On August 29, 1957, the literary agent Candida Donadio sent me a note that read, “Here is the script of CATCH 18 by Joseph Heller about which we talked yesterday. I’ve been watching Heller ever since the publication of Chapter 1 in New World Writing about a year ago. He’s published a good bit in The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, etc. I’ll tell you more about him when I see you at lunch next week. As ever, Candida.” About seventy-five pages of manuscript came with it, and I was knocked out by the voice, the humor, the anger. We offered Joe five hundred dollars as an option payment. This was only months after Jack Goodman’s death, and the editorial department had developed no real modus operandi; I suppose I just said “I want to do this” and there was nobody interested enough to say no. Joe and Candida decided to wait until there was enough of a manuscript to warrant an actual contract.
When I met Joe for the first time, for lunch at a hearty restaurant near our offices, he came as a big surprise. I expected a funny guy full of spark and ginger, but what I got was more or less a man in a gray flannel suit—he was working as an ad executive at McCall’s, and he looked it. And sounded it. I found him wary (which shouldn’t have been a surprise, given the paranoid slant of much of his book), noncommittal, clearly giving me the once- over. He told me later he found me nervous and ridiculously young. I was only eight years younger than he was, but he was a mature ex-vet, a former college teacher, and a successful business executive. I was twenty-six, still looking much younger than I was, and with no track record as an editor or publisher—this was well before Mitford, et al.
So it wasn’t love at first sight. But it proved to be something a lot more substantial: a professional and personal relationship that never faltered, despite gaps in our publishing together, and despite (or because of?) the fact that through the more than forty years we worked with each other on and off, we rarely saw each other socially. As with Decca Mitford, there was never a disagreeable word between us, and there was always complete trust. I certainly always knew that I could turn to him in need, and I know he felt the same way about me. Indeed, there would be dark moments ahead in our personal lives—usually involving our children—which proved it.
The most significant trust was editorial. Once his book was completed, three or so years after we first met, I tore into it—relaxed about doing so because I had no notion that I was dealing with what would turn out to be sacred text. Or that Joe would turn out to be as talented an editor as he was a writer, and absolutely without writer ego. On Catch, as on all the other books we worked on together, he was sharp, tireless, and ruthless (with himself), whether we were dealing with a word, a sentence, a passage of dialogue, or a scene. We labored like two surgeons poised over a patient under anesthesia. “This isn’t working here.” “What if we move it there?” “No, better to cut.” “Yes, but then we have to change this.” “Like this?” “No, like that.” “Perfect!” Either of us could have been either voice in this exchange. I wasn’t experienced enough back then to realize how rare his total lack of defensiveness was, particularly since there was never a doubt in his mind of how extraordinary his book was, and that we were making literary history. Even when at the last minute, shortly before we went to press, I told him I had always disliked an entire phantasmagorical chapter—for me, it was a bravura piece of writing that broke the book’s tone—and wanted to drop it, he agreed without a moment’s hesitation. (Years later, he published it in Esquire.) Where my certainty came from I don’t know, but although I mistrusted myself in many areas of life, I never mistrusted my judgment as a reader.
Joe was so eager to give me credit that I had to call him one morning, after reading an interview he had given to the Times, to tell him to cut it out. I felt then, and still do, that readers shouldn’t be made aware of editorial interventions; they have a right to feel that what they’re reading comes direct from the author to them. But enough time has gone by that I don’t think any harm will be done if I indulge myself by repeating what Joe’s daughter, Erica, wrote in her uncompromising memoir, Yossarian Slept Here: “My father and Bob had real camaraderie and shared an almost mystical respect. No ego was involved, regardless of where Bob’s pencil flew or what he suggested deleting, moving, rewriting. To Dad, every word or stroke of this editor’s pencil was sacrosanct.” Even if this is friendly overstatement, and it is, it reflects the reality of our dealings with each other.
Not that there weren’t stumbling blocks along Catch’s path to publication. First of all, when the finished manuscript came in there were colleagues who disliked it intensely—they found it coarse, and they saw the repetitions in the text as carelessness rather than as a central aspect of what Joe was trying to do. Then we had a copy editor who was literal-minded and tone-deaf. Her many serious transgressions included the strong exception she took to Joe’s frequent, and very deliberate, use of a string of three adjectives to qualify a noun. Without asking me, she struck out every third adjective throughout. Yes, everything she did was undone, but those were pre-computer days: It all had to be undone by hand, and it wasted weeks.
And then when the book was ready to be launched, at the meeting to decide the size of our fall-list printings the naysayers came up with the figure of five thousand. This roused the tiger in Nina Bourne (publishing executive at Simon & Schuster), whom everyone had always thought of as a genius, yes, but also as an adorable little bunny. Suddenly she stood up, glared around, and spoke: “If after all these years my total belief in a book doesn’t warrant a printing of seventy-five hundred, what’s the point of my being here?” Stunned silence. This was not the Nina people knew and loved. “Of course, Nina!” “Yes, Nina!” “Seventy- five hundred if you think that’s the right number, Nina!” It was completely hilarious, and especially satisfying to me, who enjoyed taking credit (privately) for what she and I called the “de-bunnying of Nina Bourne.” Later, when she had become slightly more assertive and I might occasionally push back, she would say, “You can take the bunny out of someone, but you can’t put it back in.” In the famous campaign to sell Catch-22 to the world, Nina—more fervent about it than about any other book in her seventy-year career—was the secret, and deadly, weapon.
But the biggest catch on the way to Catch’s publication was the title. Through the seven or so years that Joe worked on his book, including the four during which he and Candida and Nina and I grew more and more attached to it, its name was Catch-18. Then, in the spring 1961 issue of Publishers Weekly that announced each publisher’s fall books, we saw that the new novel by Leon Uris, whose Exodus had recently been a phenomenal success, was titled Mila 18. They had stolen our number! Today, it sounds far from traumatic, but in that moment it was beyond trauma, it was tragedy. Obviously, “18” had to go. But what could replace it?
There was a moment when “11” was seriously considered, but it was turned down because of the current movie Ocean’s 11. Then Joe came up with “14,” but I thought it was flavorless and rejected it. And time was growing short. One night lying in bed, gnawing at the problem, I had a revelation. Early the next morning I called Joe and burst out, “Joe, I’ve got it! Twenty-two! It’s even funnier than eighteen!” Obviously the notion that one number was funnier than another number was a classic example of self-delusion, but we wanted to be deluded.
To talk of a “campaign” is to put a label on something that didn’t exist. There was no marketing plan, no budget: Nina and I just did what occurred to us from day to day, spending our energies (and S & S’s money) with happy abandon. We began with little teaser ads in the daily Times featuring the crooked little dangling airman that the most accomplished designer of his time, Paul Bacon, had come up with as the logo for the jacket. We had sent out scores of advance copies of the book, accompanied by what Nina called her “demented governess letters”—as in, “the demented governess who believes the baby is her own.” Almost at once, excited praise started pouring in. Particularly gratifying to Joe was a telegram from Art Buchwald in Paris:
PLEASE CONGRATULATE JOSEPH HELLER ON MASTERPIECE CATCH 22 STOP I THINK IT IS ONE OF THE GREATEST WAR BOOKS STOP SO DO IRWIN SHAW AND JAMES JONES.
The range of early admirers was astonishingly broad, from Nelson Algren (“The best American novel that has come out of anywhere in years”) to Harper Lee (“Catch-22 is the only war novel I’ve ever read that makes any sense”) to Norman Podhoretz (!). There were at least a score of letters from notable writers, but, perversely, the one we most enjoyed was from Evelyn Waugh:
Dear Miss Bourne:
Thank you for sending me Catch-22. I am sorry that the book fascinates you so much. It has many passages quite unsuitable to a lady’s reading. It suffers not only from indelicacy but from prolixity. It should be cut by about a half. In particular the activities of ‘Milo’ should be eliminated or greatly reduced. You are mistaken in calling it a novel. It is a collection of sketches—often repetitive—totally without structure.
Much of the dialogue is funny.
You may quote me as saying: “This exposure of the corruption, cowardice and incivility of American officers will outrage all friends of your country (such as myself) and greatly comfort your enemies.”
Yours truly, Evelyn Waugh
We didn’t take him up on his offer, though we probably should have.
Reviews were mixed, veering from ecstatic to vicious, but the success of the book built and built. It was slow, though—never strong enough at any one moment to place it on the bestseller list, yet sending us back to press again and again for modest printings. Meanwhile, Nina and I unleashed a series of ads that just occurred to us as things happened, all of them rehearsing the ever-swelling praise from critics, booksellers, academics, and just plain book-buyers: We had enclosed postage-paid cards in thousands of copies and got hundreds of responses, positive (“Hilarious”; “Zany”) and negative (“A complete waste of time”; “If everyone in Air Force was crazy—How did we win war?”). Many of those who loved it were demented governesses in the Nina mold, like the college instructor who wrote,
At first I wouldn’t go into the next room without it. Then I wouldn’t go outside without it. I read it everywhere—on the buses, subways, grocery lines. If I did leave it out of my sight for a moment, I panicked . . . until last night I finally finished it and burst out crying. I don’t think I’ll ever recover . . . But before I die of Catch-22, I will do everything to keep it alive. I will change ads on subways to “Promise her anything but give her Catch-22.” I’ll write Catch-22 on every surface I can find. I’ll pirate and organize a Catch-22 Freedom Bus . . . I’m a happier person today for Catch-22. Happier, sadder, crazier, saner, better, wiser, braver. Just for knowing it exists. Thank you.
Comparable if less rhapsodic communications arrived for Joe or for us from a put-and-call broker, a New Jersey die-casting manufacturer, a New York grandmother, a fifteen-year-old boy from Eugene, Oregon, a housewife (“I am now getting phone calls in the middle of the night from people I’ve given the book to who want to read him aloud to me!”)
It was this kind of unbridled enthusiasm that sealed Joe’s success—the impulse of his readers to keep the ball rolling. (A well-known example was the concocting of thousands of “Yossarian Lives” stickers by the NBC anchorman John Chancellor, which blossomed on campuses and public buildings everywhere. Another fan came up with, and widely distributed, “Better Yossarian than Rotarian” stickers.) Catch, indeed, swept college students up with its challenges to authority and the establishment; again and again commentators compared its influence on young people to that of The Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies.
All these phenomena were grist for the giant ads we went on devising. For its six- month anniversary, a huge “REPORT ON CATCH-22.” For its hitting the number-one spot on the British bestseller lists (it had been greeted with exorbitant praise by Kenneth Tynan, Graham Greene, Philip Toynbee), another full-page ad in the Times. Finally, a page shouting, “HAPPY BIRTHDAY, CATCH-22!” By then we had managed to sell about thirty-five thousand hardcover copies, but the great commercial success was to come when Dell released its mass-market edition and millions of copies were sold. (It was the largest-selling paperback book of its first year.) As was widely recognized at the time, it was being read as a scathing assault on our war in Vietnam, a place I’m sure Joe was barely aware of when he first sat down to write.
My own reading of the book was somewhat different from that of most of its enthusiasts: I read it as tragedy, not comedy, its humor painful rather than rib-tickling. What helped me understand it better was the movie Mike Nichols made out of it—clever, unstinting, with riveting performances, but somehow unsatisfactory. I thought I saw why. Catch-22, even as it reflected realities of war, was above all surreal. When everything was made literal by the camera, its essential nature disappeared.
Because Catch became such a phenomenon, because the work Nina and I did to sell it was so highly visible and remarked upon in the publishing world, and because Joe never stopped talking about what he saw as my crucial role in editing it, I became highly visible myself—it’s still the book I’m most closely associated with among the kind of people who think about such things. But in the years that followed its publication, I more or less put it out of my mind. I certainly never reread it—I was afraid I wouldn’t love it as much as I once had. When in 2011 its fiftieth anniversary was being widely celebrated, I agreed to take part in the celebrations. But there was a catch: Catch-22. There was no way I could talk about it without reading it again. It was a big relief to find that I still did love it, that Nina and Candida and I—and Joe—and the world—hadn’t been misguided in our passion for it. I was knocked out all over again by the brilliance of the construction, the exhilaration of the writing, the pathos and the humor.
Robert Gottlieb has been the editor in chief of Simon and Schuster; the president, publisher, and editor in chief of Alfred A. Knopf; and the editor of The New Yorker. As a writer, he contributes frequently to The New York Review of Books and is the author of books about George Balanchine, Sarah Bernhardt, and Charles Dickens. In 2015, Gottlieb was presented the award for Distinguished Service to the Arts by the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
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As an undergraduate I became fixated on my tutor, Ann Wordsworth, a woman of devastating command who held the other English Literature dons in contempt. Tutorials were conducted in a grubby shed in the college grounds where we chain-smoked Gitanes and quaffed red wine from, for some reason, small cartons. In an attempt to impersonate Ann’s wistful, pained intellect, I employed in those years a world-weary prose style, and while I read out my weekly essays she listened, hunched up in an attitude of agony, dragging heavily on her cigarette, eyes fixed on the filthy, threadbare carpet. Her responses to my efforts were uniform: she would either snort with derision and lament the tyranny of soft misreadings, or she would look up, eyes blazing, and pronounce, “Yor!”—her version of “yar”—a word used in the eighties as a snooty alternative to “yes.” Getting a “yor” from Ann Wordsworth was the highest possible accolade.
Ann had been married to another don called Jonathan Wordsworth, a great-great-nephew of the poet, and they had four grown-up sons about whom she talked a great deal. Four huge sons! This intellectual colossus was magnificent in body as well as mind. Despite being separated and denouncing Jonathan’s mind as “vulgar,” Ann was evidently still in love with him and this added to her appeal. She was a wounded warrior, she carried a scar.
At some point during my final year at Oxford I decided to throw in my lot with Ann Wordsworth. After all, I was her creature; her snorts and yors had rooted themselves in me. It was not love so much as fear, a need for approbation, and a desire to turn myself into her. My own people having proved disappointing, the Wordsworths became my new family. I moved to London, where I met the eldest of her sons; he shared my obsession with his mother and so, both hoping to win her approval, we began a relationship which lasted four years. After we separated, I married his first cousin, also a Wordsworth. We had a child and divorced. Devotion to the Wordsworths now turned sour; thus began the process of breaking free.
My relationship with Ann Wordsworth has been, literally, the story of my life, but I have never much wanted to write about myself. I prefer giving shape and structure to other people’s stories and like to think that I am aware of the ways in which the unconscious washes up in writing. It wasn’t until the end of drafting Guilty Thing, my life of the Romantic essayist and opium-eater Thomas De Quincey—until the end, goddamit!—that I clocked what was going on. De Quincey, who was everyone’s double, was also mine. The book was less a biography than an exorcism. I was dredging it out of myself, bringing to the surface a submerged wreck.
De Quincey was a teenager when he became addicted to William Wordsworth. He threw in his lot with the poet on the strength of “We Are Seven,” a poem in Lyrical Ballads which captured with uncanny precision De Quincey’s response to the death of his sister. Wordsworth was the one man on earth who understood De Quincey: to serve Wordsworth was his destiny. De Quincey was Wordsworth’s first fan and best reader; he was also, for years, Wordsworth’s stalker and Coleridge’s doppelganger. He traded his own family for a bit-part in Wordsworth’s more interesting clan, making himself indispensable to the poet’s wife and sister and young children. When the Wordsworths moved out of their home, Dove Cottage, De Quincey moved in. When Wordsworth’s daughter died, De Quincey fell to pieces and slept on her grave. He then married a servant girl whom the Wordsworths snubbed as their social inferior, at which point his love for the poet turned to hate. He too had been treated by Wordsworth as a servant; Wordsworth had never recognized De Quincey’s own genius or appreciated De Quincey’s part in promoting his fame. Wordsworth would be the making of De Quincey, and breaking away from him became De Quincey’s great subject.
When I broke from the Wordsworths I began to write about their crushing ancestor. The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth explored the strange, quasi-incestuous relationship between William and his sister, who collapsed on his wedding day and lived for the rest of her life in a triangle with the poet and his wife. Wordsworth does not come out of the story well, but I have always been drawn to the monstrosity of writers. Strong writers are not like other people. “I am at core a writer,” wrote Henry Miller to Anaïs Nin, “and not a human being.” “I am a writer first,” said Katherine Mansfield, “and a woman after.” De Quincey’s terrible discovery was that Wordsworth’s poetry represented the moral sublime, but in person he was arrogant, egotistical, and with limited charm. The psyche of a poem and the psyche of the poet, De Quincey now understood, were two different things.
My first book, Literary Seductions, explored in embryo what Guilty Thing brings to fruition. It was about readers who fell for writers through their writing, who would have liked, as Keats put it, “to be married to a poem or given away by a novel.” Not every writer can seduce: only those who are writers first and human beings after have been confused with their writing in this way. Thus Caroline Lamb introduced herself to Lord Byron with a letter beginning “Dear Childe Harold”; “I love your verses with all my heart,” wrote Robert Browning before meeting Elizabeth Barrett, “and I love you too”; Robert Graves left his wife and four children for a poem by Laura Riding; and when Elizabeth Smart first read George Barker, she shipped him over, together with his wife, from Japan. Smart made no secret of preferring Barker’s language to his body—“Barker’s new poems arrived,” she wrote in her diary, “But when I opened the book my excitement made me too impotent to read.”
The subject of Guilty Thing is, I now realize, Wordsworthian seduction: my own and De Quincey’s. Identifying with my subject does not make me sympathetic to his plight, but then I have never much cared for the people I write about. “Some of our contemporaries,” De Quincey observed of his own biographical writing, “we hate particularly and for that very reason we will not write their lives. It is too odious a spectacle to imprison a fellow in a book, lock a stag in a cart, and turn him out to be hunted through all his doubles for a day’s amusement.” It’s the best description I know of the biographer’s art: to hunt a fellow through all his doubles. When I first read this passage I looked up from the page, eyes blazing, and pronounced, “Yor!”
Frances Wilson is a critic, a journalist, and the author of four works of nonfiction: Literary Seductions; The Courtesan’s Revenge; The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth, which won the Rose Mary Crawshay Prize in 2009; and How to Survive the Titanic; or, The Sinking of J Bruce Ismay, the winner of the Elizabeth Longford Prize for Historical Biography in 2012. She lives in London with her daughter.
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A Conversation between C. E. Morgan and Lisa Lucas
Adina Hoffman and Lisa Cohen are long-time friends. Throughout this past summer, the two exchanged emails between Jerusalem and New York, considering what it means to write biography in each of their most recent books and beyond. Hoffman’s Till We Have Built Jerusalem, published by FSG in April, explores the contributions of three modern architects to Jerusalem’s cityscape, and Cohen’s All We Know, published by FSG in 2012, sheds light on the lives of three largely forgotten modernist figures—Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta, and Madge Garland. Their conversation flows from Hoffman’s archival instincts to Cohen’s desire to write with the dead, limning an ethics of writing that challenges received histories, upends staid forms, and finds in overlooked traces necessary truths.
