It’s a big deal to win The International Booker Prize. It’s a much bigger deal, it seems to me, to do so before you’re 30. Still bigger when the book itself defies convention, adds another step on the ladder of literature, makes us think differently about farms, families, children and their inner worlds, abuse, and the ways we try to cope with this.
They poeticize. They poeticize grief and internalize/externalize it through metaphor. But those metaphors touch everything around them, so the grief never really leaves. They aren’t bridges to unrelated abstractions, existing in some Platonic World of Forms. They aren’t bridges of escape. They — the poetry, the metaphors — circle around them like the wind across the farm, carrying with it the smells they love and hate and accept as their only world, good, bad, indifferent. They don’t hide it or spray it all with perfume. They don’t commodify it through platitudes. It’s real, and it’s not. It’s fiction, and it’s not.
The risk for the reader, with a book this linguistically wondrous, is to fall so entirely under the spell of the language, its melancholy beauty, its preternatural wisdom, even its humor, that we forget what the author is trying to say, that what has happened on this farm, in the Netherlands, to a family, to children, can not be obliterated. Because literature doesn’t do that. It can’t really make something not be what it is, and it’s not there to give us comfort, necessarily.
Literature (mostly) says this about its characters: I was here, in this life. This is what happened to me. This is part of who I am and why.
They poeticize, and this is a gift to readers, though not everyone deserves this gift. To be harsh, not everyone does. Ironically, the avoidance of being harsh is one of the underlying rationales for certain kinds of poetry, at least subconsciously, because if a person like the author, who may or may not have experienced what happened in the story, in this fictional world, at least not exactly as portrayed . . . if that person removed the lyricism, the humor, the metaphors, and just told us straight up, “This is what happened to me!” we might not listen, we might just turn away, appalled. We might just insult them, or mock them, or cast doubt on that experience — thus adding more layers to the pain-clothes they already wear. This coat of pain. Or pain-coats they imagine their characters must wear.
For humans capable of true feeling, of true empathy, of walking step by step with others, this is nearly the same thing. For those rare Olympians of the Heart, it is.
Christopher Bram: From a Journal of Recent Readings, Part II
This brings us to Aristotle’s Poetics, which Critchley gives an even closer reading than he gave to The Republic. And why not? It’s shorter, more succinct and more germane. He begins by unpacking that troublesome concept, “catharsis.” Is it life-changing or purgative or disruptive or like menstruation? Many philosophers claim Aristotle uses it to argue directly with Plato about the value of tragic poetry. Critchley thinks it’s just a description of what people feel when they watch a tragedy, then return home and go on with their lives unchanged. (Much the way people now read murder mysteries.) Which actually is a response to Plato. Tragedy is not disruptive and dangerous, but speaks to normal parts of human nature. Aristotle is an observant naturalist, unlike moralistic Plato.
Critchley works his way through the famous concepts: hamartia, unity, dramatic action, fear and pity, the value of poetry over history (history is “a bloody archive of particulars” that can be used for tragedy). Euripides is Critchley’s favorite but dismissed by Aristotle as “the most tragic”—not actual praise. (Aristophanes in The Frogs left Euripides in Hades because he had made tragedy “democratic.” He saved Aeschylus instead. Aristotle disliked democracy almost as much as Plato did.)
Aristotle’s rules about characters, especially women and slaves, set him at odds with Euripides. But Euripides is even stranger than I knew. The endings of his Orestes and Helen sound as bloody as Jacobean tragedies—with the weird plot twist in both that the real Helen wasn’t taken to Troy, but only a simulacrum of her. Critchley claims Euripides uses deus ex machina as a deliberate mockery of the concept of neat, clean endings admired by Aristotle and practiced by Sophocles. He gives many examples of Euripides parodying Aeschylus and Greek myths with bits of realism and put-down lines. He enjoyed screwing around with the genre.
But he wasn’t alone in his extremism. Elektra by Sophocles stars the biggest screamer in Greek tragedy, even louder than Cassandra. Perhaps Aeschylus and Sophocles both wrote wild, mixed genre plays that are now lost? Aristotle next weighs tragedy against epic and decides tragedy is better, chiefly because it’s more concentrated.
