reached, and the pathway now leads downward to the common biological grave. It’s a despairing and at present unacceptable vision of the future, but it’s the only one. Five thousand centuries from now our descendants, instead of being multi–brained star–men, will probably be naked prognathous idiots with hair on their foreheads, grunting their way through the remains of this Clinic like Neolithic men caught in a macabre inversion of time. Believe me, I pity them, as I pity myself. My total failure, my absolute lack of any moral or biological right to existence, is implicit in every cell of my body…
I harped on Ballard’s lack of characterization earlier, and “The Voices of Time” makes no strong case for its author’s ability to create deep, full characters. What Ballard does very very well though is harness, express, and communicate the intellect of his smart, smart characters—something many if not most other writers (contemporary or otherwise) can’t do, despite any technical prowess they may possess. “The Voices of Time” doesn’t just tell you that its heroes and antiheroes are brilliant (and/or mad)—it shows you.
Marvelous stuff. Include it in The Essential Short Stories of J.G. Ballard
5. “The Last World of Mr. Goddard” (1960)
More Twilight Zone stuff. God-dard. Lilliput, sort of. Doll’s house. Etc. A one-note exercise that I doubt is worth your time. Skip it.
6. On the horizon:
Ballard anticipates how hollow and stale contemporary writing will become in “Studio Five, The Stars.”
“Von Kempelen and His Discovery ” by Edgar Allan Poe
AFTER THE very minute and elaborate paper by Arago, to say nothing of the summary in ‘Silliman’s Journal,’ with the detailed statement just published by Lieutenant Maury, it will not be supposed, of course, that in offering a few hurried remarks in reference to Von Kempelen’s discovery, I have any design to look at the subject in a scientific point of view. My object is simply, in the first place, to say a few words of Von Kempelen himself (with whom, some years ago, I had the honor of a slight personal acquaintance), since every thing which concerns him must necessarily, at this moment, be of interest; and, in the second place, to look in a general way, and speculatively, at the results of the discovery.
It may be as well, however, to premise the cursory observations which I have to offer, by denying, very decidedly, what seems to be a general impression (gleaned, as usual in a case of this kind, from the newspapers), viz.: that this discovery, astounding as it unquestionably is, is unanticipated.
By reference to the ‘Diary of Sir Humphrey Davy’ (Cottle and Munroe, London, pp. 150), it will be seen at pp. 53 and 82, that this illustrious chemist had not only conceived the idea now in question, but had actually made no inconsiderable progress, experimentally, in the very identical analysis now so triumphantly brought to an issue by Von Kempelen, who although he makes not the slightest allusion to it, is, without doubt (I say it unhesitatingly, and can prove it, if required), indebted to the ‘Diary’ for at least the first hint of his own undertaking.
The paragraph from the ‘Courier and Enquirer,’ which is now going the rounds of the press, and which purports to claim the invention for a Mr. Kissam, of Brunswick, Maine, appears to me, I confess, a little apocryphal, for several reasons; although there is nothing either impossible or very improbable in the statement made. I need not go into details. My opinion of the paragraph is founded principally upon its manner. It does not look true. Persons who are narrating facts, are seldom so particular as Mr. Kissam seems to be, about day and date and precise location. Besides, if Mr. Kissam actually did come upon the discovery he says he did, at the period designated—nearly eight years ago—how happens it that he took no steps, on the instant, to reap the immense benefits which the merest bumpkin must have known would have resulted to him individually, if not to the world at large, from the discovery? It seems to me quite incredible that any man of common understanding could have discovered what Mr. Kissam says he did, and yet have subsequently acted so like a baby—so like an owl—as Mr. Kissam admits that he did. By-the-way, who is Mr. Kissam? and is not the whole paragraph in the ‘Courier and Enquirer’ a fabrication got up to ‘make a talk’? It must be confessed that it has an amazingly moon-hoaxy-air. Very little dependence is to be placed upon it, in my humble opinion; and if I were not well aware, from experience, how very easily men of science are mystified, on points out of their usual range of inquiry, I should be profoundly astonished at finding so eminent a chemist as Professor Draper, discussing Mr. Kissam’s (or is it Mr. Quizzem’s?) pretensions to the discovery, in so serious a tone.
In his 1992 interview with The New York Times, Cormac McCarthy said, “The ugly fact is books are made out of books. The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.” McCarthy’s fourth novel, 1979′s Suttree is such a book, a masterful synthesis of the great literature — particularly American literature — that came before it. And like any masterful synthesis, Suttree points to something new, even as it borrows, lifts, and outright steals from the past. But before we plumb its allusions and tropes and patterns, perhaps we should overview the plot, no?
The novel rambles over several years in the life of Cornelius Suttree. It is the early 1950s in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Suttree ekes out a mean existence on the Tennessee River as a fisherman, living in a ramshackle houseboat on the edge of a shantytown. This indigent life is in fact a choice: Suttree is the college-educated son of an established, wealthy family. His choice is a choice for freedom and self-reliance, those virtues we like to think of, in our prejudicial manner, as wholly and intrinsically American. Suttree then is both Emersonian and Huck Finnian, a reflective and insightful man who finds his soul via a claim to agency over his own individuality, an individuality poised in quiet, defiant rebellion against the conforming forces of civilization. These forces manifest most pointedly in the Knoxville police, a brutal, racist organization, but we also see social constraint in the form of familial duty. One thinks of the final lines of Huckleberry Finn: “I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before.”
