How to Create Conspiracy (Reason, Rhetoric, and the Art of Persuasion) 16 June 2016

The Language of Argumentative Reasoning &
Rhetoric and the Language of Persuasion 

In the proper use of rhetoric, an early idea or notion in a speech or argument must be resolved by the end. This can be done by returning to, and expanding upon, prior notions in an argument toward the end. This tidies up an argument in a satisfying way. It allows for a finality and closure, allowing the primary thrust of an argument to come full circle. That sense of completion and resolution is intellectually and emotionally satisfying.

When a notion remains unresolved the argument may seem unsatisfying or lacking to an audience or jury. Tying a later notion to an earlier idea allows for an audience to follow your reasoning, evaluate the chain that links each successive point, and decide for themselves if the logic behind thet conjecture is sound. Your job as an orator is to make sure that each successive link follows logically from each point to the next in a manner that is understandable and gradual. Rhetoric is the art of persuasion.

For Aristotle, there were three elements of rhetoric necessary for the practice of persuasion as it relates to argument. As Dr. John R. Edlund describes in his essay Ethos, Logos, Pathos: Three Ways to Persuade:

” Aristotle says that if we believe that a speaker has good sense, good moral character, and goodwill, we are inclined to believe what that speaker says. Today we might add that a speaker should also appear to have the appropriate expertise or authority to speak knowledgeably about the subject matter. Ethos is often the first thing we notice, so it creates the first impression that influences how we perceive the rest. Ethos is an important factor in advertising, both for commercial products and in politics.”

The first element is ethos and is important to consider first, as it must establish the image of credibility of the speaker or writer by creating and maintaining an ethical character; the second is pathos, the appeal to emotion and telling pathological characteristics in the specifics of individual notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, shame and pride; the third is logos, the use of the argument’s own language as the means of persuasion, logic. Only in the fulfillment of each element, Aristotle thought, could rhetoric be considered truly persuasive.

Pathos relies on the amplification feelings known to force someone into a position of choosing honor or shame, into making an amoral decision as opposed to an emotional response. This is important to understand in practicing persuasion, as it relates to creating conspiracy, as appealing to base fears and the sense of pride, by their understanding a unique truth that allows them to rest assured in their own deductive abilities — the best way to convince someone is to give them a way to convince themselves, rely on confirmation bias to run its course, and watch the newly converted. It isn’t always necessary, if the issue hinges on a more morally lax issue; to waste logic on a juror who has built in responses is unnecessary, as logos is not the language of the rhetorical capacity intended for the proud. In such instances, you are dealing with someone for whom proposed or traditional credible sources have failed to persuade them and in response, understandably betrayed, may resort to the persuasion outside of logos, and through ethos they can be more properly persuaded.  Connecting emotionally may help overcome a particularly weak argument, or work to the detriment of an otherwise logically sound narrative.

In the sciences, dispassion and emotional detachment are valued aspects of one’s approach to a proof, in chemistry or physics, for example. But in philosophy and psychology, it is important to show emotional awareness and sensitivity, to make sure someone’s pride is not on the line; to make sure that it does not dishonor or otherwise shame someone to accept a proof, and to err on the side of being humane whenever such questions arise. You will more easily reach someone with a smattering of humanity than with a mountain of intelligence and logic. To insult the intelligence of someone you wish to persuade will do you no favors, and only make a proof that much harder to accept.

On the acceptance of proofs

OF THE SCIENCES PRACTICED BY SCHOLARS AND HISTORIANS, physics is perhaps the most observation based and dependent on empirical data. Proofs in physics without observation data, without an experiment that might replicate the results, or proofs without a means by it may be tested, are considered worse than proofs that are demonstrably wrong. In classical physics, the models and theories were shaped by observation and the tedious collection of data over time. Johannes Kepler published his theory on ellipses in Harmony of the Spheres based on the observation data of another astronomer, the Danish nobleman Tycho Brahe. This would be the first accurate model of the solar system in human history.

In instances where data or observation is impossible, approaches are developed to take probabilities of all possible outcomes into consideration in equations. This is known as the path integral formulation of quantum physics. Classical physics can give definitive answers to questions such as,

If a particle starts at time tA at location A, will it reach location B at time tB? Depending on the particle’s initial velocity and the forces acting on it, the question can be answered. In quantum physics, it’s possible to give the probability that the particle will reach location B at tB. Because of the infinities inherent in probabilities, the sum over histories approach was born, or created rather, to produce valid mathematical proofs.

An invention of American physicist Richard Feynman, path integral is used to calculate quantum mechanical probabilities. To do this, first you consider all the probabilities for the particle traveling from point A to point B. Not just the straight line approach, but all approaches. From the possibility of a particle going through a lethargic stage and making desperate detours to its possibility of going to New York or Rome or Proxima Centauri before going to point B. This seems improbable, sure, but is it improbable that particles will take other paths from point A to point B, and not always straight lines? I don’t think so. After all, between the straight line and the round-about path through New York and Rome there are infinite possibilities. Further, that path may be descriptive but it does not give information about velocities. In short, for the first step, take into account all ways of traveling from A to B, however outlandish they may seem.

The second step is to associate a number with each of these possibilities (not quite the kind of number we’re used to from school, but we will not bother with the difference here). Finally, the numbers associated with all possibilities are added up – some parts of the sum canceling each other, others adding up. (Readers whom this makes think of waves are on the right track – it is an example of an interference phenomenon.) The resulting sum tells us the probability of detecting the particle that started out at A at the location B at the specified time. Physicists call such a sum over all possibilities a path integral or sum over histories.

Calculating such path integrals can be tricky, in particle physics, for example; there, theories are combination of quantum theory and special relativity. Path integrals are an important tool to calculate the probability of particles interacting in a given way. In order to do this, you have to use a time coordinate (t), assigning a time coordinate gives an extra factor (i) – the “imaginary unit”, an algebraic symbol that squares to minus one, i2=1. The resulting pair i·t is sometimes called imaginary time. After a path integral calculation, you reverse the substitution.

This might seem arbitrary and implausible but it has the added benefit of transforming a time coordinate with a special coordinate, which is how it works to give the right answers with Feynman’s approach. An exact proof was found by two mathematicians: Konrad Osterwalder from Switzerland and Robert Schrader from Germany. Their theorem showed that the properties of a quantum theory formulated in the space-time of general relativity can indeed be reconstructed exactly by using Feynman’s recipe on an imaginary-time axis of that same space-time.

Proofs in other areas of academia are not as precise or obvious. Problems in philosophy are never solved to everyone’s satisfaction. Questions on ethics and morality, of good and evil, and anything else in the realm of metaphysics – it is unlikely these questions will ever be satisfactorily defined or proven in a way that would be accepted in the same manner as the above mathematical proof. Whether there is a god or if there is good and evil, these questions have been around as long as questions have been asked.

It is through reason that arguments are settled. And only temporarily then, as they will be asked again. This will be dedicated to the methods of argumentative reasoning more than to advocating for one answer over another. Argumentative reasoning is split into four necessary elements: connection, correlation, conjecture, and conclusion. The connection stage is how you connect your two subjects, showing that the overall idea is based on the logical inferences drawn at each stage when presented with new information. The second step, correlation, is the demonstration of why two subjects are connected. The meaning behind events linking them together, how this reinforces the overarching point, and how it allows for you to present the conjecture that allows for your conclusion.

Conjecture is the part of your case where you argue the evidence. In legal terms, it is the defense’s final summation, or final argument, and it lets them present their inferences, based on the evidence, as part of a reasonable inference from that reference. There is more license in this area, as it is more the story of the evidence than a recapitulation of it. That’s a popular way of refreshing a jury of the main points without going into too much detail, condensing it and making it easier to be pigeonholed in someone’s memory. This is where you tell the story of your own discovery, of how you came to the conclusion you have, and why it precludes any other conclusion.

A conclusion is something that must proceed logically from the conjecture. It allows you to show the stages from the first step of connection and the final step. A conclusion is what everything else is in service to: all of the steps and foundational ideas within the connection and correlation, as surmised in the conjecture. This is your point, the main thrust, and the popular way of doing this in legal terms, again, is in the final summation, or final argument, as well as a way of preempting possible questions and unresolved issues that run contrary to your interpretation of the evidence.

Those are the four main steps in argumentative reasoning as it applies to constructing an academic argument. The point, for me, behind this paper is to demonstrate the methods of constructing and sustaining a conspiracy; the creation of a conspiracy theory follows each one of these four steps very deftly: first the connection, then the correlation, the conjecture, and finally the conclusion. Embedded in the conjecture should be a preemptive answer or deterrent to points important to the proof;

First, anticipate and prepare for detractions. An active deterrent built into the logic of the conjecture will have a longstanding effect on questions as it relates to proof, negating the best attempts at discrediting an argument. Attempts to preempt difficult questions as pertaining to your conclusion are vital points to build into the logic, especially in conspiracy. In case after case, you need to prepare for any and all attempts to pick apart the logic of your argument. ‘The Man’ is disseminating false information; a fundamental establishment as a source of truth is abolished, as that establishment may urge conclusions to the contrary of your own. ‘They’ don’t want the truth to get out. This makes an idea bullet-proof if successful, because it shuts down objections before they can be used and allows you to dictate the flow of the debate. It is of monumental importance in argumentative reasoning to discredit and preempt objections to your arguments. There is much to learn from this type of couched deterrent, one that is prominently built into the logic of conjecture.

In presenting an argument, the first point of business is to rehash and recapitulate the facts as you know a jury to know. Thereby getting them to side with you in the first series of agreements, because it means agreeing, first, with themselves. You need juror empathy, acknowledgement of credible sources, and a shared standard for the measure of truth as it relates to proof. In a legal case, this can be done as a general summation, outlining what you know the jury has seen, detail major points in the abstract – to reinforce important points, points that have empirical proofs, in measurement, for example, or any a demonstrable way.

It is through reason that arguments are settled. And only temporarily then, as they will be asked again. This will be dedicated to the methods of argumentative reasoning more than to advocating for one answer over another. Argumentative reasoning is split into four necessary elements: connection, correlation, conjecture, and conclusion. The connection stage is how you connect your two subjects, showing that the overall idea is based on the logical inferences drawn at each stage when presented with new information. The second step, correlation, is the demonstration of why two subjects are connected. The meaning behind events linking them together, how this reinforces the overarching point, and how it allows for you to present the conjecture that allows for your conclusion.

          Conjecture is the part of your case where you argue the evidence. In legal terms, it is the defense’s final summation, or final argument, and it lets them present their inferences, based on the evidence, as part of a reasonable inference from that reference. There is more license in this area, as it is more the story of the evidence than a recapitulation of it. That’s a popular way of refreshing a jury of the main points without going into too much detail, condensing it and making it easier to be pigeonholed in someone’s memory. This is where you tell the story of your own discovery, of how you came to the conclusion you have, and why it precludes any other conclusion.

          A conclusion is something that must proceed logically from the conjecture. It allows you to show the stages from the first step of connection and the final step. A conclusion is what everything else is in service to: all of the steps and foundational ideas within the connection and correlation, as surmised in the conjecture. This is your point, the main thrust, and the popular way of doing this in legal terms, again, is in the final summation, or final argument, as well as a way of preempting possible questions and unresolved issues that run contrary to your interpretation of the evidence.

          Those are the four main steps in argumentative reasoning as it applies to constructing an academic argument. The point, for me, behind this paper is to demonstrate the methods of constructing and sustaining a conspiracy; the creation of a conspiracy theory follows each one of these four steps very deftly: first the connection, then the correlation, the conjecture, and finally the conclusion. Embedded in the conjecture should be a preemptive answer or deterrent to points important to the proof;

          First, anticipate and prepare for detraction. An active deterrent built into the logic of the conjecture will have a longstanding effect on questions as it relates to proof, negating the best attempts at discrediting an argument. Attempts to preempt difficult questions as pertaining to your conclusion are vital points to build into the logic, especially in conspiracy. In case after case, you need to prepare for any and all attempts to pick apart the logic of your argument. ‘The Man’ is disseminating false information; a fundamental establishment as a source of truth is abolished, as that establishment may urge conclusions to the contrary of your own. ‘They’ don’t want the truth to get out. This makes an idea bullet-proof if successful, because it shuts down objections before they can be used and allows you to dictate the flow of the debate. It is of monumental importance in argumentative reasoning to discredit and preempt objections to your arguments. There is much to learn from this type of couched deterrent, one that is prominently built into the logic of conjecture.

In the language of legal argument 

In the Kennedy assassination, conspiracies began before the body was even back in Washington at Bethesda Medical Hospital. It is a violent, random act; the suggestion that chaos rules over the everyday lives of men and women is a bit much, and replacing chaos with something planned and precise gives us a type of comfort, a type of comfort we’d never have in knowing that anyone, including the most powerful and beloved people on Earth, can lose their lives so publicly and violently. It’s understandable [in the JFK case] to bend toward conspiracy, as most of the American population does. If someone, acting alone, can kill the president, does that not make one uneasy in their own lives, unassured by the safety traditional law enforcement provides? Of course it does. A conspiracy gives meaning where there is none, but where it is badly needed.

          Vincent Bugliosi is a famed lawyer and non-fiction author, best known for his public prosecution of Charles Manson – popularizing the Helter Skelter aspects of those killings – and his true crime novels, Outrage, about the acquittal of OJ Simpson, and Reclaiming History – about the conspiracies surrounding the JFK assassination. In one of his public appearances after the book’s release, he gave a speech at the 5th floor museum in Dallas. At the beginning, he put forth two statements that must be true in order to think intelligently about an issue:

          You must be aware of both sides of a story, first and foremost,

          And you must read, for yourself, any document that other documents purport to discredit.

          His next point was to ask, “How many of you have seen the Oliver Stone film JFK? A lot of hands go up.

          “Now, how many of you have read The Warren Commission?”

          Very few hands remain up.

          “Now, can you think intelligently about an issue without hearing both sides?”

          It’s a very precise demonstration of the built-in biases we all have towards official reports. The Warren Commission is couched in legal language, and can extremely long and exhaustive for the most attentive reader. Such a document is probably not suited for popular entertainment, even an abridged version would leave out too much that is necessary. The Oliver Stone film is exciting and dramatic, full of memorable images and quotes, and it follows the four steps of argumentative reasoning very closely. The first step is the connection and then correlation of events, with a correlation that suits the conjecture and ultimately the conclusion.

          The idea of couching rebuttals and anticipatory in the argument is important for the longevity of an idea. In the vernacular of conspiracy theory, you have surely noticed, there is always some element painted as inherently untrustworthy. Such as official, government reports in conspiracy and scientific instruments of measurement and observation in religion. The success of religion and the propagation of conspiracy are interchangeable, as both provide a human comfort, a comfort that inhuman instruments have traditionally been unable to confer.

          In religious writing, refuting possible objections before they arise is a common practice. It’s something that is conversely practiced in legal argument, the anticipation of objections and their preemptive refutation, and when done properly these anticipatory remarks can do damage to an opponent’s case before they have a chance to argue their interpretation of the evidence in conjecture.