Aristotle is more generous to poetry than Plato was, but Critchley complicates this fact by arguing that he could be generous since philosopy had won. His calm, reasonable descriptions can be smug and condescending, Critchley claims. Well, maybe. But Poetics is never outright wrong or crazy the way Republic can be. And Aristotle’s inclusion of facts and examples is useful to the modern reader, even when he avoids examples that are exceptions to his rules. We may disagree with Aristotle’s answers, but he asks good questions.
July 3, 2020
Critchley moves on to a discussion of the missing second book of Poetics, which is about comedy. Ecco made this text the MacGuffin of his Name of the Rose, but it turns out the book isn’t entirely missing. A Byzantine manuscript, Tractatus Coislineanus, summarizes the missing book. A scholar has recreated it and Critchley finds the recreation convincing, although his summary doesn’t sound very interesting. Nevertheless, Critchley uses it to return to catharsis, arguing for a more moderate, less radical effect on the audience in the eyes of Aristotle, mildly homeopathic, like piling on blankets to cure a fever. Critchley prefers the confusion and disruption produced by Euripides, which he explores with a discussion of The Frogs. Aeschylus is chosen over Euripides in a contest for who should be brought back from Hades to save Athens from itself. Aristophanes finds Euripides too realistic, too “democratic.” Critchley speaks of Cloud Cuckooland in The Birds and the role of Aristophanes in The Symposium (he falls asleep during Socrates’ big speech about the similarities of tragedy and comedy).
Critchley closes with a reading of Oedipus, not a close reading, but a lyric reading that draws in the ideas he discussed earlier. There are interesting observations—acting and being acted upon meld against the background of ideology; the role of grief and funerals in political movements—but it’s surprisingly dry, almost glib, compared to what preceded it. Critchley clearly saw this, because he now gives the real ending. He once interviewed Isabelle Huppert at BAM after a production called Phaedra(s). He talked around the ideas at work in Euripides, Racine and others. She was polite and intelligent, but then she impatiently said, “What theater is about is aliveness, a certain experience of aliveness. That’s all that matters. The rest is just ideas. Good ideas, maybe. But just ideas.” This, with a few words from Anne Carson about tragedy as a furnace glimpsed in the dark, gives him the ending he needs, where great theater leaves us seemingly blinded but able to see further than before.
Here’s a timeline I drew up to help me remember where I am in these pages. (Placing famous works in time somehow makes them more real to me.)
480 BC Salamis
472 BC The Persians by Aeschylus
432 BC Declaration of Peloponnesian War
429 BC Oedipus the King by Sophocles
415 BC The Trojan Women by Euripides
413 BC Athenian defeat at Syracuse
405 BC The Frogs by Aristophanes
404 BC Athens defeated in second war
399 BC Trial and death of Socrates
380 BC The Republic
336 BC Alexander comes to the throne
335 BC The Poetics
323 BC Death of Alexander
Dates before Christ run backwards, so I often feel disoriented. But it’s startling to see that the golden age of Greece lasted 150 years, which seems both too short and too long. Then I remember that the most vital time of American history also ran 150 years, from 1800 to 1950. Maybe we are as doomed as Athens.
Christopher Bram: From a Journal of Recent Readings, Part I
Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us by Simon Critchley. A lean, concentrated, engaging, exasperating look at Greek tragedy and “tragedy’s philosophy.” It is so lean that it feels like a fatter, more conventional book that’s been cooked down into a series of zen koans. I can read only so much at a time, usually in the morning, before it turns opaque and incomprehensible. But in this age of plague, a tyrant and the failure of democracy, a visit to ancient Athens feels right.
Here are a few of the ideas from the book:
Tragedy was performed not for individuals but for the city, a civic event more akin to a trial than to private reverie or religious ritual. Aristotle left this side out of his Poetics.
Gorgias the sophist wrote: “Tragedy . . . creates a deception in which the deceiver is more honest than the non-deceiver, and the deceived is wiser than the non-deceived.” Which is similar to Picasso’s “Art is a lie that tells the truth.”
