Sunday, February 12, 2017

On Beauty

To speak of beauty in this day and age (its significance, its necessity) is to mark oneself a snob. “Beauty,” writes Alexander Nehamas in his recent reflections on the matter, “is the most discredited philosophical notion—so discredited that I could not even find an entry for it in the index of the many books in the philosophy of art I consulted in order to find it discredited. Even if I believe that beauty is more than the charm of a lovely face, the seductive grace of a Mapplethorpe photograph, the symmetry of the sonata form, the tight construction of a sonnet, even if it is, in the most general terms, aesthetic value, I am not spared. For it is the judgment of aesthetic value itself—the judgment of taste—that is embarrassing. It is embarrassing ideologically, if to be able to judge aesthetically you must be educated and learned and if, as Pierre Bourdieu claims, ‘it is linked either to a bourgeois origin or to the most quasi-bourgeois mode of existence presupposed by prolonged schooling, or (most often) to both of these combined…’” To speak of beauty today is also morally embarrassing, as Nehamas is quick to explain: “The aesthetic judgment collapses into an instrument of political oppression or into an implement of moral edification.”

It is a problem with which I myself I have struggled for years. As an ardent admirer of the work of Marcel Proust, of his novel Á la recherche du temps perdu (even citing the French title of which now makes me seem pretentious), I have long felt the truth of what Nehamas says. After all how can I not be an elitist, a snob, if Proust—of all writers (matchless critic of snobbery though he was)—is one of my favorites, a rich, pampered, dandified aesthete?

For me the key to answering the question is this: as much as I admire the work of Marcel Proust (to cite but one example), I do not hold his fiction as the standard of either literature or beauty for you. I am the first to acknowledge that I have led a relatively privileged life and that that has shaped my perceptions, my values, my tastes. I, like you, have been predisposed by my upbringing to see beauty in particular ways, in ways that suit me, feel natural, feel right. Which is not to say that they are natural or right, let alone objective as a measure of things—a point with which some readers are sure to take issue, insisting as they will on a host of time-tested attributes and principles, each exemplified by particular paintings and sculptures, by particular odes and concertos, by particular novels, films, and plays.

While I certainly have my standards (my prejudices) when it comes to literature, when it comes to beauty itself, I make no claim that they are or should be definitive to you. I have read enough, I have travelled enough, to know that the deep appreciation of beauty is hardly just the bailiwick of my kind. Venture anywhere in the world and you will find it, the sort of purposeful, artifactual beauty that is cultivated by men and women of every level of education, of every race and tradition, of every culture, class, and creed. While there is, has been, and always will be widespread disagreement about the ultimate nature of Beauty (what is in fact a largely academic matter, preoccupied as it is with the judgment of taste), it seems plain to me that the only prerequisite for the appreciation of beauty is that of being simply, dreadfully human. 

Still, having said this, I do not believe that beauty is merely a private, subjective, finally solipsistic thing. I am convinced that, for all its variation, beauty is also and essentially communal, collaborative, contingent, a trust we hold in common with others. At the risk of generalizing, what seems to characterize all forms of beauty is their ability to enrich and intensify experience, to lend it depth and dimension, to make resonant, even eternal, the facts of what is otherwise but a bluntly mortal life. We find through beauty that we are capable of more. 

For some time now I have taught (and wrestled with) Alain de Botton’s smart and illuminating book The Architecture of Happiness, a laymen’s introduction to the practical, aesthetic, and philosophical implications of architecture, of the built environment in which we—at least an increasing proportion of us—now live. I say that I have wrestled with the book because, while it is clear that the author’s intention was to help popularize the conversation about beauty, about architectural beauty in particular, at points he does seem to imply (by his allusions, his language, by the very things he takes for granted) that the deep appreciation of beauty does indeed require a level of education and exposure well beyond the reach of most human beings. I think this inadvertent, the perhaps inevitable product of his own vernacular, of his own education and interests. Like Proust, like all authors, De Botton assumes a certain type of reader for his book, a reader who (for a host of different reasons) may or may not be you. No matter. For as with everything in life (love, sexuality, art, music, literature, food, ritual, politics, and faith), we engage with the world in whatever ways, at whatever levels, we find meaningful, true.

Even the Marxist revolutionary, Leon Trotsky, acknowledged the fundamental necessity of beauty and art: 
It is not true that we regard only that art as new and revolutionary which speaks of the worker, and it is nonsense to say that we demand that the poets should describe inevitably a factory chimney, or the uprising against capital! Of course the new art cannot but place the struggle of the proletariat in the center of its attention. But the plough of the new art is not limited to numbered strips. On the contrary, it must plough the entire field in all directions. Personal lyrics of the very smallest scope have an absolute right to exist within the new art. Moreover the new man cannot be formed without a new lyric poetry.

No wonder he was murdered. 

“It is in a dialogue with pain that many beautiful things acquire their value,” suggests De Botton in The Architecture of Happiness. Perhaps that is why the older I get the more I am alert to beauty, to the deft, complex, often fleeting relationship between subject and meaning and form. Nowhere is this truer for me than with literature. When I read I read with beauty in mind—the beauty of an image, a phrase, the beauty of a character, a setting, a scene. Just as beauty can be simple, reassuring, familiar, it can also be complex, horrific, sublime. What seems inarguable to me is that the need for beauty is an innately human thing. It is what moves us to think, to feel. It is what moves us to be.  

