American Gloom

Nationalism within the Colonized State: Resistance Movements and the Politics of Borders

by Ezekiel Fry

Black Is A CountryIn his book, Black is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy, Nikhil Pal Singh draws up the example of the Black Panthers’ solidarity and unity with the Viet-Cong. This solidarity illuminates a feeling on both fronts of existing in a colonized state. The Panthers view Oakland very much in the same way that the Viet-Cong might view Hanoi. These are spaces within a larger colonial nation where the oppressed and the colonized create their own sovereignty. Despite the pressure of French occupation, Ho Chi Minh and his comrades declared Hanoi to be the seat of their revolution in the 1940’s and 1950’s, much in the same way that even with the ever-present police violence and threat, the Panthers declared their revolution in the occupied streets of Oakland in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The problems that this presents for the occupying state should be self-explanatory in hindsight. The Viet-Cong’s declarations of sovereignty resulted in immediate battle with first the French and then American forces, and the Panthers’ declaration resulted in their systematic destruction by the United States government. The threat was clearly tangible. Both organizations had struck upon a way to unravel and disrupt the colonial sovereignty and power of the oppressive occupiers. They forced a move from colonial government through their actions.
Unfortunately the results of the Panthers non-violent and community based declaration was not successful in the way that the Viet-Cong’s ultimately was (although this success could probably now be rethought due to the adoption of a global capitalist model by pretty much all the former communist states in Asia). The oppressive regime never left Oakland; it is occupied to this day. However, these models, and particularly the Panthers’ approach, can serve as templates and inspiration for organizing effectively outside of the state’s parameters. Another key aspect of both of these projects is that the groups declaring their own sovereignty where racialized. This is both an important factor for the assessment of the level of threat it posed to the racist state apparatus, and also is important as the place, the very site, of the resistance. That which was used to subdue and control is turned around into something that becomes a powerful way of resisting colonizing forces. Black nationalism becomes a decolonizing force against the very system that created blackness as a way of racializing and compartmentalizing. There is much to learn from this redefining of positions of struggle and repositioning and reclaiming. That we might find a spot to resist oppression in the very language used to control is heartening. But I do not want to get too carried away.
Resistance movements such as Occupy failed to fully take into account ideas of race. It became something of a young, white, middle-class uprising. While this is certainly important, Occupy’s failure to look deeper than the 99% and establish important roles for difference ultimately weakened the impact of their movement (the middle class has to be involved in change from my perspective, it has to be forced into changing, it has to experience similar feelings of isolation and discouragement that poor communities feel in order to become active. Folks don’t really change because they want to, they change because they need to.).
The ideas of race and class are inseparable. When we speak of class we speak of race, and when we speak of race we speak of class. This is perhaps the best example I have yet to come up with for the concept of articulation. They are always working in relation to one another. In this case, any resistance movement that claims to be a class struggle, that does not already discuss race as a primary point in this debate, is not doing their homework, nor opening up truly effective channels for change and upheaval. When we talk about the one, we need to already be talking about the other. Like the Panthers and the Viet-Cong we should think about how we can mobilize these articulated principles in our communities in an increased effort to resist state-sanctioned forms of liberal change and progress. Imagine new ways!


A Poetics of Absence: Nathaniel Mackey’s Splay Anthem

by Sarah DeYoreo

Nathaniel Mackey’s 2006 collection of poetry, Splay Anthem, is a work preoccupied with exile, uprootedness, loss, and desire, and the relationship between language, poetry, and these themes. The collection is a complication of fragments from two of Mackey’s longer serial poems, Song of the AndoumSplayAnthemboulou and Mu, and as indicated by its title (“splay,” meaning to divide or sunder, split apart; an anthem typically sung in commemoration of a group or whole), it is interested in the paradoxes and possibilities opened up by conceiving of collectivities born of uprootedness, division, and loss. Since reading Splay Anthem several years ago, I have been fascinated by its interest in what might be called, to borrow from Judith Butler, communities of absence, division, mourning, and loss (Butler, “Violence, Mourning, Politics”). This entry is an edited version of part of an essay I wrote shortly after first reading Splay Anthem in the spring of 2012, but which still seems relevant to the interests of this blog and to the work in postcolonial literature and theory I’m doing now.

Both Song of the Andoumboulou and Mu, the poems from which Splay Anthem is (partially) derived, are poems of longing, desire, an almost silent or silenced desperation: what Mackey calls in the preface to the book “an all but asthmatic song of aspiration…a wish, among others, to be we…that of some larger collectivity an anthem would celebrate” (xi). Indeed, this sense of a “lost” or missing “twinness” or hypothetical, possibly ancestral, unity resonates throughout the poems (xi). In “Song of the Andoumboulou: 46,” for instance, the final poem included in the first section of Splay Anthem, entitled “Braid,” Mackey writes,

Knowing of the world it
would remain without
them, they lay entwined
atavistic twins,

and, further down the page: “They lay entwined, asymmetric / twins, each the other’s / long lost remnant” (46). The “they” to whom the poem refers figures here and elsewhere as a kind of originary or apocalyptic—it is not clear which—pair, situated at or near some vaguely foreseen or remembered beginning or end of the world (“After the end. Before / the beginning… / All at once they / both wondered / which” (7)). “Song of the Andoumboulou: 46” takes place precisely on the edge or periphery of this (always-)yet-to-arrive beginning and announces the transformation that will occur in the following section, “Fray”: “I pulled him aside to say, braids / unravel” (48).

