The most gorgeous, the most damning and the most succinct essay I’ve ever read on protest novels:
(By James Baldwin, from Notes of a Native Son, 1955)
(Baldwin with Nina Simone, 1963)
The most gorgeous, the most damning and the most succinct essay I’ve ever read on protest novels:
(By James Baldwin, from Notes of a Native Son, 1955)
(Baldwin with Nina Simone, 1963)
SANTA FE, NEW MEXICO: Sixteen minutes of a private reading from Cormac McCarthy’s unpublished novel The Passenger surfaced on YouTube last summer. I just got around to watching it today. Having done so I can safely say it is either a really long ad for Italian violins or a hoax perpetrated by Richard Feynman’s estate. Most of the dialogue is monologue, and most of the monologue is math. The man is some kind of cardboard box. The woman is a robot who has learned to love atomic bombs and cry on the bus.
I love McCarthy too much to google him more than once a year. My heart can’t stand it. What if he’s lost his typewriter in that big leather chair from the Oprah interview? What if he’s flying around the world in a snakeskin balloon? What if – what if he’s trapped in a well?
In 2014 they said it would be 2015. In 2015 they said it would be 2016. I know better than to hope anymore. I can only fear. The Passenger now has a rumored release date of December 2017, which means nothing except more crying for Molly. And let’s let not forget McCarthy is 83 years old. Meaning let’s not forget he’ll die before this book is published. He’ll die and win a second Pulitzer. Which he’ll probably deserve, unless the entire book is like the excerpt I heard today, but even then, he could still get another one, and they could let everyone know it’s really for Suttree, not for this last one about graphing calculators.
That is assuming McCarthy is in fact a mortal human being who can die at all. (Some brief hope to be gleaned here?) He may be some other kind, some transformed angel of death. Sent here to name and catalog the sum total of all man’s despair for Lucifer’s personal library. Incapable of dying. Could have left before but now it is too late. Sent here only to write books as punishment but now that punishment is over wants to stay forever. Will never leave us now, unless the sun explodes! Books will keep getting better and better into infinity! The man himself will never die – “he says that he will never die” merely a clue to the man himself! Possibly!
Anyway here’s the transcript.
Bold font indicates comically absurd levels of McCarthyism.
MYSTERIOUS PRETENTIOUS WOMAN (MPW): For all my railings against the Platonists, it’s hard to ignore the transcendent nature of mathematical truths. There is nothing else that all men are compelled to agree upon. And when the last light in the last eye fades to black and takes all speculation with it forever, I think it could even be that these truths will glow for just a moment in the final light. And then the dark and the cold will claim everything.
CORMAC MCCARTHY: Patient is a 20-year old Jewish Caucasian female. Attractive. Possibly anorexic. Arrived at this facility six days ago apparently by bus and without luggage. Admission signed by Doctor Wakener[sp]. Patient had plastic bag full of hundred dollar bills in her purse, something over forty thousand dollars which she attempted to give to the receptionist. Patient is a doctoral candidate in mathematics at the University of Chicago and has been diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic with a longstanding ideology of visual and auditory hallucinations. Resident of this facility on two prior occasions.
MPW: My father came in and found me there and I thought I was in trouble and I jumped up, but he took me by the hand and led me back to the chair and sat me down and went over the paper with me. His explanations were clear. Simple. But it was more than that. They were filled with metaphor. He drew a couple of Feynman diagrams and I thought they were pretty cool. They mapped the world of the subatomic particles he was attempting to explain. The collisions, the weighted routes. I understood, really understood, that the equations were not a supposition of the form whose life was confined to the symbols on the page which described them, but that they were there before my eyes in actuality. They were in the paper, the ink, in me, the universe. Their invisibility could never speak against them or their being, their age, which was the age of reality itself, which was itself invisible and always had been. He never let go of my hand.