Peter Adam Nash  

Sunday, February 5, 2017

"Precision Unsurpassed"

Kim Garcia, Drone (Poems)

"I set my alarm by an inner dove / wake to crows." (KG)


"In November, 2002, a Predator drone would loose a Hellfire missile on a car in Yemen, a country with which we weren't at war....these robotic planes, with their young 'pilots' sitting in front of consoles 7,000 miles away from where their missiles and bombs are landing, have become another kind of American fever dream."*


 "Because war deals with prospective concerns, it relies less on exact information and more on probabilities, predictions and guesswork. The military bombs a building when it estimates with varying degrees of certainty that enemy soldiers or munitions are there. It does not wait to attack until it has proof beyond a reasonable doubt or probably [sic] cause." John Yoo


What Anthony Gottlieb has called the Dream of Reason was the fond notion, born in the European seventeenth century, that a set of universal laws, codified in mathematics and physical science, not only infused the universe, but that the mind of Man could perceive and understand this divine language and make it his own. The world was, in other words, perfectible, a reflection of God's omniscient and all-loving plan for us, his apes. Of course there were skeptics--Montaigne and Voltaire are among the better known naysayers--but the faith of the West, the touching notion that goodness and reason runs through the fabric of the world like some beautiful golden thread, lingers with the persistence of a deadly virus.

We could have used our power for anything. Anything.


Simone Weil writes: "But this indefinable influence that the presence of another human being has on us is not exercised by men whom a moment of impatience can deprive of life, who can die before thought even has a chance to pass sentence on them."


I hear the word "drone" and think: sexless bees or ants scurrying about a hive or hill--a sound without pitch or harmony or resolution--bars of color on paper that simply peter out--an oddly-shaped aircraft whirring like a demented bird above the park where my children are playing, a man in khaki staring upward, holding a black box (it's brown), smiling.


A colleague tells me that UAV's (unmanned aerial vehicles) controlled by computers that are themselves "ethically programmed" by other computers will someday insure that wars are both just and, for the victor, bloodless. I say that I prefer wars that are bloody, the siege of Troy for example, since the romance of killing is more likely to fade in presence of bloodshed. He tells me that I am naive, and I feel slightly better.


Kim Garcia's Drone  deploys formal, rhetorical, and existential modes of representation in order to speak coherently and passionately about something that is beyond our--my--ability to comprehend. Could a weapon have mystical properties, exist in a place beyond our ability to speak, to reason, to comprehend? What sorts of people make and deploy a soulless engine, devise weekly "kill lists," (are they typed on fine bond paper and handed to the president? Does he study them over coffee, make checks in red pen? Cross off names, add others?), sit in windowless rooms at Langley pushing buttons before heading out to face rush hour traffic and a late supper? No, I'm not a believer in the banality of evil--far from it. While the perpetrators look like us--how else should they look?--and while it helps to lack imagination when you're killing people long-distance, evil is anything but banal.

[A Madrasa in Pakistan]

 Drone is a brave book. How many truly memorable poems can you recall that deal with a single subject of such unpromising province?  I carried it with me to work for a month and read one or two poems each day during my free time. I memorized several so I could tell them to my wife, including this one:

What Fear Wants

In the early hour dispatches:
scorpion stings, dislocation, a sand-locked wheel
Somehow the wary hours pass, orders fulfilled, burrowers
and scalp suckers, sweat between shoulder blades--fear's
spit, hair prickling under the helmet, neck naked, raw.

What fear wants is to clear the ground bald, to flay
itself with shovels, to blacken with fire, to be Leviathan,
earth-shaker and cleaver, dirt-spitter, disrupter and penetrator
intimate with the tings feared, the cold sword in the ribs--fear's
sorcery like a cloud at sea, drawing up what it rains down.

Perfect. How fear is palpable, how it lives a life separate from us, how being afraid forces us to disdain consequences to others and to ourselves, how fear sucks life out of itself. Garcia does this thing with images that is stunning: fire and rain, the cold sword and the blackened ground, sand and sweat. The sibilants in stanza one sound out the whip of bullets--a terrified Marine at Fallujah--then the (perfectly natural) yearning for fire to pour down on the invisible enemy, on fear itself. The world ending in a conflagration rained down on us by machines that we've programmed to think for themselves. No scare quotes around "think" since words like truth and think and fact have been washed clean of their ordinary associations--all of our words, whether truly spoken or not, exist in quotation marks, so we can leave them out.

We can no longer trust language; the presumed fit with the world has been broken. All that is left of words is what is private: poetry and prayer. I'm not kidding.


In my view, Garcia's style resembles that of the metaphysical poets--Andrew Marvell comes to mind:

"The mind, that ocean where each kind
 Does straight its own resemblance find;
 Yet it creates, transcending these,
 Far other worlds, and other seas;
 Annihilating all that’s made
 To a green thought in a green shade."

The ability to see through the world is, I suppose, the point of Platonism, but in Garcia's poetry this ability suggests not worship of the invisible (that Platonic fallacy: the unseen being "higher" than what is at hand) or impatience with mere appearance, but bafflement with the surfaces of things--this is, I believe, irony of a higher kind, not skepticism about the possibility of meaning, but the acknowledgment that at least two different meanings always coexist, Abelard's Sic et Non.

Let me see if I can illustrate this point with the poem "Augury"

To read the new birds of the air,
a collection of intellectual property,
mapmakers, eyes of glass.

To read the flight paths, solo
and squadron, to observe
all hovering before splash.

To read the tremor between earth
and air, warcraft and godcraft,
and mend with sacrifice the flight-rift.

There is a priestly caste blood-woven
into power, undone by sites as thin
and sharp as a single quick beak.

Black, glass bead of an eye, wing
quiver, early morning song leaking
from beneath any boot made.

The air is still ours to stitch
with winged messengers, living books
not of our making, if we read rightly.

Each stanza has a bird poised next to, or within, a more sinister image (of the "eye" of the drone that sees all, indifferently). Drone is full of birds, the innocence and pleasure of the garden full of songbirds whose charming chirps--as the naturalists never tire of telling us--are not nature's lyrics but aggressive claims to territory and mates. Marvell's garden was not only pastoral, a site of courtship and romance, but the stage on which human failure was first manifest--O felix culpa! Or, unhappily, a fall with little hope of redemption.