Like Huck, Suttree aims to resist all forces that would “sivilize” him. His time on the river and in the low haunts of Tennessee (particularly the vice-ridden borough of McAnally) brings him into close contact with plenty of other outcasts, but also his conscience, which routinely mulls over its place in the world. Suttree is punctuated by–perhaps even organized by–several scenes of hallucination. Some of these psychotrips result from drunkeness, one comes from accidentally ingesting the wrong kind of mushrooms (or, the right kind, if that’s your thing), and the final one, late in the novel, sets in as Suttree suffers from a terrible illness. In his fever dream, a small nun–surely a manifestation of the guilt that would civilize us–accuses him–
Mr. Suttree it is our understanding that at curfew rightly decreed by law in that hour wherein night draws to its proper close and the new day commences and contrary to conduct befitting a person of your station you betook yourself to various low places within the shire of McAnally and there did squander several ensuing years in the company of thieves, derelicts, miscreants, pariahs, poltroons, spalpeens, curmudgeons, clotpolls, murderers, gamblers, bawds, whores, trulls, brigands, topers, tosspots, sots and archsots, lobcocks, smellsmocks, runagates, rakes, and other assorted and felonious debauchees.
The passage is a marvelous example of McCarthy’s stream-of-consciousness technique in Suttree, moving through the various voices that would ventriloquize Suttree, into the edges of madness, strangeness, and the sublimity of language. The tone moves from somber and portentous into bizarre imagery that blends humor and pathos. This is the tone of Suttree, a language that gives voice to transients and miscreants, affirming the dignity of their humanity even as it details the squalor of their circumstance.
It is among these criminals and whores, transvestites and gamblers that Suttree affirms his own freedom and humanity, a process aided by his comic foil, Gene Harrogate. Suttree meets Harrogate on a work farm; the young hillbilly is sent there for screwing watermelons. After his release, Harrogate moves to a shantytown in Knoxville. He’s the country mouse determined to become the city rat, the would-be Tom Sawyer to Suttree’s older and wiser Huck Finn. Through Harrogate’s endless get-rich-quick schemes, McCarthy parodies that most-American of tales, the Horatio Alger story. Simply put, the boy is doomed, on his “way up to the penitentiary” as Suttree constantly admonishes. In one episode, Harrogate tries to buy arsenic from “a grayhaired and avuncular apothecary” to poison bats he hopes to sell to a hospital (don’t ask)–
May I help you? said the scientist, his hands holding each other.
I need me some strychnine, said Harrogate.
You need some what?
Strychnine. You know what it is dont ye?
Yes, said the chemist.
I need me about a good cupful I reckon.
Are you going to drink it here or take it with you?
Shit fire I aint goin to drink it. It’s poisoner’n hell.
It’s for your grandmother.
No, said Harrogate, craning his neck suspectly. She’s done dead
Suttree, unwilling father-figure, eventually buys the arsenic for the boy against his better judgment. The scene plays out as a wonderful comic inversion of William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” from which it is so transparently lifted. McCarthy borrows liberally from Faulkner here, of course, most notably in the language and style of the novel, but also in scenes like this one, or a later episode that plays off Faulkner’s comic-romantic story of a man and a woman navigating the aftermath of a flood, “Old Man.” Unpacking the allusions in Suttree surpasses my literary knowledge or skill, but McCarthy is generous, if oblique, with his breadcrumb trail. Take, for example, the following sentence: “Suttree with his miles to go kept his eyes to the ground, maudlin and muttersome in the bitter chill, under the lonely lamplight.” The forced phrase “miles to go” does not immediately present itself as a reference to Robert Frost’s famous poem, yet the direction of the sentence retreats into the history of American poetry; with its dense alliteration and haunted vowels, it leads us into Edgar Allan Poe territory. Only a few dozen pages later, McCarthy boldly begins a chapter with theft: “In just spring the goatman came over the bridge . . .” The reference to e.e. cummings explicitly signifies McCarthy’s intentions to play with literature. Later in the book, while tripping on mushrooms in the mountains, Suttree is haunted by “elves,” the would-be culprits in Frost’s poem “Mending Wall.” The callback is purposeful, but tellingly, McCarthy’s allusions are not nearly as fanciful as their surface rhetoric might suggest: the goatman does not belong in Knoxville–he’s an archaic relic, forced out of town by the police; the elves are not playful spirits but dark manifestations of a tortured psyche.
Once one spots the line-lifting in Suttree it’s hard to not see it. What’s marvelous is McCarthy’s power to convert these lines, these riffs, these stories, into his own tragicomic beast. An early brawl at a roadhouse recalls the “Golden Day” episode of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man; a rape victim’s plight echoes Hubert Selby’s “Tralala”; we find the comic hobos of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row–we even get the road-crossing turtle from The Grapes of Wrath. A later roadhouse chapter replays the “Circe/Nighttown” nightmare in James Joyce’s Ulysses. Ulysses is an easy point of comparison for Suttree, which does for Knoxville what Joyce did for Dublin. Suttree echoes Ulysses’s language, both in its musicality and appropriation of varied voices, as well as its ambulatory structure, its stream-of-consciousness technique, its rude earthiness, and its size (nearly 600 pages). But, as I argued earlier, there’s something uniquely American about Suttree, and its literary appropriations tend to reflect that. Hence, we find Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Ernest Hemingway, Walt Whitman, Emerson and Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, and William Carlos Williams, to name just a few writers whose blood courses through this novel (even elegant F. Scott Fitzgerald is here, in an unexpected Gatsbyish episode late in the novel).
