Hence that typical sequence of the nineteenth-century novel, where the protagonist, more or less willingly, betrays his closest friends (and if this is not so for Stendhal’s heroes, it is only because they do not have any friends).
—Franco Moretti, The Way of the World: the Bildungsroman in European Culture
I finished a trek through Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre and some associated criticism right around the time that, by coincidence, Ray posted some Bildung of his own; and because I’m the sort of mockingbird who makes every song about himself, all that potential and actualization, all those schemes and misfires, encounters at crossroads, deferred recognitions and disguised influences have summed up to leave me with a weird, achy nostalgia for, let’s say, right around 2006.
Why then? The world can’t have been much better off. I certainly had far less leverage on it. I had no presentiment of the vocational dumb luck that would end up buying me a box seat in the American theatre of cruelty; nor had I figured out how to write novels, and if I had it to do over again, making different mistakes, nothing would have been easier than to miss that mark as well.
And yet. I was enjoying school the only way I ever enjoyed institutions, by keeping one foot on the outside, and where that other foot was planted was the 2006 internet, and without that decade’s internet there would have been nothing at all. I had hit one sort of bottom a couple of years before; now I was waking up, learning to think, constantly discovering new islands, and always in such good company.
Then, bit by bit, came the darkening. And that feeling of doors closing, halls standing empty, FOR RENT signs going up in well-loved windows must be what anyone feels at the end of youth; but it can’t be only an artifact of who I was then, because I know so many people who did the same things around the same time—chose career paths just as dull as mine, gave themselves to the very same normative family structure—and yet did not drop off the internet, in fact came alive on the new internet as never before. I’ve tried to follow, many times, but every single sally into “social” media has taken the same quick trajectory into shame and silence. The mask doesn’t work; it fits the wrong parts of the face too well. Even around here, in recent years, I’ve become a very occasional guest in my own home.
That’s Stendhal for you, arrived just in time for the end of the party. Young Julien, born too late to fight for Napoleon, is old Stendhal (about 25 years older than his protagonist), who did fight for Napoleon but still feels life has passed him by. The presiding spirits who assign Wilhelm Meister his worldly place can do nothing for Julien. But if Julien goes to the scaffold, at least he stays young, that’s some rhetoric….
To go back to 2006. To try more doors, find a passage you missed the first time. The absurdly imagined Noah’s Ark scene that follows, bringing everyone after you.
This resurrection happened at the tomb, where the various kits and jars containing the organs of the dead man where collected together beneath the funeral couch…. At some time in this period of mourning at the tomb, apparently, just as the funeral ceremony properly began, the inert soul in Amenti stirred dimly, assumed a spectre’s consciousness, and began to move, Osiris-like, towards resurrection. In Joyce’s book of the dead, much the same kind of feeble stirring occurs to the man “tropped head” in the night’s “seemetery” just after the Wake, and his wake, begin:
So may the priest of seven worms and scalding tayboil, Papa Vestray, come never anear you as your hair grows wheater beside the Liffey that’s in Heaven! Hep, hep, hurrah there! Hero! Seven times thereto we salute you! The whole bag of kits, falconplumes and jackboots incloted, is where you flung them that time. Your heart is in the system of the Shewolf and your crested head is in the tropic of Copricapron. Your feet are in the cloister of Virgo. Your olala is in the region of sahuls. And that’s ashore as you were born. Your shuck tick’s swell. And that there texas is tow linen. The loamsome roam to Laffayette is ended. Drop in your tracks, babe! Be not unrested! The headboddylwatcher of the chempel of Isid, Totumcalmum, saith: I know thee, metherjar, I know thee, salvation boat. For we have performed upon thee, thou abramanation, who comest ever without being invoked, whose coming is unknown, all the things… concerning thee in the matter of the work of thy tombing. Howe of the shipmen, steep wall! (26.6-24)
As always at the Wake, it is worth asking whose “eyewitness foggus” we share here: that of a body at its wake, or that of a body not awake? Every element in this passage helps to locate us at the unconscious interior of a corpse drifting darkly toward its resurrection in each of those three distinct regions of space that the Egyptians topologically equated: within the scattered ruins of its own body, within the next world, and within the world-encompassing body of Osiris….
This evocation of American idiom seems to have been Joyce's way of reinforcing the understanding that his hero, at this point in the Wake, has indeed passed into the next world, the other world, the “New World”… the Book of the Dead enables us to see how little contrivance there is in the imaginative transaction by which Joyce transforms America and comparable ends of the earth into ciphers representative of an other or “New World” like Amenti in the Wake. In the Irish experience of the last two centuries, as millions of countrymen left their loved ones and emigrated from their native earth, these places were regions into which neighbors and relatives disappeared forever. Many of Ireland’s emigrants, never again seen alive by their relatives of friends, may just as well have been dead…. Many of those people left behind on their native earth—no less than those who bemoaned the passage of the scribe Ani or the steward Nu into Amenti—must have found the passage of loved ones into the New World of “Amiracles” heartbreaking—as the self-exiled Joyce would well have known.
