Religion, Freedom, Fear & Panic (George Orwell) – 17 March 2016

THE ART OF OPPRESSION

AS MUCH AS ART AND LANGUAGE HAVE ENRICHED our lives and culture, it can be used as a means of personal advancement or attainment, and can be used, has been used as a tool to subdue and keep mute an illiterate public. As the best literature and music can be liberating, there is a darker side to this, something more nefarious. George Orwell’s nightmarish vision of a future where literature does not set free the soul was as fantastical as it was grounded. Because, despite seeing its absurdity, we saw echoes of Orwell’s themes, if but vaguely, in our own lives — Big Brother is the judging eye that watches, an eye that judges, a figure that enforces law against thinking the wrong way. Wilson gets sent to the worst hotel room in history outside of a Holiday Inn, Room 101.

Big Brother is Watching You — everyone is familiar with the popular phrase from [Orwell’s] most popular work, Nineteen Eighty-Four, but its interpretation has often been limited to political interpretation. If you cast big brother as an abstract and put the entirety of creation under his charge, what do you get? An all seeing figure who’s always watching, always careful to ensure the rules laid forth are observed, and in waiting to punish if a tenet of the Law is broken. Big Brother, as an abstract, is more than a satire of the culture of personality which, like Boy Bands and iPhone releases, always seem to spring up despite all sensible people knowing how objectively terrible they are.

Nineteen Eight-Four appeals to the same sensibility to which ‘God is watching over us’ appeals. Except, by inverting the All Seeing Eye, by showing us the perversion of thought crime, the crime of love, the arbitrary torture — it’s easy to see Orwell is telling a story on two different thematic levels: the microcosm (the singular Big Brother and the singular idea such a figure represents. And there’s a perversion of this, and it’s happening now, right in the modern, progressive world: but not through the silent, watchful judgment of one centralized authority figure, we’ve cast ourselves as indignant,flattered voyeurs in the drama of the watchful, attentive eye presiding over the most mundane of our activities, whether it is a friend who follows you on Twitter.

John Taylor’s Seven Lesson Schoolteacher has a different approach to handling an authoritarian edifice and his lessons are the bricks in the edifice of the mind’s sometimes voluntary enslavement. It is a poignant testament to the quality of individuality and warning against subscribing to a belief system structured to control. When the information provided comes from the same body enacting the law, it is, no matter the brand of information—literature, media, radio—designed to control by fear and recruit by a promise such law givers are unable to keep.

In The Seven-Lesson Schoolteacher, Gatto shows us what Dostoevsky, in Notes from Underground, called the ‘edifice of glass.’ Gatto shows the reality of totalitarianism in a distorted yet eerily similar America.  To paraphrase, a centralized order must not be questioned. No possible objections, logical, sensible or otherwise are to be taken seriously and those who make such objections do so to their disadvantage.

Mr. Gatto, as he wished to be called, was a school teacher who had taught for twenty-six years, winning many awards in the process. He outlines a subconscious and hidden curriculum that is unconsciously transmitted to every student in every school in the United States. These rules aren’t acknowledged, written, or made apparent but, as Mr. Gatto suggests, this is the only way students can be turned into functioning member of society—as he sees it.

What does it mean to function in a society if one has to be manipulated as a child to be able to do so? The seven universal lessons perpetuate what has done more to harm people throughout history, though it helps a select few, and could be interpreted as a list for the pros of making war upon your own government, as Shakespeare famously questioned in his treatment of the character in Richard II: is it ever right to overthrow a monarchy? When it is necessary for the following traits to be drilled into children in order to keep them in check, it most certainly is; I fall into another category on this position, which Leon Trotsky expressed so well in Literature and Revolution. 

‘Mechanical centralism is necessarily complemented by factionalism, which is at once a malicious caricature of democracy and a potential political danger.’

Mr. Gatto’s entire structure is built on factionalism. His seven universal lessons are meant to strengthen some factions to invite membership and conformity, and others are intended to keep those ‘unworthy’ are those for whom the rest of the rules were written. The seven universal rules are: confusion, class position, indifference, emotional dependency, intellectual dependency, provisional self-esteem, and an admonition against anyone who notices the slavery of a system that confuses intentionally, gives to one side it created for itself, and addicts the rest to scraps because class position can only exist in a society confused and emotionally dependent. You can’t hide. Big brother is watching you. Take your soma and fall in line: this is the literature of enslavement. And the author of this material is a real man and really believes in these universal ‘laws’ of education.

Students are often taught a barrage of information, none of which is important to their lives, intended to work as an assembly line towards an end, a goal: to college, to graduate school, and finally to a job. This sort of cynical approach by a life-long teacher is disheartening; it is disheartening not because of one man’s belief, but those who rally behind his ideas of slavery are highly influential. Behind all the useless information is what the intended goal of this system is: there is this centralized element abhorrent to Trotsky, an element that might have made Shakespeare rethink his ideas of overthrowing a monarch.

The central command structure of knowledge reaches into the deep past of western philosophy. It’s in Plato’s The Republic, St. Augustine’s City of God, even Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes. Although it wasn’t published in his lifetime, Hobbes’ much better work, Behemoth, was forbidden by a king, a king who probably would’ve endorsed it, had he read it. Satires like Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Huxley’s Brave New World were considered, in their time, to be ridiculous. These were not instant classics. And the writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four nearly killed George Orwell; this brings us to what gave the English their first clear vision of totalitarianism.

AN HOMAGE TO ORWEL– On the Cult of Personality and Altar of Fear

BEFORE A SOCIAL AND BIOGRAPHICAL ANALYSIS of Orwell the man, writer of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, I would first like to say that I believe he was at his best in his non-fiction account of the Spanish Civil War—Homage to Catalonia.

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

Sixty years after the publication of Orwell’s mostly widely cited and read work, Nineteen Eighty-Four, that crystal first line sounds as natural and compelling as ever. But when you see the original manuscript, you find something else: not so much the ringing clarity, more the obsessive rewriting, in different inks, that betrays the extraordinary turmoil behind its composition.

Probably the definitive dystopian novel of the 20th century, a story that remains eternally fresh and contemporary, and whose terms such as ‘Big Brother,’ ‘doublethink,’ and ‘newspeak—all of which having become part of the everyday currency in the English lexicon, Nineteen Eighty-Four has been translated into more than 65 languages and sold millions of copies worldwide, giving George Orwell a unique place in world literature.

The circumstances surrounding the writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four make a haunting narrative that helps to explain the bleakness of Orwell’s dystopia. Here was an English writer, desperately sick, grappling alone with the demons of his imagination in a bleak Scottish outpost in the desolate aftermath of the Second World War. The idea for Nineteen Eighty-Four, alternatively, The Last Man in Europe, had been incubating in Orwell’s mind since the Spanish civil war.

His novel, which owes something to Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian fiction We, probably began to take a definitive shape during 1943-44, around the time he and his wife Eileen adopted their only son, Richard. Orwell himself claimed that he was partly inspired by the meeting of the Allied leaders at the Tehran Conference of 1944. Isaac Deutscher, an Observer colleague, reported that Orwell was “convinced that Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt consciously plotted to divide the world” at Tehran.

Orwell had worked for David Astor’s Observer since 1942, first as a book reviewer and later as a correspondent. The editor professed great admiration for Orwell’s “absolute straightforwardness, his honesty and his decency,” and would be his patron throughout the 1940s. The closeness of their friendship is crucial to the story of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Orwell’s creative life had already benefited from his association with the Observer in the writing of Animal Farm. As the war drew to a close, the fruitful interaction of fiction and Sunday journalism would contribute to the much darker and more complex novel he had in mind after that celebrated ‘fairy tale.’ It’s clear from Observer book reviews, for example, that he was fascinated by the relationship between morality and language.

There were other influences at work. The atmosphere of random terror in the everyday life of wartime London became integral to the mood of the novel-in-progress. Worse was to follow. In March 1945, while on assignment for the Observer in Europe, Orwell received news that his wife Eilee, had died under anesthesia during a routine operation.

Suddenly he was a widower and a single parent, eking out a threadbare life in his Islington lodgings, and working incessantly to dam the flood of remorse and grief at his wife’s premature death. In 1945, for instance, he wrote almost 110,000 words for various publications, including 15 book reviews for the Observer.

Then Astor stepped in. His family owned an estate on the remote Scottish island of Jura, next to Islay. There was a house, Barnhill, seven miles outside Ardlussa at the remote northern tip of this rocky finger of heather in the Inner Hebrides.

Initially, Astor offered it to Orwell for a holiday. Speaking to the Observer last week, Richard Blair says he believes, from family legend, Astor was taken aback by the enthusiasm of Orwell’s response.

In May 1946 Orwell, still picking up the shattered pieces of his life, took the train for the long and arduous journey to Jura. He told his friend Arthur Koestler that it was ‘almost like stocking up ship for an arctic voyage.’

It was a risky move; Orwell was not in good health. The winter of 1946-47 was one of the coldest of the century. Postwar Britain was bleak and Orwell always suffered from a chest pains and other anxiety-related pains. At least, cut off from the irritations of literary London, he was free to grapple unencumbered with the new novel. ‘Smothered under journalism,’ as he put it, he told one friend, ‘I have become more and more like a sucked orange.’

Ironically, part of Orwell’s difficulties derived from the success of Animal Farm. After years of neglect and indifference the world was waking up to his genius. ‘Everyone keeps coming at me,’ he complained to Koestler, ‘wanting me to lecture, to write commissioned booklets, to join this and that, etc.–you don’t know how I pine to be free of it all and have time to think again.’

On Jura he would be liberated from these distractions. The promise of creative freedom on an island in the Hebrides, however, came with its own, unique price. Years before, in the essay Why I Write, he described the struggle to complete a book: ‘Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist or [sic] understand. For all one knows that demon is the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s personality.’ It ends with the popular adage: ‘Good prose is like a window pane.’

From the spring of 1947 to his death in 1950 Orwell would re-enact every aspect of this struggle in the most painful way imaginable. Privately, perhaps, he relished the overlap between theory and practice. He had always thrived on self-inflicted adversity.

At first, after ‘a quite unendurable winter,’ he reveled in the isolation and wild beauty of Jura. ‘I am struggling with this book,’ he wrote to his agent, ‘which I may finish by the end of the year—at any rate I shall have broken the back by then so long as I keep well and keep off journalistic work until the autumn.’

Barnhill, overlooking the sea at the top of a potholed track, was not large, with four small bedrooms above a spacious kitchen. Life was simple, even primitive. There was no electricity. Orwell used Calor gas to cook and to heat water. Storm lanterns burned paraffin. In the evenings he also burned peat. He was still chain-smoking black shag tobacco in roll-up cigarettes: the fug in the house was cozy but not healthy. A battery radio was the only connection with the outside world.

Orwell, a gentle, unworldly sort of man, arrived with just a camp bed, a table, a couple of chairs and a few pots and pans. It was a Spartan existence but supplied the conditions under which he liked to work. He is remembered there as a spectre in the mist, a gaunt figure in oilskins.

At the end of May 1947 he told his publisher, Fred Warburg: ‘I think I must have written nearly a third of the rough draft. I have not got as far as I had hoped to do by this time because I really have been in most wretched health this year ever since about January (my chest as usual) and can’t quite shake it off.’

Mindful of his publisher’s impatience for the new novel, Orwell added: ‘Of course the rough draft is always a ghastly mess bearing little relation to the finished result, but all the same it is the main part of the job.’ Still, he pressed on, and at the end of July was predicting a completed ‘rough draft’ by October. After that, he said, he would need another six months to polish up the text for publication. This does not happen.

Part of the pleasure of life on Jura for George and his young son was the outdoor life—fishing, explore the island, and potter about in boats. In August, during a spell of lovely summer weather, Orwell, Avril, Richard and some friends, returning from a hike up the coast in a small motor boat, were nearly drowned in the infamous Corryvreckan whirlpool.

Richard Blair remembers being ‘bloody cold’ in the freezing water, and Orwell, whose constant coughing worried his friends, did his lungs no favors. Within two months he was seriously ill. Typically, his account to David Astor of this narrow escape was laconic, even nonchalant.

The long struggle with The Last Man in Europe continued. In late October 1947, oppressed with ‘wretched health,’ Orwell recognized that his novel was still ‘a most dreadful mess and about two-thirds of it will have to be retyped entirely.’