CORMAC MCCARTHY: The actual issue is that someone a hundred thousand years ago sat up in their robes and said “holy shit.” Something like that. He didn’t have a language yet. But what he had just understood is that one thing can be another thing. Not look like it, or act upon it. Be it. Stand for it. Pebbles can be ghosts, sounds can be things. The name for water is water. What seems consequential to us by reason of usage is in fact the founding motion of civilization. Language, art, mathematics, everything. Ultimately, the world itself and all in it.
[recording cuts out and skips ahead]
MAN: Do you think that the world exists?
MAN: You’re not serious.
MPW: Let’s just say that I don’t understand the question. It’s like the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. What it fails to address is that the ability of a quantum event to eventuate without any help from us is a very different thing from an observation of the event. What bridges the worlds of the event and the witness? It may take an observer to complete the picture of the event. Not to mention the need for apparatus with timers and steel gridlocked magnets. Not the event, but the engendering of it.
MAN: I’m not sure I get that.
MPW: It just seemed a useful analogy. It’s just that questions about the reality of things tend to be poorly formulated and vague answers are as likely to reflect the quality of the question as that of the answer.
MAN: Why is it called mechanics?
MPW: Because it explains mechanisms, how things work. Quantum mechanics is just the theory of things the size of an atom or smaller. We think. We don’t really know how small small gets. Even H-bar as a scale of variant of the world is a supposition. People think a lot of this will be sorted out once we get a theory of quantum gravity. But they’re looking through the wrong end of the glass. There will never be a theory of quantum gravity until there’s a better theory of the universe. It’s probably true that quantum mechanics has never been asked a quantum mechanical question it couldn’t answer, but if that were true of some domain in mathematics, you’d start sniffing around for tautologies. Heisenberg doesn’t get the credit he deserves because he seems to have been a Nazi sympathizer, and then he went crazy. As if he were a mathematician. He and Paullay were just kids. All they had to go on were some anomalies in the spectra. They used to write letters to each other. And at one point Paullay said that he was constantly amazed at the boldness with which Heisenberg approached these problems. And he could only attribute it to Heisenberg’s almost complete lack of understanding of physics. And of course Paullay was right. And of course he knew a great deal more physics than Heisenberg. But Heisenberg had what Einstein had: an almost faultless intuition as to the nature of physical reality. How things work. Mechanisms.
MAN: You grew up in Los Alamos.
MPW: Yes. We lived there ’til my mother died.
MAN: And then you moved to Tennessee?
MAN: Do you remember Los Alamos?
MPW: Yes, of course.
MAN: How old were you when you left?
MPW: Four, the first time. Then eleven.
MAN: What was it like?
MPW: During the war, I think it was pretty primitive. Supposedly there were eight thousand fire extinguishers and five bathtubs. And endless mud. What I remember mostly is people at our house talking until 3 in the morning.
MAN: You were awake until 3 o’clock in the morning.
MPW: Yes. You could hear the clink of glasses. The house smelled of perfume and cigarette smoke. I would lie there listening until the last guest had left.
MAN: You couldn’t understand what they were talking about.
MPW: What I understood was that I had to learn what they were talking about.
MAN: Where is Trinity? Is that in Nevada?
MPW: New Mexico.
MAN: Was your father there?
MPW: Yes, of course.
MAN: Did he talk about it?
MPW: Not much. I’ve read the standard accounts. My father’s group was about six miles from ground zero. They’d been given glasses that were very dark. I think something like welding goggles. But my father had brought his own because he didn’t think he’d be able to see much with the government-issued glasses. I guess you could read that as a metaphor. But all the glasses had to do was block the ultraviolet light. They listened to the countdown over a loudspeaker. They were a pretty nervous lot. Not that it would go off, but that it wouldn’t. The thing I remember my father saying was that he put his hands over his glasses against the initial flare of light and that when it came he could see the bones in his fingers with his eyes closed. There was no sound. Just this searing white light. And then the reddish purple cloud rising in billows and flowering into the iconic white mushroom. Symbol of the age. The whole thing standing slowly to ten thousand feet. The wind from the shockwave was supersonic and it hurt your ears for just a moment. Lastly, of course, the sound of it. The ungodly detonation followed by the slow rumble. The after clap that rolled away over the burning countryside into a world that had never existed before. This side of the sun. The desert creatures evaporating without a cry, the desert birds incinerating and falling in slow arcs earthward like burning party figures and the scientists watching with this thing standing twinned in the black lenses of their glasses. And my father watching it through his fingers. Like, “see no evil.” But if they knew nothing else they all knew it was too late for that.
