“every decision you make is a mistake”—an edward dahlberg miscellany

Edward Dahlberg was admired by and a friend to an exceptionally diverse group of writers: Jack Kerouac, Lydia Davis, Guy Davenport, Paul West, Anthony Burgess, Charles Olson, Samuel R. Delany, Gilbert Sorrentino, Thomas McGonigle, Jonathan Lethem… 

edward dahlberg biography (from wikipedia)

Edward Dahlberg (July 22, 1900 – February 27, 1977) was an American novelist and essayist.

Dahlberg was born in Boston to Elizabeth Dahlberg. Mother and son wandered through the southern and western United States until 1905, when she opened a barber shop in Kansas City. In April 1912 Dahlberg was sent to the Jewish Orphan Asylum, Cleveland, where he lived until 1917. He eventually attended the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University.

In the late 1920s Dahlberg lived in Paris and in London. His first novel, Bottom Dogs, was published in London with an introduction by D. H. Lawrence. He visited Germany in 1933 and in reaction briefly joined the CommunistParty, but left the Party by 1936. From the 1940s onwards, Dahlberg made his living as an author, and also taught at various colleges and universities, most notably Black Mountain College. He married R’Lene LaFleur Howell in 1950.

Dahlberg died in Santa Barbara, California, on February 27, 1977.

 


assorted quotations

life, truth & the self

Every decision you make is a mistake.

Everything ultimately fails, for we die, and that is either the penultimate failure or our most enigmatical achievement.

So much of our lives is given over to the consideration of our imperfections that there is no time to improve our imaginary virtues. The truth is we only perfect our vices, and man is a worse creature when he dies than he was when he was born.

Men are mad most of their lives; few live sane, fewer die so. The acts of people are baffling unless we realize that their wits are disordered. Man is driven to justice by his lunacy.

Ambition is a Dead Sea fruit, and the greatest peril to the soul is that one is likely to get precisely what he is seeking.

There is no place to go, and so we travel! You and I, and what for, just to imagine that we could go somewhere else.

The people who think they are happy should rummage through their dreams.

Genius, like truth, has a shabby and neglected mien.

We cannot live, suffer or die for somebody else, for suffering is too precious to be shared.

What most men desire is a virgin who is a whore.

When one realizes that his life is worthless he either commits suicide or travels.

It takes a long time to understand nothing.

Man hoards himself when he has nothing to give away.

I would rather take hellebore than spend a conversation with a good, little man.


a
merica & society

We are a most solitary people, and we live, repelled by one another, in the gray, outcast cities of Cain.

No people require maxims so much as the American. The reason is obvious: the country is so vast, the people always going somewhere, from Oregonapple valley to boreal New England, that we do not know whether to be temperate orchards or sterile climate.

Intellectual sodomy, which comes from the refusal to be simple about plain matters, is as gross and abundant today as sexual perversion and they are nowise different from one another.

One of the weaknesses in the cooperative is that it has never been sufficiently leavened by the imagination. This is a quick-silver faculty, and likely to be a cause of worry to any collective settlement.

The ruin of the human heart is self-interest, which the American merchant calls self-service. We have become a self-service populace, and all our specious comforts — the automatic elevator, the escalator, the cafeteria — are depriving us of volition and moral and physical energy.

There is a strange and mighty race of people called the Americans who are rapidly becoming the coldest in the world because of this cruel, man-eating idol, lucre.

A strong foe is better than a weak friend.

One cat in a house is a sign of loneliness, two of barrenness, and three of sodomy.

Men are mad most of their lives; few live sane, fewer die so. The acts of people are baffling unless we realize that their wits are disordered. Man is driven to justice by his lunacy.

Nothing in our times has become so unattractive as virtue.

The Americans have always been food, sex, and spirit revivalists.

The ancients understood the regulation of power better than the regulation of liberty.

The machine has had a pernicious effect upon virtue, pity, and love, and young men used to machines which induce inertia, and fear, are near impotent.

The majority of persons choose their wives with as little prudence as they eat. They see a troll with nothing else to recommend her but a pair of thighs and choice hunkers, and so smart to void their seed that they marry her at once. They imagine they can live in marvelous contentment with handsome feet and ambrosial buttocks. Most men are accredited fools shortly after they leave the womb.

It is very perplexing how an intrepid frontier people, who fought a wilderness, floods, tornadoes, and the Rockies, cower before criticism, which is regarded as a malignant tumor in the imagination.


writers & writing

The earnings of a poet could be reckoned by a metaphysician rather than a bookkeeper.

Herman Melville was as separated from a civilized literature as the lost Atlantis was said to have been from the great peoples of the earth.

Though man is the only beast that can write, he has small reason to be proud of it. When he utters something that is wise it is nothing that the river horse does not know, and most of his creations are the result of accident.

The bad poet is a toady mimicking nature.

Hardly a book of human worth, be it heaven’s own secret, is honestly placed before the reader; it is either shunned, given a Periclean funeral oration in a hundred and fifty words, or interred in the potter’s field of the newspapers back pages.

Writing is conscience, scruple, and the farming of our ancestors.

To write is a humiliation.

What has a writer to be bombastic about? Whatever good a man may write is the consequence of accident, luck, or surprise, and nobody is more surprised than an honest writer when he makes a good phrase or says something truthful.

We can only write well about our sins because it is too difficult to recall a virtuous act or even whether it was the result of good or evil motives.

Writing is conscience, scruple, and the farming of our ancestors.

Those who write for lucre or fame are grosser than the cartel robbers, for they steal the genius of the people, which is its will to resist evil.

Recognize the cunning man not by the corpses he pays homage to but by the living writers he conspires against with the most shameful weapon, Silence, or the briefest review.


excerpts

Edward Dahlberg, Because I Was Flesh (1964)

Would to God that my mother had not been a leaf scattered every-where and as the wind listeth. Would to heaven that I could compose a different account of her flesh . . . Should I err against her dear relics or trouble her sleep, may no one imagine that she has not always been for me the three Marys of the New Testament. Moreover, whatever I imagine I know is taken from my mother’s body, and this is the memoir of her body…

Kansas City was my Tarsus; the Kaw and the Missouri Rivers were the washpots of joyous Dianas from St. Joseph and Joplin. It was a young seminal town and the seed of its men was strong. Homer sang of many sacred towns in Hellas which were no better than Kansas City, as hilly as Eteonus and as stony as Aulis. The city wore a coat of rocks and grass. The bosom of this town nursed men, mules and horses as famous as the asses of Arcadia and the steeds of Diomedes . . . Kansas City was the city of my youth and the burial ground of my poor mother’s hopes; her blood, like Abel’s, cries out to me from every cobblestone, building, flat and street…

 

When the image of her comes up on a sudden—just as my bad demons do—and I see her dyed henna hair, the eyes dwarfed by the electric lights in the Star Lady Barber Shop, and the dear, broken wing of her mouth, and when I regard her wild tatters, I know that not even Solomon in his lilied raiment was so glorious as my mother in her rags. Selah.


Edward Dahlberg,
Bottom Dogs (1929)

The next five years were spent in a kaleidoscopic succession of occeupations, which took him all over the country. He has been a Western Union messenger boy in Cleveland, trucker for the American express, driver of a laundry wagon, cattle drover in the Kansas City Stockyards, dishwasher in Portland, Oregon, potato peeler in Sacramento, bus-boy in San Francisco, longshoreman in San Pedro, clerk in a clinic, and vagabond everywhere. . .

She moved from town to town, selling hair switches, giving osteopathic treatments, going on again when she felt the place had been played out. In this way she hoped to save a little money and establish herself in some thriving city. She had taken Lorry with her wherever she went.


Edward Dahlberg,
Do These Bones Live? (New York, 1941)

There are no abstract truths—no Mass-Man, no proletariat. There is only Man. When the Pulse has been nailed upon the crossbeams, lo, Reason gives up its viable breath and becomes a wandering ghostly Error. Truth and folly are ever about to expire, so that we, like our beloved Sancho Panza kneeling at the death-bed of Don Quixote, must always be ready to go out to receive the holy communion of cudgels and distaffs, for the rebirth of the Pulse, living anew, in our veins and bones, as the quickened Truth.

Finally, this Whitmanesque poem (in its entirety):

Edward Dahlberg, “The Leafless American,” (1967)

How old are we?

We are still a horse and buffalo
people, heavy, lumbering cattle, with
prairie and grain virtues, and our avarice
is primitive wigwam barter; we ought to
adore the great fish god, for we are a
costal people, and New Mexico and Arizona,
which are saurian undersea country, breeding
pine, cactus, and snakes, are Galilean land.

We are passing from a morning horse
innocence to unusual vices, and we are not
ready.

Is Pike’s Peak a hummock of old world
sin, or the Rockies Scythian debauchery,
or the mineraled Colorado dawn the Orient
pearl? It is hay and brook and sweet pony
corral, appled meadow garnished with odors
more virtuous than spiced Eden.

Take no stock in American turpitudes;
look to the Toltec of the Mayan for the
lascivious parrot and monkey.

The Platte River, the pine, the sage
brush are hardy character, but not history,
and I admit that nothing has ever happened
to me, and that I am mad for events.

Whatever we do is vast, unconscious
geography; we are huge space giants of the
mesa, surd, mad rivers that rush along, and
we do not care to be near each other; this
is not ancient wickedness, but solitary
prairie grazing.

We cannot bear each other because we
are immense territory, and our most malignant
folly was to closet us up in cities, and take
away our ocean past.

We should have the deepest reverence
for poverty, because we are New Testament
ground. Every day I offer a sacrifice to
the extinct bison, the horse and savage
Iroquois, who are our muse of cereal, yam
and maize, and when somebody strokes my
head, I walk to Mt. Shasta, or the Oregon
orchards which are my epistles to the
Cornithians.

Who is my Father?

The rising sun-man disappeared,
and the step-father, the petticoat parent,
is rearing the children since the tent,
the wagon, and saddle have gone.

The great, grassy basin, the Catskill
eagle made us tribal and fierce; the Pawnee,
leading the sorrel of the Platte by a bull-hide
rope, lessoned us in poverty, for want too
is a tough, rude god make out of dried buffalo
skin, to which we must offer our orisons, lest
we perish of sloth and surfeit.

Our forefathers were giant volcano-horses;
we were a hot earth animal as the elephant
shaped mounds found in Kansas show.

Give us back our origins, for I am out
of season in any other land, or plant except
the corn seeds of Quetzalcoatl, the yucca,
the cactus, and the Mojave joshua tree,
dearer than the desert tamarisk beneath
which Saul sat.

We have lost ground, city-cursed
that we are, left it behind us like the
Quiche did the Yaqui for whom they wept.

