Monday, July 30, 2018

Atlas Obscura's Shannon Brown delves into the Toynbee Tiles Mystery

BELIEVED TO BE MADE OF linoleum and asphalt crack sealant, the license plate-sized, colorful mosaic tiles have been seen in about two dozen major American cities since the 1980s. They’re known as the Toynbee Tiles, and their origin and purpose are a bit of a mystery.

Typically inscribed with the phrase “TOYNBEE IDEA IN MOVIE `2001 RESURRECT DEAD ON PLANET JUPITER,” the tiles were originally discovered in Philadelphia but have also been documented in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Margate, New Jersey, Chicago, Boston, Kansas City, Connecticut, Washington, D.C., New York City, and even South America.

After a lull in installation that appears to have begun around 2011, new tiles started to appear again in the past few years, in New York and Philadelphia. The reason behind the hiatus is unclear—could it be that the age of the tiler and the decades of installing artistically cryptic tiles by night had caught up with him? Had they fallen ill, or even passed away? Some speculate the hiatus was sparked from the attention drawn by the 2011 documentary, Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of The Toynbee Tiles. The 30-year span in which the tiles have been installed adds to the mystery of the true identity of the Toynbee tiler.

The tiles are generally laid in the summer months. After the design is created, it is believed that the tiles are wrapped in tar paper—a material commonly used during roofing installations. Tar paper is laid between the shingles and the roof to create a waterproof barrier, but in this case it is most likely used to prevent damage or removal before the tiles fully adhere to the asphalt.

The tiles are put into position and stuck to the ground with asphalt sealant. The weight of car tires and foot traffic combined with the summer heat help to gradually fuse each tile to the street and wear down the tar paper, revealing the messages and images carved by the unknown artist. No one is certain about the length of time it takes for a tile to fully adhere to asphalt, given that there’s no telling exactly when one has been laid, but given the materials used it is assumed that installation can take two weeks to a month to complete.

Fans and followers believe that the typical tiles are created by one person and that they are being laid simply by being tossed out of a hole in the floorboard of a car—a theory that was popularized by Resurrect Dead. This could explain the puzzling placement of some tiles and could be the reason no one has ever laid eyes on the tiler.

Christian Hauslein is a Toynbee Tile fan and former graffiti blogger who came across the tiles as he would walk around Philadelphia. “One of my favorite things to do is just go on really long walks with no real destination in mind. As I would do this I would notice Toynbee Tiles in the street, but never really know how they got there or what they meant,” he says. “When I ran the blog I kept a running collection of the Tiles as well as their locations. Not surprisingly, there were many others who found them as interesting as I do. It was also good because people would send me [photos of] tiles that I hadn’t seen before.”

Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey focused upon a man who was reborn on a mission to Jupiter, and the Ray Bradbury short story “Toynbee Convector” is about a time traveler who returns to the present to inspire his contemporaries to build a future for themselves. Combine this with an excerpt from 20th-century philosopher and religious historian Arnold J. Toynbee—in which he shares his belief that the afterlife is not automatic, it is man made—and you’ve got yourself the fuel for a puzzling array of artistic tiles.

Though the media didn’t officially recognize the tiles until 1994, a 1983 Philadelphia Inquirer article briefly talked about a man with an apparent connection to the project, James Morasco. He had created the Minority Association, a group that hoped to be able to colonize Jupiter by resurrecting the dead there. Not surprisingly, the group was laughed out of most publications.

Colin Smith, a producer, writer, and co-star in Resurrect Dead, has seen Minority Association documents that make mention of multiple people being involved in the group. The Minority Association didn’t last more than a few years and allegedly had only four members. By the mid-90s, tiles began appearing claiming that the tiler was just one man.

Smith also moderated a message board linked to the film’s website, but it became a source of speculation about the people mentioned in the film and began to get out of hand. Although the board didn’t work out, Smith says he and those involved with the film have had great experiences with fans. The tiles bring out people who love a good mystery and the Resurrect Dead crew has enjoyed being able to meet those people at speaking engagements and hear from them via their Facebook page.

In addition to the main message, tiles began appearing with additional side messages attached to them, such as “MURDER EVERY JOURNALIST I BEG OF YOU.” This brings us back to the Minority Association, which has led many to believe that James Morasco, a social worker from Philadelphia, was behind the tiles. Morasco had contacted newspapers and talk shows to discuss his hopes to colonize Jupiter with the dead people of Earth, claiming to have come across the idea in a book by Arnold J. Toynbee.

A few longer tiles have been found with accounts of how the media had wronged the tiler—the tale includes the mafia, FBI, and NBC journalists and lawyers, an attempted hit on our beloved unknown artist causing them to flee the country only to be found in Dover, England and brought back to the states. Connecting the dots, it would appear that the tiler felt targeted for their beliefs of resurrection—but has returned and been able to spread their message anonymously through art.

Copycats have been found in the states and as far away as South America, with some translations of the original message made as well as small robots. The most notable is the House of Hades movement, which, much like the Toynbee Tiler, could be one artist or multiple. Their tiles usually feature a nod to the strife of the Toynbee artist in that their main messaging is “HOUSE OF HADES TILES MADE FROM THE GROUND BONES OF DEAD JOURNALISTS.” Some tiles are framed by a woman’s legs splayed open, something the Toynbee tiler wouldn’t have done, but they’ve also been known to create exact copies of the Toynbees. Interestingly, House of Hades is known to distribute their art through the mail, sending tiles to people in various locations to have them installed by someone else, which explains how widespread they’ve become over the years.