MAN: What did they say, the scientists?
MPW: They all stood up and said “holy shit.” Intelligence is numbers. It’s not words. Words are things we made up. Mathematics is the world. The math and logic questions on the IQ tests are a joke.
MAN: How did it get that way? Intelligence is numerical?
MPW: Maybe it always was. Or you could say that we got there by counting. For a million years before the first word was ever said. If you want an IQ of over 150, you’d better be good with numbers.
MAN: I would think it would be difficult for someone to assemble the responses which you did on some of these tests without being familiar with the tests.
MPW: I’d had a certain amount of practice. I had to make A’s in humanities in college without reading the idiotic material assigned.
MAN: You wouldn’t read the material on principle?
MPW: No, I just didn’t have time.
MAN: Why didn’t you have time?
MPW: Because I was doing math 18 hours a day.
MAN: You no longer do math.
MPW: No. Well. Maybe on the problem of problems, which won’t go away.
MAN: Which is?
MPW: The foundational problem. What to do about Prega, the Brutlagen, the unification question. The beginning and the end. What are we doing and how do we know? And insight. Does something know? Is that possible? And if it does, what must we become in order for it to tell us? The Langlands Project. Which is not ever going to tell me what I want to know.
MAN: I see.
MPW: I don’t think so. Mathematics is ultimately a faith-based initiative and faith is an uncertain business.
MAN: I’m not sure I understand the idea of mathematics as, what, a spiritual undertaking?
MPW: I know, I just don’t have something else to call it. I’ve thought for a long time that the basic truths of mathematics must transcend number. It is after all a rather ramshackle affair for all its considerable beauty. The laws of mathematics supposedly derive from the rules of logic. But there is no argument for the rules of logic that does not presuppose them. I suppose one thing that might evoke the analogy with the spiritual is the understanding that the greatest spiritual insights seem to derive from the testimonies of those who stand teetering in the dark.
MAN: And I don’t see how mathematical truths could transcend number.
MPW: I know.
MAN: But you’re never the less a fan of Godel even if he was a Platonist?
MPW: Yes, huge fan. I agree with Oppenheimer’s view.
MAN: Are most of your heroes mathematicians?
MPW: Yes. Or heroines.
MAN: Who else do you admire?
MPW: Cantor, Gauss, Riemann, Euler, Hilbert, Poincare, Eminota[sp], the ancients…Hypatia, Klein, Minkowski, Turing, Von Neumann…that’s not even a partial list. Kaushi, Lee, Ditkin, Brouwer, Pohl, Peano…Church is still alive…Hamilton…Laplace, Lagrange…You look at these names and the work they represent and you realize the annals of latter day literature and philosophy are barren beyond description.
MAN: Beauty in mathematics?
MAN: Is that a part of its description? Is that what makes it true?
MPW: Profound equations are often said to be beautiful. Maxwell, I suppose, most famously.
MAN: Are the equations themselves beautiful?
MPW: Not if you don’t know what they mean.
MAN: Alright. I don’t know that much about Godel. I know he had a theory that math couldn’t solve all the questions it posed or something like that.
MPW: Something like that, yes. Two papers in 1931.
MAN: Is that a theory you agree with?
MPW: Of course. The papers are brilliant. They are beyond argument. I said that mathematical platonism was incoherent, but that’s not quite right. The truth is that there’s nothing to cohere. The theory is simply barren. In his later years Godel jerked away from mathematics and studied philosophy. Then he went crazy.
