Monday, April 23, 2018

What America Would Be Like Without Blacks

Ralph Ellison

The fantasy of an America free of blacks is at least as old as the dream of creating a truly democratic society. While we are aware that there is something inescapably tragic about the cost of achieving our democratic ideals, we keep such tragic awareness segregated in the rear of our minds. We allow it to come to the fore only during moments of great national crisis.

On the other hand, there is something so embarrassingly absurd about the notion of purging the nation of blacks that it seems hardly a product of thought at all. It is more like a primitive reflex, a throw-back to the dim past of tribal experience, which we rationalize and try to make respectable by dressing it up in the gaudy and highly questionable trappings of what we call the “concept of race.” Yet despite its absurdity, the fantasy of a blackless America continues to turn up. It is a fantasy born not merely of racism but of petulance, exasperation and moral fatigue. It is like a boil bursting forth from impurities in the bloodstream of democracy.

In its benign manifestations, it can be outrageously comic – as in the picaresque adventures of Percival Brownlee, who appears in William Faulkner’s story “The Bear.” Exasperating to his white masters because his aspirations and talents are for preaching and conducting choirs rather than for fanning, Brownlee is “freed” after much resistance and ends up as the prosperous proprietor of a New Orleans brothel. In Faulkner’s hands the uncomprehending drive of Brownlee’s owners to “get shut” of him is comically instructive. Indeed, the story resonates certain abiding, indeed tragic themes of American history with which it is interwoven, and which are causing great turbulence in the social atmosphere today. I refer to the exasperation and bemusement of the white American with the black, the black American’s ceaseless (and swiftly accelerating) struggle to escape the misconceptions of whites, and the continual confusing of the black American’s racial background with his individual culture. Most of all, I refer to the recurring fantasy of solving one basic problem of American democracy by getting “shut” of the blacks through various wishful schemes that would banish them from the nation’s bloodstream, from its social structure, and from its conscience and historical consciousness.

The fantastic vision of lily-white America appeared as early as 1713, with the suggestion of a white “native American,” thought to be from New Jersey, that all the Negroes be given their freedom and returned to Africa. In 1777, Thomas Jefferson, while serving in the Virginia legislature, began drafting a plan for the gradual emancipation and exportation of the slaves. Nor were Negroes themselves immune to the fantasy. In 1815 Paul Cuffe, a wealthy merchant, shipbuilder and landowner from the New Bedford area, shipped and settled at his own expense 38 of his fellow Negroes in Africa. It was perhaps his example that led in the following year to the creation of the American Colonization Society, which was to establish in 1821 the colony of Liberia. Great amounts of cash and a perplexing mixture of motives went into the venture. The slaveowners and many Border-state politicians wanted to use it as a scheme to rid the country not of slaves but of the militant free Negroes who were agitating against the “peculiar institution.” The abolitionists, until they took a lead from free Negro leaders and began attacking the scheme, also participated as a means of righting a great historical injustice. Many blacks went along with it simply because they were sick of the black and white American mess and hoped to prosper in the quiet peace of the old ancestral home.

Such conflicting motives doomed the Colonization Society to failure, but what amazes one even more than the notion that anyone could have believed in its success is the fact that it was attempted during a period when the blacks, slave and free, made up 18% of the total population. When we consider how long blacks had been in the New World and had been transforming it and being Americanized by it, the scheme appears not only fantastic, but the product of a free-floating irrationality. Indeed, a national pathology.

Nevertheless, some of the noblest of Americans were bemused. Not only Jefferson but later Abraham Lincoln was to give the scheme credence. According to Historian John Hope Franklin, Negro colonization seemed as important to Lincoln as emancipation. In 1862, Franklin notes, Lincoln called a group of prominent free Negroes to the White House and urged them to support colonization, telling them: “Your race suffers greatly, many of them by living among us, while ours suffers from your presence. If this is admitted, it affords a reason why we should be separated.”

In spite of his unquestioned greatness, Abraham Lincoln was a man of his times and limited by some of the less worthy thinking of his times. This is demonstrated both by his reliance upon the concept of race in his analysis of the American dilemma and by his involvement in a plan of purging the nation of blacks as a means of healing the badly shattered ideals of democratic federalism. Although benign, his motive was no less a product of fantasy. It envisaged an attempt to relieve an inevitable suffering that marked the growing pains of the youthful body politic by an operation which would have amounted to the severing of a healthy and indispensable member.

Yet, like its twin, the illusion of secession, the fantasy of a benign amputation that would rid the country of black men to the benefit of a nation’s health not only persists; today, in the form of neo-Garveyism, it fascinates black men no less than it once hypnotized whites. Both fantasies become operative whenever the nation grows weary of the struggle toward the ideal of American democratic equality. Both would use the black man as a scapegoat to achieve a national catharsis, and both would, by way of curing the patient, destroy him.

What is ultimately intriguing about the fantasy of “getting shut” of the Negro American is the fact that no one who entertains it seems ever to have considered what the nation would have become had Africans not been brought to the New World, and had their descendants not played such a complex and confounding role in the creation of American history and culture. Nor do they appear to have considered with any seriousness the effect upon the nation of having any of the schemes for exporting blacks succeed beyond settling some 15,000 or so in Liberia.

We are reminded that Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who has recently aggravated our social confusion over the racial issue while allegedly attempting to clarify it, is co-author of a work which insists that the American melting pot didn’t melt because our white ethnic groups have resisted all assimilative forces that appear to threaten their identities. The problem here is that few Americans know who and what they really are. That is why few of these groups – or at least few of the children of these groups – have been able to resist the movies, television, baseball, jazz, football, drum-majoretting, rock, comic strips, radio commercials, soap operas, book clubs, slang, or any of a thousand other expressions and carriers of our pluralistic and easily available popular culture. It is here precisely that ethnic resistance is least effective. On this level the melting pot did indeed melt, creating such deceptive metamorphoses and blending of identities, values and lifestyles that most American whites are culturally part Negro American without even realizing it.

If we can resist for a moment the temptation to view everything having to do with Negro Americans in terms of their racially imposed status, we become aware of the fact that for all the harsh reality of the social and economic injustices visited upon them, these injustices have failed to keep Negroes clear of the cultural main-stream; Negro Americans are, in fact, one of its major tributaries. If we can cease approaching American social reality in terms of such false concepts as white and nonwhite, black culture and white culture, and think of these apparently unthinkable matters in the realistic manner of Western pioneers confronting the unknown prairie, perhaps we can begin to imagine what the United States would have been, or not been, had there been no blacks to give it – if I maybe so bold as to say – color.

For one thing, the American nation is in a sense the product of the American language, a colloquial speech that began emerging long before the British colonials and Africans were transformed into Americans. It is a language that evolved from the King’s English but, basing itself upon the realities of the American land and colonial institutions – or lack of institutions – began quite early as a vernacular revolt against the signs, symbols, manners and authority of the mother country. It is a language that began by merging the sounds of many tongues, brought together in the struggle of diverse regions. And whether it is admitted or not, much of the sound of that language is derived from the timbre of the African voice and the listening habits of the African ear. So there is a de’z and do’z of slave speech sounding beneath our most polished Harvard accents, and if there is such a thing as a Yale accent, there is a Negro wail in it – doubtless introduced there by Old Yalie John C. Calhoun, who probably got it from his mammy.