Critchley draws heavily on Hegel’s argument that tragedy is about the conflict between two rights, best illustrated by Antigone. (I first encountered this in Tragedy and Philosophy by Walter Kaufmann, a book Critchley never mentions but affects my reading here.) He sets his progressives—Hegel, Marx—against his regressives—Nietzsche, Heidigger—but his strongest words come from Bernard Williams who said in Shame and Necessity that our current ethical condition is not so different from that of the Greeks. We all suffer from moral and political uncertainty in a world of ambiguity. Critchley argues that it’s wrong to see the Greeks as too other, too exotic.
The hero in Greek tragedy is not a solution to the problem: he is the problem. A regular refrain in the plays is “What am I to do? How are we to choose?” The plays are about the disruption of meaning. Justice is conflict. Tragedy is a dialectical mode of experience. Meaning isn’t unified but polytheistic, like Greek religion.
Some of the plays I know—The Orestia, Oedipus, Philoctetes, The Trojan Women—others I don’t—Seven Against Thebes, The Suppliant Maidens. I wish he said more about the plays themselves. They are stepping stones through this existential thicket. Critchley makes much of the fact these are war plays, written at a time of war, and that they weren’t timeless but of “the tragic moment.” A xenophobic, sexist society watched plays that featured foreigners and women.
Demokratia is related to theatrokratia, “a theater state” like Geertz’s Bali. I don’t understand what this means yet but I am intrigued. This book, like Tyrant by Stephen Greenblatt and Shakespeare in a Divided America by James Shapiro, is fueled by the triumph of Trump and the failure of democracy.
June 30, 2020
Critchley points out that although we have the complete texts of 31 plays, philosophers only talk about two, Oedipus and Antigone. I’d add the Orestia, but the point is taken. A sharp criticism of the concept of moral psychology—that ethics is part of human psychology—leads to the idea that tragedy disrupts such a connection. But a discussion of Schelling on Spinoza and Kant takes these ideas into the weeds where I couldn’t follow. When Critchley says, “We should get back to theater,” I was overjoyed—but he gives few specifics.
The section on sophistry and Gorgias takes me to more solid ground. In the great contest between tragedy and philosophy, Critchley adds a third force, the sophists. Plato dismissed them as wordplaying relativists, but Critchley takes them more seriously. They were not simply fancy talkers in it for the money, but serious thinkers arriving at different truths. Critchley compares them to Beckett; I was reminded of comic novelists like Sterne and Gogol. Their most effective thinker, Gorgias, survives as the subject of Plato’s dialogue, Gorgias, in a few fragments, and in commentary by Sextus Empiricus. His most famous pieces are a defense of Helen and a look at non-being. His clever arguments take us closer to the law courts of Athens, but there’s forensic style in Plato, too, despite his claim he is more interested in truth than cleverness.
So how does sophistry connect to tragedy? The reversals of Euripides in Trojan Women and elsewhere drew on the reversals of Gorgias and others, where the losers are presented as winners, etc. Wordplay and persuasion are tried in Philoctetes, but only Herakles, the deus ex machina, can change the archer’s mind. However, at the end of Trojan Women, Helen defends herself against a death sentence with a lawyerly speech denying her responsibility for the war. Hecuba answers the speech point by point, but Helen still wins.
July 1, 2020
We see the sophists from Plato’s point of view in his dialogues, including Phaedrus and Gorgias. The first is about love and rhetoric, defining the love of philosophy. Critchley calls it a success, although his description suggests the odds are stacked—but they are always stacked in Plato’s dialogues. Gorgias promises to be an argument with the chief sophist, but Gorgias himself barely appears. The antagonist is Callicles, a cynic who speaks an entirely different language. Socrates is a total pain here, talking chiefly to himself and finally admitting he will win in the afterlife. (Philosophy is better than sophistry only in the eyes of the gods: it is “divine” while sophistry is merely human.)
Now we enter The Republic, where Plato launches his full-scale attack against tragedy. It appears to be set in 410 BCE and was written in 380 BCE. (Socrates was put to death in 399 BCE—one of the few dates from the ancient world that I can remember.)
Critchley’s account is clear and readable, constructed around Socrates’ attack on Homer and the tragic poets, first in Book 3, where his emphasis is on education, then in Book 10 where he returns to the subject as a kind of epilogue. Ironies abound. This is a criticism of drama that takes the form of drama itself. Tales of bad behavior by gods need to be deleted as “untrue,” yet truth here means whatever is useful in this ideal city state. “Being dead is not such a terrible thing” is a useful truth for future warriors. Mimesis, the imitation of reality, is bad because it introduces distracting superficiality as well as the irrational. Lamentation makes for exciting tragedies but is bad in real life. Emotional excess must be regulated.