MAN: How crazy?
MPW: Pretty bad. He wouldn’t eat. Thought the food was poisoned. When he died he weighed about seventy pounds. Oppenheimer was head of IAS at the time and he would go to see him in the hospital. One day the doctor came in and Oppenheimer told him to take good care of Godel because he was the greatest logician since Aristotle. And the doctor nodded and began to edge toward the door, and Oppenheimer realized that he was thinking, “Good god, now there’s two of them.”
MAN: So you took this Amati violin home on the bus?
MPW: Yes. When I got home, I sat down on the bed with it in my lap and opened the case. Nothing smells like a four-hundred year old violin. I plucked the strings and it was surprisingly close. I took it out of the case and sat there and tuned it. Ebony pegs. I wondered where the Italians had gotten ebony wood. And the fretboard of course. I got out the bow. It was German-made. Eighteenth century. Very nice ivory inlays. I tightened it and then I just sat there and started playing Bach’s Chaconne. Such a raw haunting piece. He composed it for his wife Barbara. She died while he was away. But I couldn’t finish it.
MAN: Why not?
MPW: Because I started crying. I started crying and I couldn’t stop.
MAN: Why were you crying? Why are you crying now?
MPW: I’m sorry. For more reasons than I could tell you. I remember blotting the tears off the spruce top of the Amati and laying it aside and going into the bathroom to splash water on my face. But it just started again. I kept thinking of the lines, “what a piece of work is a man.” I couldn’t stop crying. And I remember saying, ‘What are we? What are we?” And sitting there on the bed, holding the Amati, which was so beautiful it hardly seemed real. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen and I couldn’t understand how such a thing could even be possible.
MAN: Do you want to stop?
[end of recording]
(Inspired by the novel ‘Beloved‘, by Toni Morrison)
Night of comets, 17-18 May.
Together with Blei, his wife and child, from time to time listened to myself outside of myself, it sounded like the whimpering of a young cat.
How many days have again gone silently by; today is 28 May. Have I not even the resolution to take this penholder, this piece of wood, in my hand every day? I really think I do not. I row, ride, swim, lie in the sun. Therefore my calves are good, my thighs not bad, my belly will pass muster, but my chest is very shabby and if my head set low between my shoulders –
Sunday, 19 July, slept, awoke, slept, awoke, miserable life.
When I think about it, I must say that my education has done me great harm in some respects. I was not, as a matter of fact, educated in any out-of-the-way place, in a ruin, say, in the mountains – something against which in fact I could not have brought myself to say a word of reproach.
…Forgotten energy may hold these persons fast in memory, but they would hardly have any ground left under them and even their legs would have already turned to smoke….But indeed one cannot even do as much as make them remember those times, no person can compel them to do so; obviously one cannot mention compulsion at all, they can remember nothing, and if you press them, they push you dumbly aside, for most probably they do not even hear the words. Like tired dogs they stand there, because they use up all their strength in remaining upright in one’s memory.
…On the other hand, I can prove at any time that my education tried to make another person out of me than the one I became.
It is reported, and we are inclined to believe it, that when men are in danger they have no consideration even for beautiful strange women; they shove them against walls, shove them with head and hands, knees and elbows, if these women happen only to be in the way of their flight from the burning theatre. At this point our chattering women fall silent, their endless talking reaches a verb and a period, their eyebrows rise out of their resting places, the rhythmic movement of their thighs and hips is interrupted; into their mouths, only loosely closed by fear, more air than usual enters and their cheeks seem a little puffed out.
“When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at nine p.m.
I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.
But to hold to such repetition for so long — six months to a year — requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.”
“When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there.
You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that.
When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but filling, as when you have made love to someone you love. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through.”