Whitman viewed the spoken idiom of Negro Americans as a source for a native grand opera. Its flexibility, its musicality, its rhythms, freewheeling diction and metaphors, as projected in Negro American folklore, were absorbed by the creators of our great nineteenth-century literature even when the majority of blacks were still enslaved. Mark Twain celebrated it in the prose of Huckleberry Finn; without the presence of blacks, the book could not have been written. No Huck and Jim, no American novel as we know it. For not only is the black man a co-creator of the language that Mark Twain raised to the level of literary eloquence, but Jim’s condition as American and Huck’s commitment to freedom are at the moral center of the novel.

In other words, had there been no blacks, certain creative tensions arising from the cross-purposes of whites and blacks would also not have existed. Not only would there have been no Faulkner; there would have been no Stephen Crane, who found certain basic themes of his writing in the Civil War. Thus also there would have been no Hemingway, who took Crane as a source and guide. Without the presence of Negro American style, our jokes, tall tales, even our sports would be lacking in the sudden turns, shocks and swift changes of pace (all jazz-shaped) that serve to remind us that the world is ever unexplored, and that while a complete mastery of life is mere illusion, the real secret of the game is to make life swing. It is its ability to articulate this tragic-comic attitude toward life that explains much of the mysterious power and attractiveness of that quality of Negro American style known as “soul.” An expression of American diversity within unity, of blackness with whiteness, soul announces the presence of a creative struggle against the realities of existence.

Without the presence of blacks, our political history would have been otherwise. No slave economy, no Civil War, no violent destruction of the Reconstruction, no K.K.K. and no Jim Crow system. And without the disenfranchisement of black Americans and the manipulation of racial fears and prejudices, the disproportionate impact of white Southern politicians upon our domestic and foreign policies would have been impossible. Indeed, it is almost impossible to conceive of what our political system would have become without the snarl of forces – cultural, racial, religious – that make our nation what it is today.

Absent, too, would be the need for that tragic knowledge which we try ceaselessly to evade: that the true subject of democracy is not simply material well-being, but the extension of the democratic process in the direction of perfecting itself. The most obvious test and clue to that perfection is the inclusion – not assimilation – of the black man.

Since the beginning of the nation, white Americans have suffered from a deep inner uncertainty as to who they really are. One of the ways that has been used to simplify the answer has been to seize upon the presence of black Americans and use them as a marker, a symbol of limits, a metaphor for the “outsider.” Many whites could look at the social position of blacks and feel that color formed an easy and reliable gauge for determining to what extent one was or was not American. Perhaps that is why one of the first epithets that many European immigrants learned when they got off the boat was the term “nigger” – it made them feel instantly American. But this is tricky magic. Despite his racial difference and social status, something indisputably American about Negroes not only raised doubts about the white man’s value system, but aroused the troubling suspicion that whatever else the true American is, he is also somehow black.

Materially, psychologically and culturally, part of the nation’s heritage is Negro American, and whatever it becomes will be shaped in part by the Negro’s presence. Which is fortunate, for today it is the black American who puts pressure upon the nation to live up to its ideals. It is he who gives creative tension to our struggle for justice and for the elimination of those factors, social and psychological, which make for slums and shaky suburban communities. It is he who insists that we purify the American language by demanding that there be a closer correlation between the meaning of words and reality, between ideal and conduct, between our assertions and our actions. Without the black American, something irrepressibly hopeful and creative would go out of the American spirit, and the nation might well succumb to the moral slobbism that has always threatened its existence from within.

When we look objectively at how the dry bones of the nation were hung together, it seems obvious that some one of the many groups that compose the United States had to suffer the fate of being allowed no easy escape from experiencing the harsh realities of the human condition as they were to exist under even so fortunate a democracy as ours. It would seem that some one group had to be stripped of the possibility of escaping such tragic knowledge by taking sanctuary in moral equivocation, racial chauvinism or the advantage of superior social status. There is no point in complaining over the past or apologizing for one’s fate. But for blacks there are no hiding places down here, not in suburbia or in penthouse, neither in country nor in city. They are an American people who are geared to what is, and who yet are driven by a sense of what it is possible for human life to be in this society. The nation could not survive being deprived of their presence because, by the irony implicit in the dynamics of American democracy, they symbolize both its most stringent testing and the possibility of its greatest human freedom.

Credits:  This article was originally published in Time Magazine in 1970.  It can be found online at

Friday, April 20, 2018

An audience with Samuel Beckett, from Garry O’Connor’s The Vagabond Lover

Ian Herbert, another friend from King’s, was working for Pitman’s. He commissioned a book on French theatre. I decided I would try to interview Samuel Beckett, intending a whole chapter just on him. I wrote to ask if I could see him and gave him some dates I could be in Paris. For six months I kept this up and received eight tiny letters scribbled almost illegibly in a right-slanting hand on flimsy tissue paper saying he was never there when I was there.

It must have been rather like God that Harold Hobson interceded on my behalf, for after these very polite but ‘sorry-to-disappoint-you’ evasions, Beckett, in much bolder ink, and with fluctuating pen strokes and stronger legibility, wrote ‘I could meet you for a drink May 28 in the bar of the “Closerie des Lilas”, 171 Bld du Montparnasse. If this suits you do not trouble to confirm.’ I had found the combination to access the inaccessible.

I arrive at the Closerie full of excitement. He was waiting but I had been forewarned, ‘I hope you do not expect me to talk about myself or my work, there’s not a squeak left in me on that sore subject!’ There were two faces of Beckett confronting me over glasses of whisky. One was upright and severe, that of a lean but august figure dressed in baggy clothes, a tweed jacket which had very padded shoulders just like a superior working man from an O’Casey early play. The hands weren’t those of a Dublin labourer, but very long, very fine – aristocratic. He could have been an ascetic Irish priest, even a mystic, a saint – or a pope.

The other face was warm but animated, etiolated and linear like that of a racehorse – again Irish. Its fluidity and mobility reminded me of Jackie McGowran whom I’d seen in Endgame (was I thinking of Lucien Freud’s male faces, which look similar to those of horses?).

He talks very quietly, but he is not at all dry in manner. I had translated some of Céline’s work for the RSC, and hear that the famously denounced collaborator, lauded for his Voyage au bout de la nuit, ‘went to Germany where he sided with Laval, and then to Norway. After the war they left him alone [as they did Maurice Chevalier]. He lived in Boulogne with his wife, and Gallimard [his publisher] tried to screw the most out of him!’

He left London because he couldn’t find a publisher. A certain resentment for publishers and exploiters, or neglecters, of Beckett’s talent, can be detected. Dare one call it paranoiac? He decries the ‘nakedness of his own self-pity’ in the true and steeply paranoid decline of Ionesco in his last plays.

‘What do you think of Jean Genet?’ I ask.

‘Genet?’ he replies.