          In reason, there must be reconciliation of irrationalities. In number theory, pi is considered an irrational number because ultimately it doesn’t roll over, instead spiraling on into forever. This has led to a lot of work in number theory, and the intention is to reconcile irrationality. The same is true in rhetoric, whereby the returning to an earlier idea toward the end of a phrase ties it together, rationalizing the statement and giving it a completeness. You see this in literature a lot, often in the form of recurring themes and symbols. Early in a text you may have unresolved elements intentionally left open by an author, which encourages participation on behalf of the reader, allowing them to reconcile open threads of thought ret to be resolved by the author.

 

Literary essay: Shakespeare – Choice & Fate, Fathers & Sons, 15 May 2016

9
On Shakespeare’s Drama,
Choice & Fate, Fathers & Sons

SHAKESPEARE’S PLAYS ARE ALL INTRINSICALLY Shakespeare plays; yet with MacBeth, Shakespeare taps into a deeper madness, a madness rarely pulled off with lucidity in literary history. Shakespeare unravels MacBeth in much the same manner as he did with King Lear. Piece by piece the layers shed, layer after layer of human skin.

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At one point he was an honorable man, but is tempted by powers, and what justifies the need or want of power. This is a common reading, but I think the witches intend to be a sort of externalization, a way of seeking validation for the kind of the desires already there. As he rose to power, through each step, he deteriorated morally. The deterioration was such that another theme of internal / external heaven and hell becomes very apparent in the fact that he can’t even enjoy his kingship because of his internal struggle—in this he is much like King Henry IV, unable to enjoy the glory of his usurped throne.

Although Macbeth deteriorates slowly and becomes more and more vicious, his soliloquies, such as the one before murdering Duncan, invoke a sense of pity and awe in the audience simply because of how much he suffers. The great take-away for me is simple: Even monsters suffer. There is great ambition for social heights in MacBeth, but to gain it his morality is more and more cast aside.

MacBeth was once a highly respectable general in Scotland. He even witnesses to some degree the deterioration of his character as he notices his own choice for the social climb over moral goodness. He was respected by the soldiers and even King Duncan while in Scotland; however, this externalization of his greed and desire, the witches, will tempt him with the Throne of Glamis and Cawdor—and propose it will be Banquo, his good friend, soon to be a father of a dynasty of kings, and not he.

MacBeth’s ambition is the heroic flaw, a common theme in theatre,

“My thought, whose murder is yet fantastical, shakes my single state,” he reflects, regarding the prophecy. At first he rejects the idea of murder, shuddering as the witches mention what is to be his fate; he says, “If chance will have me king, chance may crown me, without my stir.”

Again the three witches, an internal peer pressure of sorts, make concentrated his murderous intentions, which he had yet to express. Again it is ambition goaded by temptation that drive him further when Duncan announces his intentions to make Malcom heir to the throne.

MacBeth says,

“That is a step on which I must fall upon, or else o’erleap, for in my way it lies. Stars hide your fires; let not sleep my black desires: the eye that winks at the hand, yet that be which the eye fears, when it is done to see.”

In the end his ambition gets the better of him and his moral deterioration is complete; in the role of a desperate murderer, he doesn’t wish for the light to shine upon what he has done—it is too evil to be seen, and far too much for him to see, to be confronted with the evidence of your crime so graphically, as Claudius was in Hamlet.

The inner conflict that acts inside Macbeth from evil and moral virtue carries on through the entirety of the play and the struggle against the prophecies and temptations become weaker and weaker. The self-fulfilling prophecy is another popular trope in theatre. He reasons after multiple aversions to kill Duncan, showing his complicit choice at each stage, aware of the risks, and then, because of what it took to get there, is unable to enjoy his rule. His slow fall covers a noble man falling from the favor of fortune, through temptation and gradual capitulation to desire, until he is a base creature, in complete service to his indulgences.

Methought I heard a voice cry

“Sleep no more!

Macbeth does murder sleep,”

the innocent sleep,

Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care,

The death of each day’s life,

sore labour’s bath,

Balm of hurt minds,

great nature’s second course,

Chief nourisher in life’s feast.

Of many the recurring themes in Macbeth, sleep is focused on intensively. Macbeth thought that sleep made life worth living and thought that by killing the king in his sleep, that he had murdered sleep itself. This, of the many points in Macbeth, is probably the most provocative and widely discussed. He thought it to be soothing, “like a bath after a long day’s work.” In the passage, which is common to modern English’s “Sleep on it” – Macbeth is frustrated and distraught and sees no end to his troubles. Though he has a lot of troubles, he relates this with. “A ravell’d sleeve” – this is the metaphor he uses for having a tangled mesh, or string – or skein – of thread and yarn. Not unlike the tangled yard of the Weird Sisters (something else Shakespeare inherited from Holinshed’s Chronicles.

Before Macbeth murders king Duncan, Banquo says, “A heavy summons lies like lead upon me, and yet I would not sleep: merciful powers.” Something, though as of yet he doesn’t reveal it, is keeping him from sleep. Banquo shows beforehand that he is suspecting that Macbeth may have ulterior motives when Macbeth bids him a “Good repose” – which is the same thing as a good night’s sleep.

In one of the most popular of all the scenes in Macbeth, Macbeth hallucinates seeing a bloody dagger suspended in the air pointing towards King Duncan’s chamber; he thinks it’s appropriate to have the hallucination at that time of night and says, “Now o’er the one half-world, nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse that curtain’d sleep.”

Sleep, as he says, was curtained because many of the noblemen and personages high in the social hierarchy used four post beds and hung up curtains to keep out cold air. Macbeth believed the air of night could see through the curtains and through sleep itself.

“There’s one did laugh in’s sleep, and one cried murder,” – After King Duncan is murdered, he tells his wife this as he leaves the chamber and believed that the people, even though all were asleep, could see the blood on his hands.

****

Tragedy is of two popular forms now in the West. Modern tragedy and Greek tragedy. Greek tragedy is tied to the ideas of fate and the gods, and sometimes regular people too. A hero defies the gods, often due to fatal flaws which is the reason behind their eventual downfall; and English playwriting, in its early years, follows this tradition. In Shakespeare’s plays, tragedy is also identified as a story that ends unhappily due to the flaws of the protagonist, the tragic hero.

Romeo and Juliet – a broadstrokes tragedy – In Shakespeare’s other tragedies, such as Macbeth and Hamlet, although those characters are fated to die, this type of tragedy is different. Romeo and Juliet is a domestic type of tragedy, a tragedy of fate, despite the fact that other characters influence the result of the final tragedy; however only a few people are affected. In most of his work, the microcosm (Hamlet) along with the macrocosm (The fiefdom of Denmark) are affected equally, making the tragedy in microcosm and macrocosm, personal and universal.

Shakespeare tries to break down the rivalry and feud between two families; the Capulets and Montagues Many tragedies are been presented in the play including that of Paris, Mercutio, Tybalt, and Romeo, Juliet, and Lady Montague. These figures all lead to each other, each building up and abetting the next death or tragedy, which could have been caused by rivaling senses of authority, codes of honor, masculinity, rebellion, ambition, and – again, fate.

From the very beginning of the play, fate is constantly referenced, starting with the prologue,

“A pair of star crossed lovers take their life.”

This is Shakespeare working on a different type of tragedy, a tragedy in the face of time and destiny. Romeo and Juliet were meant to die, in that sense, because it was their destiny.  Therefore this is what fate had planned for their lives. So the audience recognizes even further that the tragic death of Romeo and Juliet was something which was definitely happening, something inherent and inevitable. Shakespeare’s job in convincing the audience this was due to fate was easy. As the audience at that point of time would have believed in fate.

Shakespeare tried to showcase the idea that to fulfill destiny and prophecy, you have to believe in destiny. Like prophecies, inasmuch as they are ultimately self-fulfilling, Romeo was shown to believe, saying, “I fear too early for my mind misgives, some consequences yet hanging in the stars shall bitterly begin this fearful date.”

Romeo knew—to that degree of belief, it transcends idea and becomes a physical reality—that his actions were not under his control;

“…He that hath steerage over my course, direct my sail.”

By believing that one’s actions are out of one’s control, one avoids responsibility and, for Romeo to believe this, he tried to defy what was already a self-imposed idea, to go against the tide that swept him to his end was to go against a tide he put in motion.

Fate was used by a number of playwrights, and Shakespeare used it well as a dramatic device, showing what fruit there is in believing one’s life out of one’s hands. Shakespeare was central to the progress of the play and its outcome; an example could be Romeo’s banishment and Paris’s engagement to Juliet. Both a modern and an Elizabethan audience would, despite the knowledge of the plays outcome, be interested in the play, and keep watching, and in a way Shakespeare uses the audience’s knowledge as a dramatic device.

Despite his own ambition, Shakespeare has a madness for condemning it; like MacBeth, Friar Lawrence could be an example of an ambitious person, believing that by marrying the lovers the feud would stop, alleging that the only reason he is marrying the two is to bring an end to the rivalry. Despite how well intentioned this action is, The Friars decision to marry Romeo and Juliet indicates his naiveté more than anything. The Friar is ultimately responsible for the ending. To persuade Juliet to fake her death, he attempts to reverse nature—to heal the wounds of the feud—but only succeeds in making everything worse.

The Friar was a man who did not believe in fate. As such, his decision-making leads to chaos. The unpredictable direction of events help to keep the audience attentive. Shakespeare used these techniques to build tension and make scenes more dramatic.

Youth’s Romantic Rebellion.

Romeo and Juliet both rebel against their families, as most young men and women do. They enhance and exacerbate the rivalry between them by marring one another, rather than taming it. The play presents numerous examples of youthful rebellion. Juliet disobeys her father by refusing to marry Paris, something unheard of in a society where fathers are the ultimate source of patriarchal authority, and authority in all things, moral and spiritual. As both rebel against their parents through their continued association, Juliet not only disobeys her parents, she encourages Romeo to do the same, saying,

“…deny thy father and refuse thy name.”

Things did not end well. For anyone, really.

Cont.

Shakespeare could turn out plays like Romeo and Juliet in his sleep. In Hamlet and perhaps more so in MacBeth, however, he pushes himself higher and higher. In Hamlet by bringing the drama closer to the personal and neglecting archetypal tragedy; Hamlet, the character, is proof of this, as his mental anguish is the subject of the entire play. Perhaps it was due to the death of his own son Hamnet, that Shakespeare’s interest would become deconstructing the relationships between fathers and sons.

After his son was carried away by the plague, we have the character Hamlet, a consonant shy of having the same name of his deceased son, looking into a mirror, contemplating suicide. ‘To be or not to be,’ is just a fancy way of asking, ‘Should I kill myself or what?’ That’s the question. It’s the same question Camus pursued in his philosophy of the absurd, in works such as The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus; and Camus stated,

‘There is one principle issue in philosophy, and that is suicide.’

Shakespeare’s own anguish and regret seeps into his characters, who, even when seemingly on top of the world – as Shakespeare had been himself, showing up to a coronation decked out in red velvet – find ways to bemoan the everyday life of the depressive:

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

The way to dusty death

Out! Out, brief candle!

Life is but a walking shadow,

A poor player that struts and frets

His hour upon the stage

And is heard no more.

It is a tale told by an idiot,

Full of sound and fury –

Signifying nothing.

Shakespeare’s characters are all saddled by one form of loss or another in this period, and they deal with grief in different ways. His later work is a dissection of grief. Hamlet’s deliberation on his life, Macbeth’s lethargy and disdain for the noise and futility of the mundane, day to day, what is real and lasting, and what is ephemeral, just a passing storm, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Shakespeare’s guilt over his son’s passing seeps into his greatest play, King Lear, as the King mistreats his one honest daughter while at the same time giving lavishly to his other daughters, who are sycophantic and gratifying, incurring his good favor by building up his self-esteem, so when it’s time to parcel out the kingdom, Cordelia doesn’t get as much as those other assholes.

It’s hard to pin Shakespeare down and say with definitiveness what he believed, or wherewith he is speaking in his own voice, as himself. He used the past as a prism through which to enlarge the issues of the present, such as the problems with the monarchy and the many religious schisms of his age. But in his later works, the character of Hamlet is in keeping with more reflective, pensive melancholy – about the loss of his father – and his ghost is who tips him on to what Claudius has done; MacBeth might be a reflection of Shakespeare’s own transformation. From the highest of the playwrights in England to a grieving father; he had money and fame at a time when it meant less than it should have.

At the time King Lear was written, Shakespeare was English playwriting. Kip Marlowe, Robert Greene, and Thomas Kyd, his detractors and contemporaries did well, but fell out of favor, gradually. Kip Marlowe has retained a popularity that the former did not, but even his doesn’t rival that of Shakespeare, the Bard, inventor of words like puke and queasy. That’s a legacy.

When one considers the popularity of Hamlet’s conversation with the mirror and his thoughts of suicide, it’s easy to see one’s self before that same mirror thinking the same thing: what have I to lose by losing everything? Will it mitigate my loss? Will destruction save me from the torments of my conscience? These are natural questions to ask, to wonder if there is providence, and to wonder if we can actually defy fate on any meaningful level. If there be providence in this world, must this be the greatest lack of mercy? This denial of consolation the grave offers us all? No grace, no word of condolences from that undiscovered country. To ask these questions during a time of religious upheaval were questions in need of asking. It is no consolation that the dead stay silent, and grace is a spectre over our noblest endeavors.

The dead may silent, sure, but they may find their voice again; if the proper necromancer restored these spirits to our world, to live out their days in one folio or painting or another, this preserves the voice of voices we can’t hear and is unless by a proper necromancer restored to live forever in the folio or painting of a fine dramatist or artist. This is among the finer qualities of art—the preservation of what we are as individuals struggling with self-definition. Shakespeare was one of the first writers to give the English a hint at what that definition could be.

A Critique of Criticism, 12 May 2016

A look at the varying methods of literary criticism

In popular criticism, a critic may give a paragraph or so his attention as an initial reaction, to get the reader to see his perspective and set the tone, jot down something in the night to summarize it all, and post a review online sometime the next day. That’s the extent of the responsibility: check off some minor beats you expected to find along the story, correlate them with something you may have seen somewhere else, write derivative in your 6×9 yellow pad and underline it.

          In order to be objective, a critic will look at it from other points of view, get some contrary statements to cover the populist angle, and, noting how bad the dialogue was, how the action was tame and the ending uninspired. And the film/novel gets a score out of 5 or 4, or a thumbs up or two, and that’s it.

This was not always the approach to critiquing literature or art. Literary criticism, then, would be indistinguishable from what we today call literary analysis. It is the intentional probing of a manuscript, beckoning, Speak to me, ye words! And when they don’t, it’s not uncommon to feel left out of the joke. Many students have finished a copy of The Great Gatsby or The Fountainhead and thought, did I just not get it?

Lots of students feel that way about certain books they’ve been told are important for so long that, when they finally finish the story, there’s just something not there that you thought would be, something to justify the reputation of the novel. Literary criticism was born out of this idea, this idea to understand how stories were best told and structured, and how to explain popular curriculum books in a way that would best resonate with individual readers.