“I awake at 5:30, work until 8:00, eat breakfast at home, work until 10:00, walk a few blocks into town, do errands, go to the nearby municipal swimming pool, which I have all to myself, and swim for half an hour, return home at 11:45, read the mail, eat lunch at noon. In the afternoon I do schoolwork, either teach of prepare. When I get home from school at about 5:30, I numb my twanging intellect with several belts of Scotch and water ($5.00/fifth at the State Liquor store, the only liquor store in town. There are loads of bars, though.), cook supper, read and listen to jazz (lots of good music on the radio here), slip off to sleep at ten. I do pushups and sit ups all the time, and feel as though I am getting lean and sinewy, but maybe not.”
Kay Ryan Reads Her Poems Twice
(As originally published in The Stranger, May 17, 2013.)
A year or so ago, Kay Ryan went to Italy, and it made her think about the sometimes-painful, always-disorienting work the mind has to do when it arrives in a new place. Last night at Kane Hall, she read to us a poem that described this problem of being somewhere new, but not knowing how to be new yourself, as if you had put up an “interior tent,” only to find that “the new holes aren’t where the windows went.” The poem settled as she leaned into the podium. “I bet you’d like me to read that again,” she said, and the audience fairly moaned yes. Yes, Kay Ryan, read it again. The sheer delight Ryan took from examining her own work—as though it were not her own but the work of some dear, deranged friend—gave the reading a wondrously funny edge, and allowed the audience to see Ryan not as the intimidating literary giant that she is, but as a warm, comic entertainer of the highest sort, able to humble herself through a kind of soft, conscious mocking. (After the first poem of the night, she mused, “I find that a very touching poem, but I’m ready to go on.”)
She began the evening with a set of new, unpublished work on subjects including but not limited to W.G. Sebald, frogs with dual pupils, octopuses, Thelonious Monk, and 17th-century Dutch still-life painting. Much of it she flatly insisted on reading twice, claiming that “if it’s a poem, it should bear a second reading,” when in truth Ryan’s poems not only bear a second reading, but seem to require it – so dense and rich with these double meanings you could feel the audience leaning in and curling around them, straining to catch every word and every space between words before the moment passed. (More than once I looked around and saw the people on either side of me listening with closed eyes.) Sometimes the second reading seemed to be as much for Ryan herself as for us, and the second reading would inevitably give a second meaning. This twinned reality—what Ryan calls “doubleness”—was the predominant theme of the evening, much moreso than the Northwest theme Ryan half-heartedly attempted, but (gloriously) abandoned. One new poem in particular, a beautifully creepy thing entitled “Ship in a Bottle,” possessed this doubleness in spades. Ryan introduced it by saying that the poem is still a mystery even to her. (Not being able to see the poem on paper, I‘ve inserted line breaks where I sense them, sacrilegious as that feels):
It seems impossible
Not just a ship in a bottle
But wind and sea
The ship starts to struggle
An emergency of the two realized
We can get it out but not
Without spilling its world
A hammer tap and they’re free.
Which death will it be,
“I’ll read it again. It’s a mystery to me,” she repeated. “I mean, it all makes sense, but I’m not sure what it’s getting at.”
The dark exhilaration of this new work passed naturally into much-loved older work, more familiar, and perhaps safer, but no less moving. (I recommend, before you die, hearing Kay Ryan read her poem “Train-Track Figure” in a semi-dark room with good acoustics. Those three lines toward the end, pronounced with perfect rushing speed, so that the syllables mimic exactly the sound of a train clipping over the tracks: “If it’s a person/if it’s a person/if it’s a person.” Only great poetry can make trains more real than actual trains.
Perhaps the highlight (but there were so many highlights!) of the night came after a reading of the eerie poem “Pentimenti,”—which Ryan says is “much more terrible than you think”—when she did an impromptu literary analysis of the rhyme scheme. Ryan loves rhyme, obviously, but more specifically she loves “homemade rhyme.” In “Pentimenti,” she performs a version of homemade rhyme that she has named wedge rhyme. You can hear it in the lines “through which/who knows what/exiled cat or/extra child/might steal.” Exiled. Extra. Child. Ryan has wedged a neat cluster of syllables into the skinny frame of that word, exiled, to create a longer sister-phrase that doubles it. “Probably not particularly gratifying to you,” she remarked of the analysis, as if by way of apology. But one man toward the back of the auditorium summed up what the rest of us were feeling with a loud, appreciative whoop.