Making a laundry list of writers is weak criticism though, and these sources–all guilty of their own proud plagiarisms–are mentioned only as a means to an end, to an argument that what McCarthy does in Suttree is to synthesize the American literary tradition with grace and humor, while never glossing over its inherent dangers and violence. So, while it appropriates and plays with the tropes of the past, Suttree is still pure McCarthy. Consider the following passage, which arrives at the end of a drunken, awful spree, Suttree locked up for the night–
He closed his eyes. The gray water that dripped from him was rank with caustic. By the side of a dark dream road he’d seen a hawk nailed to a barn door. But what loomed was a flayed man with his brisket tacked open like a cooling beef and his skull peeled, blue and bulbous and palely luminescent, black grots his eyeholes and bloody mouth gaped tonguless. The traveler had seized his fingers in his jaws, but it was not alone this horror that he cried. Beyond the flayed man dimly adumbrate another figure paled, for his surgeons move about the world even as you and I.
Suttree’s dark vision points directly toward the language of McCarthy’s next novel, 1985′s Blood Meridian, roundly considered his masterpiece. Critics who disagree tend to point to Suttree as the pinnacle of McCarthy’s writing. I have no interest at this time in weighing the books against each other, nor do I think that doing so would be especially enlightening. For all of their sameness, they are very different animals: Suttree provides us intense access to its hero’s consciousness, where Blood Meridian always keeps the reader on the outside of its principals’ souls (if those grotesques could be said to have souls). And while Blood Meridian does display some humor, it is the blackest and driest humor I’ve ever read. Suttree is broader and more compassionate; it even has a fart joke. Blood Meridian, at least in my estimation (and many critics will contend this notion) has no flawed episodes; much of this results from the book’s own internal program–it resists love, compassion, and even human dignity. In contrast, Suttree is punctuated by two deaths the audience is meant to read as tragic, yet I found it impossible to do so. The first is the death of Suttree’s child, whom he has abandoned, along with its mother. As such, he is not permitted to take part in the funeral, observing the process rather from its edges. The second tragedy is the death of Suttree’s young lover in a landslide. The book begs us to empathize with Suttree, just as he often empathizes with the marginal figures in the novel, but ultimately these tragedies are a failed ploy. They underwrite a sublime encounter with death for Suttree, an encounter that deepens and enriches his character while paradoxically freeing him from the burdens of social duty and familial order. McCarthy is hardly alone in such a move; indeed, it seems like the signature trope of American masculine literature to me. It’s the move that Huck Finn wishes to make when he promises to light out for the Territory to escape the civilizing body of Aunt Sally; it’s the ending that Hemingway was compelled to give to Frederic Henry at the end of A Farewell to Arms; it’s all of Faulkner, with his mortification of fatherhood and the dramatic responsibility fatherhood entails. It is a cost analysis that neglects any potential benefits.
But these are small criticisms of a large, beautiful, benevolent novel, a book that begs to be reread, a rambling picaresque of comic and tragic proportions. “I learned that there is one Suttree and one Suttree only,” our hero realizes, but this epiphany is set against a larger claim. Near the end of the novel, Suttree goes to check on an old ragman who he keeps a watchful eye on. He finds the man dead, his shack robbed, his body looted. Despairing over the spectacle’s abject lack of humanity, Suttree cries, “You have no right to represent people this way,” for “A man is all men. You have no right to your wretchedness.” Here, Suttree’s painful epiphany is real and true, an Emersonian insight coded in the darkest of Whitman’s language. If there is one Suttree and one Suttree only, he is still beholden to all men; to be anti-social or an outcast is not to be anti-human. Self-hood is ultimately conditional on others and otherness. To experience the other’s wretchedness is harrowing; to understand the other’s wretchedness and thus convert it to dignity is life-affirming and glorious. Suttree is a brilliant, bold, marvelous book. Very highly recommended.
[Ed. note---Biblioklept originally published a version of this review on November 27, 2010].
“William Wilson” by Edgar Allan Poe
What say of it? what say of CONSCIENCE grim, That spectre in my path? Chamberlayne’s Pharronida.
LET me call myself, for the present, William Wilson. The fair page now lying before me need not be sullied with my real appellation. This has been already too much an object for the scorn—for the horror—for the detestation of my race. To the uttermost regions of the globe have not the indignant winds bruited its unparalleled infamy? Oh, outcast of all outcasts most abandoned!—to the earth art thou not forever dead? to its honors, to its flowers, to its golden aspirations?—and a cloud, dense, dismal, and limitless, does it not hang eternally between thy hopes and heaven?
I would not, if I could, here or to-day, embody a record of my later years of unspeakable misery, and unpardonable crime. This epoch—these later years—took unto themselves a sudden elevation in turpitude, whose origin alone it is my present purpose to assign. Men usually grow base by degrees. From me, in an instant, all virtue dropped bodily as a mantle. From comparatively trivial wickedness I passed, with the stride of a giant, into more than the enormities of an Elah-Gabalus. What chance—what one event brought this evil thing to pass, bear with me while I relate. Death approaches; and the shadow which foreruns him has thrown a softening influence over my spirit. I long, in passing through the dim valley, for the sympathy—I had nearly said for the pity—of my fellow men. I would fain have them believe that I have been, in some measure, the slave of circumstances beyond human control. I would wish them to seek out for me, in the details I am about to give, some little oasis of fatality amid a wilderness of error. I would have them allow—what they cannot refrain from allowing—that, although temptation may have erewhile existed as great, man was never thus, at least, tempted before—certainly, never thus fell. And is it therefore that he has never thus suffered? Have I not indeed been living in a dream? And am I not now dying a victim to the horror and the mystery of the wildest of all sublunary visions?