‘Yes, Genet,’ I repeat.

‘Genet?’ he says a second time, with a frown as if I am obscurely trying to confuse him.

‘Jean Genet,’ I repeat so there should be no doubt.

‘Oh, Jean Genet,’ he says at last with a surrendering flicker of recognition.

‘Genet doesn’t want anyone to do his plays anymore.’

He isn’t altogether happy with Genet’s plays. We were edging into personal areas. I don’t push it. I had the sense, in the way between us the time passed, that he likes spending time for its own sake – this is quite mystical – that time for him passes very slowly, in contrast to people who are diffuse, through whose hands time passes quickly.

He talks so quietly that I have to keep asking him a second time, or in silence wait till I feel I can complete his sentence. He looks away frequently, as if he is extremely shy. I leave long silences, which he breaks about fifty-fifty. He will sometimes resume with the same subject.

‘I spent two miserable years in London, in [Chelsea’s] World’s End, in a bedsit for thirty shillings a week. I regretted it…. I don’t want to go back to Ireland, I had lots of relations and children [not his, for he was childless] in Wicklow. Last time I was in Ireland was in 1968 for two weeks.’

The Irish poor mouth! Oh God, not shades of…Marlowe’s, ‘I have run up and down this world with a case of rapiers, wounding myself when I had none to fight withal.’ Marlowe could well have been Irish.

He offers me a cigar, before lighting one. He says that he is worried about his eyes: he’s had two cataract operations which have succeeded, so why does he worry? I haven’t asked personal questions, or about his work, and I can sense this is a relief. Unprompted he starts to tell me in awe that Joyce, his friend and mentor for whom he worked as secretary, spent seventeen years on Finnegans Wake, while ‘even the Sistine Chapel took Michelangelo only four!’ He receives letters from ‘a lunatic asylum’ from Joyce’s daughter, Lucia, to whom, long ago, in the early 1930s, he had become attracted. Joyce’s son Mario is in ‘Germany, married to a rich American; his grandson, Stephen, lives in Paris and works in an office.’ He says his own work is quite paltry and unimportant compared to that of Joyce. Chesterton’s definition of a saint is someone who is always in the presence of one greater than himself, so here the description fits.

We’ve drunk several rounds by now. I have been with him for over an hour and a half so my audience is almost over. He plays obsessively with something from his pocket, rolling it on the table, then with an almost compulsive movement puts it away. His body and movements are tense: of someone who has eliminated most forms of emotion or spiritual despair from his mind, I guess, but not from his physical being, where the tension is still manifest.

It’s not so hard to believe that here is someone who suffered considerable if not continual rejection all his life until Peter Hall’s production of Waiting for Godot at the Arts Theatre came along. But one mustn’t forget he didn’t really like how Peter Hall had made Godot into a burlesque, with hilarious comic routines, drawing out audience laughter he hadn’t intended.

He had written up all those reflexes of being rejected, but fashioned fastidiously and with exquisite workmanship, into literary art. Where from? Was it in the first instance from his middle-class family, in the second by the literary world? He destroys all letters, he tells me. Rejection, resentment, and bitterness can indeed by very funny, and wonderful for actors to explore. […]

When we part he seems regretful of leaving, saying very lightly ‘Enjoy yourself!’ He has a profound twinkle in his eye. I gently tease him with ‘Did you vote in the last election?’ to which he replies,
‘No, no – I don’t do anything like that!’

Dislocation of consciousness is the name of Beckett’s game, life through a lens giving it distinctive distortions. It reminds me of some work done by Johnny my brother: curious, anamorphic paintings of intricate detail which require a glass cylinder to be placed on top to reveal the full image. Given that Beckett destroys all letters, I can’t understand why he is so keen to have my address which he asks for.

I won’t forget the eight tiny missives. The first few were tentative, spidery, evasive in the handwriting, almost unreadable. As he decided to see me they grew bolder and stronger in pressure and use of ink on the flimsy paper until he splashed out an assent. Beckett was master of forging a merciless no out of a longing for yes, showing a world constantly on the edge of disintegration.
Jean-Paul Sartre – much less likeable but an interesting playwright – had one answer to why Beckett was so popular. He dismissed ‘the solitude, the despair, the commonplaces of non-communication’ as being ‘profoundly and essentially bourgeois’. He scorned Godot, ‘by far Beckett’s best play’ for being ‘pessimistic, expressionist’, yet he pointed out that it was ‘the kind of thing which appeals to the middle class’. […]

I fail to understand the quasi-religious obeisance to those increasingly hermetic late plays, which are hallowed like relics, variations of focus on a vanishing point of faith, hope, and love, playing the game of hunt the thimble, man’s reduced soul. The endgames of Beckett and Pinter would have us believe that Nature has forgotten us and is no more.

hamm Nature has forgotten us.
clov There’s no more nature.

About the author

Garry O’Connor has worked as daily theatre critic for the Financial Times, and as a director for the RSC, before he became a fulltime writer. As novelist, biographer and playwright Garry has published many books on actors, literary figures, religious and political leaders, including Pope John Paul II and the Blairs. He has had plays performed at Edinburgh, Oxford, Ipswich, London and on Radio 4, and contributed dramatised documentaries to Radio 3, scripts and interviews for BBC 1, as well as having his work adapted for a three-part mini-series. The Vagabond Lover, his father-son memoir, is an incisive probe into the life and career of his father, Cavan O’Connor, famous as a popular tenor and active throughout most of the twentieth century, and into his own life and career as a writer. It is published by CentreHouse Press, and is available at

Monday, April 16, 2018

The Unlikely Kinship of “Bambi” and Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”

Paul Reitter

Before there was “Maus,” there were the “Mouse Folk.” Or, more precisely, fifty-six years before Art Spiegelman drew Jews as mice in his family memoir, Franz Kafka played with the associations between Jews and mice in the last story he wrote, “Josephine, the Singer, or the Mouse Folk,” which was published in 1924. The “mouse folk” live with danger and enemies close by, much like the Jews of Central Europe did then. As the brilliant Kafka scholar Heinz Politzer noted, the character of Josephine, with her unique manner of singing, seems to evoke Karl Kraus, the Jewish writer and performer who had, in Kafka’s opinion, a special way with German-Jewish dialect. (“No one can speak Mauscheln like Kraus,” he wrote to a friend.)

But the story is written so that such readings require leaps and stretches, some amount of interpretive acrobatics. (Theodor Adorno once described Kafka’s work as a set of parables, the key to which has been stolen.) In the end, we can’t even be certain that “Josephine” is about animals at all. It’s true that Josephine’s singing, which is really a sort of whistling, doesn’t seem quite human. On the other hand, the narrator, who is one of the mouse folk, speaks like an educated person. How he or she looks goes mostly unaddressed. Perhaps the term mouse in the title is a metaphor.

