Folks, this will be my last post at Slang Road. I’ve started a new blog, Another Green Kitchen, and I’d love it if you’d follow me over there:
Thanks for reading.
Folks, this will be my last post at Slang Road. I’ve started a new blog, Another Green Kitchen, and I’d love it if you’d follow me over there:
Thanks for reading.
Friends, I’m thrilled to report that after years of writing and re-writing, of giving up and then going back, of re-writing some more and giving up again, while receiving dozens of rejections from literary journals along the way, my short story, “The Orphaning Light” has been published over at Matador Review.
If you have the time, please take a look. Thanks. And thank you to Matador Review for giving this writer a much needed shot of inspiration.
The Norwegian-based label Miasmah Recordings debuted its first physical release in 2006 with a compilation called Silva. Having little familiarity with any of the musicians on it at that time, I bought the cd on a whim, equal parts repulsed and intrigued by the silky and weirdly sinister cover art.
In 2010, Miasmah released Schattenspieler (“Shadowplayer”) by Marcus Fjellström.
I snatched it up as soon as I could and became instantly smitten. While the music on it – crepuscular, haunted, prickly with vinyl hiss – lived up to its name, it also suggested to me the tiny vignettes and tableaux of shadowboxes. From there, my mind leapt to the Indo-Asian traditions of shadow puppetry, though the music itself was clearly sprung from the European avant-garde, more specifically, musique concrète. If there was a through-line between the two, it existed in my mind in the films of the Brothers Quay – not in their soundtracks so much as in the dream-turned-inside-out nature of their imagery. This was highly visual music, operating at an almost synaesthetic level.
A few tracks on Schattenspieler begin abruptly, almost in mid-note, giving testimony to their pre-recorded nature. Melodies are suspended in gently crackling clouds, shot through at times with anguished violin swells, keening flutes, or the occasional clap of a snare drum. Sounds throughout are detuned and distorted. Flutes turn to distant steam whistles, a siren becomes a horn, a horn stretches into a violin sound, a cymbal crash shatters in a cloud of dust. Loops are built and then torn open. Structures mutate. Fjellström has said in an interview that much of the music was played live, recorded, and then manipulated electronically. Some of it was sampled from old public domain films in his personal library.
I played the disc repeatedly, entranced by the singularity of the music, the single-minded vision of it. By the smoky, speculative movies it sent spooling through my head.
I tracked down Fjellström’s first two albums, Exercises in Estrangement from 2005 and Gebrauchmusik from 2006, both of which were starkly different from Schattenspieler in their explosive dynamics and the ways they openly displayed their post-classical, avant-garde influences. While I could appreciate the work, both discs left me a bit cold, though both had moments, glimmers of where Fjellström would take his music with Schattenspieler. And I wanted back into that world.
Then in 2013, the Epilogue-M– ep arrived from Aagoo, leaping out of the gate with “Dance Music 3,” a fractal plant clipping and continuation of the Dance pieces on Gebrauchmusik. Frantic, breathless, the music sounded like the marriage of a mechanical whistling bird and a wind-up glockenspiel. I imagined a perseverating number counter, tallying under her breath and spinning in ever-widening, erratic circles whenever I listened to it.
After that initial, spiraling blast-off, however, the tempo, set at a brisk 172 BPM, plunged. And where Schattenspieler had a dusty, dark quality, Epilogue-M- felt icy, crystalline. The same clicking, crepitating atmosphere held sway overall, but a frost had settled on everything. Notes and sounds glinted, appeared brittle, almost melting on contact from the heat of being heard. Percussive sounds predominated, bringing to my mind, especially on the close of the track “Puretos,” the ringing, resonating metallics of Harry Bertoia’s music. And there was a system at work it seemed, an interstellar theme in the constellation maps of the album’s artwork, overlayed on the image of a couple kissing. A fated, stars-aligned, smoldering romance, perhaps? But if so, why all the chilly, remote music?
I later discovered that Fjellström, since 2006 and the release of Gebrauchmusik, had also been exploring the world of film, taking on complete animation production duties for a handful of morbidly amusing, short films. While I won’t exactly recommend seeking out these early experiments, they can all be found on YouTube, under the Kafkagarden name. Something I do think worth mentioning, however, are his Odboy & Erordog films.
Looking like a fuzzed-out, black & white, mid-80s computer game, and inspired in part by childhood nightmares, the three-part saga of Odboy & Erordog (here, here, and here) is another complete Fjellström production. While the animation is still limited, the subject matter still grim, and the irony still heavy-handed, the filmic technique is more accomplished then in his earlier films, the synchrony of movement and music more sophisticated. It seems as if Fjellström decided to turn his efforts toward making the image and the story fit the music rather than using music to reflect the story and the image. Progressing from film to film within the series, there’s a marked improvement in technique and facility. And when the final story is told, Fjellström drops his ironic stance completely and manages to achieve a solid balance of music, image, story, and emotion. The final tale, in which Odboy and Erordog come to a parting of the ways, is unexpectedly heartbreaking.
In November of 2016, I was happy to hear that Fjellström was coming out with another full-length album, Skelektikon.
Once again, I snapped it up as soon as I was able. And once again, I was happy to be back in that world. But things had changed. There was a new kind of clarity to the music on Skelektikon, not to suggest any sort of brightness in any way. While a track like “Modulus” had the trademark aged-vinyl haze in the background, other tracks like “Something Comes From Nothing” and “Aunchron” were almost chiaroscuro in comparison. The cobwebs and fog and frost had been swept away, and the music was being made to stand out in relief. There were songs on Skelektikon, as opposed to sound collages or speculative soundtracks. There was also an emotional gravitas, a deep, despairing, dirge-like sadness at the heart of the album, as if some vital energy had been drained away from the compositional process, a quality that further separated it from his earlier work. Fjellström had said in an interview that the album was completed during a time of heartbreak for him. The last minute of the closing track, “Boy With Wound,” sounds like something, or someone, dropping off into a void. We track their fall until the darkness swallows them completely. And then, nothing.
* * *
In September, I came across an article reporting that Marcus Fjellström had died.
I’ve looked around the internet since then for more information, but everything I’ve come up with is scant. What’s consistent in anything I’ve found, aside from the shock at the sudden death of such a talented, promising artist, is the feeling of loss over what could have been. Writing this post has been my way of processing some of those feelings as well. (And if you’ve read this far, thank you.)
Fjellström had recently finished a chamber opera, Boris Christ, for which he had composed the score and provided the elaborate visuals. Will it ever be performed in its intended entirety? Who can say?
This is also another full-length album, from 2011, Library Music, Vol. 1 that I never got around to picking up. But I imagine I will.
I know that there are individual tracks here and there that appear on compilation discs, and other videos scattered around YouTube. But I won’t steer you to them. It’s too much like scrambling to dig up every last scrap without considering that once you find that last scrap, it’s over. There’s nothing left to discover. It’s a second death, in a way. And I’d rather appreciate and share what’s still alive about his work.
Rest in peace, Marcus.
It begins with what sounds like someone breathing through a respirator, the sound of a body in crisis. It ends fifty minutes later with what sounds like the amplified pounding of a person’s heart. In between, we listen as it skips, as it falters, as it suddenly quits. What fills that void is the susurration of static. And then, silence.
For anyone not familiar with Ben Frost’s music, his latest full-length, The Centre Cannot Hold, is an ideal place to begin. It’s imbued with everything that makes his music so singular – a mastery of dynamic tension, a knack for hymn-like melodies, a raw emotionalism that’s never indulgent. His new album is the most blatantly politicized material he’s produced so far. And the timing couldn’t be more appropriate.
But let’s get back to that body in crisis.
If you’re still reading this, you know that our planet is being murdered, and that the dangerous psychopath who was elected president of our country is determined to hasten its death. Staying informed, staying aware of even one aspect of what can feel at times like the wholesale destruction of everything meaningful, and the selling off of everyone not wealthy or white, amounts to a kind of daily masochistic ritual. But what’s the option? Denial can save lives – but only yours, and only for so long. Meanwhile, as William Butler Yeats put it in The Second Coming:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Imagine that that body in crisis, that body desperately sucking in oxygen on that respirator, is our planet and everybody on it. We’re in trouble. We’re on the brink. And Frost is channeling all the anguish, fear, and outrage that comes with being at risk, with having to fight the insanity, with finding ourselves on the endangered species list. The outlook isn’t hopeful. But in between and underneath the abrasive, chthonic blasts, and the solar storms, and blistering sheets of feedback, you can still hear that patient fighting for breath. Frost makes sure of that.
And as the music continues to unfold across the album, it changes. Intensities shift and transform, flare up in different ways, and then diminish again. There are passages of cinematic intrigue. The fury becomes at times a pained lament.