He was working at a feverish pace. Visitors to Barnhill recall the sound of his typewriter pounding away upstairs in his bedroom. Then, in November, tended by the faithful Avril, he collapsed with ‘inflammation of the lungs’ and told Koestler that he was “very ill in bed”. Just before Christmas, in a letter to an Observer colleague, he broke the news he had always dreaded. Finally he had been diagnosed with TB.

A few days later, writing to Astor from Hairmyres hospital, East Kilbride, Lanarkshire, he admitted: ‘I still feel deadly sick,’ and conceded that, when illness struck after the Corryvreckan whirlpool incident, ‘like a fool I decided not to go to a doctor – I wanted to get on with the book I was writing.’

In 1947 there was no cure for TB; doctors could only prescribe fresh air regular diets. However, there was a new, experimental drug on the market, streptomycin. Astor arranged for a shipment to Hairmyres from the US.

Orwell’s son Richard believed his father was given excessive doses of this new drug. The side effects were horrific (throat ulcers, blisters in the mouth, hair loss, peeling skin and the disintegration of toe and fingernails; but in March 1948, after a three-month course, the TB symptoms had disappeared. ‘It’s all over now, and evidently the drug has done its stuff,’ Orwell told his publisher. ‘It’s rather like sinking the ship to get rid of the rats, but worth it if it works.’

As he prepared to leave hospital Orwell received the letter from his publisher which, in hindsight, would be another nail in the coffin. ‘It really is rather important,’ wrote Warburg to the star author, ‘from the point of view of your literary career to get it [the new novel] by the end of the year and indeed earlier if possible.’

Just when he should have been convalescing Orwell was back at Barnhill, deep into the revision of his manuscript, promising to deliver by ‘early December,’ and coping with ‘filthy weather’ on autumnal Jura. Early in October he confided to Astor: ‘I have got so used to writing in bed that I think I prefer it, though of course it’s awkward to type there. I am just struggling with the last stages of this bloody book [which is] about the possible state of affairs if the atomic war isn’t conclusive.’

This is one of Orwell’s exceedingly rare references to the theme of his book. He believed, as many writers do, that it was bad luck to discuss a work-in-progress. Later, to Anthony Powell, he described it as ‘a Utopia written in the form of a novel.’ The typing of the fair copy of The Last Man in Europe became another dimension of Orwell’s battle with his book. The more he revised his ‘unbelievably bad” manuscript the more it became a document only he could read and interpret. It was, he told his agent, “extremely long, even 125,000 words.’ With characteristic candor, he noted: ‘I am not pleased with the book but I am not absolutely dissatisfied… I think it is a good idea but the execution would have been better if I had not written it under the influence of TB.’

And he was still undecided about the title: ‘I am inclined to call it NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR or THE LAST MAN IN EUROPE,’ he wrote, ‘but I might just possibly think of something else in the next week or two.’ By the end of October Orwell believed he was done. Now he just needed a stenographer to help make sense of it all.

It was a desperate race against time. Orwell’s health was deteriorating, the ‘unbelievably bad’ manuscript needed retyping, and the December deadline was looming. Warburg promised to help, and so did Orwell’s agent. At cross-purposes over possible typists, they somehow contrived to make a bad situation infinitely worse. Orwell, feeling beyond help, followed his ex-public schoolboy’s instincts: he would go it alone.

By mid-November, too weak to walk, he retired to bed to tackle ‘the grisly job’ of typing the book on his “decrepit typewriter” by himself. Sustained by endless roll-ups, pots of coffee, strong tea and the warmth of his paraffin heater, with gales buffeting Barnhill, night and day, he struggled on. By 30 November 1948 it was virtually done.

Now Orwell, the old campaigner, protested to his agent that ‘it really wasn’t worth all this fuss. It’s merely that, as it tires me to sit upright for any length of time, I can’t type very neatly and can’t do many pages a day.’ Besides, he added, it was ‘wonderful’ what mistakes a professional typist could make, and, ‘in this book there is the difficulty that it contains a lot of neologisms.’

The typescript of George Orwell’s latest novel reached London in mid-December, as promised. Warburg recognized its qualities at once (‘amongst the most terrifying books I have ever read’) and so did his colleagues. An in-house memo noted ‘if we can’t sell 15 to 20 thousand copies we ought to be shot.’

By now Orwell had left Jura and checked into a TB sanatorium high in the Cotswolds. ‘I ought to have done this two months ago,’ he told Astor, ‘but I wanted to get that bloody book finished.’ Once again Astor stepped in to monitor his friend’s treatment but Orwell’s specialist was privately pessimistic.

As word of Nineteen Eighty-Four began to circulate, Astor’s journalistic instincts kicked in and he began to plan an Observer Profile, a significant accolade but an idea that Orwell contemplated ‘with a certain alarm.’ As spring came he was “having haemoptyses” (spitting blood) and ‘feeling ghastly most of the time’ but was able to involve himself in the pre-publication rituals of the novel, registering ‘quite good notices’ with satisfaction. He joked to Astor that it wouldn’t surprise him ‘if you had to change that profile into an obituary.’

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published on 8 June 1949 (five days later in the US) and was almost universally recognized as a masterpiece, even by Winston Churchill, who told his doctor that he had read it twice. Orwell’s health continued to decline. In October 1949, in his room at University College hospital, he married Sonia Brownell, with David Astor as best man. It was a fleeting moment of happiness; he lingered into the new year of 1950. In the small hours of 21 January, George Orwell suffered a massive hemorrhage in hospital and died alone.

The news was broadcast on the BBC the next morning. Avril Blair and her nephew, still up on Jura, heard the report on the little battery radio in Barnhill. Richard Blair does not recall whether the day was bright or cold but remembers the shock of the news: his father was dead, aged 46.

David Astor arranged for Orwell’s burial in the churchyard at Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire. He lies there now, as Eric Blair, between HH Asquith and a local family of Gypsies.

Cont.

Why ‘1984’? 

Orwell’s title remains a mystery. Some say he was alluding to the centenary of the Fabian Society, founded in 1884. Others suggest a nod to Jack London’s novel The Iron Heel (in which a political movement comes to power in 1984), or perhaps to one of his favorite writer GK Chesterton’s story, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, which is set in 1984.

In his edition of the Collected Works (20 volumes,) Peter Davison notes that Orwell’s American publisher claimed that the title derived from reversing the date, 1948, though there’s no documentary evidence for this. Davison also argues that the date 1984 is linked to the year of Richard Blair’s birth, 1944, and notes that in the manuscript of the novel, the narrative occurs, successively, in 1980, 1982 and finally, 1984. There’s no mystery about the decision to abandon The Last Man in Europe. Orwell himself was always unsure of it. It was his publisher, Fred Warburg who suggested that Nineteen Eighty-Four was a more commercial title.

Freedom of speech

The effect of Nineteen Eighty-Four on our cultural and linguistic landscape has not been limited to either the film adaptation starring John Hurt and Richard Burton, with its Naziesque rallies and chilling soundtrack, nor the earlier one with Michael Redgrave and Edmond O’Brien.

It is likely, however, that many people watching the Big Brother series on television (in the UK, let alone in Angola, Oman or Sweden, or any of the other countries whose TV networks broadcast programmes in the same format) have no idea where the title comes from or that Big Brother himself, whose role in the reality show is mostly to keep the peace between scrapping, swearing contestants like a wise uncle, is not so benign in his original incarnation. Apart from pop-culture renditions of some of the novel’s themes, aspects of its language have been leapt upon by libertarians to describe the curtailment of freedom in the real world by politicians and official—alarmingly, nowhere and never more often than in contemporary Britain.

Orwellian

 Room 101

Some hotels have refused to call a guest bedroom number 101—rather like those tower blocks that don’t have a 13th floor—thanks to the Orwellian concept of a room that contains whatever its occupant finds most impossible to endure. Like Big Brother, this has spawned a modern TV show: in this case, celebrities are invited to name the people or objects they hate most in the world.

Thought police

An accusation often levelled at authoritative governments, or arenas in public in which ideas or speech are being restricted; any conglomeration designed to bleep or blur, remove or ‘correct’ literature, hide and suppress ideas.

Newspeak

For Orwell, freedom of expression was not just about freedom of thought but also linguistic freedom. This term, denoting the narrow and diminishing official vocabulary, has been used ever since to denote jargon currently in vogue with those in power.

Doublethink

Hypocrisy with a twist. Rather than choosing to disregard a contradiction in your opinion, if you are doublethinking, you are deliberately forgetting that the contradiction is there. This subtlety is mostly overlooked by people using the accusation of ‘doublethink’ when trying to accuse an adversary of being hypocritical—but it is a very popular word with people who like a good debate with their beer. If I may: everything is good with beer—if you have the beer first.

IN THE BHAGAVAD-GITA, THE HINDU HOLY BOOK, we find the great archer and warrior, Arjuna, with his charioteer, and avatar of Vishnu, Krisha—of questionable fame stemming from an event earlier in life, having been caught stealing butter–allegedly. They are poised between two massive armies lined up to fight one another. He looks at both sides and finds relatives, fathers and sons, ready to slaughter one another in this battle. In his confusion and anguish, he cries out for guidance. To guide him, Krishna speaks to him as the supreme God of Gods, almighty Time, and instructs him the way of the Yoga.

The war, like so many of what is herein discussed, is an externalization used to illustrate the conflict inside oneself, the kind of conflict that every person has when it comes to choosing, when it comes to differentiating between what is right and what is wrong. Krishna appeared before him as a beacon of light in a time of darkness. He has since appeared to millions as the same light, to lead people from eternal return (For modern comparison, consider Groundhog Day) from what Krishna calls ‘the transient world of sorrow.’

The main thing that appealed to me about this ancient text is just pure beauty. Transience, I believe, is the major theme, the mortality of everything alive on the earth. In describing this to Arjuna, the transience of life and its luxuries, Krishna consoles and reminds Arjuna of his purpose, thereby escorting him out of darkness. What Krishna reveals to him cripples Arjuna and he is left shaking with fear and awe, saying, ‘Thy tears are for those beyond tears; and are thy words words of wisdom? The wise grieve not for those who live; they grieve not for those who died. Life and death will pass away.’

By this I believe he was saying that emotional and physical states exist in finite space, unable to last forever, and reasons that life, like death, will someday pass away into another sphere of existence, beyond eternal return.

‘Because we have all been for all time, I, and thou,’ he says. ‘We all shall be for all time, forever, and forever more.’

It appears in his words that Krishna relates the human body to be nothing but a vessel, like a physical ship to carry the ships’ captain, then, when the physical ship is no longer set afloat, the captain moves on to find another ship, only to be imprisoned again, like smoke inside a bottle until reincarnation, where we’re trapped again inside a body in the miserable cycle of eternal return.

Krishna appears before him as all powerful Time, with, ‘…multitudes rushing into him and pouring out of him as he devours them all, destroys everything.’

Krishna says, “I am all powerful time, and I have come here to slay these men. Fight, or fight not; all these men will die.”

After the mortal body is shed, ‘As the spirit of our mortal body wanders on in childhood, and in you and old age, the spirit moves to a new body,’ Krishna believes the evaluating mid-mind, the mind behind the body, passes in and out of light and dark, between worlds, reliving one cycle of life and death without ever finding something that lasts forever, something that is forever tangible. The spirit, however, is forever to him; this is a good idea, as death is relegated to nothing but a temporary shedding of a body: ‘Interwoven in [his] creation, the spirit is beyond destruction. No one can bring an end to the everlasting spirit or an end to something which had no beginning.’

Once someone escapes the transient world, Krishna instructs, he will dwell beyond time in these bodies, though our bodies have an end in their times, but we remain immeasurable, immortal. With these words, Krishna tells us to carry on our noble fight and noble struggles against the depreciating forces of all of life.

The highest goal for him is a goal familiar to Buddhists: asceticism. ‘From the world of senses,’ Krishna says, again beautifully illustrating transience, ‘comes fire and ice, pleasure and pain. They come and go for they are transient. Arise above them, strong soul.’

These words have encouraged and inspired millions of people; from east of the globe to west, every day for thousands of years, this has the quality of liberation. As the Persian poet wrote: A king wished to have a phrase that would cheer him when sad and sadden him when joyful:

This too shall pass.