There are many theories on who the Toynbee tiler truly is, but no concrete evidence has been found. Smith and the documentarians behind Resurrect Dead believe they’ve cracked the case, but aren’t disclosing any identities. Justin Duerr, the lead in the film, claims to have stood face-to-face with the artist. He’s also claimed to have met one of the anonymous members of the House of Hades, though much like everything else surrounding the tiles, the details of their conversation remain a mystery.

Credits:  This article originally appeared under the title "The Tantalizing Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles" in 2017 in Atlas Obscura.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde by Franny Moyle

Miranda Seymour

The jacket of this entrancing biography conflates two photographs to present one perfect whole: the ideal husband and his perfect family. Pretty, large-eyed Constance, dressed in the soft aesthetic style she helped to make fashionable, is embraced by the older of the couple's two small sons. Oscar, sporting a new short haircut and sober buttoned-up jacket, looks gravely at the camera. He holds aloft an unlit cigarette. Visiting the Wildes' smart Chelsea home on Christmas day, 1888 (the year before these photographs were taken), WB Yeats noted a life of perfect harmony that suggested, nevertheless, "some deliberate artistic composition". Yeats's observation was both shrewd and misleading.

In 1888, Constance Lloyd had known Oscar Wilde for nine years; she had been married to him for four. Her love for her brilliant husband ("As long as I live you shall be my lover," she wrote in answer to his proposal in 1883) was fully returned. "I feel incomplete without you," Oscar told her shortly after their marriage. A proud new father, he couldn't stop urging male friends to get married.

On one level, Franny Moyle shows Wilde as a fond husband, Whistler's bourgeois malgré lui. Oscar shared his wife's decorative tastes: their creation at 16 Tite Street of a modishly sparse "House Beautiful" was a work of joint endeavour. Oscar supported Constance's enthusiasm for women's rights, for "rational" dress, and for a literary career of her own. Devoted parents, the Wildes began publishing stories for children at around the same time. Among Moyle's discoveries is a slight variant, in Constance's hand, of her husband's tale, "The Selfish Giant": evidently, the Wildes' collaboration was close. Harsh new rulings on homosexuality were introduced to England in 1885. At about this time, with their sexual connection on the wane after the difficult birth of their second son, Vyvyan, the Wildes welcomed young Robbie Ross into their home. Robbie, a loyal friend to both throughout the rest of their lives, became Oscar's lover. The situation was not uncommon in the "greenery-yallery, Grosvenor Gallery" world inhabited by the Wildes. Oscar dropped hints to various young men that his sexual preferences had changed; Constance, with seeming innocence, welcomed them all as family friends. No boat was rocked.

Warning had been given. By the summer of 1892, Bosie Douglas had usurped Constance's place. But following Wilde's break with his expensive, tempestuous and untalented young lover (Bosie's translation from the French of Wilde's Salome was so poor that it had to be rewritten by the embarrassed author), it was Constance who succumbed to Lord Alfred's pleas.

In February 1894, she invited him to return.Constance's own restlessness and wish for independence contributed to the making of the disaster named Alfred Douglas. Spoilt, selfish and vastly in love with what he believed was his own genius, Bosie (the name derived from Lady Queensberry's pet-name of "Boysie" for her third son) entered the Wildes' life in 1891. Constance, immersed in spiritualism (she did herself no favours in that murky world by reporting to Oscar on the secret rituals involved in joining the ludicrous Order of the Golden Dawn), was often absent from home. Oscar, while addressing his wife as "the great lamp" of a cathedral shrine, made ominous reference – in that same moving dedication of his second collection of children's stories – to "individual side chapels" dedicated to "other saints".

All too well known is the inglorious part played by Bosie in Wilde's vertiginous downfall, in 1895, at the height of his fame. It was Bosie who urged Wilde to prosecute Lord Queensberry for the infamous "posing Somdomite" card left, without an envelope, at Wilde's club. It was Bosie's careless gifts of suits, their pockets still filled with incriminating letters, that linked Wilde to the world of rent-boys into which his young lover had led him. It was Bosie who hurt Constance's reputation most, by declaring her responsible for the failure of Wilde's marriage. Moyle is at her best in describing the tragic final years. Constance, often presented as a hard and unforgiving woman, is more convincingly portrayed here as a valiant wife. She visited Wilde in prison. She paid his expenses when he left it. She planned, as he did, for a reunion. When Bosie ("that dreadful person") resurfaced with more appetising invitations, Constance accused Wilde only of being "weak as water". She was among the first to praise "The Ballad of Reading Gaol".

Constance died in exile, aged 39. Wilde (he died two years later, in 1900) laid flowers on her grave in Genoa. Douglas, briefly imprisoned himself for libelling Winston Churchill, continued to diminish her. (Outliving them all, he died of heart failure in Lancing, in 1945.) Moyle's account, the first to draw on more than 300 of Constance's unpublished letters, is delightful, sad, and entirely convincing; her last chapters reduced this hardened reader to tears.

Source:  This article originally appeared in 2011 The Guardian.