Return the Platte, the bison, the hoof-print
of the deer, for I am as hungry for them as
the wandering Quiche who had to smell the points
of their staffs to deceive their empty stomachs.

Our Mother paps were rabid gulches
in which the white and gray wolves howled,
and now that the Toltecs and the Pawnee
are dead, we are their evil genius, looking
for a relic, a flint arrow, a teepee, a
harness, a piece of bread.

I need confidence, the antelope, the
pack-mule, the Indian apple, but we have
killed the old bread gods made of plums,
incense and the coca plant. Until we find
the Quiche bread idol, we are orphans.

The word together has become a tabu
devil; everything is public except guilt,
which is hidden like hands that are pursed
and pocketed lest they be demanded for
hand-shaking, which is some uneasy, first
sin; touch a man and blood goes out
of his cheek; the mountains, the hills and
the grass are turning against men, and
every man dreads every man.

The mating season that once cattled
the fingers of the marriageable now brings
the alley tree, cemented in the side walk,
and the tuberose poodle together. Aging
men walk through the macadam auto ravines,
until magnolia dusk, and then they go to
their rooms, walking from faucet to window-hole.
They crawl under a mealy blanket seeking that
primeval night that came before creation, and
fall at once into a water of sleep, void of
vegetable, animal or root.

The highways have no ancestors;
the 19th century American was kinless
iron, and these men of the
20th are houseless sepcters because
they have never claimed the continent.
They have destroyed the old, rooty
deities of the Cherokee and the Huron
which are now howling in their dead,
double-breasted coats and pants. The
city auto man has killed everything,
going through the unowned land without
branch, leaf, trunk or earth. The
autumn comes, and he has no foliage
to shed, and the winter appears, and
he cannot rest or sleep or die until
April, and his destiny star, too, is
dead. He has no green May shoots and
no loam in which to sprout. He feeds
listlessly and is alone when he genders
with his wife. He is an unseeding,
hating man who has forgotten to plant
a street, a blue-bell, a house.

Prophecy, O lost people without
a fate, is seeing the quick of the
instant. You have no porch, no yard,
no steps, you are groundless, and bitten
by gnats because you have slain the
earth. Can you die? Death is sweet
and dear, for it is quiet. But there
are no hills to appease you, and no
mountains to give you hard, striving
will, or rivers to wash your eyes to
make them see.

Homeless, denatured ghost of many
leafy races, where do you blow? who
will gather you up?


— from The Leafless American and Other Writings

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more miss blandish—the start of chapter 3, wherein we learn “a detective’s life isn’t fit for a dog”

CHAPTER THREE

1

ACROSS the frosted panel of the door ran the legend:

DAVE FENNER. INVESTIGATIONS.

The lettering was in black and recently painted.

The door led into a small, well-furnished office with a desk, two lounging chairs, a good Oriental carpet and wall shelves full of law books recently acquired and never opened.

David Fenner lounged in the desk chair, his feet on the desk. He was staring blankly up at the ceiling. He had the air of a man with nothing to do and all the time in the world to do it in.

Fenner was a massively built man of thirty-three. He was dark, with an attractively ugly face and a pugnacious jaw of a man who likes to get his own way and generally does.

A door to the left of the desk led into the outer office. A wooden barrier divided this room. One side was reserved for waiting clients; the other side was the general office presided over by, Paula Dolan, an attractive girl with raven black wavy hair, large suggestive blue eyes and a figure that Fenner declared was the only asset of value in the newly established business.

Paula sat before an idle typewriter, thumbing through the pages of a lurid magazine called Love. From time to time, she yawned and her eyes continually strayed to the wall clock. The time was twenty minutes after three.

The buzzer sounded on her desk, making her start. She put down the magazine and walked into the inner office.

“Got any cigarettes, honey?” Fenner asked, hunching his muscles so the chair creaked. “I’m all out.”

“I’ve got three left,” Paula said. “You can have two of them.” She went into her office and returned with two cigarettes which she laid on the table.

“That’s pretty generous of you,” Fenner said, lighting up. “Thanks.” He inhaled deeply while he looked Paula over. “That’s a nice shape you’ve got on your bones this afternoon.”

“Yes, isn’t it?” Paula said bitterly. “It doesn’t seem to get me anywhere.”

“How are you making out?” Fenner said, quick to change the subject. “Got anything to do?”

“As much as you have,” Paula said, hoisting herself up on the desk.

“Then you sure must be working yourself to death,” Fenner said, grinning. “Never mind: something’ll turn up.”

“You’ve been saying just that for the past month,” Paula said. She looked worried. “We can’t go on much longer like this, Dave. The Office Equipment people telephoned. Unless you pay the third installment on the furniture by tomorrow, they want it all back.”

Fenner surveyed the room.

“You don’t say! You wouldn’t think anyone in their right minds would want this junk back, would you?”

“Perhaps you didn’t hear what I said,” Paula said ominously. “They’ll take all the furniture away tomorrow unless you pay the third installment. So what shall I have to sit on?”

Fenner looked startled.

“They’re not taking that away as well, are they?”

“Dave Fenner, will you never be serious for half a minute? If we don’t find two hundred dollars by tomorrow morning, we will have to shut down.”

Fenner sighed.

“Money! How much have we got?”

“Ten dollars and fifteen cents.”

“As much as that?” he waved his hand airily. “Why, we’re rich! There’s a guy across the way who’s got nothing but an overdraft.”

“How does that make us rich?” Paula demanded.

“Well, we don’t owe the bank money.”

“That’s not your fault. You’ve tried hard enough to owe them money, haven’t you?”

“I guess that’s right.” Fenner shook his head mournfully. “I don’t think those birds trust me.”

“Oh, no,” Paula said sarcastically. “They just don’t want to embarrass you.” She patted a stray curl into place. “I’m beginning to think you made a mistake opening this office. You were making good money on the Tribune. I never did think this agency idea of yours would work out.” Fenner looked indignant.

“Well, that’s a fine thing to say. Then why did you quit your job and come to work for me? I warned you it could be tough at the start, but nothing short of a machine gun would stop you joining me.” Paula smiled at him.

“Maybe it was because I love you,” she said softly Fenner groaned.

“For the love of Mike, don’t start that all over again. I’ve enough worries without you adding to them. Why don’t you get smart, honey? A girl with your looks and your shape could hook a millionaire. Why waste your time and talents on a loser like me? I’ll tell you something: I’ll always be broke. It’s a tradition in the family. My grandfather was a bankrupt. My father was a pauper. My uncle was a miser: he went crazy because he couldn’t find any money to mise over.”

“When are we going to get married, Dave?”

“Remind me to consult my ouija board sometime,” Fenner said hurriedly. “Why don’t you go home? You’re getting unhealthy ideas sticking around here with nothing to do. Take the afternoon off. Go shampoo your hair or something.”

Paula lifted her shoulders in resigned helplessness. “Why don’t you talk to Ryskind? He might give you your job back if you asked him nicely. You were the best crime reporter in the game, Dave. He must miss you. Why don’t you talk to him?” Fenner shook his head.

“The trouble there is he wouldn’t talk to me. I called him a double-crossing, stony-hearted, brainless moron just before I quit. I also seem to remember I told him if ever he invited me to his parents’ wedding. I wouldn’t go. Somehow, I don’t think he likes me any more.”

A buzzer sounded in the outer office announcing a visitor. “Who do you imagine that could be?” Fenner asked, frowning.

“Probably the man to disconnect the telephone,” Paula said. “We haven’t paid the bill—remember?”

“What do we want a telephone for?” Fenner asked. “We’re not on speaking terms with anyone in town, are we?”

Paula went into the outer office, closing the door after her. In a couple of minutes, she was back, her face alight with excitement.

“Look who’s here!” she said and laid a card on his blotter.

Fenner read the card, then he sat back, gaping at Paula.

“John Blandish! In person?”

“He wants to see you.”

“You’re sure it’s him, not someone impersonating him?”

“I’m sure.”

“Well, what are you waiting for? Shoo him in, baby; shoo him in!”

Paula went to the door and opened it.

“Mr. Fenner is free now, Mr. Blandish. Would you come in?”

She stood aside as John Blandish entered the room, then she went out, leaving the two men together.

Fenner got to his feet. He was surprised Blandish wasn’t a bigger man. Only slightly above middle height, the millionaire seemed puny beside Fenner’s muscular bulk. His eyes gave his face its arresting power and character. They were hard, shrewd and alert eyes of a man who has fought his way to the top with no mercy asked nor given.

Blandish gave Fenner a quick critical look as the two men shook hands.

“I have a proposition for you, Fenner,” Blandish said. “I think you’re the man I’m looking for. I hear you have connections with the underworld. I believe the only way to bring to justice the men who kidnapped my daughter, is to employ someone like you who can freelance among the mobs with no restrictions. What do you think?”

“I think you’re right,” Fenner said, sitting down behind his desk. “Anyway, the theory’s right, but your daughter was kidnapped three months ago. The trail’s pretty cold now.”

“I am aware of that,” Blandish said. He took out a pigskin cigar case and selected a cigar. “I had to give the Federal Agents every chance of finding these men before I started interfering. Well, they haven’t found them. Now I’m going to try. I’ve talked to them and I’ve talked to the Police. It was Captain Brennan who suggested I should contact you. He tells me you have a good reputation as a newspaper man and wide connections among the thugs in this City. He said if I employed you, he would cooperate with you to the best of his ability. I’m prepared to give you the opportunity of finding these men if you are interested. I will pay you three thousand dollars right now and if you find them, you’ll get a further thirty thousand dollars. That’s my proposition. What do you say?”

Fenner sat for a moment slightly stunned, then pulling himself together, he nodded.

“I’ll certainly have a try, Mr. Blandish, but I’m not promising to deliver. The F.B.I. are the best in the world. If they’ve failed to find these hoods, I’ll probably fail too, but I’ll have a try.”

“How do you propose to start?”

“It so happened I covered the kidnapping for the Tribune,” Fenner said. “It was the last job I did before leaving the paper. I’ve got a file covering all the facts. This I want to study. One thing has always struck me as odd. I knew both Riley and Bailey personally. I was continually running into them in dives and clubs when I was checking for information during the course of my work. They were strictly small time. How they ever found the nerve to go through with the kidnapping beats me, and yet, apparently they did. It doesn’t make sense. If you knew the hoodlums the way I know them, you’d feel the same way about these two. Kidnapping is out of character. The most they would ever aspire to is a small bank holdup. Anyway, there it is. They kidnapped your daughter. Then I ask myself how could they have vanished into thin air? How is it none of the ransom money has ever appeared? What are these kidnappers living on if they aren’t spending the ransom? Another thing; Riley had a girl friend: Anna Borg. The Federal Agents spent hours questioning her, but they didn’t get a thing out of her. I know for a fact Riley was crazy about her and yet he just walked out of her life as if she never existed. It doesn’t add up.” He paused, then went on, “I’ll see Brennan right away, Mr. Blandish. I’ll go through the file to make sure I’ve missed nothing there that might give me a lead. In a couple of days I’ll be able to tell you if I think I have a chance or not of finding these men.” He looked searchingly at Mr. Blandish. “You don’t ask me to find your daughter. You think…?”