Literary criticism as literary analysis/exegesis made it to the popular conscience around the height of Athenian culture, where each year a tragedy contest would be held, accepting works from some of the biggest names in theatre history – Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes – who brought about a certain need in the public sphere to understand their entertainment, as a way to more wholly enjoy the performance, by identifying with the hero or heroine.

Tragedies submitted by Sophocles and Aeschylus would be judged against each other, with the critics weighing the pros and cons of such works as Antigone (the greatest of Sophocles’ plays) and The Libation Bearers, masterwork of the poet Aeschylus. This is the opposite of the original intention of critics; as they were more likely to be expounding upon the virtues of Epicurus or Aristotle, bringing their ideas to wider audience by condensing them and packaging them as beauty.

Though the popular appeal of condensed, Cliff Notes version of the Gospels, it worked in a much different way: instead of simplifying the idea, they simplified the presentation of ideas quite complex, especially for a young child, and through paintings on vases, the frescoes, and even the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, communicated the ideas behind the faith, ideas of mercy, forgiveness, and salvation.

This was a type of criticism, where a critic is used in the sense of someone who was there to appreciate art and communicate its most important ideas to a broader audience.

We have many in the theologian tradition to thank for modern textual and literary criticism; and the works of Martin Luther and Thomas Hobbes are a valuable contribution to the academic community. These include Vladimir Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature and Proust Was a Neuroscientist. While each of those books detailed by Nabokov don’t tell traditional stories of their own, or the stories they told themselves, they nevertheless draw our attention to some of the more sublime moments in literature and art, something a sometimes impatient mind may miss. These works are valuable for popularizing the notion that the studiousness of academia can be a worthwhile pursuit. To somehow prune new insights from the texts of Seneca and Chuang Tzu is a magic of its own.

The critics of the other type began as spectators in the Roman playhouses, noting the flaws of the heroes, often missing the point, while condemning Epicurus for his supposed debauchery in his philosophical exploration of human happiness.

This search for patterns, and for meaning, in thematic or philosophical language, the language used throughout the text serves to reinforce an important bit of subtext, or act as the harbinger of something to come. In music this is called a leit-motif, a pattern that repeats in different places to emphasis different, but similar structures and characters. As there must be experts, there must be experts to certify experts as experts, and so grew the community of theatre critics towards the end of the 19th century. In popular culture it leaned more toward the thumbs up/thumbs down or 3 out of 4 stars type reviews. These reviews are reminiscent of our schooldays of recapitulation, a tenuous rundown of the events, followed by comparing and contrasting positive and negative aspects of a film or novel. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this approach, and for those who use this method of criticism, I’m not here to critique.

The critique of studiousness often leaves out the critique built into the experience, and it is often more natural to let the cards fall as they might, as long as you’re right; or even let it unravel. The lesson is that you are criticizing something as it is against the standard of what it would be if somehow made perfect. To Epicurus, this was a recipe for sadness. Instead, the critique of romanticism puts the pieces of a story together by attempting to put the romantic hero back together.

The sentimental critic doesn’t necessarily look to judge the quality of a work, but more or less put it into a context that allows students and other academics to look at an old work in a new way, a way that allows us to connect the struggles of the characters with those of the modern world, like us, and use the lessons learned to improve our performance in our own world, towards prestige or financial success.

The question of quality commercial commentary is predicated upon the wisdom of a select few being sufficient to guide a great many to what makes the work under analysis transform into a malleable, transmutable metal in hands of a great metallurgist. The classical approach to literature and storytelling instruction has been through the demonstration of good literature by our teachers and professors throughout our life; we have been trained, through so many courses, to look for meaning, and to connect one idea to another, and hope to not be worse than wrong – which is to simply be uninteresting.

Many social and literary critics remain outside of the world of publishing, neglecting personal projects, such as fiction or non-fiction, as the academic discipline of analysis and comparative philology, which teaches you how recognize the structure of languages and their development and morphology, puts you in a perpetual comparative mood, even when looking at the organic, biological development of stories, how they’re put together, and how important themes are stressed again and again. The point behind literary criticism is not to tear a work to pieces, not for destruction, but for putting it back together.

When I was studying as a linguist, we often read books in their original language, then a prominent translation, and finally we’d go in for finals honors to try a more fitting translation of a given work, Tolstoy more often than not. When you work within the medium of teaching English composition, you begin to see a machinery at work, one that you can’t believe you’ve never see before.  As you begin to recognize the obvious cynicism behind the construction of what was supposed to be spontaneous, you can take solace in the fact that all stories, conscious or not, set out to reach you on an emotional level, to try to teach you something in the best of times, and to admonish and condemn in the worst. But once you see the skeleton and the scaffold, you know how a narrative is likely to unfold, looking at it as another in a series, as Sherlock Holmes said,

“If you know how the past 1,000 crimes were committed, it stands to reason you wouldn’t have a pretty good idea of what happened on the occasion of the 1,001st.”

The comparison may not seem readily obvious, but when you consider that all literature and art are, essentially, mysteries, all of them, even Jane Eyre. The mystery of art is not how the story ends or how a finished painting looks, but what the mystery there is in the shared imagination of mutual completion and appreciation. The mystery of literature is not how the unlikely hero manages to save the world in the end, but what such stories unintentionally reveal about their creators, like a real life Picture of Dorian Gray.

Though the mysteries of art are endless, the most striking is the almost instinctive human capacity to communicate through expression, through words and poetry, for sensual art and language.

It doesn’t manner what form of criticism you pick, it’s easy to point out the shortcomings of a truly disappointing story, but it is equally important to appreciate with the same fervor a relativity minor work by a relatively unknown author, an author who gets everything right. It’s hard to pinpoint anything in particular that makes Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther so charming. And being a part of Goethe’s early romanticism, it’s hard to look at it critically, to peel back the onions so to speak, and finds Goethe’s own great disappointment with romanticism.

While in the modern romantic age, it’s not too difficult to find yourself agonizing over the decisions made by writers, opting for the romantic. And though it is easy to spot the unremarkable in film and television, a lot of young students grow up thinking they failed somehow, when they didn’t fully understand an assigned book.

The horror of this realization is that, while many people can recognize the obvious problems in a bad film or TV series, far less know when a book is bad or good; a book requires a lot more dedication and belief in the author.

In the final analysis, art and literature remain interesting and sacred because of the natural sort of voodoo they offer up to us; the mystery of our own needs and feelings, and our need to have resolution and closure; to try to get to know these characters in fiction and grow up with them is to risk as much as having any friend, and they share so much of our imagination that they become another voice in us, participating in our inner lives. We can see glimmers of ourselves in the oldest stories of gods and monsters.

More importantly, presenting a reader with a character not much different from them, and make them relatable so it allows us to identify with the character, activating our mirror neurons as we see ourselves in them, our failures and struggles are also tied to them.

On the Interpretation of Art, 27 April 2016

On the Interpretation of Art

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, some famous smart person once said. It’s cliché, sure. But it has broad implications in the interpretation of art. If beauty is something amorphous, changing from critic to critic, the same must be true of artists. With the artist seeing one thing, the beholder another, the totality of the image is resolved, with both sides in active union. Before this happens the work is incomplete. You know the fable of the falling tree; if sound is not heard, it is not sound, despite whether or not a tree falls through brush or disturbs the rest of the forest-making plants and animals around it uncomfortable. To a squirrel that lives in that hypothetical tree, it surely makes a sound when it falls and destroys her living room.

The point being, if the artist and the beholder see different things, surely the meaning of what is being seen must be different as well. Readers and patrons to art museums see much different creations than what was seen by the creators of them, and likely inspire different feelings. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, meaning, it must follow, is in the eye of the person contemplating it. People complete the image by their affirmation of its quality. It is the same way artists and poets give us the material to define civilizations.

In a broad sense, an artist can be a painter, a musician, a writer, or a particularly good chef. All creators of work that exhibits the quality of expression are artists. As not all who paint or sing are artists, nor all who write, paint, or make music are artists. It hinges on how art is to be defined, and who is best capable to properly define it.

If the understanding of art is to be left to the artists, then an artist must attempt to define it. I think it’s better to define what art should do, and, rather than define it by description, instead show the effects that a work of art creates and define it by how well those effects are produced – empathy, beauty, understanding. Art, to me, is anything that engages feeling, passion, promotes empathy and demands understanding. It is something that breathes, something that demands to be seen or heard. The moment of realization is usually a painful one, as the easiest way to measure the effect of a work of art is to note when it starts hurting you. When you cry at the death of a favorite character, that hurt you feel is a symptom of experiencing art through empathy and emotion.

The best art is a type of art that shows depth of feeling and passion, something confers upon the reader a new understanding, an appreciation of something new and beautiful. The depth of expression is usually the measure of quality. It’s about emotion, in most cases, but expression isn’t limited to emotion. It runs the gamut of the human experience, from misery to euphoria and everything in between. Confusion isn’t a traditional emotion, but it can be tied to many, and is often the result of emotions in conflict.

Take Picasso’s Guernica, for example: it has the quality of emotional detachment, like looking at a newspaper reproduction of a tragedy. There are so many ideas, so much to see, that it’s easy to be numbed by the sheer noise of it. The technique of echoing or reinforcing a theme is common. With a painting that demands a wandering eye, when you don’t know what to look at, in a sense Picasso takes you to that confusing day in Guernica, experiencing the confusion of war, the smallness, the powerlessness, the horror. (The horror).

guernica_bw

The baying horse, screeching with its neck crooked out of joint, a spear in its chest from which spills indecipherable news columns—a savage critique on journalists who profit by such horror. But there is hope, a candle, soft-light in the soft hands of an angel above Picasso’s pyramid of death. This is in thematic opposition to the electric lightbulb’s imitation light; the electric eye that lights the scene.

To give this painting some context, here is what The University of Wikipedia has to say:
The bombing of Guernica (26 April 1937) was an aerial attack on the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, carried out at the behest of the Spanish nationalist government by its allies, the German air force’s Condor Legion and the Italian Aviazione Legionaria.

Picasso painted scenes he may not have understood, believing the raid to haven taken place at night, for example, but his great gift and innovation was painting material not found in nature, giving more artistic license to indulge the imagination, if only loosely based on life or nature. This is where all great art begins and ends, in the imagination. Its power is measured by how much it works on our emotions from there, working on shaping us into more understanding, sensitive people.

To commit a scene to canvas is in defiance of nature, simply by preserving what is part of constant growth and change. This is a type of hope for the hopeless, that their wounds become a symbol that may move someone to a more humane consideration in the future. It also honors them, giving them a position in the public consciousness: Picasso’s brush does for those who died in Guernica what Antigone did for the honor of her dead brother Polyneices (and by extension, the nobility of death in our own lives) in Sophocles’ best play, Antigone.

Picasso’s mistress took several pictures of Picasso at work on Guernica and the painting becomes more and more confused and less optimistic as it progresses. Earlier drafts showcased a socialist fist thrust upward in defiance. This sense of winning the fight, if only morally, disappeared over time. It seems as though Picasso was being drained as he stood before such incomprehensible brutality. The eyes are tricked to follow those disjointed lines; the lines that lead upward to the consummation of imagination, expression, and technique. Creation, too, is a violent act.

The reception was lukewarm when Geurnica was unveiled at the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne, at the world fair in Paris in 1937. Historically Guernica has been interpreted as an anti-war protest, and many scholars have focused on the light, the electric-eye at the center, as it could be symbolic in a literary sense. The Spanish word for lightbulb is bombilla, similar enough to suggest correlation to bomba, the Spanish word for bomb. The perforation on the palms suggest the stigmata of Jesus, and is a likely homage to Francisco Goya’s 1814 painting The Third of May 1808.

goya

This painting was inspired by the Spanish resistance to Napoleon. Lit by a box lantern at the feet of the firing squad, it lights them from below and casts their expressions in shadow. At the same time, the on-canvas light source illuminates the line-up of riflemen, serving as a gesture, as a means to guide the eye from the muzzle of the rifles into the background. This works towards creating depth of field and breathing room for the characters depicted. Picasso later reworked the painting (to make it more Picasso-y):

korea2

In matters of subjective art, two reasonable questions arise: by what criteria is the quality of someone’s interpretation judged? And, more importantly, it’s a nonsense question with an accidental sort of wisdom. If the author of a painting or a polonaise or waltz intends no meaning at all, is there an objective meaning? Is it even possible?

The type of criticism we have for art are explicable only in individualistic terms, as each person brings their personality, their history, and their culture with them. Sometimes a painting or a song or smell can take you to another place, or bring images and other ideas to the fore of your consciousness, ideas independent of the work. It could be a sort of nostalgia, an effortless remembrance. In this fashion a work of art can become meaningful in a way independent of the artist’s idea and its representation.

Subjectivity means that meaning is not set or definite, a positive aspect of art and its interpretation. This is how we connect the dots we cannot see and, in some cases, may not even be there. It may have a definite meaning to the author, but it is ambiguous to us; and this is what makes art great, this ability to connect to it personally and learn something about ourselves in the process. The interpretation of a work of art often says as much about the critic as it does about the artist. That is instructive, in and of itself.

The Silent Circle, short story – 2 November 2015

There are times in life when all you can do is walk. Arriving home, that’s all that I could do. Just walk, just think, watching ants crawl over the stones that led to the porch. Thinking leads to nothing but trouble and I felt that trouble coming on when I found Bullet asleep in front of the sliding glass door that led into the kitchen. When I stumbled over one of the loose rocks, he roused a bit, grumbled, and licked his gums. Within a minute, he had drifted back into sleep.

     I threw my keys on the kitchen table, locked the sliding glass door, and then prepared Bullet’s food. To fix his food, I normally fill a bowl of dry food and then run water on it, stir it, then spoon each bite into his mouth, rub his throat, to help him swallow it. That night the pantry looked empty, barren in each cabinet and cupboard. His food was gone. The implications made me shudder as I passed into the living room. Grandmother sat in front of the antique television with crocheting needles. Under her breath she conversed with my Grandfather’s portrait on the wall behind her. In the corner a small fire tapered off in the dark, embers faded when the hollow logs burnt and charred. As always the room was stale and close, full of antique cabinets and dresser drawers with antique candelabras atop them. Inside each a dying candle flickered. There was another single candle burner in front of me on the coffee table, making my grandmother look like a frail, skeleton type figure, a flower on the day before winter.

     “Where’s Bullet’s food, grandmother?” I asked. “I’m about to go to sleep and I thought I’d feed him first. He seems quite fond of food.”

     “I done threw all that food away boy,” she said. “Can’t ya see the poor old dog is sufferin’? I don’t want him to suffer no more. Tomorrow we takin’ him to town to the vet so they can put him down. He won’t suffer no more.”

     The twinge, that needled type of numb feeling, went through my arms, my chest. I sat on the couch opposite of her, beyond the reach of the fireplace’s last embers. “So,” I mumbled, “you’re going to murder your dog? What good will that do? That won’t end his suffering; it will end yours. What’s it going to help to have him killed? There might be some more food in the pantry. I’ll find something for him.”