 The tone of the piece is intended to convey a liberating, lasting peace—an acceptance and eagerness to dispel disillusion and ignorance, to grow closer to the laws of the world and universe, a universe that is god made manifest—this is, in essence, what is called Brahma. It is a call for people to be honorable and kind to others. I’m not a religious person. I am however not ignorant of what this gives to culture and the arts. From a secular perspective, The Bhagavad-Gita is one of the greatest works of literature ever produced by mankind. There is much to take away, to learn, to believe. Acceptance of the supernatural is not necessary to learn and benefit from this cultural jewel.

The Bhagavad-Gita is a beacon of light, a candle in the dark. All cultures in some form or another produce these spiritual and religious texts. The dependence on the supernatural varies, but the message is universal: good for the sake of goodness and kindness for its own sake, while it will earn you no medals or honorary titles, is what lasting peace demands. If the world worked in this way, if everyone was motivated to not only improve themselves but the world around them, a peaceful world becomes possible. In a free world, there is no need to govern, or for government. Government is a euphemism for organized, demanded control.

Confucius, the proverbial wise old man, is credited with the composition of The Analects. In it, Confucius believed himself to be nothing more than a carrier of knowledge. Nothing divine, nothing unique or supernatural, not an inventor but a curator in the museum of our artistic history. Confucian intended to ‘reinvigorate’ what is called the mandate of heaven. Although he claimed to be but a messenger, he is, nevertheless, credited with the most famous of all axioms: “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.”

With great subtlety and emphasis on learning and growing, Confucius left behind a legacy that has had a lasting impact on the world for thousands of years. The Analects are not the only source for Chinese philosophy: Lao Tzu’s Tao te Ching, The Teachings and Sayings of Chuang Tzu, and the iconic I-Ching, or Book of Changes, are cultural treasures, and inherently consistent in tone and content, giving this brand of Eastern philosophy a unique consistency in an otherwise muddled, frustrated series of contradictive versions.

‘Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.’

Lines like this are the sun, the light to the lofty and pretentious little quote-loving moth in us all.

In keeping with the tone and aloofness of Eastern philosophy, generally speaking, The Analects echo the Book of Changes, Confucius says, ‘The only constant is change.’

This axiom is but a small notch above pandering tautology; yet we’re still drawn to it. Quotes in this vein are uniquely popular and for good reason. Sometimes one can, without true effort and study, get a good summary or imbibe the essence of a work of art with a cursory glimpse and partial, sometimes non-representative quote. However, this quote is representative and conveys a valuable message. The intention is to raise awareness, to make us more aware of ourselves and changing moods and their relation to the seasons, the cycle of life and death, destruction and renewal. As with The Bhagavad-Gita; it is another mantra urging us to accept the inevitability of the transient, the ephemeral among what is truly immortal, or never-changing.

In the religions of independently evolving cultures, we find, over and over, a connection, a branching out across time and space; in this there is a surprising consistency in the essential message, ‘It is only he who is possessed of the most complete sincerity that can exist under heaven, who can give its full development to his nature. Able to give its full development to his own nature, he can do the same to the nature of other men.’

Confucius’s philosophy is a call to the most ambitious of our characters to look for wisdom and sincerity.

‘Hold faithfulness and sincerity as first principles. Then no friends would not be like yourself (all friends would be as loyal as yourself.) If you make a mistake, do not be afraid to correct it.’

This is unique among quasi-religious texts: this is a eukaryotic idea within, what is by nature, a prokaryotic art-form.

In all the philosophies and religions produced by mankind, within each is some sort of promise, some hint of shelter from whatever storms in which we struggle—and a promised liberation, a refuge to come, a refuge for each moment needed.

Hawthorne & the Cult of Judgment

In the Scarlet Letter, Hester Prim has a daughter out of wedlock, Pearl.

“For Peril~”9780671510114

And for the Puritan society, for that culture, this is a sin. They were too civilized to burn her at the stake and kill her, they wanted to kill her and make her live with it. So they burned her while she was still alive, forcing her to wear the eponymous Scarlet Letter – ‘A’ for Adultery. (The worst segment in Sesame St. history, if you ask me.)

This type of punishment, this very demeaning sentence, not least of all to Prim, but to an absolute innocent, the child, caters to a culture of judgment, a culture that instructs not through hands’ on education, but through shame and judgment.

The purpose of this public ridicule is a revenge, in this case, a revenge against a woman’s transgressions, despite their not knowing of the situation in its entirety. Because in a culture of encouraged judgment, a psychological condition plays an important role: you are more likely to excuse your own behavior because you know the reasons behind your behavior, if you run a red light, there are justifiable reasons. If someone else does the same, or cuts you off in traffic, may they burn in hell. And there is another issue: confirmation bias. It is the tendency to seek out that which reinforces what you already believe while at the same time avoiding anything that might contradict those beliefs, even to the extent that contradictory proof will only solidify your position further.

After Hester is lettered, put on display for all to see – for the old to pity, for the young to fear themselves and their own desire – it is to the sole benefit of a culture too busy judging a Rembrandt to learn to paint. There’s a large audience for popular criticism, the criticism of film, music, and literature, and people. Yes, people. That thing you are. Self bias doesn’t extend to other people. Why, that’d be crazy. But they have a word for that: empathy. The excuses we make for ourselves are excuses we’d never accept from somebody else.

There are different types of judgment, to be fair, and not all judgment is vindictive. Literary criticism is more explanatory than dismissive in most cases, looking to expand upon the story’s merits rather than burn it for its flaws. I see the appeal: understanding is hard. It takes time. And burning is easy and fun. Whereas literary criticism and traditional film criticism expand on the story to show its relevance and applicability, this is in furtherance of teaching and preserving the intellectual culture of humanity.

With dismissive criticism, it makes it easy for someone without time or ability to create and contribute, even if it’s only to the detriment of harder working people. only to join the dehumanized spectators on the sidelines, never a part of the defense or prosecution, with nothing to lose, contributing only to the chorus of other blunt and feeble instruments without losing the delusion that they could make music, much better in fact, if they tried. Not trying is how you fail without doing anything, and it’s easier to redirect that judgment, to focus it on someone who did try. By distance and cynicism are the jaded excused, only by themselves, for those like them, without empathy, are making similar excuses, and those excuses don’t apply to other people. 

Hawthorne makes less of a case for the removal of Hester’s scarlet letter than advocate a world where there’s no hunger for this kind of public disgrace.  as all who live fall short of their goals, fuck up, make mistakes, some large, some small, and the encouragement of lettering doesn’t stop more people from failing, it stops more people from trying.

Arthur Miller touched on many of the same themes in The Crucible: 

“Ours is a divided empire in which certain ideas and actions are of God, then their opposite are of Lucifer. A political party is equated with a moral right, and opposition to it with diabolical malevolence.”

This was an injunction to share more and hide less, a call to mpathy, to understand a shared humanity, to use a gray approach when considering people, not thinking of things in good and evil, wholly so, or black and white, guilty and non-guilty, implying that you are purely and only one or the other. It’s easy, I get it, to understand contrasting ideas when using exaggerated, extreme examples but it comes at the cost of subtlety and nuance (two endangered species of bird found in French Polynesia.)

the-crucible-nooses-hand

The Crucible by Arthur Miller is a similar tale, another warning against public condemnation and judgment, in instance using the same political machinery to brand someone with a scarlet letter. Miller’s allegory is a treatise on the morality of society’s collective need to see someone hurt, to stab someone solely to see their blood, not for justice or in furtherance of truth, not truth, but a revenge against their difference, a poison, to make someone’s name synonymous with their mistake, like Hester’s A – by the end of the story it changes from a totem of shame to be angel, to the young women she seeks to help and angel, even.

What starts as political opposition becomes, through manipulation, a moral, emotional opposition. This allows an issue to be addressed in the easiest but least appropriate manner: emotionally and personally. When you treat one set of people as inherently better people, how kindly then should those less fortunate be treated, those with the disadvantage only of having been born different, or different by choice? They become morally repugnant, and as such the process of judgment becomes not only a necessity but moral, even righteous. A sense of pride, a sense of responsibility – the responsibility to judge. Whenever you pull a scab off someone’s wound and point a camera at it, you’re embroidering a Scarlet Letter,

Hawthorne’s novel is as relevant now as it was when it was released and is a poignant, profound reminded of the nobility of humility in the face of criticism and dismissiveness, slander and shaming. Though we may not see another’s heart, nor others ours, surely if we only looked for scarlet letters, through confirmation bias and osmosis, we’d find one in everybody, and place it on them publicly and forever, as Hester’s gravestone is emblazoned with that same A that marked her shame, to remind the living, in perpetuity, the penalty of making a mistake. There’s a scarlet letter for every mistake you can name, but keep in mind, in the court of history, the jury is on trial, and the world is not full of bit players only, extras with varying degrees of plot and development, but full of tars, all the lead character. Don’t be the antagonist. be the person who shows up when the screenwriters have no other way to move forward.

Essay – Proust’s Way: Life and Romance in a Search for Lost Time

WHEN I WAS 12 YEARS OLD I READ SOMETHING more terrifying than anything I had read before. The only book series any of the kids in my year ever read of their own choosing was Goosebumps by R.L. Stein. It was a ridiculous pop-horror book for kids. The book that would keep me up for nights was recommended by my librarian after I shared a poem I wrote. She responded with the recommendation that I read Crime and Punishment.  I was twelve. I have since reasoned that this was a punishment in and of itself.

I don’t know if individuals can explain why they like the things they like, or why red is better to most Russians than the color blue. My own theory is that after so many centuries of fighting off the most dangerous armies in history, they have ironically fell in love with the sight of blood. And to a young man, it was the first book that ever made apparent to me that murder and violence is not always motivated by clear-cut villains who sing a song to explain why they’re the bad guys.

In our culture, the villains often have their faces masked, or hidden, covered in black—or they are aliens or terrorists or, for nostalgia, communists, and they’re all reduced to identical thoughts and attitudes and looks. Dostoevsky was the first author I discovered who made the killer the main character; he made the killer a hero. I wasn’t used to that. It changed the way I looked at motivations and my attitude towards simplistic depictions of good and evil. If Dostoevsky changed the way I looked at the nature of good and evil, Proust changed the way I looked at everything.

The more I read the more enamored I was. I was very fond of the Russian literature I read; Chekov, Turgenev, Lertmentov, Bulgakov (especially Master and Margarita,) Tolstoy, Pushkin, Nabokov, and Gogol. The explosive characters, the madness, the psychological complexity, all had a tremendous influence on how I would write novels.

When I was almost finished with this book, I was fortunate enough to go through a profound moral crisis and tragedy. I was put in the same situation as Ernest Hemingway was, at twenty-five, when all the work he had to show for his entire life was lost at a train-station because of a misplaced suitcase. Everything about Hemingway’s formative years that could have given us a better understanding of his method didn’t exist.

Hemingway was the antithesis to the bombast and platitudinous method of Shakespeare and the high drama of Goethe and I never found another writer who could write so gently with such force. The most important thing about Ernest Hemingway was how he made the ordinary seem almost mythic. After I went through pupation I discovered that I had no real affiliation with post-modernism. It seemed to be more focused on what can only be called more form and less art. It was a type of masturbation, a way to use words as a maze to amaze with flair of language and verve of the freedom that came with abandoning the rules of composition. There is a freedom in that kind of work, but cleverness is no substitution for tenderness, and genius is no substitute for beauty and true poignancy.

I had been writing for twenty years when I discovered In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. The first thing to strike me was how understated and natural it all was. There was no sense of bombast or overt melodrama. It is another case in which the deepest of meaning is achieved because life is shown in all its forms and from such scenes so much can be taken.

Proust’s epic is hard to relegate to a category. If I had to say what it was about, I’d say everything; time and space, love and loss—everything in the human sphere of experience.  In Search of Lost Time or alternatively, Remembrance of Things Past, is one of the longest popular novels in history. It comes in at over 4,000 pages. And not a word is wasted.

The importance of the unimportant is a unique characteristic of the French school of romanticism and naturalism among the more prominent of French novelists; Balzac, Flaubert, Chateaubriand. Stendhal. But none of them managed to reach the  heights of literature I had discovered in Proust. It’s a cliché now to say that reading Proust will change your life. However, in this case it has become cliché because it is true. And he does it unremarkably, conversationally, even recounting the seemingly unimportant details of his house in the fictional town he made immortal at the end of The Past Recaptured. The titles are literal.