I am the descendant of a race whose imaginative and easily excitable temperament has at all times rendered them remarkable; and, in my earliest infancy, I gave evidence of having fully inherited the family character. As I advanced in years it was more strongly developed; becoming, for many reasons, a cause of serious disquietude to my friends, and of positive injury to myself. I grew self-willed, addicted to the wildest caprices, and a prey to the most ungovernable passions. Weak-minded, and beset with constitutional infirmities akin to my own, my parents could do but little to check the evil propensities which distinguished me. Some feeble and ill-directed efforts resulted in complete failure on their part, and, of course, in total triumph on mine. Thenceforward my voice was a household law; and at an age when few children have abandoned their leading-strings, I was left to the guidance of my own will, and became, in all but name, the master of my own actions.
Composed in 1836, Georg Büchner’s novella-fragment Lenz still seems ahead of its time. While Lenz’s themes of madness, art, and ennui can be found throughout literature, Büchner’s strange, wonderful prose and documentary aims bypass the constraints of his era.
Let me share some of that prose. Here is the opening paragraph of Lenz:
The 20th, Lenz walked through the mountains. Snow on the peaks and upper slopes, gray rock down into the valleys, swatches of green, boulders, firs. It was sopping cold, the water trickled down the rocks and leapt across the path. The fir boughs sagged in the damp air. Gray clouds drifted across the sky, but everything so stifling, and then the fog floated up and crept heavy and damp through the bushes, so sluggish, so clumsy. He walked onward, caring little one way or another, to him the path mattered not, now up , now down. He felt no fatigue, except sometimes it annoyed him that he could not walk on his head. At first he felt a tightening in his chest when the rocks skittered away, the gray woods below him shook, and the fog now engulfed the shapes, now half-revealed their powerful limbs; things were building up inside him, he was searching for something, as if for lost dreams, but was finding nothing. Everything seemed so small, so near, so wet, he would have liked to set the earth down behind an oven, he could not grasp why it took so much time to clamber down a slope, to reach a distant point; he was convinced he could cover it all with a pair of strides.
Büchner sets us on Lenz’s shoulder, moving us through the estranging countryside without any exposition that might lend us bearings. The environment impinges protagonist and reader alike, heavy, damp, stifling. Büchner’s syntax shuffles along, comma splices tripping us into Lenz’s manic consciousness, his mind-swings doubled in the path that is “now up, now down.” We feel the “tightening” in Lenz’s chest as the “rocks skittered away,” as the “woods below him shook” — the natural world seems to envelop him, cloak him, suffocate him. It’s an animist terrain, and Büchner divines those spirits again in the text. The claustrophobia Lenz experiences then swings to another extreme, as our hero, his consciousness inflated, feels “he could cover [the earth] with a pair of strides.
And that baffling line: “He felt no fatigue, except sometimes it annoyed him that he could not walk on his head.” Well.
The end notes to the Archipelago edition I read (translated by Richard Sieburth) offer Arnold Zweig’s suggestion that “this sentence marks the beginning of modern European prose,” as well as Paul Celan’s observation that “whoever walks on his head has heaven beneath him as an abyss.”
Celan’s description is apt, and Büchner’s story repeatedly invokes the abyss to evoke its hero’s precarious psyche. Poor Lenz, somnambulist bather, screamer, dreamer, often feels “within himself something . . . stirring and swarming toward an abyss toward which he was being swept by an inexorable force.” Lenz is the story of a young artist falling into despair and madness.
But perhaps I should offer a more lucid summary. I’ll do that in the next paragraph, but first: Let me just recommend you skip that paragraph. Really. What I perhaps loved most about Lenz was piecing together the plot through the often elliptical or opaque experiences we get via Büchner’s haunting free indirect style. The evocation of a consciousness in turmoil is probably best maintained when we read through the same confusion that Lenz experiences. I read the novella cold based on blurbs from William H. Gass and Harold Bloom and I’m glad I did.
Here is the summary paragraph you should skip: Jakob Lenz, a writer of the Sturm and Drung movement (and friend and rival to Goethe), has recently suffered a terrible episode of schizophrenia and “an accident” (likely a suicide attempt). He’s sent to pastor-physician J.F. Oberlin, who attends to him in the Alsatian countryside in the first few weeks of 1778. During this time Lenz obsesses over a young local girl who dies (he attempts to resurrect her), takes long walks in the countryside, cries manically, offers his own aesthetic theory, prays, takes loud late-night bath in the local fountain, receives a distressing letter, and, eventually, likely—although it’s never made entirely explicit—attempts suicide again and is thusly shipped away.
Büchner bases his story on sections of Oberlin’s diary, reproduced in the Archipelago edition. In straightforward prose, these entries fill in the expository gaps that Büchner has so elegantly removed and replaced with the wonder and dread of Lenz’s imagination. The diary’s lucid entries attest to the power of Büchner’s speculative fiction, to his own art and imagination, which so bracingly take us into a clouded mind.
In Sieburth’s afterword (which also offers a concise chronology of Lenz’s troubled life), our translator points out that “Like De Quincey’s “The Last Days of Immanuel Kant” or Chateaubriand’s Life of Rancé, Büchner’s Lenz is an experiment in speculative biography, part fact, part fabrication—an early nineteenth-century example of the modern genre of docufiction.” Obviously, any number of postmodern novels have explored or used historical figures—Public Burning, Ragtime, and Mason & Dixon are all easy go-to examples. But Lenz is more personal than these postmodern fictions, more an exploration of consciousness, and although we are treated to Lenz’s ideas about literature, art, and religion, we access this very much through his own skull and soul. He’s not just a placeholder or mouthpiece for Büchner.
Lenz strikes me as something closer to the docufiction of W.G. Sebald. Perhaps it’s all the ambulating; maybe it’s the melancholy; could be the philosophical tone. And, while I’m lazily, assbackwardly comparing Büchner’s book to writers who came much later: Thomas Bernhard. Maybe it’s the flights of rant that Lenz occasionally hits, or the madness, or the depictions of nature, or hell, maybe it’s those long, long passages. The comma splices.