     “We gone have him cremated,” she said, nodding. “After we put him to sleep, that is. We picked him out one of them bottles too, those gold bottles. He’s gone be so pretty in his new bottle. It’s made out of gold.”

     “Why do you soften the language like that?” I asked. “You’re not going to ‘put him to sleep’ and ‘have him cremated.’ You’re going to murder him and then you’re going to set him on fire. Does it sound as humane when you use the right language? It’s not fair. Let nature run its course.”

     “They have some kind of special at the vet,” she said. “If you put two animals to sleep, you get a discount on the third. Ain’t that a good deal?”

     “I’m not even going to reply to that shit.”

     “I was readin’ some letters ya father sent me from across the ocean,” she said after a brief pause. “They all from your daddy. Never any from your mama, though. She sure was a pretty woman. Look,” she raised her bony finger to point across the room to a dresser on which a leather bundle rested. “Some of the letters your daddy sent. He sure was proud of you.”

     “When are you taking Bullet to the vet?” I asked.

     “Sometime after supper, I suppose,” grandma answered. “After I get my hair done.”

     “I have to go into town tomorrow for some groceries and notebook for school before it starts. I can drop him off on my way. He can ride in the camper on the back of my truck. That way you won’t have to go out in the cold.”

     “That ‘a be fine, I reckon. But you best go to sleep tonight, Roger. School ‘a start soon, and if you don’t get some rest how you gone be able to get them kinda grades your daddy knew you could get? He always said you was a smart boy, smart as a whip. Your grandpa was smart too. So was your daddy. He had a lot of problems, but he did love you. After the accident with your mama, his mind started going. Understand what I’m saying?”

     “Understand?” I laughed. “He was cruel to me and he got what he deserved. If my mother hadn’t done it, I would’ve done it myself. I wish none of this would have happened because my mother had to suffer for the crimes of someone else. I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay there forever.”

     “It broke his heart to leave you, Roger. It broke that old man’s heart. His mind was going. It started when his father died, and being in that war, getting in that land mine accident, and all of that sure made it worse. But once your mama shot that girl, he knew he had to leave. At the time he thought it was best for you. It broke his heart when he saw your mama with that rope around her neck.”

     “What do you mean?” I asked. “He didn’t leave! You think he would abandon me just to hang out with his fishing buddies? Am I that big of a disappointment or a let down? He got what he deserved. He wouldn’t just abandon me; he enjoyed being cruel to me, but he would never have left me like that. He didn’t disappear. Not with a woman, a man, nothing. He got what he deserved.”

     Grandmother shrugged and then nodded off to sleep. Snatching the bundle of letters, I grabbed Bullet’s collar. After getting his food down, I went to the front door with him behind me, wobbling on his last legs, panting as he hobbled along. I lugged him into the camper of my truck. I mixed some more food, what little I had in my truck, and spoon fed small mouthfuls into his toothless gape. He gummed it down as I rubbed his wrinkled neck to help him swallow. I wiped the food off his mouth, dislodging a little that had sprinkled into his whiskers. He went to sleep in the back of the truck, having been fed, and I crawled through the camper into the front seat. By the time we reached the end of the road, Bullet was snoring loudly in the backseat. With a flick of a small control panel, the silence disappeared, replaced by the tranquil sounds of Schubert.

     At the end of the turnaround, I parked my truck near a path that led to a small river. I helped Bullet out of the back, saying, “Come on, man. Just a little ways to go now.” Placing him on the ground, I closed the camper. I connected his leash and collar. His wrinkles looked thicker than they had in the glow of my headlights, his limpid eyes a glowing flicker in which the headlights reflected a tiny spark. His legs wobbled as I led him behind me, to the center of the gravel circle. The end of the road was a barren circle of gravel, covered in empty packs of cigarettes, torn slips of paper, beer bottles, and papers that drifted in silent circles with the wind. A thick forest surrounded the turnaround. Off to the right a trail to a small pond tapered into the high grass, and beyond the trees I heard the trickling sounds of water, calm as the mind of Buddha when Mara approached him deep inside his mind. I went through all of my studies in Buddhism, in an attempt to ‘take out the poisoned arrow’ as Buddha once put it to the intellectual Malunkyaputra. But as the dog walked on, breathing heavy and too tired, the arrow twitched inside my chest.

     “Come on,” I urged. “Please. You just have to walk a little bit. It’s not too far now. They want to set you on fire, buddy. I’m not going to let them do that. I respect you, buddy. You don’t deserve to die.”

     With the song that I had hummed for my mother, when our outstretched fingers touched in the hallway of that Syrian prison, I rubbed his fleshy pink stomach. It had helped in the past, to numb, not to deal, but to tolerate the laws of life and nature. It was failing, and I knew it; not even the songs of Galilee could help me leave a dog to die in the woods alone. In my head, the same familiar procession of broken images came and went, my cats, my birds, my mother, and my father, in a continuous procession of dim shapes, like shadows behind a dingy glass, small at the end and beginning of each procession, but high up on the wall in the middle, coming into focus.

     Bullet fell to his stomach, closed his eyes, and I knelt beside him in the loose gravel. Puffs of dust roused as he breathed against the dirt. I sat his food bowl in front of his wrinkled face. His eyes remained closed as I went to get another bowl for water along with his bag of food. With the bowl of water full, filled with some tap water I’d brought in a bottle, I sat beside him again. His hind legs twitched a bit. His spotted head with isolated tufts of hair lilted as he rolled onto his back, as though to stare up to the stars. For a moment I remained there with him, pointing out constellations in the sky to him, telling him about the history of the universe as revealed by man. I spent half an hour comforting him on his death, on the meaning of his limited life, but it seemed as though I was never trying to convince him. It seemed as though I was trying to convince myself. And I failed, as I had before, to make sense of anything. With that lump in my chest, I left him there, in the middle of the turnaround, and went back to my truck.

     I sat there for a moment with my eyes transfixed on Bullet’s red figure, glowing in the glare of my dull brake lights. Inside the car, the hum of the engine pulsed under the seat. Other than that, it was silent, and I sat there in the dark with Bullet’s dying body behind me, glowing red in the glare. After an hour of sitting there, in constant torment, I left him there. Alone in the sand, cold, and hungry as I had been for so long in Galilee. The same tufts of smoke gathered around his nostrils as he struggled to breathe, took heavy breaths, then rolled onto his back again for one last look up to the stars, the likes of which he’d never see again, a beauty that would disappear for him forever. Did he ever know what sucked the energy from him and made his legs lame and lazy, that which turned his bones to dust? He would never know he lived. He’d never know the feeling of being again. That saddened me more than anything, I think; I realized that he would never even know he lived. That’s what hurt the most. It’s not fair; I remember thinking, parked at the end of the dirt road. I pictured the little glow in Bullet’s eyes, and in my mind, even then, I gleamed what it would be that I would dedicate my life to. My mind strayed forward to a time when I too began to become frail, to wither, to see the same winter that the flowers see before they fade. I thought to when I’d take the same lonely walk that Bullet would take to the stream and underbrush before he died, if he made it through the woods at all.

     I never went back to that road, probably because I feared I’d see Nature’s Garbage Men on the scene, waiting for their chance to eat, as they had for Casey, as they had for my father. Bullet never knew what took him from this world, but I thought then it was not the hand of god, but the invisible hands of time, the hours. The hours took him. That was a scary thought, to me as a young man, to think of time as such a heartless killer.

     How much had the hours taken? I wondered. Sammy, mother, father, Entae, Hiroshima, Pompeii, Julius Caesar, and the other countless billion ghosts that now inhabited the earth. Those same hours had me by the throat, dragging me from one place to another regardless of how much dust I kicked up. There was no control, no antidote, no way to sever the leash on which we’re taken to the landfill, where everything else is taken to the past, the boulevard of bones and broken images. How much had they taken? The hours like giant dump trucks, lugging everything to landfills of years of wars and dead presidents, the renaissance, the revolutions, and all the deaths and guillotines and tyrants, leaders who in the end rest with the commoners beneath the surface of the Earth. They take emperors and peasants, all to the same place. Together in the end, time does not discriminate.

     On the way home, as the dark trees that lined those roads swept by, I saw myself as Bullet, on all fours, crawling around in a puddle of dirt and dust, toothless, walking in circles, just waiting around to die. What else was there? My chest went cold. I filled my pipe again, as I had grown accustomed to doing, with the gun firmly in my mouth. Those blacktopped roads were lonely that night, and the only pedestrians of night that came out were solitary deer that sometimes fledged the lip of the roads before going back into the woods. The roads and trees kept me company along with streetlights and disconnected telephone cables that hovered above the trees. A disk of classical guitar music forced that terrible silence out. Nothing is more terrible than the infinite sound of silence. Human life is temporary, but silence lasts forever.

     When I walked into the attic, to put Bullet’s collar away for good, I ran across a pile of paintings, all of them my own, snacked in neat order and preserved by a thin film. A fish bowl sat on top of them, with stagnant water in it. An address had been scribbled on the under side of it in a thick black marker. I wondered what it was for, if it was for anything.

The Devil’s Projector, short story – 1 November 2015

This short is taken from Act II of The Chameleon Mirror, The Thief of Thursday.

A group of men and women in sharp business suits sat in semi-circle round a dusty old computer. All-star black. I sit at the head of the table and a man to my right introduces himself and the rest of the group. There’s a television at the end of the table opposite to me. The eldest man on the left stood beside the AV setup, and ran a clip. Static filled the screen then freckles of white skin appeared then light hair curled, then a white shirt and dress, white socks and shoes. A tennis-racket tea-set popped into view and Willow, sweet Willow, an imaginary friend they said. But kind and her hair was white and stringy. Old Willow miss Willow was with’ring steadfast waving like the others blades of fluff among the mast. She went away, this friend, now renting a spot in my heart and imagination.

 There’s no freak genius just some demons that speak English, target evangelical snakeslingers in four seasons for four reasons snapping snakes stealing souls and they say,

AMEN.

            Hallelujah!

 I pulled out of the tape. That’s what it was. A media device, a recording, a moment at Moncrief, no was it An’mien? And the old man said,  “Accept or take another?”  The others looked at me.

            I looked up and down and the iron frowns returned like stone.

            Monotone,

 “You can make a choice to take one moment into the lord’s paradise, or take all memory, all moments, and entire the world of fire.’  “Another,” the man beside the screen said.

 I felt him say Amen? Ahm-myeen, his name. I’d never heard a name like that.  The screen pans back from the nose of a dog, and my sister is in diapers patting him on the head, old Traveler. A collie with a mane of white, a prize to be sure. And his eyes. The light amber brown touched orange burst into focus like a little sun the size of a ladybug.

            Mama?

            Yes Renny, miss bo, what are you doing?

            She walked through the TV into the room, in that red kimona.

            Let me look at you.

 She turned my eyes to hers those almond browns and looked into mine. She smiled. My Wenny, my Lenny, miss bo! My how you’ve grown! You think your hair is short enough? She smiled and thumped me on the head. Then placed her hand on the side of my cheek. I don’t care what your father says. It looks great. You look wonderful miss Bo, Mrs Brisbois!

 I snapped out of it realizing that somehow I had been into the screen. They let me know, if I didn’t choose one thought or memory or idea that is meant for me could potentially trap me like a genie in a bottle here, inside that screen, stuck in a memory that happened to keep me from slipping out. Each tape they played, it had a song. Bang bang, you shot me all along! My father played the piano, wrote poems and violins. I sat on his lap and he listen here, this is how we’ll us both, Mama too, we’ll sneak off into heaven and take the thief Lain when we do!

 Listen, father said. They may never bring it up. You’re my daughter, a Brisbois like my son. Your mother is difficult, you know. She’s so lovely, so lovely and I love her, but she has a more, strict set of social codes. You know? Don’t keep me here!

 I was back in the seat. The tears swelling in my eyes. Surprisingly, I’d been in the rest of that scene, and how hard it was to stay there as I lived to hear him say it. And it dinged off inside the room, making it impossible to flee.

 Your mother thinks that since we weren’t married proper, that they’d deny you that theatre. Well, we’re not barbarians, and honor can be here won by women and men, bastards and bastard kings. Don’t ever think that since these Greeks couldn’t claim their daughter she’s put as special as you are my bo, Lenny my star. Don’t believe them, not ever that, you’re less because you’re this or that. I tried to strain to pull away but the glass around me kept me in and for the first time in that world I could tell it was a light-show ran by little men, shaped so roundly paper-thin. The words were falling down the screen, through which those who held me must have seen.

 This world is as much yours as mine. Renette, Renette! If you’re ever anyone’s be theirs by your choices. For university to Scottish pubs. Demand and earn respect and it’s yours. Your mother has a different way, you know. Because you’re so so pretty little Bo. But you’re more than pretty. You’re my viking girl. And you’ll be Frey in the Christmas play, and Loki he’ll fall mad for you.

 And there was Lain outside the screen. Hundreds of feet tall so it seemed. Looking at me as the words crawled up the wall in waltzing spirals to the beat of an automatic clock set on repeat. I jumped from one word curious, to another frightened, breathless, overwhelmed and rest.

            Outside the screen again, the people looked to me,

            “Choose,” they said, “One memory. One for heaven, hell for three.”

            I asked by impulse, “What about all?”        “This room, this here?”

            A man with a dignified voice said.

 “This place is between two others, you know by the wrong name. One requires you let go, and so pain goes along. The other lets you keep your pain with your forever alone.”

            “And if I stayed here?”

            The choir gasped, each one except that same man.           “Don’t you know where you are, my Bo?”              She knew as soon as he called her Bo.

            “Brisbois,” he said. “My Joan of Arc. Empress of Arcadia, Queen of the Isles and March.”

 The others had left and with that man, the well-dressed older fellow running these scenes he threw on the screen behind his fingers like playing cards. The thought, I thought, that we’ll all die, it vexes us sometimes in life. For some more so than someone else. It’s still more near a nightmare than a dream to realize you’re in Hell, and getting out requires a choice: To take the anguish and the noise, but every photo ever done, every memory, everyone. Lain and Cammy, Russeau and Jon, my mother, Yes! Mme Nanty… It’s time for you to go on.

            The second tape

I was pulled into the screen. I was dressed up dressed like Cleopatra. I must’ve been 9. In America, it was fun. That’s where I met Lain. He was a big fish in a small pond and we walked around the neighborhood. It must have been 99, maybe. His half-brother Gilbert, four years younger, had been in an accident and he was at that dumb parade. This was a small town, where Lain came from. Every year they had a carnival. Setup like a cheap and temporary fair. A tilt-a-whirl, and gravity pulled him against me on that ride with Maddie. He was in central park I think it was during lunch. I watched him playing chess as I walked up. Nobody was there. So I asked if I could play when he finished. Yes, he said. I’m done. Do you want to go first?

 He looked at me. Lain, god fucking fogasfk. You lose them. We lose them all. What picture do you take then, if to preserve yourself at the expense of all else? Defeat it. Change that. Make them immortal somehow.