—John Bishop, Joyce’s Book of the Dark
I said, Rev. Bliss, brothers and sisters, that they snatched us out of the loins of Africa. I said that they took us from our mammies and pappies and from our sisters and brothers. I said that they scattered us around this land …
… And we, let’s count it again, brothers and sisters; let’s add it up. Eyeless, tongueless, drumless, danceless, songless, hornless, soundless, sightless, dayless, nightless, wrongless, rightless, motherless, fatherless—scattered.
Yes, Rev. Bliss, they scattered us around like seed …
… Like seed …
… Like seed, that’s been flung broadcast on unplowed ground …
Ho, chant it with me, my young brothers and sisters! Eyeless, tongueless, drumless, danceless, songless, hornless, soundless, sightless, wrongless, rightless, motherless, fatherless, brotherless, sisterless, powerless …
Amen! But though they took us like a great black giant that had been chopped up into little pieces and the pieces buried; though they deprived us of our heritage among strange scenes in strange weather; divided and divided and divided us again like a gambler shuffling and cutting a deck of cards; although we were ground down, smashed into little pieces, spat upon, stamped upon, cursed and buried, and our memory of Africa ground down into powder and blown on the winds of foggy forgetfulness …
… Amen, Daddy Hickman! Abused and without shoes, pounded down and ground like grains of sand on the shores of the sea …
… Amen! And God—Count it, Rev. Bliss …
… Left eyeless, earless, noseless, throatless, teethless, tongueless, handless, feetless, armless, wrongless, rightless, harmless, drumless, danceless, songless, hornless, soundless, sightless, wrongless, rightless, motherless, fatherless, sisterless, brotherless, plowless, muleless, foodless, mindless—and Godless, Rev. Hickman, did you say Godless?
… At first, Rev. Bliss, he said, his trombone entering his voice, broad, somber and noble. At first. Ah, but though divided and scattered, ground down and battered into the earth like a spike being pounded by a ten-pound sledge, we were on the ground and in the earth and the earth was red and black like the earth of Africa. And as we moldered underground we were mixed with this land. We liked it. It fitted us fine. It was in us and we were in it. And then—praise God—deep in the ground, deep in the womb of this land, we began to stir!
At last, Lord, at last.
Oh the truth, Lord, it tastes so sweet!
What was it like then, Rev. Bliss? You read the scriptures, so tell us. Give us a word.
WE WERE LIKE THE VALLEY OF DRY BONES!
Amen. Like the Valley of Dry Bones in Ezekiel’s dream. Hoooh! We lay scattered in the ground for a long dry season. And the winds blew and the sun blazed down and the rains came and went and we were dead. Lord, we were dead! Except … Except …
… Except what, Rev. Hickman?
Except for one nerve left from our ear …
Listen to him!
And one nerve in the soles of our feet …
… Just watch me point it out, brothers and sisters …
Amen, Bliss, you point it out … and one nerve left from the throat …
… From our throat—right here!
… Teeth …
… From our teeth, one from all thirty-two of them …
… Tongue …
… Tongueless …
… And another nerve left from our heart…
… Yes, from our heart …
… And another left from our eyes and one from our hands and arms and legs and another from our stones …
Amen, hold it right there, Rev. Bliss …
… All stirring in the ground …
… Amen, stirring, and right there in the midst of all our death and buriedness, the voice of God spoke down the Word …
… Crying Do! I said, Do! Crying Doooo—
—these dry bones live?
He said: Son of Man … under the ground, ha! Heatless beneath the roots of plants and trees … Son of Man, do …
I said, Do …
… I said Do, Son of Man, Doooooo!—
—these dry bones live?
—Ralph Ellison, Juneteenth
Two of my high school acquaintances are secret police and have come to arrest me for mean songs I wrote about people decades ago. The taller one is playing it stern. The shorter, still blond and baby-faced, keeps glancing at me and chuckling, “You know, that was a funny song,” until a look from his partner shuts him up.
As above so below
In the Home Depot parking lot a dozen guys hunch their black jackets against the cold as they wait to be picked up for a job. In the tree above a dozen blackbirds puff against the cold and whir.
“You’re one of those people who makes a face when you go outside,” he said, “like all you want is for time to pass, and like it hurts you in passing.”