Chronologically closer is the work of Edgar Allan Poe, whose depictions of manic bipolar depression resonate strongly with Lenz—not to mention the abysses, the torment, the spirits, the doppelgängers. Why not share another sample here to illustrate this claim? Okay:
The incidents during the night reached a horrific pitch. Only with the greatest effort did he fall asleep, having tried at length to fill the terrible void. Then he fell into a dreadful state between sleeping and waking; he bumped into something ghastly, hideous, madness took hold of him, he sat up, screaming violently, bathed in sweat, and only gradually found himself again. He had to begin with the simplest things in order to come back to himself. In fact he was not the one doing this but rather a powerful instinct for self preservation, it was as if he were double, the one half attempting to save the other, calling out to itself; he told stories, he recited poems out loud, wracked with anxiety, until he came to his sense.
Here, Lenz suspends his neurotic horror through storytelling and art—but it’s just that, only a suspension. Büchner doesn’t blithely, naïvely suggest that art has the power to permanently comfort those in despair; rather, Lenz repeatedly suggests that art, that storytelling is a symptom of despair.
What drives despair? Lenz—Lenz—Büchner (?)—suggests repeatedly that it’s Langeweile—boredom. Sieburth renders the German Langeweile as boredom, a choice I like, even though he might have been tempted to reach for its existentialist chain-smoking cousin ennui. When Lenz won’t get out of bed one day, Oberlin heads to his room to rouse him:
Oberlin had to repeat his questions at length before getting an answer: Yes, Reverend, you see, boredom! Boredom! O, sheer boredom, what more can I say, I have already drawn all the figures on the wall. Oberlin said to him he should turn to God; he laughed and said: if I were as lucky as you to have discovered such an agreeable pastime, yes, one could indeed wile away one’s time that way. Tedium the root of it all. Most people pray only out of boredom; others fall in love out of boredom, still others are virtuous or depraved, but I am nothing, nothing at all, I cannot even kill myself: too boring . . .
Lenz fits in neatly into the literature of boredom, a deep root that predates Dostoevsky, Camus, and Bellow, as well as contemporary novels like Lee Rourke’s The Canal and David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King.
Ultimately, the boredom Lenz circles around is deeply painful:
The half-hearted attempts at suicide he kept on making were not entirely serious, it was less the desire to die, death for him held no promise of peace or hope, than the attempt, at moments of excruciating anxiety or dull apathy bordering on non-existence bordering on non-existence, to snap back into himself through physical pain. But his happiest moments were when his mind seemed to gallop away on some madcap idea. This at least provided some relief and the wild look in his eye was less horrible than the anxious thirsting for deliverance, the never-ending torture of unrest!
The “never-ending torture of unrest” is the burden of existence we all carry, sloppily fumble, negotiate with an awkward grip and bent back. Büchner’s analysis fascinates in its refusal to lighten this burden or ponderously dwell on its existential weight. Instead, Lenz is a character study that the reader can’t quite get out of—we’re too inside the frame to see the full contours; precariously perched on Lenz’s shoulder, we have to jostle along with him, look through his wild eyes, gallop along with him on the energy of his madcap idea. The gallop is sad and beautiful and rewarding. Very highly recommended.
“Mesmeric Revelation” by Edgar Allen Poe
WHATEVER doubt may still envelop the rationale of mesmerism, its startling facts are now almost universally admitted. Of these latter, those who doubt, are your mere doubters by profession—an unprofitable and disreputable tribe. There can be no more absolute waste of time than the attempt to prove, at the present day, that man, by mere exercise of will, can so impress his fellow, as to cast him into an abnormal condition, of which the phenomena resemble very closely those of death, or at least resemble them more nearly than they do the phenomena of any other normal condition within our cognizance; that, while in this state, the person so impressed employs only with effort, and then feebly, the external organs of sense, yet perceives, with keenly refined perception, and through channels supposed unknown, matters beyond the scope of the physical organs; that, moreover, his intellectual faculties are wonderfully exalted and invigorated; that his sympathies with the person so impressing him are profound; and, finally, that his susceptibility to the impression increases with its frequency, while, in the same proportion, the peculiar phenomena elicited are more extended and more pronounced. I say that these—which are the laws of mesmerism in its general features—it would be supererogation to demonstrate; nor shall I inflict upon my readers so needless a demonstration; to-day. My purpose at present is a very different one indeed. I am impelled, even in the teeth of a world of prejudice, to detail without comment the very remarkable substance of a colloquy, occurring between a sleep-waker and myself. I had been long in the habit of mesmerizing the person in question, (Mr. Vankirk,) and the usual acute susceptibility and exaltation of the mesmeric perception had supervened. For many months he had been laboring under confirmed phthisis, the more distressing effects of which had been relieved by my manipulations; and on the night of Wednesday, the fifteenth instant, I was summoned to his bedside. The invalid was suffering with acute pain in the region of the heart, and breathed with great difficulty, having all the ordinary symptoms of asthma. In spasms such as these he had usually found relief from the application of mustard to the nervous centres, but to-night this had been attempted in vain. As I entered his room he greeted me with a cheerful smile, and although evidently in much bodily pain, appeared to be, mentally, quite at ease. “I sent for you to-night,” he said, “not so much to administer to my bodily ailment, as to satisfy me concerning certain psychal impressions which, of late, have occasioned me much anxiety and surprise. I need not tell you how sceptical I have hitherto been on the topic of the soul’s immortality. I cannot deny that there has always existed, as if in that very soul which I have been denying, a vague half-sentiment of its own existence. But this half-sentiment at no time amounted to conviction. With it my reason had nothing to do. All attempts at logical inquiry resulted, indeed, in leaving me more sceptical than before. I had been advised to study Cousin. I studied him in his own works as well as in those of his European and American echoes. The ‘Charles Elwood’ of