 The man smiled in a unique way, seeing her self as her body turned grey. I was behind the scene then, lifted up, drained into the background as I watched them in a cup. “Choose one memory, go up; or take all with you down.”  Another choice, the voice whose owner I had been.

            The man, that demon, that angel, whatever he was, smiled again. He loved her it seemed. And it was unique. He spoke with warmth, while once so cold, distant but now closer.

 “A third choice?” he smiled. “Only for you, my Bo. You can stay here with me, and watch the show. You don’t have to take one, not for heaven, nor purgatory with all, stay in hell where you belong.”

            But I can watch these tapes? I said. Much more confident was I in death.

 “With me, you can watch for eternity. You can go inside that dream machine. I’ll be here by the setup here, as new clients come and finally clear, you can come back into this

little room, I’ll join you in the afternoon. I’ll leave the tapes beside your bed.”

            “I want each scene of me and Dad.”

            “Okay,” the friendly devil said. He’s not as bad as you’d think.

 A moment passed. He saw that then, I wanted to see the screen. My dad again, he threw the card. It stuck to the glassware then a wire brought the sound out of a fiddle. The devil went down to Georgia!”  Did you get his soul?

            The devil said, “You may not know,

            “I may have lost that sole, that one show,     But I met him again fifty years on,         He chose the banjo and moved on.       He took that memory with him,       Into the highest highs of H’en.

            “Do some take all to purgatory?”

 “The poets,” said he, “Romantics that have somehow turned it upside down and made the smiley face a frown. I thought you would, you’d take them all, and suffer with them, forever, just to hold onto a boxful of ghosts.”

 Renette had stopped listening to him talk He’s – he’s I came to myself. The devil has a dark side like everyone else. As for Renette’s, she made a gamble on the bet that the devil, if indeed he were, had thought of no such thing as mirth. Each time he laughed he weakened; Renette didn’t need the treats above, with a digital scrapbook and the world; in her way it was the greatest thing she thought a man or anyone could in the most unlikely dreams: she tricked the devil with the magic word and made him say please. And when he realized the lies, the deceit, he laughed to know that he’d been beat.

 I heard the snap of fingers. He stood before me then. Behind him was a whirling hurricane, hurrying towards a wall of flame. The devil bellowed (yellow!)

            Lane!

 Oh dear, I felt it in my bones. And bones he was and strung along. Whispy, thin as a sheet of paper, and he’d written on it in his blood. Even in hell, misunderstood; he could spell and work but just as good, a suicide floated in the woods and woods he liked; he’d been without them all his life. He floated down and saw me, frowning – more sorrowful than man I’d seen in hell while I’d descend. Leaving the video room again.

 I walked into fire expecting flame but found instead more a cool lake, the embers more like little eddys scribbled in and golden, electric to the touch. I could tell however, despite how heavenly my Hell, Lain looked like Hell in his.

            Lane said, go into the TV, meet me there. I’ll get you out of here and we’ll go South.

            Why not to heaven?

            I know a cooler place.

            “Where is cooler than heaven?”

            “I don’t know, your place?”

            “My place is a mess!”

            “It’s better than hell.”

            The Devil changed the TV channel.

 The props rose behind a cabin, a wooden shed. A boat was in there, and a young boy was washing one side of it. It was filthy; he’d covered it in swaths of paint. Hypnosis, madame butterfly was on. Lain, sweet Lain. He’s about 15 hear, and he has that stupid hair-cut but he’s tall. Thinks he’s the smartest man in the world. He crosses his eyes just to make me laugh and ruins such a good photo of him. I can hear him talk, his voice picking different accents. He chewed on words when he got nervous.

            I’m Renette! I said.

            You are French? He asked. We’d never met.        Yes, I say. I couldn’t help but laugh.

            Before I could respond he’d asked,            ‘What’s your last name, hyphens?’             ‘Renette Brisbois,’ I say.

            “Nice to meet you M Brisbois,” in that accent. Articulate devil, even then.

            “And you Monsieur …?”

            “Lain.”

            “Alain…” I fidgeted. Fuck!

            ‘Yes, I go by Lane. Charles is my first name. Charles Pinon.”

            “Would you rather me call you Lane or Charles?”

            “Whichever you’d like, mademoiselle.”

            “Okay then,” squeak squeak. “What do you do for fun?”

            “I write.”

            “I write too!”

            And we were friends. All writers I think are friends, even when they hate each other.   ‘Where does Brisbois come from?’ he asked. ‘Is it a family name?’

 ‘No,’ I said. ‘It was a chosen name my mother used to hide my parentage from her husband.’ I wanted to cry. No bastard’s happy to be one.

            ‘Did you know your dad?’

            ‘Just from dreams. You?’

            ‘From my stories.”

            “Oh, these stories again…’ I was out of my mind!  ‘Would you like me to tell you a story?’  It’s weird to be intimidated by a child.

            ‘Sure,’ I said. I felt like an idiot.        ‘You’re fine,’ he said. ‘I’d love to.’        ‘Okay,’ so silly.

            ‘What kind of story would you like to hear?’

            ‘A true story!’

            ‘About?’

            ‘Tell me about the last woman you loved.”

 He seemed shocked. Not unawares, but surprised I’d said it. His smile turned into a happier expression. ‘I’d love to,’ he says. ‘Enjoy.’

 ‘Once in Istanbul a mother named Terrha gave birth to a conjoined set of twins. Siamese twins, some call them. The child was unique and beautiful, two girls—two girl heads, that is. Sersia controlled everything, and Lera felt everything, the prick of needles, the warmth of Sersia’s body, but she could not move, not a single hand, and so her head traveled around Sersia’s body, at the whim of what she chose.

 She chose to bash a sailor’s brains in with an old Clam shell. The conjoined head screams for her to stop. The adrenaline shoots through her skin but she can’t make the body stop destroying that sailor’s face. And we were arrested. She asked me to lie, to say he tried to take her by force. But she wouldn’t. So they go to court and Sersia pleaded not guilty, but her sister, though innocent, pleaded guilty. The jury was left to the decide to question: is it worse to let go one murderer to preserve the life of the innocent or punish a crime at the expense of the innocent and by that commit a crime against the innocent?  The jury came back unanimous.   You are the jury. Work this out.”  What a strange child!

            “Is there a right answer?” I asked.               “Yes,” he said.     “Ethically?”

            “Scientifically.”

 He never told me. He said some questions are really answers to an unspoken question posed by the Earth, curious about itself.

            “Tell me one of your stories,” he said.

            “I don’t write stories,” I said. “Just poems.”

            “Can I hear one?”

            “Sure,” confident? Nailed it.

            Nothing lasts forever

Long live the Queen! or not …

Each daughter did their duty

Raising their siblings, all Cindarellas,

No offspring of their own;

At their core, in every child, Was a desire for the throne.

So when the queen was found,

Asleep,

Dead on her satin pillow,

The Royal Guard was pulled apart,

And Regicide! Declared …

Executed were the guardians Each one that wasn’t there.

And so each dreaming Cindarella,

One by one,

Was prepared for the chair.

The peasants and the people of the kingdom weren’t told

That queen Muriel, beloved by young and old,

Had been found without her crown

Her skin already cold, And each day the same parade The same charade portrayed:

A daughter in disguise was taken by The road most taken by the Queen

By the gardens and the markets

She waved from her dark veil

How sweet it was, thought Elanore,

To be so loved, adored;

Each blessing and each tailored

Dressing

Warmed her to the thought:

That the veil may fall, it fell;

And so she took the throne.

Seeing this new Queen, her being, So young and before unseen,

The peasants riot in the streets.

Elanore burned in effigy,

From sea to sea,

From caves and towns, The hecklers in the streets demanded Elanore renounce the crown.

So her retinue of guards

And staff of sycophants,

Prepped an announcement disavowing Any desire to remain:

Though Elanore refused, and more,

Had each traitor slain;

First her guards and then her brothers,

Then her sisters, so becoming, More feared than loved but, It’s enough:

More like her mother she’d become.  Rebellions rose, and frequently
She made examples in the street: Executions, martyrdom;

Baptizing heathens in their blood.

Each shadow she thought had a plan,

Each whispering servant, each stage-hand, All she thought had the desire,
To see her overthrown:
She’d take them with her,
Each advisor:

Would burn like them all
The Fire:

It starts with the smallest town,

And spread without control

Unbound

Through cities and forests like driftwood

Razed

Until Elanore herself went out
Like so many in the flame.

The Obituary Writer – short, 11 September 2015

I Death in Isla Wor

My first paying job after finishing school was writing a sports column for the town newspaper, a town of less than a thousand people, Isla Wor. The games were of no consequence in the world but very important to our little town; it brought everyone together, and when my poor nephew died, a tight-end on the little league football team, the community rallied round our family. Since I wrote about sports, when my poor, dear Alex died, I wrote it up in my column. It did really well, the paper sales; and there was more interest in my work. When no one died, I’d fabricate it just to keep the momentum of my work going. I was the obituary writer. I was proud of that.

Knock-knock.

I was formally offered the position to curate the obituary column after my successes, and it was all good and fun. People started noticing me in public, talking to me about my work, my other work, work I was more proud of, and it was a nice feeling, when people care about you and your work, about who you are. I wrote more, more eulogies than obituaries, more and more, more dramatic, more poetic. It got so popular I was writing an obituary a day, sometimes more, and grew more and more detached from the people; but when it was with old media, with the real newspaper, it was still impossible to distance myself completely.

I got personal requests, too, and got paid for each. I named the price. It was cynical, and depressing, but that’s work. Knock-knock. It changed, to an extent, when I wrote the obituary for the son of a prominent town official, and the only doctor in that small town, Dr. Eddie Redding, the eulogy being for his oldest son, Marcus, whom I knew, but poorly, despite knowing his younger brother William, who was closer to my age. The paper ran it and it sold more copies than any paper in the company’s history; and from such popular success, the boy’s father reached out to me, first to my aunt, then to me personally through email. He invited me to a diner on a Sunday afternoon.

I was intentionally early, uncomfortable as it was. Knock-knock. The reason for my work, by then, had bothered me. Of course it bothered me! Everybody hates their job, or at least some part of it. It was just a job, just business. I knew what I did. I wasn’t proud of it. No, that is a lie; I was extremely proud it.

He showed up in a modest suit, no blazer, no tie; button-up shirt, tucked in, a leather belt, no buckle. I stood to welcome him, extending my hand. He shook it effusively;

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Nobles!” he said. “Did you find the place all right?”

“Yes sir,” I said. “I took a cab.”

“That’s fine,” he said. “That’s fine indeed. Yes, very well. Sit down, please.”

He was a kind man, I could see it on his face, and warm hearted, the creases on the sides of his lip betrayed a man of many strained, false smiles. A doctor, that is.

“Would you like something to drink? Some coffee?”

“If you’re having some, I will, sure.”

He stood and approached the counter. I took my valise out of my satchel. A moment later he returned.

“She’ll be over in a minute to take our order,” he said. “So, where did you go to school? Did you go to high school here?”

“Oh, yes sir. I was in English IV with your son, with Marcus. He was a few years older than me, class of ’03. But I knew his little brother Will a lot better. We skateboarded before I went off to college.”

“Did you always want to be a writer?”

“I think I did,” I said. “I went to a childcare center until I was five, when I was adopted, and I remember story time the most. It was the best part of the day, the only fun I had. I was taught to read, and I went on to read the dictionary back and front. I started copying all the words that rhymed and then started making little lists of rhyming words. I liked Dr Seuss and copied his work quite a bit, learning the rhythm of it. And when I was adopted, my adoptive mother and father adopted another young boy, my little brother Christopher, and he’d call out words to me and I’d name all the words I could that rhymed with it. When I got into trouble at school, they punished me by making me copy out of the dictionary; my punishment might have helped me more than the schooling.”

He laughed a hearty laugh.

A young woman approached the table.

“How can I help you fellas today?”

“I’d like a BLT, a large iced tea,” he said. He thumbed the menu. “And a small salad.” He folded it and put it back on the table.

She looked at me. “And you?”

“Can you get me a cappuccino?” I asked. “Vanilla, if possible.”

“We can sure try,” she said with a smile. A lovely young lady, “Large, medium, small?”

“Large,” I said.

She wrote the answers on a small legal pad in hurried, slanting letters. Left handed!

“Thank you,” she said. “I’ll take that.”

She took our laminated plastic menus, folding them under her arm.

“I’ll be back with your order as soon as possible.”

“Thank you,” I said, and Dr. Redding: “Thank you very much.”

She walked away. After a short but rather comfortable silence he turned to face me again.

“Well,” he said, “your punishment seems to have reformed you!”

“I’m sure it has,” I said.

The waitress brought Dr. Redding his iced tea, then a moment later my cappuccino.

“We’ll be over with your sandwich soon,” she said.

He took the glass of tea and thanked her.

“So what was Marcus like?” I asked. “I knew his brother well, but didn’t really get to know him.”

“He wanted to…”

The waitress came over with his sandwich on a serving tray, along with his salad. He grabbed the salad first, then the sandwich, and finally some napkins.

“Are you sure you’re not hungry?” he asked.

“I’m fine, thanks.”

He turned to face our waitress.

“Thank you very much,” he said.

“No problem!” she said. “Now, if you fellas need anything else, just give me a holler.”

“We sure will, thanks,” he said.

She walked away.

He took a sip of his iced tea, popped the plastic top off his salad, and unwrapped his sandwich.

“As I was saying,” he said after a bite of salad, “he wanted to be an engineer. He liked working on cars, but he never finished college, quitting after he started working at Nichols’ Tire.”

“That’s that body shop across the river, right?”

“That’s the one!” he said. “And the money was okay for the work, and having to take care of Leslie, his daughter, kept him showing up.”

I was silent. Didn’t know what to say; to admit I’d somewhat faked the obituary, the whole eulogy being a platitudinous exhortation of your most common, most stereotypical ‘live life to the fullest’ excrete. Knock-knock! That’s when it started, the knocking; in my temples first, it spread, following me to my home, then into my dreams.

“So,” he said, wiping his mouth with a napkin, having finished his small salad. “Do you work for the paper full time?”

“Well, I covered sports and town events first, then I wrote a eulogy for my nephew and put it on the internet. It got really popular and the newspaper got a lot of exposure. One of the editors for the newspaper saw it and asked me to take over the column permanently.”

“You do all the obituaries?”

“Yes sir. Every Wednesday. Well, that’s when we get in the information, from hospitals, from the internet, social media. Facebook, Twitter; we have people from the paper who overlook the messages from town residents, keeping up-to-date on the elderly and sick, scouring for updates to get a jump on the story…”

Later I would be sick in thinking back on this conversation, speaking so casually about what must have still been an open wound for that nice old man. Not an old man, not really, early to mid-50’s. I prattled on:

“I start the eulogy on Wednesday, with the goal to run it in the Sunday paper. Sometimes something will come in later in the week and it’s a little more rushed.”

Knock-knock!