The formal logic of the collection itself, an entwinement or braiding together of two distinct and as-yet-incomplete strands, reproduces—gives shape to—the poems’ ritual and almost supplicatory announcement: that of a “semi-sung, semi-wept” cry or bray that is at once a song of loss or remembrance for the poems’ phantom “we,” as well as a kind of cautious affirmation or perpetual striving-toward (xv). “Had there been a song we sang,” writes Mackey,

it was
extremity we sang, all but strangling song,
song[.] (84)

This striving or “straining” movement or restricted pursuit, which, here, constitutes the entire content of the Andoumboulou’s song or disjointed anthem, can be understood in relation to the twofold nature of the poems themselves. That is, like the “atavistic” and “asymmetric” twins mentioned above (“each the other’s / long lost remnant”), Mu and Song of the Andoumboulou require one another, as Mackey notes in the book’s opening lines: each is the other’s missing component, the other’s persistent shadow (ix).

While much might be said of the ways in which the two serial poems, Song of the Andoumboulou and Mu, correspond to and complement one another, each responding to and making up for the other’s deficiency or lack, it might also be said that this lack or deficiency is an essential feature of all the poems, one that precedes—perhaps even precludes—any potential completion or exalted oneness towards which the poems collectively strive. That is, insofar as the poems concern longing, desire (of both a physical and non- or metaphysical kind), the wish on the part of the Andoumboulou for the sort of permanent dwelling place or homeland that the poems repeatedly invoke, they speak, too, both implicitly and explicitly so, of a basic absence or scarcity within their existing world. Regarding the anagrammatically-named stranger who appears in “Song of the Andoumboulou: 40,” for example, Mackey writes,

Climb was
all anyone was, he went
want rode our limbs like
soul, he insisted[.] (21)

“Soul,” here, is figured, paradoxically, as a kind of absence of soul (substantive, positive), synonymous with “want” or desire, and the pair of lovers is defined not by any particular quality or attribute belonging to them—“belonging” suggesting possession, achievement, the condition of having attained (something) or of having arrived—but by their mutual and unending “climbing” or striving. In other words, the pair or possibly larger assembly—the “our” of the fourth line—is reduced to the only thing that they do share in common: the condition of “wanting more than was / there,” that of never having arrived (12).

In the lines from “Song of the Andoumboulou: 52” cited earlier in this essay—“it was / extremity we sang, all but strangling song, / a / straining / song”—we witness again this sense of an endless and nearly impossible reaching or striving-toward that characterizes much of Mackey’s work. Here the poem itself appears to approach a kind of musical or poetic extremity as it moves to single-word lines, the isolated “a” of the third-to-last line “straining” or threatening to destroy the already uncertain sense of continuity or togetherness that the poems continually seek and just barely fail to evoke. Situated along the far right-hand margin of the page, the “a” seems almost to occupy or exceed this extremity that the poem—indeed, all of the poems—struggles to sound, perform, or, in some manner, articulate: one that both limits or circumscribes the experiential possibilities of the poem as poem, as song, and, at the same time, permits—or rather, demands—its very occurrence or continued taking place(ness).

The final two lines, “straining / song,” signal both failure or missed opportunity on the part of the poem as well as a kind of balance or cohesion momentarily restored: they indicate, on the one hand, a return to the intermediary region to which the poem is confined—manifested, formally, by their physical closeness and roughly left-handed alignment on the page—and, on the other, an inability on the part of the poem to move beyond this defined territory into some open, non-bounded space. The lines bring to mind the “andoumboulouous liminality” that Mackey describes in the preface to Splay Anthem—“the draft unassured extension knows itself to be …repeatedly circling or cycling back…as if around or in pursuit of some lost or last note” (xii)—as well as a few lines from the book’s opening poem, “Andoumboulouous Brush: ‘mu’ fifteenth part”:

ness the note they were
after, audible witness
all but out of ear’s
reach …

the “they” of the second line reaching toward and failing to reach beyond the boundaries or margins of the Andoumboulou’s world, in search of the imagined elsewhere posited many times throughout the book; some undiscovered song or way of singing in which their own striving, straining, obstructed pursuit—of one another, of something like the notion of wholeness or completion itself—might become music, sound (7).

Of course, it is this condition, too—of absence, of exigency—that makes the Andoumboulou’s song possible: a distinctive feature of the poems, demonstrated, in a most basic sense, at the level of sound itself. Mackey’s insistence on echoes, vibrations, crevices, cracks, openings and cavities transformed into instruments by way of breeze or breath, underscores this almost trivial observation: that all sound, including that of speech and music, requires an empty—albeit enclosed—space in which to sound, expand, resound or reverberate. In “Song of the Andoumboulou: 50,” for example, one of the earliest poems included in the middle section of the book, “Fray,” Mackey writes of the place or region called by the same name, “Fray,” “Sound’s own principality it was, a / pocket of air flexed mouthlike,” where emptiness is figured as the requisite condition for sound, the space in which sound is produced or constituted (66). Elsewhere the Andoumboulou themselves are depicted similarly as pockets of air or empty vessels-turned-instruments, who become both the source or origin of their collective song as well as the medium or vehicle by which it is sounded, made music:

To the bone meant
to the
limit, at a loss even so,          eyes,
ears, nostrils, mouths          holes in
our heads a stray breeze made flutes
of[.] (22)

Here the poem begins to perform or embody its own (empty) content, as holes or openings appear in the third and fourth lines. Extended to its furthest “limit” or reduced to some rudimentary, “to the bone” stage—same thing—the poem, too, becomes a function of lack or absence (of substance, of content), now figured as the very condition of and for poetry.