Proust was a sickly and anxiety ridden man when he turned thirty and had but one newspaper publication to his name. This was before he found himself capable of pulling such a masterful tale out of that famous teacup. In doing so he fashioned what I believe to be the best work of literature of all time. It’s all a disappearing act;  a whole life in one book, wherein there is no death; time is defeated in these silent pockets of eternity in which Proust found that precious hawthorn bush; the sound of skipping rocks, the sound of toast; the heavenly music was the fountain of not only youth, but that which he had found in his search through time and self-diagnosis—a gradual undressing of the superficial and the shallow. The layers of characters fall away until you see bone

Proust not only unmasked himself. He unmasked the entirety of human history. Along with the Geurmentes, an idolized, almost deistic conception for Proust’s French universe made immortal by his hand. Balzac’s The Human Comedy collection is more decorative, concerned more with unedited nature than Proust and external translation, settings, set-pieces; Proust’s setting is the landscape of malleable memory.

His search for immortality became immortal; it is, in this regard, a precursor to Fellini’s 8 ½; both now considered untouchable works of art, beyond reproach. Another interesting fact is the reading within Proust’s books; his characters are always in the middle of one book or another, and art and affectation in the highbrow culture of the period was ripe for satire.

In a book I recently read, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, the author [Johah Lehrer] makes a convincing case for the triumph of art over science in demonstrating discoveries of scientific truths in art long before conventional science could verify the discoveries. Proust presaged the findings of modern neuroscience intuitively. He understood the distortions and the way a building by memory could change in color, in form, in location; bringing up the obvious question as to how much of our lives are as we remember it to be. It’s a heavy question, and perhaps the most unanswerable. But tthese ideas are in the back seat, of characters and character moments. The mundane is transformed by its telling.

In Swann’s Way, a peculiar aspect of Marcel’s family is revealed: they come to dinner an hour earlier on Saturday than they do the rest of the week. It’s almost a throwaway line, but resolves itself in a memorable subplot. The lack of over-description, the lack of meaning to the overall plot, and its lack of importance is what makes it so important to consider when reading and interpreting naturalism. Despite the number of scholars who have made their careers discussing and interpreting Proust, he’s not particularly hard to interpret; it’s all right there. If you read the entire story, you’ll find the narrator happy to explain every detail of his conscience. This is what gives Marcel, as a character such nuance. It has been said that every disguise is a self-portrait. And because he says so much, he attempts to hide much more; whenever the story gets too close to the author we are deferred to another aspect of his consciousness, or another explanation. If ever a book was more adequate in describing what it is to be alive, I have yet to read it.

 

Other than that, it’s pretty good.

Poem: Willow (from Counterpane)

I
NO SIGNAL

Not far from here, not long ago,
an old man heard the voice of God—
through his old radio.
He lived with Willow,
his son—the Mute,
who never spoke a word.
His father did not care, he knew,
that when he prayed God heard.
All was well until the day,
the signal seemed to fade.
where once was the voice of God,
a tawdry ballad played.

He stayed awake all night and tried,
through the darkness light to find,
and could not tune back in.
His digital dials attempted forever
though deep down he knew he’d never
hear God’s sweet voice again
The holy frequency was gone,
and that old man, now scared, alone,
to the basement did descend.
His saddened son above remained,
while his father went insane,
yet all he did was pray.
“Don’t leave him in the dark, like that,
why have you left, will you come back?”
and yet the silence stayed.
“Bring him back to grace, and home.
Don’t leave him in the dark, alone.”

He paced about the basement dark,
oft lit by radiator sparks.
A sick God seemed to rise;
In the twisted shape of his dad, late,
were tired and bloodshot eyes.
“The child must go,” the sick God said.
“There are devils in his head.
The child—the Mute—must die.

“I’ll give you the frequency,
so you can tune back into me;
you know just what to dial.
The sick God in his father’s skin,
faded into black again,
and ‘lone the old man cried.
It goes on now, to never end,
like that which did not begin.

II
FOR YESTERDAY

The silence stayed for several days,
on antique speakers never played,
the sublime songs of God delayed;
Just echoes of a man who screamed,
and tufts of smoke in slanting beams,
the day was sickly gray.
The old man with his knives in hand,
walked the quiet stairs to stand,
in Willow’s gold doorway.

And on the pillow,
lay there, Willow,
who silent cried for help.
He prayed for his father, and,
his lovely long lost mother Anne
but never for himself.
destiny weaves spider webs—
the tide comes in, the water ebbs,
leaving shells upon the shelf.

The disconnected loved ones mourn,
their life upon the shore forlorn,
where once they went to play.
The sunshine and the ocean breeze,
they made sandcastles by the sea.
When they were done—
down went the sun,
and then they tired lay.
The sun went down,
when Willow frowned—
a lament for the day.
That which never did begin
like a circle will not end.

III
ANGEL IN THE DESERT

The crazed old man sat by his son,
on a ragged racecar bed.
He said, “We have to talk, my son.”
Yet Willow turned his head.
He tucked him in, and sang his song
until his son had safely gone
to the dream world Gilead.

And while there, the pale blue air,
in dancing circles did not care,
and words passed through the sky.
Amidst the endless wheatfield stalks,
above he heard a lost crow squawk,
and his lost mother’s cry.

He ran blind into the field,
his hands before him grasped to feel,
and Willow came to find:
A radio and crying tape,
he knew at once he was too late;
the digital crying died.
It hacked and coughed,
and then shut off;
young saddened Willow sighed.

Willow in the wheatfield heard,
the sound of something like a bird;
he stood and looked around.
All he saw was trees, and quiet,
twisted trees their shapes beside it,
and the shrouds of silken clouds
looked just like his mother’s gown—
he chased it through the night.
Through the rows of stalks,
he heard his mother call.
He walked amongst the dying leaves
as they around him fall.

He found her on a quiet hill,
a breathing mannequin lying still—
he then walked up the slope.
He knelt and tried to hold her hand—
it slipped away like grains of sand,
and then turned into smoke.

Don’t cry for me,
my sweet, you’ll see,
at rest in El Dorado.
The wind picked up,
the voice was gone,
and he was on the hill alone,
until, at last, he thought:
How could what did not begin,
ever stop or ever end?

IV
THE MAN IN THE MIRROR

Beside him when he woke, there lay,
a hundred knives lay by his face.
as chalk around a corpse and facing in.
Outside his door his father wept—
and then with bloodshot eyes he crept,
from the basement to the den.
Willow wished to call his name—
he tried “I love you”—nothing came,
then silent Willow sighed again.

Underground his father watched,
the man in the mirror he forgot,
his mind was white noise now.
The ticking clock above had stopped,
like crumpled paper Roger dropped,
again he heard the sound.

The sun came up—to his surprise;
The radiator shrieked, and cried,
and static seemed to drown:
Roger stumbled to his feet,
and his eyes tired seemed the greet:
his father’s pictures spread around.

The more he stared—the wall,
which bore,
His father’s pictures smeared with
WHORE
written in blood,
like caked on mud,
he tore the pictures from the wall,
shouts his son heard down the hall—
with vertigo he stood.
The tempest of the moment gone,
he remained there, cold alone;
he tacked his father’s
blood stained pictures,
on the wall again:
only to take them off once more:
the circle never ends.

V
THE TREE THAT SEED BECAME TO BE

Willow had his mother’s eyes,
as blue as springtime azure skies;
his hair was tasseled, black.
He got his name from an old tree,
where his father asked his mother,
“Will you marry me?”
She said yes and they both sat,
together in one silhouette,
when love and life was free.

Five months later they were wed—
the newlyweds played in their bed,
and planted the seed.
over the months it steady grew,
until the seed itself had bloomed,
when Willow came to be.

And all the wond’rous years that followed—
one after another ‘morrow,
were joyful times for all;
They ate together, smiled, and laughed,
as hour after hour passed,
as an apple from a tree to fall.

VII
LIFE IN ONE STANZA GONE

All was well, and life was bright,
until wandered in that night,
when they played lost and found.
Willow splashed in pools of rain,
when a car passed in the lane,
and lifeless Anna hit the ground.
Her young son,
now frightened, stunned,
heard but a ringing sound.

Willow by his mother lay,
unable, as he wished to say,
mother I love you so.
He watched her life drain,
as she died,
he saw that frightened look,
her eyes,
and she dissolved like smoke.

Silent Willow, by the grave,
stood by as the reverend prayed:
“Let Anna find her rest.”
Even as hard as Willow tried—
he couldn’t hold back as he cried,
and Willow did his best.
They buried her beneath the tree,
the weeping willow in the spring—
in the orchard where they loved:
The sad and listless loves one lost,
in tears they stood above.

VII
IN FALL WHEN FALL THE LEAVES

Later on when he got home—
he stood in his room alone,
and wistful held his breath.
That poem, he thought,
that poem of old—
in lyricism quaint yet bold:
You are what you become, no less.

He could not live without his Anne,
but Willow did his best.
He met a lawyer late that night,
and found his mother’s locket white—
it dangled on his chest.
On each side, when open pried,
a picture of himself.

One of them, a child who cried,
the other—Willow smiling wide:
“You were the world to me, my son,
And now that you are gone—
I only want to tell you now,
I heard your every song.”

He did his best all of his life,
when terrified awake at night,
his mother’s ghost appeared:
Don’t you love me?
Can you say it?
The forlorn loved one leered.
Willow tried to speak again,
just silence with his mouth open:
his mother disappeared.

He lay there in the bed, at night—
his hands clenching the covers tight,
hoping his mother would appear.
And sobbing Willow on his pillow,
thought that he could hear:
the love and comfort in his mother,
be replaced by fear.

VIII
THE LIGHTHOUSE GONE

In the years that after passed,
Willow seldom—if all—laughed,
instead in silence moped;
his father waited in the hall—
with his back against the wall,
that his son would see the light—
the light of God at night to strike,
that he might hear the good Lord call—
though all he heard was silence, all;
the shadows danced the night.
Amidst the shadows that he saw—
the ones that up his wall had crawled,
his mother— his dead lighthouse bright.

Anna’s ghost transparent white,
came to Roger in the night:
I guess you’ve left me, nothing new,
my father and your father too.
I guess you’re gone,
and I have grown;
that’s what we always do.
We all leave, and in the end—
return to whence we came again,
and so the circle goes.

IX
THE NEVER ENDING VALLEY

The tragedy of those days gone,
his father underground, alone:
tacked pictures on the wall.
Where once was his father’s face,
his own sadness had replaced:
and above it, as with all:
he scrawled above his pictures, that,
what once was red was written black.
BASTARD in his blood he scrawled,
in his despair he heard a call—
the sickly God of old was back.
“If you wish to save your son,
I’m sure you know what must be done.”
and the voice slipped through the cracks.

Roger made the preparations,
for the junkie constellations.
The needle sighed, Roger, relieved,
Thought about his son and then,
saw the valley by the bend,
and felt the ocean breathe.
It was the song, that sing along,
the Earth’s soliloquy.
Roger was so close to drowning,
in a numb opiate sea

There amidst the rich green grass—
under a blue sky made of glass,
Roger was at peace.
Paradise was within sight—
where grew a never dying light:
the never-ending valley of the free.
And then he saw behind his eyes—
that far flung long gone night:
when laughing Willow, in the rain,
skipped through puddles as he sang,
his mother’s smile so bright.
And when she faded like a flame,
Roger had himself to blame;
he thought of Humpty Dumpty,
and saw it was his life:
and he thought that he was not
put back together right.

The quiet children, pale, naive,
lay in their beds in far off dreams—
of velvet skies and golden streams,
and watch the good Sol die by eve.
to lose it is not high a price,
and no one has to grieve.
Just a flicker of the eye,
Another pilgrim passes by,
as yet another leaves,
That which never did begin,
in no way could come to end.

IX
AUTUMN

Roger walked the stairs with care,
Looked through doorway, Willow there,
On his side and legs withdrawn.
For a moment Roger watched,
And all the moments he forgot,
Drowned him as the dawn.
He took the needle from his pocket,
and his mother Anna’s locket,
and then he shot the faun.

Willow woke and saw his dad,
in the chair beside his bed
with tear stains in his eyes—
What’s wrong daddy? Willow wrote
“I’m sorry,” Roger penned a note.
And nervous turned to leave.
But Willow drowsy wrote, to ask,
“Will you read to me?”

His father Roger turned around,
went by the bed and sat back down,
“Of course I can,” his father, pleased.
“What do you think that I should read?”
“On the bookshelf by the door—”
He wrote it down just like before.
“—was a book my mommy read to me.”
Before she died on Blossom St.