Mr. Brownson, for example, was placed in my hands. I read it with profound attention. Throughout I found it logical, but the portions which were not merely logical were unhappily the initial arguments of the disbelieving hero of the book. In his summing up it seemed evident to me that the reasoner had not even succeeded in convincing himself. His end had plainly forgotten his beginning, like the government of Trinculo. In short, I was not long in perceiving that if man is to be intellectually convinced of his own immortality, he will never be so convinced by the mere abstractions which have been so long the fashion of the moralists of England, of France, and of Germany. Abstractions may amuse and exercise, but take no hold on the mind. Here upon earth, at least, philosophy, I am persuaded, will always in vain call upon us to look upon qualities as things. The will may assent—the soul—the intellect, never. “I repeat, then, that I only half felt, and never intellectually believed. But latterly there has been a certain deepening of the feeling, until it has come so nearly to resemble the acquiescence of reason, that I find it difficult to distinguish between the two. I am enabled, too, plainly to trace this effect to the mesmeric influence. I cannot better explain my meaning than by the hypothesis that the mesmeric exaltation enables me to perceive a train of ratiocination which, in my abnormal existence, convinces, but which, in full accordance with the mesmeric phenomena, does not extend, except through its effect, into my normal condition. In sleep-waking, the reasoning and its conclusion—the cause and its effect—are present together. In my natural state, the cause vanishing, the effect only, and perhaps only partially, remains. “These considerations have led me to think that some good results might ensue from a series of well-directed questions propounded to me while mesmerized. You have often observed the profound self-cognizance evinced by the sleep-waker—the extensive knowledge he displays upon all points relating to the mesmeric condition itself; and from this self-cognizance may be deduced hints for the proper conduct of a catechism.” I consented of course to make this experiment. A few passes threw Mr. Vankirk into the mesmeric sleep. His breathing became immediately more easy, and he seemed to suffer no physical uneasiness. The following conversation then ensued:—V. in the dialogue representing the patient, and P. myself.
P. Are you asleep?
V. Yes—no I would rather sleep more soundly.
P. [After a few more passes.] Do you sleep now?
“The Philosophy of Composition” by Edgar Allan Poe
Charles Dickens, in a note now lying before me, alluding to an examination I once made of the mechanism of Barnaby Rudge, says—”By the way, are you aware that Godwin wrote his Caleb Williams backwards? He first involved his hero in a web of difficulties, forming the second volume, and then, for the first, cast about him for some mode of accounting for what had been done.”
I cannot think this the precise mode of procedure on the part of Godwin—and indeed what he himself acknowledges is not altogether in accordance with Mr. Dickens’s idea—but the author of Caleb Williams was too good an artist not to perceive the advantage derivable from at least a somewhat similar process. Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its dénouement before anything be attempted with the pen. It is only with the dénouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention.
There is a radical error, I think, in the usual mode of constructing a story. Either history affords a thesis—or one is suggested by an incident of the day—or, at best, the author sets himself to work in the combination of striking events to form merely the basis of his narrative—-designing, generally, to fill in with description, dialogue, or autorial comment, whatever crevices of fact or action may, from page to page, render themselves apparent.
I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect. Keeping originality always in view—for he is false to himself who ventures to dispense with so obvious and so easily attainable a source of interest—I say to myself, in the first place, “Of the innumerable effects or impressions of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?” Having chosen a novel first, and secondly, a vivid effect, I consider whether it can be best wrought by incident or tone—whether by ordinary incidents and peculiar tone, or the converse, or by peculiarity both of incident and tone—afterwards looking about me (or rather within) for such combinations of events or tone as shall best aid me in the construction of the effect.
I have often thought how interesting a magazine paper might be written by any author who would—that is to say, who could—detail, step by step, the processes by which any one of his compositions attained its ultimate point of completion. Why such a paper has never been given to the world, I am much at a loss to say—but perhaps the autorial vanity has had more to do with the omission than any one other cause. Most writers—poets in especial—prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy—an ecstatic intuition—and would positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes, at the elaborate and vacillating crudities of thought—at the true purposes seized only at the last moment—at the innumerable glimpses of idea that arrived not at the maturity of full view—at the fully-matured fancies discarded in despair as unmanageable—at the cautious selections and rejections—at the painful erasures and interpolations,—in a word, at the wheels and pinions, the tackle for scene-shifting, the step-ladders and demon-traps, the cock’s feathers, the red paint, and the black patches, which, in ninety-nine cases out of the hundred, constitute the properties of the literary histrio.
“I never expected strangers to tell me so much about themselves, so many things they have never told anybody else, but I found an unexpected intimacy in the postcard life story project,” writes Michael Kimball in the introduction to his new book, the aptly titled Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (On a Postcard). Kimball continues: “It tapped into something human and humane. I was continually amazed by what people told me.”
Kimball’s respect for the people whose stories he is telling comes through in his spare but descriptive prose, an economical rhetoric undoubtedly necessitated by the confines of his small canvasses. When I interviewed Kimball about the project, he told me:
There are difficult things at different stages of the process. The first difficult thing is asking the right questions for the particular participant. The second difficult thing is being representative when condensing what I’ve been told. The third difficult thing is writing small enough to squeeze six hundred words or so onto a single postcard.
Through that asking, condensing, and squeezing, Kimball distills his subject’s lives into compact but moving stories.
Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (On a Postcard) began as a performance piece at the Transmodern Performance Festival and then continued as a blog. Kimball eventually wrote over three hundred postcards; over fifty of these are collected in the new book. A not-insubstantial number of these are devoted to the biographies of contemporary writers, including folks like Tao Lin, Matt Bell, and Blake Butler:
By 4 years old, Blake was performing considered monologues, crazy dances, music videos, and both sides of talk shows. It’s all on video (his mother will show you, if you want). Despite these performances, Blake was a fat child by the 4th grade. He liked comic books and video games. By 10th grade, he weighed 250 pounds and felt disregarded. His bedroom walls were covered with pictures of women that he tore out of magazines at the grocery store and took home.
There’s also a first-person POV bio of Edgar Allan Poe, the last few paragraphs of which I can’t help sharing:
In 1831, my foster father and I had a terrible disagreement, after which I was court-martialed and kicked out of West Point. In 1834, my foster father died and did not leave me any of his money. To console myself, I married my 14-year-old cousin, Virginia Clemm.
For years, I published poems and stories and criticism, but it did not make me happy or money. In 1837, I was fired from a newspaper job for drinking. After that, I published a novel, but that didn’t help much either. Readers are sick. That’s why Virginia got tuberculosis and died in 1847. I was so lonely and so cold. I could not stop drinking.
It was 1849 when I stopped in Baltimore. I remember going down in the street, and, later, two hazy men taking me someplace white. I don’t remember dying, but I was glad I didn’t have to keep trying.
The mix of empathy and humor we see here resonates throughout the collection, whether Kimball is telling the life story of a U.S. President, or an ex-crack addict who met his wife at an all-you-can-eat buffet, or a rooster. Kimball handles his subjects with an intense honesty appropriate to the often tragic trajectory these tales take—even a piece like “Red Delicious Apple,” which takes metaphysical license of a sort, leads to a sad end:
The first thing Red Delicious Apple remembered was being a flower and the way the birds sounded in the trees. Later, Apple remembered the wind and losing his petals. Apple wanted to jump down after them, but stayed on the branch, in the tree. … Not long after that, Hand delivered Apple to the teeth. Apple could feel the teeth cutting through his skin and into his meat, what was left of his insides turning brown. Afterward, he sickened, softened. The last thing Apple remembered was the trashcan, the lid, the rotting darkness.
Or the fate of “Chair”:Chair thought, Wood and glue.
Chair thought, Next time, I’m letting go.
Chair cracked. He broke one of his legs and then his back.
Chair thought, That didn’t even hurt.
Update : Chair was thrown into a dumpster.
But perhaps I bring up “Chair” and “Red Delicious Apple” because their tragic contours are easier to allude to quickly than many of the biographies here, which often involve missing parents, mental illness, and suicidal thoughts, all delivered in the spare, striking prose that the confines of Kimball’s project necessitate. The stories are sometimes shocking and sometimes sad and usually very moving. As the titular anonym of “G” suggests, “tragedy can be beautiful.”
Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (On a Postcard) is new from Mud Luscious Press.
Michael Kimball’s latest book Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (On a Postcard) had its genesis in a performance piece at the Transmodern Performance Festival a few years back: Michael interviewed people for a few minutes and then crammed their biographies onto postcards. The project soon evolved into a blog, where Michael interviewed hundreds of people of all ages from around the world. The work is now collected in a book from Mud Luscious Press that features over fifty of the biographies, including the life stories of several contemporary writers, one dead U.S. President, a rooster, a T-shirt, a few cats, Edgar Allan Poe, and Michael himself.
In addition to Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (On a Postcard), Michael is the author of Big Ray, Us, Dear Everybody, and The Way the Family Got Away. He still holds the Meryl S. Colt Elementary School record for the 600-yard dash. Check out his website.
Michael was kind enough to talk to me about this latest book over a series of emails.
Biblioklept: What’s the hardest thing about writing someone’s life story on a postcard?
Michael Kimball: There are difficult things at different stages of the process. The first difficult thing is asking the right questions for the particular participant. The second difficult thing is being representative when condensing what I’ve been told. The third difficult thing is writing small enough to squeeze six hundred words or so onto a single postcard.
Biblioklept: When you started the project, it was a planned performance piece of sorts, but your description of it at the beginning of the book makes it seem rather off-the-cuff. Did you have a plan for the questions you would ask? How did the questions change as the project progressed?
MK: That first performance was definitely off-the-cuff. I had no idea what I was going to ask people and how I was going to write their life stories on a postcard. I mostly started with something pretty open-ended and then asked more specific questions about whatever I was told. As the project progressed, I developed a set of starter questions that elicited basic information and then asked more specific questions from there. Basically, I considered whatever I was being told to be important and then asked more questions about it.
Biblioklept: You interviewed people by email, in phone, in person — how did how you were doing the interview affect the process? Did you prefer one way over the other?
MK: I preferred the in-person interviews. There was a different kind of intimacy with those and there are a bunch of people I interviewed that way who are now friends. Of course, that wasn’t practical for lots of the interviews, since most people lived so far away from me. And the method did influence the process. With the phone interview and in-person interviews I was taking notes as fast as I could, but that was never fast enough. With the email interviews, it was easier for people to give me more detailed answers. Also, since I had the full text of their answers, I could use more of their language.
Biblioklept: Did you prefer to use as much of the subject’s language as possible? Maybe I’m getting into what you described as “the second difficult thing” — how much of yourself do you see in the pieces? I think there’s clearly a voice, a tone that unifies the pieces . . . I’m curious how much of the process was crafting or editing or revising or repurposing the subject’s original language…
MK: I tried to use the participant’s language wherever I thought it gave some sense of the person. At times, I thought of like using third-person close narration. Besides that, I was trying to be as objective as possible and I think that gave the life stories a certain consistency of tone. Clearly, I tend to write sentences a certain way, but beyond that I tried to keep myself out of it.