Blandish’s face hardened.

“She is dead. I have no doubt about that. It would be an impossible thought to think of her still alive and in the hands of such men. No, she’s dead.” He took from his pocket a checkbook and wrote out a check to Fenner for three thousand dollars. “Then I expect to hear from you in two days’ time?”

“That’s right.”

Fenner went with Blandish to the door.

“Money is no object,” Blandish said. “I’m not restricting you. Get among the underworld and let them know there’s money to be had for talking. I’m sure it’s the only way to get the lead we want.”

“You leave it to me,” Fenner said. “I’ll try not to disappoint you.”

When Blandish had gone, Paula came rushing into the room.

“What did he want?” she asked anxiously. “Has he hired you?”

Fenner showed her the check.

“We’re in the money, sweetheart,” he said. “Here, take a look. Three thousand bucks! Saved in the nick of time! You can relax. You’ve still got a chair to park your fanny on.”

2

Captain Charles Brennan, City Police, a fat, red-faced man with blue hard eyes and sandy-colored hair, greying at the temples, reached across his desk to shake hands with Fenner.

“Never thought the day would come when I would be glad to see a detective in my office,” he said. “Sit down. How’s tricks?”

“Could be worse,” Fenner said, sitting down. “I’m not the grumbling kind.”

“I was surprised to hear you had applied for a licence to operate as an investigator,” Brennan said, lighting a cigar. “You should have stuck to newspaper work. A detective’s life isn’t fit for a dog.”

“I don’t aim to live as well as a dog,” Fenner said, cheerfully. “Thanks for the introduction to Blandish.”

Brennan waved his hand airily.

“Between me and you and my aunt’s wooden leg, Blandish has been gradually driving me nuts. With any luck now, he’ll drive you nuts and lay off me.”

Fenner stiffened to attention.

“What do you mean?”

“You wait,” Brennan said with sadistic relish. “Blandish hasn’t got off my neck since his goddamn daughter was snatched. In self-defense I had to suggest he should hire you. Morning, noon and night he was either here in my office or on the telephone. When was I going to find the men who kidnapped his daughter? If I heard that once, I’ve heard it a thousand times. Those words, when I’m dead, will be found engraved on my liver!”

“Well, that’s pretty nice,” Fenner said bitterly, “and I was thinking you were doing me a good turn.”

“I’m no boy scout,” Brennan said. “I’ll tell you this much: you have as much chance of finding those punks as you have of winning a beauty prize.”

Fenner let that ride.

“But they must be somewhere.”

“Sure, they’re somewhere. They could be in Mexico, Canada, heaven or hell. Every policeman in the world has been looking for them for three months—not a sign, but I agree with you, they must be somewhere.”

“How about the girl? Do you think she’s dead?”

“Yeah. She must be dead. Why should they keep her alive? She would only be a danger to them. I wouldn’t mind betting they knocked her off when they killed MacGowan, but where they buried her beats me.”

“How about Anna Borg?” Fenner asked. “What became of her?”

“She’s still around. I’ve had one of my boys trailing her for the past two months, but it’s a waste of time. She has a new boy friend now. I guess she got tired of waiting for Riley to show up. She’s doing an act now at the Paradise Club.”

“Who’s the new boy friend?”

“Eddie Schultz.”

Fenner frowned, then he snapped his fingers.

“I know him, one of the Grisson gang; a tall, big, good-looking punk.”

“That’s him. The Grisson gang have taken over the Paradise Club: a down-at-the-heel joint run by an Italian:

Toni Rocco. They bought him out, put money in the joint and it’s quite a club now.”

Fenner looked interested.

“Where did the money come from? The Grisson gang weren’t in the dough, were they?”

“I checked all that,” Brennan said, looking wise. “Abe Schulberg is financing the club. He’s done a deal with Ma Grisson. She runs the club and gives him a fifty percent cut.”

Fenner lost interest. He lit a cigarette, sliding down in his chair.

“So the trail’s cold?”

“It never was hot. It’s a bitch of a case. The time and money we’ve wasted on it gives me nightmares. We’re no closer to a solution than when we first started.”

Fenner pulled a face. The vision of laying his hands on thirty thousand dollars now began to look remote. He got to his feet. Then a thought struck him.

“What did this Borg girl do for a living when she was going around with Riley?” he asked.

“She did a strip act at the Cosmos Club, strictly for peanuts, but her main meal ticket was Riley.”

“The Cosmos Club?” Fenner suddenly looked thoughtful. He glanced at his watch. “Well, I’m wasting your time, Captain. If I turn up anything, I’ll let you know.”

“You won’t,” Brennan said, grinning. “There’s nothing to turn up.”

In a thoughtful mood, Fenner drove back to his office. He found Paula waiting for him although it was after six o’clock.

“You still here?” he said as he entered the office. “Haven’t you a home to go to?”

“I’m scared to leave in case another millionaire walks in,” Paula said, her blue eyes wide. “Oh, Dave! I’ve been planning how we’ll spend all that beautiful money when we get it”

“The operative word in that pipe dream of a sentence of yours is when.” Fenner walked into his office. Paula trailed after him. “Since you are still working, baby, make yourself useful. Check the dirty file and see if we have anything on Pete Cosmos.”

During the years Fenner had been a newspaperman, he had systematically collected every scrap of information concerning the activities of the big and little gangsters in town. He had collected an enormous library of facts that often came in handy when he was trying to persuade some hood to give him information.

In five minutes, Paula came into the office with a pile of newspaper clippings.

“I don’t know what you’re looking for, Dave,” she said, “but here’s everything we have on Cosmos.”

“Thanks, sweetheart, now you trot off home. I’ve got work to do. How would you like to have dinner with me tonight to celebrate our riches?”

Paula’s face lit up with delighted surprise.

“I’d love it! I’ll wear my new dress! Let’s go to the Champagne Room! I’ve never been there. I hear it’s a knockout.”

“The only knockout about that joint is the check,” Fenner said. “Maybe we might go there when we have got our hooks into the thirty thousand, but not before.”

“Then how about the Astor? For the money, they say it’s the best in town.”

“Don’t be simple, baby. They didn’t say for how much money, did they?” Fenner put his arm around her coaxingly. “I’ll tell you where we’ll go, the Cosmos Club. We’ll combine business with pleasure.”

Paula made a grimace as if she had bitten into a lemon.

“The Cosmos Club? That joint’s not even a dive and the food’s poisonous.”

“Run along, baby, I’ve work to do. I’ll pick you up at eight-thirty at your place,” and turning her, Fenner gave her a slap on her behind, launching her fast to the door.

He sat down at his desk and began to read through the mass of clippings Paula had given him. After some thirty minutes, he made a telephone call, then he put the clippings back into the filing cabinet, turned off the lights in the office, locked up and went down to his car. He drove to his two room apartment where he took a shower and changed into a dark suit. He checked his .38 police special and put it in his shoulder holster.

He found Paula anxiously waiting for him. One of the important facts of life that Paula had learned the hard way was not to keep any man waiting. She was looking cute in a black dress, relieved by a red carnation. The cut of the dress accentuated her figure so that Fenner took a second look.

“What kills me,” Paula said as she got into the car with a generous show of nylon-clad legs, “is I always have to buy my own corsage. The day you think of buying me one, I’ll faint.”

“Put your smelling salts away, baby,” Fenner said, grinning. “I would never think of it. You haven’t a worry in the world.” He edged the car into the traffic. “I’ve got something on Pete. Boy! Won’t his fat face turn red when I start talking to him.”

Paula looked at him.

“I hope we’ll eat sometime,” she said. “I foresee you and that fat Italian sitting glaring at each other and grinding your teeth while I starve to death.”

“We’ll eat first, baby,” Fenner said and patted her knee.

She firmly removed his hand.

“That knee is reserved for my future husband,” she said. “You can have an option on it if you want it, but it’ll have to be in writing.”

Fenner laughed. He liked going out with Paula. They always seemed to have fun together.

The Cosmos Club was full when they arrived, but the maitre d’hotel, a seedy, narrow-eyed Italian, found them a table.

Fenner looked around and decided it was a pretty crummy joint. He hadn’t been in the club for six months. He could see it had changed for the worse.

“Charming little morgue,” Paula said, looking around. “I can’t imagine anyone coming here unless they were too mean to go somewhere else.”

Fenner let that one ride. He was studying the menu. He was hungry. A grubby looking waiter hovered at his side.

After a long discussion they decided on the iced melon, and duck cooked with olives to follow.

“At least we can eat the olives,” Paula said. “Even the cook at the Cosmos Club can’t spoil olives.”

Fenner laughed.

“You wait and see. I bet you they’ll be as tender as golf balls.”

But when the meal was served, neither of them could complain. It wasn’t good, but at least they could eat it.

Between courses, they danced. Paula attempted to get romantic, but Fenner deliberately trod on her toes. The dancing wasn’t a success.

While she was choosing dessert, Fenner pushed back his chair and stood up.

“Business now, baby,” he said. “I’m going to talk to Pete. You go ahead and stuff yourself. I won’t be long.”

Paula smiled at him, her eyes furious.

“Go ahead, Dave darling, don’t worry about me. I have lots and lots to talk to myself about. I’ll expect you when I don’t see you.”

“If we weren’t in a public place,” Fenner said, stung, “I would put you over my knee and slap you humpbacked.”

“A charming thought,” Paula said, waving him away. “Run along and talk to your friend. I hope he spits in your right eye.”

Grinning, Fenner made his way to Pete’s office. He didn’t bother to knock. He walked right in and kicked the door shut behind him.

Pete was adding up figures in a ledger. He looked up, startled. When he saw who it was, he scowled.

“Who told you to bust in here?” he demanded. “What do you want?”

“Hello, fatty,” Fenner said coming over and sitting on the desk. “Long time no see.”

“What do you want?” Pete asked again, glaring at Fenner.

“Have you seen Harry Levane recently?”

Pete stiffened.

“No, and I don’t want to. Why?”

“I’ve just been talking to him. Pete, you are in bad trouble.” Fenner shook his head sadly. “Harry was telling me about the girl you took to Miami last summer. She was a minor. Pete! I’m surprised at you! You stand to get a two-year stretch for that little indiscretion.”

Pete looked as if someone had driven a needle into his behind.

“It’s a lie!” he shouted, his face white. “I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

Fenner smiled pityingly at him.