Lisa Cohen: We’re both deeply involved in biographical research and writing, but have qualms about calling ourselves biographers. As you’ve observed, “To announce oneself a biographer suggests a compulsion to research and produce big, fat foursquare volumes about illustrious dead people.” We’ve written in less monumental forms about people who’ve been overlooked. Why do you think you’re drawn to this approach?
Adina Hoffman: I don’t think I’ve ever deliberately set out to write about an overlooked figure just because she’s overlooked. I write out of some fascination, which usually sends me on one gumshoe hunt or another, looking for traces of a forgotten person or buried place. When I’m lucky, these ostensibly “minor” investigations open out onto larger questions about culture or art or politics. Microcosms move me. Their tactility. A certain impatience with received wisdom is also key.
LC: Yes, impatience—and some incredulity: Why is this person to whom I’m drawn not better known? It’s also about some instinct or desire for a conversation across decades and centuries. Maybe someone calls to me and I reply. Isn’t that what reading is? Then I’m driven by the questions I’m asking my “subjects” (a word I don’t love)—questions to which I truly don’t know the answers. How do you explain your fascinations?
AH: Disposition? My gaze seems naturally to center on what other people consider marginal. At the same time, I’m compelled by a more conscious and even ethical need, to “despise no one, and dismiss nothing”—this is the Mishnah talking—“for there is no person without his hour and no thing without its place.” Lofty as that sounds, that need is linked to a very basic, maybe selfish, desire to keep surprising myself and my subjects—which is also ethical. To stay alert to the world, to avoid complacency. That’s what drives me when it comes to all my writing, whether it’s about a destroyed Palestinian village or a temperamental maverick of a German-Jewish modernist architect who suddenly finds himself a refugee in dusty British Mandate Jerusalem.
LC: I like that—the ethics of the off-center, or of the once central and now forgotten. It’s also, for me, an attraction to people who resisted doing what was expected of them.
AH: Absolutely. And I guess I’m not especially interested in doing what’s expected of me either, whether in terms of the specific mysteries I’m trying to solve, or formally. So that the actual writing becomes a kind of search, too. To account for what I’ve unearthed in the course of those slightly crazed excavations of mine I’ll follow my nose—or really, my prose—in any number of directions. Sometimes, that propels me down a more essayistic path, or into the realm of memoir, or portraiture, or cultural criticism. At times it sends me across more traditional biographical terrain—of the “in June of that year she confided in her older sister” sort. For better or worse I seem compelled to scramble these different approaches.
LC: I can’t separate writing about people who are thought to have “left no monument” (which one of her friends said to me about Madge Garland, and which became a kind of refrain of my portrait of her in All We Know) and the pull to find the right shape and rhythm for the work. And this impulse is related to my attempts to refigure the biographical “rescue” project as it’s often been conceived. I’m driven to make certain people visible—people who might not be seen otherwise, or who have vexed relationships to more canonical histories—but I have no special purchase on their truth and no need to make them heroic exemplars. I mean that those formal questions aren’t separate from thinking about how facts are produced and represented, or about how we assume the validity and authenticity of certain facts and not others. Maybe the people I’m writing about “left no monument,” but maybe the monuments they left—the traces of their lives—have been deliberately destroyed. Or the evidence they left is still in plain view, but not seen as valuable.
AH: Invisibility, in other words, is in the eye of the beholder?
LC: I know I see things others don’t—but my ethical imperative is also to keep challenging my own blindnesses. Speaking of what is and isn’t visible, you’ve spent a lot of time reimagining the past though the built environment. Earlier you mentioned tactility. What is it about architecture or other physical sites that fires your imagination and your archival instincts?
AH: When I was younger, I was fixated on recording what I saw—as if registering those physical details was the most important thing I could do as a writer. And I still believe deeply in the need to account in very concrete terms for what stirs me about various surfaces, trees, doorframes, faces. Over time, though, I’ve become much more conscious of what isn’t visible to the naked eye. That kind of intensive probing feels especially pressing in a place like Jerusalem—because of all the historical layers underfoot and the way the memory of many of those layers is so aggressively repressed. It also has to do with the role that individuals play in the grand narrative of the city. Or don’t. In Jerusalem, politics and religion tend to swallow an awful lot of the motley human stuff that speaks most powerfully to me. But I’ve come to see the city itself as a kind of archive. Trying to uncover its hidden aspects holds out the same pleasures that archival research does—a chance to push past the flatly generalizing way so many stories are told about this place, and instead root around in the far more startling, poignant, and messy day-to-day particulars. I wonder how you’d characterize your own archival obsessions.
LC: I recently wrote this sentence: “Grief, epistemology, history, poetry. Which is what biography as a practice means to me.” Certainly it is true of this new book. There’s no denying that biographical writing is a way to spend time with people who are gone—with their vulnerable words and stuff, and with the people who cared about or were infuriated by them. I’m interested in reading and writing with the dead (and the living) and their language—not about a human or textual object or subject—and in continually looking into how I know what I know about them. All We Know is a book of portraits that asks how such portraiture has been and can be written. But I’m intrigued by what you said earlier about surprising your subjects. What did you mean?
AH: 1948, for instance. Maybe it’s inevitable if your subject is the modern Middle East, but in every book I’ve written I’ve been forced at some point to wrangle with the year Palestine stopped and Israel started. Now, it seems to me incredibly tedious to keep trotting out the same battles and bombings that everyone does. I can’t bear to do it, actually—I mean physically. And anyway I’d sound ridiculous imitating that PBS documentary–styled voice-over, intoning what happened That Fateful Year. I’m much more interested in trying to picture how the world looked to each of my characters when the clock struck midnight on January 1, 1948. No one knew then that the year ahead would be so momentous, and even if they sensed it, they didn’t know exactly how the next 365 days would unfold. Approaching it this way you realize that there were as many 1948s as there were people who lived through that year. At some point, of course, you can and probably should also step back and say something about a larger pattern or mood. But that comes later. You talked earlier about challenging your own blindnesses. I want to jar myself out of what I see, or know. Or what I think I know.
Which brings us back to where we started this conversation—that urge we each have to write “in less monumental forms about people who’ve been overlooked.” We’ve both written triptychs, and I know the book you’re working on now has several separate but related sections as well. To me the impulse to make a narrative somehow multiple or prismatic in its focus is also about the hunger to get past a single, monolithic way of viewing the world. My particular experience obviously anchors my books in a distinct sensibility and tone. That doesn’t mean, though, that I can’t stretch myself to try and see past the circumstances of my own autobiography: in a way, that’s the imaginative challenge I set for myself with each new project. How do you understand the role of the imagination—and, while we’re at it, the multiple—in your work? These categories seem connected to me.
LC: I’m actually including my own circumstances in this new book in ways that I was careful to avoid in All We Know—writing about people I knew and a history I lived through. And while loss and mourning were submerged themes in that book, they’re central now. For me the impulse toward the multiple or numerous has to do with what’s generative about juxtaposition, and is connected to your question about the imagination. All kinds of imagining are involved in being curious about how someone else lived and thought about her life—and in making it possible for a reader to inhabit moments of another’s being. It’s also involved in making connections among apparently disparate materials, while making room for a reader to move around imaginatively in the interstices of those juxtapositions and absences. Then I’m as interested in the stories and lies people tell about themselves as I am in what happened. Our fantasies are facts of life. Most lives only look inevitable in retrospect, they seldom feel that way from the inside, so being tuned in to how someone imagined him or herself is key. You’re so right about the flatly generalizing way many stories are told. I think we’re both tilting at the world of received ideas, armed with the exciting, strange, often tragic particularity of the facts we find. In the end, it’s about writing sentences that try to account imaginatively for the twists, contradictions, and incompleteness of the material I gather—and fail to gather. Shall we end by saying that in the summer of that year they had a (written) conversation about their work?
AH: Yes! And that neither of them was completely sure what the best note was on which to close. They were friends off the record, in private, after all, while this occasion was public, destined to be posted on their publisher’s website. But they’d been talking about this stuff for years—sometimes on the phone, sometimes in person, and now it was going on over e-mail, across an ocean, and for various strangers to read . . . Etc. And that “etc.” holds a whole world of meaning, too. Where to start? Where to end?
Adina Hoffman is the author of House of Windows: Portraits from a Jerusalem Neighborhood and My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century, named one of the best twenty books of 2009 by the Barnes & Noble Review. She is also the author, with Peter Cole, of Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza, which received the American Library Association’s award for the Jewish book of the year. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, she was awarded one of the inaugural Windham Campbell prizes in 2013. She divides her time between Jerusalem and New Haven.
Lisa Cohen’s All We Know: Three Lives was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award and the PEN/Bograd Weld prize, and a New York Times Notable Book and Editor’s Choice for 2012. Her writing has appeared in BOMB, The New York Times, Vogue, The Paris Review, The New Yorker, Women in Clothes, and many other journals and anthologies. She teaches at Wesleyan University.
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Jace Clayton’s book, Uproot, travels across the present musical landscape: from the prevalence of Auto-Tune in Moroccan Berber music to the slow archiving of traditional music on soon-obsolete computers. For the launch of the book, Clayton sat down with the Met’s social media manager, Kimberly Drew, to talk about ideal readers, the realities of the international DJ life, and technology. Their conversation was sandwiched between two DJ sets, one by Sonido Kumbala, a Mexican cumbia sonidera group that called out to listeners on both sides of the border as they played, and another by the Philly duo SCRAAATCH.
Kimberly Drew: So we’ll start with the introductions. My name is Kimberly Drew. I’m @museummammy around the Internet. Full time, I work at the Met, managing the museum’s social media channels, and then the rest of my life I spend on the Internet advocating for artists and creatives of color. I’ve been running a blog on Tumblr called Black Contemporary Art for the past five years, and I’m in the last week of programming at Recess, which is at 41 Grand Street in Tribeca, doing a group project called Black Art Incubator.
Jace Clayton is an artist and writer and musician and DJ and so many things, just a total polymath that I’ve had such tremendous respect for since I found out about his work four years ago. Jace is one of those people who can expand your world. And it’s such an honor to be sitting on this stage with you and discussing your book. Do you want to say more about yourself?
Jace Clayton: You said it all.
KD: In the first chapter of Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture, you explain that the DJ understands rooms as no one else can, how the sound selector is very much someone who is able to read people. I’m wondering, as an author now, what about the climate of the world made you feel like this was a good time to drop a book?
JC: Mmm, yeah. Why now? I think knowing the climate of the room is connected to questions of materiality, of sensual engagement—the hyper-specific, on-the-ground information you get from playing all these shows in different cities, different contexts, and seeing how differently audiences listen and react when the room heats up. Not only did I have this very particular experience, it was spread all over the world, doing shows in almost forty countries. Maybe when people think of “international DJ,” they get some sort of EDM/Vegas dream, but more often than not it’d be like, “Hi, we’re in Bratislava, there are three of us, and we love your music, can you come here? We’ll give you a bed and 500 euros,” and I would always say yes, because I was curious. So the “Why now?” involves me looking back and realizing I experienced this wild shift in how music gets made and moves around, from analog to digital. In the beginning of my career I lugged around tons of records, many pounds of records, and then by the end it’s a laptop, it’s a USB stick. We’ve undergone an enormous dematerialization of music, and with that, access has exploded, via MP3s and networked listening like YouTube . . . All sorts of things swooped in between the late nineties and four or five years ago when I started this book project.
KD: One of the things that stuck out to me in your conclusion—spoiler alert!—was this idea of what the ideal listener looks like . . . In the book, you were talking about how people who are purveyors of sound should be ideal listeners, but is there an ideal reader of the book?
JC: I like the idea of someone coming to Uproot who doesn’t know my work at all. You can pull a book off the shelf and even if it’s written ten, thirty, forty years previous, it can just blow your mind. So weirdly enough, my ideal reader is someone who is not yet born, someone who is like, “Oh, that’s old people’s music, I don’t care about that.” But then they dive into the book and they see that this is a whole window into a world, into a time, into a moment.
KD: That’s a wonderful idea. My next question is: Why the twenty-first century specifically? Throughout Uproot, it seems like you’re engaging with so many cultures, so many time periods. If you’re introducing Berber music, you talk about the history of Berber music and exactly where it’s coming from. You talk a little bit about the shift from vinyl to MP3, but I was hoping you’d go a little deeper on why you used the twenty-first century as your framing device?
JC: Recently someone said to me, “You’re really writing about the present.” In contrast with most music books, which are rear-facing. They’re discussing histories or having canon-building moments like “This is the meaning of this seminal album from the 1980s.” I’m not interested in that top-down review style of thinking about music. I wanted to slow down and focus on this current moment. To respect music’s vitality and unpredictability I had to zoom in on the magic of now. One thing that comes up again and again in the book is that the present is so wide. I’m talking about a lot of musicians who won’t be familiar to people. There’s always a little more going on, even now when you’re supposed to have instant access to everything digitally.
KD: As an artist working within the digital sphere—I’m thinking about your Sufi Plug Ins project—and as a writer trying to record the history of that very technology that you’re working with as an artist . . . it must be difficult to grapple the historical record. How has your relationship with technology evolved and how do feel about what’s going on with technology right now?
JC: My first entry into the world of music making was hearing this lo-fi Japanese noise music. I was immediately struck by the fact that whatever tools they were using were very basic, cheap, democratic in the most essential sense. So that punk idea that you only need the minimum to get started and to get your voice into the world hit me as a teenager. A bit later on, once someone sat me down and showed me how to use DJ gear, I was like, “That’s it?!” It turns out that you can teach someone how to DJ in an hour. It was a relief to realize that DJing doesn’t rely on esoteric technical knowledge; it’s actually about compositional decisions: layering and superimposition and sequencing and all these things. So, initially I was a complete techno-optimist. Then I started making music [laughs]. I was living in Spain, and had begun working with a Moroccan violinist. I started to learn about all these musical structures that had literally no presence within these software platforms I was using. That sent me into a tailspin. Projects like Sufi Plug Ins—it’s a suite of free music-making software based on non-Western ideas of sound that I released—that’s where it came into being.
My relationship with technology, right now it’s at the point where I’m not on the cutting edge; rather, I exist off to the side in this weird way. For example, I don’t write software code, but I try to always know enough about code to understand its possibilities. I have one Apple product in my life, an iPhone, but it’s also kind of senile, so I open an app and it takes thirty seconds. It’s important to me to have that layer of frustration or friction when dealing with any technology.
KD: I think there’s this slower thing that we’re not allowed to do with technology that’s really quite important to me. How can we unpack the technologies we already have? Which is, I think, something you do effectively throughout Uproot. You chart this intensive accelerationism in the music industry, and then you slow it down in these particular moments as you illustrate a chronology. I was wondering if you could talk about your writing process and what that was like for you. But also sonically—what were some of the things you were listening to?
JC: I’m going to start sonically—about halfway through writing Uproot I had this odd revelation, like, I’m thinking about this music that has the expectation of an audience. What about music that doesn’t quite expect an audience? What could that be? So I went down this very strange, very long YouTube rabbit hole, listening to all these amateur recordings that were just a document of a shape-note group singing together or songs at a church picnic or something. It was kind of amazing.
Maybe that speaks to the overall writing process, which involves a fair amount of manic hairpulling and coffee making and pacing and working at a standing desk. In addition to these very odd, almost found recordings, I would also really slow down and listen intensely to whatever I was writing about. There’s a section where I discuss Auto-Tune, and I do a close reading of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” to show how Whitney’s melisma can actually help explain how Auto-Tune is being used in a Moroccan context. So I’m listening to the original over and over again, but I also think, “Let’s hear how song keeps unfolding.” I started with Dolly Parton and then went on to dozens and dozens of Whitney Houston impersonators on American Idol and its international franchises.
The exciting thing about being able to write a book is that the whole time frame changes. You’re dealing with chapters, hundreds of pages. It’s not a blog post, it’s not an essay, there’s a long arc for a reader who might not yet exist. I wrote at least two books’ worth of material, and then edited down. It was incredibly important for me to give my own form to all of this. I’m interested in how music socializes, I’m interested in discussing how music creates meaning, but at the same time, there’s all these other aspects that help contexualize things, from the car-honking language in Cairo, to the scientists who created the MP3 algorithm, to Fugazi’s approach to laundry while on tour. I wanted to bring all those type of details into the book, and have it happen in an organic way. There wasn’t a preexisting form, so I wrote tons, and edited, edited, edited. Which ultimately involves not being precious about your own writing because so much is thrown away in the end.
KD: Yes! In the middle of an editorial process it’s so hard to watch paragraphs go away. You’re like, “That’s a good paragraph! I worked so hard on that, it’s so relatable!”
JC: I basically wrote a novella-length section about the King of Berber Auto-Tune, this fascinating loser figure—then delete. No one is going to read those thirty thousand words.
KD: Maybe that’s a follow-up piece. And so now, on to thinking about the future! What could we do to support the book? I’m obsessed with you. What can we do to make everyone else obsessed with you, too?
JC: I am one of those people who’ll grab you and say, “You need to read this book.” I’m very, very direct about book recommendations. It’s like DJing: You do all this searching, you do all this digging, and once you find a gem, you need to share it. Just let people know about this great thing that might otherwise be overlooked. So I’ve got a book club.
KD: You do?
JC: Yeah, I do! But I can’t assign my own book. That would be weird.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
When the destruction of Israel commenced, Isaac Bloch was weighing whether to kill himself or move to the Jewish Home. He had lived in an apartment with books touching the ceilings, and rugs thick enough to hide dice; then in a room and a half with dirt floors; on forest floors, under unconcerned stars; under the floorboards of a Christian who, half a world and three-quarters of a century away, would have a tree planted to commemorate his righteousness; in a hole for so many days his knees would never wholly unbend; among Gypsies and partisans and half-decent Poles; in transit, refugee, and displaced persons camps; on a boat with a bottle with a boat that an insomniac agnostic had miraculously constructed inside it; on the other side of an ocean he would never wholly cross; above half a dozen grocery stores he killed himself fixing up and selling for small profits; beside a woman who rechecked the locks until she broke them, and died of old age at forty-two without a syllable of praise in her throat but the cells of her murdered mother still dividing in her brain; and finally, for the last quarter century, in a snow-globe-quiet Silver Spring split-level: ten pounds of Roman Vishniac bleaching on the coffee table; Enemies, A Love Story demagnetizing in the world’s last functional VCR; egg salad becoming bird flu in a refrigerator mummified with photographs of gorgeous, genius, tumorless great-grandchildren.
German horticulturalists had pruned Isaac’s family tree all the way back to the Galician soil. But with luck and intuition and no help from above, he had transplanted its roots into the sidewalks of Washington, D.C., and lived to see it regrow limbs. And unless America turned on the Jews—until, his son, Irv, would correct—the tree would continue to branch and sprout. Of course, Isaac would be back in a hole by then. He would never unbend his knees, but at his unknown age, with unknown indignities however near, it was time to unball his Jewish fists and concede the beginning of the end. The difference between conceding and accepting is depression.