Monday, July 23, 2018

The Basement by Silvina O'campo

Daniel Balderston

This basement, which is extremely cold in winter, is an Eden in the summer. Some people sit by the door upstairs searching for some cool air on the hottest days in January, dirtying the floor. No window lets in the light or the horrible heat of the day. I have a large mirror, a couch or cot given me by a client who was a millionaire, and four mattresses I have acquired over the years from other girls. In the morning I fill pails (lent me by the doorman of the next building) with water to wash my face and hands. I’m very clean. I have a hanger for my clothes behind a drape, and a mantel for the candlesticks. There is no electricity or water. My bedside table is a chair, and my chair is a velvet pillow. One of my clients, the youngest one, brought bits of old curtains from his grandmother’s house, and I use them to decorate the walls, along with pictures I cut from the magazines. The lady upstairs feeds me lunch; for breakfast I have candy or whatever I can stuff in my pockets. I have to live with mice, and at first it seemed to me that was the only defect of this basement, where I don’t have to pay rent. Now I have noticed that these animals are not so terrible; they are quite discreet. When all’s said and done they’re preferable to flies, so abundant in the fanciest houses in Buenos Aires, such as the places where they used to give me leftovers when I was eleven. While the clients are here the mice keep out of sight: they know the difference between one kind of silence and another. As soon as I am alone they come out in an uproar. They go running by, stopping for a moment and looking at me out of a corner of their eyes, as if they guessed what I think of them. Sometimes they eat a bit of cheese or bread from the floor. They’re not afraid of me, nor I of them. The worst of it is that I can’t store any food because they eat it before I have a chance to try anything myself. There are evil-minded people who are pleased at this and call me Fermina, the Mouse Lady. I don’t like humoring them, which is why I refuse to ask them to lend me traps to kill the mice. One of them, the oldest one, is named Charlie Chaplin, another is Gregory Peck, another Marlon Brando, another Duilio Marzio; one that is very playful is named Daniel Gélin, another is Yul Brynner; one female is Gina Lollobrigida and another is Sophia Loren. It is strange how these little animals have taken possession of a basement where they must have lived before I arrived. Even the damp spots on the wall have taken the form of mice; they are dark and rather long, with two little ears and a long pointed tail. When nobody is watching, I gather food for them in one of the saucers the man who lives in the house across the way gave me. I don’t want them to leave me. If some neighbor comes and wants to exterminate them with traps or a cat, I’ll make a fuss he’ll never forget as long as he lives. They have announced that this house will be torn down, but I won’t leave here until I die. Up above they’re packing trunks and baskets and constantly making packages. There are moving vans by the front door, but I walk by them as if I didn’t see them. I never begged for a cent from those people. They spy on me all day long and believe I am with clients because I talk to myself to annoy them. Since they’re angry with me, they lock me in; since I’m angry with them, I don’t ask them to open the door. For the last two days the mice have been acting very strangely: one brought me a ring, another a bracelet, and a third, the smartest one, brought me a necklace. At first I couldn’t believe it, and nobody else will believe it. I’m happy. What does it matter if it’s all a dream? I’m thirsty: I drink my own sweat. I’m hungry: I chew on my fingers and hair. The police won’t come looking for me. They won’t ask me for a health certificate or a certificate of good conduct. The ceiling is falling in, bits of straw are floating down: it must be the beginning of the demolition. I hear cries, none of them calling my name. The mice are afraid. Poor things! They don’t know, don’t understand how the world is. They don’t know the joy of revenge. I look at myself in a little mirror: the times I have looked at myself in the mirror. I have never been so beautiful.

Source: Published originally in Harper's.

Friday, July 20, 2018

A Modern Victorian

Blake Bailey

In 1868, at the age of 23, Gerard Manley Hopkins decided to burn the poetry he’d written up to that time: “Slaughter of the Innocents,” he noted in his journal. Recognizing that poetry depended on deep and perhaps dangerous feeling — and given what he would later concede was a disturbing affinity with Walt Whitman (“a very great scoundrel”) — Hopkins decided it was incompatible with his calling to the Jesuit priesthood.

In that capacity Hopkins would persevere amid ghastly privations, though he could not entirely escape his destiny as one of the most influential poets of the 20th century (a century he would not live to see). As Paul Mariani points out in “Gerard Manley Hopkins,” his generous new biography, the “unpromising beginnings” of Hopkins’s prosodic revolution were in a Jesuit classroom in London, where as a teacher of rhetoric he tried to impart something of his enthusiasm for the later rhythms of Milton and the alliterative effects of the Anglo-Saxons. Then, in 1875, Hopkins was peculiarly moved by the sinking of the Deutschland — in particular by an article in The Times of London about five Franciscan nuns (fleeing the anti-Catholic laws of Bismarck’s Kulturkampf) who clung together in the storm while the tallest cried, over and over, “O Christ, come quickly!” With his rector’s blessing, Hopkins wrote a sprawling tour de force titled “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” in which he first “realized on paper” the oratorical possibilities of so-called sprung rhythm. As Hopkins would tirelessly explain (in so many words) for the rest of his life, this involved “scanning by accents or stresses alone, without any account of the number of syllables, so that a foot may be one strong syllable or it may be many light and one strong.”