Biblioklept: What about pieces like “Chair” or “T-Shirt” — how did they come about?
MK: The first non-person one I wrote was Red Delicious Apple, which popped into my head almost fully formed, which happened because I used to almost always have apples on my desk, which just meant that I spent a lot of time with apples. But writing Red Delicious Apple opened up a lot of possibilities and so T-Shirt is written about my favorite t-shirt and Chair was written about a chair I once broke. And I have a great affection for animals, so I loved writing ones like Moose the Cat, Sammy the Dog, and Abby the Horse.
Biblioklept: You wrote over three hundred postcards. How did you choose which ones you would include in the book?
MK: The book would have been over seven hundred pages long if I had included all the postcard life stories, but it was difficult leaving any of them out. So, ultimately, it came down to trying to showing the range of the postcard life stories, which is why nearly every one I wrote about a non-human made it into the book.
Biblioklept: How did the Poe biography come about?
MK: That was for Gigantic’s Gigantic America issue. They asked me to write one of the great American bios that they printed on special card inserts and I suggested Poe, who had just had some anniversary of his life or his death.
Biblioklept: Several pieces in Life Story are about contemporary writers. Was writing about these writers different than writing about anyone else in the collection?
MK: Early on, it was other writers who seemed particularly keen on the project — Adam Robinson, Karen Lillis, Elizabeth Ellen, Elizabeth Crane, Blake Butler, etc. I approached every postcard life story the same way, but then let the participant tell me where they wanted to take it. I tried to ask questions that followed their answers.
Biblioklept: I imagine most people who asked to participate in the project were forthcoming with their answers. I’m curious though if you noticed any topics that people avoided or glossed over or maybe required additional prodding from you. Did you ever feel like your part of the interviewing process pushed your subject into uncomfortable territory?
MK: I didn’t realize it until later, but part of what made the project work was that people came to me wanting to tell their life story (rather than me asking them if they wanted it told). Still, there were a few times that people were reluctant to say things. There was one woman who was reluctant to talk about her husband and I couldn’t figure out why, but then they divorced not long after that. And there was one man who didn’t want to talk about his mother because she was really sick. But usually if there was reluctance, it was some kind of abuse or some other horrible thing that had happened to the person. In fact, I was reluctant to talk about the abuse I grew up with in my own postcard life story when it was initially written. In general, I tried to ask the difficult question, but then let the participant decide whether they wanted to answer and how much they wanted to tell me. And with particularly difficult life stories, I always showed the participant what I wrote and asked them if they were OK with it being public before I ever put their postcard life story out into the world.
Biblioklept: Talking about one’s own life clearly has some kind of therapeutic value. Do you think reading about one’s own life carries a similar value?
MK: Since starting the project, I’ve learned there are quite a few therapeutic techniques that involve narrative and telling (or retelling) one’s life story. Part of that process is hearing one’s life story told back or reading about one’s own life. There can be something useful in that perspective and there can be something reassuring about having a manageable version of one’s life story.
Biblioklept: What are you working on now?
MK: I’m very slowly working on two different novels and thinking about a third. I’m not sure if I’ll ever finish any of them.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
MK: I used to steal so many books, especially when I didn’t have the money to keep pace with my reading appetite and I couldn’t find the things I wanted to read in the library. I’ve tried to make up for that by giving away lots of books these days. I stole so many books that I’m not sure I can remember a specific instance. But it was always kind of thrilling and it seemed to make reading all the more exciting. Sometimes, if I didn’t like a book I would sneak it back into the bookstore.
“The Oblong Box” by Edgar Allan Poe
SOME years ago, I engaged passage from Charleston, S. C, to the city of New York, in the fine packet-ship “Independence,” Captain Hardy. We were to sail on the fifteenth of the month (June), weather permitting; and on the fourteenth, I went on board to arrange some matters in my state-room.
I found that we were to have a great many passengers, including a more than usual number of ladies. On the list were several of my acquaintances, and among other names, I was rejoiced to see that of Mr. Cornelius Wyatt, a young artist, for whom I entertained feelings of warm friendship. He had been with me a fellow-student at C— University, where we were very much together. He had the ordinary temperament of genius, and was a compound of misanthropy, sensibility, and enthusiasm. To these qualities he united the warmest and truest heart which ever beat in a human bosom.
I observed that his name was carded upon three state-rooms; and, upon again referring to the list of passengers, I found that he had engaged passage for himself, wife, and two sisters—his own. The state-rooms were sufficiently roomy, and each had two berths, one above the other. These berths, to be sure, were so exceedingly narrow as to be insufficient for more than one person; still, I could not comprehend why there were three state-rooms for these four persons. I was, just at that epoch, in one of those moody frames of mind which make a man abnormally inquisitive about trifles: and I confess, with shame, that I busied myself in a variety of ill-bred and preposterous conjectures about this matter of the supernumerary state-room. It was no business of mine, to be sure, but with none the less pertinacity did I occupy myself in attempts to resolve the enigma. At last I reached a conclusion which wrought in me great wonder why I had not arrived at it before. “It is a servant of course,” I said; “what a fool I am, not sooner to have thought of so obvious a solution!” And then I again repaired to the list—but here I saw distinctly that no servant was to come with the party, although, in fact, it had been the original design to bring one—for the words “and servant” had been first written and then overscored. “Oh, extra baggage, to be sure,” I now said to myself—”something he wishes not to be put in the hold—something to be kept under his own eye—ah, I have it—a painting or so—and this is what he has been bargaining about with Nicolino, the Italian Jew.” This idea satisfied me, and I dismissed my curiosity for the nonce.