Even putting aside the destruction of Israel, the timing was unfortunate: it was only weeks before his eldest great-grandson’s bar mitzvah, which Isaac had been marking as his life’s finish line ever since he crossed the previous finish line of his youngest great-grandson’s birth. But one can’t control when an old Jew’s soul will vacate his body and his body will vacate the coveted one-bedroom for the next body on the waiting list. One can’t rush or defer manhood, either. Then again, the purchase of a dozen nonrefundable airplane tickets, the booking of a block of the Washington Hilton, and the payment of twenty-three thousand dollars in deposits for a bar mitzvah that has been on the calendar since the last Winter Olympics are no guarantee that it’s going to happen.
• • •
A group of boys lumbered down the halls of Adas Israel, laughing, punching, blood rushing from developing brains to developing genitals and back again in the zero-sum game of puberty.
“Seriously, though,” one said, the second s getting caught on his palate expander, “the only good thing about blowjobs are the wet handjobs you get with them.”
“Amen to that.”
“Otherwise you’re just boning a glass of water with teeth.”
“Which is pointless,” said a redheaded boy who still got chills from so much as thinking about the epilogue of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
If God existed and judged, He would have forgiven these boys everything, knowing that they were compelled by forces outside of themselves inside of themselves, and that they, too, were made in His image.
Silence as they slowed to watch Margot Wasserman lapping water. It was said that her parents parked two cars outside their three-car garage because they had five cars. It was said that her Pomeranian still had its balls, and they were honeydews.
“Goddamn it, I want to be that drinking fountain,” a boy with the Hebrew name Peretz-Yizchak said.
“I want to be the missing part of those crotchless undies.”
“I want to fill my dick with mercury.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
“You know,” Marty Cohen-Rosenbaum, né Chaim ben Kalman, said, “like … make my dick a thermometer.”
“By feeding it sushi?”
“Or just injecting it. Or whatever. Dude, you know what I mean.”
Four shakes, and their heads achieved an unintended synchronicity, like Ping-Pong spectators.
In a whisper: “To put it in her butt.”
The others were lucky to have twenty-first-century moms who knew that temperatures were taken digitally in the ear. And Chaim was lucky that the boys’ attention was diverted before they had time to slap him with a nickname he would never shed.
Sam was sitting on the bench outside Rabbi Singer’s office, head lowered, eyes on the upturned hands in his lap like a monk waiting to burn. The boys stopped, turning their self-hatred toward him.
“We heard what you wrote,” one said, thrusting a finger into Sam’s chest. “You crossed a line.”
“Some fucked-up shit, bro.”
It was odd, because Sam’s profligate sweat production usually didn’t kick in until the threat had subsided.
“I didn’t write it, and I’m not your”—air quotes—“bro.”
He could have said that, but he didn’t. He also could have explained why nothing was as it seemed. But he didn’t. Instead, he just took it, as he always did in life on the crap side of the screen.
On the other side of the rabbi’s door, on the other side of the rabbi’s desk, sat Sam’s parents, Jacob and Julia. They didn’t want to be there. No one wanted to be there. The rabbi needed to embroider some thoughtful-sounding words about someone named Ralph Kremberg before they put him in the ground at two o’clock. Jacob would have preferred to be working on the bible for Ever-Dying People, or ransacking the house for his missing phone, or at least tapping the Internet’s lever for some dopamine hits. And today was supposed to be Julia’s day off—this was the opposite of off.
“Shouldn’t Sam be in here?” Jacob asked.
“I think it’s best if we have an adult conversation,” Rabbi Singer said.
“Sam’s an adult.”
“Sam is not an adult,” Julia said.
“Because he’s three verses shy of mastering the blessings after the blessings after his haftorah?”
Ignoring Jacob, Julia put her hand on the rabbi’s desk and said, “It’s clearly unacceptable to talk back to a teacher, and we want to find a way to make this right.”
“But at the same time,” Jacob said, “isn’t suspension a bit draconian for what, in the scheme of things, is not really that big a deal?”
“Jacob. . .”
In an effort to communicate with her husband but not the rabbi, Julia pressed two fingers to her brow and gently shook her head while flaring her nostrils. She looked more like a third-base coach than a wife, mother, and member of the community attempting to keep the ocean from her son’s sand castle.
“Adas Israel is a progressive shul,” the rabbi said, eliciting an eye-roll from Jacob as reflexive as gagging. “We have a long and proud history of seeing beyond the cultural norms of any given moment, and finding the divine light, the Ohr Ein Sof, in every person. Using racial epithets here is a very big deal, indeed.”
“What?” Julia asked, finding her posture.
“That can’t be right,” Jacob said.
The rabbi sighed a rabbi’s sigh and slid a piece of paper across his desk to Julia.
“He said these?” Julia asked.
“He wrote them.”
“Wrote what?” Jacob asked.
Shaking her head in disbelief, Julia quietly read the list: “Filthy Arab, chink, cunt, jap, faggot, spic, kike, n-word—”
“He wrote ‘n-word’?” Jacob asked. “Or the actual n-word?”
“The word itself,” the rabbi said.
Though his son’s plight should have taken mental precedence, Jacob became distracted by the fact that this was the only word that could not bear vocalization.
“There must be a misunderstanding,” Julia said, finally handing the paper to Jacob. “Sam nurses animals back to—”
“Cincinnati Bow Tie? That’s not a racial epithet. It’s a sex act. I think. Maybe.”
“They’re not all epithets,” the rabbi said.
“You know, I’m pretty sure ‘Filthy Arab’ is a sex act, too.”
“I would have to take your word for it.”
“My point is, maybe we’re completely misinterpreting this list.”
Ignoring her husband again, Julia said, “What has Sam said about this?”
The rabbi picked at his beard, searching for words as a macaque searches for lice.
“He denied it. Vociferously. But the words weren’t there before class, and he is the only person who sits at that desk.”
“He didn’t do it,” Jacob said.
“It’s his handwriting,” Julia said.
“All thirteen-year-old boys write the same.”
The rabbi said, “He wasn’t able to offer another explanation for how it got there.”
“It’s not his job to,” Jacob said. “And by the way, if Sam were to have written those words, why on earth would he have left them on the desk? The brazenness proves his innocence. Like in Basic Instinct.”
“But she did it in Basic Instinct,” Julia said.
“The ice pick.”
“I guess that’s right. But that’s a movie. Obviously some genuinely racist kid, with a grudge against Sam, planted it.”
Julia spoke directly to the rabbi: “We’ll make sure Sam understands why what he wrote is so hurtful.”
“Julia,” Jacob said.
“Would an apology to the teacher be sufficient to get the bar mitzvah back on its tracks?”
“It’s what I was going to suggest. But I’m afraid word of his words has spread around our community. So—”
Jacob expelled a puff of frustration—a gesture he’d either taught to Sam or learned from him. “And hurtful to whom, by the way? There’s a world of difference between breaking someone’s nose and shadow boxing.”
The rabbi studied Jacob. He asked, “Has Sam been having any difficulties at home?”
“He’s been overwhelmed by homework,” Julia began.
“He did not do this.”
“And he’s been training for his bar mitzvah, which is, at least in theory, another hour every night. And cello, and soccer. And his younger brother Max is going through some existential stuff, which has been challenging for everyone. And the youngest, Benjy—”
“It sounds like he’s got a lot on his plate,” the rabbi said. “And I certainly sympathize with that. We ask a lot of our children. More than was ever asked of us. But I’m afraid racism has no place here.”
“Of course it doesn’t,” Julia said.
“Hold on. Now you’re calling Sam a racist?”
“I did not say that, Mr. Bloch.”
“You did. You just did. Julia—”
“I don’t remember his exact words.”
“I said, ‘Racism has no place here.’”
“Racism is what racists express.”
“Have you ever lied, Mr. Bloch?” Jacob reflexively searched his jacket pocket yet again for his phone. “I assume that, like everyone who has ever lived, you have told a lie. But that doesn’t make you a liar.”
“You’re calling me a liar?” Jacob asked, his fingers wrapped around nothing.
“You’re boxing at shadows, Mr. Bloch.”
Jacob turned to Julia. “Yes, the n-word is clearly bad. Bad, bad, very bad. But it was one word among many.”
“You think the larger context of misogyny, homophobia, and perversion makes it better?”
“But he didn’t do it.”
The rabbi shifted in his chair. “If I can speak frankly for a moment.” He paused, thumbing the inside of his nostril with plausible deniability. “It can’t be easy for Sam—being Irving Bloch’s grandson.”
Julia leaned back and thought about sand castles, and the Shinto shrine gate that washed up in Oregon two years after the tsunami.
Jacob turned to the rabbi. “Excuse me?”
“For a child’s role model—”
“This should be good.”
The rabbi addressed Julia. “You must know what I mean.”
“I know what you mean.”
“We do not know what you mean.”
“Perhaps if it didn’t seem, to Sam, that saying anything, no matter—”
“You’ve read volume two of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson?”
“I have not.”
“Well, if you were the worldly kind of rabbi, and had read that classic of the genre, you’d know that pages 432 to 435 are devoted to how Irving Bloch did more than anyone else in Washington, or anywhere, to ensure the passage of the Voting Rights Act. A kid could not find a better role model.”
“A kid shouldn’t have to look,” Julia said, facing forward.
“Now . . . did my father blog something regrettable? Yes. He did. It was regrettable. He regrets it. An all-you-can-eat buffet of regret. But for you to suggest that his righteousness is anything but an inspiration to his grandchildren—”
“With all due respect, Mr. Bloch—”
Jacob turned to Julia: “Let’s get out of here.”
“Let’s actually get what Sam needs.”
“Sam doesn’t need anything from this place. It was a mistake to force him to have a bar mitzvah.”
“What? Jacob, we didn’t force him. We might have nudged him, but—”
“We nudged him to get circumcised. With the bar mitzvah, it was proper force.”
“For the last two years, your grandfather has been saying that the only reason he hangs on is to make it to Sam’s bar mitzvah.”
“All the more reason not to have it.”
“And we wanted Sam to know that he’s Jewish.”
“Was there any chance of him not knowing that?”
“To be Jewish.”
“Jewish, yes. But religious?”
Jacob never knew how to answer the question “Are you religious?” He’d never not belonged to a synagogue, never not made some gesture toward kashruth, never not assumed—not even in his moments of greatest frustration with Israel, or his father, or American Jewry, or God’s absence—that he would raise his children with some degree of Jewish literacy and practice. But double negatives never sustained a religion. Or as Sam’s brother Max would put it in his bar mitzvah speech three years later, “You only get to keep what you refuse to let go of.” And as much as Jacob wanted the continuity (of history, culture, thought, and values), as much as he wanted to believe that there was a deeper meaning available not only to him but to his children and their children—light shone between his fingers.
When they had started dating, Jacob and Julia often spoke about a “religion for two.” It would have felt embarrassing if it hadn’t felt ennobling. Their Shabbat: every Friday night, Jacob would read a letter he had written for Julia over the course of the week, and she would recite a poem from memory; and without overhead lighting, the phone unplugged, the watches stowed under the cushion of the red corduroy armchair, they would slowly eat the dinner they’d slowly prepared together; and they would draw a bath and make love while the waterline rose. Wednesday sunrise strolls: the route became unwittingly ritualized, traced and retraced week after week, until the sidewalk bore an impression of their path—imperceptible, but there. Every Rosh Hashanah, in lieu of going to services, they performed the ritual of tashlich: casting breadcrumbs, meant to symbolize the past year’s regrets, into the Potomac. Some sank, some were carried to other shores by the current, some regrets were taken by gulls to feed their still-blind young. Every morning, before rising from the bed, Jacob kissed Julia between the legs—not sexually (the ritual demanded that the kiss never lead to anything), but religiously. They started to collect, when traveling, things whose insides had an aspect of being larger than their outsides: the ocean contained in a seashell, a depleted typewriter ribbon, the world in a mercury-glass mirror. Everything seemed to move toward ritual—Jacob picking Julia up from work on Thursdays, the morning coffee in shared silence, Julia replacing Jacob’s bookmarks with small notes—until, like a universe that has expanded to its limit and then contracts toward its beginning, everything was undone.
Some Friday nights were just too late, and some Wednesday mornings were just too early. After a difficult conversation there would be no kiss between the legs, and if one isn’t feeling generous, how many things really qualify as being larger on the inside than on the outside? (You can’t put resentment on a shelf.) They held on to what they could, and tried not to acknowledge how secular they had become. But every now and then, usually in a moment of defensiveness that, despite the pleas of every better angel, simply could not resist taking the form of blame, one of them would say, “I miss our Shabbats.”
Sam’s birth felt like another chance, as did Max’s and Benjy’s. A religion for three, for four, for five. They ritualistically marked the children’s heights on the doorframe on the first day of every year—secular and Jewish—always first thing in the morning, before gravity did its work of compression. They threw resolutions into the fire every December 31, took Argus on a family walk every Tuesday after dinner, and read report cards aloud on the way to Vace for otherwise forbidden aranciatas and limonatas. Tuck-in happened in a certain order, according to certain elaborate protocols, and on anyone’s birthday everyone slept in the same bed. They often observed Shabbat—as much in the sense of self-consciously witnessing religion as fulfilling it—with a Whole Foods challah, Kedem grape juice, and the tapered wax of endangered bees in the silver candleholders of extinct ancestors. After the blessings, and before eating, Jacob and Julia would go to each of the children, hold his head, and whisper into his ear something of which they were proud that week. The extreme intimacy of the fingers in the hair, the love that wasn’t secret but had to be whispered, sent tremors through the filaments of the dimmed bulbs.
After dinner, they performed a ritual whose origin no one could remember and whose meaning no one questioned: they closed their eyes and walked around their house. It was fine to speak, to be silly, to laugh, but their blindness always became silent. Over time, they developed a tolerance for the dark quiet and could last for ten minutes, then twenty. They would meet back at the kitchen table, and then open their eyes together. Each time it was revelatory. Two revelations: the foreignness of a home the children had lived in their entire lives, and the foreignness of sight.
One Shabbat, as they drove to visit their great-grandfather Isaac, Jacob said, “A person gets drunk at a party, and hits and kills a kid on the way home. Another person gets equally drunk, and makes it home safely. Why does the first one go to jail for the rest of his life, while the second gets to wake up the next morning as if nothing happened?”
“Because he killed a kid.”
“But in terms of what they did wrong, they are equally guilty.”
“But the second one didn’t kill a kid.”
“Not because he was innocent, but because he was lucky.”
“But still, the first one killed a kid.”
“But when we think about guilt, shouldn’t we think about actions and intentions, in addition to outcomes?”
“What kind of party was it?”
“Yeah, and what was the kid doing out that late, anyway?”
“I think the point—”
“His parents should have kept him safe. They should be sent to jail. But I guess then the kid wouldn’t have parents. Unless he lived in jail with them.”
“You’re forgetting he’s dead.”
Sam and Max became enthralled by intention. Once, Max ran into the kitchen crying, holding his stomach. “I punched him,” Sam said from the living room, “but not on purpose.” Or when, in retaliation, Max stomped on Sam’s half-finished Lego chalet and said, “It wasn’t on purpose; I only meant to stomp on the rug beneath it.” Broccoli was fed to Argus under the table, “by accident.” Quizzes weren’t studied for, “on purpose.” The first time Max told Jacob “Shut up”—in response to a poorly timed suggestion that he take a break from some Tetris derivative on which he was about to crack the top ten scores of the day but wasn’t supposed to be playing in the first place—he put down Jacob’s phone, ran to him, hugged him, and with fear-glazed eyes, said, “I didn’t mean it.”
When the fingers of Sam’s left hand were crushed in the hinge of the heavy iron door and he screamed, “Why did that happen?” over and over and over, “Why did that happen?” and Julia, holding him against her, blood blooming across her shirt as breast milk used to when she heard a baby cry, said simply, “I love you, and I’m here,” and Jacob said, “We need to go to the emergency room,” Sam, who feared doctors more than anything any doctor could ever treat, pleaded, “We don’t! We don’t! It was on purpose! I did this on purpose!”
Time passed, the world exerted itself, and Jacob and Julia began to forget to do things on purpose. They didn’t refuse to let go, and like the resolutions, and Tuesday walks, and birthday calls to the cousins in Israel, and three overflowing shopping bags of Jewish deli food brought to Great-Grandpa Isaac on the first Sunday of every month, and skipping school for the Nats’ home opener, and singing “Singin’ in the Rain” while riding Ed the Hyena through the automated car wash, and the “gratitude journals,” and “ear inspections,” and annual pumpkin picking and carving and seed roasting and monthlong decomposition, the whispered pride fell away.
The inside of life became far smaller than the outside, creating a cavity, an emptiness. Which is why the bar mitzvah felt so important: it was the final thread of the frayed tether. To snip it, as Sam had so badly wanted, and as Jacob was now suggesting against his own real need, would send not just Sam but the family floating off into that emptiness—more than enough oxygen to last a life, but what kind of life?
Julia turned to the rabbi: “If Sam apologizes—”
“For what?” Jacob asked.
“If he apologizes—”
“Everyone,” the rabbi said.
“Everyone? Everyone living and dead?”
Jacob assembled that phrase—everyone living and dead—not in the light of all that was about to happen, but in the pitch-blackness of the moment: this was before the folded prayers bloomed from the Wailing Wall, before the Japanese Crisis, before the ten thousand missing children and the March of a Million, before “Adia” became the most searched term in the history of the Internet. Before the devastating aftershocks, before the alignment of nine armies and the distribution of iodine pills, before America never sent F-16s, before the Messiah was too distracted or nonexistent to awake the living or the dead. Sam was becoming a man. Isaac was weighing whether to kill himself or move from a home to a Home.
“We want to put this behind us,” Julia said to the rabbi. “We want to make it right, and go through with the bar mitzvah as planned.”
“By apologizing for everything to everyone?”
“We want to get back to happiness.”
Jacob and Julia silently registered the hope and sadness and strangeness of what she’d said, as the word dissipated through the room and settled atop the stacks of religious books and on the stained carpeting. They’d lost their way, and lost their compass, but not their belief that it was possible to get back—even if neither knew exactly what happiness she was referring to.
The rabbi interwove his fingers, just like a rabbi, and said, “There’s a Hasidic proverb: ‘While we pursue happiness, we flee from contentment.’”
Jacob rose, folded the paper, tucked it in his pocket, and said, “You’ve got the wrong guy.”
Jonathan Safran Foer is the author of two bestselling, award-winning novels, Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and a bestselling work of nonfiction, Eating Animals. His latest novel is Here I Am. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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One of the first chairs you need, when furnishing a new home, is a dining chair. You can make do with cushions on the floor instead of an easy chair, as I did in my first apartment, and you can read a book or watch television lying in bed, but if you are going to eat at a table you need something to sit on. Early in our marriage and shortly after we had finished building our house, my wife and I decided to replace our collection of beat-up side chairs, accumulated separately over the years, with proper dining chairs. I knew what I wanted. I had a bentwood-and-cane chair in my university office. I had used it for several years so I knew it was comfortable, and I liked the way it looked.
