Hamsun’s Mysteries

Alexis Wingate — The Mystery of Mysteries

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 thinking 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?”


George Spencer’s The Guesting Rose

A Line from Barbara Guest’s Roses

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.


Copyright ©2009, by George Spencer. All Rights Reserved.


Robert Mueller: Barbara Guest and Jill Magi

Barbara Guest, Now Jill Magi in brevi


Robert Mueller


Shearsman Books, which seems to specialize in poets on their way, recently brought out a fine collection of poetry by Jill Magi, her second full volume, titled Torchwood. This collection is assembled uncharacteristically, even for a time when in poetry books great attention is paid to the presentation. For Magi, it started with the patchwork of historical and personal documentation of her earlier volume Threads (Futurepoem, 2007), and is extended here in a sequencing and a selection that are beautifully realized. The poet nurtures a light touch, sometimes a homey touch, and almost always the quick and sure calibration. Challenging and disciplined, her techniques because of this superb touch freely allow the open space she seeks, while the variety of styles and forms delivers panache without sacrificing the elegance of each. All in a parade of parts kept separate and distinct, bringing to mind a collage that has been somehow unglued and spread out color by color and part by part along the poet’s writing desk.

There is thus something different and immanent, yet studied and tactful, that I like in Torchwood. I cannot quite mean that it is unglued, because then it would no longer be “collage,” sensu strictu, even though it feels like it as I take it one by one through the assortment of ideas and projections. Yet it has that texture, that quietness even, as if the parts do not compete for themselves to become the whole, as if the writing were being carried out under the terms of a non-aggression pact.

Also special in Torchwood is the lyrical precision that creates this or that moment of the “collage.” One such moment, titled “Nival,” surprisingly recalls the later poetry of Barbara Guest. This poem or section features a well-tempoed series of subsections, two to a page in 11 pages, plus one extra, each realizing a shape on its half-sheet of space. That sort of measuring might be unlike Guest, but the shapes inside their boundaries do have that look. The semi-clauses and the excerpted crisp phrasings link in open punctuation and in a variation of placements able to shift to the middle and over to the right side or to add room by extra descents. Does Jill Magi with her knack for understated riddling enlist an expectant reader? Hoping for intrigue, I pounced on what I remember to be so compelling in Guest — a blend of spatiality and charge, an open principled quantum effect.

Thus with the newer poet I notice once again the lovely layouts. And once again I welcome this license, however limited to the design, and the playground fun of reading imaginatively by knocking around in the text, or by stopping, quick and square, at its very choicest points. To be sure, Magi goes no farther than to toy with open, cross-angled spacings as she tucks them into her frames. The experience is close enough, however, to navigating the pages of Guest that I wonder what to make of it. Under what scenario could this lark into adventurous spatiality that holds place while the other panels in the “collage” await their turn qualify Magi as an aficionada and champion of Barbara Guest?

I am inclined to settle the matter by thinking of “Nival” as Magi’s pattern of Guest in brevi. Her phrasings would seem to be tuned down, to be let down to a smaller and subtly impinging resonance in comparison to what in Guest’s poetry are the rapturous application of minted locutions unscrolled through page by painted page. Though Guest may entice delicacies of color, it is the delicate wash itself that Magi entertains and that Guest seems unconcerned, in certain texts from the 1990s, either to thematize or problematize.

Let me give you an instance of the pictorial Guest from her 1996 poetry book Quill Solitary Apparition (Post-Apollo Press; my reference reverses the roman and italics arrangement of the words on the title page). The passage begins on the second page of the poem “Pallor,” at the top of the page. Well-cut segments in a timbral tracing create an effect that I will illustrate by using the surveyor’s method:

Beginning with “: figure on roadside”, there is then a drop of three lines and substantially over to the right with “who fasts waiting for the brown toad”, then a little below that back half-way again toward the left margin comes “the azure delicately blotted”, after which the drop is of some six or seven lines coming upon other sorts of phrases that play out in syntactical expressions having complete thoughts in them but not realizing full periods, that is to say other shapes in open composition and stilettic order, as follows, with “where the planter drops a knife” and then “he excises” and then “the blocked harbor:” and then “( miscellany of clouds — )”.