“You can read Kafka’s animal stories without realizing that they are not about human beings,” Walter Benjamin wrote, adding that, when the recognition suddenly sets in, “you look up in fright and see that you are far away from the continent of man.” What Benjamin described is what people call the Kafkaesque, a quality that abounds in the animal stories, since they are full of another of its key elements—incongruous responses to monstrous events. A man wakes up to find himself transformed into a giant vermin and wonders: How am I going to get to work on time? But if Kafka’s animal studies are a special case, written in a style entirely his own, they also reflect a larger literary phenomenon. From Heinrich Heine, in the early nineteenth century, to the Austrian literatus Felix Salten, on the eve of the Second World War, a number of German-Jewish authors wrote stories with anthropomorphized animals. For the most part, their animal figures evoke the plight of European Jewry without concertedly allegorizing it—though the temptation to read them as allegories is often strong. In his thoughtful and deeply researched new study, “Bestiarium Judaicum: Unnatural Histories of the Jews,” Jay Geller argues that these writers were engaging, critically but mostly in an open-ended way, with a network of associations having to do with the nonhuman animality of Jews. As Geller sees it, the challenge that these writers set for themselves was to activate the power of these associations—to engage the associations from within, by using animal figures themselves—without reinforcing pernicious, and ultimately deadly, stereotypes.

Geller roams imaginatively through German-language literature, identifying the possible antecedents of the animal figures in the works of Heine, Max Brod, and other Jewish writers of the period between about 1800 and 1933, his chronological frame. Some of the writers whose work he analyzes are, like the science-fiction writer Curt Siodmak, not very well known today, but most are either semi-famous—like Salten, the author of “Bambi,” and the satirist Kraus—or outright famous, like Freud and Kafka. Geller catalogues the key animal associations in the German imagination—Jews and pigs, Jews and wolves, Jews and dogs, Jews and apes, Jews and rodents—and discusses their evolution over the centuries, providing commentary on widely circulated instances of these stereotypes, from the bestiaries of the Middle Ages to graphic representations of Jews as animals in Nazi propaganda. He considers how the animalizing of Jews facilitated the Holocaust, looking, as he does so, at reflections on “the construction of the Jew-Animal” by Jews who were in occupied Europe at the time of the Final Solution—Primo Levi, Jiri Weil, Gertrud Kolmar, among others. There is a notable complexity in all this: animals are beloved in German culture. As a saying popular around 1800 had it, the veterinary hospital in Berlin treated dogs like men, while the regular hospital treated men like dogs. And the perception that Jews, with their kosher slaughtering rituals, were cruel to animals was in fact a rallying point among German anti-Semites.

Nonetheless, anti-Semites often likened Jews to animals, as Richard Wagner does in his essay “Jewishness in Music” (1850), which describes Jews as parrots who don’t understand the sounds they reproduce. And the animal figures in Austrian-Jewish literature often embody the pressures and anxieties that beset Central European Jews. Kafka’s story “A Report to an Academy,” which was first published in 1917, in the Zionist magazine The Jew, consists of an ape’s disquisition—at times highly reflective, at times benighted—on his process of assimilation into human society. In Salten’s “Bambi,” the deer characters debate whether humans, who have the guns and the power, will “ever stop persecuting us.” One early reader thought he could detect the rhythms of Jewishy German, or jüdeln, in the patter of rabbits in another of Salten’s animal stories. (For some readers, the phonetic proximity of mauscheln, another word for jüdeln, to the German term for mouse thickened the association between Kafka’s mouse folk and the Jews.) But the use of animals also has a delocalizing effect, making the characters more relatable than they might be if they had a specific human shape or heritage. Certainly, it says something that the vermin in Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” is a strong candidate for the great everyman of Central European literature, and that Salten’s “Bambi” is probably its most successful coming-of-age story.

Anthropomorphized animals lend themselves, famously, to the fable, political and otherwise. Yet Geller rightly insists that the animal stories of Austrian Jews don’t offer straightforward statements of political ideology. He offers a scathing critique of the historian Jens Hanssen and his attempt to read Kafka’s short prose text “Jackals and Arabs,” from 1917, as a negative response to Zionism. There are echoes of Salten’s Zionism in “Bambi,” as I have argued elsewhere, but I wouldn’t call the book—which is more searching, in its sentimental way, than programmatic—a work of Zionist fiction. In this respect, Austrian-Jewish animal stories are in synch with Austrian modernism, which tended to resist ideological commitments—especially after the First World War, as the critic Marjorie Perloff’s argued in last year’s “The Edge of Irony: Modernism in the Shadow of the Habsburg Empire.”

The collapse of the Empire prompted a new wave of thinking about the situation of Central European Jews, many of whom, during the reign of Franz Josef, had belonged to a minority that was aligned with the official culture of a fraying, multinational system. That had been complicated enough—now where were they? Some of the Jewish intellectuals of Central Europe saw their cultural position, and the self-consciousness that resulted from it, as extraordinary and exceptional. In their attempts to evoke this position, they seem to have turned increasingly to nonhuman figures. In a 1921 letter to his friend Max Brod, Kafka offered what is now probably the most famous description of the plight of German-Jewish writers in Central Europe: “With their back legs they stuck fast to the Judaism of their fathers, and with their front legs they found no new ground.” Around the same time, the Viennese Jew Franz Blei published “The Great Bestiary of Modern German Literature,” in which he comically classified many of his contemporaries as exotic animals. The “female Kafka,” for instance, “is a rarely seen, wonderful moon-blue mouse, which eats no meat but subsists on bitter herbs. Its gaze is fascinating, because it has human eyes.”

Credits:  This article appeared originally in The New Yorker in 2017.

Monday, April 9, 2018


Kathryn A. Kopple

Libraries are predicated on a silence of a specific kind, and not simply the absence of  noise.  Libraries are places of quietude. The "Library Quiet Policy" of Kenyon College provides the following Introduction:   "... we affirm the principle that libraries need especially quiet, comfortable, well-lit places for reading, writing, and contemplation."  A library may be far removed from a monastery but a cloister still.  A good bit of writing about libraries involves readers' enthusiasms (one would go so far as their passions).  Reading may be a passion but contemplation belongs to the mind.  At the library entrance, we are asked to check our coats, bags, and bodies at the door.


Another kind of library is less rigorous when it comes to conduct, but no less conducive to the rigors of thought.  Poe's "book closet," for example.  The library as "closet" serves the writer well, conjuring a dark, closed space (suitably oppressive thanks to additional touches of murk and gloom.)  In this closed-off place, every attempt is made to distinguish and confuse the library "closet" with a somewhat more regal closet--or, "boudoir."  No matter, the issue at hand is secrecy, not intimacy.  A person must live in a world of high-stakes secrecy to be able to hide an object of inestimable value in plain sight.  Words carry terrible consequences, and an unfaithful reader is the most dangerous sort.  The book closet is rife with games, puzzles, and intrigue--and through it all Poe manages to serve up a lesson or two, advising his readers that a job brillantly done deserves far more than a merely just reward.


It has been said the human in us craves stories, which makes us natural readers.  Narrative animals.  Perhaps then, the library--with its quietude--is as Kafka would have it a kind of burrow.  We settle in with our work, continuously tunneling our way through the stacks, thwarting off any threat of an ending.  This interior library, like the burrow, is by whim or magic or necessity unfinished (in other words, infinite).  The point of constructing the library is not to finish but, as Kafka repeatedly urges us, to keep going. 