Along the way Socrates deals with the four possible forms of government: timocracy (honor), oligarchy (money), democracy, and tyranny. Democracy looks appealing but is dangerous because it can lead to tyranny. He addresses “the good” in Book VI, which is where we get the parable of the cave, that favorite image of Gallatin students. But the dialogue builds to the exclusion of the tragic poets. One can’t help suspecting this is as much about turf war between the philosophers and poets as it is about truth.
Socrates hates tragedy because it gives pleasure. Tragedy is bad because it turns men into women, making them suffer emotionally and cry. Emotions that should be repressed are released, which corrodes democracy and enables the rise of tyrants. (But we’ve seen here that coldness leads to the rise of men like Trump and Bolsonaro.) Comedy is bad, too, because jokes that should be told in private are now made public. After expelling the poets, Socrates closes with his own weird, longwinded fairy tale about Er, a man who returns from the afterlife with a detailed account of what happens to good people and bad people after they die.
Critchley doesn’t defend any of this—how could he?—or claim that it’s ironic, but leaves it as a mysterious puzzle. Indicating he was utterly serious, Plato expanded his view of the afterlife twenty years later with another dialogue, Timaeus.
In the beginning, there was Paradox. The end won’t resolve this. It can’t, for obvious reasons. When we’re no longer able to hear the ex-lover cry, the tree fall, or remember the all too familiar trajectory of sweet to bitter, the Paradox remains. Anne Carson, in her beautiful meditation on Sappho, Socrates, Desire, and bridges to more bridges, takes us on a journey to Paradox, and gently, sweetly leaves us wanting more. More Sappho, more love, more.
Which is the key to it all. Or is it?
Wanting, longing, loving, or taming and overcoming these things? Carson presents a battle of competing methods, ideals and philosophies, with a focus on Sappho’s fragments and Plato’s Phaedrus, where she uncovers links to (potentially) bridge internal and external gaps. Doubling, tripling those gaps and bridges, through space and time, Carson uses Socrates and Sappho to mediate between the written and spoken word, lover and beloved, and denial or embrace of the passions.
In the chapter entitled, “Finding the Edge,” she says:
Eros is an issue of boundaries. He exists because certain boundaries do. In the interval between reach and grasp, between glance and counterglance, between ‘I love you’ and ‘I love you too,’ the absent presence of desire comes alive. But the boundaries of time and glance and I love you are only aftershocks of the main, inevitable boundary that creates Eros: the boundary of flesh and self between you and me. And it is only, suddenly, at the moment when I would dissolve that boundary, I realize I never can.
We are Edge without Form, Boundary without Shape. We constantly seek to cross over, but retain. Retain us. Who we are. At least enough of us, of our self, to remember why and with whom. In the midst of the greatest passions, we want these edges and these boundaries to disappear, though some humans want to further complicate matters with yet more Impossibles: break through those edges, those boundaries, that form in others, while losing none of these things ourselves.
Love can be predatory, and in so many of the ancient Greek myths, it is. Carson reminds us that seeking knowledge may have similar intentions.
And then there is Time. Being in or beyond it. Distanced or overwhelmed by it.
The static blooms of Adonis provide us with an answer to our question ‘What would the lover ask of time?’ As Plato formulates it, the answer brings us once again to the perception that lovers and readers have very similar desires. And the desire of each is something paradoxical. As lover you want ice to be ice and yet not melt in your hands. As reader you want knowledge to be knowledge and yet lie fixed on a written page. Such wants cannot help but pain you . . .
Sweetbitter love gives us the trajectory, the flow of life too, and teaches us the futility of avoidance, the perverse logic of indifference, the tragic fate of living in Either/or land. Both/and seems preferable, overall. I’ll dive in now and (perhaps) write deathless prose about it later. Standing on the cliffs, inside my own head, inside my delusions of indifference and control, is no way to run a railroad. No matter what we do, no matter how hard we try to remain above the fray, the river flows on, Eros laughs — mindfully, if he’s in the mood.