In the interest of communicating his despair and rage, Frost’s stark, un-ironic song titles – A Single Hellfire Missile Costs $100,000, or All That You Love Will Be Eviscerated or the migraine-inducing, Healthcare – allow him to be topical in his approach without resorting to blushingly sincere and completely redundant lyrics about how fucked up everything seems, if he were given to singing. Most folks know how fucked up everything is already. And they also know that things will probably get much worse before they get better, assuming there’s any hope of any kind of recognizable recovery at all. Frost very expressively allows the music to do the communicating work instead. And the sounds he creates suggest that he puts his gear through hell.
Though it’s probably not by design, much of the music on The Centre Cannot Hold seems to reflect the torpor, disbelief, and exhaustion that can come with continued vigilance. The tracks in the middle of the album are relatively gentle in comparison to the open and close. While there’s always a hint of menace in them, a door that can swing open to expose you to a glowering blast furnace, they also provide necessary texture and contrast. Frost isn’t after punishing or scolding the listener, after all. He isn’t sitting on your chest and screaming in your face about all the things you should be doing. If anything, he’s aligning himself with the listener – with us – rather than preaching at us. He’s feeling what we’re feeling. If we go, he goes too.
And so the album serves as a kind of psychological purgative, flushing out some of the toxic bilge that’s been poured daily into our collective psyche. It’s a portrait of life itself struggling to live. To survive. The album ends with the sound of that heartbeat stopping, but you are still there to witness what comes after, even if it’s silence. Life still goes on, he suggests. For now.
So given this dim assessment, what’s the point of this music? While I’m at it, what’s the point of any kind of art or expression in the face of the much-sooner-than-we’d-like-to-think end of human life on the planet?
To bear witness while there are still other witnesses to see and know. To share.
This music will not save the planet. It will not save your life. But it might make you feel less alone with the fact that nothing else will either.
This music doesn’t like you. This music doesn’t want to be your jam, your go-to song, your dedication to the one you love. It isn’t “personal,” this music, the way so much other music pretends to be. But just because there’s nothing too personal going on here, it doesn’t mean that this music isn’t paying any attention to you. On the contrary. This music is looking at you. Staring, even. In the same way that a surveillance camera “films” things. It’s on. And it stays on. And if it captures your image, well, that’s your fault, isn’t it?
Yet without you, it’s nothing.
You can always ignore this music. Tune out. Drift. And you will. If your mind doesn’t drift while the map of this music unfolds itself over you, then you might need someone to talk to, a specialist.
But if you do choose to listen, if you give up resisting and succumb to the pulse and throb of this music, if you let yourself get sucked beneath its surface to its sunless psycho-geographies, you will be changed by it. Endless overtones and microtones will become the air you breathe. Shimmering squalls of snow-static will kick up around you, singe your face, and then fade. Thrumming rotary blade sounds (which I mistook my first time listening for purring cats) will swing through your skull, pulling your eyes around in circular patterns. Gigantic planetary gongs will ring and radiate and push against the confines of your dome until they break it open. There is another world, this music is saying. And, as it turns out, it’s inside you.
Despite the “drone” tag one could dismissively misapply, there’s nothing boring here. LINELEH I and LINELEH II, the epic new collaborations by the sound artists/musicians Eleh and Richard Chartier serve as an intense, immersive interrogation of the term “music.” It’s not easy listening. It’s menacing. Maddening. It is also, to these ears, music of a most august, otherworldly presence. And it will make you disappear from it at times if only to catch your breath before you resubmit to it. It surrounds you and occupies you like a weather condition or a fever dream, once you enter it. At times during the over three-hour, meet-your-maker totality of it, when you need to turn away from it just to remember who you are, it can seem like it’s followed you and is suddenly emanating from the walls, the floor, a coffee cup, anything other than your sound system of choice. If you let it – and that’s the thing, you have to come to terms with this music, you have to negotiate a place and a time for it – it will lay down what feels like a molten rod through your head like a kind of electrified clothesline, and you will become like a spectral sheet pinned to it, left to undulate alone in the surrounding darkness.
And while they’re busily unplugging and rewiring your consciousness, Eleh and Chartier also seem to be examining the function of expectation that’s built into a consumer culture’s ideas about what music is and should be. The manufactured, customary “pleasures” of the agreed-upon song structure are starkly absent from LINELEH I/II. And that’s a good thing. While this music comes from a tradition of drone and minimalism – Éliane Radigue’s three-hour masterpiece Trilogie de la Mort comes immediately to mind – it also serves to my thinking as an extension of that tradition. Where Trilogie has a religious/spiritual narrative of sorts that accompanies it, LINELEH I/II seems shorn of any such attachments, and seeks to create a materialized sound-universe unto itself.
Listening to it is like having an emissary from another world in your house for a few hours. This is a very important guest. Maybe someone you don’t even like that much. But you let them in because this particular someone isn’t like anyone else. This is someone it’s worth going out of your way for. Someone that leaves you with a lot to think about.
So, if you know Eleh or Richard Chartier’s work even slightly, then you know what to do. Seek this out. Then, clear your schedule, take your protein pills, and put your helmet on. There’ll be no escaping it once you let it in.
Summer heat and my windows are open. John Cage famously said, “There’s no such thing as silence,” and New York City is your overachieving proof, offering up the pulverizing symphony anyone would expect to hear from a major metropolis at midday. Whining sirens and blatting car horns, thundering trucks and the odd, dopplering helicopter. On a smaller scale, an insistent, overheated sparrow on the fire escape chattering like a miniature teletype machine. The ringing hum of thousands of unseen air conditioners set on high. The sound of ozone dying. And underneath it all, and evident only when the surface noises cease, the air filter sound of the city itself, a kind of oceanic wash of silty air and endless traffic, rising up and combing through the buildings, playing them like tuning forks.
Within this welter of music/sound/noise, plays Removed by Richard Chartier. It hisses and swells, it ebbs and flows. It hums like the city. Sculpted over a period of five years through the careful removal of sound from its original musical surface, Removed is a monument to loss, to erasure, to the revelation of the remainder.
And in this exact moment as I write, the music has disappeared once again as the ring of a circular saw on the sidewalk out front crescendos its way through the room, drowning out everything else. But as the blade spins to a stop, a chiming sound emerges from the music to replace it, a chime that melts to a tone, a hazy drone that reminds me of having my hearing tested as a kid, of wearing cheap headphones and pointing to my ears to indicate where the sound was appearing in my skull, and feeling for the first time in my life that my skull was an actual space, a habitable kind of theater that I was suddenly sharing with this stranger who was putting these warm tones inside me to see how I reacted to them. I hallucinated tones during those tests, pointing to my ears at random in absolute certainty that I was hearing something. And it’s this particular quality of Removed that I find so compelling. I’ve played it four times today and each time that it came to a stop, I was convinced that it was still going, that the high keening sound I was listening to was on my stereo when it was actually outside my window, in the street, in the air. Not here, not anywhere. Gone.
In the age of the anthropocene, what does it mean to make music by subtraction? When something is removed, something else is revealed. An indentation, a smudge, a shadow. The palimpsest. And if you remove sound but there’s no such thing as silence, then what remains? Is it new life? Half life? At various points in Removed there are passages when something emerges that a non-musician type such as myself can recognize as “musical.” Not exactly a melody per se, but notes, harmonizing notes. Only they sound deeply subaquatic, softened into something rich and strange, certainly post-“musical.” And the sensation created is that they are reaching a listener (me) only after passing through and being transformed by whatever medium they’ve become absorbed by. What’s coming through are the ghosts of the original material. Or new forms, new beings altogether. Addition/creation by way of subtraction.
Which reminds me. Probably the most notorious example of this in the world of visual art is Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning from 1953. The story is that Rauschenberg approached Willem deKooning with the idea of taking one of his drawings and erasing it, thereby transforming it into a new work. Rauschenberg was looking to repurpose the eraser as a drawing tool, but needed “something that was a hundred percent art…” something he considered deKooning’s work to be but not his own, conveniently enough. After a lengthy discussion with Rauschenberg spent working past the idea that he wasn’t looking to simply destroy his art, deKooning agreed and gave him a drawing, but one that he figured wouldn’t be easy to erase and that he himself would miss. The drawing, according to Rauschenberg was “done partly with a hard line, and also with grease pencil, and ink, and heavy crayon. It took me a month, and about forty erasers, to do it. But in the end it really worked.”
Rauschenberg, in an interview years after the fact, labeled the piece and the gesture “poetry.”
Chartier, who also makes music as pinkcourtesyphone, has a history of collaborating with visual artists to create immersive experiential works. In the case of Removed, the work isn’t directly collaborative, but it was inspired in part by the artwork of Linn Meyers, which adorns the CD cover (a media format on the edge of disappearing?), with Chartier not erasing Meyers work a la Rauschenberg but instead providing a kind of interpretive accompaniment for the kinetic and psychic force fields that inhabit and haunt it.