Roger pushed the chair and stood,
and walked across old planks of wood—
to his son’s bookshelf.
Sitting on top of clothes and socks,
Was an old book dog-eared at the top,
a book he’d bought himself.
A Child’s Garden of Verses,
he found the favorite verse of his;
and read it to himself:

When I was sick and lay in bed,
I had two pillows at my head,
And all my toys beside me lay,
To keep me happy through the day.

Sometimes for an hour or so,
I watched my leaden soldiers go,
With different uniforms and drills,
Among the bed clothes through the hills

And sometimes sent my ships in fleets,
All up and down amongst the sheets,
Or bright my trees and houses out,
And planted cities all about.

I was the giant great and still
That sits upon the pillow hill,
And sees before him, dull and plain,
The pleasant land of Counterpane.

He took a pillow from the bed,
and put it over Willow’s head:
Willow gasped but could not call,
His father pressed down on his nose,
that stained the pillow like a rose.
A minute passed, with his last gasp,
a silent child named Willow passed.

X
THE MURAL IN THE CLOSET

He took his body to the basement,
were he kept Willow’s replacement:
a gaudy harlot mannequin.
He unlocked the closet door,
and drug his son across the floor—
and the white noise came again.

He propped it up as Willow sat—
in Willow’s clothes and baseball hat,
and Roger grabbed the bin.
The pictures of young Willow spread
across the wall and down the halls.
The white noise came again.

Above the pictures lined in rows,
He wrote in thick white paint
WILLOW
he closed the closet door behind,
and tried to keep it from his mind,
he walked in an unsteady line;
to the sofa apropos.
The sound of static hissing, cracked,
it seemed the sick God had came back.

He tried to trace the source,
the sound,
and on the radio he found—
such an old song playing slow.
It reminded him of that lost day,
just him and Willow on the lake,
they climbed into the boat.

They made their way to deeper water,
and Willow smiled beside his father—
the winds of Spring began to blow.
They sang together in the breeze,
the thought made Roger hit his knees:
he changed the channel on the old,
radio he wish he’d sold;
tears were streaming down his face—
his heart had quickened in its pace:
and then he heard the Ghost.

He changed the channel, yet he heard,
a string of disconnected words,
all soft as they came in.
Behind the songs and sing-a-longs,
“Daddy what did I do wrong?”
As he had done all of his life,
Roger ran again.
As he passed a pane of glass,
Roger turned and saw, at last:
the sick God in the frame was him.

He hurried up the creaking stairs,
and opened up his dresser, where,
lay the only gun he had.
He ran back to the basement, and,
his wife and son stood hand to hand;
he put the magnum to his head.
After a flash he hit the ground,
slurring words he twitched around—
and Roger lay there dead.

Roger passed by in a dream,
as he unraveled at the seams:
trapped in his mind alone.
Frozen in a chair beside,
the ghost of Willow which replied:
“Daddy what did I do wrong?”
He repeated the question,
over and over,
The question went unheard,
and Roger could not reply.
There he was inside his mind,
and trapped he could not cry.

With silent Willow standing by him,
in vain he often tried:
to say those words, Will wished to hear:
just a simple, “Daddy’s here.”
Their souls are stuck—
between two worlds,
a silent circle not to end:
like that which did not begin.
And they came like water,
and as wind they go:
they’re all buried underneath,
that old and weeping Willow.

The Geometry of Thought

It is not directly possible to know the exact circumstances, or selection pressures, that favored the development of the human brain. Consideration of its structural evolution, and comparative research, on human and nonhumans (other members of the primate order) have provided insights into the early ‘drafts’ of the modern mind. It is believed that, during the evolution of our mind, the nervous system changed in a number of manners, four to be precise. The arrangement of organs first became centralized in architecture, being the next step of evolution from a loose connection of nerve cells, as in jellyfish, to a spinal column and complex brain with impressive swellings at the hindbrain and forebrain. Centralized architecture led to hierarchy amongst structure and it appears that newer ‘drafts’ of the brain overtook the earlier additions and in effect became the Operator, the master of the domain of evaluating sensations… Continue reading

Reweaving the Double Helix

The way most human beings form their thoughts are based on sensory input: the eyes, the ears, the nose, taste and touch; these senses report information to the mind. In this chapter, despite brief digressions, I will describe the eye–the evolving window–and the way it allows us to form our image of the world. I will attempt to detail, among other things, the various ways that animals, with different faculties, have adapted to their environments… Continue reading

Tupac Changes: Speaker for the Dead

For the American rapper and poet Tupac Shakur, who performed under the stage name 2pac until his death in September of 1996, Changes was, upon release, considered to be a step backward from a groundbreaking and impressive career. Though I won’t shame the critic by naming him, the critic believed that the gospel stylings in the chorus and the piano was pandering to white audiences. This may not be necessarily true on 2psc’s part; but not keeping his music exclusive to a particular culture is in the spirit of equality and therefore something to be applauded.

I don’t think this is what brought the white audience in; I think this is the musical equivalent of Ray Charles recording Georgia. It strayed away from his usual fair and, when that happens in an artist’s career, there is always the accusation of pandering, selling out, or backsliding; I think by branching out into different styles of music 2pac was able to bring in a larger audience. This is what solidified 2pac as more than just a bad boy or a thug, and turned him into a social commentator and poet.

He still had the image of the bad boy of gangster rap when Changes was released; it showed not only an unprecedented cultural and political perspective in hip-hop, but in the long run humanized a caricature, making his message harder to dismiss. Now his most well-known and beloved song, it was once named as one of his 10 worst by Rolling Stone.

If there’s any correlation between another person’s attempt at artistry which, upon release, was considered backsliding, it was The Shining by Stanley Kubrick; a man who brought us some of the most famous and revered scenes and movies in the history of cinema throughout his career, including the proverbial ‘good’ science fiction film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of the most visionary films ever made, despite audiences understanding it as much as the apes at the beginning of the film understood the obviously unnatural monolith. They didn’t understand it, but it changed something in them, awakened a new capacity. Keep this in mind.

To look at The Shining with modern eyes, we see one of the most iconic horror films ever made, an enduring, unnerving classic full of immortal moments; a masterpiece one could say, and one of the finest pieces of film to ever to be screened. There are many people, having watched it in the past few years, who had, by innumerable pop-culture references, seen almost every scene in the film in one medium or another; that’s how ubiquitous it is in modern culture, standing as a cultural milestone in film history. Bear with me; the relationship between The Shining and Changes will be made clear.

Stanley Kubrick is responsible for 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dr. Strangelove, Paths of Glory, Eyes Wide Shut, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, and Full Metal Jacket— all of which received enormous critical success and frequently turn up on Top 10 and Top 100 lists. Then there was The Shining, for which Stanley Kubrick, a man responsible for masterpiece after masterpiece after masterpiece, received a worst director nomination for the Razzies. Worst director.

Lies are often referred to as scandals, but it’s not off the mark to consider some truths to be just as scandalous, if not more so, than your run of the mill scandal. Especially in The Shining; we are here confronted with terrors much worse than the fictions of the werewolf or the vampire, the mummy or the ghosts: there are things in this world more terrible than vampires and werewolves, mummies and warlocks and Plans 1-9 From Outer Space, and they are more terrible because they are real, and even more terrible because they’re common.

These are houses haunted by the living, living amid child abuse, alcoholism, and domestic violence. This is the relationship between 2pac’s Changes, and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The horror in these poetic works is the horror of the real world. Discounting whatever Kubrick was going for with the ending, the abusive father and husband, an alcoholic and egotist, terrorizes his family in very real, very human ways. And 2pac’s Changes evokes the same sense of real life horror. The horror is not in its novelty, its singularity; the horror is in its frequency, its pervasiveness—not only in American slums but around the world.

They are both horror stories, hauntings, and Changes is a world of teenage ghosts who died for shoes or change; shot in the streets for their watch or misplaced rage stemming from hopelessness and a crushing sense of futility, their spirits giving resonance to the evocative but ironically flat and passive refrain, ‘hey, that’s the way it is,’ – a quietus, acknowledged as an accepted absurdity in wistfulness, and these young men and women imbue the delicacies of the piano sampling, the echo effects being reminiscent of the lost; echoes as they are, emanations Tupac channels in his lyrics. The horrors in this song aren’t just a family trapped in a haunted house; it’s a nation trapped in haunted house full of the ghosts of racism, poverty, distrust and vendetta.

In a concrete prison, each war a maze of alleyways to nowhere, a Minotaur at the end of every corner, a world transformed into a permanent purgatory and Tupac expresses this purgatory and the nonchalance, or suspected nonchalance of the ineffectual response in government. This is what upset the stomach of the 5 star restaurant crowd, putting them off their lobster and linguini; a land of the free in which an entire culture is without the afforded liberty to give expression to their rage and their confusion and their anger. In a way that Shakespeare gave the English a sense of who they were, what their struggles were to be in life, Tupac Shakur was this to millions of people in ghettos and poverty stricken neighborhoods.

With some of the best lyrical structures of his career, and a chorus channeling the ghosts to whom Tupac is giving voice, add up to a socially conscious song that, in the abstract, encapsulated a confused point in a culture’s arrested evolution caught between inarticulate screaming and a measured, silent response to a government unconcerned with poverty stricken neighborhoods.

2pac the rapper is a character within the song, and Tupac the person is as well, as a cynic, an optimist, and social critic, as well as what would get him dubbed a preacher and a visionary. There is also another narrative voice, the common man, the streetwalker, trapped by debt and lack of economic opportunity. Drug trafficking in these communities is rigorously opposed by cops. This is by design.

The likelihood of going to college is low; a high school diploma guarantees nothing. They are left in a permanent economic depression, a limbo somewhere between poverty and lower class.

Selling crack is perhaps the biggest cliché about ghetto culture and is used as a way to malign someone’s character. It is not a reflection of the moral decay of an individual; it’s a reflection of the decay at the root of a system that creates beggars—starvation in between buffets.

Drugs are gasoline for cars that cannot run on gas, or cars that can but just can’t will themselves to do so; it is fuel for working cars that think they’re broken. Changes is a rich literary work and will take some effort to unpack and do a proper critical study; but, as this is kind of what this book is for, that’s what’s going to happen.

 

 

 

Cont.

 

Perspectives emerge through contextual correlation. It begins with Tupac the person reflecting from the perspective of the streetwalker narrator, a narrator whose perspective is from a life of drugs and crime and violence, an exaggerated parody of what Tupac’s critics believed him to be; this voice comes in after the first two lines. This is a thematic response to contrary perspectives within the stanza. Tupac reflects before it’s made implicit; as it is a written piece, it isn’t necessary to be linear to make a cohesive whole.

The first line sees Tupac the person–the person behind songs like this, not 2pac the rapper behind songs like Hail Mary– waking up; this has been related to enlightenment, to a heightened awareness, and it is an ancient dramatic device which evokes the revelatory and poignant by appealing to the best within us all.

The first lines come chronologically, within the song, after the first lines are spoken, as the first two lines are a reflection of the third and fourth lines. The streetwalker narrator’s interplay with Tupac the person plays a big part in the first verse; the contrast between someone living the life and someone reflecting on that life.

It is possible, if not probable, that the contrast is between what a person is–disenchanted with being a streetwalker– reflecting on the way they were preemptively to provide context for such remarks, as they’re often augmented by the Tupac voice before they’re made or immediately–sometimes midline–after they’re spoken. Tupac the thug shows up too, in later lines, but Tupac the person begins in reflection:

I see no changes;

Wake up in the morning and I ask myself 

Is life worth living, should I blast myself?

If the change is not between different narrative aspects, it is interesting to consider: the narrator’s first thoughts upon awakening are of suicide.

         I’m tired of feeling poor, and even worse, I’m black       My stomach hurts so I’m looking for a purse to snatch.

By immediately linking crime to poverty the discourse is forced to look at the roots of crime, to poverty. The character is being imbued with a crisis of conscience because of what he feels is necessary just to eat. The suggestion that criminals are not by default born to be criminals again asks the listener to consider what can justify the actions behind this kind of crime and the character behind the actions of what used to be easily dismissible criminals without motive beyond self-gratification.

It may be this realization that led to the initial crisis:: the likelihood of positive change taking place in his lifetime can seem to be a naïve dream.  In the face of hopelessness, many people feel that suicide is the only answer, which leads to the following, highly charged interplay between Tupac the person and the streetwalker narrator.