We visited a furniture distributor in the east end of Montreal who carried bentwood chairs. The one I wanted turned out to be pricier than we expected—or could afford—so we looked at other models that were on display in the showroom. We were attracted to a bentwood chair with a curved hoop for the back, thin slats, a circular bentwood leg brace, all stained black. It was not quite as elegant as our first choice, and the padded seat was not as pretty as woven cane, but I knew from experience that cane would eventually sag and need to be replaced. This armless side chair was affordable, and equally important, with a taller back it offered better support and was actually more comfortable. The dealer offered a reduced price if we took eight of them, so we did. More than thirty years later they continue to serve.
Our dining chairs are stamped MADE IN CZECHOSLOVAKIA on the underside of the frame. Czechoslovakia has been associated with bentwood furniture since the mid-nineteenth century, when bentwood chair factories appeared in the beechwood forests of Moravia (today a part of the Czech Republic but then a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire). The man responsible for these factories looms large in the history of the chair. He transformed furniture-making, from a craft practiced by individual cabinetmakers in workshops, to an industry operating on a world scale.
Michael Thonet was born in 1796 in Boppard, a small town in the Palatinate, a border region of France but soon to become a part of Prussia. He came from a modest background—his father was a tanner—and as a boy he was apprenticed to a cabinetmaker. Eventually, he opened his own shop in Boppard, making furniture by hand in the timetested way. Thonet was ambitious and inventive, and he began experimenting with laminated veneers, cutting wood into thin strips, boiling bundles of strips in glue, and bending them in molds. His earliest applications were curved headboards, baseboards for sofas, and back rails for chairs; his first large commission was cartwheels for the Prussian military. By 1836 he was making entire chairs out of bent veneer. Bentwood chairs required less material and labor and were cheaper to produce than hand-carved chairs, and because laminated wood was stronger they could be extremely light and graceful.
Thonet was not the first to explore bending laminated wood. Samuel Gragg had produced the Elastic Chair almost thirty years earlier, and Jean-Joseph Chapuis of Brussels, a Paris-trained master joiner, developed a technique for steambending laminated wood at about the same time. Chapuis served an exclusive clientele—he furnished the royal castle of Laeken in Brussels—and his delicate neoclassical chairs of laminated mahogany and beech are very beautiful; the curved legs recall those of a curule chair. It is unlikely that Thonet, a provincial cabinetmaker, would have known of Chapuis’s work, any more than he would have heard of Gragg in far-off Boston. The Boppard craftsman seems to have arrived at the technique on his own.
In 1841, a display of Thonet’s unusual furniture at a craft fair in Koblenz caught the eye of Prince Klemens von Metternich, chancellor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Impressed by Thonet’s handiwork, the noted statesman invited the cabinetmaker to his nearby country estate—Thonet showed up with several bentwood samples: a chair, a cartwheel, and a walking stick. Metternich convinced his guest to visit Vienna, where, with the chancellor’s support, Thonet received a furniture order from Emperor Franz Josef. More important, Thonet was granted an Austrian patent for his woodbending process.
Back in Boppard, things were not going well. Thonet had borrowed heavily to finance patent applications in Britain, France, and Belgium, and his impatient creditors forced him into bankruptcy. Finally, the penniless cabinetmaker and his large family—he had five sons and six daughters—immigrated to Vienna. It took Thonet several years to get back on his feet. While working for a Viennese furniture maker, he produced laminated wood flooring and exquisitely delicate laminated wood chairs for wealthy clients. But his real aim was to develop a light, inexpensive chair for a very different market: the growing number of restaurants and coffeehouses in the city.
When he was finally in a position to reopen his own workshop, his first customer was the fashionable Café Daum in Vienna, which he supplied with side chairs and coat stands. This was followed by an order for five hundred chairs from a Budapest hotel. Thonet’s café chairs were exceedingly simple in design: round caned seats, independent front legs, and a single curved piece forming the rear legs and the backrest. The pieces were made of veneered mahogany—four veneers for the back and legs and five for the seat ring. By now Thonet had refined his technique, and the wood strips were first boiled in water, bent and allowed to dry, then glued together. A commercial chair takes a lot of punishment, and perhaps the greatest testament to Thonet’s process is that the Café Daum chairs are said to have remained in continuous use for thirty years.
Shortly after the Café Daum, Thonet received a commission from the princely Schwarzenberg family to provide fancy side chairs for their palace in Vienna. The breathtakingly slender chairs are very beautiful. Similar chairs, together with a settee and side tables, were displayed by Thonet at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London’s Crystal Palace. The exhibition jury, not quite sure what to make of this novel furniture, which was obviously not made by hand in the traditional manner, awarded the “curious chairs” second prize. Prizes in trade fairs in Munich and Paris followed.
The furniture market had changed in the hundred years since Chippendale, and goods now moved regularly between countries. Orders for bentwood chairs started coming to Thonet from the far-flung reaches of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, from continental Europe, and from even farther afield. It was the South American trade that led to his crucial technical breakthrough. Thonet was getting complaints that during shipment chairs were delaminating because the glue was affected by maritime humidity. The obvious solution was to replace the laminations with solid wood. Although all his previous attempts at bending solid pieces of wood into tight curves had ended in failure, Thonet persevered. He invented a technique that involved clamping a metal strip to the wood, to relieve the pressure as the piece was bent. In 1856, he was granted a patent for this crucial invention. That gave the company thirteen years of exclusive rights over the bending process.
Michael Thonet’s bentwood chairs, which were considerably cheaper than conventional furniture, were a commercial success. Within five years he had two Viennese workshops employing more than a hundred cabinetmakers and craftsmen. However, they couldn’t keep up with demand, so Thonet set out to build a full-fledged chair factory. The first challenge was the raw material. Although in the past he had used a variety of tropical woods, including mahogany and Brazilian rosewood, he wanted a local source. Copper beech, suitable for bending, grew abundantly in the forests of neighboring southern Moravia, and he chose the small market town of Koritschan (today Koryčany) as the site for the factory. He organized the production process into a series of discrete steps. First, beechwood logs were cut into strips that were then turned on a lathe. The round pieces were steamed until pliable, and bent to shape in castiron molds. Once dried, which took at least twenty-four hours, the pieces were taken out of the molds, sanded, and stained. These operations did not require skilled labor—the factory employed no cabinetmakers or carpenters. Local men did the heavy work of bending, women the lighter tasks of sanding, staining, and caning. When the Koritschan factory was up and running, three hundred workers could turn out as many as fifty thousand chairs a year. Even so, soon additional factories were needed and three were built in Moravia as well as a fifth in Hungary.
The cover of the first Thonet catalog, published in 1859, carried the proud motto Beigen oder Brechen, To Bend or to Break. The broadsheet illustrated twenty-six products: chairs, settees, and tables. The chairs were designed with interchangeable parts, so that different models could be created by recombining assorted backs and arms. Number 14, a café chair, was the least expensive item; it sold for three Austrian florins, about the price of a bottle of good wine. Known as the Konsumstuhl, or Consumer’s Chair, No. 14 was the workhorse of the Thonet line. The design had been reduced to absolute basics. There were only six pieces: a caned seat, two front legs, a single curved piece that formed the rear legs and the back, a circular leg brace, and a curved back insert. That makes the design sound utilitarian, but it wasn’t; the slender legs tapered and flared gracefully and the circular leg brace echoed the round seat. The absence of decoration gave it a timeless quality that makes No. 14, in its own way, as enduring as the klismos or the cabriole chair.
Thonet chairs left the factory disassembled. They were shipped flat and put together after delivery. Assembly was simple; the six pieces of a No. 14 chair, for example, required only ten screws and two washers (the hardware was manufactured by Thonet, too). Thirty-six disassembled chairs could be packed into a compact crate only one meter a side. Flat-packing, as much as ingenious design and rationalized production, accounted for the remarkable success of Thonet’s chairs.
Michael Thonet died in 1871; he was seventy-five. Photographs of him in later life show a handsome man with longish hair and a full white beard; he resembles Karl Marx, another Rhineland Palatinate native. The resemblance ends there, for Thonet was an early example of the capitalist entrepreneur. Fifty years before Henry Ford introduced the Model T automobile assembly line in Highland Park, Thonet had already put in place the basic elements of mass production: division of labor, interchangeable parts, mechanization. As Ford would later do, he integrated his business vertically, buying forest land, laying railroad track, operating his own sawmills, and building his own machine saws, steam retorts, and iron molds. He even manufactured the bricks that were used to build the worker housing, schools, and libraries in his company towns. He must have been something of a benevolent despot, for he required his workers to use “Thonet currency” in the company stores. The firm’s offices were housed in an ornate seven-story block on fashionable Stephansplatz in Vienna. From there, the family directed its international operations. There were showrooms in all the major European cities: London, Paris, Berlin, Rotterdam, Hamburg, Vienna, Budapest, Prague, and Brno.
Michael Thonet is a landmark figure. Not only did he invent a new technique for making chairs—and design beautiful chairs to suit that technique—he also put in place an industrialized method of mass production and global mass marketing. What is unexpected is that unlike the firearm or the automobile, which were also early products of industrialization, the chair was a traditional artifact whose basic form dated back thousands of years. It was an unlikely candidate for one of the first mass-produced objects of the Industrial Age—a consumer’s chair, indeed.
Witold Rybczynski is a writer and an emeritus professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of How Architecture Works and Mysteries of the Mall and has written about architecture and design for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times, and Slate. Among his award-winning books are Home, The Most Beautiful House in the World, and A Clearing in the Distance, which won the J. Anthony Lukas Prize. He is the winner of the 2007 Vincent Scully Prize and the 2014 Design Mind Award from the National Design Awards. He lives with his wife in Philadelphia.
All illustrations in Now I Sit Me Down by Witold Rybczynski
Though I was always a bookish child, two things happened shortly after my sixteenth birthday which fixed my course toward words and writing. The first of these was discovering that the British Poet Laureate was paid in wine. That I immediately decided this was the job for me was probably down in part to the flippancy of adolescence, but I think it also appealed to the noble disdain of youth that one’s life should be traded for mere money. (I have long since stopped writing poetry, but it is certainly useful to a budding author to think of being unpaid as a positive virtue.) The second important event was the gift of two volumes of poetry, one by T. S. Eliot and the other by W. H. Auden, from my mother, given on my first visit to the Middle East and first read when we were driving through the Jiddat al-Harasis desert in southern Oman.
Eliot and Auden are perhaps first and foremost metropolitan poets, steeped in the tortured urbanity of Bloomsbury and Vienna and Manhattan, but they are in important senses also desert poets, and this is how I first knew them. Both writers are urgently concerned with the prophetic voice, that ‘voice of one crying in the wilderness’ which is both divine and disregarded, the ultimate voice of authority and yet unheeded by most who hear it. In the Abrahamic tradition this voice always comes from the desert, which is a symbol at once of its status as miracle and its isolation. Eliot sensed that this voice was in danger of disappearing, fragmented by the onset of secularity and modernity, and sought to recapture it in its evening hour.
Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
This voice, supressed by the noises of urbanity in the middle sections of The Waste Land, returns to have the last word in the final section, ‘What the Thunder Said.’ Auden, on the other hand, was writing in the 1930s during the rise of the fascist demagogues, where ‘In the nightmare of the dark / All the dogs of Europe bark.’ He was torn between deep suspicion of this voice and his unparalleled and effortless talent for conjuring it, and he eventually settled on a form of private revelation, where the prophetic voice was turned inwards to speak to matters of personal experience rather than public affairs. In his instructions to the poet following the death of W. B. Yeats, he struck a new note.
With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress.
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountains start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.
Both poets understood that the loss of authoritative voices and totalizing philosophies also deprived the poet of the ability to speak to and for the broader public. Auden’s later retreat from the public and political into the private lyric set the course for postwar poetry, but the fraught choice between the dangerously messianic power of language and the abandonment of the public remains a touchstone in my reading and teaching of literature.
This relationship between language and the desert, however, works both ways. Just as the voice coming from the desert has a prophetic air, so the text taken to the desert acquires a sacred feel. My current project began with the decision of most nineteenth-century expeditions to Africa to take with them Shakespeare as their only reading as they explored the Dark Continent, bearing the Complete Works like an ark of culture out into the wilderness. Of course they took Shakespeare with them because they enjoyed reading him, but they also took him as a kind of ritual act, one which confirmed his sacred status by bearing him into the most unexpected places, turning his into the voice in the wilderness. This ritual spoke to the nineteenth-century belief in Shakespeare’s universalism, his Genius which meant that the beauty of his works would stand the test of all times and places. And, like my own desert reading in Oman, their isolation with these volumes gave them a particular experience of reading Shakespeare, one perhaps foreign to that lifelong Londoner but one nevertheless where the stakes of literary experience were raised to their highest level.
We’ve all played the game of choosing books to take to a desert island, and while there is always someone who misunderstands (trying to bring encyclopedic books or ones that will help them off the island), most intuit that this is really a challenge to think of what are the key constituents of human culture, from which we will be cut off and which we can’t live without. Travellers to East Africa, from Burton and Stanley to Teddy Roosevelt and Che Guevara, were agreed that Shakespeare was the must-have book when cut off from the world they knew; the debate over why this was the case, however, was far from settled and went right to the heart of the rethinking of European culture as it spread across the globe.
This, however, was only the beginning of the story. East Africa would not sit passively by and allow itself to be a blank space in which other people performed ritual sanctifications of their idols. Instead, Shakespeare was soon everywhere in East African life, featuring among the first books printed in Swahili in the 1860s, passing into local folklore, acting as the backbone of a thriving Indian theatrical scene in Mombasa at the beginning of the twentieth century, being performed and translated by freedom fighters and independence leaders. And while most of these readers shared with the explorers their love of Shakespeare’s works, they quickly showed that they had no intention of reading them in the same way.
Having found a few leads on this story, I returned to East Africa, where I grew up, to rediscover how in the last two centuries it has served as a laboratory for testing claims about human culture. The resulting book is bursting with stories about reading in unexpected places and how it changes what we read, but at its heart is always the question of whether there is anything that is beautiful and significant to everyone—whether, in a sense, in a world deserted by shared values, there is any voice that can speak to us all.
Edward Wilson-Lee was raised in Kenya by conservationist parents, studied English at University College London, and completed a doctorate at Oxford and Cambridge. Over the past few years he has spent extended periods in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, and South Sudan. He now lives in Cambridge with his wife and son, and teaches Shakespeare at Sidney Sussex College. Shakespeare in Swahililand is his first book.
This week, America’s national parks celebrated their 100th anniversary, and this summer, Terry Tempest Williams traveled to nine national parks as part of her book tour. Her book, The Hour of Land, is as much a celebration of the parks as a memoir, as a call to save the parks. Here, we have the photo diary of her journey, with photographs from the parks and quotes from The Hour of Land.
Her tour took her to several cities, along with Mount Rainier National Park, Yosemite National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Glacier National Park, Grand Teton National Park, Arches National Park, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and Effigy Mounds National Monument.
“This is a terrain of verbs—break, erode, collapse, slide, slough, slump, fold, burn, smolder, stream, dry, crack, blow, fly, settle, shift, swirl, shake, sing, flow, fall, rise, carry, commence, radiate, reflect, freeze, thaw, melt, accept, change, grow.”
“Again and again, we find this common story of the establishment of our national parks: a handful of people who fall in love with a place, see it threatened, want to protect it for the future, and have the passion and patience to attract the necessary funding and political clout to make it happen.”
“To this day, my spiritual life is found inside the heart of the wild. I do not fear it, I court it. When I am away, I anticipate my return, needing to touch stone, rock, water, the trunks of trees, the sway of grasses, the barbs of a feather, the fur left behind by a shedding bison.”
“At the rate I was walking, stopping every few feet to look at a bird, a leaf, or an acorn, whether I would ever get to my destination was questionable. It was a six-mile meditation. There was no one else on the road. Up ahead, an orange pine needle hung twirling in the breeze—suspended from a high branch extended over the road from a single strand of spider’s silk. The air was crisp, saturated with the scent of pine. All things were primary—red maples, yellow birch, and the sky, cerulean blue.”
“I believe necessity drives us to improvisation where improbable and sustaining gestures create moments of grace that take care of us. We continue to evolve and transform who we are in relationship to where we are. We do not live in isolation from the physical world around us. Nature beckons our response. It is in the doing, the being, the becoming that meaning is made. What becomes sacred is the act itself—not what remains. Something inexplicable is set into motion.”
Terry Tempest Williams is the award-winning author of fourteen books, including Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, Finding Beauty in a Broken World, and When Women Were Birds. Her work has been widely anthologized around the world. She divides her time between Castle Valley, Utah, and Moose, Wyoming.
Isabelle Eberhardt never converted to Islam. For her, it would have been a redundant formality: from her early youth, she was possessed by an unshakable belief that she had been born a Muslim. Among the first Western writers to describe the life of Islam from the inside, as a believer, Eberhardt came from origins tangled in mysteries that will never be unraveled. She was born in Geneva in 1877, the daughter of Nathalie de Moerder, a Russian noblewoman who six years before had left her husband, General Pavel de Moerder, to live abroad, taking their three young children with her. The move was ostensibly undertaken for her health, but in fact she went to Geneva to make a new home with her lover, Alexandre Trophimowsky, the children’s tutor, a defrocked Orthodox priest.
When Isabelle was born, Nathalie registered her as fille naturelle and gave her her own birth surname, to avoid naming the father. In adulthood, Eberhardt spun fantastic stories about her parentage, claiming variously that she was the “wretched outcome of a rape committed by my mother’s doctor,” a Turk, and that her father was a Russian Muslim. The most outlandish theory of her begetting, first advanced by the French critic Pierre Arnoult, is that she was the daughter of Arthur Rimbaud, based on a perceived resemblance and a common destiny.
Whether he was her natural father or not, Trophimowsky supervised Isabelle’s upbringing and education like a tyrant. He was a fervent anarchist associated with Mikhail Bakunin; the choice of Switzerland as the new home might have been determined by his desire to join the Bakuninist faction in exile there. When Isabelle was two, Trophimowsky bought a walled estate in the countryside near Lake Geneva called Villa Tropicale, shaded by groves of pine trees and lilac, which he renamed Villa Neuve. The principal subject on the curriculum was horticulture, specializing in orchids and cacti. The children worked long hours in the gardens and fields, which covered more than three acres, trying out the latest agricultural fad to capture Trophimowsky’s imagination. He did give Isabelle a firm grounding in languages: in addition to Russian and the European languages that all Swiss study, he instructed her in Latin, ancient Greek, and classical Arabic, which she had mastered by the age of nineteen.
From her early childhood Isabelle was raised as a boy, a decision that may have been motivated by a noble intention to liberate her from the inferior role of women in Swiss society, but it might have been simply a freak of Trophimowsky’s fancy. She learned to ride and shoot and always dressed in boy’s clothes, with her hair cropped. When Isabelle was old enough to venture into the city on her own, Trophimowsky allowed her to do so only if she wore trousers. In adolescence, she delighted in strolling the streets of Geneva dressed as a sailor and drinking beer with real sailors in cafés, the first of many disguises.