What remains here in its vanishing fashion is glacial, mysterious, persistent without being insistent. Music that’s there/here even when you think it isn’t. I’ve read suggestions to listen to this with headphones or to play it quietly in the sanctuary of one’s choosing. But I think you should play it loud and in the open. Feel every droplet of its hiss. Feel every grain. Don’t hide this music. Don’t protect it. Let it be overrun, let it be infiltrated by what’s around. Let it get swept aside and let it wash back in. There will always be more.
In the age of the anthropocene, “removed” could be a euphemism for extinct. So much of the noise of life now is the noise of destruction, the sound of suicidal greed replacing everything with reflections of itself. In the naked space of revelation, before something new rushes in to fill it, Richard Chartier has given us a glimpse of the spirit of what used to be. Listen while you can.
I was skeptical about this book, A Prayer Journal, which Flannery O’Connor wrote from January of 1946 to September of 1947 while she was in the writing program at what is now the University of Iowa.
It’s a slight thing, weighing in at just about 40 pages worth of entries, and it’s padded out with a facsimile of the notebook itself, every page carefully reproduced, literally from cover to cover. There was a precious, fetish-y feel to the project fueling my skepticism, exacerbated by the scant amount of material (and the implicit suggestion that this journal, being a journal, would offer some deeper, more personal access into the heart and mind of O’Connor.)
While I don’t feel any “closer” to Flannery O’Connor after reading it, I am happy to report that A Prayer Journal (APJ from here on out) is a captivating, occasionally funny, anguish-inducing peek into the tortured mind of a tortured soul – albeit a rather green, twenty-one-year old soul – as she struggles to make peace with the idea that she can be a writer and have an artist’s ego and still be devoted to her god. Because god in this case, as I see it, is also her idealized writing self.
* * *
The artist and the supplicant in O’Connor are at war from the beginning – which, in this case, is a false beginning since O’Connor has removed the original opening pages. Instead, the text “starts” in mid-sentence, with an effect like a spotlight splashing down on a character who’s been waiting on a darkened stage. The first complete sentence reads –
Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to.
But, as O’Connor immediately explains, it’s not god’s fault.
You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon. The crescent is very beautiful and perhaps that is all one like I am should or could see; but what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing.
In other words, she’s worried that she’ll put her ego and her ambition to be a great writer over and above her love of god. But the love of god that she seems to be seeking throughout this journal is so absolute as to put it beyond her reach. For instance, as she writes a few entries later –
It is the adoration of you, dear God, that most dismays me. I cannot comprehend the exaltation that must be due You. Intellectually, I assent: let us adore God. But can we do that without feeling? To feel, we must know. And for this, when it is practically impossible for us to get it ourselves, not completely, of course, but what we can, we are dependent on God. We are dependent on God for our adoration of him, that is, in the fullest sense of the term. Give me the grace dear God, to adore You for even this I cannot do for myself.
The tortuous thought lines, the absolute drama of longing, the pained effort to explain – all these are the classic symptoms of a young, unabashedly sincere artist struggling to be born. And what was clear to me as I read APJ was that O’Connor’s spiritual crisis was instigated by the fact that she was actually becoming the thing she wanted to be. Her faith in god had become linked to her hope to be a writer, and as her hope manifested itself in her writing, her Catholic training kicked into gear and she began to experience a kind of guilt over getting what she wanted, as if wanting anything more than the gift of life and the chance to worship god were a sin.
Another thing that worries O’Connor throughout APJ is the incursion of psychology into the cultural mainstream and, worse, into her chosen beliefs.
My mind is not strong. It is a prey to all sorts of intellectual quackery. I do not want it to be fear which keeps me in the church. I don’t want to be a coward, staying with You because I fear hell. I should reason that if I fear hell, I can be assured of the author of it. But learned people can analyze for me why I fear hell and their implication is that there is no hell. But I believe in hell.
Sin is a great thing as long as it’s recognized. It leads a good many people to God who wouldn’t get there otherwise. But cease to recognize it, or take it away from devil as devil & give it to devil as psychologist, and you also take away God. If there is no sin in this world there is no God in heaven. No heaven.
I’m going to make a huge generalization here. By revealing deeper unconscious motivations that can make a person less directly culpable for their behavior, psychology sometimes offers explanations that mitigate responsibility or, more to the point, guilt. (The reason X did what he did was not out of some inborn “evil” impulse but because he grew up in an abusive home environment.) Take guilt from the story and you remove the possibility of sin. The whole world goes to hell (or would if there were still a hell to go to) or it sinks into an abyss of moral relativism. On these terms, “psychology” seemed to represent a very real evil to O’Connor. And I think she feared that without the structures of religion, without God, she would have been lost in a fight against it.
Not to suggest that her faith was weak. My feeling is that she was, and certainly so at her tender age, highly distractible and only beginning to delve into the depths of her imagination as a writer, and as she stepped deeper into that realm she felt the need to have a guide with her. And her chosen guide was her faith in god.
The fatal connection of pleasure and sin, the endless approach toward grace and the never getting there, the purifying longing – all these aspects of her faith provided O’Connor with a sense of purpose and a goal: to continually try to make herself worthy of god. And this, to my mind at least, is not unlike the effort one makes as an artist to continually grow and improve in one’s craft.
There’s no art without some kind of faith, be it in god or your imagination. And in the struggle between the two at this point in O’Connor’s life, art won – but not without the help of faith. While she was writing this journal, she was beginning to work on what would eventually become her first novel, Wise Blood, the book that would establish her and launch her career.
Image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wise_Blood
* * *
As journals go, APJ is pretty near hermetic. O’Connor rarely makes a reference to anything going on in her life outside of her pleas to god or the occasional author she’s read, presumably for school. There’s Proust and Lawrence and Freud, of course. And she mentions Georges Bernanos, Léon Bloy, and Charles Péguy, devout Catholic writers all, whom I think she may have read extra-curricularly. (More on that in a minute. By the way, does the word devout ever find additional employment outside of its connection to the word Catholic?) All of these writers seem to rattle her in some way, whether they represent a kind of heretical attitude, as does the first group, or they humble her with the intensity of their religious convictions. She also mentions Kafka a few times. This particular quote is a gem:
I have been reading Mr. Kafka and I feel his problem of getting grace. But I see it doesn’t have to be that way for the Catholic who can go to Communion every day.
Cue Mr. Kafka’s spit-take.
It’s astounding that such a unique, talented kid can sound so much like somebody’s well-intentioned but provincial grandmom but that’s O’Connor all over. She seems to exist outside of her time.
But getting back to the journal, its remains a strangely enjoyable read, despite the narrowness of its focus. There’s even a bit of an arc to it in that O’Connor gradually becomes fatigued with the effort to maintain her journal. Or maybe she becomes fatigued with addressing her god and not getting the grace from him that she so longs for (although she knows such a thing isn’t simply dispensed like Pez.) Anyone who has kept a journal for even a few months can attest to the tendency to go back to the beginning to see where one started and, hopefully, see how far along one has come. And anyone who has done that can attest to the appalling sensation that comes with the experience when you see that, well, actually, not that much has changed. At all. In this, O’Connor is no different.
On November 11, 1946, she writes:
How hard it is to keep any one intention [,] any one attitude toward a piece of work [,] any one tone [,] any one anything. I find a certain peace in my soul these days that is very fine – lead us not into temptation. The story level, bah. Work, work, work. Dear God let me work, keep me working. I want so to be able to work. If my sin is laziness I want to be able to conquer it.
I looked back over some of these entries.
And the rest of the entry is cut away as shown in the facsimile. Two entries after that she’s cutting away again.
Then on January 25th, she begins an entry with:
The majesty of my thoughts! Do all these things read alike as they seem to? They all send a faint nausea through me – albeit they were sincere at the time & I recant none of my articles of faith. This evening I picture theoretically myself at 70 saying it’s done, it’s finished, it’s what it is, & being no nearer than I am.
The journal or something outside the periphery of it is weighing on her and souring her outlook.
There’s then a near three-month gap before the next entry in April. But the entry after that comes three weeks later in May and sounds like it was ghostwritten.
To maintain any thread in the novel there must be a view of the world behind it & the most important single item under this view of [the] world is conception of love – divine, natural, perverted. It is probably possible to say that when a view of love is present – a broad enough view – no more need be added to make the worldview.
She goes on from there to wrestle with psychoanalysis, particularly Freud, Proust, and Lawrence’s conceptions of love as opposed to Divine Love which, in her estimation, they have no use for. As she struggles to explain her own ideas to herself, she seems to also be taking a stand about sex.