C Pam Zhang’s mesmerizing How Much of These Hills is Gold
The American West of our imaginations, back in the day. Back in the days of cowboys and gold rushes, San Fran brothels and deadly coal mines, horse thieves and mountain men. The American West of our rather limited imaginations, if we grew up with a certain kind of preset range of ideas, photos, movies, stories and dreams in our heads; which, of course, to one degree or another, means pretty much all of us.
But it’s different if. Way different if, we’re of that tribe that ended up dominating all the other tribes, and all too often take it for granted that our stories, movies, ideas and dreams should be the focus, the main narrative, the supposedly real history of our West. Subconsciously, overtly, aggressively, or just kinda sorta cuz it’s supposedly the Way Things Are.
So into that historical (imaginary) space and time comes this amazing new voice — and, folks, her voice is pure magic — and she sings both her own song, from her own (21st century) life experience, and songs we haven’t heard before that must have been audible back then, from “XX42” to “XX67,” as the author puts it, if one had the ears for those songs, if one opened themselves up to others outside their own set.
C Pam Zhang tells the story of another kind of cowboy, or cowgirl, focusing primarily on Chinese-American siblings Lucy and Sam, orphaned (perhaps) at age 12 and 11, on their own in a beautiful, miserable, dangerous, wondrous unnamed territory. The author never names it, exactly, other than when the scene shifts to San Francisco and the shores of the Pacific, but it’s likely set in the new state of California, for the most part. Lucy and Sam’s Ma came from a land across the ocean, also unnamed, but likely China. Ironically, their Ba was born in the American West, too, but no one seems to believe him, such were those preset ideas back then and now.
In interviews, Ms. Zhang has mentioned John Steinbeck and Laura Ingalls Wilder as influences, and you can hear some of that in her prose. But she makes it all her own, sprinkling in bits of Chinese, varying the rhythms, the pacing, the length of the sentences, and shifts yet again when she gives Ba his own monologue, which made me think of another Wilder: Thornton. Our Town, back from the dead, as if Emily and the Stage Manager merged and became a Chinese American gold prospector, telling his “Lucy Girl” his own story, his whys and wherefores, his regrets.
Upon first reading, I’m inclined to call this a “classic,” a book that belongs in the American Canon, already. And I’m guessing a reread will confirm that. Someone also needs to make this into a film, or a limited “peak TV” series. But that might force the filmmaker to leave out the best part: Zhang’s beautiful, original, magical narrative voice.
In Julie Otsuka’s beautiful novel, The Buddha in the Attic, the narrator is a crowd, an us, a swarm of voices we want to listen to, because it’s truly an Everyone, and the voice is a poem. She speaks for them, as them, as a people, and as individual women who once shared a voyage from Japan to America as mail-order brides soon after WWI. There are shocks and surprises, radical disappointments and disillusionment along the way, but Otsuka’s incantatory prose moves us and moves the book swiftly forward, even though we want to dwell with this new “we” longer. Much longer.
And it’s a story that hasn’t been told before, especially in this way. How many school books teach the travails of Japanese immigrants, outside a mention of their internment during WWII? How often is it mentioned in our national narratives that the Japanese also worked the fields, labored against the odds and racism to make their way in America?
In the novel the women have been tricked from Day One, of course, which adds another dimension to these struggles. The pictures they were sent of their husbands to be were twenty years old, and most lied about their circumstances, which were often dire. The great escape they thought they had made turns out to have been another kind of trap. But as bad as things were to begin with, they still built lives, had children, and the “we” grew. Otsuka takes as into the days of the Internment and comes back out on the other side, but with a new “we,” a new poem of the crowd.
Without judgment, without an obviously stated moral, Julie Otsuka has crafted a finely wrought novel of subtle provocation and food for deep thought. It’s the kind of book that almost cries out to be reread, often, to find new shapes, new meaning, new collectives in the crowd.
To dissect Knut Hamsun’s Mysteries as one would an ordinary novel is impossible. This is a book in which nothing is quite as it seems to be, and the more closely the reader examines it or tries to make sense of it, the more inexplicable it becomes. At the core of the story is Johan Nagel, easily one of the most enigmatic characters in literary history. His arrival in a small Norwegian town in 1891, with no visible aim or purpose, is the first piece in a puzzle that doesn’t ever quite fit together. Moreover, we are left wondering, at the end, if it was actually meant to.