Of what on earth can a drone be a symbol? Nothing. A blind, soulless, remotely-guided killing machine embodies "intellectual property" created by a "priestly caste" but to make a bomb or a gun or a drone represent something else isn't like making a garden or the color green into a symbol of fertility and life--"this is this" as Robert De Niro pointed out in Deer Hunter--and that is the problem Garcia has set out to solve in Drone. Each poem peers at the dreadful thing from a slightly different angle, trying to find the words for it, never quite succeeding, not for want of intelligence but for the failure of words. 

"Even now I can feel this poem dragnetting to its conclusion, scraping/ up and destroying what it can't speak..." ("Surveillance: A Screen Life")

Every gift that Garcia possesses--meter, imagery, diction, irony--shows up in one or more poems, but at no point can she (or anyone else) answer the fundamental question, the final question posed by the book:

And what shall we beat you into, little mechanical bird
with the head of a bowling pin, speculum, goose?

How to imagine our way back? Rules help: no weapons
in shared airspace, or in the spaces in between.

Then the dismantling, the tidy buttons
on the computer games that kills, yanked out

harmless like the horn on a Playskool car,
nobody listening, wires dangling and disconnected

from flesh.... ("Drone: Ploughshares")

Into what indeed. Garcia writes that we must throw the demon down to hell, and there are poems with "avenging angels;" dreams of peace; the Holy Ghost as harbinger of Revelation--apocalyptic images prevail in Drone--but these verses are offered (I think) in frustration and futility--"Can hills cover us"? Can clouds protect us from the glassy eye of the speculum, this mirror of our cruelty? No. The drone can't be turned into anything else; nothing hopeful lies behind it. I am reading my own memories into her poems, feeling again as I did when I was a child huddled in the family bomb shelter, practicing for the end of the world.


"All my life I have wanted the bombs to fall / someplace else."

It's not easy to admit that the terrible things that we have visited on other people might now be visited upon us.  I walked into an electronics store over Christmas to purchase a turntable--my analog yearning a joke to the sales clerk--and strolled right into a wall of drones. For a hundred dollars I could buy my own little UAV, attach a camera, and spy on my neighbors. Anyone can do it, and worse. The drone, unlike the F-15 or the ICBM, has the audacity and democratic destructive power of the AK-47, the universal artifact of global mayhem.

Garcia is aware of this, and many of Drone's poems acknowledge the ubiquity of the destructive element. "Surveillance: A Screen Life" examines this fact, and the corresponding paradox that comes when we know too much about our enemy--we might not hate him enough to bomb him..."then we are in danger of tenderness, a knowledge that complicates / where it does not disarm, unmanning in its call to husband life."

I've read many books about bombing campaigns--W.G. Sebald's On the Natural History of Destruction recently--and reading Garcia I began to wonder if my colleague was correct, if the done was really about saving American lives--do presidents really care about such things--or if it wasn't rather about installing yet another layer of mediation between us and our victims. "Islamic Script," a haunting poem, imagines the Islamic body as an abstraction, "calligraphy--vertebrae / into helix." Spine becomes blood, scholars become smoke, names are  erased: "you've never been." Is our beloved technocratic efficiency ever curtailed by our humanity, by compassion? I'm trying to remember when, and can't. The madmen call it "the fog of war."


There is a sub-text to Drone, the poems' secret life. The story of pregnancy and birth, told in snatches in poems about other things. A tenderness erupting among harsh imagery. The all-seeing eye of God, the gentle spying of a sonogram, the pilot's wife praying that her husband's hand might stop shaking ("Stop turning out the lights and then talking").  A lullaby (as I read it)--as I said, a metaphysical poet:


The hand at work, heart's drone,
map-dance in honeycomb. The path
of flower, clover-song, sweet magnetic
north, nectar cooled in flight. River

rocks' remembered wash, a karst of blue.
A sky mountainous with frowning cloud,

stars slipping the city's hot gaze, fastening
their new eyes over fresh yearnings--home

drawn up along the lines of the old ache
like desert seed, fashioning green tongues.

And I though of my own desert--karst of shaped limestone--blue sky like nothing you have ever seen, nightly stars despite the ambient glow of this unlikely city, a bit of rain and suddenly the brown becomes green. And then I imagine the low hum of a drone, like the honeybees of August multiplied by a thousand, and try to understand what fear is like. I've never known real fear and cannot imagine it.


"We are convicted by the things not seen. / Will this mountain fall on us? Can hills cover us?"
 ("Desert Litany")

"Then they shall begin to say to the mountains, Fall on us, and to the hills, Cover us."
(Luke, 23:30)

Finally, I think of the Jeremiad, as I imagine Kim Garcia has done in writing her remarkable poems. 

Perry Miller (via Sacvan Bercovitch) describes the genre in this way: "The exhortation to a reformation which never materializes serves as a token payment upon the obligation, and so liberates the debtors....Here I suggest that under the guise of this mounting wail of sinfulness, this incessant and never successful cry for repentance, the Puritans launched themselves upon the process of Americanization."

To be an American means to be constantly expiating guilt--there is much in our history for which we must atone. I wondered, finally, if the drone wasn't a way of getting us off the hook once and for all. The gunfighter nation hanging up its six-shooter and replacing it with a machine that, soulless and therefore beyond judgment, embodies out darkest wishes, our fever dreams, our need for unsurpassed precision. Somehow it seems all right if there's no passion in it.

Drone feels especially urgent right now. It's a book that doesn't charm us, or flatter our intelligence. It's a daunting, relentless confrontation with a part of ourselves, with our indifference, or perhaps with our willingness to mistake moral neutrality with goodness. 


Kim Garcia, Drone, The Backwaters Press, 2016.