He ate his sandwich as we talked, mouth closed when he chewed. Very proper, pausing occasionally to dab his mouth with napkins. His interest seemed genuine, and that’s an intoxicating feeling, that feeling of being good at your job, to believe you’re doing something good, something important; that’s how I dealt with it, how I justified the profession to myself each new night when a name came in with a number beside it.

“I’d much rather get into the business of writing fiction, or at least get some of my finished books and essays published. It’s a passion of mine, much more so than my job.”

A nervous laugh: “I don’t want to be ‘the obituary writer’.”

“What are you working on now?”

“Well, I’d like to write something about theatre. But I’m… I don’t know enough about how it all works, I don’t know enough I don’t think; you know, to do it properly.”

“Don’t be hard on yourself,” he said. “”You’ll figure it out!”

“Yes sir,” I said. “Thank you, sir.”

Knock-knock.

“Do you keep all your work in that?” he gestured to my leather valise; it was a professional suitcase, a type of folder with a metal 3-ring binder along the spine, assorted compartments, two protected by zippers, and another slot for a larger, 8×12 legal pad, another compartment on the outside – for academic work, my studies in art and literature. The binder was reserved for current fiction projects, the legal pad for work, for obituaries and eulogies for my ever-expanding, ever-popular column. I kept my completed, hand-written work in one of the zippered compartments.

“Yes sir,” I said.

I dug around in one of the compartments for a moment until I found the original copy of his son’s eulogy and handed it to him. He took into his hands gently, almost lovingly, as though he held some relic of his son, if not his son outright. He called the waitress over again.

I took my wallet out. He waived it away. I relented, not wanting to be that guy. Instead I took laptop from my satchel and sat it on the table in front of me as he paid.

“Can I get a refill and a to-go cup for this?” he asked.

“Sure can!” the waitress said. She returned presently with a Styrofoam cup with a plastic cap that snapped in place, hole in the center for a straw.

“So,” he said. “What do you have lined up for today?”

I saw that he had a $100 bill between his fingers, folded.

“Ah, I don’t know. Stay here and see if I can get some work done!”

“Your book on theatre maybe?” he said. Such a warm hearted man, he smiled.

Something like that,” I said. I smiled too.

“I’m sure you’ll get it right. Just don’t be hard on yourself. Maybe you’ll have me to dinner when you’ve finally written that book of yours.”

“That sounds good to me,” I said. “It might be a while.”

“A while I’ve got,” he said. “At least, so I hope. I guess you never know. … I’m sure you know that better than most.”

He had remained friendly and light, speaking with levity, no hint of any great weight on his shoulders, the great weight of death, no hint of that on his face.

“Here,” he said. He offered me the $100 bill, a crisp new note.

“I can’t take that,” I said. “I didn’t do it for money, despite that being my job; I did that one because I cared about your son.”

“I know, I know,” he said. “But I’m going to leave it here anyway, so if you don’t take it, it’ll just be lost.”

I took it from his extended hand with a sense of embarrassment, almost shame.

“Don’t spend it all on coffee,” he said. “You might want a new briefcase someday.”

I laughed it off, still uncomfortable with the money.

“I guess it is kind of worn out,” I said, laying it out wide-open to where I’d left off. Ashes everywhere, covering the surface, the leather covered in white scuff marks.

“Have a good day, Mr. Nobles.”

He took a sip of his iced tea through a straw.

“I will sir. Thank you, sir.”

“Good-day!”

He walked away, out the door. It clanged the enter/exit bells, a gentle bing-bong! like metal wind-chimes.

Be careful what you wish for

          (Cause you just might get it)
2 Electric Purgatory 

I stayed at the paper until it went out of distribution in 2012, when I was 28, having worked there for 5 years; but it spread to the internet, infernal machines, miasma of labyrinthine metal snakes with open mouths all sucking data or spitting it out, a confused Ouroboros already drunk but still drinking; my obituaries were broadcast worldwide. The newspaper ceased to exist in meatspace, in old media, becoming digital; the circulation possibilities increased beyond what anyone had thought possible in the early days, covering pointless, minor skirmishes between middling sports teams in the little town of Isla Wor. That stopped being important in the digital world, and the obituary column enhanced my reputation even further; I was finally able to do my theatre piece.

This success, the string of warm feedback and heartfelt thank yous, I imagined, might have been due in part to my over-wrought, faux-dramatic, faux-inspirational style of obituary: it was sermonizing, shameless masturbatory kitsch in arts’ clothes, all false, all hollow, paper houses gone digital. I had a high opinion of myself. The machine brought hundreds of names and numbers a day, deaths and dates, Daniel 22, Susan 17; and the more popular I got, the more famous would my fortunate unfortunate subjects become; musicians, then small-time movie stars, spreading through satellites to phones and tablets, the same hollow pronouncements of the obituary writer. A title I would not only hate, but resent, as the world knew me only as such, and most certainly of what I’d done to earn such a moniker.

As my popularity grew, young kids would find my house an amusing place for practical jokes. Practical joke is a kind word; they wanted to drive me out of town, to drive me mad; I was a bad omen, they thought, as death followed fast behind me, and in my trail were tears and terrible writing, the saddest parade. The knocking on the doors and running away, that bothered me the worst; it happened late at night when I did most of my work. It’s a tradition, at least where I’m from, to knock on someone’s door or ring their doorbell and run away. The satisfaction being that you inconvenienced someone, and as a child, that feels, man, just wonderful.

But it never stopped.

I tried to back away, to make it a colder process, so it’d be easier to handle. I was drinking, taking sleeping pills, drinking a lot actually. Surely much more than was healthy. I set to studying theatre, its origins and traditions; how they worked, how a character would make changes to the sets. I ran the column still, but I didn’t interact with the bereaved personally anymore; I’d get alerts on my computer, email alerts, with new deaths: the names and numbers selected at random using an algorithm written by an intern to select the most profitable, most tragic deaths, those that best played heartstrings–all for more traffic to the website, the digital mausoleum, electric purgatory: young and under 30, teenage girls in love, with a few kids maybe, single men.

It was easy to do the practical part of the job, as easy as it could be to write it up. I didn’t know anything else: names and ages, over and over and over. At the height of my popularity, I’d write five to ten eulogies a week for my column, and it had become much more than what it started out as, adjunct to a newspaper; it was separate now and distinct, and more successful for it. I eventually made out a form to expedite the process further:

[Name] died on [date] in a [cause of death here] when [what to blame] caused [what happened] [gender] to [mistake description]. [Gender noun] is survived by [mother and father, wife and/or kids if alive]. [Gender noun] was [age].

Example:

TRAGEDY ON I-76: MOTHER OF 2 DEAD
Sarah Harding died this Wednesday in a freak car accident when a deer ran out in front of her car on New Egypt Rd. She is survived by Mr. and Mrs. Gary Harding and had two daughters, Lisa and Tammy. She was 34.

But that’d never fly in my column, no, no, no. It had to be dramatic, life-affirming, death-denying. So I set about writing it properly:  

          The lovely Sarah Harding, former cheerleader and passionate journalist, was taken from our poor town in a tragic car accident early Monday morning. Her parents received the call from a stranger, only to be told their beautiful daughter, 34, was dead, and they would bear the burden of telling Sarah’s two young children of her death. Lisa was 5 years old, a pre-school student at the Master’s Baptist Daycare, she loves coloring and singing. Her older sister Tammy, a 12 year old 6th grader and Carver Middle School, plays t-ball for the Isla Wor Wolverines and is in the chess club. I can say, in confidence, that she will be missed by all.

          The knocking at my door!

I flung my papers aside, knocking over a candle. Thankfully it went out. I tied my housecoat and stalked off to the door, cursing and shouting. This is beyond a joke! I yelled. The hallways were dark and derelict. Tables stood with disheveled stacks of unedited pages, existing solely to bear the weight of unfinished work to never be finished.

I flung open the door. Darkness there, a wisp of wind, no middling kids with suspicious paper bags. I stamped off to my study, furious. It kept on and on, this pestilential taunting; always late at night, always while I was busy. It would be redundant, perhaps, to say no one interrupts you unless you’re working! But, like the old saying of New York City: “Nobody drives; there’s too much traffic.”

Knock-knock!

I went on to knock out mock-obituaries in my spare time, more often than not I’d only have to change the names, the pronouns, the setting, maybe. I just made it up, made them sound good, and the facts weren’t important. So I did: to spend time with my girlfriend, then my wife, I wrote thousands of them: each with a common male name or female name. Sometimes people would die who matched the information I invented. I ran the obituaries anyway. Somewhere in all of this Katerina left me and at the time I barely noticed.

Knock-knock!

I tried to ignore it. It kept on and on, pounding harder and harder. I would tip toe then, with a baseball bat, then later with a pistol. I never caught them. It beat in my temples when I woke and why I lay down to try to sleep to take my pills and have a drink; more medicine and more drink, more and more. Money affords you many things, nice suitcases and suits, but peace cannot be bought, nor love, at least not love that stays without being put on retainer.

Knock-knock!

It’s easy to debate the ethics of journalism when you have heat and power and a full belly. Rationalizing those objections was only what the job as obituary writer was allowing me to do: I made enough money to study theatre, researching that book I’d so often talked about. Enough money to live comfortably, without financial worry. The stress of it all got worse and worse as email alerts flooded in with that terrible alert noise, the familiar bing-bong of metal wind-chimes clanging against a diner’s enter/exit door.

I remember the first nightmare. I woke up sweating, having heard that email alert. I checked my computer; nothing there. I had woke to the thought of getting my mother’s name, and sitting there in the dim light of my laptop, smoking a cigarette, I finally did hear that ever-ominous alert and saw the name come in, the result of an impersonal, neutral computer program, the Judge:

Brandon Keith Nobles, Whitmire, SC. 30. Overdose. Found by mother.

I received that alert when I was 28.

I unplugged my computer speaks, putting out my cigarette. I never wanted to wake to the sound of that horrible jingle again. But I did, over and over, all in my mind, imaginary like so much else. And in the bouquets left on tombstones all I’d see, no flowers blooming, just crisp and folded $100 notes, and dead men in their caskets with money stuff in their cold mouths like the horrible bloom of an extinct flower.

I don’t remember what became of that email heading, as I went back to sleep somehow, as it sometimes happens; you wake in the middle of the night, in the silence, still except the shuffling feet of distant cats, chasing invisible mice or attacking each other.

My dreams were disconnected bits of phantasmagoria; lists of printed paper, page after page of names and numbers, rolling on forever, all vaguely familiar and I thought it must be purgatory, and there I’d be forced to truly know all those whom I had so briefly summarized and put aside. All were familiar but ultimately unknown and dead, unknowable. The obituary writer – ha! What a dark star! how very dim, how grey!

Knock-knock!

I ran to the door to catch that miserable cretin, once and for all. And flinging the door wide I saw nothing, once again, then looked down, as I had never done. And there stood a little boy with a bleeding head, a football jersey. I woke up screaming.

I began to burn all of those old handwritten pages, all those falsities, hoping to appease whatever madness I had stirred. But madness is like a cold pool, like all addiction; you may recoil when you first jump in, but stay in long enough, and the ice cold water warms you up, somehow, and when you get out of the pool the warmth of the night air is cold.

I continued to study theatre, pushing all the death and gloom that was my day job from my mind, and I was making incremental progress. I learned of a character in early theatre that gave me pause; Hypokritos was a falsely righteous character who would wear buffoonish masks and feign divinity, uttering lofty, laughable pronouncements intended to be sincere, to be profound, only to be a popular source of mockery and ridicule.

Knock-knock!

I looked at my photograph on the Obituary Writer website. It was an airbrushed joke of a solemn, thoughtful photo, sharp contrast and pretentious, black and white. Knock-knock-knock! The email alert – the one I finally removed – had always startled me, as it was the same as the bell that smote on the shivering prison air to let the inmates know that one of those unlucky souls had made it out. So I thought, naturally, I would turn the sound back on and capture what I looked like when I got the email alert; that way I’d have a sincere impression, not knowing that, instead of taking off the mask of the falsely divine Hypokritos, I was just making the hypocrisy more subtle, slightly easier to stomach, slightly harder to notice. The professional make-over had ended with a vast, fully searchable digital archive; a macabre, gaudy porno.

Knock-knock!

God dammit! I ran through the halls and out the door into the street and looked around. No one, not a raven, no obvious source; just the wind and dogs barking in the distance. I was exhausted by the time I made it home, and tried to get some sleep.

Artists have a sort of fire inside. The greater the artist, the greater the fire, less smoke. I felt that I would exhaust my fuel and become one of those useless plastic lighters, the kind you have to strike over and over, getting more and more pissed off, changing the lever on the back to control the size of the flame, to make it smaller, then larger just to get a cigarette lit, eventually striking it over and over in the vain hope that it might light once more, knowing eventually it would dry of fuel completely and never produce a flame again. I felt that I’d run out of fuel, having wasted my life as a profiteer of misery, death on my mind like a heavy crown.
3 Speaker for the Dead
I did few eulogies when work on my book began in earnest. I had given notice to my employer, resigning to finishing only one: the heading that disappeared, the obituary for myself. I kept working, working hard with the motivation, with the hope that, upon completion, I’d have dinner in that small diner with Dr. Redding again. I still wrote obituaries in the meantime, and never was I more distant from it, as they were cold and ever colder still, the popularity began to fade, and never had I been so happy to fail. Demand dropped off for my particular brand of obituary—though there was a remorse to it, to have invested so much time and effort to become such a good obituary writer; I was very, very good at my job.

Knock-knock!

Those early days were the best, when I wrote obituaries for the paper, the small town paper for Isla Wor, there were no email alerts, no nightmares, no knocking, broken ringing doorbells; and all were at least sincere, in the beginning—many being for family; after the eulogy for my Dr. Redding’s son Marcus, looking back, that’s when something broke, something mechanical, some part of the system that processed grief. It broke as I worked through it and continued breaking as I wrote more and it made me cold to all, more often than not I kept to that automated script completely, completely sterile, no passion for anything save for my book on theatre, and passion enough only to get the money needed to continue; it moved closer and closer towards publication.

Knock-knock!

As I wrote, I thought of my dead father, and I thought of him quite often, and the obituary, the eulogy he’d never gotten, not from me, not the celebrated obituary writer. I looked forward to seeing Dr. Redding again at that little diner, I’d take a cab. I’d order him his BLT and cold iced tea, a small salad too, and I’d pay for it all. I’d bring a new valise, toss out that old ash-stained leather volume, unsightly and assaulted by age, scuffed white and daily marked by time, by dust. I wanted to show him that I’d finally gotten it right.

Knock!

After I got my book edited and did the proper revisions, I managed to talk my brother into designing a cover. He was a graphic design major; and his talent, like his degree, didn’t come cheap. I shopped the manuscript around for a while until a small publishing house picked it up.

Knock!

My book came out to little fanfare, just shy of my 30th birthday, with a reasonably warm critical reception, yet slightly colder commercial response. But there is no price to pay for a clear conscience, being able to tell the truth, if through fiction, it was a better way. There is a great element of truth in the worst lies and in the best of lies, and a great fiction in the most honest statement by the most trustworthy men.