Hamsun’s initial description of Nagel paints a portrait of a rather ordinary individual:
“He was below average in height; his face was dark-complexioned, with deep brown eyes which had a strange expression, and a soft, rather feminine mouth. On one finger he wore a plain ring of lead or iron. His shoulders were very broad; he was between twenty-eight and thirty, but definitely not older, although his hair was beginning to turn gray at the temples.”
Nagel’s belongings consisted of two small trunks, a suitcase, a satchel, two coats–one of which was fur, a violin case, and a small bag with his initials in pearls. Although the residents in the town did not welcome him in a particularly cordial manner, he is impervious to their general lack of enthusiasm. He evades personal questions although he does inform the hotel keeper at the Central Hotel that he’s an agronomist returning from travels abroad and that he plans to stay for at least the next two or three months. Nevertheless, he leaves both the townspeople and us readers with many questions about where he has come from, what has happened in his past, and why he has come to this particular coastal town. Though his evasiveness is frustrating, it is also engaging. That which perplexes us can also be seductive, and Nagel leaves us with more questions than answers from the very beginning.
Yet in spite of a sinuous web of mysteries that surrounds Nagel, Hamsun manages to effectively draw our attention to other supporting characters who inhabit the town as well. Among these characters is the minister’s daughter, the beguiling, yet naive, Dagny Kielland, whose engagement to a naval officer, Lieutenant Hansen, is being announced with decorative flags throughout the town when Nagel first appears on the scene.
Another figure who plays a key role in the book is an odd, misunderstood fellow, Grogaard, to whom everyone refers as The Midget. Nagel first encounters him in the cafe at his hotel and immediately takes an interest in the crippled man’s plight. In spite of the polite manner in which the Midget treats everyone around him, he is considered an object of derision. Even his appearance evokes scorn:
“The Midget was extremely ugly. He had serene blue eyes but grotesquely protruding front teeth, and his gait was contorted due to an injury. His hair was quite gray; his beard was darker than his hair but so scraggly that his skin showed through.”
The very night that Nagel meets this strange creature, he invites him up to his room where the two of them spend several hours of the evening conversing. This is one of the first opportunities we have to see Nagel’s manipulative character at work. He offers The Midget money to assume the paternity of a child and presents him with other sly propositions. When The Midget refuses to accept any of his offers, Nagel gives him ten crowns because he doesn’t agree to his suggestions. As they talk, Nagel manages to extract information from The Midget, particularly details pertaining to the newly engaged Dagny Kielland. Nagel has already caught sight of a young woman whom he suspects is Dagny, and, as The Midget and he chat, it becomes clear to him that his assumptions were correct.
“Dagny is only twenty-three and she is everybody’s darling. She’s pretty, too . . . and very beautiful. Everyone is extremely fond of her . . . and there isn’t another red parasol in town, as far as I know. She wears her hair in a long, blond braid. If you’ve seen her, you couldn’t forget. She is different from everyone else around here.”
Nagel, ever conniving, manages to get The Midget to tell him that the man who took his life, Pastor Jens Karlsen, had him deliver a letter to Dagny shortly before his death. In keeping with his crafty nature, Nagel uses this information against Dagny later on. One of the most noteworthy aspects of Nagel’s character is his ability to persuade others to behave in ways that are contradictory to their basic temperament in order to gratify his own interests. He also tries to plant doubts in people’s minds regarding the characters of those they know, hinting at their hidden vices and corrupt habits. When Nagel asks The Midget about a young woman, Mina Meek, who has recently been buried in the local cemetery, and finds out she was considered to be chaste, he writes suggestive verses on the marble slab on her grave in an attempt to put her virtue in question. It’s never clear what his motive is in doing this; however, he never expresses any remorse.