Anthony Gottlieb, The Dream of Enlightenment, Liveright, 2016.
Simone Weil, "The Illiad, or The Poem of Force," here
Nick Turse and Tom Engelhardt, Terminator Planet, Dispatch Books, 2012
Sacvan Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad, Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1978

George Ovitt (February 5, 2017)


Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Wodehouse in Ootacamund

I will always associate the novels of P.G. Wodehouse with the plight of Tibetans in exile. Let me explain.

I have never enjoyed reading merely for the sake of diversion or amusement. This is not a boast; indeed, having never developed an interest in popular fiction—in mysteries, science fiction, detective novels, westerns, adventure or fantasy, not even in the sumptuous, much-celebrated horrors of Michael Creighton and Stephen King—I’ve often felt I’ve missed out on things. For I’ve seen the pleasure my family and friends derive from it.

I believe my lack of interest in popular fiction has much to do with the fact that I came to reading quite late. Not that I couldn’t read or didn’t read when I was younger: like Bartleby, I simply preferred not to. For a host of then largely unexamined reasons, I resisted the act and pastime with an intensity all the more pronounced for the fact that my house, a large old farmhouse on the Susquehanna River, was filled with books (a friend of mine once insisted that we had a larger, more varied collection than the local public library). What’s more, nearly everyone in my family was an avid reader. At any moment, and for no apparent reason, one of my brothers or sisters would take up a book and read! It baffled me why anyone would choose to spend one’s afternoon nose buried in a book, when one could be watching television, riding one’s bike or enjoying oneself with friends. 

Still I was not unaware of the books around me. For years, as I’d watched television in our house, I’d puzzled vaguely over the multicolored spines on the bookshelves all around me, particularly, I recall, over the title of one book that never moved from its place on the shelf directly above the set, a novel called I, Jan Cremer, often playing with the name in my mind without ever actually bothering to see what the book was about. For better or worse, I never went through a Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter-like phase. What I remember is how painful, how fruitless, the act of reading had seemed to me. One particular memory is etched in my brain. I recall spending a long, dreary vacation with my father and sisters on one of the Ocracoke Islands, and slowly forcing my way through Steinbeck’s novella, Of Mice and Men, as I’d been required to do, fearing each day, dreading with each page, that the story would never end!   

It wasn’t until my junior year of high school, when I was assigned to a Mr. Kirschner’s class, that something changed in me, that my all but reflexive resistance to reading began to give way. I remember we studied some interesting poetry and short stories, as well as a fairly bleak novella called The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. If I hadn’t loved it, I also hadn’t hated it. Certain scenes in the story remain with me to this day. Yet what made the greatest impression on me that year was my teacher’s habit (in retrospect an affectation) of holding his right hand over his heart when he read aloud to us in class. When one of my classmates asked him about it one day, he replied simply by opening up his tweed jacket and withdrawing from the pocket inside it an old paperback copy of Moby Dick, a book he claimed to have cherished all his life and that he’d read so many times he’d had to bind it together with rubber bands! Eccentric, yes. Mad, surely. Yet there seemed more to it than that. How could a person—and a seemingly intelligent one at that—be so moved by a book? It perplexed me; it intrigued me; I simply couldn’t understand.

The turning point for me came my senior year, when my teacher, Mr. Kerr (to me the spitting image of Ichabod Crane), asked us to read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It is no exaggeration to say (as I feel particularly qualified to do, now that I’ve taught the novella to high school seniors for many years) that I’d understood none of it—not a character, a theme, a trope, not a single tangled phrase. What I’d grasped, however, what I’d somehow intuited, was that I was in the presence of something great, something prodigious, momentous, profound—a fact made all the more plain to me, all the more bewitching, by its very elusiveness, by its stubborn impenetrability to me. Suddenly there was a reason to try to find my way in.

And try I did. Once I reached college I tried hard—in course after course, novel after novel, poem after poem after play. I knew that the way I read was different from that of my classmates and professors, surely most of whom had been reading all their lives. Often in the course of my studies I gasped, I floundered. I was staggered by the impossibly long reading assignments, discouraged by the cryptic, often allusive, density of the texts (Clarissa, Tristram Shandy, and Vanity Fair), and often passed my time in the library, there on Washington Square Park, staring vacantly out the large picture window by which I liked to sit. Yet it was there, in time, that my love of reading—of reading literature—took root.

Flash forward eight years to 1988. Inspired by my girlfriend Annie’s grant-writing work for The Office of Tibet, what for all intents and purposes was the exiled Dalai Lama’s embassy in New York, and by our deep association with the Tibetan community there, we made plans one summer to travel to southern India, to Bombay then south to Bangalore and Mysore, and to the Tibetan refugee camp of Bylakuppe, before traveling on to the famous old British hill station of Ootacamund. I remember the bus ride to Ooty best, the almost painful shifting of gears as the ramshackle bus climbed its way up through dazzlingly green tea fields into the Nilgiri Hills, a scene most reminiscent to me (in the rolling softness of the terrain) of the Lake District in England through which the poet Wordsworth once strolled. 

The connection was not so far-fetched. Beginning in 1789, when the region came under the control of the British East India Company, the Nilgiri Hills were cleared and cultivated along distinctly British lines, ultimately serving as an important hill station during the British Raj, when the wealthier, more prominent English fled the burning plains of the Indian summer for the cool respite of these hills. The game of snooker is believed to have originated there.

Ooty, by the time we arrived, more than forty years after the British were driven out, was much the worse for wear. The buildings were ugly or unremarkable. What’s more, it rained incessantly during our nearly three weeks there, so that the streets were thick with garbage and mud. While still lushly green, while still a popular travel destination for Indians and non-Indians alike, the little town had clearly lost its imperial sheen. The notable exception to this were the botanical gardens, laid out by the British in 1847, where, for want of much else to do, we wandered almost daily in the rain.