Trophimowsky, the renegade priest, was violently antireligious, but he held a more bitter grudge against Christianity than Islam and regarded Jesus Christ as virtually his personal enemy. His ancestry was Armenian and possibly Muslim, and his reading of the Koran in Arabic with Isabelle brought him close to an open embrace of cultural Islam. Effectively a prisoner behind the villa’s walls, Isabelle sought imaginative escape in books. Swiss by birth she loved Rousseau, Russian in her soul she venerated Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, but her favorite books were by Pierre Loti, particularly his Romance of a Spahi. A spahi was a native Algerian cavalryman serving in the French army; Loti’s novel was a picaresque romance of the soldier’s life in the Maghrib (also spelled “Maghreb”), the Arabic name for North Africa.
From these disparate influences, the lonely, unhappy girl, born without a father or a homeland, synthesized a land of dreams in the African desert. Long after she had escaped Trophimowsky’s grip, she wrote to her beloved brother Augustin about “this land of the Maghrib, which, you remember, was always the sacred Kaaba for us both,” and in her diary described “that extraordinary attraction I felt for [the land of Africa] before I had ever seen it, long ago in the monotonous Villa.” After she immigrated to Algeria and traveled through the desert in the character of a young male scholar, Eberhardt’s fantasy of the Maghrib merged with her acute observations of the real place in tender, vivid reportage and short fiction.
Villa Neuve was tormented by secrets and forbidden passions, doomed like the House of Usher. Isabelle adored her mother, whom she always referred to as the “White Spirit” in her journals. Throughout Isabelle’s childhood and adolescence, Madame de Moerder was an invalid in a state of slow decline from an unspecified chronic illness, increasingly overpowered by Trophimowsky. Of the general’s three children who accompanied them to Switzerland, Nicolas, the eldest, joined the French Foreign Legion when he turned twenty-one and promptly jumped ship in Singapore; Nathalie denounced Trophimowsky to the police for making “disreputable and obscene propositions to her” and conspiring to murder General de Moerder, her father, by poisoning; and Vladimir, a delicate, shadowy youth whose principal interest was tending the villa’s cactus garden, committed suicide.
Isabelle and her fourth sibling, Augustin, were extraordinarily close in childhood and adolescence, almost to the suspicion of an incestuous love. Their sister Nathalie told the police that Trophimowsky was Augustin’s father; if she was telling the truth, Augustin might have been Isabelle’s only full sibling. Isabelle and Augustin dreamed of their escape to the Maghrib, where they could ride together in the desert, free from their autocratic guardian or undeclared father. With Pierre Loti in mind, Isabelle later wrote to Augustin about “certain books which arouse in our two almost identical souls the same feelings, the same anxieties, the same sad calls toward the Unknown, towards an Elsewhere.”
Augustin proved to be a disappointing soul mate. He was an indecisive weakling, an alcoholic and habitual smoker of opium and hashish. Time and again he ran away from the villa, only to creep sheepishly home. In what was intended to be a final, irrevocable break with his shadow father, Augustin imitated his elder brother by joining the French Foreign Legion, a last resort for misfits and losers. Isabelle wrote to him in despair,
Who knows whether the kisses we exchanged on the doorstep at ten o’clock on October the twelfth were not to be our last. We have never been separated for long. What desolation, what heavy sadness, deep and implacable. There is no hope and no faith. No God to whom we might cry out our nameless misery, all the atrocious injustice of our suffering. Heaven is empty and dumb; there is nothing, no one anywhere. The loneliness is absolute. . . . What is to become of our dreams, our hopes, our plans for the future?
Augustin was a failure even at ignominy: after committing an unnamed criminal offense, he was discharged from the Foreign Legion, an almost unheard-of disgrace. Isabelle finally realized that “our dreams, our hopes, our plans for the future” were her dreams, her hopes, her plans.
Trophimowsky impulsively came up with a new plan, possibly at Isabelle’s instigation: they would sell Villa Neuve and immigrate as a family to Algeria. The move realized the first of Isabelle’s three main goals, to live in the Maghrib, and temporarily accomplished the second, to be quit of the domestic despot. A French-Algerian couple Isabelle was in correspondence with found them a house in the coastal city of Bône (which has since reverted to its Arabic name, Annaba). Isabelle and her mother would leave for Africa immediately, while Trophimowsky remained in Geneva to oversee the sale of the villa. It was an ideal scheme as far as Isabelle was concerned: she needed someone to bully with love, and with Augustin now beyond her reach, she concentrated her affections on the White Spirit. On May 21, 1897, twenty-year-old Isabelle andher mother embarked at Marseilles, bound for Bône.
Isabelle Eberhardt’s travels in the character of Mahmoud, the devout young scholar, were a classic case of self-romancing, a common characteristic of the artist-exote since Gauguin created the legend of his life in Tahiti, where, “in the silence of the lovely tropical night, I can listen to the sweet murmuring of the music of my heart, beating in amorous harmony with the mysterious beings of my environment. Free at last.” Like Byron’s Childe Harold, Eberhardt sought freedom in the purity of the desert, an illimitable place where she could roam at will in her new identity as Si Mahmoud Saadi, a taleb on a solitary quest of the infinite.
After her arrival in Bône with her daughter, Madame de Moerder converted to Islam and died soon afterward, leaving Isabelle alone in the world. She and Augustin drifted ever farther apart and made the final break after his marriage to a dreary, semiliterate Marseillaise. Isabelle was despondent after the death of the White Spirit. In his biographical sketch of Eberhardt, Paul Bowles wrote that when Trophimowsky arrived in Bône for the funeral, “he found Isabelle in a state of hysteria, wailing that she too wanted to die. The old Nihilist’s reaction was typical: he took out his revolver and offered it to her. She did not accept it.” After Vladimir’s suicide five months later, Trophimowsky was a broken man, at last bitterly aware of his utter failure as a parent. He himself died a year after Madame de Moerder, of esophageal cancer, severing Isabelle’s last connection with Switzerland except legal entanglements over Trophimowsky’s bequest of the villa to her and Augustin.
Released from the twisted, toxic environment of her childhood home, Eberhardt exulted in her newfound independence. She began her restless wandering in the Sahara, always dressed as a man and usually traveling alone. She wrote in her diary, “Since I’ve finally left that house, where everything had died a death even before it conclusively fell into ruins, my life has been nothing but a quick, dreamlike flash through various lands, under different names and different disguises.” She delighted in being taken for a man, so she could astonish those she chose to attach herself to by revealing that she was a woman. She was naïve about the success of her deception; her friend Robert Randau wrote that the men she met “knew that this svelte cavalier in an immaculate white burnoose and soft red leather boots was a woman,” but “the innate courtesy of the Arabs is such that none of them ever made any allusion, even by so much as a wink,” that would have spoiled her fun.
In her desert rambles, Eberhardt realized Lady Hester Stanhope’s ideal of living as an être à part, female only in bed. In cities, she frequented the roughest dives, where she could meet sailors and working-class men for quick trysts divested of affection, anticipating the sexual outlaws of Jean Genet. On a visit to El Oued, a remote outpost deep in the desert, her scandalous behavior attracted the notice of the Arab Bureau, as the local colonial administration in the Maghrib was called. The bureau chief wrote to his superiors that Eberhardt was a “neurotic and deranged woman” who had come to El Oued “to satisfy her vicious inclinations and taste for the locals.” Eberhardt did have her vices: she drank like a fish and smoked like a chimney, much of it kef, the form of hashish common in Africa. Intoxication palliated the hardships of her circumstances and emboldened her in the aggressive pursuit of sex.
One of Eberhardt’s biographers, Françoise d’Eaubonne, advanced the theory that Eberhardt’s male disguise was essential to her sexual pathology, suggesting that she presented herself as a boy because she wished to make love like a boy, by taking the passive role in anal intercourse. This scenario of sexual role-playing has a pedigree that dates to comic tales of buggery in The Arabian Nights and resurfaces in modern dramas such as David Henry Hwang’s play M. Butterfly and Neil Jordan’s film The Crying Game, but for obvious reasons it is an implausible model of habitual sexual behavior. Eberhardt was obsessed by the romantic image of the Arab youth, androgynous and ethereal, first exemplified by Halim in “Vision of the Maghrib.” She wanted both to be that man and to be loved by him, not in an exciting daydream but in a real, rapturous physical union.
Isabelle Eberhardt’s celebration of the freedom of the life of the Arab brought with it an inherent hypocrisy, resulting from the dissonance between her idealization of the male’s independence and the state of subjugation in which most Muslim women lived. The only alternative to being a wife in some form of domestic isolation, if not actually in purdah, was to become a prostitute, like the feral belly dancers of the Ouled Naïl. Eberhardt seized for herself the freedom of the desert by creating a male alter ego, with little thought for the powerless dependency of Arab women. It is not a question of judging her by the standards of a later era: the feminist critique had been articulated long before, dating at least to Flora Tristan’s Peregrinations of a Pariah in 1838.
• • •
In the new century, two events transformed Eberhardt’s life. On a return visit to El Oued, she met Slimène Ehnni, a young spahi officer who was posted there. She fell in love with him with a passion that never diminished. Dark and good-looking, almost exactly her age, he was raised in Bône, the son of a police officer. He was Muslim, of course, but évolué, the French term for a Gallicized Algerian committed to French rule, who held French citizenship. He was in the cavalry, so the lovers would ride the dunes together to distant oases for discreet assignations. Slimène was the first man she met with whom she felt secure enough to take the feminine role, a disguise she had not yet tried. He had a sickly constitution and was as irresolute and tractable as Augustin. Isabelle alternated between nursing him, as she had her mother, and making a project of him, as she had done with her brother. Her friends were unanimous in their disapproval, incredulous that she was besotted with a man so obviously her intellectual inferior; yet to the end of her life she persevered in the dream of making a home in the desert with Slimène.
Eberhardt’s lifelong conviction that she was born under an evil star, so often validated by events, had made her spiritual life a mystic quest. In Paul Bowles’s summary,
She calmly set out to be initiated into the secret religious cult of the Qadriya, a Sufi brotherhood that wielded enormous political power among the as yet unconquered desert tribes. . . . They were under no misapprehension as to her sex; but if she chose to dress as a man it was her affair. From then on, no matter where she went, every member of the cult was bound by oath to feed her, give her shelter, or risk his life to protect her. She belonged to the Qadriya.
The Qadriya gave Eberhardt the sense of family she had never securely possessed and which was altogether lacking after the death of her mother. Because it is a secret society, no accessible record exists to testify to the extent or details of her involvement, yet there is no doubt that it profoundly changed not only her spiritual life but her earthly life as well, for membership in the Qadriya brought with it certain dangers.
In her diary, she wrote that as she lay in Slimène’s arms one night in El Oued, she had “a vague feeling that some enemy forces lurking in the shadows were trying to separate us.” The presentiment soon proved to be true. In January 1901, Slimène was transferred to another posting, an order issued with the explicit intention of breaking up his affair with Eberhardt and ridding the town of them both. Although it was never revealed to her, the shadowy enemy had written an anonymous letter to the Arab Bureau, the first in a series denouncing Eberhardt as a spy working against French interests; for good measure, the letter also accused her of murdering Trophimowsky.
Another, more dangerous calamity came one week later. While she was on the way to a funeral with a group of her Qadriya brothers and their spiritual leader, or marabout, known as El Hachemi, an attempt was made to assassinate her. As she sat peaceably in a courtyard in a village called Béhima, translating business letters for a stranger, a member of the Qadriya’s fanatical rival sect, the Tidjaniya, burst in wielding a saber and aimed a blow at Eberhardt’s head. The blade was deflected by a wire clothesline, saving her life by redirecting the blow to her left arm, which was nearly severed. The attacker escaped into the crowded street, crying that he was going to find a gun and finish the job. The Tidjani sheik of Béhima at first refused to cooperate with the authorities, but he finally handed over the assassin, Abdallah ben Mohammed, who claimed that he was acting on a direct command from Allah.
Who, if not Allah, ordered the attack? Eberhardt suspected the French, who were always making trouble for her, but she never made a direct accusation; for their part, the French, quick to find a romantic intrigue, apparently believed that El Hachemi was Eberhardt’s lover and that he had ordered the hit in order to get rid of her and blame the attack on the Tidjaniya. Legal documents relating to the case were made public for the first time in 2001, which multiplied the possible scenarios but did not clarify the motive behind the crime. Eberhardt’s theory is more plausible than that of the French; the notion that she was sleeping with her religious instructor while she was in love with Slimène is difficult to accept. Yet the Lone Swordsman theory, that Abdallah ben Mohammed acted on his volition believing he was under divine orders, is just as likely as any other. Eberhardt pleaded for the court to show mercy, but he was sentenced to hard labor for life. She immediately lodged an appeal on his behalf, even though he had said repeatedly that if he regained his freedom he would make another attempt to kill her, and his sentence was reduced to ten years in prison.
Meanwhile, the French exiled Eberhardt from the Maghrib, for her own protection, they claimed. After the trial she sailed to Marseilles, where Slimène joined her. They were married in civil and Muslim ceremonies there, which entitled her to claim French citizenship and thus put an end to her perennial immigration woes.
When she was recovering from her wounds at the hospital in El Oued, Eberhardt had a mystical revelation that she was under divine protection, that her life had been spared for a higher purpose, and that in fact she herself was chosen to be a marabout. She wrote in her journal, “God alone knows—I shall not know who I am, or what is the reason or the point of my destiny, one of the most incredible there has ever been. Yet it seems to me that I’m not destined to disappear without having some understanding of the whole mystery which has surrounded my life from its strange beginnings to the present day.” Eberhardt was well aware that to claim openly that Allah had chosen a European woman as a prophet would invite accusations of insanity, and she never disclosed this epiphany to anyone but her husband.
Surviving the attack also revived her self-confidence as a writer. In her diary she noted, “Before, I had to wait sometimes for months for the right moods to write. Now I can write more or less whenever I want.” Eberhardt’s bravura performance at the trial was widely publicized and made her a celebrity in the Maghrib, prompting a Parisian writer and editor named Victor Barrucand to take an interest in her. He was one of a growing number of influential men who believed that Eberhardt was in a unique position to aid the French cause in Africa and should be put to a good use rather than persecuted on account of her eccentricities. He was starting a newspaper in Algiers, the Akhbar, and invited her to contribute as a correspondent. She leaped at the opportunity.
Barrucand proposed sending her to Aïn Sefra, a western outpost near the frontier with Morocco, where the French were poised to invade, though they did not yet know it. A brilliant officer named Hubert Lyautey, who had previously served as a colonial administrator in Tonkin and Madagascar, had been put in command in Aïn Sefra. Lyautey loved Africa and admired the Arab way of life; he had studied Arabic and read the Koran. He believed that Islam and French colonialism in the Maghrib could work together, a progressive mutation of the mission civilisatrice. They were an unlikely pair, the general and the transvestite hashish addict, but Lyautey and Eberhardt became fast friends. After her death, Lyautey wrote to Barrucand, “We understood each other very well, poor Mahmoud and I, and I shall always cherish exquisite memories of our evening chats. She was what attracts me most in the world: a rebel.”
Lyautey met Eberhardt at a propitious moment. He was developing a strategy to bring the city-state of Kenadsa, on the unsettled frontier with Morocco, under French infl uence. He wrote to his superior that an alliance with the marabout of Kenadsa “would be one of the most important factors in our success,” by which he meant the annexation of Morocco. Kenadsa was in theory under the sovereignty of Fez, but in fact the marabout ruled his tiny domain like a prince. The present marabout, Sidi Brahim ould Mohammed, was a mystic who strictly enforced Sufi doctrine and despised the corrupt, extravagant sultan of Fez, who imitated Western ways. The main obstacle to Lyautey’s plan was that infidels were barred entrance to Kenadsa under penalty of death. Eberhardt, or rather Si Mahmoud Saadi, was clearly the man for the job as a Qadri brother. She had long wanted to visit Kenadsa, a legendary center of Islamic learning deep in territory that no European had ever penetrated.
Eberhardt’s friendship and collaboration with Hubert Lyautey has always raised doubts about the sincerity of her commitment to “the Arab cause,” as it was called. It was a bitter irony that she should be accused of working as an agent for French interests in the Maghrib, for the French had kept her under constant surveillance and exiled her after the assassination attempt, which might have been made at their behest. Eberhardt might have thought that she had the advantage of Lyautey by accepting his sponsorship for the mission to Kenadsa. No record exists that she ever reported significant intelligence to him about her sojourn there or elsewhere (but none would).
She was conducted to Kenadsa by a slave named Embarek, lent to her by a religious brother in Béchar, the last outpost in Algeria. After a long journey across golden sands and desolate valleys, “Kenadsa appears on the horizon, clouded in a pink haze: black spots of scattered trees, the bluish line of a large palm grove, and a broken minaret appears reddish brown as it towers above the sand in the still-slanting sun.” The town was built of warm-colored clay and surrounded by fine green gardens, clinging to a gentle hillside in a graceful disorder of superimposed terraces. Embarek conducted her through a maze of alleys to the zaouia, the ancient Islamic academy of Kenadsa and the seat of temporal power, where Si Brahim lived. The marabout received her kindly and invited her to stay as long as she liked. In a dispatch to Barrucand, she wrote, “I am a guest of these men. I will live in the silence of their house. Already they have brought me all the calmness of their spirit; a shadow of peace has penetrated the innermost recesses of my soul.” Her quest of the absolute seemed finally to have brought her to a place where it was within her grasp. She asked, “Is all my thirst finally going to be quenched?”
Accustomed to the relatively free and easy atmosphere at Algerian zaouia, Eberhardt was at first taken aback by the rigorous discipline in Kenadsa. After a few days of quiet contemplation and working on the novel she was always scribbling at, she realized that she was, in effect, being held prisoner: the doors of the zaouia were barred and guarded by statuesque slaves. She went to Si Brahim and demanded her freedom. He granted it at once, with the proviso that she exchange her Algerian burnoose for a djellaba, the light muslin gown of the Moroccans. He was perfectly aware of her transvestite charade, but with the usual Arab courtesy participated in the deception and affected to believe in the reality of Si Mahmoud.
Invisible in her djellaba, Eberhardt roamed through the tortuous alleys of the Casbah and into the desert. On a dune above the town, she found a kef den in the hut of a lunatic mystic, where she passed hours in ecstatic oblivion. One hot evening, as she lay in her cell at the zaouia, she heard the pounding of drums and the clangor of copper castanets, announcing a Sudanese festival, “a stranger note from a more distant Africa. Through centuries of Islam, the Sudanese have kept the practices of a forgotten, fetish-laden antiquity, a poetry of noise and gesticulations that had its full meaning in the deep forests haunted by monsters.” The dancing became ever more frenzied, “excited to the point of madness,” until the celebrants collapsed. The marabout arrived to give his blessing, not forgetting to include Si Mahmoud.