Once Nagel determines that he has a sincere romantic interest in Dagny, his behavior becomes manic. He seeks her out anywhere he can find her, harassing and stalking her whenever an occasion presents itself. Their first true encounter takes place in the woods. Nagel corners Dagny unexpectedly, taking her by complete surprise. He offers to carry her red parasol, but, rather than charming her, he only ends up frightening her into running away in a panic. Running after her, he calls after her: “Forgive me, I couldn’t help it, I was carried away by your beautiful face!” His excitement at being near her simply overwhelmed him. He declares, when recounting the meeting:
“I wasn’t going to molest her–I had no such bad intentions. I’m sure she’s in love with her lieutenant; I would never have dreamed of forcing myself on her.”
When Nagel is again in Dagny’s presence, it is during a Midsummer Night’s gathering at Dr. and Mrs. Stenersens’ home. He is very skillful at contriving tales about himself and his life, many of which he claims are true. To the reader, these fanciful stories bear so little semblance to reality that it is impossible to be even remotely convinced of their veracity. Yet he is a captivating weaver of yarns, and even Dagney is somewhat spellbound by his tales. When Nagel walks home with Dagny at the end of the night, he admits to her that he only made the stories up in hopes of impressing her:
“Every word I spoke was meant for you. Do you realize that? I know I offended you terribly, and I had to make amends. It’s true that I have been in a strange mood all day, but I have made myself appear a good deal worse than I really am, and I’ve been playing a devious game most of the time. You see, I had to make you think I was unpredictable, that I am in the habit of doing outrageous things, so that you would understand and forgive me more easily.”
This is one of our first glimpses at the contradictory and irrational thought patterns that govern Nagel’s conduct towards Dagny. While most people who are infatuated or in love want to show the best side of themselves to the object of their desire, Nagel seems determined to make as negative an impression on Dagny as he possibly can. After asking her if he frightens her, he proceeds to tell her that he was thinkin g constantly about her even before he met her. Then, he refutes a story he told her earlier about himself and Reinert, the magistrate’s deputy. Even as he dismisses his previous account as being a lie, he exclaims, “. . . I know what will happen. I’ll drive you a thousand miles away from me.”
It’s as if Nagel has an intrinsic need to sabotage his own efforts where Dagny is concerned, and what is really puzzling is that she doesn’t simply ignore him. Instead, she makes scathing assessments of his behavior:
“You’re the most shameless person I’ve ever met! Imagine, going around saying all those ghastly things about yourself with a straight face–it’s so self-destructive! What can you possibly hope to achieve by it? I’ve never heard anything so insane! How could you be sure I would ever find out what really happened? Tell me–no, don’t–it would only be another lie! . . .When you make such careful calculations and fabricate your story to suit your ends, and then undo everything by confessing your deviousness–or deceit, as you call it–what am I to think! . . .Why do you plan your moves so carefully and then fail to realize that you are exposing yourself– your own lies?”
That air in life is important but may be less so in the arts interests me. But we are 60% water and worth $28.49 in bone, fat and chemicals so should we focus more on water and $’s and less on air. But you may respond the atmosphere that encases us is all air but this is not completely true since there is pollution and those little filaments we see when light shafts float into a room and illuminate the air. Then we see what we think is truly there. Of course this ignores the question of the further reaches of space where air may be solid and water may be a gas. Then we would have to understand plants differently since plants would have to adjust and worms and beetles too. Maybe there is some type of traveling incognito and mysterious communication that happens in the air, a space that, for all we know, is a proscenium arch theater? And are our plants mutations or an advanced evolutionary form or just poor cousins? So perhaps we should start by admitting that we know very little even about what goes on in our own heads let alone the heads of our neighbors, of course speaking both literally and metaphorically? It is why one develops an attitude toward roses picked in the morning air, even roses without sun shining on them. I had hoped that looking at parts of her poem might help me understand her intentions. That did not work. Then I took from her poem the line above and used it to start writing this poem after a period when I felt I was neither water nor air. Only emptiness. Now I reread her poem and it is perhaps slowly opening a little to me like young roses that, frozen in time and space in a painting, offer themselves but will never deliver all their rosiness leaving to us to imagine the still hidden or perhaps sadly not.
— by George Spencer
George Spencer’s Obscene Richness of Our Times is due out in 2009 (Poets Wear Prada). He is translating poems from the Ecuadorian slam series he started, to be published as Slamming in Quito. Recent poems appeared in CLWN WR, Poetry MidWest, Caveat Lector, Stained Sheets, NewVerseNews, Phoenix and 63 Channels.