You will notice that though the items link, are not a madcap succession, they charm with the engrossing whimsicality of someone who sniffs, who hunts around circumspectly, the mind and the feelings alert; alert persona or inclining presence who observes sharply and sweetly, and is out for bigger game quixotically qualified.

The map Jill Magi draws is not the ardent chase. If Guest paints portraits — large figures, fleeing epiphanies —, Magi studies landscape, keeps it close within her intensities. At the same time, the leaps and lacunae can sometimes brighten deliciously. Here, also in surveyor’s form, is one of Magi’s half-canvasses from “Nival”:

First comes a phrase from the left margin, “Wall-expansion after”, which leads (the spatial plotting begins) two lines down and further to the right (so as to look centered) to the single word “grief” and two more lines down and back again against the left margin to another mere single term (with punctuation), “porous.”, and then a further dropping down, but not to the second but to the third succeeding line, and there is a full sentence, but only the idea of one since it is enclosed in parentheses and is overly enigmatic for any regular Joe of a sentence, “(Marginalia sustained the binding.)”.

I hear a gnomic voice that I frequently hear in Guest’s poetry. I also hear the reflections becoming distilled, their thrills diminutived and drawn still further into the in brevi pattern. It is no surprise that Magi’s miniatures, whether coy or careless, cogent or casual, can be her best treats, as when a look of especial brilliance ultra-clarified yields the plentiful quizzicality of “Warming—” (way to the left) followed by “enough god—” (way way to the right) and then “if” (way to the left). Some of the subsections are more nearly regular, but they all have at least one or two of these elliptical moments.

I hope that gives you some idea of an inspired moment in Jill Magi’s Torchwood and the bit-by-bit variation of a style reminiscent of splashier strokes plotted and developed over a number of books by Barbara Guest. There are many sorts of plotting to be surveyed in Torchwood, telling me that I can look forward to enjoying the poetry more and more. I can look, for instance, at the spaces and the separations in the “Relationships” section and appreciate not half-sentences and winged utterances but her strange ways with the full period.

All in all it seems that a confident recommendation is in place. I already yearn to attend to Jill Magi’s forms. But in the meantime I continue to wonder about the perceived connection to a major poet’s major form and where, if anywhere, it could lead. What is this other aspect that elicits a coinage, that prompts Magi to examine a species of “Nival,” the snow-filled preterition that may preclude the common riverbank and its talk of the “Rival”?

New York City

January 2009



Copyright ©2009, by Robert Mueller. All Rights Reserved.

Robert Mueller: Zamyatin’s Garden

by Robert Mueller


Reading Evgeny Zamyatin’s A Godforsaken Hole (Na kulichkakh, 1914), what is the novel like?

First of all, it is very funny. And familiar. And yet the strange thing is that those other novels and texts that it can remind you of would seem to come after; and it would not be any particular writer or book, but merely the feeling of its being so familiar.

What is funny about this book?  Here we feel in Walker Foard’s translation (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1988) the full effect of its capricious humor.  The magic of caprice does in fact lead to something different, some indication of Zamyatin’s genius and personality.  But the novel is known for its biting satire, and it got on people’s nerves once they noticed it, and so they burned and banned it: “By decree of the Supreme Commissariat of the Committee of Culture under Special Arrangements of His Most Esteemed the Tsar Nicholas of Russia the Second, any and all publication, illustration, distribution or infestation whatsoever of the writings purported to be unleashed under the title A Godforsaken Hole authored regrettably by the profane pen of one Evgeny Zamyatin are now and hereby placed in subjection to penalty by law and outrightly forbidden.” (official quotation mine).

What got their goat?  It is hard to say.  How satirical is the novel?  I am not so sure the translator has succeeded in making the characters real (Neorealism).  The humor, the eccentricity, the craziness and goofiness all come across but only to point at how exposure of their hypocrisies might sting, not how the moral awfulness graphically stows and swelters.  In other words, they come across, but not to bring them to life, these hypocrisies and these miserable selves, these most appetizingly miserable parts of them.