“Don’t be a chump, Pete. Harry saw you with her. He hasn’t forgotten you got him three years for the Clifford jewel steal. He’s aching to put you away.”

Pete’s face broke out in a sweat.

“I’ll kill the punk! He can’t prove it!”

“He can. He knows who the girl is and he’s talked to her. She’s ready to sign a complaint.”

Pete slumped back in his chair.

“Where is she?” he said, his voice husky. “I’ll talk to her. I’ll fix it. Where is she?”

“I know where she is. I know where Harry is. It’ll cost you, Pete, but what’s money,” Fenner said. “But I’m not telling you if we can’t do a deal. I want information. I’ll trade what you want for what I want.”

Pete glared at him.

“What do you want?”

“Nothing to it, Pete; just a little information. Do you remember Anna Borg?”

Pete looked surprised.

“Yes—what about her?’

“She worked here?”

“That’s right.”

“Did she ever hint that she knew where Riley was hiding out?”

“She didn’t know. I’ll swear to that.”

“She did mention Riley?”

“I’ll say! She was swearing and cursing about him all the time.”

“How did she meet Schultz?”

Pete hesitated.

“This is a trade? You tell me where I contact that little bitch and Harry?”

“It’s a trade.”

“Schultz came here a few days after the snatch,” Pete said. “He wanted to know how he could contact Anna. He said Ma Grisson wanted to talk to the girl. When I told him the Feds were watching Anna, he told me to call her and get her down here in this office. I wasn’t here when they met, but a couple of days later, Anna quit working for me. She said she had been offered a better job. When the Grissons took over the Paradise Club, she started working there. Eddie and she are living together.”

“Why was Ma Grisson interested in the girl?” Fenner asked.

Pete shrugged his shoulders.

“I don’t know.”

Fenner got to his feet. He bent over the desk and scribbled two addresses on a scratch pad.

“There you are,” he said. “I’d contact those two fast. Harry is aching to see you in jail. It’ll cost you plenty to keep his mouth shut.”

As Pete reached for the telephone, Fenner made his way back to the restaurant.

He found Paula talking animatedly to a slim, handsome gigolo who was leaning over her, looking with interest down the front of her dress.

Fenner gave him a heavy nudge.

“Okay, buster, set sail and fade away.”

The gigolo looked quickly at Fenner’s massive shoulders and his pugnacious jaw and he hurriedly backed away.

“Don’t let this ape worry you,” Paula said. “Brush him off. One good smack in the jaw will fix him.”

But the gigolo was already in retreat halfway across the room.

“Hi, baby, I’m surprised at the company you keep,” Fenner said, smiling at her.

Paula leaned back in her chair and smiled at him.

“Did your Italian friend spit in your eye?”

“No, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t want to. Come on, baby. I want to go to bed.”

She looked interested.

“Alone?”

“Yeah, alone,” Fenner said, piloting her out of the restaurant. “I want all my strength for tomorrow. I’m calling on Anna Borg and from what I hear, she’s more than a handful.”

Paula got into the car and straightened her skirt.

“Isn’t she a stripper?”

“Yeah,” Fenner said and grinned. “Don’t look so prim; just because she is, I don’t have to be one of that fan dancer’s fans.”

samuel beckett’s not i—protracted parataxis conveys a life lost and anonymous

Samuel Beckett’s Not I was first performed in November 1972 at the Forum Theatre of the Lincoln Centre in New York; the first U.K. performance came soon after, in January 1973 at London’s Royal Court Theatre.

Because of the play’s high modernist use of fragmented phrasing and imagery to represent a self shattered and self-divided, submersed in an alienation approaching the extremities of language, of thought itself, Not I has come to be regarded as an exemplar of modern theatre.

  

Samuel Beckett, Not I

Note

Movement: this consists in simple sideways raising of arms from sides and their falling back, in a gesture of helpless compassion. It lessens with each recurrence till scarcely perceptible at third. There is just enough pause to contain it as MOUTH recovers from vehement refusal to relinquish third person.

Stage in darkness but for MOUTH, upstage audience right, about 8 feet above stage level, faintly lit from close-up and below, rest of face in shadow. Invisible microphone.

AUDITOR, downstage audience left, tall standing figure, sex undeterminable, enveloped from head to foot in loose black djellaba, with hood, fully faintly lit, standing on invisible podium about 4 feet high shown by attitude alone to be facing diagonally across stage intent on MOUTH, dead still throughout but for four brief movements where indicated. See Note.

As house lights down MOUTH’s voice unintelligible behind curtain. House lights out. Voice continues unintelligible behind curtain, 10 seconds. With rise of curtain ad-libbing from text as required leading when curtain fully up and attention sufficient into: 

MOUTH: . . . . out . . . into this world . . . this world . . . tinylittle thing . . . before its time . . . in a godfor— . . . what? . . girl? . . yes . . . tiny little girl . . . into this . . . out into this . . . before her time . . . godforsaken hole called . . . called . . . no matter . . . parents unknown . . . unheard of . . . he having vanished . . . thin air . . . no sooner buttoned up his breeches . . . she similarly . . . eight months later . . . almost to the tick . . . so no love . . . spared that . . . no love such as normally vented on the . . . speechless infant . . . in the home . . . no . . . nor indeed for that matter any of any kind . . . no love of any kind . . . at any subsequent stage . . . so typical affair . . . nothing of any note till coming up to sixty when— . . . what? . . seventy? . . good God! . . coming up to seventy . . . wandering in a field . . . looking aimlessly for cowslips . . . to make a ball . . . a few steps then stop . . . stare into space . . . then on . . . a few more . . . stop and stare again . . . so on . . . drifting around . . . when suddenly . . . gradually . . . all went out . . . all that early April morning light . . . and she found herself in the— . . . what? . . who?. . no! . . she! . . [Pause and movement 1.]. . . . found herself in the dark . . . and if not exactly . . . insentient . . . insentient . . . for she could still hear the buzzing . . . so-called . . . in the ears . . . and a ray of light came and went . . . came and went . . . such as the moon might cast . . . drifting . . . in and out of cloud . . . but so dulled . . . feeling . . . feeling so dulled . . . she did not know . . . what position she was in . . . imagine! . . what position she was in! . . whether standing . . . or sitting . . . but the brain— . . . what? . . kneeling? . . yes . . . whether standing . . . or sitting . . . or kneeling . . . but the brain— . . . what? . . lying? . . yes . . . whether standing . . . or sitting . . . or kneeling . . . or lying . . . but the brain still . . . still . . . in a way . . . for her first thought was . . . oh long after . . . sudden flash . . . brought up as she had been to believe . . . with the other waifs . . . in a merciful . . . [Brief laugh.] . . . God . . . [Good laugh.] . . . first thought was . . . oh long after . . . sudden flash . . . she was being punished . . . for her sins . . . a number of which then . . . further proof if proof were needed . . . flashed through her mind . . . one after another . . . then dismissed as foolish . . . oh long after . . . this thought dismissed . . . as she suddenly realized . . . gradually realized . . . she was not suffering . . . imagine! . . not suffering! . . indeed could not remember . . . off-hand . . . when she had suffered less . . . unless of course she was . . . meant to be suffering . . . ha! . . thought to be suffering . . . just as the odd time . . . in her life . . . when clearly intended to be having pleasure . . . she was in fact . . . having none . . . not the slightest . . . in which case of course . . . that notion of punishment . . . for some sin or other . . . or for the lot . . . or no particular reason . . . for its own sake . . . thing she understood perfectly . . . that notion of punishment . . . which had first occurred to her . . . brought up as she had been to believe . . . with the other waifs . . . in a merciful . . . [Brief laugh.] . . . God . . . [Good laugh.] . . . first occurred to her . . . then dismissed . . . as foolish . . . was perhaps not so foolish . . . after all . . . so on . . . all that . . . vain reasonings . . . till another thought . . . oh long after . . . sudden flash . . . very foolish really but— . . . what? . . the buzzing? . . yes . . . all the time the buzzing . . . so-called . . . in the ears . . . though of course actually . . . not in the ears at all . . . in the skull . . dull roar in the skull . . . and all the time this ray or beam . . . like moonbeam . . . but probably not . . . certainly not . . . always the same spot . . . now bright . . . now shrouded . . . but always the same spot . . . as no moon could . . . no . . . no moon . . . just all part of the same wish to . . . torment . . . though actually in point of fact . . . not in the least . . . not a twinge . . . so far . . . ha! . . so far . . . this other thought then . . . oh long after . . .  sudden flash . . . very foolish really but so like her . . . in a way . . . that she might do well to . . . groan . . . on and off . . . writhe she could not . . . as if in actual agony . . . but could not . . . could not bring herself . . . some flaw in her make-up . . . incapable of deceit . . . or the machine . . . more likely the