Eberhardt saw the students of the zaouia as she wandered through its dim passageways and at the mosque, but she had had little direct contact with them until a slave arrived one day at her cell and, with an air of mystery, invited her to follow him and take tea with a group of students at their private retreat. The students at Moroccan zaouia had acquired some notoriety after the publication of Unknown Morocco (Le Maroc inconnu), a scurrilous book by a French missionary named Auguste Mouliéras, which described depraved orgies in lavish detail, most of it invented. In her report for Barrucand, Eberhardt mentioned the book and wrote that beneath the students’ piety there lurked a “raging sensuality that creates the most complicated and most dangerous love affairs and, it must be said, many hidden vices.” Yet in her visit to the bith-essohfa, the students’ club house hidden away in the Casbah, she found a scene of chaste refinement verging on effeminacy.
“We enter the tea room through carved double doors that creak on their rusted hinges. A hazy half-light reigns there.” Delicate milkstone columns support a lacework frieze of arabesques; overhead, small dormer windows in a cupola filter watery light onto Nile-green pots and chests painted in tarnished gold, piled with books, saddlery, weapons, and musical instruments. An inscription in cinnabar leaves urges eternal health. The students sit on a low platform, on carpets from Rabat. The host, a scrawny fellow named Si El-Madani, greets her and without being asked explains his clandestine invitation: “You know, Si Mahmoud, that usage and custom demand that our parents and elders remain unaware of our pleasures or at least be able to pretend to be unaware. We gather here to spend hours rejoicing our hearts through music and the recitation of the sublime works of ancient poets and through cordial discussions. No one must know what happens here except God and us.” The time passes in conversation and classical song, accompanied by a three-string guitar and tambourine. One youth busies himself embroidering a white silk tunic. Eberhardt writes
that she is becoming aware of the “strength and tranquility of things that seem to last indefinitely because they are slowly making their way toward nothingness.”
At the end of the hot, long summer in Kenadsa, her health failed her. Years of extreme deprivation, hard travel, heavy drinking, and smoking kef had wrecked her. She was scrofulous and had lost all her teeth. She fell ill with malaria and passed many days and nights in shivering deliriums. Si Brahim’s mother nursed her back to health. After she had recovered some of her strength, Eberhardt worked on her novel in the courtyard and talked with Si Brahim, who had grown fond of her. When two young Berbers from the far West arrived to return a flock of sheep that had been stolen some time before, and to seek the forgiveness of the marabout, he lodged them with Si Mahmoud. As he expected, they soon became friends.
The Berber lads begged Eberhardt to return with them to their homeland. She agonized over the invitation. She had been drawn to Kenadsa in the first place because it was hors frontière; here was an opportunity to go to a place beyond the beyond, even more distant from “civilization.” In her journal she wrote that while she realized that returning to Aïn Sefra to stay at the hospital was the only reasonable course open to her, “nevertheless, I cannot bring myself to do it. I linger in my retreat: I breathe with delight the air that poisoned me.” Finally she declined the invitation, the first time she had ever let such an opportunity slip away. Perhaps she remembered that she had a home to return to, with Slimène.
Jamie James is the author of The Snake Charmer, Rimbaud in Java, and other books. He has contributed to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair, and The Atlantic, among other publications. He regularly reviewed art exhibitions and contributed features to The New Yorker and served as the American arts correspondent for The Times (London). He has lived in Indonesia since 1999, and is a recipient of a Guggenheim Foundation Grant.
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Kristin Dombek’s new book, The Selfishness of Others, takes the idea of narcissism—ever more prevalent in how we define and decipher our relationships—and deconstructs it through research, conversations, and analysis of personal experiences. She sat down with n+1 editor Danya Tortorici to discuss the “narcweb,” millennial girls, and the stickiness of language.
Dayna Tortorici: I wanted to start out by asking you about the origins of this project. What made you interested in narcissism?
Kristin Dombek: A few years ago I started noticing the word everywhere. I thought that people were using it more frequently and that I was reading it more frequently, but I wasn’t sure if that was actually true or if I just had the word on my mind, so therefore I was noticing it. I had had a therapist diagnose, without meeting, someone in my life with NPD—Narcissistic Personality Disorder—and so I had gone into that hole, the research hole, and learned about the almost uncanny power of someone who has no empathy and how they can destroy your life. But I found it unhelpful what I learned there—that I should turn away from this person, go “no contact.” And then I began hearing the word used to describe everyone, to describe all millennials.
And so I read The Narcissism Epidemic, by two social psychologists who claimed to have the data to prove that there is an epidemic. As I was reading the book, I started to notice how the anecdotes they offered to support these studies’ findings were often from Atlanta or San Diego, or so it seemed to me. I had a boyfriend from Atlanta and a girlfriend from San Diego at the time, and so reading this was a very strange sensation. Why is this all about Atlanta? And San Diego? Or am I just noticing these anecdotes because I’ve been to those places and I care about these people? Finally, partway through, I turned the book over and saw the author bios on the jacket—one of them is from Atlanta and the other is from San Diego. This struck me as really funny. It’s funny, right? Because they’re social psychologists doing a lot of work to report objectively about narcissism scores across three decades of college freshmen, and arguing, also, that one of the pieces of evidence that we’re more narcissistic is that we use “I” way more than we used to, and that writers write much more from the “I” than they used to. So in the midst of all this effort toward objectivity, I kept noticing examples from the places where they lived. That’s where I got this joke in my head—it felt like a really profound joke—about how we know things, how we inevitably know from where we stand. It’s funny, but it’s also a problem at the heart of scholarly and scientific method, and speaks to some judgments we make about writing—historically, women’s writing has been dismissed for being personal, too local, for example. When is knowledge from our own perspective valid and useful? When and how do we get beyond our own perspective, and when is it important to do so?
Also at the time, at work, I was developing a pre-college summer class in which students spent a week each in six academic disciplines and scientific fields. In doing that work I became very aware of the rules that different disciplines have for how you write, and how they have moral codes, some of which are around the word “I” versus “we.” I was watching eighteen-year-olds trying to decipher when in an anthropology class should they write from “I,” because that’s going to be more legitimate, versus in a certain kind of sociology paper, they shouldn’t do that. In this way, these secret codes about language and about what counts as knowledge discipline us.
So that combination, those two things coming together, made me think about how we know things in relationships, how we know things about other people, and how we moralize around how we use “I” and “we.” I wanted to write a book that tried to deal with language and how it works in those ways.
Tortorici: The book is in large part about the Internet, about writing on the Internet and the way sociological reports are disseminated through trend reporting on the Internet. You open with something you call the “narciscript”—or the script or the narrative—that circulates on a part of the Internet called the “narcweb.” Can you tell us a little bit about what these are, what they mean and why they matter?
Dombek: What I started calling a “script”—which is more like a movie script, but it’s also a term for a drug prescription—is the story that you learn from many websites, if you’re in a place where you think someone in your life might need diagnosis and might be this particular kind of asshole. At first the person seems particularly charming and warm and real, almost unusually real. Then there is some turn, and you realize they are empty inside, and fake. There’s a whole language around what these people do to you, how they deceive you, “word salad”—
Tortorici: What’s “word salad”?
Dombek: They might say a bunch of things that are unrelated, to confuse you, and then you are more vulnerable to their deceptions. There are a bunch of terms like that.
Tortorici: Is “gaslighting” one of these? I’ve noticed the prevalence of the word “gaslighting.” It comes from a 1940s movie—it’s not a “real” word—and to “gaslight” someone means to tell them that something they’re experiencing is not actually happening, as a way to mess with their head. Does that word belong to the narcweb?
Dombek: I did most of my research in the narcweb two years ago, and I wasn’t seeing “gaslighting” as often as we do now—“gaslighting” got really popular like a year and half ago, right? But yes, it’s there now, another of the things narcissists do. And in this uncanny story, in the “script,” you are the “empath.” The narcissist’s fakeness helps you know yourself by comparison as real and genuine and empathic, someone who is easily taken advantage of and who needs to start watching out.
Tortorici: When you’re writing about the narcweb, looking on these forums where people write in about the narcissists in their lives, it’s a lot of boyfriends, husbands, girlfriends, moms—people immediately close to the writer. Later in the book, when you write about the history of narcissism as a diagnosis, you note that the profile of the narcissist shifts over time. Can you talk a little bit about that shift and what you think it means?
Dombek: The story tells you, in its current form, to diagnose, to take the role of the psychologist, because there’s objective knowledge that this thing exists, a clinical diagnosis, and there’s objective knowledge about the epidemic, and you can therefore sort of stand outside it. But a story about narcissists or a narcissist is often serving some other function as well. For Freud, narcissists were women who were resistant to therapy.
Tortorici: To his therapy.
Dombek: To his therapy. And gay men. Or there’s a femininity, a gayness thing that he was wrestling with, that got described in his stories about narcissists. Of course, Ovid’s Narcissus was a bisexual male, so it shifts. For Milton, Eve acts like Narcissus. It keeps changing throughout history. Right now, it’s a lot of bad boyfriends.
Tortorici: And millennials.
Dombek: And millennials. With millennials, it’s often girls.
Tortorici: So why are people preoccupied with bad boyfriends and girl millennials?
Dombek: I can’t prove this, but my hunch is that the common narcissist in the script is a male, a straight male, because it’s primarily women that read relationship self-help sites and self-help books about relationships.
Tortorici: Strong hunch.
Dombek: With millennials, with the young, the story is a lot about vanity and superficiality. My hunch about that is that there’s an anxiety about the Internet, where we have to assess each other, split-second, at a scale we’ve never done before. The story is about selfie-posting, and all this kind of stuff that’s used to call millennials narcissistic—especially millennial girls, like the girl in the book, Allison.
Tortorici: Allison from Atlanta, who on My Super Sweet Sixteen says she wants to close down a busy street with a hospital entrance so she can have a parade leading into her party.
Dombek: She’s the quintessential millennial. The authors of The Narcissism Epidemic call her a “sociopathic narcissist.” But they haven’t met her, which is against the standards of the APA. And I argue in the book that they might be very wrong about why she did and said what she did. I think it’s girls because maybe . . .
Tortorici: They post more pictures of themselves?
Tortorici: As you mentioned, you’re skeptical of this category of the narcissist, of NPD as it’s defined in the DSM-5, and the book provides many good reasons for why you’re right to be. But there is something about the narcissist that does get under your skin. You talk about mass murderers, xenophobes, racists, as extreme examples of narcissists who fall on the same spectrum as the bad boyfriends. If the narcissism epidemic as it’s chronicled in all the trend pieces and studies and social psychology books isn’t quite real or right, what is real? What does this cultural paranoia about other people’s selfishness, this preoccupation with other people’s selfishness, indicate to you? What’s bad about it?
Dombek: I believe that there are people whom the diagnostic criteria for NPD describes very well, and that is a personality type in its extreme version. And narcissism—self-absorption, lack of empathy, manipulativeness, et cetera—functions. We do it, we experience it in others. It is one of our names right now for evil, for what evil looks like. My question is why that word is so frequently being used to describe the shape of the self right now and taken up into this apocalyptic story, and why the worst selves are so often “others.”
Online, something structurally feels like narcissism—because we’re encountering the surface, the words and images others post, and what’s underneath is behind the screen. But we all participate in this, so we’re condemning one another for something we are all called upon, more and more, to do.
The reason I worry about that word and how we use that word is that I think it transforms ethical issues into local mental health issues, and narrows our moral energy to intimate relationships. I don’t know if moral energy is a thing, but I feel like it is, in my life. You have to train yourself to be generous, to turn toward people instead of away from them, to be kind. We don’t feel natural empathy all the time. We have to work at it. I struggle to continue to motivate myself to see outside my position in the world and to direct my moral energy to people further away from me who are really suffering, some of that suffering which I contribute to. I’m always trying to learn how to stay interested enough to keep acting. Do you feel this way? I care, but how do I learn to care in the world in a bigger way? When I tell this very compelling story about evil in my boyfriend, it allows me to identify as decent and good and empathetic.
Tortorici: And morally preoccupied. You don’t have enough moral energy to give, because you’re absorbed in this private drama in which you’re the hero.
Dombek: Right. I can establish the righteousness that I need. And I think that the narcissism script separates it out as if there are two very different kinds of people, heroes and villains, the selfish and the empathetic, but actually, most of the time, these things are very circular in all of us. In fact, in moments when I don’t care, when I contribute to injustice or violence in the world, or am cold to those around me, it’s often because I feel as if those around me are assholes, or someone is being an asshole to me. Or because I’ve given up on someone, or the world, or the whole millennial generation, the future, so I go cold. The script can be a cause of violence in this way. And maybe we see this in the pile-up of hateful rhetoric in comment sections: people start assessing each other’s characters when their views are threatening, and judging each other for their mental health, and that’s an excuse to speak in ways that don’t get us anywhere.
Tortorici: In the book you write that one of the identifying characteristics of narcissists, according to the script, is that they turn “cold,” or turn away from you and try to drop you. And yet the advice the script gives to people dealing with narcissists is, “run away”—in other words, turn cold and drop them. So it’s exactly as you say: the anti-narcissist position is the mirror image of the narcissist one, telling you it’s okay to drop someone for supposedly being a narcissist.
Dombek: Right. It’s a double-bind, I think. But it doesn’t actually make you feel good; it sucks to feel cold. That’s probably why it’s so hard to go “no contact.” If you’re involved with a narcissist you’re supposed to try to go “no contact” or “no contact ever again.” In a lot of discussion on forum boards—and again, much of this must be very important and meaningful and helpful for people who are in really bad relationships, or trying to get out of bad relationships—but there’s a lot of conversation about how to really go no contact. It feels bad to be cold to someone near you. And you’re mirroring them, if what you’re saying is, “Because you are cold and have no empathy I must go cold to you.” When that strategy for dealing with truly abusive relationships spreads toward a general attitude toward the world—when we turn away from anyone online, other than ourselves, who is performing in ways that look vain or selfish from a distance, I worry about it. And then it all just starts spiraling around in my head. We will create this epidemic if it doesn’t exist already.
Kristin Dombek is an essayist and a cultural journalist. Her essays have been published in The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s Magazine, the London Review of Books, n+1, and The Paris Review, and anthologized in Best American Essays and elsewhere. She received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award for Nonfiction in 2013.
Dayna Tortorici is the co-editor of the literary magazine n + 1.
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“A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not even worth glancing at,” wrote Oscar Wilde in 1891. Yet for nearly two thousand years after Plato’s Republic, most Western thinkers did ignore Wilde’s map. Christianity, as interpreted by the Apostle Paul, had hung the Kingdom of God in the heavens, so there seemed little reason to look for it here in the fallen world.
It wasn’t until the coincidental decline of the Middle Ages and the invention of the magnetic compass in fourteenth-century Europe that adventurous thinkers again began plotting a paradise in this world, somewhere out across the Atlantic. The most significant of those mental travelers was the Lord High Chancellor of England, Thomas More, whose novel Utopia celebrates its 500th anniversary this year.
The narrator of Utopia is a seafaring wanderer named Raphael Hythloday, and his critique of medieval Europe sounds very much like Bernie Sanders’s assessment of the United States in 2016. All social systems, charges Raphael, are “conspiracies of the rich to advance their own interests under the pretext of organizing society.” Pride and vanity have made men greedy and created an unnatural condition of vast inequality. For the proud, prosperity isn’t measured by “what you’ve got yourself, but what others haven’t got.” Thus the rich usurp real wealth and natural resources, driving the poor to starvation and theft. “You create thieves,” Raphael says incredulously to his skeptical interlocutors, “then punish them for stealing!” He certainly would have something to say about this country’s epidemic of incarceration. As for the financial system (then and now), Raphael observes, “People like aristocrats, goldsmiths, or money-lenders, who either do no work at all, or do work that’s really not essential, are rewarded for their laziness or their unnecessary activities by a splendid life of luxury.”
The inhabitants of Utopia, where Raphael sojourned for five years, solved all of these problems by simply eliminating money and ensuring an equal distribution of goods.
However, if Utopia still stands as a useful critique of modern capitalism, many of its actual reforms look like a parody of, or a prequel to, Soviet-style communism. Utopia’s fifty-four towns all look exactly the same, the houses look the same, and the Utopians all wear the same drab clothing. There is no private property and, as Raphael reports, “everything’s under state control.” Mayors, elected by the people, pretty much run the show.
The culture is thoroughly patriarchal, so much so that on feast days, wives kneel before their husbands and ask forgiveness for whatever perceived sins they might have committed. Anyone who indulges in premarital sex is severely punished because, reason the Utopians, very few people would want to get married if they knew how much more fun it is to have multiple sexual partners (prospective brides and grooms are, however, allowed to see their partner naked before deciding on marriage because you wouldn’t buy a horse before removing the harness and saddle for a full examination). Those caught in adultery are often made slaves who then perform all the unpleasant work of the country (Utopia is a very Catholic book, and we should remember that More was beheaded in 1535 for, among other things, objecting to Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon).
But those who haven’t fallen into iniquity enjoy an admirable kind of happiness that seems to draw from the classic philosophies of the Stoics and the Epicureans. Happiness is, as Raphael says, “the summum bonum towards which we’re naturally impelled by virtue—which in their definition means following one’s natural impulses, as God meant us to do.” Like Epicureans, the Utopians modestly enjoy sex, food, exercise, music. Like the Stoics, they believe in a Supreme Being, “quite beyond the grasp of the human mind,” who is identical with nature. Thus “they can please God merely by studying the natural world, and praising Him for it.”
When, during his travels, Raphael told the Utopians about Jesus, they immediately converted to Christianity since “Christ prescribed of His own disciples a communist way of life.” That, of course, is a paraphrase of Acts 2:44–45 (“All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need”), a passage I never heard referenced in any of the Christian churches I attended growing up.
There’s more we could learn from the Utopians when it comes to the problems of today’s monotheisms, though we must remember that Raphael’s last name translates as “dispenser of nonsense,” a persona that let More both pitch his ideas in a comic register and protect himself from appearing too closely aligned with his novel’s heresies. The priests of Utopia are allowed to marry, and women are allowed to be priests. The Utopians revere religious tolerance above all else, and they devised a perversely powerful deterrent to fundamentalism: anyone who becomes too zealous in proselytizing for Christianity, or any other religious creed, is exiled. This is in keeping with the sentiments of their founder, Utopos, who “considered it possible that God made different people believe different things, because He wanted to be worshipped in many different ways.” Could there be a more eloquent (if less punitive) explanation for the diversity of the world’s religions?
Last summer, imagining myself a kind of modern Raphael, I traveled to a modern-day Utopia—a community in Louisa County, Virginia, called Twin Oaks. Like Utopia, Twin Oaks exists as a relatively unknown island of equality, religious freedom, and homogeneous architecture. Made up of about one hundred men and women and a handful of children, the community, started in 1967, operates on an absolutely egalitarian philosophy. They share everything: land, labor, housing, income, and the bounty of their beautiful farm. Members work a forty-hour week at Twin Oaks, but they are all free to choose whatever work they desire and to do that work whenever they see fit. Unlike many such experiments in cooperative living, Twin Oaks has done very well for itself by selling hammocks and tofu online. That wealth has built its modest residence halls and paid for everyone’s health insurance.