Does the translator deserve credit?  Yes.  We get hints, pointers, the many signs and co-signs of the literariness and its urging factors.  We get an idea of what sort of wicked characterizations of what sort of devious characters we just might experience were we graced with some sort of lustful troving of Zamyatin’s actual crushing words.  We can at least see how we might know them to have them.

But, hold on.  What if you have fun with the translator’s words?  What if you make a deliberate and careful effort?  What if you pay them close attention, such as, for example, the geometrical (Andrei Ivanych’s forehead) and geographical (Molochko’s warts) aspects of face and figure and body?  What if you chime in?  You just might get some of the genuine flair of the swords of the Zamyatin juggernaut thrusting and parrying with all the might of deep-envisioned schlopp, deep-immersioned schmattering.  So.  To the matter of the roundness of Captain Nechesa’s wife, to her total geometry:


The captain’s wife was lying in bed, small and completely round: a round little face, round quick eyes, and tiny round ringlets on her forehead ? in fact, all her charms were round.  The captain had just given his spouse a smack on the cheek and left.  And the ringing of one of the glasses on the shelf, a result of the captain’s footsteps, had not yet died down when in walked Lt. Molochko.  And having said hello, he proceeded to smack the captain’s wife on the very spot that the captain had chosen.


Ok, so something obviously shocks the authorities; and though we ourselves are probably not too shocked, say, by the loud kisses and army-camp familiarities, we are closer, we are approaching knowing what it is like for the captain’s wife, either in mirth or dismay.  It depends.

On most occasions Walker Foard successfully adequates the humor of this or that clever image.  When Marusya (Captain Schmidt’s wife) is shown walking over icy stretches of ground that resemble “an unkempt corpse,” the description of her has nothing to do with her colorful speech or some kind of raucous display.  It is simply a portrait, and so it hits home in its sweet way:  “She buried her chin deeper into the soft fur: she became still more like some sort of timid, downy, precious teddy bear.”  As indirectly voicing the feelings of her pie-eyed companion, the idea is lovely.  Plus, there is nothing like this scene between Andrei Ivanych and his beloved for good-old traipsing through desolate tracts.  It is one of the better scenes, in fact, for comprehending a character’s emotional status (Andrei’s emotions being insufficiently hearty to warrant a “state”).  As beloved, Marusya on her side is unwitting.  Or…  Or, if anything, still more pressing unpleasantries are afoot.  I invite you to find out.

Reading Zamyatin’s A Godforesaken Hole, what is it like?  Take “the general oozed like a pancake in oil.”  Not catchy, perhaps.  It lacks that spoonlashnosing swing of dipped drivel at its mealiest.  It lacks the necessary absorbing gumption.  Still, we know the type.  We are not surprised.  The general as glutton; general as nasty bastard pig.  The general as very civilized nasty bastard pig, as very civilized nasty bastard polysaturating Roman-style deeply fully gourmandeering greedy greasy lusting pig.  What else is new in perimeter?  We feel for the horses and their missing oats.

Did I mention that the novel is very funny?  Actually it’s hilarious, as in the scene at the officers’ club.  The pasty, jolly flavor of the slarmy Russian discourse does not come through in translation, the wild and drunken scene with its wild and witless and delightfully ridiculous singing.  Yet you can tell that there is a flavor.  And it’s hilarious.

Did I say delightfully ridiculous?  I could have said depressingly ridiculous. This is pretty hilarious too, the moment of Zen for Andrei Ivanych and Marusya when their beautiful butterflies of the soul go flut-flut-fluttering:


Never to be forgotten — stowed away in a treasure chest — was one particular evening.  Glorious warm weather — people went without overcoats though it was November.  And then suddenly a north wind blew in, the blue sky paled, and by evening ? winter.

Andrei Ivanych and Marusya didn’t light a fire; they sat listening intently to the rustling of the twilight.  The air filled with plump flakes as mounds of snow formed, blue and quiet.  Quietly it sang a lullaby ? float, float, rock in the waves of the twilight, listen, lull away the sadness…

Andrei Ivanych purposely sat away from Marusya in the far corner of the couch: it was better that way.