         Cops give a damn about a negro,

         Pull the trigger, kill a nigger,    He’s a hero. 

As irreverent as this sentiment seems, it is a harsh, but sharp analysis of life as seen through the eyes only a poet or philosopher can put to use; to take in knowledge for storage is education; education and creativity is the synthesis through which true intelligence is expressed. Genius is the degree of poignancy and depth the expression possesses.

The poet is always present; as you can see how he interjects more rhythm with the false stop between what would be two end-sentence word rhymes with the ‘pull the trigger, kill the nigger’ line. It’s crude, but it’s an elegant technique to interject a degree of thematic resonance into what could’ve just moved the song along.  The best writers always find a way to make words within end-rhyme structured sentences connect each other in more ways than rhyme; and in this rhyme he ties trigger and with nigger, in rhyme and, at the same time, negro and hero along with all that implies.

Sensitive as he is, making such a comment ‘pull the trigger, kill a nigger, he’s a hero’ with such distance and frequency has left him undoubtedly callous and jaded. This is another facet of the artist, prismatic in contrasting internal conflict. While the streetwalker voice may be desperate, the cynic is what he is because of a life mired in not only a miserable cycle, but a tiring, taxing, emotionally draining cycle, making old men of teenagers. The next verse is a direct exchange between narrative voices:

         Give crack to the kids

(Who the hell cares?)

         One less hungry mouth on the welfare.

And he continues in the same, ironic voice, this time in the third person:

 First ship ’em dope and let ’em deal to brothers

Give ’em guns, step back, and watch ’em kill each other.

 The commonality of black on black crime in the 90’s got to the point where it wasn’t turning any heads.

         ‘It’s time to fight back,’ that’s what Huey said.

         Two shots in the dark, now Huey’s dead.

This moment is transformative; in the presence of death, Tupac becomes a sharp social critic and voice of a generation of disenfranchised, disaffected youths whilst simultaneously broadening awareness and pushing for change in other communities that might not have cared had he not tackled these issues, had he continued to play it safe. When the optimist within him comes to the forefront in the presence of tragedy, he is a grand consoler; and he realizes that although there is some hope for the hopeless, he still hasn’t shed his doubt completely and wont, but in making this song, it is the embodiment of the famous Rosa Parks aphorism:

Be the change you wish to see in the world.

The narrative voices are still conflicting. The interlocutor, the operating consciousness, is expressing solidarity, consolation; perhaps by recognizing these elements within himself, he finally achieves a sort of peace and in making peace with himself sees how peace is possible for all men and women:

 I got love for my brother,

 but we can never go nowhere 

unless we share with each other. 

We gotta start making changes, 

learn to see each other as a brother

instead of two  different strangers.

Although he sees the need for changes, he unconsciously ties the rhyme of changes with strangers. Earlier in the song, he tied negro and hero, trigger and nigger; now he’s tying changes and strangers—after saying earlier he wished he could go back to the way things were when he was a kid–after changing. He understands that the type of change he is suggesting is tantamount to a cultural death, the death of a shared hardship having created, and broken, so many bonds; and the loss of that identity is not something to be mourned because he sees it as poverty, drugs, crime, and death.

Although shedding a cultural identity is long and hard, people are addicted, psychologically, and are dedicated to remain ‘true’ to who they are, even if who they are is destructive to themselves and others in some way or another. As the Tupac narrative voice realizes, he has a cultivated image, which allows him to prevaricate between critic, satirist, and the stereotypical thug introduced in the first verse; his personality and identity is something to which he is dedicated. Even as he rebukes this caricature, the revolutionary he invokes is killed; and this is what it takes—horror of the highest order—to truly bring people together as a truly human family whose patriotism is to the world shared by us all. It’s a harsh truth that while murder can bring out the worst in people—in revenge killings, wars—it can also permeate higher social strata and breathe life into advocacy that is capable of making lasting change.

         And that’s how it’s supposed to be,     how can the devil take a brother

         when he’s close to me?

         Even this optimism changes when he realizes that change isn’t a cure-all; it won’t bring back any friends or family, to be able to rewind the tape of history and leave the pain on the cutting room floor, with only childhood left enchanted, PG, not a horror movie. He says as much with the following:

I’d love to go back to when we played as kids, 

but things have changed,

and that’s the way it is.

Even though his anaphoric usage of ‘I see no changes,’ is not only a master class in rhetoric, it is each time, by the end of the verse, revised as Tupac realizes that all things change; it’s how we know that time is happening. The idea, however, is that now, although change is inevitable, he has a particular idea of what changes could take place to improve the lives of millions of people.

The bridge between verses has a touch of irony in it which always fascinated me The idea that change, even if it’s for a greater good, which the positivist narrator seems to be endorsing, the change that narrative voice longs for creates strangers. Habits are hard to break, even when they’re unhealthy; smoking, drinking, writing. Although these things are known to be bad for our health, it’s hard to give it up.

         That’s just the way it is,

This line is important in establishing a sense of permanence to the situation advocated by the positivist narrator. The second line flatly contradicts it by stating that everything changes;

Things will never be the same.

That’s ‘the way it is’ establishes the idea of a hopeless society on the verge of self-destruction, and ‘things will never be the same’ contrasts combative attitudes towards what change is within the writer, between the different narrative voices, and what is in the realm of possibility.

         I see no changes,

all I see is racist faces,     ]

misplaced hate makes disgrace to races we under. 

I believe this misplaced hate is a reference to the pervasiveness, or perceived pervasiveness of black on black crime in the inner cities; this ‘misplaced hate’ is an embarrassment to Tupac, because he believes this kind of behavior reinforces the negative opinions of black culture, and is especially embarrassing to the races he feels that black people are ‘under’ in his view of America’s caste system. The previous narrative points of view are abandoned; excepting the invented dialogue later in the verse, which is a dialogue between what Tupac knows people have to do, and his own idealism towards what the streetwalker character has to do to survive.

The reason behind Tupac’s legacy as the greatest rapper in the history of hip-hop is because of this level of thoughtfulness and poetic sensibility, as well as his gift for rhythm and performance. It was something that hip-hop until then had lacked, or at least was rare. Public enemy was a political force, for sure, and empowering. But with delicate rhyme structures and intermixed commentary, the setup for the last verse is Tupac’s rediscovery of who he is and what he has to do.

I wonder what it takes to make this one better place…

This philosophical epithet is punctuated by two perfect rhymes, takes and make, and one family rhyme, place. It could be said that Tupac could have gotten his message across in ways other than rap, but since he was so good with words it made him available to a larger audience, an audience that replays their music over and over in a way that isn’t possible with books or traditional speeches and is much more accessible. He also recognizes that the good within is motivated by the American promise of opportunity and that is not something which should be color coded.

Take the evil out the people,

Although I can understand the interpretation that there is a defensiveness and maybe even hostility towards white culture—or at least a subset within it—people wasn’t just used here because it rhymed well; all are created equal—a statement which has no asterisk.

         …They’ll be acting right,

‘Cause both black and white are smoking crack tonight.

The reason this song could be made is because of how good Tupac could rap and write; he had a wonderful voice to give expression to his thought. In the next bar, his multisyllabic and intricate rhyme structures demonstrate his versatility. It’s easy to forget the weight behind the statement because of how well it flows and how well it works as just music.

         And the only time we chill is when we kill each other     It takes skill to be real time to heal each other. 

It’s easy for the message to be overlooked when it’s packaged in this manner. Tupac obliges in the last verse with typical rap fodder, perhaps as a reward for our patience. He recognizes more and more how truly equal we really are throughout. He doesn’t refuse to acknowledge what he sees as universal, what is present in everybody, and it’s unclear in my reading of the song how he would suggest this be changed, or even if he thought it could be. Throughout the song, he acknowledges behavior he’s not proud of, shown drug trafficking and usage. But true equality in deed does not equal equality in prosecution and this hasn’t ever really been a secret.

         It ain’t a secret don’t conceal the fact

The penitentiary’s packed and it’s filled with blacks.

In all works of art, literature and poetry, there is a level of ambiguity; sometimes it is intentional, sometimes the artist didn’t really know what the fuck he was talking about, and sometimes it is another instance of the connection-correlation-conclusion method of proof, at least in academic theory.

There are conflicting characters in this work, and it comes down to the simple observation that these conflicting characters are not just conflicting views held by the author, but a microcosm for a culture at war with itself, an internal struggle that manifests in violence and hate.

As for change: the song is full with different ideas on what this is, what it should be, what it’d make better, what it’d make worse; the good parts and the bad. In the first verse, one conflicting narrative voice considers change as the nature of the way things are. Near the end of the second verse, there is a reflective denouncement of this idea coming from another aspect of the same person.

          But sometimes things will never change Try to show another way  but they stayin in the dope game

         But tell me what’s a mother to do

        Being real don’t appeal to the brother in you.

         You gotta operate the easy way.         “I made a G today.” 

         But you made it in a sleazy way

         Sellin’ crack to the kids

          I gotta get paid.”

         Well hey, that’s the way it is.

When someone of great persuasion and authority says something real but unfortunate, it will always be politically incorrect. The concept of political correctness comes from a type of censorship regarding the way we address certain aspects of culture and aspects of other people’s culture. Unfortunately, this doesn’t win you any popularity contests. Tupac was a controversial writer up until the time of his death–at the age of 25!–and the media never looked at his death as anything other than typical black on black violence, something which, earlier in the song, Tupac considered an embarrassment to his culture.

In the monologue between the second and final verse, he offers a plea not unlike Charlie Chaplin’s when he finally spoke at the end of The Great Dictator:

          Charlie Chapman:

I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone — if possible – Jew, Gentile, black man — white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate or despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way.

The monologue Tupac gives is in the same spirit as Chaplin’s.

We gotta make a change…
It’s time for us as a people to start making some   changes.
Let’s change the way we eat, let’s change the way we live
and let’s change the way we treat each other.
You see the old way wasn’t working
so it’s on us to do  what we gotta do, to survive.

It’s hard to pin down where Tupac is leaning idealistically in this song. He had the capacity to look at it from every realistic point of view, and it’s not clear if he’s even happy with having made the song, in his identification with Huey; he certainly saw poverty as penultimate to crime, and desperation to drug use and sell, but it’s not clear whether or not he believes positive change is even possible. In one line, he despairs of change; in another, he longs for the innocence and purity of a youth not yet disillusioned by experience and cynicism.

The Poetic Sensibility

When writing about writing and how it is done and understood, I must acknowledge the bitter truth: there is no way to teach the poetic sensibility and practice will not cultivate it. The poetic sensibility is either present in you, or evolves as you come of age. No matter how much you study or emulate the techniques and practices I’m trying to illustrate (and attempting to demonstrate,) without the eye—without the sensibility—technical precision means nothing… Continue reading