But internally, the members of Twin Oaks have, like the Utopians, essentially abolished money and all the ills that accompany it. Certainly they would agree with Raphael when he says, “With the simultaneous abolition of money and the passion for money, how many other social problems have been solved, how many crimes eradicated. For obviously the end of money means the end of all those types of criminal behavior which daily punishments are powerless to check: fraud, theft, burglary, brawls, riots, disputes, rebellion, murder, treason, and black magic.” None of that goes on at Twin Oaks.
A longtime resident, a woman named Valerie, told me this: “The most important thing we’re trying to do here, is create a life where we can live in accordance with our values. That’s our raison d’être.”
How many of us can say that? How many of us can claim a daily life that reflects such integrity, fairness, and nonviolence—to the natural world and to the people who grow our food, sew our clothes, make our iPhones?
I can’t, and for that reason Twin Oaks both shamed and inspired me. I wanted to bring back some of that radical idealism into my own life and my own community.
But I can hear a chorus of objections: such thinking is naïve, unrealistic, utopian. To that I say, in a country with an economy based on such unsustainable consumption and cruelty, we can’t afford not to engage in some utopian thinking. The paradigms that got us through the last hundred years will not get us through the next century.
It’s time to imagine a future where pleasure, purpose, and cooperation replace accumulation, predation, and waste. It doesn’t matter if we don’t quite know what that future will look like. It’s enough to know that we’ve put utopia back on the map. That’s a start. Then we can, as the poet Antonio Machado said, build the road as we travel.
Erik Reece is the author of Utopia Drive: A Road Trip Through America’s Most Radical Idea; Lost Mountain: A Year in the Vanishing Wilderness; Radical Strip Mining and the Devastation of Appalachia; and An American Gospel: On Family, History, and the Kingdom of God. He has also written for Harper’s Magazine, The Nation, and Orion Magazine. He is currently the writer in residence at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, where he teaches environmental journalism, writing, and literature.
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When giving interviews leading up to publication of Heartbreaker, my debut collection of stories coming out from FSG Originals this month, I found myself answering the same handful of questions over and over again, leaving a trail of cookie-cutter sound bites to clutter up the interwebs. At a certain point, you might as well get a robot to do the job for you. So for this piece I decided to ask my twin sister, Danielle Meijer—an adjunct professor in the philosophy department at DePaul University, social justice advocate, dancer, and muse—the questions most writers dread. The result? A fascinating conversation full of inside jokes and egregious mutual admiration. Welcome to The Twinterview.
Maryse: When did you first realize I was a writer?
Danielle: I always knew you were going to be a writer, but I knew you were going to be a good writer around middle school, maybe? I remember how every time I read something of yours I had this excited feeling like, wow, this was written by my twin. I know there were things before that, in grade school, but I can’t recall specific stories.
M: I think up until the sixth grade I was just doing stuff about cats and Star Trek characters. Then something happened—maybe reading Anne Rice and Kathe Koja—and things got a little more interesting.
D: There was a vampire story you wrote that was such a weird twist on the traditional concept, that demonstrated this insightful approach to themes of desire and loss and memory, something your average young person would not be writing or thinking about—or your average anybody, for that matter. It was just like, where the hell is this coming from? And your power of description was present at the start, too. I think that has always been the most striking aspect of your writing for me. I still don’t even know how you come up with those images—do you walk around and visually interpret the world that way or does it just happen when you sit down and write and you’re trying to think of how to describe something?
M: You mean how do I come up with metaphors and similes? That’s such a non-writer question to ask.
D: I’m not a writer!
M: It’s more the latter—when I’m working I’m trying, you know, to describe things. It’s not like there’s a rainstorm and suddenly I turn into Nabokov and think, “Oh, now the rain is crepitating on the leaves. . .”
D: I have tried to write and have tried to describe a scene, and I literally cannot do it. It is a mysterious kind of skill. I get chills reading your work. We share almost 100 percent of our genes and so I should know more about how you are so good at writing and where it’s coming from, but I don’t.
M: Except you kind of do, because you are my muse, my editor—you’re the co-creator. You know exactly how it works!
D: I don’t actually think I am a muse. I don’t even think I contribute that much to your writing.
M: That’s so dumb, though. Because while I’m the one who might be doing the actual writing, you’re the one who is—and has always been—entering into the fantasy world with me, coming up with great storylines, characters, ideas. . .not to mention all the editing you do on every draft of everything I write.
D: We should probably discuss our paracosm here because I think that’s where the muse thing is coming from—two of the stories in the book are based on or inspired by our paracosm (which is a fancy term for fantasy world—the Brontës had one, for example). We’ve had paracosms off and on our whole lives, and what makes it special is that we’re in them together.
M: It’s a collaboration. And it plays out more in real time.
D: It feels more worthwhile and interesting than just sitting around day-dreaming. You never know what element the other person is going to introduce, or how they’ll use what you’ve created and turn it around. It’s like actual work of some kind is being done.
M: It’s totally work! We’ve probably created hundreds of storylines and thousands of characters over time. And I have to say that while I love writing, working a paracosm is even more involving, because I feel that I am the people we are creating. When I sit down to write—even if I’m playing off of characters or an idea we’ve developed together—it’s much more distant. As a writer, I’m an observer. Which is a role I relish. But I’m never in my characters’ heads, though I try to get close. The distance is always there. Maybe I became a writer because I wanted to legitimize, somehow, my obsession with fantasy and escapism. There’s nothing very glamorous about telling someone you really enjoy spending hours pretending to be other people with your twin sister. And no one will pay you to do it. . .
D: It’s funny how the adult world is intolerant of fantasy that isn’t commodified—you can’t have an intense fantasy world as an adult without being perceived as immature at best, or crazy, at worst. But if you create a video game, novel, poem, film, or you’re an actor—that is, if you are able to share your fantasies with the public and get paid for it—then that’s not only acceptable, that’s something to be respected and admired. And of course people love engaging in the fantasy worlds other people have created through video games, plays, movies, books etc.
M: This whole paracosm thing has taught me how to see as writer—gestures, expressions, a whole visual language. It’s even taught me, in many ways, how to feel. It’s like I’ve lived all these different lives, and there’s also the fact that I’ve had the great pleasure of seeing you create all these incredible people and dialogues and situations that I’ve learned so much from. I can’t get there through writing (or reading, for that matter) alone. I need to have you to play off of, I need to be challenged by you, to be inspired. So, I still hold that you are the muse. Accept it!
D: Well, fine, you’re welcome. I do think I’m a good cheerleader—maybe I push you to focus on certain themes, to develop or deepen your focus on something. Say you write about some girl flipping out, and I encourage you to write about more women flipping out, because the way you write about these women flipping out is working, and so when other people tell you to stop writing about women flipping out you don’t listen, because my voice telling you MORE FLIPPING OUT is way louder than the voices telling you to quit. And I think I generally steer you in the right directions (pats self on back).
M: That’s definitely true. Especially in terms of edits—if you tell me to cut something, I sure as hell better cut it, because if I keep it in I’m only making more work for my editor, who then has to tell me what you’ve already said. I always resist a little at first, because, like most writers, I’m sentimental about what I do, but I’ve never known you to be wrong.
Now that the stories are being pushed from our nest and out into the world, what do the initial responses/reviews get right? What do they get wrong?
D: I think people might overhype the “badass-girl” thing, maybe because they’re responding to the feminism that is very present in the book, and they (rightly) want to comment on it. There’s this tendency to want every girl to be a hero in order to counterbalance all the tragic stereotypes about women that surround us. . . but I don’t see any of your characters, male or female, as being role models. Most of them are losers.
D: No offense, dear characters, but it’s true. There’s a loser in all of us, and that’s who you’re writing about—the person who epically fails to take care of themselves, to do the right thing, to recognize a bad decision before they make it. No one knows what the hell is going on, especially where sex and romance are concerned, and that’s what makes the stories real and interesting, even when they present some, um, statistically anomalous behavior. This is the fallout from patriarchy—how it makes sex dangerous and messed up for us all.
M: Yeah. . .we’re all just trying to feel good and get some love but the road maps our culture has given us are pretty shit. The people in these stories are taking the detours, but they can’t get off the map completely. Much to their bitter chagrin, as we like to say. . .
D: But even when they are doing some fucked up shit, you kind of want these people to be your friends, although you might want to hide the knives (and the high heels, the pet foxes, the kids. . .) when they come over.
M: Are we ever jealous of each other? People assume we are, right?
D: The jealousy assumption really chaps my hide. Do people not know the true meaning of twinness, just like they don’t know the true meaning of Christmas? I like being compared to you (except when someone points out that I am fatter than you, that’s not cool) and I take pride in our similarities as well as our differences. Maybe if I were a writer myself and never got published I’d be a bit bummed, but even then I don’t think I’d be jealous of you.
M: I remember crying at a performance of yours (Danielle is a brilliant dancer) and someone said “Don’t worry, you’re good at things, too.” As if I was crying out of self-pity! I always cry when I see you dance, or when I watch you teach, because I’m so in awe of what you can do. There’s this notion that siblings are always, in some ways, rivals, and twins even more so because we have to compete for whatever it is people think humans compete for. But it’s the opposite for us, I think—whatever one of us does well only reflects on the excellence of the twinship as a whole.
D: I have always been a fan of your writing, so I’m thrilled that this is all finally happening and now other people will know what I know. And I am proud of being the one person in the world that will ever know your work as intimately as I do, and to have had the privilege of being there through all the stages. It’s like getting to be that crazy fan in Misery, Annie Wilkes, except I don’t have to kidnap you or break your ankles to get the goods. I have absolute access to my favorite writer. It’s very, very cool.
M: And I have the privilege of having what every writer dreams of finding—the perfect reader, the most generous audience. I always tell people that you are the person I write for, period. I write for us. That gives me such confidence when I’m working—I don’t have to feel like I’m doing it alone, or that I’m writing into a void. But aside from me, who are your favorite authors? What are your favorite books?
D: Lolita is my favorite novel, and my favorite authors are Barbara Comyns, Elfriede Jenilek, Beckett, Kafka, Pessoa, Robert Walser. . . Kathe Koja is the most obvious influence on us—for you in terms of writing style—
M: Yes! Shout out to Kathe!
D:—and she was a huge influence in my life, too, given the fact that I studied psychology because of one of her novels.
M: And I went through a ten-year obsession with schizophrenia because of that book (Strange Angels, seriously, check it out, it’s brilliant). Which is a whole thing with us, how deeply obsessed we get with books, movies, music—the things we love are immediately sucked into our world and devoured. Another pleasure of twinship is always having someone to be a fangirl with you, someone to discover things with, someone who understands how absolutely amazing so-and-so or such-and-such is. What are you reading now?
D: I’m currently digging The Last Bad Man, Wolf in White Van, and The Vegetarian—all suggestions from you! I don’t have time to wade through the crap, so I rely on you to tell me what’s worth reading. And I can’t help but mention my nonfiction favorites since that’s what I’m immersed in these days: the child liberationists John Holt and Janusz Korczak, Wendell Berry, Jerry Mander, Neil Postman, Julian Beck’s diaries (The Life of the Theatre), Karl Menninger’s The Crime of Punishment, Robert Jensen, Andrea Dworkin, V.F. Cordova, bell hooks, David Graeber. . .
M: I only know the names on that last list because of you. (And let me say that I’m a feminist because of you, a vegan because of you, somewhat informed about economics and politics because of you. . .) Growing up you were always ahead of me aesthetically, in everything. While I was listening to Sarah McLachlan you were turned on to Bauhaus, David Bowie, punk music. . . You were reading Doestevsky and Sartre and Burroughs in middle school while I was still stuck on Star Trek novels and Anne Rice. When you started getting into Francis Bacon in high school I was like, “What the fuck is that?!” You find all the good stuff first, metabolize it, then pass it on to me. What are you looking for in art? Where do you find it?
D: So much of what I became interested in was either an accident—a discovery made in the book bargain bins of Tower Records and Barnes & Noble. Or else I came to something because of my desire to come across as intellectual and cool and different from everyone else. Sad, but true!
I think we’ve always been fascinated by the extremes of sexuality, as well as by the weird unknowableness of death and violence (and how sex and violence intersect). Death doesn’t make sense no matter how hard you try to think about it. It never feels real, even when you are really close to it, like when Dad died. I don’t know anything more about death now than I did before he died—in fact in some ways death seems even stranger and more unknowable. But I think our conversations over the years have helped me to not rely on pat answers when it comes to these sorts of issues, and there’s some wisdom in the pursuit.
Sex is a little easier to sort out, but it also tends to end up in pretty dark territory, and that’s where your stories get scary. The patriarchy is scary, alienation is scary, not being loved back by someone you love is scary, loving someone who may not be a good person or good for you is scary. . . That’s what makes your work down to earth and “normal” despite the on-the-surface strangeness of the scenarios. We all know what fear looks like in relation to love.
M: Do you have a favorite story in the collection?
D: “Home” has a lot of meaning to me since it was the first story of yours published. And it’s the one I’ve read the most. It’s such a classic story line for the Meijer twins.
M: Wait, what’s a classic story line for us?
D: You know, older man/younger girl (or boy), weird shit ensues. . .
M: What’s your least favorite story?
D: I don’t have a least favorite, but maybe there are stories I don’t know as well, in a way, like I need to spend more time with them before I get to second base. “Stones” is like that for me, still kind of a mystery. . .but there aren’t any duds in the collection. I would have told you if there were, before the book got published, to save you the embarrassment. Duh.
M: What do you think I should work on next?
D: You have yet to write a full-length novel with a lot of characters, so that’s a question mark. I have no idea what a three-hundred-page novel by Maryse Meijer looks like, but I want to find out, so chop chop.
M: Given that you know all my secrets, is there anything you want to reveal about the real Maryse Meijer?
D: People tend to assume that writers are just like the characters they write about, so I want to burst some bubbles on that score. You’re a mom, you do regular things, you aren’t depressed or self-destructive, and while you are indeed a true badass and definitely not boring you are not crazy and you don’t get yourself into too much trouble. So high five for having your head screwed on straight while being able to write effectively about people who don’t.
M: So we’re just normal people?
D: Yup. That’s our story and we’re sticking to it.
Maryse Meijer’s work has appeared in Meridian, The Saint Ann’s Review, Reunion: The Dallas Review, Portland Review, and actual paper. She lives in Chicago.
Bernadette Murphy was living in the south of France, recuperating from an illness that kept her at home, when she decided to investigate the mysteries surrounding the painter Vincent van Gogh. With no formal training as a researcher or historian, she set out to piece together everything she could about the formal painter, using local archives and the long memories of the locals. In the process, she uncovered new information and details about Van Gogh’s life and put them into a book, Van Gogh’s Ear. Here, we follow along with her as she looks for the true identity of “Rachel,” the young woman to whom Van Gogh was rumored to have given his ear.
Late one afternoon my phone rang. ‘Madame Murphy?’ The voice on the other end was slightly shaky and sounded elderly. The man introduced himself. It turned out that he was the grandson of ‘Rachel’, to whom I had sent a letter many weeks before. I couldn’t quite believe he had called; I had given few details in my letter about the reasons for my interest other than that I had come across her name in relation to Van Gogh, but he said he would be happy to meet me.
So one very hot summer afternoon I set off to meet the elderly man who I hoped would help me solve the enigma of ‘Rachel’/‘Gaby’, the girl Vincent went to see on 23 December. I was welcomed with great kindness. Despite his advanced years, he was full of stories and answered all my questions about Arles before the war. I was desperate to get to the purpose of my visit, but wanted to tread carefully. He spoke fondly about his grandmother, Gabrielle, and with great respect. As we talked he pointed to one of the photographs on the wall – a young couple on a sunny day in Provence. The woman was about thirty, smiling broadly with a warm, friendly face, standing beside an olive tree in a Provençal garden next to a seated man sporting a jaunty hat. I was finally face-to-face with the woman I had been seeking for so long. It was hard to rein in my excitement.
He showed me a second photograph; in this one she was older and looked quite different; with age, her face had become slimmer and more angular, quite different from the plump cheeks of her youth. I was surprised to see her dressed in full Arlésienne costume in both photos, which until our discussion I had believed was worn only on special occasions. He told me that Gabrielle came from a long line of Arlésiennes, and his grandmother (like her mother before her) wore her traditional costume and dressed her hair in its particular topknot style every day. He told me she had never left Arles, apart from a single trip to Paris for some medical treatment, where she had also gone to see a show with live horses on stage. He couldn’t remember the year of the Paris trip, but she had been a young girl, he said.
Finally I took a deep breath and began to explain the reason for my visit. I showed him the family tree I had drawn up and related what little I knew about Gabrielle’s life. At last I asked him whether he had ever heard of any connection between his grandmother and Van Gogh. I was in full flow, at the most crucial part of my story, when there was a knock on the door. It was the elderly gentleman’s daughter. Until that point he had been expansive and generous with his memories, but with a third person in the room he became quieter, like a child afraid of being chastised for talking too much. I tried to steer the conversation back to Gabrielle. A second knock at the door ended our discussion completely; it was a priest to see him.
I left the sunny room, saying my goodbyes. We kissed each other on the cheek and I promised I would return. The trip hadn’t been a waste of time. I had already learned so much. I always knew that confirming Rachel’s identity would take a huge amount of patience. I would have to be patient for a while longer.
Women were invariably linked to Van Gogh’s breakdowns. Before and after his breakdown in December 1888, Vincent was working on a series of paintings known as La Berceuse. These five portraits show Augustine Roulin seated, looking away from the painter, holding onto a length of rope used to rock a cradle and absorbed in something the spectator cannot see – her five-month-old daughter Marcelle. Van Gogh was planning to show the portrait as part of a triptych, between two sunflower paintings, and that motif is continued here. Madame Roulin is positioned in front of a highly decorative wallpaper-like background depicting squashed sunflower blooms. The colours are deliberately strong, reminiscent of The Night Café of early September 1888. Van Gogh wrote to Theo in January 1889, decidedly lucid about his intentions with this portrait:
Now it looks, you could say, like a chromolithograph from a penny bazaar. A woman dressed in green with orange hair stands out against a green background with pink flowers. Now these discordant sharps of garish pink, garish orange, garish green, are toned down by flats of reds and greens.
Unlike the portraits of Joseph Roulin, Vincent observes but never engages with his Berceuse – she doesn’t look out at the viewer – but appears absorbed by the mysterious mother–child bond. These are powerful images, showing Augustine indifferent to anything but her child. When suffering, it is a natural desire to have your mother near you. While painting these works with his mental health in severe decline, Vincent was metaphorically returning to the safety of unconditional maternal love. Augustine Roulin becomes a universal mother – a figure of consolation. Since the cradle is never seen, the viewer takes the place of her beloved child. This was clearly his intention, as he explains to Theo: ‘I believe that if one placed this canvas just as it is in a boat, even one of Icelandic fishermen, there would be some who would feel the lullaby in it.’