That way there would be only what was most delicate, most white — the snow.


They whisper a few sweet nothings while the spell is about to be dissolved, thusly:


Marusya’s face with its closed eyes was so tender, slightly bluish from the blue snow outside; and what lips she had…  In order not to see ? for it was better not to see ? Andrei also closed his eyes.

But when they lit the lamp, nothing was there anymore, nothing of what had been visible without the lamp.

And all those words about the bird dozing on a snow-covered tree, about the blue evening — they all seemed so paltry, so ordinary, even a little funny.

But they were never to be forgotten.


If this passage were really good satire, and I happen to believe it is, we could not only track down the equal sentiments from the source and sources that are being delicately parodied.  We could not only do that to absorb them into our literary grasp; we could also have heard their familiar lilting charm (Tolstoy?).  We can never hear that music in translation, but we may somehow be able to know that we would if we could, and the knowledge that we could is in itself satisfying.  Meanwhile, satire is not just poking fun but it is a full, a “sated,” and is this whole rats’ life stew, all that’s unfit to print in this godforsaken world.


Well, I won’t go on.  I can’t go on.  I invite you to peruse the novel.  You’ll find out what happens, to . . .


New York City
December, 2008


Robert Mueller is a student of comparative literature, according to the indications on his advanced degree certificate.  He writes for fun, and he maintains a curious and constant interest in books of all kinds.  Mr. Mueller shares an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with two female cats, Rudy and Grace, a shorthair and a longhair.


Copyright ©2008, by Robert Mueller. All Rights Reserved.



Robert Mueller: Barbara Guest, West and East

The Silent Confucius, The Confetti Trees, Hollywood, Who
Else but Barbara Guest
by Robert Mueller


Barbara Guest’s books are wonderful because of how they come to us with their bountiful co-valencies and layering.  The Confetti Trees, a series of short-short stories or quasi-filmmaking anecdotes that qualify as prose poems (Sun & Moon, 1999), has this implicating character, so that when it takes its measure in the rich play of glitter and artifice that are Hollywood, one of its expounding layers is a blending cosmic plot.  Guest’s stories, deft and trothfilled-wacky in their fabulous causes, propose circumstances that concern none other than the coming to America of Confucianism.  By way of making and divining not only events on the set but their twice-felt reflections, they are the outpouring of sublime Tao (taking the concept “universal law” to be the application thereof), and thus the cream of informed understanding of universal orderliness as ever-changing mobility, and even chanciness, all figured, if you like, in a concept labeled I Ching, the title of the famous treatise that has a commentary believed to be by our Confucius who is much-endeared (just as Guest’s stories may be).

Our Hollywood miracle, in this prospect and formation, is not, however, a torchbearer’s or a spectator’s or a lover’s feat.  Rather, it carries the stamp and fleet trade, a beauteous fleecing, of history — in the form of Europe as abettor and medium, in the form of displaced filmmakers from central Europe who populated Hollywood and lent their magic, as Barbara Guest herself did, bringing monuments of unageing wisdom and glory.

Thus we note how a German scholar, Richard Wilhelm, conveyed the secrets of I Ching to the West, and further (with the help of Cary F. Baynes’ rendering of the German into English) to the American West.  Thus we observe how Guest, in going west, collects and distills the Confucian or Confucius-linked concepts, those of flow and progress within the changes, of the predictability of unpredictability, and pins them, in one of her stories, on another “Wilhelm,” who, with an annoying personal flaw, his coughing, provides the principle of departure, and hence of change and growth and ordering, for a film that will inevitably bear the title “The Cough.”  So insists his colleague on the project, all subtly Japanese and withheld and coy of approach.  So infers and observes the inclining poet.