Robert Bridges, the future poet laureate of England, informed his friend Hopkins that he’d managed to read all 280 lines of “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” but would not be persuaded for any amount of money to read it again. And yet Bridges remained beguiled by the possibilities of sprung rhythm, attempting (with indifferent results, as Hopkins saw it) to use it in his own work. When at last he saw fit to introduce Hopkins’s singular poetry to the world, some 30 years after his friend’s death, Bridges opened the volume with “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” “like a great dragon,” he wrote, “folded in the gate to forbid all entrance.” Entrance would be gained, however, and toward the end of his biography Mariani gives us a nice glimpse of Bridges’ venerable dotage, when he was visited by Virginia Woolf and Aldous Huxley — not because those two modernists wished to see the laureate himself, but rather because they wished to see “the Hopkins manuscripts” in the laureate’s possession. “Even the self-contented Bridges must see a certain irony in all of this,” Mariani observes.

Mariani, who has written biographies of Hart Crane and Robert Lowell, sketches such scenes to good effect, and writes with a deep, sympathetic knowledge of Hopkins’s sometimes dauntingly esoteric religious and aesthetic concerns (insofar as the two can be properly separated). Where he fails, alas, is in organizing his material in such a way that the reader is tempted to keep turning pages. Aside from critical discussion, the book proceeds as a more or less chronological series of diary entries and letters, boiled down by the author in so random a manner that large themes are often subsumed amid a welter of trivia. Here, for example, Mariani summarizes a crucial section of Hopkins’s ­diary from May 1865: “He quarrels with a friend and then cuts him. He spends an evening with Addis talking about nothing. He is troubled by erotic urges. He mocks Urquhart to Addis. He eats too much dessert. . . . ” I was hoping Mariani would get back to those erotic urges — since, after all, they were much on Hopkins’s mind at the time — and he does, briefly. But after a few piquant details (“He draws a crucified arm, which oddly rouses him”), the erotic bits are over, and Mariani goes on about Hopkins’s reading Poe and mimicking his father and so forth. All in the same ­paragraph.

I guess it’s not imperative for biographers to dwell on their subjects’ sexual inclinations, though most would agree it’s kind of crucial in Hopkins’s case, and Mariani is almost coy on that point. In one case, we are told that Hopkins distanced himself from a younger classmate at Highgate, Alex Strachey, because he found the lad’s company too “pleasurable” (“and therefore . . . too dangerous,” Mariani adds in decorous parentheses). Various other hints are given — Hopkins likens a part of himself to Stevenson’s Mr. Hyde, and never mind his disturbing Whitman affinity — until we can safely assume that, yes, Hopkins had strongly homoerotic impulses. What this conceivably had to do with his religious vocation, not to say ­every other significant aspiration (or denial thereof), is largely unexamined.

Nowhere is Mariani’s evasiveness more curious than in the case of one Digby Mackworth Dolben, a 16-year-old cousin of Bridges who visited Hopkins at Oxford in February 1865. Among other eccentricities, Dolben wrote feverish poetry in praise of the masculine Christ (“Then, my own Beloved . . . Lay me on Thy Breast”), and, as even Mariani admits, Hopkins sensed the young man was a “kindred spirit.” After Dolben’s departure, Hopkins noted his dismaying erotic urges (that crucified arm) and wistfully asked Bridges to give his love to Dolben: “I have written letters without end to the latter without a whiff of answer.” Finally, a sense of his own sinful nature became so oppressive that Hopkins sought consolation — or so a number of scholars would have it — in the solitary, ascetic life of a Jesuit. “My sap is sealed,” he wrote toward the end of 1865. “My root is dry.”

Mariani explains Hopkins’s conversion in terms of a rather nebulous epiphany on the road to Horsham in 1866 (nothing about a dried root), and mostly he dis­poses of Dolben in a single, tortuous sentence, as if to be done with the whole disconcerting business at once: “Two weeks later, the handsome and irrepressible 19-year-old Digby Mackworth Dolben, Bridges’ distant cousin who was so fascinated with the play of Catholic ritual, often to the point of delusion, and who the year before had walked the streets of Birmingham barefoot, dressed in the tattered brown robe of a Franciscan, the young man who at Hopkins’s instigation and example had contacted Newman earlier to say he was undergoing a religious crisis and would Dr. Newman see him, and then, talking it all over with his parents, wrote Newman back to say the whole thing had been a mistake — this brilliant, wispy flame who had expected to matriculate at Balliol and then fainted during the examinations and so missed his chance — drowns.” Wait, who drowns? I traced the sentence back with my finger and found it: ah yes, Dolben, who is mentioned a few more times before sinking into the welter.

As one may gather from the preceding quotation, Mariani’s prose is a little on the quirky side; the better for readers to get used to it, he may want to move his acknowledgments to the back of the book in future editions. As is, it’s rather like being greeted by a friendly leprechaun: he thanks the “tykish” Rev. Joseph Feeney, and describes his agent as “a Virgil leading his erstwhile pilgrim through the under­brush and malebolges.” Likewise, in his critical discussions — though he’s very good at describing the technical aspects of Hopkins’s work (“curtal” sonnets and the like) — he lapses into a kind of obscure lyricism that appropriates his subject’s diction to such an extent that it’s hard to tell where Mariani leaves off and Hopkins begins. Had I recently reread the poem “Inversnaid,” say, I would have more readily grasped why Mariani would write about Hopkins, “His heart opens to the lightsome fawn-froth of the beadbonny stream twindling over the dark waters below”; as it happened, I was puzzled until I came to the poem itself, as quoted by Mariani, in which the words “fawn-froth,” “bead­bonny” and “twindles” appear.