Here she is on Proust:
The modern man isolated from faith, from raising his desire for God into a conscious desire, is sunk into the position of seeing physical love as an end in itself. Thus his romanticizing it, wallowing in it & then cynicizing it… Proust’s conception of desire could only be that way since he makes it the highest point of existence – which it is – but with nothing supernatural to end in… The Sex act is a religious act & when it occurs without God it is a mock act or at best an empty act.
But she finishes with this:
Two people can remain ‘in love’ – a phrase made practically useless by stinking romanticism – only if their common desire for each other unites in a greater desire for God – i.e., they do not become satisfied but more desirous together of the supernatural love in union with God. My God, take these boils & blisters & warts of sick romanticism…
And then she’s back to cutting pages out again.
What inspired that rant? Did someone make a pass at her? Was she in love with someone? We’ll never know, and the next entry comes after another three weeks or so and starts like this:
Tore that last thing out. It was worthy of me all right; but not worthy of what I ought to be.
And then she’s writing of Léon Bloy, and Charles Péguy, and how it was god who sent her wandering through the stacks at the library where she first encountered their bracing religious fervor, and how despite herself and their divine inspiration she remains unable to transcend Original Sin.
But to me she sounds tired. Tired of fighting and seeking, tired of waiting for grace. She doesn’t write again for another four months. And then she goes on a tear, five days straight. Here are a few excerpts:
9/22 – Too weak to pray for suffering [,] too weak to even get out a prayer for anything much except trifles. I don’t want to be doomed to mediocrity in my feelings for Christ. I want to feel. I want to love.
9/23 – Dear Lord, please make me want you. It would be the greatest bliss. Not just to want You when I think about You but to want you all the time, to think about You all the time, to have the want driving in me, to have it like a cancer in me. It would kill me like a cancer and that would be the Fulfillment.
9/24 – But I am one of the weak. I am so weak that God has given me everything, all the tools, instructions for their use, even a good brain to use them with, a creative brain to make them immediate for others. God is feeding me and what I’m praying for is an appetite.
9/25 – What I am asking for is really very ridiculous. Oh Lord, I am saying, at present I am a cheese, make me a mystic, immediately. But then God can do that – make mystics out of cheeses. But why should he do it for an ingrate slothful & dirty creature like me.
9/26 – My thoughts are so far away from God…Today I proved myself a glutton – for Scotch oatmeal cookies and erotic thought. There is nothing left to say of me.
And that Balthusian image is where the journal comes to a dead halt.
The image of a young woman despairing so absolutely as only someone young can, and despairing over finally indulging herself in being a young woman, a human being, and not just a faltering instrument of devotion, and eating cookies and having erotic thoughts instead of twisting herself into knots trying to be worthy of her distant, moon-like god – that image lingers, and it stings. I want to yell back through time to her: Eat more cookies! Have more erotic thoughts! Get out of your chair and your head and let yourself live. And try not to worry so much about your writing. You’ll get there. And people all over the world are going to love your work, you’ll see.
Flannery O’Connor died of lupus at the age of 39.
I must have been about ten years old when I first realized that I was going to die someday.
I was washing the dishes after dinner, which, for a family of nine, is no small chore, and I was looking out the kitchen window and feeling trapped. The sun was already going down, which meant that the amount of time left to still get outside was dwindling. In fact, my whole summer was dwindling and darkening and had conjured up in me the usual boredoms and disappointments. This was supposed to be a joy, this summer. I was supposed to be having fun.
While I stood there rinsing a plate I thought, some day I’m going to die.
And before I could take the words back, before I could unthink them, I knew that what I’d just thought was actually true. I was going to die. And nobody could stop it from happening. It had nothing to do with me being good or bad. I was going to die. We all were.
I left the kitchen and walked into the living room. My father was reading in his permanently depressed spot on the couch, his left hand holding a cigarette, his right hand holding a book, his right elbow resting on the permanently greased arm of the couch where he lay his hair-product-shellacked head every night. My mother was folded in on herself in her red chair watching television, holding in her fist a flattened, empty pack of Vantage cigarettes that she unthinkingly agitated as she watched, making the cellophane wrapper on the pack quietly squeak like some tiny thing she was killing over and over.
I looked at them. Neither one of them looked at me.
What was I going to say? I’m going to die? If I was going to take that risk, then why not go all out and scream, “WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!”
But I knew my audience. And it depressed me to imagine, beyond maybe a sigh and an exhausted eye-roll from my mother, the complete lack of a response I could expect. Besides, what could they do? It was going to happen to them, too.
We were doomed.
I went back to the kitchen. I finished the dishes.
Life went on.
* * *
Because that’s the impulse, isn’t it? To go on. To believe that life goes on. Dying is the last thing you and I as human beings will ever do – but people want to believe and find great comfort in believing that life or something like it continues after dying. Death is just a speed bump, a hiccup, a glitch. You can get over it. You can keep going.
* * *
Jacques Godard’s life, as far as his own consciousness was concerned, was a meager affair; in the consciousness of others it scarcely existed at all.
Not an auspicious or flattering beginning. But as it turns out for Jacques Godard, the protagonist of Jules Romains’ 1911 novel, The Death of a Nobody, that’s fine – because two pages later he’ll be dead. And then the book can really begin.
A widower of five years and a man of humble habits, Jacques Godard is a retired train engineer who spends his days “framing old illustrations, and … gilding wooden objects which he made himself.” When he feels especially alone and forgotten about, he takes the streetcar out to the suburban cemetery where his wife is buried. On returning home, he stops at the same café to sit at the same table and have a beer. His is a lonely, quiet life, haunted to a degree with regrets about how lonely and quiet it is.
And yet, in Romains’ unanimistic (I’ll get to that word in a moment) conception of the world, Godard has a double existence, so to speak, a kind of spirit life, of which, sadly, he’s not at all conscious.
For instance, there is a club, the Enfants du Velay, of which Godard is a member, in name mostly –
but it happened sometimes that his name would be spoken at one of the tables and that his image would hover for a moment upon the clouds of tobacco and the murmur of voices.
Or this. Godard was in occasional contact with his old co-workers from the railway. And sometimes –
he haunted occasionally the firesides of other pensioned railroad men or would suddenly appear before an old engineer standing on his platform and rushing full speed through space.
Or this. The memory of Godard lived on in the village he grew up in and occupied a kind of psychic/physical space alongside his parents as they sat in the evenings, dreaming –
The memory of Jacques filled the big kitchen, diffusing itself between floor and rafters with the smell of burning logs, brushing the table, reflecting itself in little mirrors made by a glass of wine or water, crouching in front of the sooty hearth and flying sparks, thrilled through and through by the cozy vibrations of the kitchen clock… All the village called Godard to mind. On such occasions he was present wherever anyone sat up at night… Thus it was that Godard, detached from himself, floated upon the world like a spray of seaweed torn from its rock.
* * *
The online Encyclopedia Britannica defines Unanimism as:
Unanimism, French Unanimisme, French literary movement based on the psychological concept of group consciousness and collective emotion and the need for the poet to merge with this transcendent consciousness.
Romains (the pen name, actually, of Louis Farigoule) is also credited with formally founding the concept.
Image of Romains from http://rickrozoff.wordpress.com/
The Death of a Nobody is steeped in the idea of group consciousness, and there’s a simplistic, almost sentimental view of human relations at work informing the book. The tone throughout feels utopian and willfully naïve. (The Death of a Nobody [TDOAN from here on out] was just one part of a sprawling, multi-form project encompassing plays and poetry as well as novels, all gathered together under the absolutely un-ironic title of Men of Good Will. Part of the artist’s job, according to Romains and other followers of the Unanimistic way, was to come down from the ivory tower and reconnect to the commonweal; to be a part of the brotherhood of humanity.)
The plot, such as it is, is simple. After eight days of enduring a fever and a mysterious pain in his back, Godard suddenly dies.
Godard had time to think quite distinctly, ‘I’m dead. Where am I going? My God!’ He was aware that his soul was crumbling away again. Then he experienced a sensation entirely new. Something which was in him, which had served no purpose but to hold his life together, something contractive, elastic, formative, a sort of mainspring, suddenly let go, relaxed, expanded, and with a shiver of released vibrations, lost itself in space.
And presently he no longer knew that he was dead.
The porter of Godard’s building finds his body and sends a telegram to his parents to let them know. Then he lets the other tenants in the building know what’s happened to their neighbor. And once again, Godard is, in a manner of speaking, resurrected.
He [the porter, that is] informed the people on the first floor, a family on the second, who were kindly folk, then the neighbors on the fourth. They came out on the landing and entered the dead man’s room… Little by little the group reconstructed the soul of a retired railroad employee. The whole group possessed the soul of an old engineer, seated near his window, knocking out his pipe in the blue ash-tray, contemplating the colored calendar or the bunch of artificial roses thrust far down the neck of the opaque vase, or a frame he had finished gilding.