It all begins with this Wilhelm the filmmaker and, thanks to his Japanese co-director, Wilhelm the unwitting instigator of the film as its conception rolls forward.  He is a sort of bumbling foil to one of superior discernment.  How can this be?  None need care, if the delight be otherwise.  But really Wilhelm for example appears not to know if he should in fact be “Wilhelm,” aptly named for wanting to be in control and for being determined to place his own stamp on creative nature.  Or should he be the other guy, now and then spelled as “Wilhem,” whom we would recognize as the willing/unwilling victim of the tendency (as mentioned, plenty annoying) too much to pause, to “cough,” to catch himself up with a “Hem” or two, to go about as if not so well put together though repeatedly trying?  The significations collide but are clear.  “Wilhelm” or “Wilhem” is one of Freud’s victims of the Pathology of Everyday Life, of an ordered and explainable behavioral form of rank disorder.  Only now with Guest’s vision of the fantastical projections that are Hollywood and are full of oddities and visually captured wonders and possibilities, the Pathology has become Tao, has become the knowledge of converting the many changes, or chances, or fortuitous disorders with their inevitable misfortune, into success and fortune by way of understanding the signs, or, as Confucius might say, by dint of interpreting and predicating upon the so-called oracles.

Hollywood miracle, therefore, based now and then on the unlikely sorts of mistakes and misfortunes, not chance encounters but chance (let us say) happenings, becomes the joy and penetration of Confucian oracle, wisdom and play.  The “confetti” are the “making up,” for the project and the appeal, out of the shreds of ordinary and once-ordinary existence.  And Guest’s story “The Cough” transforms the ordinary by making it anecdotal subject of filmmaking wherein the vehicle of bemused metaphor attracts glamour and importance, regardless (at least here) of the film’s own beauty or artistic successes.

So Guest goes to Hollywood to become a star; and because she has a star’s qualities she gathers to her everything of any importance.  On the way she meets Confucius. And it is not a question of simple nearness, and it is certainly not an insignificance.  As the world of Hollywood, and filmmaking, are charmed by the temperamental, by characters possessing big or little faults, and big reactions, so a wisdom of composing this world, of performing these analogies, adds to and even completes the charm and wisdom of being here.   Thus Guest may well sympathize with the actress who is to be cajoled and tolerated in “Falling in Love.”  This actress tip-toes to correct a fault in stature, and then in form and deed actually falls.  The falling of the actress, caught on film, is the creation out of a moment of misfortune of the film “Falling in Love”; and her unpredictability scores, is made to form; and moments, mobility, “momentuum” (from another story in the collection) link to confidence, sagacity, the creation of the changes.

In this other story the sagacity, as potentiality and motivation of silence, protects its gains by way of negotiating light and dark, and, adventurously, light and dark show they well know to disperse, to project and play themselves out in the appearance of “the delicacy of piecing together snow floes,” that is to say “the scenario, how snow rinses her wrists slowly,” “the meaning of the snow on the wrists of the actress.”  The cheekiness of such chiaroscuro in camera, of dark participating as halo and surround of image context, is crucial.  So is the time element.  Obedience to the pressures of time, expressed in “slowly,” makes all the difference; and just as light steadies quiet snow, so time’s possibilities are implied in so many aspects of the idea of “snow.”  So it may be easy to pass over the emphasis on “time” as a component of the structure of the hexagram in Wilhelm’s fully developed transcription and explanation of the I Ching.  But it may be that the point is not lost on the judicious learner, just as snow on camera slowly does not melt for the sensitive filmmaker.  The title of the story is “Confucius,” and its uptake springs forth under caress, and under delight and assured mystery:

There seemed to be no misunderstanding as to who indeed was the star and what role the camera played, each subsisted on snow.  Within the screenplay originally fixed solely on the ability of the actress to flex her wrists (camera shot of wrists) (camera preys on face above her wrists) a secondary plot was now beginning to develop as snow and light crossed the face of the actress.

The action of the film simplifies to a camera shot wherein the odd “momentuum of whiteness” (emphasis mine) is its link to counterbalancing the thought of “perpetuum mobile” (phrase mine, not in story), a notion that varies, with limited sophistication, the formal “I Ching,” and thereupon together with “momentuum” may form the proper expression of “I Ching.”