The notion persists throughout Splay Anthem, and is reintroduced in “Song of the Andoumboulou: 60,” the final poem of the book: “A vocation / for lack he’d have said, she’d have said / longing”—the “he” and “she” no longer, or not ever having been, the intertwined pair of the initial section—“a world, were they to speak, between…” (122). At this point speech, even, is reduced to a near-impossibility (“he’d have said, she’d have said…were they to speak,” emphasis mine), as, elsewhere, the song of the Andoumboulou—and, moreover, the poems themselves—are understood in purely and only hypothetical terms, hence the often-repeated “had there been a song we sang…” (116, 115, 84, 72, 70). The song and the poem become their own hypotheticals, which is to say their own absences or phantom parts: the song of the Andoumboulou is the song the Andoumboulou would sing if there were a song, which there is not; the poem if there were a poem. The lines are repeated on the following page, the song or poem having at this final juncture turned echo, murmur, endless “reverb,” a kind of enduring refrain or incessant whisper (109).

“It was a tale told many times over;” “all the songs had long been sung”: the lines are repeated, in various forms, many times throughout the book, signaling, again, the recursive tendency on the part of the poems, and on the part of the Andoumboulou as well (51, 120, 121, 125). We might say that the song of the Andoumboulou, along with the poems themselves, are attempts to disrupt the persistent echo or murmur that the poems perform, to break their own cyclic or circling motion. Of course, the boundary that circumscribes or delimits the Andoumboulou’s existence is at the same time necessary for the realization of their song; sound, as we said above, including that of speech and music, requires an empty—albeit enclosed—space in which to sound, expand, resound, and reverberate. Their song, then, and the poems as well, become an attempt to put an end to music and poetry, to “have been done with singing, / song / not enough” (33). For the end of poetry, of music, marks not only the end of circularity—the kind of incessant return or regression signified by by the final, apocalyptic region of the book, Nub—but also the end of desire, of longing, of absence itself. This is the logic behind the book’s initial poem, and one that is repeated or echoed throughout—the notion that to sing is to sing for the end of singing; to write for the end of writing itself:

soughed, hummed it,
made it buzz… Hummed,
hoped glass would break,
walls fall. Sang thru
cracks a croaking
to end all song[.] (3)

Butler, Judith. “Violence, Mourning, Politics.” Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. London: Verso, 2006. Print.
Mackey, Nathaniel. Splay Anthem. New York: New Directions, 2006. Print.

American Gloom … and Beyond!

by Sarah DeYoreo

Before anyone gets too excited, this title is not meant to signal an optimistic turn in the essays that comprise this blog. Optimism is not, it seems, a mood well-suited to humanistic inquiry in the 21st century. (We will continue to ask why not.) The “beyond” in the title refers instead to a significant change in the scope of these essays, which, having been confined mainly to American and European writers and thinkers, is now being expanded to engage with what is sometimes called “global” or “transnational” literature: writing produced by inhabitants of the greater, largely non-white world.

More specifically, and alongside its continued focus on American literature, this blog will now pay close attention to literatures produced by inhabitants of places once or still subject to, and still bearing the marks of, the horrors of European and American (neo)colonization. While widely diverse in form, style, and content, these are literatures often preoccupied with questions of violence, power, imperial domination and control, and the lasting effects that each of these has on land and the people who live there. Reading these texts closely often requires a double, contradictory move: both a disentangling or deciphering of numerous histories of human and geographical violence and exploitation superimposed upon and enmeshed in one another in impossibly complex ways and a recognition of the limits of such deciphering.

Ultimately, a central question that often emerges from these engagements is, appropriately, a question of reading: faced with the limits of decipherability—the limits of hermeneutics in the classical sense—how does one continue to read in a way that is attentive, committed, and ethical? What might this kind of ethical reading look like? While we will likely not respond to this question directly, the essays here invariably engage with it in more or less indirect ways. Certainly it is our hope, if not to define ethical reading, then to enact it. Thus, these essays are attempts to read in ways that are careful, patient, generous, attuned to alterity, illegibility, and difference, and highly conscious of reading as a social and political practice. While they do not aim to exhaust the texts they look at—this kind of exhaustive reading would be, arguably, both impossible and counterproductive—they explore, sometimes rigorously, sometimes only haphazardly, potentially productive avenues of thought opened up by their readings.

So, if not optimism, then what? Are gloom and despair the only modes we have left? In his 2003 preface to the 25th anniversary edition of Orientalism, Edward Said writes:

The recent deaths of my two main intellectual, political, and personal mentors, Eqbal Ahmad and Ibrahim Abu-Lughod … have brought sadness and a certain stubborn will to go on. It isn’t at all a matter of being optimistic, but rather of continuing to have faith in the ongoing and literally unending process of emancipation and enlightenment that, in my opinion, frames and gives direction to the intellectual vocation. (xv)

A similar kind of “stubborn” faith, I think—faith, often, in spite of itself—motivates our efforts here. Often, it is a faith in something like the power of language, writing, and discourse to (re)shape and so effect positive change in the world, but it is also—and increasingly, for me anyway—faith in the immense potentials of reading and of listening, and in the kinds of alternative engagements with the world and with others that these activities both sustain and inspire.