Each character in the book is activated by the energy or charge, if you will, of Godard’s death, even though he exerted no direct influence on their lives, at least while he was alive. He assumes prominence and even influence only once he’s dead. Yet there’s no cynicism or underhanded commentary implicit in this. Romains’ objective here is to illuminate this presumed collective consciousness, and he attempts it by examining the effect of the news of Godard’s death on people as it travels outward in ever-widening rings.
Still, it’s hard to determine what point Romains is trying to make with his overall theory of Unanimism. Making any kind of meaningful sense of it seems to require the application of flimsy generalizations in order to shore it up. Such as: people share information and experiences, and temporary allegiances can be formed from that. Or: like-minded people tend to find each other. Or: a group of people, even strangers can form a kind of unit, given a particular set of circumstances.
On the other hand, if a situation becomes dire, the worst sorts of self-protective behavior can emerge. Rather than band together, some people might retreat or even attack one another to get something they think is rightfully theirs. Or the sudden anonymity of being in a mob can unleash destructive behavior rather than philanthropic tendencies.
And so on. The upshot of the Unanimist point of view is that, in the case of TDOAN at least, it allows Romains the opportunity to assign a crowd of people attributes that one might under other circumstances assign to a single character. Which suggests to me that Unanimism’s ultimate value is purely aesthetic and, as such, extremely limited.
I’m also compelled to mention that the examination of crowds and crowd psychology has been dealt with in far greater depth elsewhere. Two obvious examples come to mind, one a work of non-fiction, one fiction. Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power remains a definitive text, with its precise delineations between “the crowd” and “the pack,” and its ickily corporeal chapter titles: The Fear of Being Touched; The Discharge; The Entrails of Power.
And on a relatively more recent front, there’s the unforgettable mass wedding ceremony at Yankee stadium in the opening of Don DeLillo’s Mao II –
It knocks him back in awe, the loss of scale and intimacy, the way love and sex are multiplied out, the numbers and shaped crowd. This really scares him, a mass of people turned into a sculptured object. It is like a toy with thirteen thousand parts, just tootling along, an innocent and menacing thing…
The future belongs to crowds.
Image from http://entropymag.org/writers-their-pets/
Now this is a collective consciousness I definitely want in on.
But in his defense, Romains is sensitive to the subliminal workings and influences a given group is subject to. Wherever characters gather, be it in a hallway, a street, or a train, their being together, their shared humanness binds them psychically and emotionally, and Romains’ depiction of this group consciousness forming and performing can feel strangely familiar. For example, Godard’s father receives the news of his son’s death and begins the trip to Paris to arrange for his son’s burial. Here he is as he takes his seat on the horse-drawn carriage or diligence that will take him to the train station:
The others all stared at him for a minute, and he felt the forces from them intersect in him, like long needles in a piece of knitting. Little by little his right to be there increased: time united him to the others, as by a kind of glue that gradually hardens. He ventured to shift his seat and lean back. He was now really one of the group, steeped in it, and not merely imposed on it from without. They no longer stared at him; he had run the gantlet of all those eyes, and his soul was now like his companions’ souls.
I don’t know about you but this reminds me of settling in on a plane for a long flight. I might not feel any sort of connection with the people I’m surrounded by but what unfailingly goes through my mind is this – these might be the people I die with. And that, to some degree, generates a certain amount of tenderness toward them that I might not otherwise feel.
Another interesting aspect of Romains’ crowds is that there’s a deep and unique pleasure to be had in being part of one – in forming and expanding and inhabiting that unique consciousness, such as it is.
Here’s the crowd of mourners at Godard’s funeral as they move through the streets of Paris:
Thus the phrases left their lips and mingled with the chill air of the boulevard, without the transference of a single thought. But all the time, at the bottom of their hearts, in those regions of the soul that do not think, something was swelling and fermenting – a desire to overflow and join hands across the trivial chasms that part body from body, a growing promiscuity, a riot of tiny, blind intoxicated souls hustling and humming like a crowd at a wedding.
And once again our man Jacques Godard is in and of this crowd as well:
This general sense of well-being was far more beneficial to the dead man than tears had been. Since his heart had stopped beating he had never expanded thus. Every thread between him and the body had been severed, and, leaving his carnal part to rot in the coffin, he was free to multiply himself and take possession of a hundred living frames.
As the procession moves on, the crowd finds itself up against another crowd: striking laborers getting into a street fight with the police. But the power of death, or more specifically, the growing power of Jacques Godard, is enough to quell both sides. The cortege passes through and the laborers and cops, both humbled, stand at attention, the laborers removing their hats and wiping their brows, the cops saluting.
Then Godard is buried and all concerned go back to their lives, and in the process, the thing that Godard had become begins to dissipate. Romains stages a final spiritual flight with a stranger for Godard but, frankly, the book fizzles to a close.
The Death of a Nobody feels less like a Unanimist manifesto (say that ten times fast!) than it does a fictionalized depiction of what happens during the act of reading. In engaging with Romains’ text and conjuring up a version of the images that he puts on the page, a reader creates and possesses Godard’s “soul,” thereby assisting in bringing him to some kind of life. Godard “exists” as memory, as fantasy, as a kind of collective energy, because you, dear reader, make it and him happen. And as you read this, Godard, if only for a second, gets to live a little longer inside of you.
And so do I.
I’m not a completist by design and there’s a fair amount of Dostoevsky I’ve never read and never will, but Memoirs from the House of the Dead has always possessed a certain allure for me.
Perhaps it was a hangover from my earlier, youthful love of Dostoevsky’s novels, particularly Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. Those books jolted me like defibrillators when I first encountered them, and made the life I was living seem embarrassingly bereft and sterile. As I said to a friend of mine at the time, they seemed more real to me than my own life. I was only too happy to lose myself in both of them.
Then I read The Idiot. And I was shocked to find myself struggling, wincing at the general hysteria of it, the endless, mannered conversations, the ridiculous convolutions of its plot. Though there were some great moments in the book, the biggest thrill for me turned out to be walking around carrying a book called The Idiot. It was like a handy caption for my life that I could flash at particular moments. A warning sign and a calling card.
Although my faith in Dostoevsky remained unshaken, years went by before I touched another book of his.
Somewhere in that span of time, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky came on the scene with a plan to update the translations of Dostoevsky’s major novels.
And update they did. Beginning in 1990 with the Brothers Karamazov, the duo swept through most if not all of Dostoevsky’s corpus, as well as Tolstoy’s bicep-building bombshells, Anna Karenina and War and Peace, Gogol’s Dead Souls, Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, and the selected stories of Nikolai Leskov, all to general critical acclaim. Their translation of The Idiot earned them the first Efim Etkind Translation prize from the European University of St. Petersburg (yeah, it doesn’t exactly mean anything to me, either…).
I need to mention one thing before I continue. My copy of Memoirs from the House of the Dead is an Oxford World Classic paperback edition, reissued in 2008, with a translation by Jessie Coulson dating back to 1956. I only recently found out that Knopf is issuing a new translation of it by Pevear and Volokhonsky in March of 2015.
Feel free to imagine the gusts of steam that shot out of my ears when I read the news.
Seeing as I don’t speak Russian, I can’t say much about the faithfulness or artfulness of Coulson’s work. But I do know that the following dialogue –
And they’re a fine pair! One of them was sent here on account of a pound of bread and the other’s a tup’ny whore and got the lash for stealing some woman’s junket…
– sounds like it was plagiarized from Oliver Twist and is not uncharacteristic of most of the dialogue in the book. Mercifully, there’s little of that to speak of.
Anyway, to get back to the new translations, they still weren’t enough to tempt me to go back and re-read anything. I instead picked up P & V’s translation of Demons (known in earlier translations as The Possessed), seduced by both the prospect of getting closer to the spirit of the well out-of-reach Russian language, as well as the book’s appropriately sinister cover design, with the illustration taken from Lynd Ward’s groundbreaking graphic novel, God’s Man. (Still available from Dover Books .)
Then summer arrived. With book in hand and a week’s vacation with my wife on Lake Champlain offering porches, swimming, outdoor cooking, and the fantasy of unlimited time, I had before me the makings of a dream come true.
But while everything else in that equation delivered, reading Demons, like The Idiot, turned out to be an excruciating experience. Not that I faulted the translators. It was just that the book itself was a bloated nightmare of grand opera proportions. I forced myself to finish it, but Demons earned the dubious distinction of being the book that pushed me to make the decision to drop a book if I felt it wasn’t worth my time. Prior to that, I’d decided that if I’d made the choice to read a book I would stick to the commitment and see it all the way through, even if I hated it. Of course, that younger version of myself also believed that I had all the time in the world ahead of me.