These touching cousins of momentuum and perpetuum (alternatively, “continuum”) are again seen, and again captured, in the image referred to in the story “The Utmost Unreality” as “Die Glückliche Hand (The Lucky Hand).”  Like much of the material in The Confetti Trees, the reference, in German, plays the card of central Europe as the music of Guest’s favorite, Schoenberg, emanates from a lacerated spiritual gloom, “allow[ing] a new genii to escape from under the aged veils of [Schoenberg’s and Kandinsky’s] magic.”  The filmmaking’s progress is dark and ambiguous but hints in its warning motion at the roles of fortune and change in disorderly orderliness, with “[a]tonality” at its piloting beck and call.  Guest has elsewhere touted such thoughtful contradiction in the aesthetic terms of Schoenbergian dissonance vis-à-vis consonance.  Hollywood is her claim to make this apparition prosper; her revamping of a time in history is her Europe, and her Yale and her Harvard, and her felt music.

Returning to “Confucius,” the story that appears to imagine this (or a different) “lucky” hand while “momentuum” parleys the emotions of light and dark, we discover that the actress with the fortunate appeal is a reader of who else but Confucius.  The sagacious director who (continually) reads these chance oracles is a Swede, a central European on the upper half, and he recognizes, or let us say the film recognizes, the greatness of the moment in its near-miss quality.  That is what is seen in the flow and flowing after, after what he films as the cold-sinking, gorgeous lyricism of turning wrist in snow and light.  That is what is seen afterwards, after having composed the exalted moment, after having placed the slowed “momentuum” as homage to the lessons of Tao.  The changes and chances and Hollywood, the silent glories coming again and again from near miss, are Pathology altered to Potentiality, are Annoying Habit altered to Personality:

The Director is a difficult man.  His sudden changes of mood often cause alarm.  In exasperation he picks up a book lying on a table nearby and throws this book hitting the sink where the actress washes, narrowly missing her wrists.  It is silent film so we do not hear a plaintive voice, or the sound of the book striking.

We see the trembling of the actress as the book narrowly misses her wrists.  Without any prompting she picks up the book (no sound to delude us) and guides the book up to her face where we see written on its cover The Sayings of Confucious.  “She is reading Confucius!” we repeat over and over, as we savor the Director’s silent applause.


New York City
July-August 2008



Robert Mueller reports that his main occupation is that of proofreader. He further notes that the presence of unusual spellings and unexpected inconsistencies of various kinds in poetry books authored by Barbara Guest led him to wonder how much of this contrary practice was creative and meaningful and beautiful, or helped to invoke certain aesthetic charms and mysteries. Such questions sparked the current discussion and its hopeful thoughts about how this practice may play out. Mr. Mueller has written on other aspects of the originality and brilliance that is Barbara Guest, as well as on such adventurous poets as Susan Wheeler, John Ashbery and Edmund Spenser. You may find his poem “Bubble or Tripod Which” here in Spinozablue and two new poems on-line in sugarmule.com.


Copyright© 2008, Robert Mueller and Spinozablue. All Rights Reserved.


Rebecca Parton: To Catch a Phony

The World of Holden Caulfield:
Revisiting The Catcher in the Rye



 I read J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye in 1970 as a teenage girl with a disaffected outlook on the world very similar to the narrator and main character, Holden Caulfield. I recall thinking it was a wonderful book I could relate to on many levels: as a child of the 60s, I shared Holden’s disdain for pretentiousness, discourtesy, hypocrisy, regimentation, and social climbing. I longed desperately for some measure of peace with myself and the world around me in spite of my contempt for the behavior I observed in people – phonies, as Holden would call them. That was as far as I could go with my appreciation for this wonderful book at that young age.

A week ago I decided to have a reunion with Holden for the first time in over 30 years.  What emerged from my excursion back to his world was a sense of awe at Salinger’s masterful creation of a bright teenager from an extremely prominent family experiencing what we would now refer to as a total meltdown. It is an account completely lacking in self-pity, inexorable in its downward spiral, and ruthlessly unsparing in its appraisal of the various people Holden encounters.