Probably not particularly gratifying, no. Not gratification – something much, much better than that.
(As originally published in The Stranger, May 30, 2013.)
Reading Luis Negrón’s Mundo Cruel is akin to walking the only corridor in some crumbling motel in Puerto Rico where the beach has begun to take back the building. The doors have all disintegrated, and each private room is suddenly public, but still small, self-contained, and bearing only enough evidence to hint at the lives of its inhabitants. You walk along, entering each room, seeing the unmade beds, smelling the old smoke in the curtains. Witnessing what love or horror happens there. In one room, a cluster of junkies. In another, two worried mothers gossiping. One room contains a river for baptisms. In the second-to-last, toward the end of the hall, a man is quietly dying. In the last room, a Land Rover is parked on a nightclub dance floor. There are sand-drifts in the hallway.
It is interesting that the overall sensation the book produces is one of spying on the lives of others, because for much ofMundo Cruel, the narrators of the stories seem to be offering up secrets voluntarily, almost compulsively. In the first story, “The Chosen One,” the narrator is a cocky teenage boy who brags about his sexual exploits, his seductions of various cousins and Christian choir boys. The desperate family bemoans this flamboyant son and the white women’s sandals he wears to his baptism. Religious intervention, of course, proves useless: “Among the rocks there was a beer can. Some river shrimp clung to an old tennis shoe. I saw the preacher’s feet in his blue rubber flip-flops. Then he took me out of the water and held me for a second in his arms. ‘You are clean,’ he said to me, and winked.”
This tongue-in-cheek tone is the major narrative weapon in many of the stories, as in the title story, where the night belongs to “the most fabulous and spectacular boys in the bar,” who fluctuate between impenetrable machismo and episodes of outright weeping. The story is without doubt the collection’s funniest, as it skewers the cliques and prejudices that inevitably invade gay culture. These are gay men who are horrified by gay others: “Almost at the entrance to the formerly exclusive (men pay ten, women thirty, get my drift?) and super ‘in’ bar, they saw the first sign that the world, their world, was going straight to hell. Six lesbian couples, with their cell phones on their belts, were entering.” Another story, “So Many, or On How the Wagging Tongue Sometimes Can Cast a Spell” eavesdrops on a pair of neighbors devouring gossip about the alarming number of gay kids in the neighborhood, and the possibility of sending them to a camp in Florida so they’ll come back “nice and straight.” Their ignorance is funny. We as readers are invited to join in the ridiculing. We are willing and happy eavesdroppers.
But an open invitation to spy, or a narrator’s eager dispensing of secrets, doesn’t necessarily create that feeling in the gut that you’ve just stumbled into something that was supposed to stay hidden. That feeling comes from the odd moment in a story when true vulnerability shrinks reality to a peephole, a moment of helplessness that turns us into voyeurs. It must be that second or two when we would normally look away, when someone’s pain becomes too intimate and we find a shoelace to tie or a magazine to flip through, that gives the collection its power. Because it’s in this moment that Negrón glues our eyelids open and binds our hands. Toward the end of the book we find “The Garden,” a dense, sweet, sad story in which the narrator’s lover is dying of AIDS. Death is an easy way to add depth, to slow the pace, to make meaning. But Negrón does not linger or lean on it. He lets the physical fact, the texture of death be its own emotion: “His bones felt fragile. Body, host. Orchard fed with alien nutrients. I sought his face, kissed the dry sores, brushed away an eyelash that rested on his cheek….The disposable diapers, stuck to us, sounded like the rustling of dead leaves.” It’s like coming across buried glass in the sand, these scattered pieces of unrehearsed and undecorated sadness that force you to walk slower, look closer, and reconsider the ground you’ve been walking on.