Legend of the Chameleon Mirror & The Artist’s Garden

1
An Italian princess, noble born, some years before Napoleon, born blind but beautiful; cheerful and sweet and loved. She could not see but wasn’t bothered: as sound and touch were good enough. She had a happy childhood ideal; full of love. One day she woke to find a candle, with a rather large flame on her bedside table, too close; and she watched the dancing fire – a strange dance, almost alive: orange and red and blue and white. Her father was talking but it seemed as though the flame was speaking to her:
“She’s in the country…”
She finally realized she could see and panicked. She screamed. Her father turned round and looked, “Hey!”
She looked at her father’s face. For the first time and, somehow, she knew his voice by heart and habit. And yet each time he spoke, how strange! she could only think about the flame.
She leapt from her bed and fled the room. She didn’t know where she was going but kept on running. Each new corridor rose out of mist, a blackness she didn’t understand. Guards both young and old looked on confused, servants, butlers, cooks; they all moved in and out of long hallways through different paths. The story of her flight reached the groundskeepers and the horses were brought round. Her father and the yardworkers and gardeners set out to find her before dark. It got cold in the hills at night.
Everything was frightening to her new eyes, the sun more so than all; so terrific and overwhelming, a spirit made of force and fire, the largest, most beautiful of candlelights.
“She’s in the country…”
Nothing shook the feeling that the world was somehow wrong, the colors off; she tried to squint to take it in, subdue the light, to conquer it, to shut it off, hoping she could tame the sun, make it relent. And she came upon a mirror. It was her, she knew by instinct, as she had known her father’s face, despite never having seen it. But everything was wrong in the reflection: the eyes and hair and her complexion, chestnut colored eyes, a lovely brown, dark hair still curled – as her maid had no chance to have pressed it. She began to think – how strange! her eyes could lie, how strange a thought.
“She’s in the country…”
She heard the distant murmurs of approaching horses, her father calling out:
“Alissa!” he called. And others with him: “Signorina Alissa! Signorina!”
The retinue of men, in strange dress and manner, approached her, slowing down. The horses, what a sight! for new eyes beyond belief, such strange machines, covered in hair, larger than she’d have thought. Her father dismounted and ran up to her, pulled her into his arms and turned to walk away. He saw the mirror and turned around. He said: “So what did you think? Aren’t you the prettiest little girl in the world?”
No, she thought – she didn’t say it – she’d never thought of such a thing, a mirror that is – why would she, how? How could she have been told, and why tell the blind that such a device existed, knowing they’d never see themselves? He told her what it was, a mirror. She was intrigued and asked. “Papa,” she said, “Are there other mirrors? Better mirrors? I don’t believe it worked, the one I saw.”
“Of course,” he said. He dismissed the other men, helped her onto the horse. He made sure she was secured and mounted the horse in front of her.
“Hold on!” he said.
She wrapped her arms around him as the horse broke into a gallop. The sky she’d often heard was full of clouds and birds was empty then and barren, an ocean she had thought, an ocean without end. And the moon hung like a thumbnail above the treetops in the distance. They rode toward the castle and must have taken a more scenic route. She saw such things beyond belief: birds in flight, rolling hills and vineyards, bright and strange. Back in the castle she felt lost; She’d made her way around for many years without help. She held her fathers hand and he led her to a washroom. Another mirror, oblong with a gold frame above the wash-basin. Something was off; It was wrong as well. She looked away. In her father’s bed chamber she found another, a smaller vanity mirror, wrong again and so on: mirror after lying mirror; she didn’t trust the glass. They stopped for a moment in a gallery, a well-appointed, spacious room, comfortable chairs and divans.
Each picture, each painting, she thought was an honest mirror, mirrors she could love. He introduced her to the family; his father then his uncle, distant relatives, the rest, and then her among so many, how few with that same hair and eyes, no other was a true brunette. The painting had it right, she thought, and each mirror had been wrong, imperfect glass that lied or changed to spite her. She said as much, asking her father, “Could you show me a better mirror?”
“A better mirror?” he asked.
“Yes,” Alissa said. “The best! Only the best. One that is as accurate as this.” She indicated the painting and smiled.
“I will in the morning, sweetheart.”
“You promise?” she asked. She took his hand and swung it back and forth. “Do you promise? Do you? Do you?”
“Yes dear,” he said. He smiled. “There is someone I can see. I promise.”
He never lied to her, and a promise she could count on, unlike her mother.
“She’s in the country…”
They were quiet at the dinner table. It was too long, she thought. The table, feeling lonely, a new feeling for the dinner table, a feeling she had not felt before. Two men in uniform stood on opposite sides of the dining table with white kerchiefs draped over their wrists, on call. She finished her meal, they took it away, and her father finished, and the table was cleared.
“Are you ready for bed?” he asked.
“Not yet,” she said. “I want to see the prettiest thing you have.”
He took walked toward her, took her hand, and said, “It’s not in the castle. But I’ll show you. You’ll love it.”
2
The night had crept up on them quietly, bathing the now dim dining hall, its candles blown out and left smoking. That candle light, those flames still seemed so personal, like living things. And she liked to watch them as her father spoke, to relive that moment when she first awoke again.
He led her from the dining hall through winding corridors with torches hanging on the walls. The shadows thrown, such strange patterns, with light and darkness split by lanterns.The castle doors came slowly slowly down and moaned. Everything seemed to make some sound or sounds, as if they spoke, not as a consequence of movement, not for her, but from personality; the doors were old and groaned but did their duty still; they had purpose, as all things did, all personable and alive. Soon they were in the courtyard, and under the canopy of distant lights, the stars! There they were, scattered in that endless ocean, stretching on and on forever, without end. A black ocean full of fire, anglerfish with entranced planets, hypnotized and trapped by its spell.
So much to take in, so very much! So much she knew she’d never know, never could know, never hear of all of them nor their names, and silent all of them, so far away like all of space and quiet, She fell asleep underneath the constellations as her father spoke, imagining those distant fires as candlelights themselves, with the same voice.
“And that is Ariene, and Toros, and Pesci there, and my sign Acquario, your mothers there, Gemelli, and yours..,”
Alissa was fast asleep. Dreaming in color, too; she was a fire like the rest; and spoke to kids as that same flame that managed to light her life, bring her the stars; among them now and uncontained by mirrors or frames unbound by math just change; never stopping endless never still. Breathing and stretching in such freedom with such relish, a longing she had never known and it went on. Sparks struck into flame and swelled orange at first then red, then white and finally blue and bright bright beyond compare it flashed and ebbed away. One after another flaring into flame and life just to subside as had all others growing faint, growing dim each light, each point she had just slept under in such peace. Each point followed in its fashion, some larger and some brighter yet none of them were lasting; finally they were far away, as far as they had been when she had listened to her father. She heard him speaking, voice of the last stars each fading, ever darker, ever gray. She woke in the comfort of her bed. She could hear father talking to someone, a woman; the voice was familiar.
Alissa heard her father say, “Whatever you ask,” he said. “It’s yours.”
The woman walked into the room. Alissa’s father followed close behind, “I have something for you…”
The woman held an object, egg-shaped on one end , straight on the other; cased in black satin, tied at the hilt with a golden tassel.
“This,” said she, “is very special, a magical object. Your father said you wanted the best of all the mirrors, best in the whole wide world, is that right?”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Alissa.
“Well,” she said, “look at this!”
The velvet sheet fell to the floor as a glittering object, mostly silver, slid from it into one hand, then to both. The glass was more liquid than solid, unusual and restless; the mirror moved—the mirror moved! Changing shapes and changing colors always shifting restless, so it seemed. The woman said, “This is a very special mirror. This mirror tells only truth, while other mirrors only show what’s real. This will show your true face no matter what, whether you wish to see it or not. It is a camaleonte, alive… Do you know that is?”
“It is a lizard,” said the princess. “A chameleon.”
“Yes,” the lady said. “This is the Chameleon Mirror.”
3
The young girl nodded.
“But,” she said, “Pardon, ma’am. Could I see it work before I try it?”
“How clever!” said the lady. She had a toothy smile. “Do you still have your dolly?”
Alissa looked around. She hadn’t thought of toys, not since she woke at least. She didn’t know how to find them, not with her eyes. She lay back as if to sleep, pretending for a moment, and replayed her usual routine. She sat up with her eyes closed then felt her way around, out of the bed across the carpet, onto the wooden floor, then to the corner. Her old toy-chest, made of soft-wood, had a cold, metallic switch and buckle. She groped about until she found a wooden doll, a dairy-made she’d never seen. She opened her eyes to finally see. The shirt was white and bilious, the dress was red and wrinkled; her shoes were black, her stockings white. Alissa walked across the room and sat down again. The lady smiled. She took the doll and said: “My daughter had one of these!”
She placed the doll in front of the mirror and – the mirror moved! The mirror moves, Alissa thought. it changed from an amorphous shade of neutral grey and blank and bit by bit became defined; sketchy at first then color sprang into life coloring the face. It looked different immediately, but Alissa didn’t know exactly why or how. There was a discomfort in the face, an emotion, a pained expression somehow. Alissa looked at the doll in the mirror, then to the real doll; at first glance they seemed the same, but the mirror gave it personality; it told the truth by some strange voodoo that the real doll for some reason could not manage. The reflection in the mirror was more true than the milk-maid’s face.
“Well?” the lady interrupted. “Would you like to see it work on you?”
Alissa thought for a moment, wondering truly, wondering what question she wanted answered; none, she thought, had troubled her before she woke to find the speaking candlelight.
“I want you to look!”
The lady’s smile faltered a bit but did not fail. She said, “Of course.”
She turned the mirror to her face. It sprung to life again, shifted from a settled palette, undefined, and bursting colors sprung from beneath the liquid surface and hurried into place, each more definitive, putting the face together bit by bit as she looked on. A lively woman appeared, not unkind nor kind, came together dot by dot, color by color until the surface settled into a stern, more wistful countenance. The face was younger, much younger, but the eyes were older, weary and tired but sharp, acute and penetrating. She became beautiful through that same magic. And Alissa took the handle but the lady grabbed her hand.
“Are you sure you want to see?” she asked. “If you look, you can’t take it back.”
And without thinking she said yes, compelled and egged on by that magic. Alissa took the handle into her hands and held it up to her face and focused. Colors rushed from the lining silver toward the center, dark colors first, the outline in dark colors then new colors softer, beige and lesser brown, each softer, more subtle shades all marching towards a growing image. And the face with currents shifting settling, colors barging into one another, merging, and finally settled. She looked into the eyes on the mirror’s face, her face. It was … was it? Was it?
“Take it away!” she screamed. “Take it away!”
4
Alissa pushed the mirror away and covered her face, holding her eyes shut tightly. Her father sat beside her. The lady – she could tell through each small sound, still at strange heights – began to redress the magic mirror. She couldn’t shake the image bu she tried, for hours hoping, praying, begging, wishing that when she slept she’d lose the image, the whole thing would go away, like a memory from childhood of a small moment, a moment no one notices or remembers; filling a bird-feed, changing the hay for the horses, something routine, something ordinary.
Her father stayed with her until the sun went down. She felt her father’s heartbeat against her shoulder, tender and supportive. She felt silly and opened her eyes. His eyes were closed, but he seemed calm. Calm enough, at least. And he put his head on her shoulder, looking, she knew, for some sort of support from her.
And she said, “I’m sorry.”
He laughed and asked:
“What did you see?”
“The painting,” the princess said. “It just didn’t seem like me.”
“It’s okay,” he said. “It’s okay.”
She’d find out later to her shame the kind of fee her father paid for a mirror, for such magic. The price for her to get to see had cost her father’s sight. She thought back to that night with him, leading him outside into the courtyard and then on the hill under the black velvet blank full of stars. He got comfortable on his back. She wanted to show him she remembered, the stars from the night before. She put her finger on his stomach first, “I remember,” she said. She pressed into his stomach, “Here is Ariete,” she moved onward, sideways, “And Leone right here,” she kept on drawing. “Pesci of course and your sign Acquario, that’s yours and mama’s sign is here, Gemelli…”
“Wait!” she cried. “Where is mom?
“She’s in the country,” he said. She didn’t ask again. The night went on, moon rising slowly. She continued mapping out the stars there with her father, bringing them to earth for him, for a mirror she gifted the stars. She thought he was asleep and, forgetful and tired, she could not remember her own sign.
“You forgot yourself,” he said. He guided her hand onto his chest, above his heart. “Here,” he said. He mumbered in his sleep;
“Toro.”
“I remember,” she pressed into his stomach, “here is Ariete,” she moved to the side, “and Leone here,” she continued drawing the constellation, “Pesci, your sign, Acquario that’s yours, and mother’s there, Gemelli…”
“Wait!” she said. “Where is mother?”
“She’s in the country,” he said. He repeated a few more times and stopped, realizing she finally understood, and she did. So the night went on and laying there, she continued drawing constellations on his stomach, on his chest, thinking she had them all and, giving up, roused her father from his light nap.
She understood and never asked again. She continued with the constellations on his stomach, on his chest. And when she stopped, he said: “You forgot yourself.”
He pulled her hand onto his chest, above his heart, “Here,” he said. He murmured in his sleep;