machine . . . so disconnected . . . never got the message . . . or powerless to respond . . . like numbed . . . couldn’t make the sound . . . not any sound . . . no sound of any kind . . . no screaming for help for example . . . should she feel so
inclined
. . . scream . . . [Screams.] . . . then listen . . . [Silence.] . . . scream again . . . [Screams again.] . . . then listen again . . . [Silence.] . . . no . . . spared that . . . all silent as the grave . . . no part— . . . what? . . the buzzing? . . yes . . . all silent but for the buzzing . . . so-called . . . no part of her moving . . . that she could feel . . . just the eyelids . . . presumably . . . on and off . . . shut out the light . . . reflex they call it . . . no feeling of any kind . . . but the lids . . . even best of times . . . who feels them? . . opening . . . shutting . . . all that moisture . . . but the brain still . . . still sufficiently . . . oh very much so! . . at this stage . . . in control . . . under control . . . to question even this . . . for on that April morning .. . so it reasoned . . . that April morning . . . she fixing with her eye . . . a distant bell . . . as she hastened towards it . . . fixing it with her eye . . . lest it elude her . . . had not all gone out . . . all that light . . . of itself . . . without any . . . any . . . on her part . . . so on . . . so on it reasoned . . . vain questionings . . . and all dead still . . . sweet silent as the grave . . . when suddenly . . . gradually . . . she realiz— . . . what? . . the buzzing? . . yes . . . all dead still but for the buzzing . . . when suddenly she realized . . . words were— . . . what? . . who? . . no! . . she! . . [Pause and movement 2.] . . . realized . . . words were coming . . . imagine! . . words were coming . . . a voice she did not recognize . . . at first . . . so long since it had sounded . . . then finally had to admit . . . could be none other . . . than her own . . . certain vowel sounds . . . she had never heard . . . elsewhere . . . so that people would stare . . . the rare occasions . . . once or twice a year . . . always winter some strange reason . . . stare at her uncomprehending . . . and now this stream . . . steady stream . . . she who had never . . . on the contrary . . . practically speechless . . . all her days . . . how she survived! . . even shopping . . . out shopping . . . busy shopping centre . . . supermart . . . just hand in the list . . . with the bag . . . old black shopping bag . . . then stand there waiting . . . any length of time . . . middle of the throng . . . motionless . . . staring into space . . . mouth half open as usual . . . till it was back in her hand . . . the bag back in her hand . . . then pay and go . . . not as much as good-bye . . . how she survived! . . and now this stream . . . not catching the half of it . . . not the quarter . . . no idea . . . what she was saying . . . imagine! . . no idea what she was saying! . . till she began trying to . . . delude herself . . . it was not hers at all . . . not her voice at all . . . and no doubt would have . . . vital she should . . . was on the point . . . after long efforts . . . when suddenly she felt . . . gradually she felt . . . her lips moving . . . imagine! . . her lips moving! . . as of course till then she had not . . . and not alone the lips . . . the cheeks . . . the jaws . . . the whole face . . . all those— . . . what? . . the tongue? . . yes . . . the tongue in the mouth . . . all those contortions without which . . . no speech possible . . . and yet in the ordinary way . . . not felt at all . . . so intent one is . . . on what one is saying . . . the whole being . . . hanging on its words . . . so that not only she had . . . had she . . . not only had she . . . to give up . . . admit hers alone . . . her voice alone . . . but this other awful thought . . . oh long after . . . sudden flash . . . even more awful if possible . . . that feeling was coming back . . . imagine! . . feeling coming back! . . starting at the top . . . then working down . . . the whole machine . . . but no . . . spared that . . . the mouth alone . . . so far . . . ha! . . so far . . . then thinking . . . oh long after . . . sudden flash . . . it can’t go on . . . all this . . . all that . . . steady stream . . . straining to hear . . . make something of it . . . and her own thoughts . . . make something of them . . . all— . . . what! . . the buzzing? . . yes . . . all the time the buzzing . . . so-called . . . all that together . . . imagine! . . whole body like gone . . . just the mouth . . . lips . . . cheeks . . . jaws . . .never— . . . what? . . tongue? . . yes . . . lips . . . cheeks . . . jaws . . . tongue . . . never still a second . . . mouth on fire . . . stream of words . . . in her ear . . . practically in her ear . . . not catching the half . . . not the quarter . . . no idea what she’s saying . . . imagine! . . no idea what she’s saying! . . and can’t stop . . . no stopping it . . . she who but a moment before . . . but a moment! . . could not make a sound . . . no sound of any kind . . . now can’t stop . . . imagine! . . can’t stop the stream . . . and the whole brain begging . . . something begging in the brain . . . begging the mouth to stop . . . pause a moment . . . if only for a moment . . . and no response . . . as if it hadn’t heard . . . or couldn’t . . . couldn’t pause a second . . . like maddened . . . all that together . . . straining to hear . . . piece it together . . . and the brain . . . raving away on its own . . . trying to make sense of it . . . or make it stop . . . or in the past . . . dragging up the past . . . flashes from all over . . . walks mostly . . . walking all her days . . . day after day . . . a few steps then stop . . . stare into space . . . then on . . . a few more . . . stop and stare again . . . so on . . . drifting around . . . day after day . . . or that time she cried . . . the one time she could remember . . . since she was a baby . . . must have cried as a baby . . . perhaps not . . . not essential to life . . . just the birth cry to get her going . . . breathing . . . then no more till this . . . old hag already . . . sitting staring at her hand . . . where was it? . . Croker’s Acres . . . one evening on the way home . . . home! . . a little mound in Croker’s Acres . . . dusk . . . sitting staring at her hand . . . there in her lap . . . palm upward . . . suddenly saw it wet . . . the palm . . . tears presumably . . . hers presumably . . . no one else for miles . . . no sound . . . just the tears . . . sat and watched them dry . . . all over in a second . . . or grabbing at straw . . . the brain . . . flickering away on its own . . . quick grab and on . . . nothing there . . . on to the next . . . bad as the voice . . . worse . . . as little sense . . . all that together . . . can’t— . . . what? . . the buzzing? . . yes . . . all the time the buzzing . . . dull roar like falls . . . and the beam . . . flickering on and off . . . starting to move around . . . like moonbeam but not . . . all part of the same . . . keep an eye on that too . . . corner of the eye . . . all that together . . . can’t go on . . . God is love . . . she’ll be purged . . . back in the field . . . morning sun . . . April . . . sink face down in the grass . . . nothing but the larks . . . so on . . . grabbing at the straw . . . straining to hear . . . the odd word . . . make some sense of it . . . whole body like gone . . . just the mouth . . . like maddened . . . and can’t stop . . . no stopping it . . . something she— . . . something she had to— . . . what? . . who? . . no! . . she! . . [Pause and movement 3.] . . . something she had to— . . . what? . . the buzzing? . . yes . . . all the time the buzzing . . . dull roar . . . in the skull . . . and the beam . . . ferreting around . . . painless . . . so far . . . ha! . . so far . . . then thinking . . . oh long after . . . sudden flash . . . perhaps something she had to . . . had to . . . tell . . . could that be it? . . something she had to . . . tell . . . tiny little thing . . . before its time . . . godforsaken hole . . . no love . . . spared that . . . speechless all her days . . . practically speechless . . . how she survived! . . that time in court . . . what had she to say for herself . . . guilty or not guilty . . . stand up woman . . . speak up woman . . . stood there staring into space . . . mouth half open as usual . . . waiting to be led away . . . glad of the hand on her arm . . . now this . . . something she had to tell . . . could that be it? . . something that would tell . . . how it was . . . how she— . . . what? . . had been? . . yes . . . something that would tell how it had been . . . how she had lived . . . lived on and on . . . guilty or not . . . on and on . . . to be sixty . . . somethingshe— . . . what? . . seventy? . . good God! . . on and on to be seventy . . . something she didn’t know herself . . . wouldn’t know if she heard . . . then forgiven . . . God is love . . . tender mercies . . . new every morning . . . back in the field . . . April morning . . . face in the grass . . . nothing but the larks . . . pick it up there . . . get on with it from there . . . another few— . . . what? . . not that? . . nothing to do with that? . . nothing she could tell? . . all right . . . nothing she could tell . . . try something else . . . think of something else . . . oh long after . . . sudden flash . . . not that either . . . all right . . . something else again . . . so on . . . hit on it in the end . . . think everything keep on long enough . . . then forgiven . . . back in the— . . . what? . . not that either? . . nothing to do with that either? . . nothing she could think? . . all right . . . nothing she could tell . . . nothing she could think . . . nothing she— . . . what? . . who? . . no! . . she! . . [Pause and movement 4.] . . . tiny little thing . . . out before its time . . . godforsaken hole . . . no love . . . spared that . . . speechless all her days . . . practically speechless . . . even to herself . . . never out loud . . . but not completely . . . sometimes sudden urge . . . once or twice a year . . . always winter some strange reason . . . the long evenings . . . hours of darkness . . . sudden urge to . . . tell . . . then rush out stop the first she saw . . . nearest lavatory . . . start pouring it out . . . steady stream . . . mad stuff . . . half the vowels wrong . . . no one could follow . . . till she saw the stare she was getting . . . then die of shame . . . crawl back in . . . once or twice a year . . . always winter some strange reason . . . long hours of darkness . . . now this . . . this . . . quicker and quicker . . . the words . . . the brain . . . flickering away like mad . . . quick grab and on . . . nothing there . . . on somewhere else . . . try somewhere else . . . all the time something begging . . . something in her begging . . . begging it all to stop . . . unanswered . . . prayer unanswered . . . or unheard . . . too faint . . . so on . . . keep on . . . trying . . . not knowing what . . . what she was trying . . . what to try . . . whole body like gone . . . just the mouth . . . like maddened . . . so on . . . keep— . . . what? . . the buzzing? . . yes . . . all the time the buzzing . . . dull roar like falls . . . in the skull . . . and the beam . . . poking around . . . painless . . . so far . . . ha! . . so far . . . all that . . . keep on . . . not knowing what . . . what she was— . . . what? . . who? . . no! . . she! . . SHE! . . [Pause.] . . . what she was trying . . . what to try . . . no matter . . . keep on . . . [Curtain starts down.] . . . hit on it in the end . . . then back . . . God is love . . . tender mercies . . . new every morning . . . back in the field . . . April morning . . . face in the grass . . . nothing but the larks . . . pick it up

[Curtain fully down. House dark. Voice continues behind curtain, unintelligible, 10 seconds, ceases as house lights up.]

 

 

aesthetics, suffering & foucault’s “the care of the self”: new ways of understating the individual

Cover Image

In The Gay Science Nietzsche observes that:      
  
every art, every philosophy may be viewed as a remedy and an aid in the service of growing and struggling life; they always presuppose suffering and sufferers. But there are two kinds of sufferers: first, those who suffer from the over-fullness of life—they want a Dionysian art and likewise a tragic view of life, a tragic insight—and then those who suffer from the impoverishment of life and seek rest, stillness, calm seas, redemption from themselves through art and knowledge, or intoxication, convulsions, anaesthesia, and madness.              
 
— Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 1974), p 328.
 
All of which leads me to these preliminary thoughts: in much of Michel Foucault’s work the concepts of the individual self, of personal identity, of the atomistic subject, are considered to be little more than the residue of a rejected and decaying metaphysics. Yet when Foucault came to explore what he termed the care of the self, his attitude toward the individual seems somehow different to me: it is as if he is surreptitiously positing a new form of the individual, one markedly different than the traditional concept, with its basic suppositions of personal unity and continuity. It is this older notion of individual personhood that Foucault sought to supplant with his new ideas on the self and action. He sums up this conflict between differing notions of the self as follows:
 
The theory of the subject (in the double sense of the word) is at the heart of humanism and this is why our culture has tenaciously rejected anything that could weaken its hold upon us. But it can be attacked in two ways: either by a "desubjectification" of the will to power (that is, through political struggle in the context of class warfare) or by the destruction of the subject as a pseudo-sovereign (that is, through an attack on "culture": the suppression of taboos and the limitations and divisions imposed upon the sexes; the setting up of communes; the loosening of inhibitions with regard to drugs; the breaking of all the prohibitions that form and guide the development of a normal individual). I am referring to all those experiences which have been rejected by our civilization or which it accepts only within literature.
 