So, without further ado, into the Gloom!

Said, Edward. Orientalism. 25th Anniv. Edition. New York: Vintage Books, 1978. Print.

Hawthorne’s Use of Light (My Kinsman, Major Molineux)

by Ezekiel Fry

The backdrop for “My Kinsman, Major Molineux” is a “moonlight evening”, Hawthorne states initially, and it is into this scene that the country youth, Robin strides (30). This ubiquitous moonlight slowly works upon Robin by “creating, like the imaginative power, a beautiful strangeness in familiar objects,” and clouds his thoughts like a wizard’s charm (Hawthorne 41, 39). Even so, from the first moments, when Robin is illuminated in detail by the light of the ferryman’s lantern, there is a contrasting light that may have its own special properties. By this artificial, or human, light, as represented here in the form of the ferryman’s lantern, the reality of Robin, from head to toe, is revealed (Hawthorne 30). There is nothing enchanted or stilted about the description that is given of the young man beneath the lantern’s glow. Human light cuts through the ambiguity of the bewitching moonlight giving a clear picture of the young man. The “moonlight evening” casts a spell over Robin’s perception that only the presence of human light can penetrate to reveal truth.
Under the spell of the “moonlight evening” Robin, filled with his own assumptions about the nobility of his search, first approaches an old man. Robin accosts this man on the street and the encounter plays out “just when the light from the open door and windows of a barber’s shop, fell upon both their figures” (Hawthorne 31). This spotlighting of the interview works to place Robin on display, just as he has been from the opening appraisal of his figure by the ferry-man, under the microscopic and unfeeling vision of a human light. This brief glimpse of stark light does not help Robin discern truth immediately, but instead forces him to flee the scene in shame (Hawthorne 32). In turning away from the light Robin returns to the enchanted world of moonlight where he is free to construct a fanciful explanation for the harshness of that moment under the scrutinizing light (Hawthorne 32). In the course of his flight he finds himself at the door of an inn, where he must once again face the lamp of humanity.
Within the smoky light of the inn, Robin, reassured of himself through his solitary explanation, once again asserts himself in his search. His perception of the events that are transpiring around him is half-formed, as hazy as the atmosphere of the room. He believes that the innkeeper treats him politely, not with “superfluous civility,” but due to “a family likeness” with Major Molineux (Hawthorne 34). As he ventures deeper down the road of his moonlit logic and he announces his desire to find Major Molineux the tone within the room drastically shifts. The smoke seems to clear and every eye becomes focused on him. It is in this moment that Robin once again stands on the edge of perceiving a piece of truth concerning his situation, but faced once again with the jarring intensity of human light he leaves before the truth found in the room can be fully discerned. He finds himself back in the province of moonlight. Here, when removed from the intensity of examination beneath the human light, Robin again creates his own theory of the events that have just occurred (Hawthorne 35). Within the shadows and magic of the moon, Robin may, in addition to diverting himself from what may have occurred earlier, venture on the spot explanations for anyone—or anything—he encounters where human light does not fall.
One such occasion of an interview lit by moonlight alone arises when Robin calls on what he allows himself to believe is the Major’s housekeeper. Robin literally views this woman as she “[comes] forth into the moonlight” (Hawthorne 37). Under the light of the moon Robin sees her as he wants to, as if compelled by “the imaginative power,” and discerns her identity and role in this manner. It is not until the approach of the watchman, and the intrusion of his lantern, that the enchantment of the scene is thrown aside and Robin is forced to see the situation for what it actually is, and thus to flee from the light of humankind once more (Hawthorne 38).
Robin’s perception is heavily dominated by the influence of the moon’s ethereal light, but with each successive intrusion upon his imagined world by the light of mankind the tenor of the moon’s spell begins to change. Each exposure brings a more frantic and ambiguous return to the moonlight. This disconnection from even the most basic aspects of rational perception becomes clear as Robin enters under the “shade” of the church’s steeple (Hawthorne 39). Within this darkest of places, removed from both the moonlight and the light of humankind, Robin discerns the rays of the moon—now removed from his actual being—as they flicker upon a Bible (Hawthorne 42). It is here that Robin’s continued separation from human light, and the shift in focus of the moon’s spell becomes voiced. He yells, “Oh, that any breathing thing were here with me” and with this invocation fades out of his solitary darkly lit world, falling into a dream of sunlit fantasy which rudely returns him to his actual position viewing the ghostly light of the midnight town (Hawthorne 42). This jarring melding of past and present leads to Robin’s vexed cry “Am I here, or there?” (Hawthorne 43). This theme of disconnection, or the increased potency of the moon’s power, is finally brought to a head in Robin’s dreamlike vision of his kinsman staring out of a darkened window (Hawthorne 43). The moon’s power has begun to move towards its zenith, even as the intensity of human light gathers itself to bombard the spell with its garishness.
The defining scene of Robin’s search arises out of the moonlit streets like yet another phantom dream. The torches of the mob push back the enchantment of the moonlight, but they seem only to add to the obscuring properties of the night (Hawthorne 47). However, Robin is now forced to stand against his will and wait for his vision to become clearer. He can no longer evade the approach of truth. It is at this moment that the spell under which he has found himself all through the “moonlight evening” is heightened to its peak, and out of the combined intensity of the torches and the moonlight Robin clearly sees his kinsman in all his tattered shame (Hawthorne 48). The spell that has kept him in blindness—the fallacious viewing of each interaction—has been pushed to its limit in this view of his ruined kinsman, and as the spell is completed, as Robin suffers from “a sort of mental inebriety,” the charm is broken (Hawthorne 49). Robin sees clearly the faces of all the figures he has half encountered during his midnight search and by the consistent light of the torches he realizes the absurd reality of his search (Hawthorne 49). He no longer muses over the nature of his situation. It is quite clear. There are no more half glimpsed images, or flights into darkness, the images of the imagination have become tangible reality in this moment of shame and humiliation. Robin has shed the spell of the moon and within the brutish light of humankind found his kinsman.