Mariani is at his best in evoking the objective details of Hopkins’s life, especially the squalor that seemed the lot of a Jesuit in 19th-century Britain. The nadir came during his last years in Dublin, where as a classics teacher he spent night after night poring over dreadful exams, making scrupulous “quarter-point and eighth-point” distinctions lest his pupils miss out on attending a university — “his eyes bleeding,” as Mariani tells it, “plagued with diarrhea, the chamber pot filling, a small smoky coal fire, . . . the fate of thousands of students in his hands.” After that, his death at 44 in 1889 must have been a positive comfort (“I am so happy” were the poet’s dying words), all the more so in the wake of his last, cathartic “terrible sonnets,” including his heartbreaking “Thou Art Indeed Just, Lord”:

Why do sinners’ ways ­prosper? and why must
Disappointment all I ­endeavor end?
Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,
How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost
Defeat, thwart me? . . .
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.

Credits:  This article originally appeared in 2008 in the New York Times Sunday Book Review.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Mad as Hell: Antonin Artaud's pictures from a psychiatric institution.

Luc Sante

Antonin Artaud suffered his first depressive breakdown at 16; at 21, he was diagnosed with hereditary syphilis (his parents, in addition, were first cousins). He was treated with laudanum, which initiated a lifelong drug addiction. Although in nearly constant physical pain--he had contracted meningitis when he was five, and the headaches continued for the rest of his life--and mental anguish, he functioned reasonably well until the age of 41, when a number of psychotic incidents caused him to be confined in a psychiatric hospital. He suffered from what was described as "incurable paranoid delirium," and left that asylum only to enter another. In all, he spent roughly 15 of his 52 years in institutions of one sort or another.

For all that, he was extraordinarily productive. His collected writings fill 26 volumes in the French edition. He was trained as an actor, and went on to direct, found his own theater, and write a set of visionary theoretical essays, collected as The Theater of Cruelty, that have continued to influence theatrical practitioners to this day. He also acted in films; his performances are few but indelible, from his matinee-idol turn as the empathetic monk in Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) to his part as Marat in Abel Gance's Napoleon (1927), in which, at one point, he breaks off a discussion by getting down on all fours and barking like a dog. He was an early member of the surrealists and director of the group's Central Research Bureau. He was drummed out by André Breton after two years--nearly all members were expelled sooner or later--but Breton eventually repented, calling him a "man of prodigies" and perhaps the truest surrealist of all.

Artaud's work in his many fields is consistent and interwoven, but it is not easy to define. It is, above all, a monument to frustration, one long scream of protest at the inadequacy of language, of human society, of the body and the mind. Artaud was a revolutionary who was fighting for the overthrow of the constraints that define consciousness. It is as if he could just make out the penumbra of some spiritual essence on the far edge of his perception, and was maddened by his inability to seize it. He described all his work as "documents"--that is, not the poems, essays, polemics they seem to be, and certainly not "art," but mere records of his flailing attempts to reach the elusive substance of Truth.

The drawings currently on exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art he likewise qualified as "documents." These drawings--there are roughly 70 items--are products of the last decade or so of his life (he died in 1948), are not well known, and have never before been shown in this country. They are singular and powerful works; gathered together, they possess a clobbering force. They seem to come out of nowhere while prefiguring all sorts of later tendencies in art. It seems absurd to think that the evolution they present covers only 10 or 11 years, rather than an entire career, but then, Artaud hardly thought in terms of a "career."

The earliest works are described as "spells." These are blessings and curses he wrote on charred or otherwise manipulated bits of paper and sent to friends, enemies, and a few public figures (Hitler, for one) in the late 1930s, in the wake of a disastrous trip he took to Ireland, wielding a cane that he believed was the staff of Saint Patrick, from which he returned in a straitjacket. (These spells are nowhere translated or transcribed, and the handwriting is often indecipherable. One of the few I could make out, addressed to the actor Roger Blin, reads, in part: "All those who have acted to prevent me from taking HEROIN all those who have laid a finger on Anne Manson [a friend] on account of that Sunday [illegible] May 1939, I will [illegible] them alive on a square in PARIS and I will cause them to be perforated and burn their marrow.")

A rtaud began drawing in earnest around 1944. By 1945, he was making large tableaux of what he called hieroglyphics: fields of human figures, symbolic objects, and words, many of them in invented languages. Some of these drawings, in precise pencil with hints of color, have a diagrammatic quality that seems oddly evocative of Saul Steinberg's work; indeed, divorced from context, some might at first be mistaken as whimsical. There are multiple breasts, various penile objects, including cousins of Dalí's penis-on-crutch, and details that might derive from alchemical symbology.

In 1947, Artaud moved from the psychiatric hospital at Rodez to a sort of halfway house at Ivry-sur-Seine, where he had more mobility and was able to receive visitors. These he drew, in a series of penetrating and quite varied portraits. Rolande Prevel, for example, is given almost a Matisse treatment, Colette Thomas is rendered with a delicacy that amounts to tenderness, while Jacques Prevel seems to have been sawn in two and restitched any old way, Mania Oïfer turned into an owl, Arthur Adamov fashioned from flung mud, with a penis for a nose. (Adamov was the author of PingPong and other plays; the other portrait subjects are mostly unknown to me.) Artaud was clearly an excellent draftsman but, as he notes, "you must look at [the drawings] and see what's inside." He also writes that "the human face is an empty force, a field of death," and that the alignment of form and content has never been farther off than in the contrast between facial features and what lies beneath them. His portraits are so uncompromising they make Picasso's or Giacometti's look polite.