When not exploring the hillsides, we spent much of our time holed up in our spartan hotel room or sitting convivially in the company of the dozen or so Tibetans we’d met there through a friend of ours in New York, a man named Tinley Nyandak, whose nephew, Tenzing Tsethar, we’d agreed to sponsor so that he could attend a small private school in a town nearby. We’d made the trip partly to meet him. Siting with these Tibetans, day after day, hearty, mountain-eyed refugees from the brutal Chinese takeover of Tibet, it was one of the first occasions in which I’d truly sensed the depth and elasticity of Time. We’d sat for hours on end in a dark and smoky room together, smiling gently at each other, though rarely speaking, sometimes carving bits of meat from a cold lamb shank that was passed around the room, and sipping cup after cup of yak butter tea. In the very air one could sense their resilience, their patient and indomitable strength.   

So how, given the way I opened this post, did I end up reading something as light, as effervescent, as nakedly entertaining as the novels of PG. Wodehouse? Well—as the result of a minor crisis that happened to me just a couple of days after our arrival in Ooty, one that, given the nature of our visit there, barely deserves repeating. Simply put: I ran out of things to read. By accident I had left two of the books I’d packed for the trip in the house in which we’d stayed in Bylakuppe. With all that rain and nothing to read I thought I’d go mad. Fortunately we’d found a small travelers’ bookstore in town, just a short walk from our hotel. While the selection was limited, mostly romance novels, travel guides, and lurid looking mysteries, there on the bottom shelf, near the end of the alphabetical order, I’d discovered what appeared to be nearly a complete set of the funny, what ho! Jeeves novels of P.G. Wodehouse in their familiar Penguin editions. Of course I’d bought them all, every last one of them, crawling into my sleeping bag with the lot of them the moment we got back to our hotel. I’d scarcely even noticed the rain. Starting with My Man Jeeves, The Inimitable Jeeves, and Carry On, Jeeves, I’d read my way (with some lapses, and by the time we reached the  sunny beaches of Kerala) as far The World of Jeeves. Much obliged, Jeeves. It was exactly the diversion I’d needed!

Peter Adam Nash

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

No, It Isn't 'Other People'

Signs Preceding the End of the World (a novel), by Yuri Herrera

The Four Last Things: death, judgment, heaven, hell. Much great literature has been made of our fear of the "undiscovered country." Rich indeed is the association between the afterlife as envisaged by Dante (shown here, with Virgil, spectators in hell) and the lives of ordinary people.

Yuri Herrera has crafted a brilliant novel out of the Dante's vision, out of the cruelty of life on the border, that ill-defined yet perfectly mapped piece of land that divides Mexico from my own state, the vast empty desert broken only by the dribble of the Rio Bravo and the flags that fly on each side of a line that matters most to politicians and cartographers. The land of Roberto Bolaño's 2666, replete with menace and violence thanks to the fact that borders are, by definition, spaces where the ordinary norms of behavior don't apply. "Border town" conjures six guns and sleazy cantinas, knots of dangerous characters out of a Roberto Rodriguez movie. 

In eight short chapters, Yuri Herrera creates a surreal tale, written in hallucinatory prose, of a young Mexican woman's crossing of the border to find her brother. Makina's journey is a condensed epic, the hero's journey compressed into sentences of remarkable power.

Dante, certainly, but I also thought of "The Waste Land" as I read (for example) these lines from a chapter entitled "The Water Crossing":  

"She couldn't get lost. Every time she came to the Big Chilango she trod softly, because that was not the place she wanted to leave her mark, and she told herself repeatedly that she couldn't get lost, and by get lost she meant not a detour or a sidetrack but lost for real, lost forever in the hills of hills cementing the horizon; or lost in the awe of all the living flesh that had built and paid for palaces." 

Signs is elusive: we have no idea where Makina is going, or what is in the package that she delivers to Mr. P, or how her brother came to think he owned land in El Norte, or even who she is, or if she is more or less than every man and woman who crosses a border looking for something that isn't there, that never existed in the first place.

The novel edges toward allegory in many places--in the remarkable scene of her river crossing, in the final dream-like moments of her descend into an underworld populated by lost souls--in the title itself. What world is ending, or whose?

The apocalyptic tone and hypnotic cadences of Herrera's prose feel just right at this moment in our history. It wouldn't surprise me to see the stars blinking out, or to watch the sun set in blood. Portents abound; time feels to be slowing, as if we've all embarked on a journey whose ending we both yearn for and dread.

And the place where the Antichrist resides is certain to be on some border or other, in the makeshift tent cities of the victims of war, in the forbidden zones that divide one people from another. Herrera has captured the porous quality of place perfectly.  None of the places where Makina travels has a unique identifying quality. No place names, no identifying signposts, only nameless ("the Old Man," Mr. P) entities whose role is to move Makina along on her journey. Makina, in keeping with her name, has a robotic quality--she is propelled forward to a vague destination that turns out to be beyond her imagining.

Where are the dispossessed welcome? Makina is stealthy, a woman with underworld connections, possessed of a power to use language in order to make her way in alien environments. Herrera is adamant on this point: the language of crossing over is primordial, coded, terse. Every encounter in the novel requires Makina to make sense of a riddle, or to intuit meanings from ambiguous directions. At one point Makina speaks to Chucho, her Virgil:

"Things are tough all over, but here I'm all mixed up.  I just don't understand this place."

"Don't let it get you down. They don't understand it either, they live in fear of the lights going out, as if every day wasn't already made of lightening and blackouts. They need us. They want to live forever but still can't see that for that to work that need to change color and number. But it's already happening."

Pretty cryptic. Is Chucho referring to the Anglos whose domain Makina is attempting to breach, or to the angels who guard all refugees and travelers, or to something else altogether? There's no telling, and that's because the border is a crossing not into another country but into another reality. A place where, as Makina describes it, people are ghostly, detached from one another and from what is around them, hostile and violent, afraid of something that has no name.