Kurosawa’s Forgotten Gem: Dersu Uzala

by Ezekiel Fry

Dersu Uzala is a very unique film within Kurosawa’s body of work. Unlike previous ventures such as Throne of Blood or The Bad Sleep Well, Dersu Uzala is haunting not in a foggy and obscured manner, but in its gutturally bright brilliance. Nature, when seen through Kurosawa’s lens, and captured on 70mm film takes on an almost ethereal beauty and transcendence that has the same evocative presence that scenes in Spider’s Web Forest or the dirt pit have in the previously mentioned films. Kurosawa has always been adept at capturing the strength of nature in his work and exploring humankind’s relationship, be it directly or indirectly, with the wilder elements of the world. With Dersu Uzala he takes this process one step further, placing humanity beneath nature, this is not a relationship of equality—humankind must bow to nature at every turn or be buffeted from the land of the living. There is a brooding quality to the presence of nature that only truly appears perhaps (and only to a much smaller degree) in Throne of Blood’s forest scenes. From the initial scenes with Arseniev looking for Dersu’s grave, to the final scenes with the same connection, the body of the film is fraught with peril and tension. The wilds of Siberia are unforgiving.
The menacing presence of nature is felt most tangibly in the scene in which Arseniev and Dersu must create a hut out of grass on the darkening steppes or face the harsh reality of freezing to death. Dersu continues yelling at Arseniev, “Must work fast, Captain!” This simple statement, in addition to the maniacal voice of the wind and the men’s fervent motions give incredible weight and gravity to the struggle. We do not question whether this is truly a life or death moment. Everything hangs in the balance and Arseniev must pluck up whatever inner reserves he has left in order to help Dersu save his (Arseniev) life.
There is no bombastic moment, no great battle scene, no brutal fights, merely the men trying to survive in the cold, and yet stunningly beautiful, frozen lands of eastern Russia. Although the structure is intensely formal, with the bookend scenes of Arseniev and the two major flashback expeditions as the body of the piece, this is perhaps as close to a meditation as Kurosawa ever reached in his work. The film simply flows. The characters meander through a world which changes seasons but never actually gives up its true identity. We never get over the mystery of the woods or the chilling silence of the steppes. Dersu has initiated us into the world that he understands (at least better than we) but there is no piercing that final layer and seeing things in a familiar light. Perhaps that is why Kurosawa’s lighting on this film is so strikingly different from any of his other films. He is attempting to create an alien world out of the one that we live in, or at least live next to. Such a beautiful film, even if it doesn’t pack the wallop that many of his other works do.

Mann’s Bible

by Ezekiel Fry

Thomas Mann works in mysterious circles. For the purpose of this examination I will merely tug at one of these Rembrandt-like circles: the framing of the connection, which runs throughout, between Leverkuhn and Zeitblom to the rise and fall of Nazism in Germany, and the underpinnings of distinct biblical scriptures that illuminate/muddy the issue. Doctor Faustus functions in many of the same ways as The Magic Mountain, but one can see the differences immediately in the style of narration. This is a tale with a definitive narrator. We are not watching the events unfold before us, through the eyes of omniscience, but, instead, we are seeing things through several layers of fog and separation. Mann goes to lengths in his forward to The Magic Mountain to explain to the reader that the story about to unfold is not about Hans Castorp, it is merely his story; whereas in Doctor Faustus we first learn of Dr. Serenus Zeitblom, our narrator, before ever embarking upon the story of Adrian Leverkuhn. Even before Zeitblom introduces himself as narrator, it is mentioned that the proceeding chapters are being penned after Leverkuhn’s death, and amidst the turmoil of World War II. Within these first few passages we see the detachment of the narrator, although he cares deeply for his deceased biographical subject. He will attempt to write a truthful account of a great man’s rise and fall, but he can only tell it at arm’s length. The intimacy with which Zeitblom treats Leverkuhn is outward only. We, as readers, are never given a true glimpse into the workings of Leverkuhn’s apparently tortured mind. Everything that is stated about the man must first go through the filter of Zeitblom’s sentimentality before reaching the page. This technique, along with the foreshadowing of Leverkuhn’s demise, and the placement of the time of writing, give an immediate sense of unstoppable doom around the entire text. The fall is coming, and much like God’s foreknowledge in Paradise Lost we know about it from the outset, but are incapable, or perhaps unwilling, to do anything about it.
Zeitblom’s immediate discussion of the time in which he is writing the story establishes this cloud of doom, and connects the fictive images of the story to the happenings—the recent history—of earthly reality. Mann writes, concerning the life of Adrian Leverkuhn:

I might compare his isolation to an abyss into which the feelings others expressed for him vanished soundlessly without a trace. All around him lay coldness—and what an odd sensation it is to use the very word that he himself once recorded in a horrendous context! Life and experience can lend individual words a certain accent that estranges them entirely from their everyday meaning and lends them an aura of dread that no one who has not met them in their most horrifying context can ever understand. (8)

It is first established here that Leverkuhn was somehow set apart from the rest of humanity. Mann will soon establish the many differences between his narrator and subject, but it is here that the genius’ doom is fully established. Mann uses the danger of a single word, filled with the meaning that life can give it, to encompass an entire nation’s mad descent into the pit. Leverkuhn, who in his artistic lineage represents the greatness of the German creative spirit, falls away and apart, from his contemporaries, he descends into the isolation of a self-created hell, mirroring the rise and fall of the Nazi regime. Warping the underpinnings until they are seemingly unrecognizable, Nazism ate away at the soul of Germany until it was left in a state of catatonic madness, much like Adrian’s fate. In this way, the zealotry of Nazism is synonymous with syphilis. By leaving the word unspoken throughout the text Mann strengthens its power to cast its shadow. The word itself, and this Mann certainly knew, holds “an aura of dread” that asserts itself even in silence.
This power of a word, or idea, especially unspoken is soon displayed in this passage regarding Zeitblom’s family:

Both my sons now serve their Fuhrer, one as a civil servant, the other in the armed forces, and just as my estrangement from my nation’s authorities has left a certain void around me, so, too one can only describe the ties of these young men to their quiet parental home as loose. (13)

Zeitblom dances around the actual nature of his country’s government, going only so far as to refer to the “Fuhrer” and his own “estrangement” from his government, but within these unspoken words lies the power to cast the shadow of dread. By referring to the Fuhrer, we, as readers, know perhaps even more strongly and ominously of whom Zeitblom is speaking. Hitler’s presence presides over the entire passage like the “horrifying context” first tackled in the previous passage. The word itself need not appear, and by word, we may see this also as idea or thought. But there is another, more troubling, relationship to these two passages that may be found in biblical sources.
In the Gospel of John it is written, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1.1). If we see this passage as literal, that God and the Word are one and the same—interchangeable—then it can be applied to the earlier passage from Mann concerning the aura surrounding a word. The “Word” implies omniscience—the ability to encompass all meaning, all words. The “word” of dread appears more specific, or perhaps singular in nature. Never the less, if the passage from John is followed to its conclusion in the narration of Zeitblom, we see a world rocked by “experience,” left seeing the Word in only its most dreadful and horrible attire. The God of the Word has not only been minimized and vilified, but in the wake of the inferred horror of World War II found to be evil, dead, or, perhaps most frighteningly, utterly indifferent. We see a God that seems to sit aloof, allowing his creation to fall into madness.
This concept of an aloof and indistinct God is further driven home by the experiments of Jonathan Leverkuhn. Concerning the wonders of nature, namely a mollusk’s shell, Mann writes:

To think that all those spirals and vaults (each executed with such marvelous self-assurance, the elegance of form as bold as it was delicate) with their pinkish entryways, their splendid, iridescent glazes, their multiform chambers, were the work of their own gelatinous inhabitants—at least if one held to the notion that nature does her own work and did not call upon the Creator, for there is something so strange about imagining Him as the inventive craftsman and ambitious artist of this glazed pottery that one is never more tempted than here to interpose a supervisory divinity, the Demiurge—I was about to say: to imagine these exquisite dwellings as the product of the mollusks they defend, that was the most astonishing thought. (19)

This sentence touches on all the foundational elements of Doctor Faustus, both as representation and literal narrative. Humankind, in the biblical and philosophical sense, serves as the Demiurge, creating the ideas behind all forms of life. The idea that God himself cannot be viewed as the artisan of such beautiful and intricate creations further expands the gulf between prime-mover and humanity as Demiurge. Perhaps God started the chain of events, but in its capacity—biblically—of naming and tending, humanity is the true creator of this visible world, from the meaning of the “Word”, to the reality of the “word” in relationship to the experience of life. Humankind cannot create life, merely structure and categorize it. This concept is further driven home by the melancholically tragic experiment that Jonathan Leverkuhn conducts with the crystal formations. Humankind may imitate, may strive towards creation, but the eventual outcome will be sad, and the hubris irreconcilable. The Nazis tried to recreate the world in their own image, only to see this act of supreme arrogance result in nothing more than the tragic experiment of creating that which appears to live, but only truly imitates Nature.
Finally, linking the themes of Adrian Leverkuhn’s pact—with its inherent setbacks and admissions of human frailty—one cannot help but be drawn to perhaps the most significant passage from the bible on the nature of mankind’s role, or restriction. Echoing the Classical themes of hubris and vengeance, Jesus speaks in the Gospel of Matthew: For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? (16.26). This single verse foreshadows the epic fall of the German people into the clutches of madness and avarice. Leverkuhn’s fall, and that of the German people, are both encapsulated within this single passage. Furthermore, the Zeitbloms of the world, in their God-like inaction, act as accomplices to the fall. Humanity becomes estranged from itself, no longer content to act as Demiurge and hoping to sit upon the throne of creation. Assuming the role of Gods, humankind turns a blind eye to the realities swirling around it, impotently hoping that someone else will intercede as the defender of the people. The playing field has indeed been leveled, equality with God has been achieved, but the reality of becoming God is the “horrifying context” Mann refers to, and nothing at all like “the everyday meaning.”