Friday, April 6, 2018

Voltaire's Garden

Adam Gopnik

Paul Cézanne

Voltaire, like God, whom he patronized, is always there. “No authors ever had so much fame in their own life-time as Pope and Voltaire,” Dr. Johnson dogmatized in the late eighteenth century, and though Pope still sings for those with ears to hear him, Voltaire still squabbles, a more lifelike sound, and does it everywhere. On the Op-Ed page of the Times, he can ornament Paul Krugman or offend William Safire, and he is fun to read about, no matter what he is doing. In fact, he is most fun to read about when what he is doing is doing good, since he does good without being pious, an unusual mixture. For all that he was a mad egomaniac and an unabashed self-promoter, he remains matchlessly entertaining company, incapable of either shame or shoddy thinking.

There are at least three distinct Voltaires. First is the scandalous Voltaire, who by the seventeen-twenties had become the leading controversialist in France, with a series of topically loaded plays and poems, only to be thrown into the Bastille twice for being generally annoying, and in 1726 get exiled to England, where he absorbed and wrote about English learning and English parliamentary institutions. Next, there is the scientific Voltaire, who returned to France in 1728 and eventually became the lover and disciple of the brilliant Mme. Châtelet, and who, closeted with her at her Château de Cire, wrote on math and science and did more than almost anyone else to bring the news of Newtonian physics to Europe. Then, from the seventeen-fifties until his death, in 1778, there is the socially conscious Voltaire, the Voltaire who became one of the first human-rights campaigners in Europe, and whose determination to remake the world one soul at a time W. H. Auden could still idealize in 1939, in his poem “Voltaire at Ferney.” (“And still all over Europe stood the horrible nurses / Itching to boil their children. Only his verses / Perhaps could stop them: He must go on working.”)

Although no single volume in English does justice to all the Voltaires, the second, scientific Voltaire, at least, inspired one of the most blissfully entertaining books in the language, Nancy Mitford’s 1954 “Voltaire in Love,” an account of his great affair with Mme. Châtelet and of their joint introduction to the pleasures of sex and calculus. It is de rigueur to dismiss Mitford as a reckless amateur who, as someone said, made the Enlightenment philosophes into members of her family. But they were members of her family—or more like them than they were like the kind of responsible, well-read, judicious dons, offering syntheses of current thought, beloved of academic historians. Voltaire spent his life with society people and show people, and lived in terror of boredom, not inconsistency. Mitford understands Voltaire’s mixture of bad faith, irascible egotism, genuine altruism, and sporadic courage, all played out in an atmosphere of petty literary politicking—in part because the type remains intact in France to this day.

Ian Davidson, a longtime correspondent for the Financial Times, has, in his new book, “Voltaire in Exile” (Grove; $24), taken on the story of the last Voltaire. This Voltaire evolves out of the two others; in fact, they are still right there. The old, good Voltaire was exactly the same man as the young rascal, and the rascality fuelled the goodness with energy and mischief. Yet the transformation is complete: in 1753, at the beginning of Davidson’s story, Voltaire was, in contemporary terms, like Michael Moore and Susan Sontag all mixed up: a provocateur who was also a universal literary celebrity. By the end, he was more like a cross between Andrei Sakharov and Mr. Toad of Toad Hall—a conceited grand bourgeois with a big house who was also one of the first dissidents, embodying a whole alternative set of values, and who came to be treated even by the government almost as an independent state within a state. How this came about, and without any Tolstoyan repentance or self-remaking, is one of the great stories of literary evolution.

Davidson tells it well, too. In 1753, Voltaire was in flight from Frederick the Great, of Prussia, who had taken him in as a kind of house philosopher at Potsdam. Voltaire may have imagined that he would rule hand in hand, philosopher and king, but soon discovered that he was there merely as an exotic intellectual toy. (“We shall squeeze the orange,” Frederick had said, secretly, “then, when we have swallowed the juice, we shall throw it away.”) Even after the falling-out with Frederick, Voltaire knew that he had some big guns on his side. The foreign minister of France, the Duke de Choiseul, was a fan, as was Mme. Pompadour, the King’s mistress, not to mention the Empress of Russia. He was also, luckily, very rich, in no small part because of his participation in a bizarre swindle devised by a mathematician friend, who, back in 1728, realized that the French government had authorized a lottery in which the prize was much greater than the collective cost of the tickets. He and Voltaire formed a syndicate, collected all the money, and became moneylenders to the great houses of Europe.

During his escape from Frederick, Voltaire first thought of going back to France, which he loved as only Frenchmen who have been away from it can. But a message from his old friend Mme. Pompadour confirmed the stunning news that the King had exiled him and forbidden him to return. (This turned out to be not quite true; the old man had probably said something merely pettish, like “Tell him to stay away!”) The terms of his exile were unclear, but Voltaire decided to move someplace close enough to feel like France and far enough away to keep him out of the official grip. He chose Geneva, which was then a small, suspicious Calvinist Protestant city-state. Through the good offices of a prominent Geneva friend, he found, and managed to rent, a small estate. He moved in with his new love, Mme. Denis, and renamed the villa Les Délices, the Delights. Although it was his later, sister retreat at Ferney that became legendary (he moved there in 1765, after a series of feuds with the Calvinist authorities in Geneva), it was his escape to Les Délices that marked a new epoch in his life.

Voltaire’s work, to this point, consisted essentially of a mass of journalism, essays, poems, potted, vivid histories, and historical plays all pulled together in the public imagination by a single strong personality. The “philosophy” that ran through it, though allergic to sectarian piety, was still officially Deist—partly because this was insurance against accusations of atheism, partly because, in a slightly condescending spirit, Voltaire was in favor of a benign, supervisory God in the way that British leftists used to be in favor of the Queen, or in the way that Yankee free agents are in favor of Joe Torre; it’s nice to think that someone genial is overseeing things. But there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that he actually believed, with any intensity or appetite, in “spiritual” experience, or found the sense of God’s presence even momentarily engaging. But then Voltaire was never exactly a “philosopher” in the conventional sense; his philosophy is almost always a moral instinct rendered as a dramatic gesture, rather than consecutive thoughts turned into a logical argument. As with Victor Hugo and Zola, his moral instincts were so good that we still intellectualize the dramatic gestures they became.

He quickly turned his exile into a desirable condition—a version of the ancient Horatian ideal of escape from the corrupting city into a small enclosed country house. Pope had done the same thing when he built his grotto at his little house in Twickenham, and wrote about it as enthusiastically. Yet Pope’s grotto is playful, an obvious mock hermitage. Voltaire’s ideas were far more bourgeois; he wanted to play host to as many people as he could, and to build the sweetest garden he could, and, after renting the villa, he started shopping like Martha Stewart newly freed from prison.