— Michel Foucault, "Revolutionary Action: ‘Until Now,’" Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977), p 222.

the public triumph & private hell of the american epoch, as told by john cheever in just 4,648 words

John Cheever’s great short story, "The Death of Justina," first appeared in the November 1960 issue of Esquire (along with writing by Norman Mailer and Ian Fleming!). It then appeared a year later in a volume of short stories, Some People, Places & Things That Will Not Appear in My Next Novel, which was reviewed in the April 28, 1961 issue of Time Magazine, under the headline "One Man’s Hell":
 
About six months ago, Author John (The Wapshot Chronicle) Cheever announced publicly that "life in the U.S. in 1960 is hell." Since hell is a private estate, it might be supposed that he could have been speaking merely for himself. But his scores of short stories and now this book of new ones prove plainly, of course, that he was speaking as well for his not-so-fictional characters. The hell he has staked out for them is by now unmistakably Cheever country (nice house, nice income, nice wife, nice kids, all of it tasting of despair and a thick tongue the morning after). But only rarely is there a true hellion to be found there. There are, rather, middleclass, earthly sufferers whose jobs are as uncertain or as unsatisfying as their moral underpinnings, their visions of goodness constantly clouded by the more intolerable vision of the sad ending that must overtake them and their neighbours…
 
The Death of Justina is a more explicit try at sketching a corner of hell in suburban U.S. His wife’s elderly cousin dies in the narrator’s house, but the town is so carefully zoned that in his neighborhood there are no undertakers and none are permitted to come from outside to pick her up. The only solution, his doctor tells him, is to take her across the zoning line in his car. But Justina’s death is merely the incident that fires the smoldering discontent of a man whose daily stint is to commute to the city and turn out TV commercials. Cheever is almost surely speaking for himself when his frustrated adman says: "There are some Americans who, although their fathers emigrated from the Old World three centuries ago, never seem to have quite completed the voyage, and I am one of these."
Here, in its entirety, is Cheever’s great story, one of the best short stories in all of American literature: 

THE DEATH OF JUSTINA
 
So help me God it gets more and more preposterous, it corresponds less and less to what I remember and what I expect as if the force of life were centrifugal and threw one further and further away from one’s purest memories and ambitions; and I can barely recall the old house where I was raised, where in midwinter Parma violets bloomed in a cold frame near the kitchen door, and down the long corridor, past the seven views of Rome—up two steps and down three—one entered the library, where all the books were in order, the lamps were bright, where there was a fire and a dozen bottles of good bourbon locked in a cabinet with a veneer like tortoise shell whose silver key my father wore on his watch chain. Fiction is art and art is the triumph over chaos (no less) and we can accomplish this only by the most vigilant exercise of choice, but in a world that changes more swiftly than we can perceive there is always the danger that our powers of selection will be mistaken and that the vision we serve will come to nothing. We admire decency and we despise death but even the mountains seem to shift in the space of a night and perhaps the exhibitionist at the corner of Chestnut and Elm streets is more significant than the lovely woman with a bar of sunlight in her hair, putting a fresh piece of cuttlebone in the nightingale’s cage. Just let me give you one example of chaos and if you disbelieve me look honestly into your own past and see if you can’t find a comparable experience.
 
 
 