Nietzsche’s Chorus

by Ezekiel Fry

Within the context of Nietzsche’s early work (namely The Birth of Tragedy), particularly when focused on the great Tragedians of Greece, the art form of music is viewed as “the unmediated language of the will,” and “provides immediate insight into the Dionysian ‘truth’ of existence.” Only through Dionysian ambiguities and formless motions, of which music may certainly be considered one, may truth, understanding, and ultimately catharsis be discerned. Music is the unseen conductor of the grand arts of human nature—tragedy and renewal. The Tragic Chorus is a collection of voices raised to describe events and encounters within the course of the play. The Chorus also functions as a sounding board, a responding note, and a grim foreshadowing to the direful events which the protagonists of the play create. The Chorus does not enter into the action of the play per say, but instead acts as a conduit to the audience’s own reaction to the difficult emotions which the play encapsulates.
When looking at these two concepts in conjunction, the relationship between the two becomes clear. If , as Nietzsche states, the form of music, and more specifically “the spirit of music,” is the most efficient way to decipher “Dionysian ‘truth’” then it would seem natural that the musical accompaniment to a Greek tragedy—the Tragic Chorus—would be the “spirit of music.” Music cannot, in the everyday sense, be seen, only felt, and therefore is a truly faceless art form. The Tragic Chorus is very much in the tradition of these musical prerequisites. The inability to stand apart, to show a single face, and, most importantly, the inability to act, defines the Tragic Chorus. Within Aeschylus’ Oresteia the Chorus hears Clytemnestra slaying Agamemnon but cannot act against her cruelty. They can only debate on the validity of such an unfathomable action as truth. By the time the inquiry is complete the action has passed and Agamemnon has been slaughtered. Much like the audience, the Chorus seems unable to believe that such viciousness is reality. Through their sightless musings, their music, the full scope and power of the murder is realized.
As Nietzsche describes, it is through the musicality of this device that the strange nature of existence is quickly pounded home. Again, in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, the Chorus’ music draws out the great Oedipus’ doom. He functions within his own will, but this will is softly played upon by the Chorus’ notes. The Chorus’ ethereal mass voice wails for justice and relief from pain and Oedipus responds by vowing to find the source of this masked suffering. This vow leads to his ultimate downfall. It is the Chorus, and its music, that create the tone for truth and discovery that only the great kings may discern.

A Few Words on Nietzschean Duality

by Ezekiel Fry

Nietzsche’s statement, “Man, in his highest, finest powers, is all nature and carries nature’s uncanny dual nature in himself” attempts to deal with the duality of humankind. Within the natural casing of humanity lies the capability for great triumph and, in turn, great degradation. Even at the pinnacle of enlightenment the duality of humankind casts its profound shadow. Those that rise high may equally fall low. There are no constants for the dual nature of humankind, only the continual presence and possibility of both.
The statement “It is hard to fight against impulsive desire; whatever it wants it will buy at the cost of the soul” holds steady with this concept of duality. This musing on “impulsive desire” seems at first to play more heavily upon the ability for humans to fall than to rise, but it can be found that “impulsive desire” rules both aspects of humankind’s nature. Within the duality of the human mind there are checks and balances, natural devices, that attempt to sway the mind in one direction or another, but these battle-works of the mind are within nature—not without. Therefore they find it “hard to fight against” that which is in its very essence natural: “nature’s uncanny dual nature”. The “uncanny” aspect of this relationship emphasizes the discrepancy, which humankind finds within itself, to go against the checks and balances of the reasonable mind into the maw of violence, lust, and depravity. The natural world is abundant with coexisting compassion and violence. To step outside the reasonable mentality, that humankind has superficially crafted for itself, and place a bloody hand into chaos, is to lose one’s perception of reason— to step from constructed reality into the “uncanny” wilderness—and therefore lose that altogether human-made structure dubbed “the soul”.
It is not so much that “impulsive desire” is some malignant, otherworldly force, but instead it is the very root from which humankind grows—the root of nature. This disheartening prospect shakes the very foundations of humankind’s desire for reason and structure. The seeming cruel ambivalence of nature does not function well with the reasonable, quantifiable reality that humankind has constructed. This is the true “dual nature” of humanity. The soul defines humankind as something above nature; something better than the visceral animal world. As a construct the soul cannot fight nature. The idea that “it is hard to fight against impulsive desire” is in itself a fleeting statement. It is not hard to fight, it is impossible. The constructed aspect of the human cannot fight the inevitable. We feel that we lose a piece of ourselves, our rationality, when we submit to desire, but it is only through this desire—this natural aspect of our mirrored beings—that the highest and most noble achievements of our species are reached.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Painful Truths

by Ezekiel Fry

Ta-Nehisi Coates is an amazing writer. He touches the American consciousness in such a way that it is very hard not to be drawn into the story he is telling. Within his work you see that now rare ability of the journalist to tell the story with style and beauty. To write well. Not merely to document. His most recent article is a difficult and poignant read. If you are a student of American history, be it social or literary, this article is a must. If you have a few minutes (again, it is a lengthy piece) sit back and read it. I think you will be glad that you did!