By the end, just before his death from rectal cancer (a grimly appropriate fate for the author of "The Search for Fecality," in which he asks: "Is god a being? If he is he is one of shit"--shit being, in Artaud's view, of human essence and the sole alternative to the void), he was beginning to draw complex, heavily laden constructions that look like architecture made from heads--in the very last drawing they are stacked, as in so many totem poles. They are anything but morbid, though; they possess a vivid, throbbing life. These drawings appear to synthesize all the preoccupations of the phases of his previous three years; they fluidly combine the diagrammatic, the near-lyrical, and the excruciating. Here again, Artaud's ferocity, anguish, and hallucinatory paranoia are matched and joined by his intelligence and paradoxical control.

Artaud may have been mad, but his art is hardly confined to madness. The portraits, in which he used calm observation and academic skill to depict external reality while representing the interior through distortion and paper-tearing physical force, are more troubling than many of the interestingly science-fictional renderings of his visions, for example. His work can no more be dispatched into some rubric like "outsider art" than that of Blake or Hölderlin. Artaud's art is insidious; its penetration of what we know is so acute, its lucidity so much the equal of its delusion, that deciding where the one leaves off and the other begins can seem merely a measure of our own delusions.

Credits:  This article originally appeared in Slate when Antonin Artaud: Works on Paper (Oct. 5, 1996--Jan. 7, 1997) was on view at MOMA.

Monday, July 9, 2018


William Herrick

Fifty years ago, in March 1939, the city of Madrid, capital of republican Spain, surrendered to Generalissimo Francisco Franco, and his complete victory in Spain soon followed. The pain still lingers, especially for Ramon Sender Barayon. It was this pain that sent him on a quest to find the truth about his mother, Amparo, who died when he was but a toddler, and also to find her murderer. ''A Death in Zamora'' is like Nicholas Gage's memorable ''Eleni.'' Mr. Gage's mother was murdered by a Communist firing squad during the civil war in Greece; Amparo Barayon was murdered by a fascist executioner in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War - the extreme right and the extreme left joined in efforts to murder the decent and the sane, each for its particular ''good cause.''

Mr. Sender Barayon was raised in New York State by Julia Davis, a generous writer, after his father had brought him and his younger sister, Andrea, to this country in 1939. For many years he and Andrea, who was a baby when their mother died, kept asking their father about what had happened to their mother. Their father, Ramon J. Sender, the great Spanish novelist, for reasons unknown, perhaps wanting to spare his children the tragic details, always responded evasively.

Ramon Sender had only one peer among Spanish writers of the 20th century, the Basque novelist Pio Baroja. Sender was given almost every literary prize his compatriots had to offer, even those awarded during Franco's brutal dictatorship, though Sender refused to return to Spain during that reign. He did, however, return when Franco lay on his deathbed, and he was greeted by enthusiastic crowds and hailed in headlines. He also received death threats from both the far left and the far right, and bodyguards were needed to protect him. What better measure of a man's worth?

Sender had been sympathetic to revolutionary anarcho-syndicalism, and became friendly with the Communists shortly before and early in the civil war. Then, confronted by the murderous power moves of the Communists, he became stubbornly and outspokenly anti-Communist from a pro-working class point of view, and remained so the rest of his life. He died in January 1982 in San Diego, leaving two sons by two different mothers, a daughter, several women who loved him and 80 works in print, among which is at least one masterpiece, ''Seven Red Sundays,'' a story about a revolutionary uprising in Madrid. This magnificent novel, now out of print in this country, would do honor to any publisher who reissued it.

In July 1936, Sender and his wife, along with their two small children, were on vacation in San Rafael with some of Sender's relatives. Hearing of the nationalist uprising against the young democratic republic, Sender and several other people left San Rafael, walking over the mountains to join the militia fighting against the mutinous army. Before leaving, he told his wife to destroy any papers he had brought with him and to take the children to Zamora, her native town.

It turned out to be a tragic blunder. (Was it guilt for this blunder that later muted Sender's tongue about these events?) It reminds one of the similar mistake made at the time by Spain's great poet Federico Garcia Lorca, who was in Madrid when the war broke out and decided to return to Granada, his native city, where he would be among family and friends. What could happen to him there? The same thing that happened to Amparo Barayon, who was murdered in a cemetery where there was no place to hide from trigger-happy Falangist killers except in unmarked graves.

At the outbreak of the civil war, republicans, anarchists, socialists and Communists - caught in enclaves controlled by the extreme right - were murdered by the tens of thousands. On the other hand, nuns, priests, conservatives and extreme right-wingers in enclaves controlled by the extreme left were also murdered by the tens of thousands. The exact number of unarmed victims has never been certified.

It was after his father died that Mr. Sender Barayon decided to search for his mother and her murderer. First he reread several of his father's books; he had been told that his mother was the prototype for one or another character in them. The search then took him to Spain - to Barcelona, Madrid, San Rafael, Zamora. He met aunts from his father's and mother's families, and cousins as well. Two of his mother's brothers, he learned, had also been killed by extreme-right executioners. He found childhood friends of his mother, learned that she had been an excellent pianist and met people who had worked with her for the telephone company in Zamora and later in Madrid.