What are we afraid of, and how can we cope with our fear? Makina charges ahead, disinterested in her own safety, bent upon her quest--locating her missing brother. The novel begins with the yawning maw of an enormous sinkhole--frackers at work--and ends with a descent into some anteroom of eternity--perhaps hell, or perhaps--far more likely--one of the detention centers where we Anglos warehouse the unwanted, not unlike the windowless steel barracks that Teju Cole describes in a memorable scene of Open City. Incarceration has become the default position for those who are different. I finished Signs Preceding the End of the World believing that Makina was lost forever in her own Guantanamo, a limbo of no punishment and no escape. Just another brown-skinned person in an orange jump suit, squatting in the sun.

Signs Preceding the End of the World is published by Other Stories Press, London (2015) and translated by Lisa Dillman.

George Ovitt (1/17/17)

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Into Africa

“The Ultimate Safari” by Nadine Gordimer

It was Nadine Gordimer herself who recommended to us, to my wife Annie and me, that we stay at Letaba Rest Camp in the heart of Kruger National Park. We had—by some miraculous conspiracy of forces—found ourselves sitting face to face with the world-famous author and her husband, Reinhold Cassirer, one evening in their modest, if eclectically tasteful living room at 7 Frere Road West in Johannesburg, South Africa. The year was 1990, a year that proved a curious window in time for us, as it was not only the year that Nelson Mandela was released from prison on Robben Island, what was surely the death-rattle of the apartheid regime, but was just months before Nadine Gordimer was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, after which point it is unlikely I would have had the chance to meet her at all, let alone in such an frank and convivial way.

It had started at a faculty lunch table in the small cafeteria of the independent school in Manhattan where my wife and I were teaching high school. Lunches in hand, we’d joined a colleague of ours, a woman named Judy Platt. As usual we’d talked of school, of students, when she, knowing how we loved to travel, had asked us what we had planned for the summer vacation, which was due to begin in a matter of weeks. After three successive summers of travelling in South East Asia, we’d told her that were planning to go to southern Africa instead, to South Africa in particular, where we looked forward to staying with a couple we knew in Johannesburg before commencing our travels in the region. “South Africa? I love South Africa!” she’d exclaimed. “One of my best friends lives there, in Jo’burg. Perhaps you’ve heard of her. Her name’s Nadine Gordimer.” I remember gasping at the name. “Heard of her!” I’d cried. “Why, she’s my favorite writer in the world!”

I wasn’t exaggerating. I had fallen in love with her fiction—her short stories and novels—for their heady mixture of acute psychological insight and Chekhovian refinement of language and theme, as well as with the author herself for her morally courageous chronicling of apartheid in its most complex and pernicious forms. Elegant, cosmopolitan, a passionate reader of Gramsci and Proust, she was no ivory tower intellectual, but struggled daily in the trenches themselves, regularly berating the white Nationalist government in essays and editorials and letters to the editor, marching in protests, signing petitions, joining boycotts, and generally doing her best as an active and avid member of the ANC, Nelson Mandela’s long-outlawed African National Congress. 

Facing her there in her own home that evening was nearly too much for me to believe. Together we talked about New York, a city she loved, and about her friend Judy, and we talked about her books, her writing, so that soon  (and with a considerable amount of whiskey) the four of us were conversing and laughing with ease.

After it grew dark, and fearing for our safety at that time of night, she drove us back to our hotel in the once-Bohemian, then run-down, often violent neighborhood of Hillbrow (in fact we were awakened by gunshots that same night). Having made plans for her husband to pick us up tomorrow and show us his art gallery in town, in nearby Rosebank, we thanked her and said our goodbyes.

Surely one of the highlights of that extraordinary evening for me, one I could hardly have anticipated, was the very car in which she’d driven us back to our hotel, a yellow Volkswagen ‘Thing’ (remember those?), which—in what is perhaps my favorite of her novels, July’s People—she used as the model for the Smales family’s car in their escape into the countryside under the care and protection of their servant, July, a vehicle, a symbol of wealth and power and mobility, referred to repeatedly in the story as the ‘yellow bakkie’, so that it had felt to me that night, as she’d driven us back through the dark Johannesburg streets, as if I were riding through the novel itself!

Of all Gordimer’s short stories, surely one of the most poignant for me, for reasons I will explain, is her story “The Ultimate Safari”. Set largely in Kruger National Park, where we spent a few nights upon her recommendation, a wildlife reserve of more than 7,500 square miles in the northeastern part of the country that, by the time we’d arrived in South Africa, had become a treacherous no-man’s land between the Republic of South Africa and the neighboring country of Mozambique, then shattered by a violent civil war that had set tens of thousands of people on the move, each of them desperate to escape the fighting between the South African-sponsored Rhodesian rebel group RENAMO and the Marxist government forces known by the acronym FRELIMO. Gordimer herself secretly sheltered some of these refuges in her own home.
Of course the bitter irony of this, this situation, an irony deftly exploited by Gordimer in this story, is that what this meant for these many desperate Mozambicans was that, in order to escape the country with their lives, they had to cross the vast Kruger Park on foot, a park designed and rigorously maintained by white people so that white people could enjoy the African wildlife—the dense and dangerously congested population of hippos and lions and elephants, of antelopes, jackals, and zebras, of  giraffes, wildebeests, hyenas, and snakes—as it once must have been. As with virtually everything she wrote, it is a deeply humane tale, a story both simply and beautifully told.