It’s goddamn GAME OF THRONES time. Here’s a map depicting the complete world of GAME OF THRONES, with an overlay showing the principal tectonic faults so you can understand why the landmasses took the shape they did. They think of everything! Check out the big strike-slip fault going up the middle; that's going to be trouble.
What happens at street level in GAME OF THRONES is, people torment other people through closed doors. Kings have been tossed into the street by their queens and are trying to barge back inside. A student holds a door shut against his teacher, who is making blandishments of the worst sort, not so much sexual as insinuating violence. Thank God there’s a phone next to the door! Thank God it’s possible to call 911 while holding the door shut!
Here come two cops. Sir, is this the individual who was disturbing you? Yes, that’s him. But when the suspect steps into the light, it’s just a street person, not the teacher. Now the teacher himself comes forward, smirking because the 911 call was the student’s last gambit and he’s scotched it with the misidentification. But the student begs the police not to go, with such desperation that finally they take both student and teacher by the elbows and set out for the station.
The teacher pulls two knitting needles out of his pocket and starts to conjure a length of glowing green yarn in midair. That he would do such a thing shows that he’s a powerful magician and obviously guilty, so the policemen pull out knitting needles of their own (there’s no other way to fight back) and summon up lengths of white yarn in response. But they’re just beat cops and can’t do much. In no time at all the teacher has woven an airborne sack which settles over the heads of the others and pulls them suffocatingly close. “I’m sorry,” the student manages to say before breath gives out, “I thought I was doing the right thing, but I’ve led us all to an agonizing death.” That’s how it goes on GAME OF THRONES.
The 2010s, when you finally got it together and the world got so much worse. It seems like a Faustian pact, but it wasn’t so—only a matter of picking out the right step on the escalator.
If it’s sour, when aren’t you sour? If it’s sweet, why aren’t you sharing?
Caesium bead of a heart, hammering seconds, heaping years. (Accomplishment number one: did not drown in the Seine. Accomplishment number two—stop it.)
La vida es sueño more often now, and I do feel gentler toward it since it was so improbable. The Colorado Rockies ranged in file like a frozen dance on a frieze. My reading chair in this house on a slope, which at times is identical with the house of my childhood and at other times drifts like a boat in the blue.
Fireworks are going off for the world to come. The futurists are back in business, starting as always from the unexamined assumption that there’s going to be a future. Of course the millenarians haven’t guessed right either.
Night in Tsuwano
I thought fear and love were twin moons, and by an optical trick one resolved into the other so that fear was a love shy of not meeting its object, or shy of meeting it.
I got out of bed, crossed the dark town and climbed through the thousand gates of Taikodani Shrine.
The cat sleeps away the hot days in closets and on cabinets, thinks feet covered by a blanket are beneath her on the food chain, at intervals stretches to twice her usual standing height, insists on acknowledgment of her ancient rights but submits to R.’s swooping embraces from above.
The big dog, German Shepherd with some shaggy mountain mix, shrugs off other dogs’ tantrums, blissfully tears apart every toy she is given, has pledged to sniff every inch of sidewalk in the surrounding square mile, is shy of new people but wags her tail at J. in expectation of being led to the promised land.
We’ve all heard the owl in the backyard tree (barn, I think?), and J. and R. have seen its shadow winging back and forth.
Taking out the trash, I met a cat with a huge fur stole of a tail. Fox? I had to call J. out for confirmation. It was unshy and moved only slightly from the shadows to crouch in the glow of the streetlamp, sleek and gray, as I wheeled out the trash and recycling and green waste in series, keeping its snout pointed at me in agonies to know what was under the lids.
Skunks in headlights, smell of skunk battles gone by.
We walked bikes and the dog to the park, met other dogs, and R. ran ahead and called back, “There's a dog here with no person!” We followed and found it staring at us over its shoulder. My first thought was that the trash fox had followed us and expanded like Mephistopheles. “That’s a coyote, R.” It loped away.
J. took the dog for an outing at nightfall and startled an antlered stag into leaping up the hill.
Life in an urban zoo!
A university building at dusk.
I went round a corner to be alone. For the next 45 minutes no one needs me.
Inhospitably clean hallway light. I look over a scattering of research posters that have nothing to do with me, sit in a chair not intended for me because it’s not intended for anyone at this hour. The doors aren’t locked, but no one is quite supposed to be here.
As a kid passing through deserted, unwatched buildings at the University of Arizona, I discovered the comfort of spaces that didn’t have me in mind. I wanted not to belong to them. It’s so much easier to be a visitor, a haunt, than a regular. But that was many years ago, and when I catch myself now in the mirror of an empty bathroom I look like a madman.