I still had those dreams of waking to that electric death toll, the flowers of the bereaved sprouting monetary blossoms, that horrible knocking which seemed to drone on forever, but I’d dream that first I woke to find that mock-heading:

Brandon Keith Nobles, aged 30. Overdose. Found by mother.

And I set out to finish it, once and for all, sitting at my typewriter in this dim dream in a dim room trying to write it out. I would receive more pressing emails from the machine, each clanging louder than the last, probing me ever on, offering me more and more money to finish my obituary, the quicker the better. And I got to the last sentence, and felt that if I put the full-stop in, if I set the period, I’d never wake, that I’d forever be the obituary writer. I woke cold and sweating, breathing heavily. I expected to hear the knocking, but didn’t; nor the doorbell which, though broken, sometimes near midnight tolled.

When I received the first printed proofs of my book in the mail, it had some time since the initial, limited released, I called the doctor’s office to leave a message for dear Dr. Redding to call me when he got the chance. He did, and I had been out at the time; my brother took the message down. We were to meet at that same diner, again on a Sunday—his one day off. I got there early, uncomfortable. He was already there. He stood as I approached with his hand extended, shaking mine effusively, with feeling and warmth, a smile on his face. With one hand under my elbow, the other on my shoulder, he guided me back to the booth we’d sat in last time we met. I found a cappuccino waiting for me; he had yet to order. Vanilla as I liked it, and cold.

“Thank you, sir,” I said. “And, look at this.”

I took out my book, the copy I intended for him, pulling it from the new valise, much nicer indeed despite the signs of cigarette ash and age, dust collecting around the zippers. I handed him one of the galley proofs. He took it into his hands in that same careful, loving way. I realized then, as he handled it in that delicate fashion in which he’d once held the handwritten draft of his son’s eulogy—he handled things as a doctor, not out of any sort of love, but with delicacy and care—but then, I thought, that is a sort of love, not a sort, that is love; to spend so much time in school, such long hours away from growing children, a lonely wife awake all hours of the night and worried back at home, and to do it for others, to work so hard to live a life to help.

I wondered for the first time, making the strange connection: how many names checked in at his office only to later arrive in my email? Had he ever checked the obituaries, hoping to find some consolation, however fraudulent, to think he hadn’t failed? He was turning my book around, looking at the cover, holding it up to better see it in the light.

“‘Theatre: Tradition & Ritual’,” he said. “That’s fine, that’s very fine indeed. That’s a good looking book, Brandon. I knew you’d figure it out.”

“Open it,” I said.

He flipped to the dedication page.

“‘For Marcus Redding and his family. Thanks for the support and coffee. With love, Brandon.’”

He seemed genuinely moved. He looked at me and smiled.

“That’s really something,” he said. “I don’t know what to say. But thank you. Thank you very much. I’m glad you never gave it up. I can’t wait to read it.”

“It hasn’t been a big hit, but, alas, it’s a better business to be in. I’m glad I got it done.”

“I’m proud of you, Brandon,” he said.

“Thank you sir,” I said. “Thank you very much. And look at this—“

I showed him my new valise, all the new features, the less gaudy white leather. He looked it over attentively.

“That’s might fine,” he said. “Mighty fine indeed.”

He handed it back to me.

“So what are you working on now?”

“That’s why I’ve asked you to meet me here,” I said. “Not that I didn’t want to see you again and give you a copy of my book…”

“A free copy!” he interjected. “You can’t beat the price!”

“Yes, a free copy of my book, but other than that, after I met you, I realized I didn’t really know anything about your son, nothing about his life, your happier times with him, things he should be best remembered for and not my column and I thought—if you don’t think it’s inappropriate—you know, to tell me about who he was, what he was like as a child, the awkward teenage years and the man, your happy memories, the kind of stuff you can’t find online, so often the meat of life is picked away and what we’re usually left with, writing an obituary, is just the bones. And that’s what people seem to like. Short, thumbnail sketches, overly dramatic and declaratory. I wanted to do something real and honest for him. For you, for your family, to the extent, to any extent that I may. If I am to be the obituary writer, I must do so honestly.”

“He was a shy kid,” he said. “You wouldn’t have known it, but he was quiet. Loved going fishing with me and his little brother, when they were young. We had a pond behind our house, and we’d take those Zebco 33 fishing rods down there after church on Sunday, they’d have those corks on the end, you know? The plastic bobbing corks that let you know when you’ve got a bite.

“Then when the twins were born, they stayed home them with after that, always protective big brothers. When they turned four, they got new bikes for their birthday and when you buy for one you have to buy for all! So everybody got a bike, and they loved nothing more in the world. Riding around and doing tricks, popping wheelies, and Marcus repaired them for Will and his sisters when they got a flat tire, when the chains came off—they always did! He got his daughter Leslie one of those new bikes when she turned four, one with a pink boombox on it and a radio.

“And that’s when he started talking about wanting to build things, to be a builder, to be an engineer, working on cars, fixing things that broke. He was always fixing things. They rode the horses, he couldn’t fix those! Hell, neither could I! They played video games and monopoly. We were fortunate, but they weren’t much different than lots of good, kind kids. And they were very much loved. And he is very much missed. He was very much a normal kid, a good kid, and a fine man. A loving father.”

“Thanks for meeting me,” I said. “I hope I can write a eulogy to suit him and honor your family properly.”

And through that finish my own perhaps, the obituary writer’s eulogy—who better to write it?

“You did, Brandon.”

I was confused. And he saw it on my face.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“For what?”

I was quiet.

“I trivialized it all,” I said. “I was cynical and gaudy, and I’m a fraud. I’m not an obituary writer. That’s just the only way people seemed to care about my other work. And I used it. I used it to advance myself, selfishly. I’m sorry.”

He reached across the table and put his hand on my shoulder.

“Look, Brandon,” he said. “You might not like what you do, and I know you don’t. I can see it looking at you. Who would want to do that? I deal with it in my line of work. But in the end, you’re giving people closure, allowing them to refresh their memories and keep their loved ones alive in there, and alive for longer. Don’t be down on yourself. What you do is a public good, despite your reasons. People need closure. When I can’t keep their loved ones alive, you can give them something I can’t.”

A short, not uncomfortable silence passed between us, a shared sorrow lingered for a moment and departed. I felt that I could do a proper eulogy, then, for Marcus, and maybe let it stand as mine, as all of ours, as normal, kind kids, who are very much loved and would be very much missed.

He ordered the same meal, just the same; BLT, small salad, large glass of iced tea. I finished my cappuccino, took out my laptop, and went about my work, typing away as he ate his sandwich and drank his tea. And I picked up the tab.

After that the conversation mellowed, teetering out but still pleasant; with little left to say, we talked about upcoming projects. He dabbed a napkin at the corners of his mouth, ever-creased from a life of forced and honest smiles. And I thought, if ever a ghost knocked on my door again, I’d invite them in for tea and a sandwich, and let them tell their story, so I could be the obituary writer once last time and get it right, finally, a proper obituary, and live out the true purpose of my title, that we both might rest. He opened the door to leave and the bells clanged,

Bing bong. 

Essay: Art / Language: A Legacy from the Baroque

THE BAROQUE WAS AN ERA IN WESTERN
civilization characterized by various movements in art, literature, and popular music in which broad strokes and generalizations were replaced by intricacies, ornate and self-aware arabesques, bringing out the devil in the details. Traditional ideas were questioned, overturned, and art and architecture underwent profound metamorphoses. Men and women of great ambition fought for the most trivial of positions in what was essentially a political chessboard in which every pawn  decided to wear the clothes of a king.

The word Baroque, as is the case with all periods of note in human history, would be invented later by critics and historians. The etymology of the word has a unique history; it is a French translation of the Portuguese phrase perle barroco, which roughly translates as ‘irregular pearl,’ or more literally as ‘false jewel.’ A similar word is used in Roman dialects to convey the same idea:  barlocco or brillocco. The idea being that, as sometimes pearls are by chance and circumstance shaped differently, more common forms, having no axis for rotation, are in need of a new taxonomic classification. So the irregular forms are baroque pearls. The word’s history may have been influenced by the mnemonic term baroco which serves to denote, in the scholarly tradition, a supposed labored form syllogism.

What would lead historians to classify this period with so unique a word? Originally it was a derogatory term meant to underline what was thought to be affectation and excess, a maligned celebration of self-awareness and anaphoric abundance as opposed to clearer edifice on which stood the sober rationality of the Renaissance. It was first rehabilitated by the Swiss-born art historian, Heinrich Wölfflin in his study Renaissance und Barock; in this work, Wölfflin identified the Baroque as a ‘…movement imported into mass.’ It was a unique artistic antithesis to the edifices of art established by the Renaissance. Originally Wölfflin did not make distinctions between Mannerism and the classification Baroque as modern historians do; he also completely ignored what is now classified as the later phase, the ‘academic Baroque’ which moved into the 18th century. Writers in French and English did not begin to treat our inheritance from the Baroque period as something of great worth until Wölfflin’s study made German scholarship preeminent.

Baroque art began to take shape during the same years that the world’s expanding economies were laying the basis for the age of Western expansion in America and the high-stakes game of duck-duck-goose started accidentally by Europe as a financial pissing contest which somehow provoked the masses, the starving peasants, to rebel and kill these despotic assholes. Despite this, it was a fascinating age of richness in the arts—literary, visual, and musical. This intense circulation of ideas, happening as new national schools took form, allowed for this new age to unite a Europe in a golden age, a golden age in which none living during the age described as golden were aware of this goldenness.

Painting alternated between references to the chiaroscuro (the finer areas of shade and shadow) and the realism of Caravaggio and La Tour and a more purely baroque use of fantasy and color; architecture oscillated between the courageous inventiveness of the avant garde and the traditionalist reliance on the preservation of antiquity’s ideals and philosophies in regards to idea and execution.

In theater, the most spectacular aspects of the stage came to dominate the taste of the period, becoming the models for figurative and architectural expression. If the goal of Baroque art was to amaze the viewer, it was the world of the theater that provided its most successful special effects. This historical and artistic story is lushly illustrated with works by the greatest artists of the period; Bernini, Boucher, Caravaggio, Gainsborough, Hals, Hogarth, Poussin, Rembrandt, Rubens—along with works by minor artists who made important contributions.

The baroque period actually expressed new values in the culture of the arts. These are often summarized in the use of metaphor and allegory, widely found in Baroque literature, and in the research for the maraviglia—wonder and astonishment in the manner of Marinism—and the use of artifices. If Mannerism was first breached with the Renaissance, Baroque was an opposing force with a unique and distinct language.

The privilege given to external forms had to compensate and balance the lack of content that has been observed in many Baroque works: Marino’s Maraviglia, for example, is practically made of a pure mere form—whatever that means.

The prevailing philosophy was simple: an active fantasy and imagination should be cultured, evoked in the spectator, in the reader, in the listener. All was focused around the individual, a straight relationship between the artist and the beholder. Art is then less distant and by definition closer, closer to us and therefore more real.

The increased attention on the individual made possible new methods of approaching art, such as the Romanzo—and, in Italy, this movement was a cultural descent; some believed it to be a betrayal, disrespectful to the traditions established in the Renaissance. Apparently, an age of revolutionary and new ideas, like the Renaissance, was, without irony, used as a basis for what new art should be. This culminated in the definitive replacement of Latin by the more widely understandable and spoken dialect of Italian.

Writers in the Baroque are framed in Siglo de Oro in Spain. Naturalism and sharp criticist points of view about Spanish society are common with conceptista writers like Quevedo, while culterano authors emphasize the importance of form with complicated images and the use of hyperbaton. In Catalonia the Baroque took hold in Catalan language, with representatives including poets and dramaturgs such as Francesc Fontanella and Francesc Vicenç Garcia, as well as a unique emblem book Atheneo de Grandesa by Josep Romaguera. Spanish theater was extensively developed by authors like Lope de Vega and Calderón de la Barca. Overall, Cervantes is considered the most accomplished author of Spanish literature due in no small part to Don Quixote. In Colonial Spanish America two of the best-known baroque writers were Sor Juana and Bernardo de Balbuena.

In the Portuguese Empire the most famous baroque writer of the time was Father António Vieira, a Jesuit who lived in Brazil during the 18th century. Secondary writers Gregório de Matos and Francisco Rodrigues Lobo were popular too.

Though the Baroque era is most famous for its music, it is nevertheless an era in which many noted figures emerged. Artists such as Rembrandt and Velasquez were prominent during the period. Galileo Galilei was persecuted by the church because of his ideas regarding the universe, and prominent philosophers, such as Descartes, Spinoza, John Locke, and Voltaire also lived and died in the Baroque, and Paradise Lost and Hamlet came from the minds of William Shakespeare and John Milton, respectively.

Music from the period varies in style and comes from many different countries. There is English, French, German, and Italian Baroque music—all of which are uniquely distinct and were utterly new. There is early, middle and late Baroque music—all unique and utterly new.

When compared with its predecessors, Baroque music can be seen as being highly ornate, lavishly texturized, with sometimes affectictious intensity. The music of the period was characterized by a counterpoint and melodic line, being one of many defining characteristics of the period, including the use of basso continuo and the belief in a specific doctrine of affections. The doctrine of affections was a new way for composers to add color and personality to their compositions. Another distinguishing characteristic of the Baroque was the emphasis on contrast:  volume, texture, and pace. The Renaissance was a large-scale, rubbery portrait—the Baroque zoomed in on the picture all the way to the pores.

And finally, a sacred yet secular type of music was now in abundance and used as widely as those of the liturgical musical tradition. Imitative polyphony (more than one line of music) was still, however, an extremely important factor in writing and playing music, while the homophonic method (a musical technique that displays a vast separation amongst the melodic line and the accompaniment) was gaining acceptance and aplomb.

The homophonic style eventually became dominant in all instrumental forms. Musical works containing a continuo—in which a keyboard (usually an organ or harpsichord) and a bass instrument (usually a bassoon or a cello) helped to convey the harmonic support of chords under melodic lines.

Despite the increasing popularity of homophonic music, it occurred amidst evolving forms of polyphonic music. Similar to the composers of the Renaissance, the composers of the Baroque felt that the art of counterpoint was an essential aspect of artistry. Despite the avant garde’s freedom, formalism in imitative polyphony, cannons and fugues, were very popular; another ironic establishment based on what was meant to encourage uniqueness in the evolving characteristics of the period.

It is important to note that opera and the orchestra were both conceived during the Baroque. Around the year 1600—wherein Shakespeare was alive in England—what we know as opera came about because of the desire Italian intellectuals to recapture what they believed to be the spirit of ancient Greek drama in which music played a key role. Claudio Monteverdi’s Orfeo debuted in 1607, and was perhaps the first great opera. The characteristic homophonic musical style played a significant role in this as soloist vocals focused on the perceived listener’s concentration of a pronounced melody.