My admiration for the works of Nadine Gordimer quickly lead me to seek out the work of other South African writers. I read Alex La Guma, Alan Paton, Bessie Head, Miriam Tlali, Peter Abrahams, J.M. Coetzee, Andre Brink, Dennis Brutus, Olive Shreiner, Zakes Mda, Richard Rive, Elsa Joubert, Breyton Breytenbach, Es’kia Mphahlele, Laurens van der Post, Rian Malan, Zoe Wicomb, and Damon Galgut. While in Johannesburg my wife and I had the pleasure of seeing Athol Fugard’s play My Children! My Africa! at the famous and revolutionary Market Theatre, a production directed by none other than the playwright himself. This reading lead me to cast my net even more widely in the years to come, reading the literature of writers throughout the African continent. Here, for your consideration, is a list of some of the African authors I read (so many of them made available to the west by the remarkable Heinemann Press): Naguib Mahfouz, Buchi Emecheta, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Sonallah Ibrahim, Amy Djoleto, T. Obinkaram Echew, Narrudin Farah, Mariama Bâ, Ousmane Sembène, Amos Tutuola, Laila Lalami, Ayi Kwei Armah, Bessie Head, Ama Ata Aidoo, Alifa Rifaat, Tsitsi Dnagarembga, Albert Memmi, Yusuf Idris, Tahar Ben Jalloun, Mohamed Choukri, Mongo Beti, Camera Laye, Mia Couto, Assia Djebar, Tayeb Salih, Mongane Wally Serote, Leópold Sédar Senghor, Ali Ghalem, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Abdul Razak Gurnah, and Ben Okri—yes, why not start with Ben Okri’s brilliant novel The Famished Road—the perfect means by which to find your way in.

Here, finally, is Gordimer herself reading her story “The Ultimate Safari” at the 2007 PEN World Voices Festival:

Peter Adam Nash

Wednesday, January 4, 2017


                                   The virtue of maps, they show what can be done with limited
                                        space,  they foresee that everything can happen therein.

                                                                                               José Saramago

It is largely through maps (mostly visual representations of our perceptions, our beliefs, our dreams, our fears) that we as human beings have learned to orient ourselves within the otherwise bewildering phenomena of Time (that is, Death) and Space. From ancient cosmological, religious, and nautical maps to globes, atlases, tarot cards, horoscopes, memory palaces, astrological charts, and Michelin road maps to astronomical, topographical, geological, historical, medical, political, biological, climatological, mathematical, grammatical, and neurological maps, to algorithms, political polling, spread sheets, mind maps, flow charts, the Human Genome Project, and our increasing reliance on Global Positioning Systems to find our way there and back, cartography (in the broadest sense of the term) has helped us to define and enforce our realities with a brilliance and tenacity that is telling.

And what about the book as map? Is literature too a kind of essential human mapping? What is certain is that when an author begins to write a novel or short story one of her fundamental concerns is the matter of orientation. She must think: Who is my narrator, my protagonist, and what does she want? What is the psychic distance (to use John Gardner’s term) I wish to establish between my reader and my principal character(s), that is, the immediate degree of sympathy/empathy one feels for her? Are we watching her from a distance or actually trundling about in her skin? Then there are the matters of subject, time frame, and setting? An author must determine her style, her tone (her particular attitude toward her subject), the mood of the story, her diction. Finally, significantly, what in the story is at issue, at stake?

While important in all forms of writing, such basic stocktaking is all the more significant when what is to follow is unusually demanding or unconventional in language, style or form. For the sake of her reader, the author herself must get her sea-legs before the voyage can rightly begin.

Good writing is a kind of witchcraft; before we know it we have fallen under its  spell. Indeed what distinguishes the best, most effective openings is the fact that we scarcely notice them at all, so deftly have they been wrought that the imagery, characters, and setting seem less the product of the particular words before us on the page than the fruits of our of own soft-humming brains.

First, there is the more conventional type of orientation—by which I do not mean predictable, prosaic, dull. Here is the inimitable Dickens from his novel, Nicholas Nickleby:

There once lived in a sequestered part of the county of Devonshire, one Mr. Godfrey Nickleby, a worthy gentleman, who taking it into his head rather late in life that he must get married, and not being young enough or rich enough to aspire to the hand of a lady of fortune, had wedded an old flame out of mere attachment, who in her turn had taken him for the same reason: thus two people who cannot afford to play cards for money, sometimes sit down to a quiet game for love.  

Here now is Israeli writer A. B. Yehoshua from his novel, Five Seasons:

Molkho’s wife died at 4 a.m., and Mokho did his best to mark the moment forever, because he wished to be able to remember it. And indeed, thinking back on it weeks and even months later, he was convinced that he had managed to refine the instant of her passing (her passing? He wasn’t sure the word was right) into something clear and vivid containing not only thought and feeling but also sound and light, such as the maroon glow of the small electric cheater, the greenish radiance of the numbers on the digital clock, the yellow shaft of light from the bathroom that cast large shadows in the hallway, and perhaps, too, the color of the sky, a pinkish ivory set off by the deep obscurity around it.

Note how much is initiated, established, achieved–and how quickly, concisely. Next, consider this opening from Vietnamese author Duong Thu Huong’s novel, Beyond Illusions:

     How could I have loved him like that?
She stared at him in the green glow of dawn. Still sleeping soundly, he was both strange and familiar to her, like a waxen effigy. That face. The curve of the nose, those earlobes. He was the same man, the same flesh, that had once been  a beacon inside her. Now he no longer radiated life, love.
     The man rolled over, his beard grazing her cheek. Repulsed, she sat up.
     Odd, how his beard had thinned.

Simple, yet amazing. We feel an instant sympathy for this narrator—and without even knowing her name. We see the light as it creeps into the room, hear the traffic outside, smell her husband’s rammish breath. Look now at Heinrich Boll’s opening to his novel, The Clown, a story about a struggling entertainer trying to find meaning in his life as a German after the war:

It was dark by the time I reached Bonn, and I forced myself not to succumb to the series of mechanical actions which had taken hold of me in five years if travelling back and forth: down the station steps, up the station steps, put down my suitcase, take my ticket out of my coat pocket, pick up my suitcase, hand in my ticket, cross over to the newsstand, buy the evening papers, go outside, and signal for a taxi. Almost every day for five years I had left for somewhere and arrived somewhere; in the morning I had gone up station steps and down again, in the afternoon down the steps and up again, signaled for a taxi, felt in my pockets for money to pay for my ticket, bought evening papers at kiosks, and savored in a corner of my mind the studied casualness of these mechanical actions.