There are few more premonitory or touching documents than Voltaire’s shopping lists. He demanded green olive oil, eight wing armchairs, rosewood commodes, and furniture covers in red morocco. He hired two master gardeners, twenty workmen, and twelve servants. He ordered the best coffee and crate after crate of wine (though, odd reminder of another time, he drank his Burgundies and laid down his Beaujolais). He decided to paint the trellises green, the tiles red, and the doors either white or “a fine yellow.” He wrote to his agent asking for “artichoke bulbs and as much as possible of lavender, thyme, rosemary, mint, basil, rue strawberry bushes, pinks, thadicee, balm, tarragon, sariette, burnet, sage and hyssop to cleanse our sins, etc.” When he wrote that it was our duty to cultivate our garden, he really knew what it meant to cultivate a garden.

It was a garden with a principle. It represented what he saw as a new, French ideal of domestic happiness, windows wide and doors open, “simplicity” itself. “We have finally come to enjoy luxury only in taste and convenience,” he wrote in those years, in his history “The Age of Louis XIV”: “The crowd of pages and liveried servants has disappeared.” All that counted now was “affable manners, simple living and the culture of the mind.” Of course, it was a very Petit Trianon simplicity. As Davidson shows, though, it was deeply, emotionally rich: “He was enjoying real happiness, for the first time in his life.”

It was at this moment of delight and apparent retreat, of affable manners and simple living, that he began the series of crusades that eventually blossomed into the human-rights campaigns that came to dominate the rest of his life. It would be nice to say that Voltaire was a courageous man whom no amount of comfort could seduce. The truth is that, as his friend Condorcet wrote sadly, he was easily terrified, and often a coward: “He was often seen to expose himself to the storm, almost with temerity, but seldom to stand up to it with firmness.” And, of course, no man of fewer sublime feelings has ever lived; he was baffled by religion and spirituality, materialist and carnal to the core.

What motivated him, then, to start up? Partly it must have been that he so much enjoyed vexing stupid powerful people that he kept forgetting that stupid people who had gained power were never stupid about threats to their power. Each time he poked the silly tiger and the tiger clawed back, he was genuinely shocked. And then there is a kind of egotism so vast and so pleased with itself that it includes other people as an extension of itself. Voltaire felt so much for other people because he felt so much for himself; everything happened to him because he was the only reasonable subject of everything that happened. By inflating his ego to immense proportions, he made it a shelter for the helpless.

But there was something else, too. His exile moved him away from court practices and court values, with their hypersensitivity toward status, toward family practices and family values, with their hypersensitivity toward security. (In these Délices years, he took in and later adopted a teen-age daughter, and began to sigh that he had never had children of his own.) As Tocqueville saw half a century later, home-making, which ought to make people more selfish, makes them less so; it gives them a stake in other people’s houses. It is not so much the establishment of a garden but the ownership of a gate that moves people from liking a society based on favors to one based on rights. Enclosing his garden broadened Voltaire’s circle of compassion. When people were dragged from their gardens to be tortured and killed in the name of faith, he began to take it, as they say, personally.

In those days, unspeakably cruel tortures were still routine in the French penal system. Condemned criminals were tortured by being broken on the wheel—that is, being bound on a scaffold to a wheel and then having their bones broken, one by one, with an iron bar. Davidson suggests (shrewdly and originally) that Voltaire’s sense of outrage may have been galvanized by the hideous execution in Paris of the would-be assassin of Louis XV, the mad Damiens, in 1757. Damiens was pulled apart alive, his limbs attached to four horses and the horses driven in different directions, for public instruction in the center of Paris. Voltaire was no fan of regicide. It was because he was for the execution that the public torture frightened him: it was a sign of how quickly civilities could disintegrate under threat. (“Enlightened times will only enlighten a small number of honest men,” he wrote. “The common people will always be fanatical.”) He coined his most famous phrase, écrasez l’infâme—“Crush the horror”—and began to use it, in jauntily (and evasively) abbreviated form. Historians have fussed for centuries about exactly what Voltaire meant by it—the Catholic Church? the Court?—but it’s clear. The horror was the alliance of religious fanaticism with the instruments of the state, and the two combined for torture and official murder.

It is against this background, of a garden built and the encroaching fanatics, that Voltaire wrote “Candide,” in 1759. Two fine new translations of the book have just appeared, one by Burton Raffel (Yale; $22) and one by Peter Constantine (Modern Library; $19.95). The young Candide lives in the little German principality of Thunder Ten Tronck, under the guidance of his tutor, Pangloss, a theorist of optimism. A liaison with his beloved Cunégonde causes him to be exiled, and soon afterward the principality is sacked by the Bulgars, who rape Cunégonde and leave Pangloss for dead. Candide then encounters every kind of eighteenth-century horror, from enslavement by the Turks to bondage on a French galley, and ends up on a little farm near Constantinople, wisely counselling Pangloss that the only worthwhile thing for people to do is to cultivate their gardens.

“Candide” is such a familiar book that it is easy to miss its real target. What marks it off from most other didactic literature, as Davidson says, is its gaiety; the disembowellings and rapes are drawn with breezily overdone matter-of-factness. The tone is like that of the Monty Python movies, which are genuinely appalled by violence but register their shock by making it absurd. “Candide” is said to have been occasioned by the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, a tsunami-like event, and is meant to satirize the optimism associated with Leibniz. It is also usually said to be unfair to Leibniz, a great philosopher, who was among the inventors of calculus. Leibniz’s view, after all, was not that everything was good but that our world was the best possible. Given that God could have considered every world before he made it, he must have chosen the best one—so that if there is suffering and evil in it, these things must have a cause in the mind of God. Given that the deity is benevolent, small-scale pain must be part of some universal balance, or, as Pope puts it in his “Essay on Man,” “All discord harmony not understood; / All partial evil, universal good.” Leibniz and Pope after him are arguing not that life will always be happy but that the world is optimally designed. Suffering is explicable—not defensible but explicable.

But Voltaire was not unfair to Leibniz. He understood exactly what Leibniz was saying, and has Pangloss say it. On the tutor’s first appearance, he gives the classic instance: pigs are made to be eaten and so we have pork. It seems hard only from the narrow point of view of the pig. “Those who have suggested that everything is good have spoken obtusely,” Pangloss explains, in Raffel’s rendering. “What they should have said is that everything is for the best.” Voltaire’s point was that the two ideas are, in concrete terms, the same idea. Insisting that everything is for the best means finding the best in everything. To subsume individual suffering or pain within a larger equilibrium is to accept the logic of the slaughterhouse. The pig has a right to his protest.

Voltaire’s target throughout “Candide” is not optimism in the sense of fatuous cheerfulness but optimism in the sense of optimal thinking: the kind of bland reassurance that explains pain with reference to a larger plan or history. In this way, the Christmas tsunami cannot have for Voltaire’s readers today anything approaching the force that a natural disaster like the Lisbon earthquake had for the eighteenth century. Few people any longer believe in a benevolent nature—much less a benevolent nature sitting in for a providential God. We can feel comfortably superior to Leibniz’s particular brand of optimism, which is centered on natural law of this kind, since we no longer believe that nature is part of an inherently balanced or benevolent system.