* * *
Within the whole of Dostoevsky’s oeuvre, Memoirs from the House of the Dead (MHD from here on out) arrives early, roughly four or five years before his first novel, Crime and Punishment. Although Dostoevsky tries to present MHD as the work of another writer, claiming that the main body of the text is actually taken from notebooks left behind by a shattered ex-con who has killed himself, Alexander Petrovich Goryanchikov, it’s clear that the story you’re about to read is based on Dostoevsky’s own experiences in prison.
From the opening pages, Dostoevsky has trouble connecting with his fellow inmates, and throughout the manuscript he struggles to make a totalizing statement about the people he’s incarcerated with:
Generally speaking, the whole tribe, with the exception of a few unquenchably cheerful souls, who for that reason enjoyed universal contempt, was sullen, envious, terribly conceited, boastful, touchy, and preoccupied in the highest degree with forms. The capacity not to be surprised by anything was the greatest possible virtue. They were all vitally concerned about one thing: what sort of figure they cut. But not seldom, the most arrogant bearing changed with the speed of lightning to the most pitiful. There were a few genuinely strong characters but they were simple and did not pose. But, strangely enough, some of these really strong people were superlatively, almost morbidly conceited.
And so on. Every general truth is soon unsettled by a mitigating observation that, if it doesn’t contradict the first claim outright, surely takes a deforming gouge out of it. You can practically see Dostoevsky skulking around on the periphery of the yard in these opening pages like a teenaged assassin, stealing glances at these men and trying to sum them up before anyone gets a bead on him.
To jump backwards for a second, the intro by Ronald Hingley explains that in a book written by P.K. Martynov, a fellow inmate from this same stint in prison, Dostoevsky is described as being “taciturn, unsmiling and pathologically suspicious.” Which suggests to me that maybe these men weren’t closed off in general but perhaps simply closed off to Dostoevsky in particular…
Dostoevsky, to his credit, explains early on that a major part of the stigma he bears comes from his status as a low-ranking member – but a member nonetheless – of the gentry, a fact that is known about him from the minute he arrives in the prison. Not surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of the prisoners come from the lower classes, and they give Dostoevsky and his ilk (the scant four or five other members of the elite also doing time) their daily comeuppance. Not through physical abuse but instead through taunts and isolation, essentially denying them their place in the larger brotherhood:
They watched our sufferings, which we tried not to show them, with delight. We were particularly severely cursed at work at first, because we were not as strong as they were and could not pull our weight. There is nothing harder than to gain the confidence of the people (especially these people) and even their liking… I had to live in the prison for almost two years before I could gain the favor of some of the convicts.
This isn’t entirely true. In yet another equivocation, Dostoevsky talks about being approached by protectors, prisoners who looked out for him from the start, preparing his food and tea (yes, he had a separate stash) and mending his clothing. This came with the understanding that even as a lower class member of the upper classes, Dostoevsky was still bound to have a few spare kopecks on him to help pay for their services. And about this, his protectors were right.
Not to suggest that Dostoevsky had an easy time of it, stuck as he was in a prison in Siberia for four years, and for the crime of being young and having a belief in something:
His early inclinations were to the side of the radicals: he leaned more or less toward the Westernizers. He also consorted with a secret society (though apparently did not actually become its member) of young men who had adopted the socialistic theories of Saint-Simon and Fourier . These young men gathered at the house of an official of the State Department, Mikhail Petrashevski, and read aloud and discussed the books of Fourier, talked socialism, and criticized the government. After the upheavals of 1848 in several European countries, there was a wave of reaction in Russia; the government was alarmed and cracked down upon all dissenters. The Petrashevskians were arrested, among them Dostoevski.
From Lectures on Russian Literature by Vladimir Nabokov – who was no fan of Dostoevsky’s.
From this basic set-up, MHD proceeds as a largely plot-free string of anecdotes that occasionally cross-dissolves into ruminations on justice or freedom or what gives meaning to life, particularly in a system designed to squelch existence and reduce it to a cruelly manageable size. On the subject of prison labor, Dostoevsky is ever observant and delights (if that’s the appropriate term) in describing all the ways in which the prisoners evade the constrictions of their imposed jobs. Still, as he points out, work is the only thing in prison offering any kind of redemption, in that it teaches unskilled prisoners a trade that can provide them with some kind of means once they’re released. Another crucial function is that it preoccupies them and kills time. And as Dostoevsky puts it in his inimitable way, “without work the prisoners would have eaten one another like spiders in a flask.”
Among Dostoevsky’s first impressions is the startling discovery that within the confines of the prison, the inmates are largely free to move about at will, though of course they’re all in fetters. They drink (there is an elaborate system in place for smuggling in vodka), play cards, visit prisoners in other barracks. What troubles him of course is that there’s no escape, and worse, no privacy. Murderers and naïve revolutionaries like himself are crammed together with no exit in sight. Arguments among inmates are a given in a pressure cooker like this but, interestingly, that’s about as far as it goes:
Cursing, abuse, ‘tongue-lashings’, were permissible. In some measure they served to entertain everybody. But things were not often allowed to go as far as fighting; only rarely, in exceptional cases, did the adversaries come to blows. Actual fighting would be reported to the major; there would be investigations, the major himself would come – in a word, it would be bad for everybody, and therefore fights were not tolerated. Indeed, the contestants abused one another more as a form of amusement and as an exercise in style than anything else… Vanity, however, must not be forgotten. The man who could argue down or shout down his opponent was highly esteemed and all but applauded like an actor.
With almost every kind of dignity stripped from these men, pride becomes a vital, self-soothing necessity.
So who were these men? Unfortunately, I found that Dostoevsky’s distance from his fellow inmates prevented him from convincingly committing any of them to the page. Akim Akimovich was one of his protectors, yet he never becomes much more than that as a character. There’s Petrov, “the most desperate man in the whole prison,” who had a shy demeanor but also a reputation as a cold-blooded killer. Then there’s Baklushin, the talented actor in the prison theatricals whom everyone liked who also happened to be a murderer. And many more. They all float into Dostoevsky’s view, he scoops them up, spins them around and hefts them in his hands and points out their flaws and strengths – but then he releases them, and they’re immediately swallowed up in the murk of prison life.
What does remain is this: from these men, from Dostoevsky’s exposure to this “other side” of life, from his own despair and his gradual embrace of the idea that suffering is the way to salvation, comes all the material that will inform the books on which his eventual reputation will rest. Prison is the forge where Dostoevsky becomes Dostoevsky the novelist.
* * *
As his sentence slowly spends itself, Dostoevsky makes the briefest mention of a recurring illness that puts him in the infirmary. What he doesn’t specify is that the epileptic seizures that first appeared when he was a child began occurring with greater frequency once he was imprisoned.
Here he is on the experience of a seizure:
For several instants I experience a happiness that is impossible in an ordinary state, and of which other people have no conception. I feel full harmony in myself and in the whole world, and the feeling is so strong and sweet that for a few seconds of such bliss one could give up ten years of life, perhaps all of life.
I felt that heaven descended to earth and swallowed me. I really attained god and was imbued with him. All of you healthy people don’t even suspect what happiness is, that happiness that we epileptics experience for a second before an attack.
Somehow, I remain not at all envious.
A good part of the second half of the book is set in the infirmary, and Dostoevsky pulls out the stops here in sharing some of the appalling conditions of the place, so much so that I can’t bring myself to quote from it. It’s gag-inducing stuff. He also devotes a chapter to the fate of animals in the prison. As you might imagine, every animal, as beloved as it might have been, is consumed once it dies if it’s not killed outright. In one macabre example, a tanner by trade kills and skins one of Dostoevsky’s favorite yard dogs to make linings for a pair of winter boots for a judge’s wife.
Then Christmas comes and “something like friendship makes its appearance.” Yet despite all the merry-making and site-specific good will, the holiday ends with most everyone drunk and arguing and crying before passing out. (Nice to know that Xmas can be the same lousy holiday no matter where you are.) And we’re given a lengthy chapter on the performances put on by an acting troupe inside the prison, including Philatka and Miroshka, a farce that enjoyed a certain level of popularity at that time, and the more intriguingly titled, Kedril the Glutton.
Long before the Revolution, even before the intelligentsia interested itself in the popular theater in the 1880s, the army had served to acquaint simple Russians with theater. Soldiers had their own special repertory: melodramas and the like, such as Kedril the Glutton and Filatka and Miroshka’s Rivalry, which Dostoevsky noticed before anyone even suspected that Russian popular theater existed.
From Bolshevik Festivals 1917 – 1920 , by James von Geldern
Now you know.
Where Dostoevsky really shines though is in his examination of the figure of the torturer and executioner.