The Man of Faith

by Ezekiel Fry

Photo by Madeline Rider

With Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech last night, my thoughts are drawn, as usual, back into the 17th century. Now, this may seem like a jab at the GOP’s draconian view of the world (which in some ways I am sure that it is), but, more than anything, it is an acknowledgement of the paradoxes that shape our country. And to get to the root of these paradoxes, or at the very least to see them for what they are, we need to return to 17th century Massachusetts. When longtime friend Pam Finlayson calls Mitt Romney “a man of faith” we need to contend with what this statement truly means, both in a contemporary sense, and in relationship to our national history. Not the well-meaning and decent man of faith that may pepper our day to day lives, but the archetypal political “Man of Faith” that resides in the annals of New England.

The dour men and women who first came across the Atlantic and settled at Plymouth, Naumkeag (Salem), and the Bay Colony (Boston), for better or worse, have left an indelible mark on our national identity, on the very foundations of our ideology. More than any other faction of early settlers, these grim fundamentalists have shaped us. They loom in the back of our collective consciousness. To truly understand the impact of the Puritans on American politics and culture is more than I can hope to put forth here, I will however point towards several books which shed a cutting light on them: Sacvan Bercovitch’s The American Jeremiad, Philip Gould’s Covenant and Republic, and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s introduction to The Scarlet Letter—”The Custom House” sketch. I am by no means a historian, thus these books focus on the relationship of the Puritans to the American word, and one of them is clearly “fictional” on some levels. However, I have always said that the greatest truths reside in the greatest lies. In this way, amongst others, Hawthorne’s “The Custom House” is one of the most important pieces of writing in American history. It may also give us a glimpse of what the Puritan heritage means to us today. Hawthorne writes:

The figure of that first ancestor, invested by family tradition with a dim and dusky grandeur, was present to my boyish imagination, as far back as I can remember. It still haunts me, and induces a sort of home-feeling with the past, which I scarcely claim in reference to the present phase of the town [Salem]. I seem to have a stronger claim to a residence here on account of this grave, bearded, sable-cloaked, and steeple-crowned progenitor,—who came so early, with his Bible and his sword, and trode the unworn street with such a stately port, and made so large a figure, as a man of war and peace,—a stronger claim than for myself, whose name is seldom heard and my face hardly known. He was a soldier, legislator, judge; he was a ruler in the Church; he had all the Puritanic traits, both good and evil. He was likewise a bitter persecutor; as witness the Quakers, who have remembered him in their histories, and relate an incident of his hard severity towards a woman of their sect, which will last longer, it is to be feared, than any record of his better deeds, although these were many. His son, too, inherited the persecuting spirit, and made himself so conspicuous in the martyrdom of the witches, that their blood may fairly be said to have left a stain upon him. So deep a stain, indeed, that his old dry bones, in the Charter Street burial-ground, must still retain it, if they have not crumbled entirely to dust! I know not whether these ancestors of mine bethought themselves to repent, and ask pardon of Heaven for their cruelties; or whether they are now groaning under the heavy consequences of them, in another state of being. At all events, I, the present writer, as their representative, hereby take shame upon myself for their sakes, and pray that any curse incurred by them—as I have heard, and as the dreary and unprosperous condition of the race, for many a long year back, would argue to exist—may be now and henceforth removed. (12-13)

Hawthorne, in that way only he can, seemingly discusses his own personal ancestors and his personal relationship to them, but he is truly saying something much larger—something much more insidious. The foundations of the very nation are planted in the many “Charter Street” graveyards. The bones of all the grand ancestors, those reverend dead, are drenched in the blood of the persecuted. The paradox of the grim Puritan armed with “his Bible and his sword” leers forward in time at Hawthorne, and from Hawthorne’s days it glares at us. This “man of faith” is cloaked not in the dark raiment of his sect, but in the blood and gore of 400 years of “his Bible and his sword.” Hawthorne speaks out of the side of his mouth when he hopes to remove the curse. There is no running from the ghosts of the past, but one must face them on new ground. The curse is in the very soil itself, in the bloody dust of the burial-ground. The early Hathorne is the collective American ancestor, our deepest shame, and in the minds of some, our greatest glory—the Man of Faith.

When I hear terms plucked directly out of 17th century sermons I cannot help but think of Hawthorne’s guilt. There are no good old days, no heroic pasts, no brave ancestors. The sooner that we can—if it is possible at all—arrive at a place where we see American ideology for what it truly is, the sooner we will put the ghosts to rest. There is bitter humor in this as well, for as Hawthorne so tellingly intimates, there is always a family resemblance, and who is to say that we are not making the same mistakes ourselves?

NOTE: Pagination for “The Custom House” is from the Library of America edition of The Scarlet Letter

NOTE NOTE: The very concept “We deserve better,” which is essentially Romney’s catchphrase and was brazenly scripted across the cover of USA Today this morning, amongst other things, is heavily reliant on an old piece of 17th century rhetoric which, as Sacvan Bercovitch describes in The American Jeremiad, casts the American people (and this is always a relative few) as God’s chosen, and views their America as a sort of New Jerusalem. This rhetorical device presupposes American superiority and places the chosen few in steadfast opposition to those outside looking in: the other. It is the very germ of American nationalism. But more on that later!