The quintessential agonized adolescent for all ages, Holden Caulfield has lost his younger brother to leukemia, a cataclysmic event for his entire family. His grief haunts him throughout a series of events that only serve to exacerbate his struggle.  The reader enters Caulfield’s world as the semester is coming to an end just before Christmas.  His parents do not know about his expulsion yet, so the reaction of his brilliantly successful father, his grieving, anxiety-stricken mother, and the rest of his family is looming before him.

Things spiral further out of control as he loses his temper with his stereotypically handsome, athletic roommate on a Saturday night.  The end result is a bloody-faced Holden, too stunned to properly clean his face before he ventures out of the dormitory and into the heart of New York City.  His plan is to stay there until he is due home on Wednesday.

The ensuing events, most of them direct confrontations with the darker side of humanity as Holden desperately attempts to alleviate his loneliness and despair, only serve to exacerbate his tenuous hold on his sanity.  The pace of the novel increases proportionately as he free-falls deeper into depression and increasingly more desperate acts.

Eventually the reader learns that Holden has at some point been further traumatized as witness to a tragic, gory suicide.  And the teacher who emerges from this event as a hero in Holden’s eyes turns out to be a predator.

At 16, I saw Holden as a rebel and a maverick.  At 54, I saw him as a frightened child desperate for help but unable to find it, a tragic enigma unable to find his way through the evils of the world in spite of his privilege and intelligence.  He is simultaneously ferocious in his antipathy toward the human race and desperate in his desire for human companionship and love.  What stands out is not his rebellion, but his love for others, good and bad alike.

It is this great love and longing for humans and their companionship that emerges in the narrative – that and the disturbing series of emotional shocks that rob him of his innocence as he attempts to find solace.  He is a latter-day Werther, whose sorrows are as stark as the bleak landscape of his inner world, yet his narrative is never maudlin or complaining.  The voice of Holden Caulfield is as real as it gets – his coming of age moves inexorably to a struggle to survive.

And so it is that the worth of this great novel is confirmed and enhanced – it is a timeless, haunting story that everyone should read.  Sadly, an entire generation of young people are now deprived of this important work of literature because of their parents’ religious zealotry.  Today’s teenagers, who must go to school wondering if they can get through the day without getting shot and killed, simply cannot be allowed to read a great novel with foul language in it, so say the Philistines who call the shots at our nation’s schools.  It is both an irony and an injustice, the ultimate kind of blindness that Salinger sought to expose in his masterpiece, Catcher in the Rye.


–Rebecca Parton


Author’s Biography

Rebecca Parton lives in Dallas, Georgia with her son and daughter, her two cats, and her miniature schnauzer.  A lifelong bookworm, she spends most of her spare time reading history and literature.  She has a degree in history from Louisiana State University and works in Atlanta as a Senior Technical Writer and Trainer.


Copyright©2008 Rebecca Parton and Spinozablue. All Rights Reserved.


David Haan: To Assume a Pleasing Shape

Satire is a lesson, parody is a game. — Nabokov

I have always found poetry difficult, and for that reason interesting. I’m no poet (what little talent I may have is concentrated in the epigram): what verse I’ve perpetrated has been in the service of better understanding what it is, how it’s put together, and so often falls into the category of imitation, whose sincerest form is parody. These exercises for the left-handed have helped me to get a better grasp of poetry in general by bedeviling the details. So describing the process by which one such exercise fell into place, while violating a cardinal rule against self-explication, might be excused as being in some sense instructive for others, even though explaining the joke puts the humor out of its misery.

The object under examination is a faux-Shakespearean sonnet (the modifier describing both form and content). It was sparked by the now-expunged bookchat hosted by the New York Times, which served as a prop to my burgeoning literary concerns. One forum was dedicated to Shakespeare, and proved a magnet to those who would contend that Shakespeare was merely a putative author, to the bemusement of those more inclined to reading and discussing the works. Inspired by one participant who was taking these interlopers to task in Shakespearean voice, I composted my own effort there five years ago; when the same revisionism arose at the Chronicle of Higher Education in connection with the New Historicism, I reposted my riposte (responding to Ophelia’s call; the editors asked to include it in a subsequent issue’s Letters). But enough of surrounding circumstance, and on to annotation, or, what was I thinking?

Continue reading