Mention of lullabies and being rocked by the sea were becoming a recurring theme in Van Gogh’s letters and featured in the hallucinations he recounted to Gauguin in early 1889. Hypersensitivity and excessive religious zeal figured throughout Van Gogh’s life and were remarked upon by others. In his letter to Albert Aurier following Vincent’s first breakdown, Émile Bernard wrote that he showed ‘extreme humanity towards women, I have borne witness to sublime scenes of devotion from him’. While a preacher in the Borinage in Belgium, he had given away his clothes to the poor and shocked the church authorities by sleeping on the floor in an effort to emulate Christ. His relationships with women were not straightforward – so often they illustrate his overwhelming desire to be their saviour from distress. A series of women run through Vincent’s life story: his landlady’s daughter in London who was engaged to another man; his widowed cousin, Kee; Sien, the prostitute, pregnant with another man’s child; Margot Begemann, who took poison in Neunen; all of whom Vincent proposed to or considered marrying. Others he immortalised in paint, such as ex-lover Agostina Segatori, a café owner in Paris, Madame Ginoux and Augustine Roulin. But the most enigmatic of all of them is ‘Rachel’. These women tend to fall into two categories: either older mother-figures or wounded angels, that only he could save.
As I studied his breakdowns in Arles, I realised each one seemed to be linked to the women in his life. His first breakdown arrived at its climax when he went to see ‘Rachel’. During a visit from Augustine Roulin at the hospital, Vincent had his second breakdown on 27 December and, despite a respite of a few weeks, he suffered his third crisis after going to see ‘Rachel’ again on 3 February 1889. His final admission to the isolation cell was shortly after Augustine Roulin left Arles in late February 1889. The coincidences are too striking to ignore. It is clear that these women were hugely significant to Vincent van Gogh, but what about the woman linked to his first breakdown: the elusive ‘Rachel’?
Something had bothered me since my meeting with Gabrielle’s grandson. I was certain that she was my girl. Yet her profile didn’t seem to fit with what I knew about the life of a prostitute in the 1880s. From the archives I had learned that it was very hard, if not impossible, ever to leave prostitution. There is a letter in the files in Arles from a baker officially requesting that his sister be released from prostitution, as he could finally take care of her financially. The reply from the official was a succinct ‘No, she must remain a prostitute.’ As they got older, most of these women ended up as brothel madams. But Gabrielle married and had a child. Something was not right.
To help us respect and understand people of all faiths and nationalities, my father used to say, ‘If you are born in a stable you are not necessarily a horse.’ As I reviewed once again all the information I had gathered on ‘Rachel’, it slowly began to dawn on me that I might have made a monumental mistake. Like every other researcher who read the contemporary newspaper story, I had assumed that just because Vincent asked for the girl at the door of the brothel, she must have been a prostitute. But what if she wasn’t?
I had found Gabrielle by accumulating tiny little details and eliminating other candidates. Although I still believed I had found the real identity of ‘Rachel’, there were a number of points that did not fit. My main issue was that Gabrielle would have been too young to be working as a prostitute. The Van Gogh biography by Pierre Leprohon, which also called her Gaby, claimed that ‘Rachel’ had been just sixteen years old when Vincent delivered his gift. In fact Leprohon had made a slight mistake: Gabrielle had died aged eighty-two, and 23 December 1888 was a few weeks after her nineteenth birthday. Nonetheless, she was still too young to be a prostitute. Moreover it seemed highly improbable that Virginie Chabaud, the proprietress of several brothels in Arles, would run the risk of losing her livelihood by employing underage women illegally.
I returned to the scene itself. Vincent knocked on the door of the House of Tolerance no. 1 in the rue Bout d’Arles on 23 December 1888. It is a tiny street and the brothels were small places with only a few girls each, where men could go for a drink and some company. I realised that in all the reports of that night there was no mention of him actually going inside the brothel. The madam’s job was to get the men to use her girls. If Van Gogh had requested one of the prostitutes, surely the brothel owner – as a sensible businesswoman – would have persuaded him to come inside? Van Gogh would have been invited in to have a drink and wait or, if the girl was busy with another client, encouraged to spend his time with one of the other girls. This never happened. From all the independent press accounts, Vincent seems to have given his ‘present’ to the girl in the street outside the brothel. This small point turned the whole story of 23 December completely on its head.
Could Van Gogh have asked for someone other than one of the prostitutes on that fateful winter night? Laure Adler’s book on Maisons de Tolérance – La Vie Quotidienne Dans Les Maisons Closes 1830–1930 – details the other jobs in the brothels: depending on the size of the business, there would be bar staff, doormen, cooks, laundresses and cleaners. The brothels in Arles were so small that these workers probably serviced the whole street, and were employed by the different proprietors. This would explain why ‘Rachel’ was later recorded as working for M. Louis, whose brothel was next door to Madame Chabaud’s.
I went back over every contemporary article about the drama, to remind myself what was said about the person Vincent asked for that night. The evidence was scant, but useful. The same newspaper stringer had written two of the articles I had uncovered and in both newspapers he called the girl ‘Rachel’. Vincent was called ‘Vaugogh’ in the article in Le Forum Républicain, and in two accounts he was described as being Polish rather than Dutch – easily explained by the similarity in pronunciation. These press reports were transmitted by telegraph and mistakes were easily made. The name Gabrielle sounds almost the same in French as Rachel. Could an error in pronunciation have occurred in her case, too? The other newspapers didn’t mention her name at all, although they provided other details I had previously overlooked. In one of the articles, published on Christmas Day, Vincent went to ‘a bawdy house . . . and asked to speak to one of its residents . . . a person came to the door and opened it’ – no mention of a prostitute. Gauguin had said that a ‘sentry’ came to the door, while Émile Bernard called the woman Vincent asked for a ‘girl from a café’, the term also employed by Le Petit Provençal. ‘Rachel’ was looking less and less like a prostitute. However, Alphonse Robert, the policeman called to the rue Bout d’Arles that night, unequivocally stated ‘the name of the prostitute escapes me, her working name was Gaby’. Even though his account was written more than forty years later, by which time Vincent and his ear had become a much-embroidered legend in Arles, it seemed unlikely that the key witness to the events of that night was wrong.
In December 1888, Alphonse Robert had been working as a policeman in Arles for just fifteen months. He was a town official whose role was to patrol and keep the peace. Local statutes outlined the duties of a town policeman: he could stop a criminal in flagrante, but he could not undertake an investigation. This meant he practically never entered private premises in Arles. The serious business of policing was left to the gendarmes. Most importantly, he would not have been privy to the official register of prostitutes. Although he would have known all the girls who worked in the area by sight, Robert would have had only superficial dealings with the inhabitants of the red-light district. Unless he used the services of the girls himself, which is fairly unlikely for a young married man with a small child, he wouldn’t have known who did what, inside the brothels of the rue Bout d’Arles.
Something had always bothered me about a phrase of Van Gogh’s in his letter of 3 February 1889. Telling Theo that he had gone to see the girl to whom he gave his ear on 23 December, he added, ‘people say good things of her’. I had always thought this was a little odd. Would people say ‘good things’ about a woman who sold her body for a living? It only made sense if she was a local girl who was liked and respected. I began seriously to consider that perhaps she was simply someone Vincent had met locally and become obsessed with, as he had done with so many women. So I spent some days with the prostitutes of 1880s Arles: I checked the women who’d been treated for venereal disease, but Gabrielle wasn’t on the list. I checked arrest records, and some of the names correlated with those treated for sexually transmitted diseases, but again she wasn’t among them. I checked newspaper reports, illegitimate births and census records again. Still no sign of Gabrielle.
I needed to talk to her family again. I had followed up some of the leads her grandson had given me during our conversation, and had done research into her time in Paris. I thought the family would find this new information interesting. Again I wrote, asking if her grandson would meet me once more. In the intervening period he had fallen ill and had difficulty speaking, and this time his son was there to help.
I reopened our discussion where we had been interrupted. I started by showing them the information I had found out about Gabrielle, including her medical records from Paris. It was exciting to share with them part of their own family history. The elderly man became tired and left me with his son; I was now finally getting to the reason for my interest. He listened to me with great patience, asking questions as I went along. Relying on quotes in Van Gogh’s letters and other information I had found, I didn’t need to explain much before he suddenly he said to me, ‘So “Rachel” is my great-grandmother.’
Sunday 8 January 1888 was a crisp sunny day in the Provençal countryside and Gabrielle’s family had gathered for lunch together at the mas (farmhouse) they owned outside Arles. They were celebrating Gabrielle’s younger brother, whose birthday had been a few days before. The party fell on the Epiphany Sunday, traditionally celebrated in Provence with the special gateau des rois. During the course of the afternoon a neighbour’s dog was seen circling near the group but no one paid it any attention. Then suddenly it jumped up and attacked Gabrielle, biting through the shawl and the sleeve that covered her left arm. She began to bleed profusely. Dog bites were a serious threat – not only could the wound become infected (and without penicillin this was a life-threatening injury), there was also a risk the dog might have rabies. If left untreated an infected patient normally died within three days. A vaccine had been used by Dr Louis Pasteur for the first time less than three years previously and its discovery had been widely reported in the local press in Arles. Gabrielle’s family acted quickly. Dr Michel Arnaud, the town’s veterinary surgeon, was summoned while a local shepherd shot the dog. The autopsy confirmed that the dog was indeed infected by rabies. Gabrielle’s wound was cauterised with a red-hot iron to kill any infection. Cauterisation gave her a better chance of survival but it was still not protection enough. There was no time to waste. A telegram was dispatched to Paris by the doctor, bags were packed and arrangements made so that Gabrielle and her mother could leave Arles for the capital that very night to receive treatment at the Institut Pasteur.
Gabrielle and her mother, dressed in traditional Arlésienne costume, arrived in Paris at 5.40 p.m. the next day. The following morning around 11 a.m. on Tuesday 10 January 1888 they went to Dr Louis Pasteur’s surgery located in the Ecole Normale Supérieure building, rue d’Ulm, where Pasteur was director of scientific research. Her medical file provides the details of her treatment – in all she would have 20 doses of the vaccine (made from the live rabies virus) between 10 and 27 January 1888. However, the file shows she was absent from the Institut on 23 January 1888. One night during her stay her mother took her to see Jules Verne’s Michel Strogoff at the Châtelet Theatre, which ended late at 11.45 p.m.; it was her first experience of the theatre. It’s possible this show fell on 22 January and might explain why she missed her injection on the 23rd.
Gabrielle was extremely impressed by what she had seen, so far from the simpler life in Arles to which she was accustomed, and she later described to her grandson the series of tableaux on stage, with ‘real horses and mirrors’ that created the effect of a whole army. She had her last inoculation on 27 January 1888 before returning to Arles. She never went to Paris again. The family had spent a lot of money on saving her life and on her return home she began working as a cleaner to help pay for her expensive treatment and save up for little treats. It’s possible that she found her job in the rue Bout d’Arles through her cousins who lived nearby.
‘Rachel’ was slowly coming into focus. Before her marriage my ‘Rachel’ – Gabrielle – worked as a maid in the brothels during the night, and in the early morning she cleaned business premises on the place Lamartine. The neighbourhood was close-knit and familiar, and Vincent must have seen her almost every day. Yet this still sheds no light on why he would choose to give her his ear. The clue came in the words Vincent said to ‘Rachel’ on 23 December, which were repeated in various forms in almost all accounts of the drama: in Gauguin’s account, Vincent apparently said, ‘Here you are . . . a memory of me.’ At first this made no sense to me. Some journalists repeated what Vincent had said, and although the wording varied from writer to writer, the meaning was the same: take great care of this for me. The local newspaper in Arles, Le Forum Républicain, quotes Vincent as saying, ‘Take this and keep it preciously,’ while the Le Petit Provençal newspaper states, ‘Take this, it will be of use to you.’ Vincent was giving the young woman something he considered extremely important. But why part of his body? And why her?
Following her accident Gabrielle was left with a significant scar that was clearly visible, even under her Arlésienne costume. As she had never been to Paris before January 1888, nor did she ever go there again, I wondered if Van Gogh met her there shortly before he left the capital. Less than three weeks after she returned south, he turned up in Arles. Two women dressed in full Arlésienne costume would have been an unusual sight in Paris at the time. However, the Institut Pasteur was south of the River Seine close to the Luxembourg Gardens. Vincent lived north of the river, so although this theory would be delightfully neat, it seemed rather unlikely. Still, he does mention the Institut Pasteur twice in his letters, most significantly in July 1888: ‘Certainly these ladies are much more harmful . . . than the citizens bitten by rabid dogs who live at the Institut Pasteur.’
A more likely explanation lay in Vincent’s recorded obsession with religion in the days leading up to 23 December. In Gauguin’s account, as told to Émile Bernard, Vincent was ‘reading the Bible and giving sermons in all the wrong places and to the most vile people, my dear friend had come to believe himself a Christ, a God’. It may seem a stretch, but I would suggest that in Van Gogh’s heightened state he gave the girl part of his own healthy body to replace her damaged flesh, and that the words he spoke that night recalled those of Christ at the Last Supper: ‘This is my body . . . do this in memory of me.’
Gabrielle was indeed at the House of Tolerance no. 1 on the night of 23 December 1888, but she was not working as a prostitute. She was changing the sheets and washing the glasses. When Vincent appeared at the brothel that rainy night, I can only imagine the shock for the poor young woman – a frenzied man comes to her place of work and hands her a sinister gift. It is no surprise she fainted. Van Gogh had a great capacity for kindness, especially for anyone he considered less fortunate than himself; he would have been touched by the meek girl he saw working so hard, with such meagre reward. He would have been moved by her damaged arm. She was exactly the sort of woman he was attracted to – a wounded angel he thought he could save.
At my request, her family kindly met me again. In the intervening months one of them had gone on a guided visit of a Van Gogh exhibition and had been outraged by what was being said by the guides about the ‘prostitute to whom Vincent gave his ear’. The family could not equate what had been said about the mysterious ‘Rachel’ with the woman they knew and loved. The perfume of scandal associated with the story scared the whole family. Devastated that her memory would be soiled, they begged me not to reveal her identity. I tried to persuade them otherwise, reasoning that my work would actually change the public’s perception of the girl to whom Vincent gave his ear. But her family were truly upset and I made a promise: until I am given permission by the family to reveal her surname, I will respect their wishes and keep it private.
Van Gogh’s act of self-harm has always been the ultimate justification of his madness. Taking his ear to a prostitute has fuelled the legend of a wayward, bohemian painter who hung around with shady individuals and was irredeemably crazy. I can’t pass judgement on him mutilating his ear. Of course it cannot be interpreted as the behaviour of a sane individual, indeed, his ‘gift’ was certainly perceived by the girl and the police as the act of a madman and reported as such by the press at the time. But giving his ear to ‘Rachel’ was part of a continuum of behaviour that had been gathering momentum throughout his adult life. Van Gogh rarely did things by half-measures. Set in the context of his past – thrusting his hand over the flame in Holland, giving away all his clothes to the poor in Belgium – his extreme behaviour in Arles looks less like a single crazy episode than an act of desperation by someone profoundly unwell. He was impetuous, intense, yet at the same time oversensitive and deeply empathic. Living mostly on his own, these traits remained unchecked. Clearly driven by his mental illness, nonetheless the motivation behind his actions was kindly intended and, within the parameters of his unbalanced mind, quite lucid.
Lust is often evoked as one of the reasons behind Vincent’s self-harm. Although it cannot be excluded entirely, there seems to be little evidence for this. Émile Bernard’s remark about witnessing Vincent’s ‘sublime scenes of devotion’ towards women, and his close bonds with Madame Ginoux and Augustine Roulin amongst others, may have had a sexual basis, though they appear to be based on admiration or devotion rather than desire. Indeed, I think it doubtful that the mousmé’s family would have let their daughter sit for hours on end with Vincent at the Yellow House if there was anything inappropriate or sexual in his behaviour towards the young girl. The discovery of the true identity of ‘Rachel’ surely alters how Van Gogh is perceived. Vincent didn’t go to the Maison de Tolérance on a whim that night and he does not appear to have been motivated simply by lust. This girl was someone he knew, someone he appeared to sympathise with. I believe that giving her the gift – part of his own flesh – was done out of genuine concern and tenderness for the young woman. The act was guided and influenced by his diminished mental state, of course, but no less noble for that.
Around 11.20 p.m. on 23 December 1888, Van Gogh set off from the Yellow House on an altruistic mission – to bring succour to a young woman in need; to help in his own particular deluded way, a wounded angel.
Bernadette Murphy was born and raised in the U.K. She has lived in the south of France for most of her adult life and worked in many different fields. Van Gogh’s Ear is her first book.
When we announced Wolf in White Van on this very website two and a half years ago, in official literary terms John Darnielle was essentially an unknown quantity.
Now, things are different. Wolf in White Van fairly emphatically established John as a novelist. Of course, no one really knows if he can do it again. And if that feels less suspenseful than simply not knowing if he could do it at all, then . . . well, maybe you didn’t read Wolf in White Van. For all its many qualities, it’s hardly a book begging for a sequel. The follow-up was always going to demand a bold step forward, and fortunately, the success of Wolf in White Van seems to have imbued John with confidence rather than caution—Universal Harvester is not the product of a cautious mind.
Fans of Wolf in White Van will be glad to hear that John’s new novel, Universal Harvester, is not exactly what one might call “a normal novel.” The book opens at the Video Hut in late-’90s, small-town Iowa, where twentysomething Jeremy rides out his days manning the counter, blissfully unaware of the forces (Hollywood Video, DVDs, the Internet) conspiring to make his job representative of a very specific cultural moment. What Jeremy is aware of is a series of customers returning video tapes with complaints that something’s wrong with them—that, for instance, She’s All That is interrupted by four minutes of grainy, homemade, black-and-white footage that is distinctly creepy-as-hell—there’s a darkness there, an overwhelming sadness. She’s All That is the most popular tape affected, but not the only one. Jeremy would prefer not to have to get to the bottom of the disturbing videos, but that, of course, was never a real possibility . . .
In a variety of essential ways—in terms of craft, scope, and sheer storytelling might—Universal Harvester marks a significant literary leap for John. But in the most literally superficial of ways, how can the book possibly level up from Wolf in White Van? What is a cover designer to do with the above concoction to top the simple genius of Timothy Goodman’s maze of a Wolf in White Van cover? Fortunately, Universal Harvester was in the good hands of Rodrigo Corral and Alex Merto. And here is what they’ve wrought . . . We hope you’re at least a little creeped out.
Universal Harvester by John Darnielle will be published in the United States in February by FSG. It will be published simultaneously in Canada by HarperCollins Canada and in the United Kingdom by Scribe.
John Darnielle is a writer, composer, guitarist, and vocalist for the band the Mountain Goats; he is widely considered one of the best lyricists of his generation. He is the author of Wolf in White Van. He lives in Durham, North Carolina, with his wife and son.
Sean McDonald is John Darnielle’s editor. He is also VP, Executive Editor, and Publisher of MCD/FSG and FSG Originals, as well as Director of Digital and Paperback of Publishing at FSG.
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