ON SATURDAY the doctor told me to stop smoking and drinking and I did. I won’t go into the commonplace symptoms of withdrawal but I would like to point out that, standing at my window in the evening, watching the brilliant afterlight and the spread of darkness, I felt, through the lack of these humble stimulants, the force of some primitive memory in which the coming of night with its stars and its moon was apocalyptic. I thought suddenly of the neglected graves of my three brothers on the mountainside and that death is a loneliness much crueler than any loneliness hinted at in life. The soul (I thought) does not leave the body but lingers with it through every degrading stage of decomposition and neglect, through heat, through cold, through the long winter nights when no one comes with a wreath or a plant and no one says a prayer. This unpleasant premonition was followed by anxiety. We were going out for dinner and I thought that the oil burner would explode in our absence and burn the house. The cook would get drunk and attack my daughter with a carving knife or my wife and I would be killed in a collision on the main highway, leaving our children bewildered orphans with nothing in life to look forward to but sadness. I was able to observe, along with these foolish and terrifying anxieties, a definite impairment of my discretionary poles. I felt as if I were being lowered by ropes into the atmosphere of my childhood. I told my wife—when she passed through the living room—that I had stopped smoking and drinking but she didn’t seem to care and who would reward me for my privations? Who cared about the bitter taste in my mouth and that my head seemed to be leaving my shoulders? It seemed to me that men had honored one another with medals, statuary, and cups for much less and that abstinence is a social matter. When I abstain from sin it is more often a fear of scandal than a private resolve to improve on the purity of my heart, but here was a call for abstinence without the worldly enforcement of society, and death is not the threat that scandal is. When it was time for us to go out I was so lightheaded that I had to ask my wife to drive the car. On Sunday I sneaked seven cigarettes in various hiding places and drank two Martinis in the downstairs coat closet. At breakfast on Monday my English muffin stared up at me from the plate. I mean I saw a face there in the rough, toasted surface. The moment of recognition was fleeting, but it was deep, and I wondered who it had been. Was it a friend, an aunt, a sailor, a ski instructor, a bartender, or a conductor on a train? The smile faded off the muffin but it had been there for a second—the sense of a person, a life, a pure force of gentleness and censure—and I am convinced that the muffin had contained the presence of some spirit. As you can see, I was nervous.
      On Monday my wife’s old cousin, Justina, came to visit her. Justina was a lively guest although she must have been crowding eighty. On Tuesday my wife gave her a lunch party. The last guest left at three and a few minutes later Cousin Justina, sitting on the living-room sofa with a glass of good brandy, breathed her last. My wife called me at the office and I said that I would be right out. I was clearing my desk when my boss, MacPherson, came in.
      "Spare me a minute," he asked. "I’ve been bird-dogging all over the place, trying to track you down. Pierce had to leave early and I want you to write the last Elixircol commercial."
      "Oh, I can’t, Mac," I said. "My wife just called. Cousin Justina is dead."
      "You write that commercial," he said. His smile was satanic. "Pierce had to leave early because his grandmother fell off a stepladder."
      Now, I don’t like fictional accounts of office life. It seems to me that if you’re going to write fiction you should write about mountain climbing and tempests at sea, and I will go over my predicament with MacPherson briefly, aggravated as it was by his refusal to respect and honor the death of dear old Justina. It was like MacPherson. It was a good example of the way I’ve been treated. He is,I might say, a tall, splendidly groomed man of about sixty who changes his shirt three times a day, romances his secretary every afternoon between two and two-thirty, and makes the habit of continuously chewing gum seem hygienic and elegant. I write his speeches for him and it has not been a happy arrangement for me. If the speeches are successful MacPherson takes all the credit. I can see that his presence, his tailor, and his fine voice are all a part of the performance but it makes me angry never to be given credit for what was said. On the other hand, if the speeches are unsuccessful—if his presence and his voice can’t carry the hour—his threatening and sarcastic manner is surgical and I am obliged to contain myself in the role of a man who can do no good in spite of the piles of congratulatory mail that my eloquence sometimes brings in. I must pretend—I must, like an actor, study and improve on my pretension—to have nothing to do with his triumphs, and I must bow my head gracefully in shame when we have both failed. I am forced to appear grateful for injuries, to lie, to smile falsely, and to play out a role as inane and as unrelated to the facts as a minor prince in an operetta, but if I speak the truth it will be my wife and my children who will pay in hardships for my outspokenness. Now he refused to respect or even to admit the solemn fact of a death in our family and if I couldn’t rebel it seemed as if I could at least hint at it.
      The commercial he wanted me to write was for a tonic called Elixircol and was to be spoken on television by an actress who was neither young nor beautiful but who had an appearance of ready abandon and who was anyhow the mistress of one of the sponsor’s uncles. Are you growing old? I wrote. Are you falling out of love with your image in the looking glass? Does your face in the morning seem rucked and seamed with alcoholic and sexual excesses and does the rest of you appear to be a grayish-pink lump, covered all over with brindle hair? Walking in the autumn woods do you feel that a subtle distance has come between you and the smell of wood smoke? Have you drafted your obituary? Are you easily winded? Do you wear a girdle? Is your sense of smell fading, is your interest in gardening waning, is your fear of heights increasing, and are your sexual drives as ravening and intense as ever and does your wife look more and more to you like a stranger with sunken cheeks who has wandered into your bedroom by mistake? If this or any of this is true you need Elixircol, the true juice of youth. The small economy size (business with the bottle) costs seventy-five dollars and the giant family bottle comes at two hundred and fifty. It’s a lot of scratch, God knows, but these are inflationary times and who can put a price on youth? If you don’t have the cash borrow it from your neighborhood loan shark or hold up the local bank. The odds are three to one that with a ten-cent water pistol and a slip of paper you can shake ten thousand out of any fainthearted teller. Everybody’s doing it. (Music up and out.) I sent this in to MacPherson via Raiphie, the messenger boy, and took the 5:16 home, traveling through a landscape of utter desolation.
      Now, my journey is a digression and has no real connection to Justina’s death but what followed could only have happened in my country and in my time and since I was an American traveling across an American landscape the trip may be part of the sum. There are some Americans who, although their fathers emigrated from the Old World three centuries ago, never seem to have quite completed the voyage and I am one of these. I stand, figuratively, with one wet foot on Plymouth Rock, looking with some delicacy, not into a formidable and challenging wilderness but onto a half-finished civilization embracing glass towers, oil derricks, suburban continents, and abandoned movie houses and wondering why, in this most prosperous, equitable, and accomplished world—where even the cleaning women practice the Chopin preludes in their spare time—everyone should seem to be disappointed.
      At Proxmire Manor I was the only passenger to get off the random, meandering, and profitless local that carried its shabby lights off into the dusk like some game-legged watchman or beadle making his appointed rounds. I went around to the front of the station to wait for my wife and to enjoy the traveler’s fine sense of crisis. Above me on the hill were my home and the homes of my friends, all lighted and smelling of fragrant wood smoke like the temples in a sacred grove, dedicated to monogamy, feckless childhood, and domestic bliss but so like a dream that I felt the lack of viscera with much more than poignance—the absence of that inner dynamism we respond to in some European landscapes. In short, I was disappointed. It was my country, my beloved country, and there have been mornings when I could have kissed the earth that covers its many provinces and states. There was a hint of bliss; romantic and domestic bliss. I seemed to hear the jingle bells of the sleigh that would carry me to Grandmother’s house although in fact Grandmother spent the last years of her life working as a hostess on an ocean liner and was lost in the tragic sinking of the S. S. Lorelei and I was responding to a memory that I had not experienced. But the hill of light rose like an answer to some primitive dream of homecoming. On one of the highest lawns I saw the remains of a snowman who still smoked a pipe and wore a scarf and a cap but whose form was wasting away and whose anthracite eyes stared out at the view with terrifying bitterness. I sensed some disappointing greenness of spirit in the scene although I knew in my bones, no less, how like yesterday it was that my father left the Old World to found a new; and I thought of the forces that had brought stamina to the image: the cruel towns of Calabria and their cruel princes, the badlands northwest of Dublin, ghettos, despots, whorehouses, bread lines, the graves of children, intolerable hunger, corruption, persecution, and despair had generated these faint and mellow lights and wasn’t it all a part of the great migration that is the life of man?
      My wife’s cheeks were wet with tears when I kissed her. She was distressed, of course, and really quite sad. She had been attached to Justina. She drove me home, where Justina was still sitting on the sofa. I would like to spare you the unpleasant details but I will say that both her mouth and her eyes were wide open. I went into the pantry to telephone Dr. Hunter. His line was busy. I poured myself a drink—the first since Sunday—and lighted a cigarette. When I called the doctor again he answered and I told him what had happened. "Well, I’m awfully sorry to hear about it, Moses," he said. "I can’t get over until after six and there isn’t much that I can do. This sort of thing has come up before and I’ll tell you all I know. You see, you live in Zone B—two-acre lots, no commercial enterprises and so forth. A couple of years ago some stranger bought the old Plewett mansion and it turned out that he was planning to operate it as a funeral home. We didn’t have any zoning provision at the time that would protect us and one was rushed through the Village Council at midnight and they overdid it. It seems that you not only can’t have a funeral home in Zone B—you can’t bury anything there and you can’t die there. Of course it’s absurd, but we all make mistakes, don’t we? Now there are two things you can do. I’ve had to deal with this before. You can take the old lady and put her into the car and drive her over to Chestnut Street, where Zone C begins. The boundary is just beyond the traffic light by the high school. As soon as you get her over to Zone C, it’s all right. You can just say she died in the car. You can do that or if this seems distasteful you can call the Mayor and ask him to make an exception to the zoning laws. But I can’t write you out a death certificate until you get her out of that neighborhood and of course no undertaker will touch her until you get a death certificate."
      "I don’t understand," I said, and I didn’t, but then the possibility that there was some truth in what he had just told me broke against me or over me like a wave, exciting mostly indignation. "I’ve never heard such a lot of damned foolishness in my life," I said. "Do you mean to tell me that I can’t die in one neighborhood and that I can’t fall in love in another and that I can’t eat..
      "Listen. Calm down, Moses. I’m not telling you anything but the facts and I have a lot of patients waiting. I don’t have the time to listen to you fulminate. If you want to move her, call me as soon as you get her over to the traffic light. Otherwise, I’d advise you to get in touch with the Mayor or someone on the Village Council." He cut the connection. I was outraged but this did not change the fact that Justina was still sitting on the sofa. I poured a fresh drink and lit another cigarette.
      Justina seemed to be waiting for me and to be changing from an inert into a demanding figure. I tried to imagine carrying her out to the station wagon but I couldn’t complete the task in my imagination and I was sure that I couldn’t complete it in fact. I then called the Mayor but this position in our village is mostly honorary and as I might have known he was in his New York law office and was not expected home until seven. I could cover her, I thought, that would be a decent thing to do, and I went up the back stairs to the linen closet and got a sheet. It was getting dark when I came back into the living room but this was no merciful twilight. Dusk seemed to be playing directly into her hands and she gained power and stature with the dark. I covered her with a sheet and turned on a lamp at the other end of the room but the rectitude of the place with its old furniture, flowers, paintings, etc., was demolished by her monumental shape. The next thing to worry about was the children, who would be home in a few minutes. Their knowledge of death, excepting their dreams and intuitions of which I know nothing, is zero and the bold figure in the parlor was bound to be traumatic. When I heard them coming up the walk I went out and told them what had happened and sent them up to their rooms. At seven I drove over to the Mayor’s.
      He had not come home but hewas expected at any minute and I talked with his wife. She gave me a drink. By this time I was chainsmoking. When the Mayor came in we went into a little office or library, where he took up a position behind a desk, putting me in the low chair of a supplicant. "Of course I sympathize with you, Moses," he said, "it’s an awful thing to have happened, but the trouble is that we can’t give you a zoning exception without a majority vote of the Village Council and all the members of the Council happen to be out of town. Pete’s in California and Jack’s in Paris and Larry won’t be back from Stowe until the end of the week."
      I was sarcastic. "Then I suppose Cousin Justina will have to gracefully decompose in my parlor until Jack comes back from Paris."
      "Oh no," he said, "oh no. Jack won’t be back from Paris for another month but I think you might wait until Larry comes from Stowe. Then we’d have a majority, assuming of course that they would agree to your appeal."
      "For Christ’s sake," I snarled.
      "Yes, yes," he said, "it is difficult, but after all you must realize that this is the world you live in and the importance of zoning can’t be overestimated. Why, if a single member of the Council could give out zoning exceptions, I could give you permission right now to open a saloon in your garage, put up neon lights, hire an orchestra, and destroy the neighborhood and all the human and commercial values we’ve worked so hard to protect."
      "I don’t want to open a saloon in my garage," I howled. "I don’t want to hire an orchestra. I just want to bury Justina."
      "I know, Moses, I know," he said. "I understand that. But it’s just that it happened in the wrong zone and if I make an exception for you I’ll have to make an exception for everyone and this kind of morbidity, when it gets out of hand, can be very depressing. People don’t like to live in a neighborhood where this sort of thing goes on all the time.
      "Listen to me," I said. "You give me an exception and you give it to me now or I’m going home and dig a hole in my garden and bury Justina myself."
      "But you can’t do that, Moses. You can’t bury anything in Zone B. You can’t even bury a cat."
      "You’re mistaken," I said. "I can and I will. I can’t function as a doctor and I can’t function as an undertaker, but I can dig a hole in the ground and if you don’t give me my exception, that’s what I’m going to do."
      "Come back, Moses, come back," he said. "Please come back. Look, I’ll give you an exception if you’ll promise not to tell anyone. It’s breaking the law, it’s a forgery but I’ll do it if you promise to keep it a secret."
      I promised to keep it a secret, he gave me the documents, and I used his telephone to make the arrangements. Justina was removed a few minutes after I got home but that night I had the strangest dream. I dreamed that I was in a crowded supermarket. It must have been night because the windows were dark. The ceiling was paved with fluorescent light—brilliant, cheerful but, considering our prehistoric memories, a harsh link in the chain of light that binds us to the past. Music was playing and there must have been at least a thousand shoppers pushing their wagons among the long corridors of comestibles and victuals. Now is there—or isn’t there—something about the posture we assume when we push a wagon that unsexes us? Can it be done with gallantry? I bring this up because the multitude of shoppers seemed that evening, as they pushed their wagons, penitential and unsexed. There were all kinds, this being my beloved country. There were Italians, Finns, Jews, Negroes, Shropshiremen, Cubans—anyone who had heeded the voice of liberty—and they were dressed with that sumptuary abandon that European caricaturists record with such bitter disgust. Yes, there were grandmothers in shorts, big-butted women in knitted pants, and men wearing such an assortment of clothing that it looked as if they had dressed hurriedly in a burning building. But this, as I say, is my own country and in my opinion the caricaturist who vilifies the old lady in shorts vilifies himself. I am a native and I was wearing buckskin jump boots, chino pants cut so tight that my sexual organs were discernible, and a rayon-acetate pajama top printed with representations of the Pinta, the Nina, and the Santa Maria in full sail. The scene was strange—the strangeness of a dream where we see familiar objects in an unfamiliar light—but as I looked more closely I saw that there were some irregularities. Nothing was labeled. Nothing was identified or known. The cans and boxes were all bare. The frozen-food bins were full of brown parcels but they were such odd shapes that you couldn’t tell if they contained a frozen turkey or a Chinese dinner. All the goods at the vegetable and the bakery counters were concealed in brown bags and even the books for sale had no titles. In spite of the fact that the contents of nothing was known, my companions of the dreamy thousands of bizarrely dressed compatriots—were deliberating gravely over these mysterious containers as if the choices they made were critical. Like any dreamer, I was omniscient, I was with them and I was withdrawn, and stepping above the scene for a minute I noticed the men at the check-out counters. They were brutes. Now, sometimes in a crowd, in a bar or a street, you will see a face so full-blown in its obdurate resistance to the appeals of love, reason, and decency, so lewd,so brutish and unregenerate, that you turn away. Men like these were stationed at the only way out and as the shoppers approached them they tore their packages open—I still couldn’t see what they contained—but in every case the customer, at the sight of what he had chosen, showed all the symptoms of the deepest guilt; that force that brings us to our knees. Once their choice had been opened to their shame they were pushed—in some cases kicked—toward the door and beyond the door I saw dark water and heard a terrible noise of moaning and crying in the air. They waited at the door in groups to be taken away in some conveyance that I couldn’t see. As I watched, thousands and thousands pushed their wagons through the market, made their careful and mysterious choices, and were reviled and taken away. What could be the meaning of this?
 
 
 
WE BURIED JUSTINA in the rain the next afternoon. The dead are not, God knows, a minority, but in Proxmire Manor their unexalted kingdom is on the outskirts, rather like a dump, where they are transported furtively as knaves and scoundrels and where they lie in an atmosphere of perfect neglect. Justina’s life had been exemplary, but by ending it she seemed to have disgraced us all. The priest was a friend and a cheerful sight, but the undertaker and his helpers, hiding behind their limousines, were not; and aren’t they at the root of most of our troubles, with their claim that death is a violet-flavored kiss? How can a people who do not mean to understand death hope to understand love, and who will sound the alarm?
      I went from the cemetery back to my office. The commercial was on my desk and MacPherson had written across it in grease pencil: Very funny, you broken-down bore. Do again. I was tired but unrepentant and didn’t seem able to force myself into a practical posture of usefulness and obedience. I did another commercial. Don’t lose your loved ones, I wrote, because of excessive radioactivity. Don’t be a wallflower at the dance because of strontium 90 in your bones. Don’t be a victim of fallout. When the tart on Thirty-sixth Street gives you the big eye does your body stride off in one direction and your imagination in another? Does your mind follow her up the stairs and taste her wares in revolting detail while your flesh goes off to Brooks Brothers or the foreign exchange desk of the Chase Manhattan Bank? Haven’t you noticed the size of the ferns, the lushness of the grass, the bitterness of the string beans, and the brilliant markings on the new breeds of butterflies? You have been inhaling lethal atomic waste for the last twenty-five years and only Elixircol can save you. I gave this to Raiphie and waited perhaps ten minutes, when it was returned, marked again with grease pencil. Do, he wrote, or you’ll be dead. I felt very tired. I put another piece of paper into the machine and wrote: The Lord is my shepherd; therefore can I lack nothing. He shall feed me in a green pasture and lead me forth beside the waters of comfort. He shall convert my soul and bring me forth in the paths of righteousness for his Name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff comfort me. Thou shalt prepare a table before me in the presence of them that trouble me; thou hast anointed my head with oil and my cup shall be full. Surely thy loving kindness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.I gave this to Ralphie and went home.