But almost all of us still do believe, stubbornly, in some kind of optimal thinking. We believe, vaguely or explicitly, that liberal democracy, with all its faults, is the best of all possible political systems, that globalization, with all its injustices, is the best of all possible futures, and even that the American way is the best of all possible ways—with appropriate cautious Leibnizian emphasis on “possible.” (One can track the path, and the travails, of modern popular optimism just by following Thomas Friedman’s columns in the Times, agonized Tuesday to hopeful Sunday.) We are all optimalists of this kind, perhaps reinforced by the doctrines of evolutionary psychology (which say exactly that all discord is harmony misunderstood) or by faith in an inevitable evolving “future of freedom.” Attacks on these beliefs—September 11th was the most acute—shake us up the way eighteenth-century people were shaken by the Lisbon earthquake. The realization that all may not be tending toward the best, that religious fanaticism and tribal intolerance could prevail over liberal meliorism, is the earthquake of our time.

Voltaire’s radicalism, then and now, lies not in his refutation of optimism but in his refusal of belief. “Candide” is not really, or entirely, a satire on optimism. It is an attack on organized religion. The joke about optimism in “Candide” is always the same joke: something terrible happens, and Pangloss gallantly rationalizes it. The jokes about religious cruelty are mordant, varied, and encyclopedic: every kind of religious intolerance—Muslim, Jewish, and, particularly, Christian, dignified, crude, and greedy—is trotted out and exposed. The one thing that Voltaire is sure of in “Candide” is the idiocy of theodicy. What drives him crazy is the ability of religious fanatics to exploit the fatality of the world in order to enact their own cruelties.

In the famous early chapter, the Lisbon earthquake makes a brief Terry Gilliam-slapstick, scene-setting appearance. What happens immediately afterward is the point of the satire: “After the earthquake, which had destroyed three quarters of Lisbon, the country’s wise men could find no better way of preventing total ruin than to give the people a beautiful auto-da-fé.” Voltaire goes on to detail the hideous theatrics of the Inquisition: the yellow robes, the burnings and flogging set to Church music, the whole choreography of Christian cruelty. The point of “Candide” is that the rapes and disembowelments, the enslavement and the beatings are not part of some larger plan, not a fact of the fatality of life and the universe, but fiendish tortures thought up by fanatics. They may be omnipresent; but they are not inevitable. Voltaire thinks optimism merely silly. It is the flight from failed optimism into faith that he fears.

Against the horrors of religious cruelty and the emptiness of religious apologia, Voltaire proposes—what, exactly? Burton Raffel, the more daring of the two new translators, takes that most familiar ending, “Il faut cultiver notre jardin,” and translates it not as “We must cultivate our garden” but, startlingly, as “We need to work our fields.” (Raffel is a translator who doesn’t mind shocking his readers—his version of “The Red and the Black” was one long provocation.) His change of the book’s famous moral is obviously meant, in one way, to protect Voltaire from the charge of Petit Trianonism. After so much suffering, cultivating our garden seems too . . . cultivated. (“Crush the horror! Crush the horror!” Voltaire’s friend D’Alembert wrote to him once. “That is easily said when one is a hundred leagues from the bastards and the fanatics, when one has an independent income of a hundred thousand livres!”)

But Raffel is wrong, surely, in thinking that by cultivating one’s garden Voltaire meant anything save cultivating one’s garden. By “garden” Voltaire meant a garden, not a field—not the land and task to which we are chained by nature but the better place we build by love. The force of that last great injunction, “We must cultivate our garden,” is that our responsibility is local, and concentrated on immediate action. In the aftermath of the tsunami, William Safire argued that this “surge of generosity” actually “refutes Voltaire’s cynicism,” as expressed in “Candide.” Yet American charity is not a refutation of Voltaire’s cynicism; it isVoltaire’s cynicism, an expression of the Enlightenment tradition of individual responsibility that he promoted. Voltaire was a gardener and believed in gardens, even if other people were gardening them. His residual optimism lies in that alone.

The horror that Voltaire wanted crushed, cruelty in the name of God and civilization, was a specific and contingent thing. His satire of optimism is in this sense an optimistic book—optimistic not only in its gaiety, which implies the possibility of seeing things as they are, but also in its argument. Voltaire did not believe that there was any justice or balance in the world, but he believed that bad ideas made people bad. The villains in the book are not, as in Samuel Johnson’s exactly contemporary and parallel “Rasselas,” the fatality of the world and the mortality of man. The villains are the villains: Jesuits and Inquisitors and English judges and Muslim clerics and fanatics of all kinds. If they went away, life would be much better. He knew that the flood would get your garden no matter what you did; but you could at least try to keep the priests and the policemen off the grass. It wasn’t enough, but it was something.

Though “Candide” seems to retreat from a confrontation with human cruelty to an enclosed garden, its publication marked Voltaire’s, and his age’s, moral development away from a passive Deism and toward a faith in liberal meliorism. Voltaire went on to a series of confrontations with the consequences of human cruelty that, two hundred-odd years later, remain stirring in their courage and perseverance. It is in the years after the publication of the supposedly cynical and even quietist “Candide” that he began the campaigns against persecution—and, more broadly, against torture and cruelty in punishment—from which, as Davidson says, most civilized societies can trace their liberation from organized cruelty and state killing.

Voltaire was no mere petition signer; he was intensely engaged with individual cases, and deserves credit for exposing at least two horrible judicial murders. He first took on the case of Jean Calas, a Protestant in Normandy who was wrongly accused of murdering his own son (it seems likely that the son committed suicide) to keep him from converting to Roman Catholicism. Calas was executed: publicly tortured by a judicial lynch mob of priests and local officials, and then broken on the wheel. Voltaire, after years of work, was able to show that Calas’s execution had been a frame-up, and even managed to get official recompense for his family. He did the same thing, at greater personal risk, in the case of the teen-age Chevalier de La Barre, who had been accused by the Catholic authorities of desecrating a statue of the Crucifixion, under the influence of Voltaire’s Dictionnaire Philosophique. Voltaire could not save his life—La Barre was tortured, and sentenced to have his tongue cut out, before he was killed and burned, along with Voltaire’s book—but his writings helped make certain that La Barre was the last man to be murdered in France for blasphemy.

As though these crusades were not enough for an old man who was still busy writing plays and arguing with his neighbors about leases and noises, he also tried to demonstrate the possibilities of a garden-centered life by creating his own light industry at Ferney. He took several dozen Protestant watch-making refugees and supplied them with venture capital to start a watch factory in the village of Ferney. The thing should have gone the way of most virtuous communal schemes devised by well-meaning literary people—but it was a huge success, making as much as six hundred thousand pounds a year, and supplying watches to the Empress of Russia. (Voltaire turned out to be a brilliant salesman, using his high connections to force watches on people on consignment, and then blandly sending them bills.) It was a proof that one could do well by doing good. Ferney watches became the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream of the later Enlightenment, a luxury good that was also a sign of progressive values.