It was in Madrid that she met Ramon Sender, already a famous man, and lived with him in free love, as it was then called. She later married him in a civil ceremony, not in a Catholic church, and that counted against her when she was marked for execution: her priest and confessor refused her absolution before she was shot. Her betrayer, her brother-in-law Miguel Sevilla, later said it was at her confession that she invoked her own death penalty. But a contemporary journal wondered ''whether the secret of confession was so devaluated in those days, or whether Sevilla only pretended to know to excuse himself for not having moved a finger to save his sister-in-law.''

The most poignant narrative in the book is that of an old woman named Pilar, who, with her daughter, was in prison when Amparo Barayon was brought there with her baby, Andrea. Before she was taken away to die, Amparo gave Pilar a note for Ramon Sender (later torn up and eaten by Pilar out of fear). She also secreted a note in her baby's clothing. It was eventually found by agents of the International Red Cross when they were delivering the baby and her brother to their father, who had escaped into France as the Falangists took control of Spain.

On Oct. 11, 1936, in the cemetery of Zamora, Amparo was shot by one Segundo Viloria, a former suitor whom she had rejected, a trigger man on a Falangist execution squad during the war. It was not unusual during the Spanish Civil War for killing squads of the right and left to murder their victims in cemeteries - it was more convenient that way. Viloria eventually died insane in a government institution. Amparo's betrayer, Miguel Sevilla, had to leave his native village and died a pariah; the priest who had refused Amparo absolution before she was shot was later sent away from the town in disgrace by his church superiors.

''A Death in Zamora'' is not well organized. At times it is even confusing; which of its conclusions are verifiable and which are assumptions is not always clear. But it is a very moving document. Ramon Sender Barayon, about whom we learn too little, in the end discovers who his mother was: a lovely, independent woman, who lived with passion, who was devoted to her children and who had married a famous revolutionary writer. For all that she was murdered.

Credits:  This article originally appeared in 1989 in The New York Times.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

"I Don’t Know" by Wislawa Szymborska

They say that the first sentence in any speech is always the hardest. Well, that one’s behind me. But I have a feeling that the sentences to come—the third, the sixth, the tenth, and so on, up to the final line—will be just as hard, since I’m supposed to talk about poetry. I’ve said very little on the subject—next to nothing, in fact. And whenever I have said anything, I’ve always had the sneaking suspicion that I’m not very good at it. This is why my lecture will be rather short. Imperfection is easier to tolerate in small doses.

Contemporary poets are skeptical and suspicious even, or perhaps especially, about themselves. They confess to being poets only reluctantly, as if they were a little ashamed of it. But in our clamorous times it’s much easier to acknowledge your faults, at least if they’re attractively packaged, than to recognize your merits, since these are hidden deeper and you never quite believe in them yourself. When they fill out questionnaires or chat with strangers—that is, when they can’t avoid revealing their profession—poets prefer to use the general term “writer,” or to replace “poet” with the name of whatever job they do in addition to writing. Bureaucrats and bus passengers respond with a touch of incredulity and alarm when they discover that they’re dealing with a poet. I suppose philosophers meet with a similar reaction. Still, they are in a better position, since as often as not they can embellish their calling with some kind of scholarly title. Professor of philosophy: now that sounds much more respectable.

But there are no professors of poetry. That would mean, after all, that poetry is an occupation requiring specialized study, regular examinations, theoretical articles with bibliographies and footnotes attached and, finally, ceremoniously conferred diplomas. And this would mean, in turn, that it’s not enough to cover pages with even the most exquisite poems in order to become a poet. The crucial element is some slip of paper bearing an official stamp. Let us recall that the pride of Russian poetry, the future Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky, was once sentenced to internal exile precisely on such grounds. They called him a “parasite,” since he lacked official certification granting him the right to be a poet.

Several years ago, I had the honor and the pleasure of meeting Brodsky in person. And I noticed that, of all the poets I’ve known, he was the only one who enjoyed calling himself a poet. He pronounced the word without inhibitions. Just the opposite: he spoke it with defiant freedom. This must have been, it seems to me, because he recalled the brutal humiliations that he experienced in his youth.

In more fortunate countries, where human dignity isn’t assaulted so readily, poets yearn, of course, to be published, read and understood, but they do little, if anything, to set themselves above the common herd and the daily grind. It wasn’t so long ago, in this century’s first decades, that poets strove to shock us with their extravagant dress and their eccentric behavior. But all this was merely for the sake of public display. The moment always came when poets had to close the doors behind them, strip off their mantles, fripperies and other poetic paraphernalia and confront—silently, patiently awaiting their own selves—the still-white sheet of paper. For finally this is what really counts.

It’s not accidental that film biographies of great scientists and artists are produced in droves. The more ambitious directors seek to reproduce convincingly the creative process that led to important scientific discoveries or to the emergence of masterpieces. And one can depict certain kinds of scientific labor with some success. Laboratories, sundry instruments, elaborate machinery brought to life: such scenes may hold an audience’s interest for a while. And those moments of uncertainty—will the experiment, conducted for the thousandth time with some tiny modification, finally yield the desired result?--can be quite dramatic. Films about painters can be spectacular, as they go about recreating every stage of a famous painting’s evolution, from the first penciled line to the final brush stroke. And music swells in films about composers: the first bars of the melody that rings in the musician’s ears finally emerge as a mature work in symphonic form. Of course this is all quite naive and doesn’t explain the strange mental state popularly known as inspiration, but at least there’s something to look at and to listen to.