Here then is Elizabeth Hardwick in her singular novel, Sleepless Nights, carefully arranging her props for the performance to come:

It is June. This is what I have decided to do with my life just now. I will do this work of transformed and even distorted memory and lead this life, the one I am leading today. Every morning the blue clock and the crocheted bedspread with its pink and blue and gray squares and diamonds. How nice it is—this production of a broken old woman in a squalid nursing home. The niceness and the squalor and sorrow in an apathetic battle—that is what I see. More beautiful is the table with the telephone, the books and magazines, the Times at the door, the birdsong of rough, grinding trucks in the street.

This, as further illustration of the more conventional opening, is the first paragraph of V.S Pritchett’s comic novel, Mr. Beluncle:

Twenty-five minutes from the centre of London the trees lose their towniness, the playing fields, tennis courts and parks are as fresh as lettuce, and the train appears to be squirting through thousands of little gardens. Here was Boystone before its churches and its High street were burned out and before its roofs were stripped off a quarter of a mile at a time. It had its little eighteenth-century face—the parish church, the alms-house, the hotel, the Hall—squeezed by the rolls and folds of pink suburban fat. People came out of the train and said the air was better—Mr Beluncle always did—it was an old town with a dormitory encampment, and a fizz and fuss of small private vegetation.

Here Pritchett not only establishes the conventional suburban setting for his story with but a few deft strokes, but does so comically, satirically, so that we have a bead on this Mr. Beluncle (and his world) well before we actually meet him. Finally, note here the highly conventional way that the Japanese novelist Kobe Abe begins his highly unconventional novel, The Box Man—first with the title itself, then with this blunt (if all the more peculiar) statement of the story’s central facts:

     This is the record of a box man.  
     I am beginning this account in a box. A cardboard box that reaches just to my hips when I put it on over my head.
     That is to say, at this juncture the box man is me. A box man, in his box, is recording the chronicle of a box man.

Yet not all great fiction begins with such apparent clarity, such obvious direction and purpose. There is also another form of orientation—a largely modernist convention—I will call deliberate disorientation. It is a type of orientation that no reader can fail to miss, for it often stops one in one’s tracks. Armed with one’s ropes and crampons, one goggles at the page as though gazing up at Mount Everest itself. Rest assured: such writers want you to climb the mountain—only by different, less conventional means. This is what makes modernist novels so remarkable, the fact they actually teach you to read them, establishing at once (often by challenging your very confidence as a reader) the terms by which they demand to be known.

Arguably no novelist was more determined to teach (or re-teach) his readers to read (that is, to read better—more deeply, more responsively) than the crass and courtly ‘Sunny Jim’. See here how he opens his last novel, Finnegan’s Wake:

     riverrrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.
     Sir Tristram, violer d’amores, fr’over the short sea, had passencore rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor to wieldorfight his penisolate war; nor had topsawyers’ rocks by the stream Oconee exaggerated themselse to Laurens County’s Gorgios while they went doubling their mumper all the time: not avoice from afire bellowsed mishe mishe to tauftauf thuartpeatrick: not yet, though venisoon after, had a kidscad buttended a bland old Isaac: not yet, though all’s fair in vanessy, were sosie sesthers wroth with twone nathandjoe. Rot a peck of pa’s malt had Jhem or Shen brewed by arclight and rory end to the regginbrow was to be seen ringsome on the aquaface.  

It hardly seems a beginning at all (nor should it, in this case). Just two brief paragraphs and one finds oneself reeling! Fast on Joyce’s heels is Brazilian author Clarice Lispector with the opening of her novel, Near to the Wild Heart (the title itself taken from Joyce’s own Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man):

Her father’s typewriter went clack-clack…clack-clack-clack…The clock awoke in dustless tin-dlen. The silence dragged out zzzzzz. What did the wardrobe say? Clothes-clothes-clothes. No, no. amidst the lock, the typewriter and the silence there was an ear listening, large pink, and dead…

Strange, jarring—one clutches at straws. Here now is Vladimir Nabokov from the opening of his novel, Lolita:

     Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three. On the teeth. Lo Lee. Ta.
     She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.
     Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.
     Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.

Note how little (how much) he gives us, how little (how much) we know! Here, at last, is Shirley Jackson’s seemingly conventional, if in fact deftly disorienting first paragraph from her well-known short story, “The Lottery,” a contemporary tale—so one gradually discovers—about a ritual stoning in an average American town:

The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green. The people of the village began to gather in the square, between the post office and the bank, around ten o’clock; in some towns there were so many people that the lottery took two days and had to be started on June 2nd, but in this village, where they were only about three hundred people, the whole lottery took less than two hours, so that it could begin at ten o’clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner.

Each of these openings—the conventional and unconventional alike—gives the reader as much as he needs (at least as much as the author thinks he needs) to whet his appetite (and expectations), to get his bearings in the particular tale to come. Yet the matter of orientation in great fiction does not end there, but applies equally to individual chapters, paragraphs, sentences, phrases, and words, yes, even—perhaps especially—to words, to one’s particular choice of words.

Of course the importance of orientation far exceeds the technical concerns of the individual writer. In these increasingly irrational, increasingly fanatical times, a blind and blundering age of fake news, Twitter wars, and celebrity gospels, of ideologues, megalomaniacs, and would-be messiahs, there is also the fact of literature itself, of reading widely and deeply and well. I can think of no finer compass that that.

Peter Adam Nash