book cover of 

Some People, Places, and Things That Will Not Appear in My Next Novel 

by

John Cheever       Bookseller Photo

el hombre invisible knew the medium was the message

Marshall McLuhan, “Notes on Burroughs”

                            
  1. Today men’s nerves surround us; they have gone outside as electrical environment. The human nervous system itself can be reprogrammed biologically as readily as any radio network can alter its fare. Burroughs has dedicated Naked Lunch to the first proposition, and Nova Express (both Grove Press) to the second. Naked Lunch records private strategies of culture in the electric age. Nova Express indicates some of the "corporate" responses and adventures of the Subliminal Kid who is living in a universe which seems to be someone else’s insides. Both books are a kind of engineer’s report of the terrain hazards and mandatory processes, which exist in the new electric environment. 
  1. Burroughs uses what he calls "Brion Gysin’s cut-up method which I call the fold-in method." To read the daily newspaper in its entirety is to encounter the method in all its purity. Similarly, an evening watching television programs is an experience in a corporate form—an endless succession of impressions and snatches of narrative. Burroughs is unique only in that he is attempting to reproduce in prose what we accommodate every day as a commonplace aspect of life in the electric age. If the corporate life is to be rendered on paper, the method of discontinuous nonstory must be employed. 
  1. That man provides the sexual organs of the technological world seems obvious enough to Burroughs, and such is the stage (or "biological theatre" as he calls it in Nova Express) for the series of social orgasms brought about by the evolutionary mutations of man and society. The logic, physical and emotional, of aworld in which we have made our environment out of our own nervous systems, Burroughs follows everywhere to the peripheral orgasm of the cosmos. 
  1. Each technological extension involves an act of collective cannibalism. The previous environment with all its private and social values, is swallowed by the new environment and reprocessed for whatever values are digestible. Thus, Nature was succeeded by the mechanical environment and became what we call the "content" of the new industrial environment. That is, Nature became a vessel of aesthetic and spiritual values. Again and again the old environment is upgraded into an art form while the new conditions are regarded as corrupt and degrading. Artists, being experts in sensory awareness, tend to concentrate on the environmental as the challenging and dangerous situation. That is why they may seem to be "ahead of their time." Actually, they alone have the resources and temerity to live in immediate contact with the environment of their age. More timid people prefer to accept the content, the previous environment’s values, as the continuing reality of their time. Our natural bias is to accept the new gimmick (automation, say) as a thing that can be accommodated in the old ethical order. 
  1. During the process of digestion of the old environment, man finds it expedient to anesthetize himself as much as possible. He pays as little attention to the action of the environment as the patient heeds the surgeon’s scalpel. The gulping or swallowing of Nature by the machine was attended by a complete change of the ground rules of both the sensory ratios of the individual nervous system and the patterns of the social order as well. Today, when the environment has become the extension of the entire mesh of the nervous system, anesthesia numbs our bodies into hydraulic jacks. 
  1. Burroughs disdains the hallucinatory drugs as providing mere "content," the fantasies, dreams that money can buy. Junk (heroin) is needed to turn the human body itself into an environment that includes the universe. The central theme of Naked Lunch is the strategy of bypassing the new electric environment by becoming an environment oneself. The moment one achieves this environmental state all things and people are submitted to you to be processed. Whether a man takes the road of junk or the road of art, the entire world must submit to his processing. The world becomes his "content." He programs the sensory order. 
  1. For artists and philosophers, when a technology is new it yields Utopias. Such is Plato’s Republic in the fifth century B.C., when phonetic writing was being established. Similarly, More’s Utopia is written in the sixteenth century when the printed book had just become established. When electric technology was new and speculative, Alice in Wonderland came as a kind of non-Euclidean space-time Utopia, a grown-up version of which is the Illuminations of Rimbaud. Like Lewis Carroll, Rimbaud accepts each object as a world and the world as an object. He makes a complete break with the established procedure of putting things into time or space: 
That’s she, thelittle girl behind the rose bushes, and she’s dead. The young mother, also dead, is coming down the steps. The cousin’s carriage crunches the sand. The small brother (he’s in India!) over there in the field of pinks, in front of the sunset. The old men they’ve buried upright in the wall covered with gilly-flowers.
 
But when the full consequences of each new technology have been manifested in new psychic and social forms, then the anti-Utopias appear. Naked Lunch can be viewed as the anti-Utopia of Illuminations:
 
During the withdrawal the addict is acutely aware of his surroundings. Sense impressions are sharpened to the point of hallucination. Familiar objects seem to stir with a writhing furtive life. The addict is subject to a barrage of sensations external and visceral.
 
Or to give a concrete example from the symbolist landscape of Naked Lunch:
 
A guard in a uniform of human skin, black buck jacket with carious yellow teeth buttons, an elastic pullover shirt in burnished Indian copper […] sandals from calloused foot soles of young Malayan farmer […].
 
The key to symbolist perception is in yielding the permission to objects to resonate with their own time and space. Conventional pictorial and literary perception seeks to put diverse objects into the same time and space. Time and space themselves are subjected to the uniform and continuous visual processing that provides us with the "connected and rational" world that is in fact only an isolated fragment of reality—the visual. There is no uniform and continuous character in the nonvisual modalities of space and time. The Symbolists freed themselves from visual conditions into the visionary world of the iconic and the auditory. Their art, to the visually oriented and literary man, seems haunted, magical and often incomprehensible. It is, in John Ruskin’s words:
 
the expression, in a moment, by a series of symbols thrown together in bold and fearless connections; of truths which it would have taken a long time to express in any verbal way, and of which the connection is left for the beholder to work out for himself; the gaps, left or overleaped by the haste of the imagination, forming the grotesque character. (Modern Painters)
            
The art of the interval, rather than the art of the connection, is not only medieval but Oriental; above all, it is the art mode of instant electric culture.
 
  1. There are considerable antecedents for the Burroughs attempt to read the language of the biological theatre and the motives of the Subliminal Kid. Fleurs du Mal is a vision of the city as the technological extension of man. Baudelaire had once intended to title the book Les Limbes. The vision of the city as a physiological and psychic extension of the body he experienced as a nightmare of illness and self-alienation. Wyndham Lewis, in his trilogy The Human Age, began with The Childermass. Its theme is the massacre of innocents and the rape of entire populations by the popular media of press and film. Later in The Human Age Lewis explores the psychic mutations of man living in "the magnetic city," the instant, electric, and angelic (or diabolic) culture. Lewis views the action in a much more inclusive way than Burroughs whose world is a paradigm of a future in which there can be no spectators but only participants. All men are totally involved in the insides of all men. There is no privacy and no private parts. In a world in which we are all ingesting and digesting one another there can be no obscenity or pornography or decency. Such is the law of electric media which stretch the nerves to form a global membrane of enclosure. 
  1. The Burroughs diagnosis is that we can avoid the inevitable "closure" that accompanies each new technology by regarding our entire gadgetry as junk. Man has hopped himself up by a long series of technological fixes: 
You are dogs on all tape. The entire planet is being developed into terminal identity and complete surrender.               
 
We can forego the entire legacy of Cain (the inventor of gadgets) by applying the same formula that works for junk—"apomorphine," extended to all technology:
 
Apomorphine is no word and no image—[…] It is simply a question of putting through an innoculation program in the very limited time that remains—Word begets image and image IS virus—         
 
Burroughs is arguing that the power of the image to beget image, and of technology to reproduce itself via human intervention, is utterly in excess of our power to control the psychic and social consequences:
 
Shut the whole thing right off—Silence—When you answer the machine you provide it with more recordings to be played back to your "enemies" keep the whole nova machine running—The Chinese character for "enemy" means to be similar to or to answer—Don’t answer the machine—Shut it off— 

Merely to be in the presence of any machine, or replica of our body or faculties, is to close with it. Our sensory ratios shift at once with each encounter with any fragmented extension of our being. This is a non-stop express of innovation that cannot be endured indefinitely:
 
We are just dust falls from demagnetized patterns—Show business          
 
It is the medium that is the message because the medium creates an environment that is an indelible as it is lethal. To end the proliferation of lethal new environmental expression, Burroughs urges a huge collective act of restraint as well as a nonclosure of sensory modes—"The biological theater of the body can bear a good deal of new program notes." 
 
  1. Finnegans Wake provides the closest literary precedent to Burroughs’ work. From the beginning to end it occupied with the theme of "the extensions" of man—weaponry, clothing, languages, number, money, and media in toto. Joyce works out in detail the sensory shifts involved in each extension of man, and concludes with the resounding boast:    
The keys to. Given!               
                  
Like Burroughs, Joyce was sure he had worked out the formula for total cultural understanding and control. The idea of art as total programming for the environment is tribal, mental, Egyptian. It is, also, an idea of art to which electric technology leads quite strongly. We live science fiction. The bomb is our environment. The bomb is of higher learning all compact, the extension division of the university. The university has become a global environment. The university now contains the commercial world, as well as the military and government establishments. To reprogram the cultures of the globe becomes as natural an undertaking as curriculum revision in a university. Since new media are new environments that reprocess psyche and society in successive ways, why not bypass instruction in fragmented subjects meant for fragmented sections of the society and reprogram the environment itself? Such is Burroughs’ vision. 
 
  1. It is amusing to read reviews of Burroughs that try to classify his books as nonbooks or as failed science fiction. It is a little like trying to criticize the sartorial and verbal manifestations of a man who is knocking on the door to explain that flames are leaping from the roof of our home. Burroughs is not asking merit marks as a writer; he is trying to point to the shut-on button of an active and lethal environmental process.
Marshall McLuhan, "Notes on Burroughs," The Nation (28 Dec. 1964): 51719. Copyright © 1964 by The Nation magazine/The Nation Company, Inc.

hemingway’s credo—the world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places…

That night at the hotel, in our room with the long empty hall outside and our shoes outside the door, a thick carpet on the floor of the room, outside the windows the rain falling and in the room light and pleasant and cheerful, then the light out and it exciting with smooth sheets and the bed comfortable, feeling that we had come home, feeling no longer alone, waking in the night to find the other one there, and not gone away; all other things were unreal. We slept when we were tired and if we woke the other one woke too so one was not alone. Often a man wishes to be alone and a girl wishes to be alone too and if they love each other they are jealous of that in each other, but I can truly say we never felt that. We could feel alone when we were together, alone against the others. It has only happened to me like that once. I have been alone while I was with many girls and that is the way that you can be most lonely. But we were never lonely and never afraid when we were together. I know that the night is not the same as the day: that all things are different, that the things of the night cannot be explained in the day, because they do not then exist, and the night can be a dreadful time for lonely people once their loneliness has started. But with Catherine there was almost no difference in the night except that it was an even better time. If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.
 
—Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell To Arms