“Toro.” above his heart and said, “Right here.”
She felt his heartbeat, “There,” it slowed; muscles calming now, his expression mos serHis heart beat slowed, his muscles calmed. He murmured in his sleep:
“Toro.”
An Italian princess, noble born, some years before Napoleon, born blind but beautiful; cheerful and sweet and loved. She could not see but wasn’t bothered: as sound and touch were good enough. She had a happy childhood ideal; full of love. One day she woke to find a candle, with a rather large flame on her bedstand, too close; and she watched the dancing fire – a strange dance, almost alive: orange and red and blue and white. Her father was talking but it seemed as though the flame was speaking to her:
“She’s in the country…”
She finally realized she could see and panicked. She screamed. Her father turned round and looked, “Hey!”
She looked at her father’s face. For the first time and, somehow, she knew his voice by heart and habit. And yet each time he spoke, how strange! she could only think about the flame.
She leapt from her bed and fled the room. She didn’t know where she was going but kept on running. Each new corridor rose out of mist, a blackness she didn’t understand. Guards both young and old looked on confused, servants, butlers, cooks; they all moved in and in and out of long hallways through different paths. The story of her flight reached the groundskeepers and the horses were brought round. Her father and the yardworkers and gardeners set out to find her before dark. It got cold in the hills at night.
Everything was frightening to her new eyes, the sun more so than all; so terrific and overwhelming, a spirit made of force and fire, the largest, most beautiful of candlelights.
“She’s in the country…”
Nothing shook the feeling that the world was somehow wrong, the colors off; she tried to squint to take it in, subdue the light, to conquer it, to shut it off, hoping she could tame the sun, make it relent. And she came upon a mirror. It was her, she knew by instinct, as she had known her father’s face, despite never having seen it. But everything was wrong in the reflection: the eyes and hair and her complexion, chestnut colored eyes, a lovely brown, dark hair still curled – as her maid had no chance to have pressed it. She began to think – how strange! her eyes could lie, how strange a thought.
“She’s in the country…”
She heard the distant murmurs of approaching horses, her father calling out:
“Alissa!” he called. And others with him: “Signorina Alissa! Signorina!”
The retinue of men, in strange dress and manner, approached her, slowing down. The horses, what a sight! for new eyes beyond belief, such strange machines, covered in hair, larger than she’d have thought. Her father dismounted and ran up to her, pulled her into his arms and turned to walk away. He saw the mirror and turned around. He said: “So what did you think? Aren’t you the prettiest little girl in the world?”
No, she thought – she didn’t say it – she’d never thought of such a thing, a mirror that is – why would she, how? How could she have been told, and why tell the blind that such a device existed, knowing they’d never see themselves? He told her what it was, a mirror. She was intrigued and asked. “Papa,” she said, “Are there other mirrors? Better mirrors? I don’t believe it worked, the one I saw.”
“Of course,” he said. He dismissed the other men, helped her onto the horse. He made sure she was secured and hopped in front of her. .
“Hold on!” he said. She wrapped her arms around him as the horse broke into a gallop. The sky she’d often heard was full of clouds and birds was empty then and barren, an ocean she had thought, an ocean without end. And the moon hung like a thumbnail above distant treetop. They rode toward the castle and must have taken a more scenic route. She saw such things beyond belief: birds in flight, rolling hills and vineyards, bright and strange. Back in the castle she felt lost; She’d made her way around for many years without help. She held her fathers hand and he led her to a washroom. Another mirror, oblong with a gold frame above the wash-basin. Something was off; It was wrong as well. She looked away. In her father’s bed chamber she found another, a smaller vanity mirror, wrong again and so on: mirror after lying mirror; she didn’t trust the glass. They stopped for a moment in a gallery, a well-appointed, spacious room, comfortable chairs and divans.
Each picture, each painting, she thought was an honest mirror, mirrors she could loved. He introduced her to the family; his father then his uncle, distant relatives, the rest, and then her among so many, how few with that same hair and eyes, no other was a true brunette. The painting had it right, she thought, and each mirror had been wrong, imperfect glass that lied or changed to spite her. She said as much, asking her father, “Could you show me a better mirror?”
“A better mirror?” he asked.
“Yes,” Alissa said. “The best! Only the best. One that is as accurate as this.” She indicated the painting and smiled.
“I will in the morning, sweetheart.”
“You promise?” she asked. She took his hand and swung it back and forth. “Do you promise? Do you? Do you?”
“Yes dear,” he said. He smiled. “There is someone I can see. I promise.”
He never lied to her, and a promise she could count on, unlike her mother.
“She’s in the country…”
They were quiet at the dinner table. It was too long, she thought. The table, feeling lonely, a new feeling for the dinner table, a feeling she had not felt before. Two men in uniform stood on opposite sides of the dining table with white kerchiefs draped over their wrists, on call. She finished her meal, they took it away, and her father finished, and the table was cleared.
“Are you ready for bed?” he asked.
“Not yet,” she said. “I want to see the prettiest thing you have.”
He took walked toward her, took her hand, and said, “It’s not in the castle. But I’ll show you. You’ll love it.”
2
The night had crept up on them quietly, bathing the now dim dining hall, its candles blown out and left smoking. That candle light, those flames still seemed so personal, like living things. And she liked to watch them as her father spoke, to relive that moment when she first awoke again.
He led her from the dining hall through winding corridors with torches hanging on the walls. The shadows thrown, such strange patterns, with light and darkness split by lanterns.The castle doors came slowly slowly down and moaned. Everything seemed to make some sound or sounds, as if they spoke, not as a consequence of movement, not for her, but from personality; the doors were old and groaned but did their duty still; they had purpose, as all things did, all personable and alive. Soon they were in the courtyard, and under the canopy of distant lights, the stars! There they were, scattered in that endless ocean, stretching on and on forever, without end. A black ocean full of fire, anglerfish with entranced planets, hypnotized and trapped by its spell.
So much to take in, so very much! So much she knew she’d never know, never could know, never hear of all of them nor their names, and silent all of them, so far away like all of space and quiet, She fell asleep underneath the constellations as her father spoke, imagining those distant fires as candlelights themselves, with the same voice.
“And that is Ariene, and Toros, and Pesci there, and my sign Acquario, your mothers there, Gemelli, and yours..,”
Alissa was fast asleep. Dreaming in color, too; she was a fire like the rest; and spoke to kids as that same flame that managed to light her life, bring her the stars; among them now and uncontained by mirrors or frames unbound by math just change; never stopping endless never still. Breathing and stretching in such freedom with such relish, a longing she had never known and it went on. Sparks struck into flame and swelled orange at first then red, then white and finally blue and bright bright beyond compare it flashed and ebbed away. One after another flaring into flame and life just to subside as had all others growing faint, growing dim each light, each point she had just slept under in such peace. Each point followed in its fashion, some larger and some brighter yet none of them were lasting; finally they were far away, as far as they had been when she had listened to her father. She heard him speaking, voice of the last stars each fading, ever darker, ever gray. She woke in the comfort of her bed. She could hear father talking to someone, a woman; the voice was familiar.
Alissa heard her father say, “Whatever you ask,” he said. “It’s yours.”
The woman walked into the room. Alissa’s father followed close behind, “I have something for you…”
The woman held an object, egg-shaped on one end , straight on the other; cased in black satin, tied at the hilt with a golden tassel.
“This,” said she, “is very special, a magical object. Your father said you wanted the best of all the mirrors, best in the whole wide world, is that right?”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Alissa.
“Well,” she said, “look at this!”
The velvet sheet fell to the floor as a glittering object, mostly silver, slid from it into one hand, then to both. The glass was more liquid than solid, unusual and restless; the mirror moved—the mirror moved! Changing shapes and changing colors always shifting restless, so it seemed. The woman said, “This is a very special mirror. This mirror tells only truth, while other mirrors only show what’s real. This will show your true face no matter what, whether you wish to see it or not. It is a camaleonte, alive… Do you know that is?”
“It is a lizard,” said the princess. “A chameleon.”
“Yes,” the lady said. “This is the Chameleon Mirror.”
3
The young girl nodded.
“But,” she said, “Pardon, ma’am. Could I see it work before I try it?”
“How clever!” said the lady. She had a toothy smile. “Do you still have your dolly?”
Alissa looked around. She hadn’t thought of toys, not since she woke at least. She didn’t know how to find them, not with her eyes. She lay back as if to sleep, pretending for a moment, and replayed her usual routine. She sat up with her eyes closed then felt her way around, out of the bed across the carpet, onto the wooden floor, then to the corner. Her old toy-chest, made of soft-wood, had a cold, metallic switch and buckle. She groped about until she found a wooden doll, a dairy-made she’d never seen. She opened her eyes to finally see. The shirt was white and bilious, the dress was red and wrinkled; her shoes were black, her stockings white. Alissa walked across the room and sat down again. The lady smiled. She took the doll and said: “My daughter had one of these!”
She placed the doll in front of the mirror and – the mirror moved! The mirror moves, Alissa thought. it changed from an amorphous shade of neutral grey and blank and bit by bit became defined; sketchy at first then color sprang into life coloring the face. It looked different immediately, but Alissa didn’t know exactly why or how. There was a discomfort in the face, an emotion, a pained expression somehow. Alissa looked at the doll in the mirror, then to the real doll; at first glance they seemed the same, but the mirror gave it personality; it told the truth by some strange voodoo that the real doll for some reason could not manage. The reflection in the mirror was more true than the milk-maid’s face.
“Well?” the lady interrupted. “Would you like to see it work on you?”
Alissa thought for a moment, wondering truly, wondering what question she wanted answered; none, she thought, had troubled her before she woke to find the speaking candlelight.
“I want you to look!”
The lady’s smile faltered a bit but did not fail. She said, “Of course.”
She turned the mirror to her face. It sprung to life again, shifted from a settled palette, undefined, and bursting colors sprung from beneath the liquid surface and hurried into place, each more definitive, putting the face together bit by bit as she looked on. A lively woman appeared, not unkind nor kind, came together dot by dot, color by color until the surface settled into a stern, more wistful countenance. The face was younger, much younger, but the eyes were older, weary and tired but sharp, acute and penetrating. She became beautiful through that same magic. And Alissa took the handle but the lady grabbed her hand.
“Are you sure you want to see?” she asked. “If you look, you can’t take it back.”
And without thinking she said yes, compelled and egged on by that magic. Alissa took the handle into her hands and held it up to her face and focused. Colors rushed from the lining silver toward the center, dark colors first, the outline in dark colors then new colors softer, beige and lesser brown, each softer, more subtle shades all marching towards a growing image. And the face with currents shifting settling, colors barging into one another, merging, and finally settled. She looked into the eyes on the mirror’s face, her face. It was … was it? Was it?
“Take it away!” she screamed. “Take it away!”
4
Alissa pushed the mirror away and covered her face, holding her eyes shut tightly. Her father sat beside her. The lady – she could tell through each small sound, still at strange heights – began to redress the magic mirror. She couldn’t shake the image bu she tried, for hours hoping, praying, begging, wishing that when she slept she’d lose the image, the whole thing would go away, like a memory from childhood of a small moment, a moment no one notices or remembers; filling a bird-feed, changing the hay for the horses, something routine, something ordinary.
Her father stayed with her until the sun went down. She felt her father’s heartbeat against her shoulder, tender and supportive. She felt silly and opened her eyes. His eyes were closed, but he seemed calm. Calm enough, at least. And he put his head on her shoulder, looking, she knew, for some sort of support from her.
And she said, “I’m sorry.”
He laughed and asked:
“What did you see?”
“The painting,” the princess said. “It just didn’t seem like me.”
“It’s okay,” he said. “It’s okay.”
She’d find out later to her shame the kind of fee her father paid for a mirror, for such magic. The price for her to get to see had cost her father’s sight. She thought back to that night with him, leading him outside into the courtyard and then on the hill under the black velvet blank full of stars. He got comfortable on his back. She wanted to show him she remembered, the stars from the night before. She put her finger on his stomach first, “I remember,” she said. She pressed into his stomach, “Here is Ariete,” she moved onward, sideways, “And Leone right here,” she kept on drawing. “Pesci of course and your sign Acquario, that’s yours and mama’s sign is here, Gemelli…”
“Wait!” she cried. “Where is my mother?”
“She’s in the country…” he said. She would not ask again.
So the night went on as all nights do, a slow moon rising. She continued mapping out the stars there with her father, bringing them to earth for him, for a mirror and the glance, she gifted him the stars, bringing Sirius and Betelgeuse into his lap. She thought he was asleep and forgetful, tired, quit before she finished.
“You forgot yourself,” he said. He guided her hand onto his chest, above his heart. “Here,” he said. He mumbered in his sleep;
“Toro.”
And nothing else…  (Click to continue reading…” Continue reading

The Evolving Window: the Past Through Different Eyes

FOR 97% OF OUR SPECIES’ TIME ON THIS PLANET WE have no stories or documents. We can only conjecture and infer and speculate and imagine as to how our earliest ancestors lived. It is possible, even likely, that stories were being written much further into the past than the oldest stories we have, but if there are such stories, they are not extant and not to be found in the historical record… Continue reading