But poets are the worst. Their work is hopelessly unphotogenic. Someone sits at a table or lies on a sofa while staring motionless at a wall or ceiling. Once in a while this person writes down several lines, only to cross out one of them fifteen minutes later, and then another hour passes, during which nothing happens. Who could stand to watch this kind of thing?

I’ve mentioned inspiration. Contemporary poets answer evasively when asked what it is, and if it actually exists. It’s not that they’ve never known the blessing of this inner impulse. It’s just not easy to explain to someone else what you don’t understand yourself. When I’m asked about this on occasion, I hedge, too. But my answer is this: inspiration is not the exclusive privilege of poets or artists. There is, there has been, there will always be, a certain group of people whom inspiration visits. It’s made up of all those who’ve consciously chosen their calling and do their job with love and imagination. It may include doctors, teachers, gardeners—I could list a hundred more professions. Their work becomes one continuous adventure as long as they manage to keep discovering new challenges in it. Difficulties and setbacks never quell their curiosity. A swarm of new questions emerges from every problem that they solve. Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous “I don’t know.” There aren’t many such people. Most of the earth’s inhabitants work to get by. They work because they have to. They didn’t pick this or that kind of job out of passion; the circumstances of their lives did the choosing for them. Loveless work, boring work, work valued only because others haven’t even got that much—this is one of the harshest human miseries. And there’s no sign that the coming centuries will produce any changes for the better as far as this goes.

And so, though I deny poets their monopoly on inspiration, I still place them in a select group of Fortune’s darlings.

THIS IS WHY I value that little phrase “I don’t know” so highly. It’s small, but it flies on mighty wings. It expands our lives to include spaces within us as well as the outer expanses in which our tiny Earth hangs suspended. If Isaac Newton had never said to himself “I don’t know,” the apples in his little orchard might have dropped to the ground like hailstones, and, at best, he would have stooped to pick them up and gobble them with gusto. Had my compatriot Marie Sklodowska-Curie never said to herself “I don’t know,” she probably would have wound up teaching chemistry at some private high school for young ladies from good families, and have ended her days performing that perfectly respectable job. But she kept on saying “I don’t know,” and these words led her, not just once but twice, to Stockholm, where restless, questing spirits are occasionally rewarded with the Nobel Prize.

Poets, if they’re genuine, must also keep repeating “I don’t know.” Each poem marks an effort to answer this statement; but as soon as the final period hits the page, the poet begins to hesitate, starts to realize that this particular answer was pure makeshift, absolutely inadequate. So poets keep on trying, and sooner or later the consecutive results of their self-dissatisfaction are clipped together with a giant paper clip by literary historians and called their “oeuvres.”

I sometimes dream of a situation that can’t possibly come true. I audaciously imagine that I have a chance to chat with Ecclesiastes, the author of that moving lament on the vanity of all human endeavors. I bow very deeply before him, because he is one of the greatest poets, for me at least. Then I grab his hand. “There’s nothing new under the sun”: that’s what you wrote, Ecclesiastes. But you yourself were new under the sun. And the poem you created is also new under the sun, since no one wrote it down before you. And all your readers are also new under the sun, since those who lived before you couldn’t read your poem. And that cypress under which you’re sitting hasn’t been growing since the dawn of time. It came into being by way of another cypress similar to yours, but not exactly the same.

And Ecclesiastes, I’d also like to ask: What new thing under the sun are you planning to work on now? A further supplement to thoughts that you’ve already expressed? Or maybe you’re tempted to contradict some of them? In your earlier work you mentioned joy—so what if it’s fleeting? So maybe your new-under-the-sun poem will be about joy? Have you taken notes yet, do you have drafts? I doubt that you’ll say, “I’ve written everything down, I’ve got nothing left to add.” There’s no poet in the world who can say this, least of all a great poet like yourself.

The world—whatever we might think when we’re terrified by its vastness and our impotence, embittered by its indifference to the individual suffering of people, animals and perhaps even plants (for why are we so sure that plants feel no pain?); whatever we might think of its expanses pierced by the rays of stars surrounded by planets that we’ve just begun to discover, planets already dead, still dead, we just don’t know; whatever we might think of this measureless theater to which we’ve got reserved tickets, but tickets whose lifespan is laughably short, bounded as it is by two arbitrary dates; whatever else we might think of this world—it is astonishing.

But “astonishing” is an epithet concealing a logical trap. We’re astonished, after all, by things that deviate from some well-known and universally acknowledged norm, from an obviousness to which we’ve grown accustomed. But the point is, there is no such obvious world. Our astonishment exists per se and it isn’t based on a comparison with something else.

Granted, in daily speech, where we don’t stop to consider every word, we all use phrases such as “the ordinary world,” “ordinary life,” “the ordinary course of events.” But in the language of poetry, where every word is weighted, nothing is usual or normal. Not a single stone and not a single cloud above it. Not a single day and not a single night after it. And above all, not a single existence, not anyone’s existence in this world.

It looks like poets will always have their work cut out for them.

-Translated from Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh
© The Nobel Foundation, 1996.

Credits: The New Republic

So Why Did I Defend Paul Bowles?

by Hisham Aidi  In the mid-1990s, I used to lead literary walking tours of “Paul Bowles’s Tangier” for friends or literary pilgrims visitin...