By the mid-1600s the orchestra and orchestral arrangements were evolving into a unique and insular entity and one of the offshoot animals in this family tree was the concerto. The concerto is defined by a solo instrumentalist, or small ensemble of soloists, playing in opposition to the orchestra; this fortissimo added another interesting contrast in texture, color, and volume.

Renaissance composers had invented imitative polyphony, which Baroque composers fashioned into the fugue, perhaps the most developed musical form of the era. Bach became the undisputed master of the fugue. Bach’s Invention No. 1 in C Major, written in 1723, points in the direction of all of his magnificent contrapuntal compositions.

As a composer, teacher and performer of the organ, harpsichord, violin and viola, Bach had an astonishing ability to blend a variety of national styles into existing musical forms in an accessible, engaging manner. Composing solo works for organ, harpsichord, violin, cello, and flute, Bach’s extraordinary abilities allowed him to create music that has remained popular and critically acclaimed, being also the subject of the unique and important study Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter—who approached Bach mathematically, as [Carl] Sagan did in his Voyager plates designed to represent humanity to any potential extra-terrestrial civilizations, as math is the universal language.

The Prelude and Fugue in D Major from Book II of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier provide an excellent example of his superb craftsmanship and the sort of mathematical approach for which he is now widely known among the modern intelligentsia. His Prelude grandly introduces us to the key of D Major. This sets up an expectant ear, eager for what is to follow: a spirited, complex, and eloquent fugue.

French composers of the era excelled in music written for solo harpsichord. A tradition that had begun with solo lute music was continued with the harpsichord, in some senses a mechanical lute, after the lute fell from favor at the end of the seventeenth century. They delighted in music that imitated the sounds of nature and in the character piece, that is, a musical portrait of a friend, colleague or patron.

Francois Couperin, court composer to Louis XIV, wrote charming and endearing harpsichord music which remains popular. Le dodo ou l’amour au berceau and L’evapore are excellent and characteristic examples of Couperin’s musical ambitions and sensibilities. The first is undoubtedly the musical portrait of a patron’s cherubic sleeping infant. The second would be a description of one of the ebulliently frivolous ladies of the French Court. The first piece is a rondo, a form developed during the Baroque. The first theme, or rondeau—it is here that the tune, from a popular French lullaby, is repeatedly presented alternatively with other material in the popular ABACADA pattern.

Domenico Scarlatti was a Neapolitan who spent the most important and productive part of his career in service to the Queen of Spain. He is remembered for his harpsichord pieces, as Chopin would be, a century later, remembered for his compositions for solo piano. Scarlatti’s harpsichord sonatas have an enormous emotional range, evoking lyrical mellowness, languid hours, somber solemnity, dazzling pyrotechnics, and cheerful sprightliness. Scarlatti is often considered merely the author of sonatas of insuperable technical difficulty, but this important composer’s real power lies in his dynamic strength, pouring forth in scale runs and elaborate cascades apropos to the overall harmonic richness. In this respect he is a precursor to Franz Liszt and Charles-Valentin Alkan, in his ability to create multiple melodies for soloists.

The solo sonata and the trio sonata were very popular forms of composition with Baroque composers. Consisting of one or two solo instruments supported by a continuo for rhythmic and harmonic definition, the sonatas gave ample opportunity for the soloists to show off their virtuosity. Soloists developed their technique with pieces such as The Sonatas for Violin and Continuo by violin virtuoso Arcangelo Corelli.

These pieces were published January 1, 1700, and quickly became a standard teaching tool for violin technique and musical inventiveness. Corelli’s Folia Variations offer a rousing example of the musical effectiveness of solid violin technique and of the variation form. The violin begins quietly, builds to a musical climax, and then returns to the calmer atmosphere in which it began.

This unique yearning, this striving and reaching for ever greater, more personal, more pure forms of art is behind every movement for which we have a pronoun. Biologically there may be little in our genome to distinguish us from other members of the primate family, but in the power of our expression we ascend to something penultimate to more than just an animalistic creature of instinct. This period brought admiration once reserved for frauds and magicians to genuine bringers of light, to secular prophets whose work has shaped the world and in doing so left it brighter than it was before.

Humanity wrestles with methods of expression because of what it does for our understanding of ourselves and our relationship to the world. Once something is understood the natural fear surrounding it diminishes. It is a way to bring us together. It is a unique aspect of character to set out with the knowledge that what will be for us the product of years, perhaps decades of research, drafting and revision, painful deliberation and punctuated periods alternating between cautious optimism and utter desolation, will be born into a world wherein there is a healthy and moneyed community of critics who by definition exist to pick apart the meat of what is, in a very true sense, the offspring of an artist.

Our inheritance from Baroque, that irregular pearl, that charming era replete with unique and important developments in our exploration of expression and the ways by which it can give voice to the unspoken subtleties that have no official language. The scientific, biological purpose to this—in deep time, the time-scale evolution works on—is the ability for these songs, the poems and paintings, the way they bring us together; the stories of ancient India and Mesopotamia live on in a digital, intangible library of information which cannot be burnt down—a permanent, unbreakable, fireproof Alexandria.

Radio waves have broadcast our thoughts and art into space where they continue traveling at the speed of light; perhaps it is the echo of a species alone in a quiet universe of wasted space, or a particularly loud section in the cosmic chorus: regardless, through this process the genetic and biological impulse of preservation is achieved in a way that nature has so far denied us: immortality is the reward for a life given to these pursuits, despite our ephemeral ambitions, these books and portraits and songs are love letters to posterity; a love letter to a love letter in a sea of similar songs unsigned.

Bite Sized Philosophy, 24 July 2015: Writing

Big questions, small answers: Bite Sized Philosophy for 24 July 2015: Writing

(A little late on this one, was lulled to sleep by the dulcet tones of a Jack the Ripper documentary before posting.)

To be a writer is not a conscious choice I remember making. I liked rhyming words together as far back as I could hold a pen. Just stringing same-sounding words together as a 5 year old, that’s how I started. Original stories wouldn’t be finished until I was 11 or 12. Nothing that I would be consider properly written stories. I made the choice to write for a living after selling a science-fiction stories when I was 17. It was craft, from that point, and to be good at any given craft, you have to see the craft done well. I’ve read a lot, and extensively. Seeing a thing done well helps an aspiring writer, to help them understand what makes great books great books and how to tell one’s own stories well.

To be genuine is as important as it is to be talented, as it is to be hardworking. The quality of hard work is as important as talent because without hard work, none of that talent comes out; it is of no use. I don’t know why I continue writing. It takes forever to do something substantive, and the research and revisions and drafting — this is all laborsome stuff, none of it tremendously fun. When I don’t get something down, however, I feel like a day is wasted. So I feel that I must get something done every day, and I always do; there are on-going projects, one-off essays and – what I still enjoy – writing down words that rhyme, things we in the biz refer to as ‘poems.’

It has a higher calling, that of art, of course, and the literature of a culture greatly shapes and help define that culture. And it is a great source of catharsis for the stereotypical tortured artists of the world. It is one of the most persistent, long running traditions in sedentary human culture, that of chronicling, since the early epic of Gilgamesh and Holisheads chronicles of the English, a source of history from which Shakespeare took ideas for plays and poetry.

If it gives you a purpose, to write, to partake in the creation of art, of whatever form it takes, then it is a profession of nobility and purpose. It is to me personally, and in aggregate, historically. For me, the restlessness of needing to write is like the persistence of having to take a shit. It is a great motivational feeling, leaves you feeling nauseous and uncomfortable, and it’s uncomfortable when you can’t find somewhere to get it done. It is sometimes a long and painful process. You can feel great relief, even if you’re not always proud of the result. After all, sometimes it’s just shit.

Siamese Solution – short, 22 July 2015

Marie and Jean were conjoined twins born into a society that had never before seen such an oddity: Marie was in control of all physical function, hand-movement, motor-control, and, though Jean had ambitions and desires of her own, as she could feel all of the same sensations as her twin, she could not act on them independently; they had the unusual arrangement that when Marie was feeling kind, she’d let her twin, head poised to the side – on her left shoulder – she’d do what Jean found exciting and pleasurable, but only to the extent to which she found it pleasurable as well. If Marie held a flame to the palm of a hand Jean couldn’t control, she still felt the fire; if Marie had indigestion, Jean felt it in her stomach, the nausea. Though they shared the same physical receptors, their responses to pain and pleasure, what one would love the other would hate, were sometimes wildly inconsistent. As were their attitudes towards the murder of another person.

One night as Jean slept, unaware that Marie was moving through the night – a barely lit figure, a cape and cowl disguising the sleeping head that rested on her shoulder – she had uncomfortable thoughts, images of a woman shouting out and suddenly being silenced. She woke to find herself beneath the cape and desperately trying to move the hands she felt but could not control, as her sister Marie stabbed their mother repeatedly; Jean’s shouting woke their sleeping father, who had been drugged. Marie stuffed the linen cape into Jean’s mouth to stop her shouting, but she was too late to stop her father from over-powering them both, locking them in a small closet, and calling the authorities.

They were put in jail, trial arraigned, and all along – Jean was there beside her, suffering the effects of malnutrition from the prison food, the traumatic stress of being locked away from human contact, and Marie, talking to her jovially at first before, soon tired of Jean’s cries and, finally, refused to write the letters to their father, to say the things Jean most desperately wanted to say; to apologize, to ask for forgiveness. At long last, Marie, annoyed with Jean’s struggles to attempt to take control, began to make a series of cuts along Jean’s mouth, stopping her from speaking; she threatened her inside their cell, threatening to cut the head from her shoulders. So she went quiet until her voice got softer and softer still, and finally her vocal-chords atrophied, leaving her unable to speak.

When the trial came along, Jean was unable to protest the sentencing of her sister – despite what a sentence would due to her, as a feeling, thoughtful human being – as Marie was unrepetant in her mother’s death, and she was unable to speak on her behalf. Her father appealed to the conscience of the jury, asking them to consider the ‘mostly’ silent suffering of Jean, who could not speak, control her sister’s movements, or those actions:

‘Should she – dear, sweet Jean – be put to death along with her sister, cruel Marie? She had no control over the death of her mother and my wife and had she not screamed, I surely would have died as well. I urge you to not put her to death to revenge the death of my wife through the death of my Marie. Is this justice?’

On Inspiration – 24 July 2015

Inspiration is a great motivational force in the creation of art, in the performance of duty, in writing and painting and music. We hear about the Muse, Calliope for writing poetry (there are nine according to Hesiod — including Clio, discoverer of history and guitar. Seriously) and we assume that all great art is great because of inspiration, genius, or prodigious skill. Mozart’s music is often seen as inexplicable works of effortless talent and ability. This may be true of some of his music, but it does a disservice to what was surely the product of a life of endless hours of practice, time, and effort put towards the creation of such works as Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute, and his piano concertos. It makes an excuse for any failure on behalf of the practitioner of creation, to think that all such work is the product of nature’s endowment, an endowment not afforded everyone at birth. It is an excuse.

This assumption of prodigy can misplace the admiration in the creation of such work: Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, took nearly 20 years; of course he had great natural talent and ability, but talent is nothing without being willing to put that kind of effort into a work of art, to spend that much time getting it right. Surely there was great inspiration behind the movement that brought those works to our attention, but to admire only talent or genius is misplaced: the admiration of study, hard work, and dedication should be just as important.

If everyone in the business of creating art was waiting on the dictates of the muse, we’d might have less terrible artwork but assuredly we’d have less great works too. less works we assume to be the products of great inspiration and motivation. Inspiration, then, is less a divine flourish that spills purely and perfectly onto a page and more of a constant factor in pushing someone towards the completion of their work. Do not wait for Calliope by the time she arrives, you should be too busy to notice. After all, no great work of art has ever been accomplished by thinking really hard about it. 

Essay: The Doctor is Sick – Dissecting Dostoevsky (2015)

FYODOR DOSTOEVSKY IS NOW PARTLY MYTH.
He is perhaps as popular in the English speaking world as he is in his native Russia. His work is that of an exaggerated naturalist by tradition and a psychologist in practice. He is deservingly famed for his intensive, microscopic analysis of the human condition and the psychological insight that is be found in his more fleshed out characters… Continue reading

Bite Sized Philosophy, 16 July 2015: Happiness

A subject about which I know very little, but as an American, I’m perfectly comfortable discussing shit I don’t quite understand.

How brief our joy, how long our sorrows. Today I’ll be discussing something I know very little about: celebration and happiness.

Happiness is the moment, or a series of moments, punctuated, for me, by longer, more boring stretches of reality, when there are no story arcs, no great movements or performances, no lasting impact or appreciation. For me, the moments of happiness that I’ve had have been mostly of the chemically induced variety. But I’d like to think I get it. I’ve been happy before. I’m sure of that. We have this abstract idea in our minds that happiness is an insoluable mystery, something that can’t really be quantified or labeled with precision. Maybe it can’t. Maybe it’s like love, and like love it does more to service fountains of bad poetry and song than anything, but we celebrate our happiness because of its brevity, because it strips away the bars of our civilization and lets us return to a more innocent time, a time where we didn’t have a multitude of different threads going on in our heads, when we didn’t have schedules and due dates and deadlines, when the moment was all there was and, for what we knew, the moment was all there’d be. I’m sure I thought that once, that what I felt like in the moment could somehow be preserved, either by continuing in the indulgence that brought the feeling to me, by loving and feeling loved in return, by making music and sharing it with friends, making love and sharing it with friends. By writing stories, a long and arduous process, and sharing it with friends.

To me, the happiest moments of my life have been moments shared, since they, in their rarity, are made more punctuated by that novelty, the novelty of unfamiliarity. What becomes the every day, the common, the grind, whenever something you love to do turns into that, a common drudgery, it loses the spark of the moment, the happy isolation in a self-deceived state of well-being. If you have sorrow in your heart and on your mind, it tends to embue everything you touch. It is a type of muck, a slime that clings to the ink of the stained person whose imagination calls it out. And the words of happy people are trembling and ecstatic, embodying the moments, celebrating their brevity, and when we read of these moments, of any moments of intensity, whether sorrowful or happy, when we reflect on them, when we think about how large they loom in mind after years and years have passed, there is a diminishment of the melancholy they might have held, and a celebration to be sure that, for one moment, we were together, and in that moment together, we were, if briefly, happy, whatever it meant, if it meant nothing, we could say, as Eric Idle sang in The Life of Brian: Life’s a piece of shit, when you look at it. Life’s a laugh and death’s a joke, it’s true. You’ll see it’s all a show, keep ’em laughing as you go, just remember that the last laugh is on you.

Essay: Hagiography, the Mary Sue, and Sherlock Holmes

MARY SUE NOVELS ARE MUCH MALIGNED IN
literary circles and among the intelligentsia. It is also the first idea a non-writer has for a story. Because of a very unique psychological blind-spot called self-bias, it is natural for us to believe in the quality of our uniqueness and the intensely interesting aspects of our lives. Because of this, it’s hard to convey our memories with the emotion intended because that emotion is unique to us. Our importance in regards to our own story is profound and without doubt… Continue reading