Of course, in the light of later horrors, the horror that Voltaire wanted to crush doesn’t seem a horror at all. It was a half-aware, corrupt, guilty, placating horror, which watched nervously as he was fêted. His enemies were local lynch mobs, not centralized terror. A Nazi or Soviet regime would have crushed him, horribly, and everyone else with him. The argument has even been made that Voltaire’s rejection of moral order and God helped lead to the later horrors. But unless one believes, against all the evidence, that faith in God keeps one from cruelty, this is a bum rap. There are absolutist and totalitarian elements in the Enlightenment, of the kind that Burke and Berlin alike opposed: the desire to rip up the calendar of the past and start over implies murdering whoever isn’t with the program. This wasn’t Voltaire’s spirit by a mile. There couldn’t be a better model of an improvisatory, anti-authoritarian intelligence, whose whole creed rests on individual acts and case-by-case considerations. He believed in the English model of trade and toleration, not the Jacobin model of ideology and intemperance. His intolerance of religion was nothing like religious intolerance; it was directed at institutions, not individuals. Even his notorious attacks on Judaism are largely of this kind. Like Gibbon, what he objects to in the Old Testament is the spirit of zealous intolerance it gave to the New; about the worst thing that he could say of the Jews is that they reminded him of Jesuits. Voltaire’s spirit was one of tolerant cosmopolitanism, even though he didn’t have the insight to see that one challenge for the cosmopolitan spirit would be how well it tolerated those who had no wish to be cosmopolitan.

It is still bracing, at a time when the extreme deference we pay to faith has made any attack on religious beliefs unacceptable, to hear Voltaire on Jesuits and Muslims alike—to hear him howl with indignation at the madness and malignance of religion—and to be reminded that that free-thinking, which inspired Twain and Mencken, has almost vanished from our world. (There is, after all, as much of Voltaire in American life as in French life. Benjamin Franklin went to him for a blessing, and got it.)

Voltaire made a good end. No Frenchman can keep away from Paris forever. When he was eighty-four, he made the trip back at last; although there was no official “pardon” (there had never been an official condemnation), he thought it unlikely that the authorities would try to do anything to him. Seeing how old he was, the Church sent emissaries to try to get him to recant. Voltaire had the priests in, and perhaps even entertained the idea of confessing—partly because he always liked toying with priests, partly because he was genuinely afraid of being thrown into a common grave, as happened to the unshriven. But finally he sighed on his deathbed, told the priest who had arrived one last time to urge on him the virtues of Jesus, “Sir, do not speak to me any more about that man and let me die in peace,” and turned away. The priests, furious, and knowing that it was against the law both to bury an unsacralized body and to move it, cruelly insisted that his body could be taken from Paris to a quiet burial only if the corpse was dressed up in clothes and the pretense made that Voltaire was still alive. The joke, on them, was that he was.

Credits:   Voltaire's Garden was originally published in 2005 in The New Yorker.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Four Poems by Peter Cowlam


Your singer whispers incantations
Like a monomaniac,
But tells you the supposition
Is of endless combinations.
What’s permitted
Is an evolution, nothing bounded
By the finite
Or the ephemeral. This is the theory
You need, to recompense
Those hours expended fruitlessly.
You sigh, relieved: ‘This thing
Is then infinite?’

Or perhaps it’s indiscriminate. 

Public Decrees

All is transparency,

rose red
in the black white
squares of dawn,

a pale electric
in an afternoon mizzle,

a pattern
of charcoal type

on glass,

then windows
vectored on an emptying

where everything is velvet

After Queneau

It was him, not me, clean-shaven, hatted,
Youthful (yes), scrawny like us, and wizened
At the neck. That fool in his belated
Queue for the bus waited with indecision.

Along came an S or a number ten,
Its grim interior crammed and heaving.
He squeezed his way inside, and coughed (a den
Of fag smoke), but what was he achieving?

Commuter alienation, through things
He’d refused to learn. This, for example:
A kicked shin is what cursing a strap-hanger brings.

When, eventually, he found a seat, and sat,
A woman stood up, and grazed his ankle,
Then calmly dumped her luggage in his lap.

The Need For Austerity

Malfeasance, misconstructions, depleting
Agonies revived. The ravages since
Left behind you tell me are worth repeating?

Voices best left fractured rise again, splints
On a breaking syntax. You test a crippled
Line of argument, assured I’ll be convinced.

In bovine accents on the air
Oppressors broadcast everywhere.

Since when this hebetude has doubled, tripled,
Gargantuanised itself, with dogged
Assertions pointlessly upheld.

Ravaged – as a prophet – I have logged
The very last word, and ask (again) how shall
We dissolve these politicising fogs?

Rogue censers swinging their potpourri
Stinking of secular popery.

Peter Cowlam’s latest collection of poems, Laurel, is published by CentreHouse Press. Its terrain is love, loss and lovers’ rivalries. 

For Purchase Laurel

Friday, March 30, 2018


Kathryn A. Kopple

When I was young and less cautious--and I was very careless when I was young--I took up with a great many books. One of the books I took up with was The Sun Also Rises, a book of no small literary importance; not some idle bit of flotsam and jetsam but a book writ large in minds of readers, who remember it for its blunt sentences, a book written in black and white, like a chessboard.

There are legions of colorful books, and The Sun Also Rises isn't one of them. It reads like Plato's theory of forms: one word, one idea, one idea, one word. Between a word and an idea, or a name and its ideal form, there's always a blank space, a caesura, that sets what is named apart from all the other elements in the series, and produces an impression of isolation; a world in which the word fails to connect to other words, an overall lack of interaction among words. Between any number of elements--a man, a café, a passerby, a cigarette, a drink--there's always this empty space, which the reader naturally experiences as emptiness. There's always a party going on, and it's the emptiest party in the world. There's always a crowd assembling, and it's the most disassembled crowd ever to congregate.

Paradox is everywhere, even in the title.


Paradox creates an impression of endlessness, or the opposite: a sense of endless confinement. No one wants to be forever stuck in the puzzle; it would drive any sane person mad.

Even playful madness may feel sinister. The March Hare's first words to Alice are, "Your hair wants cutting." Alice rebukes him for being rude. She doesn't understand that the March Hare can only speak in riddles. Without understanding his "language," she is at the mercy of perceived attacks on her dignity.

For the strictly literal reader, the March Hare has taught Alice a valuable lesson: abandon pride all ye who dare enter here. The puzzle of self surreptitiously comes into play, and Alice finds no answers to her questions--only hurt feelings.

She must learn not to ask questions if she wants to avoid yet more riddles. In her situation, escape is the only solution


A reader recently pointed out that Gatsby's library strikes her as odd; there is an odd person there, a man who resembles an owl. Readers quickly find themselves sliding into nonsense when a character looks like a bird and speaks in riddles.

What are these riddles? The riddle of a library with so many books, the reader responds. Are there other riddles? The books' pages are stuck together, the reader answers. Anything else? The man. The one with the owl eyes.

The reader is asked whether the library, as described in the scene, isn't excessively grand. She can't quite make sense of the question because there is the man with the eyes of an owl, and he takes up all the space, as if the grandness of the space magnified what should have been diminished.

What America Would Be Like Without Blacks

By Ralph Ellison The fantasy of an America free of blacks is at least as old as the dream of creating a truly democratic socie...