Any man who has once tasted this dominion, this unlimited power, over the body, blood, and spirit of a human creature like himself… this boundless opportunity to humiliate with the deepest degradation another being made in the image of God, becomes despite himself the servant instead of the master of his emotions. Tyranny is a habit; it has the capacity to develop and it does develop, in the end, into a disease. I maintain that the best of men may become coarsened and degraded, by force of habit, to the level of a beast. Blood and power are intoxicants; callousness and perversity develop and grow; the greatest perversions become acceptable and finally sweet to the mind and heart. The man and the citizen perish eternally in the tyrant, and a return to human dignity, to remorse and regeneration, becomes almost completely impossible to him. Besides this, example and the possibility of such arbitrary power act like a contagion on the whole of society; such despotism is a temptation. A society which contemplates such manifestations calmly is already corrupted at its roots.
You don’t even have to try to find examples of this happening now.
* * *
Finally, in the book’s shortest chapter, Dostoevsky is released from prison. He wanders the stockade for the last time, thinking back over the last four years of his life, assessing it to see if there’s anything he can take away from it for himself.
And how much youth had gone to waste within those walls, what great powers had perished uselessly there! For the whole truth must be told: these indeed were no ordinary men. Perhaps, indeed, they were the most highly gifted and the strongest of all our people. But these powerful forces were condemned to perish uselessly, unnaturally, wrongfully, irrevocably. And whose is the blame?
As the U.S prison system sprawls, it’s clear that tyranny has left habit far behind and transformed itself into yet another explosively profitable business, one that needs to continually feed itself new prisoners to keep its engines running. (If you haven’t read it, pick up a copy of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and get ready to be outraged.)
But sticking to the matter at hand, it’s clear to see why Dostoevsky’s writing – insistent, repetitive, maddening, and out of control as it can sometimes be – endures. It’s because he still feels contemporary. He still feels relevant. He’s a crazy mess, but I still love him.
“Joan Crawford’s straight, narrow, and lonely back,” is the first line from The Devil Finds Work, James Baldwin’s 1976 book-length essay about the home that racism made for itself in the America film industry and in the minds of its viewers.
Cover image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Devil_Finds_Work
It’s also the first image from the first movie Baldwin remembers seeing, Dance, Fools, Dance. And even though he recalls being entranced by the swirl of images on the screen and the captivating presence of Crawford, he also remembers being aware that beneath her glamorous veneer, Crawford was still “a white lady” – someone he knew even at the age of seven that he could not trust.
Image of Joan Crawford from http://lts.brandeis.edu/research/archives-speccoll/exhibits/crawford/CrawfordHome.html
From that realization he segues to a memory of being sent to a store and encountering “a colored woman, who, to me, looked exactly like Joan Crawford.”
She was so incredibly beautiful – she seemed to be wearing the sunlight, rearranging it around her from time to time, with a movement of one hand, with a movement of her head, and with her smile – that, when she paid the man and started out of the store, I started out behind her. The storekeeper, who knew me, and the others in the store who knew my mother’s little boy (and who also knew my Miss Crawford!) laughed and called me back. Miss Crawford also laughed and looked down at me with so beautiful a smile that I was not even embarrassed. Which was rare for me.
Redemption for him was to be found in the real, in reality, not in the escapism that movies were supposed to offer. Though he did absorb a considerable number of lessons from the movies; only, he adapted what he came across to meet his own needs.
Moving forward in the essay, Baldwin amusingly glosses a Tom Mix serial and a hammy, racist Last of the Mohicans, only to come face to face with his next movie star icon – Bette Davis in the forgettable 20,000 Years in Sing Sing.
Rather than dissecting the film, Baldwin instead begins by talking about “a young white schoolteacher, a beautiful woman, very important to me,” Orilla “Bill” Miller. Miller was a member of the WPA Theater Project, and she recognized in Baldwin a precocious and unusual talent. She took him under her wing and introduced him to a wider world of culture via books, movies, and the theater. Baldwin says of her:
I loved her, of course, and absolutely, with a child’s love… It is certainly partly because of her, who arrived in my terrifying life so soon, that I never really managed to hate white people – though God knows, I have often wished to murder more than one or two. But Bill Miller… was not white for me in the way, for example, that Joan Crawford was white, in the way that the landlords and the storekeepers and the cops and most of my teachers were white…
It’s with Bill that he goes to see 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, and it’s on seeing Bette Davis and her “pop eyes popping” on screen that he’s led to the following epiphany.
For here, before me, after all, was a movie star: white: and if she was white and a movie star, she was rich: and she was ugly.
Image of Bette Davis from http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000012/?ref_=fn_al_nm_1
…I sensed something menacing and unhealthy (for me certainly) in the face on the screen, I gave Davis’s skin the dead-white, greenish cast of something crawling from under a rock, but I was held just the same by the tense intelligence of the forehead, the disaster of the lips: and when she moved, she moved just like a n——.
Bette Davis’ unlikely presence represents a triumph to him – the triumph of turning one’s supposed flaws into one’s assets and weapons.
For I was not only considered by my father to be ugly. I was considered by everyone to be “strange,” including my poor mother who didn’t, however, beat me for it. Well, if I was “strange” – and I knew that I must be, otherwise people would not have treated me so strangely, and I would not have been so miserable – perhaps I could find a way to use my strangeness. A “strange” child, anyway, dimly and fearfully apprehends that the years are not likely to make him less strange. Therefore, if he wishes to live, he must calculate, and I knew that I had to live.
More epiphanies await. And we’re only three pages in.
Baldwin next scoops up two books that served as touchstones for him as a child, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and A Tale of Two Cities. From his obsessive re-reading of them, he concludes, “It was this particular child’s way of circling around the question of what it meant to be a n—–.”
Because that’s the central issue for him growing up. That, and finding a way beyond that question, beyond that definition. Beyond the constraints and cruelties of the white world.
As the essay continues, Baldwin describes how the movies became a source of fascination and disillusionment for him, a place where he observed the ways in which white people chose to represent black people (when they chose to, which was rare at best); where he observed what white people seemed to think an accurate depiction of reality looked like on their terms, and how far it was from the reality of what his life looked and felt like.
And from there he plunges deeper into a conflation of literature and film, illuminating the ways his consciousness was alerted to the connections between what he was taking in culturally and how that reflected the world he lived in. The real history of poverty, ruin, and “unrelenting hatred” that provided the motivating drive for A Tale of Two Cities was still alive for Baldwin in the faces he saw every day in his neighborhood. And when the revolution finally came in the movie version of the book, the angry mob that Baldwin saw – was white. And the image that was meant to be rousing was one that filled him instead with unease. Which segues into a brief rumination on the idea of vengeance: who has a right to it, and who has access to it.
Because Uncle Tom would not take vengeance into his own hands, he was not a hero for me. Heroes, as far as I could then see, were white, and not merely because of the movies but because of the land in which I lived, of which movies were simply a reflection: I despised and feared those heroes because they did take vengeance into their own hands. They thought that vengeance was theirs to take.
Streaming like an undercurrent through this time was the issue of Baldwin’s faith. Under increasing pressure from his father, a preacher himself, Baldwin, at the age of fourteen, stopped going to the movies and the theater, and became a preacher. (Heartbreakingly, when he visits Bill Miller to tell her he’s been “saved” and is going to devote himself to the church, she tells him flat out – knowing everything he’s hoping to ignore and why – “I’ve lost a lot of respect for you.”)
For three years, he preached and devoted himself to his faith, only to find that faith continually eroding. A friend, Emile, to whom he had confessed his doubt, takes Baldwin to the movies where Baldwin collapses in tears, forcing them to leave. Putting their friendship on the line, Emile tells Baldwin he has no business preaching the gospel, particularly if he doesn’t believe it himself, and worse, that doing so represents a form of cowardice that he, Emile, won’t tolerate in a friend. He tells Baldwin that he’s going to buy matinee tickets for a show the following Sunday and that he must meet him on the 42nd Street Library steps. If he doesn’t come – if he stays at church – their friendship is over.
Of course, Baldwin meets him, And it turns out the matinee isn’t just any old show. It’s a performance of Native Son, directed by Orson Welles, and featuring Canada Lee.
I will not forget Canada Lee’s performance as long as I live. Canada Lee was Bigger Thomas, but he was also Canada Lee: his physical presence like the physical presence of Paul Robeson, gave me the right to live. He was not at the mercy of my imagination, as he would have been, on the screen: he was on the stage in flesh and blood, and I was, therefore, at the mercy of his imagination.
Image of Canada Lee from http://www.harlemworldmag.com/canada-lee-born-in-harlem-video/
The last time Baldwin had been in the theater, just before his desperate religious conversion, he’d gone with Bill Miller to see Orson Welles’ all-black production of Macbeth. Though he briefly comments on not being prepared for the impact that seeing black people on stage would have on him, he chooses instead to focus on the larger impact the theater has in general compared to the movies, particularly the distance or lack of distance between the audience and the performers. In the theater, he says:
One is not in the presence of shadows, but responding to one’s flesh and blood: in the theater, we are creating each other… we are all each other’s flesh and blood. This is the truth which it is very difficult for the theater to try to deny, and when it attempts to do so the same thing happens to the theater as happens to the church: it becomes sterile and irrelevant, a blasphemy, and the true believer goes elsewhere – carrying, as it happens, the church and the theater with him, and leaving the form behind.
And then he takes it one step further.
For the church and the theater are carried within us, and it is we who create them, out of our need and out of an impulse more mysterious than our desire. If this seems to be saying the life of the theater and the life of the church are dependent on maverick freak poets and visionaries, I can only point out that these difficult creatures are also our flesh and blood, and are also created by our need and out of an impulse more mysterious than our desire.
To that I can only humbly respond, Amen.
Image from http://allthingsjamesbaldwin.tumblr.com/
* * *
In the next section, “Who saw him die? I, said the Fly,” Baldwin grapples with films such as Birth of a Nation, Lawrence of Arabia, In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, and The Defiant Ones, as well as a few justifiably lesser known works, like the incoherent, sensationalist French film, I Spit on Your Grave, and the schmaltzy, anti-Communist dud, My Son, John.
Baldwin handily lays bare the racist and/or homophobic foundations beneath the surface of these films, dealing out to each one a critique that amounts to a kind of deep psychoanalysis. His various takes on the unaddressed colonial mentality percolating throughout Lawrence of Arabia, the self-congratulatory, pseudo-enlightened 1960s liberal “tolerance” of black people in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, and the failed attempts of white Hollywood, and by extension white America, to be brave and address head on the legacy of bigotry in both In the Heat of the Night and The Defiant Ones, are revelatory in their insights and withering in their assessments.
Yet despite the inspired fluidity of the prose, the writing gets bogged down at times in the necessary longueurs of plot description. And while that can’t be avoided, it doesn’t help matters that Baldwin doesn’t think much of these films to begin with.
Because here’s where things get sticky. The problem, as I see it, is that while the opening of Devil brilliantly depicts the birth and development of Baldwin’s consciousness (and double-consciousness) in a fascinating, deceptively loose, almost free-associative style, what follows from that is the repeated application of that percipient, highly stylized consciousness to a film industry that by and large never developed much of a critical self-consciousness of its own. Baldwin’s work is always illuminating to read, always instructive, no matter what the subject matter is, and such is the case here. But what’s missing seems to be a crucial lack of subject matter. These movies, for all their flaws or virtues, don’t seem to me to be worthy targets for Baldwin’s firepower. Yes, they were popular and influential and because of that he’s taking pains to expose and hopefully contain that “influence.” Yet the question that surfaced for me was, surely he could have put his talent to better use?
But again, the fault lies not with Baldwin, but with the anemic, predominantly white, mainstream film culture of that time (and this one.) As he puts it:
It is scarcely possible to think of a black actor who has not been misused: not one has ever been seriously challenged to deliver the best that is in him… The moments given us by black performers exist so far beneath, or beyond, the American apprehensions that it is difficult to describe them.
Think of it – who was attempting to film an accurate version of black life in America when Baldwin was young? How many people are doing that now (on the mainstream level)? Where were the starring roles for black actors then? Where are they now? As it was in his childhood, so it is for us now, albeit slightly improved.
But by whose standards? Whose films are getting the exposure?
* * *
From the age of twenty-four, Baldwin had led an itinerant existence, shuttling between France, Switzerland, Turkey, and the U.S. But the burgeoning Freedom Movement of the late 1950s and 60s called him back to the States and he made a choice to stay, throwing himself into the cause. And no matter the intensity of the ire and moral outrage he unleashed in every speech or interview he gave during that time, or unfurled in his now-legendary books – Notes of a Native Son, Nobody Knows My Name, and The Fire Next Time – he never failed to leaven his rhetoric with a message of love while holding out some kind of hope for the possibility of change, even if that hope was a despairing kind.
But the murder of Medger Evers in 1963, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X later in the decade, left the Freedom Movement in tatters and its stated aims – racial equality and justice, economic parity, means of self-determination – tragically and dangerously out of reach for many.
The new leaders to emerge from the ruins of the movement, particularly those from the Black Panther Party, advocated violent revolution as the only means for achieving justice and overthrowing the lethally stubborn, white social structure. They had no patience for listening to any more excuses or rationales from so-called white leaders. The time for talk was over. The fire next time had arrived. And Baldwin’s stance, a mercurial blend of King’s pacifism and Malcolm X’s anger, in addition to his openness about his homosexuality, transformed him into a target of scorn for the Panthers, leaving him open to accusations of self-hatred, cowardice, and perhaps most damning of all, being out of touch with the realities of black life in America.
Baldwin, exhausted, antagonized, and increasingly marginalized, left America again. The dreaming, feverish country, whose pulse he had held and counted for years, had suddenly been convulsed by riots and murder, and in waking, had shaken off his grip. He returned to his chosen place of exile in St. Paul de Vence, France. And after publishing the bitter novel, If Beale Street Could Talk in 1974, it was in 1976, the year of America’s Bicentennial, when he came out with The Devil Finds Work. And I think that this lack of connection with his home, both physical and psychic, accounts for the fact that the majority of the movies Baldwin examines in Devil are from not just the past, but from his past, when he was still living in America, and was still a venerated and valued voice.
* * *
When he does catch up to the then-present in the final section, “Where the Grapes of Wrath are Stored,” the book begins to lose steam.
Baldwin begins by recounting his own experiences in the belly of the beast – Hollywood – when he went there to work on a screenplay based on the book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. (Baldwin’s work was later published in book form as One Day When I Was Lost. You can read more about Spike Lee’s use of Baldwin’s screenplay treatment for his own 1992 film, Malcolm X, here.)
Suffice it to say, he had a rough time of it, finding himself quickly saddled with a co-writer whose job it was to take Baldwin’s daily output and “translate” it into safe, palatable Hollywood fodder. After a few weeks, Baldwin took his script and walked. What remained at stake for him was veracity – conveying something genuine and maybe even “true” about the African-American experience – and he knew he was in a place that still wasn’t ready for that.
Which leads into his blistering assessment of the 1972 Diana Ross vehicle, Lady Sings the Blues, which “pretends to be based on Billie Holiday’s autobiography…”
I’ll just step back here and let Mr. Baldwin continue:
Lady Sings the Blues is related to the black American experience in about the same way, and to the same extent that Princess Grace Kelly is related to the Irish potato famine: by courtesy… It has absolutely nothing to do with Billie, or with jazz, or with any other kind of music, or the risks of an artist, or American life, or black life, or narcotics, or the narcotics laws, or clubs, or managers, or policemen, or despair, or love. The script is as empty as a banana peel, and as treacherous.
See what I mean? Even when he’s dealing with substandard material, he makes Art out of it. And he never allows his outrage and disgust to rise above the banks of his consciousness. His prose remains fluid and shimmering, controlled and commanding. But it’s like watching Muhammad Ali work a speed bag when you’d much rather see him tangle with Joe Frazier.
The book ends with The Exorcist, and Baldwin saying that the film seems to be an outgrowth of hysterical, collective (white) guilt, manifested from the fears of those without any sort of religious faith. Maybe so. But sometimes a scary movie is just a scary movie. (And Richard Pryor’s take on it makes Baldwin’s seem fairly ridiculous.) I began to feel like Baldwin was straining a bit. Then he goes on to say that the devil is actually in all of us:
…in the eyes of the cop and the sheriff and the deputy, the landlord, the housewife the football player: in the eyes of some junkies, the eyes of some preachers, the eyes of some governors, presidents, wardens, in the eyes of some orphans, and in the eyes of my father, and in my mirror.
The specific, pointed list above that he compiled about Lady Sings the Blues’ shortcomings becomes here a random list of people and, as such, has no real charge. It’s part of an unfortunate and uncharacteristic vagueness that comes over the end of Devil, as if Baldwin had suddenly decided to take it on himself to summon up and name all the evils of the world – something nobody’s capable of doing, not even him. It’s as if he wound up performing being James Baldwin and playing his role of truth teller to carry him through to the end. But I felt that he’d already made his point.
* * *
I can’t help but wonder what Baldwin would think of the movies today. How would he respond to the work of Julie Dash or Charles Burnett or Spike Lee? Would he praise Twelve Years a Slave or would he suffer the way Armand White did for speaking out against it? What would he make of What’s Love Got to Do With It? The Color Purple? Beasts of the Southern Wild? Gimme the Loot? Fruitvale Station? Any of Tyler Perry’s Madea movies?
The Devil Finds Work is not his best book but I recommend it all the same. There is a vital source in Baldwin’s prose, a soul, if you will, that guides his hand and mind and imprints itself on every page he writes. That remains a rare and special quality.