echoes of brock vond in pynchon’s new novel . . .

Was it possible, that at every gathering — concert, peace rally, love-in, be-in, and freak-in, here, up north, back East, wherever — those dark crews had been busy all along, reclaiming the music, the resistance to power, the sexual desire from epic to everyday, all they could sweep up, for the ancient forces of greed and fear?

—from Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice



paul ricoeur on narrative, identity and robert musil


The lesson that narrativity also has its unsettling cases is taught to perfection in contemporary plays and novels. To begin with, these cases can be described as fictions of the loss of identity. With Robert Musil, for example, The Man without Qualities — or more precisely, without properties (ohne Eingenschaften) — becomes ultimately nonidentifiable in a world, it is said, of qualities (or properties) without men. The anchor of the proper noun becomes ridiculous to the point of being superfluous. The nonidentifiable becomes the unnameable. To see more clearly the philosophical issues in this eclipse of the identity of the character, it is important to note that, as the narrative approaches the point of annihilation of the character, the novel also loses its own properly narrative qualities … To the loss of the identity of the character thus corresponds the loss of configuration of the narrative … these unsettling cases of narrativity can be reinterpreted as exposing selfhood by taking away the support of sameness.

—from Paul Ricoeur, Oneself as Another, trans. Kathleen Blamey. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992





Friday afternoons off from work until the end of the summer!

Got rid of about 350 books a couple of weeks ago… goodbye, Paul Ricoeur! Goodbye Colette! Adios, Ms. Atwood! Goodbye, my representative selection of Anglo-American legal theory circa 1980 – 1990!

 Reading English experimental fiction of the 1960s and 70s, by which I mean the usual suspects: 

Christine Brooke-Rose

Brigid Brophy

Alan Burns

B.S. Johnson

Ann Quin



levinas on existence: “imagine all beings, things and persons, reverting to nothingness”

From Emmanuel Levinas, Existence And Existents:



Let us imagine all beings, things and persons, reverting to nothingness. One cannot put this return to nothingness outside of all events. But what of this nothingness itself? Something would happen, if only night and the silence of nothingness. The in-determinateness of this “something is happening” is not the indeterminateness of a subject and does not refer to a substantive. Like the third person pronoun in the impersonal form of a verb, it designates not the uncertainly known author of the action, but the characteristic of this action itself which somehow has no author. This impersonal, anonymous, yet inextinguishable “consummation” of being, which murmurs in the depths of nothingness itself we shall designate by the term there is. The there is, inasmuch as it resists a personal form, is “being in general.”

We have not derived this notion from exterior things or the inner world — from any “being” whatever. For there is transcends inwardness as well as exteriority; it does not even make it possible to distinguish these. The anonymous current of being invades, submerges every subject, person or thing. The subject object distinction by which we approach existents is not the starting point for a meditation which broaches being in general. 

We could say that the night is the very experience of the there is, if the term experience were not inapplicable to a situation which involves the total exclusion of light. 

When the forms of things are dissolved in the night, darkness of the night, which is neither an object nor the quality of an object, invades like a presence. In the night, where we are riven to it, we are not dealing with anything. But this nothing is not that of pure nothingness. There is no longer this or that; there is not “something.” But this universal absence is in its turn presence, an absolutely unavoidable presence. It is not the dialectical counterpart of absence, and we do not grasp it through thought. It is immediately there.

There is no discourse. Nothing responds to us, but this silence; the voice of this silence understood and frightens like the silence of those infinite spaces Pascal speaks of. There is, in general, without it mattering there is, without our being able to fix a substantive to this term. There is is an impersonal form, like in it rains, or it is warm. Its anonymity is essential. The mind does not find itself faced with an apprehended exterior. The exterior — if one insists on the term — remains uncorrelated with an interior. It is no long given. It is no longer a world. What we call the I is itself submerged by the night, invaded, depersonalized, stifled by it. The disappearance of all things and of the I leaves what cannot disappear, the sheer fact of being in which one participates whether one wants to or not, without having taken the initiative, anonymously. Being remains, like a field of forces, like a heavy atmosphere belonging to no one, universal, returning in the midst of the negation which put it aside, and in all the powers to which that negation may be multiplied.

There is a nocturnal space, but it is no longer empty space, the transparency which both separates us from things and gives access to them, by which they are given. Darkness fills it like a content; it is full, but full of the nothingness of everything. Can one speak of its continuity? It is surely uninterrupted. But points of nocturnal space do not refer to each other as illuminated space; there is no perspective, they are not situated. There is a swarming of points.

Yet this analysis does not simply illustrate Professor Mosch Turpin’s thesis, in the Tales of Hoffman, that night is the absence of day. The absence of perspective is not something purely negative. It becomes an insecurity. Not because things covered by darkness elude our foresight and that it becomes impossible to measure their approach in advance. For the insecurity does not come from the things of the day world which the night conceals; it is due just to the fact that nothing approaches, nothing comes, nothing threatens; this silence, this tranquility, this void of sensations constitutes a mute, absolutely indeterminate menace. The indeterminateness constitutes its acuteness. There is no determined being, anything can count for anything else. In this ambiguity the menace of pure and simple presence, of the there is, takes form. Before this obscure invasion it is impossible to take shelter in oneself, to withdraw into one’s shell. One is exposed. The whole is open upon us. Instead of serving as our means of access to being, nocturnal space delivers us over to being.

The things of the day world then do not in the night become the source of the “horror of darkness” because our look cannot catch them in their “unforeseeable plots”; on the contrary, they get their fantastic character from this horror. Darkness does not only modify their contours for vision; it reduces them to undetermined, anonymous being, which sweats in them.

One can also speak of different forms of night that occur right in the daytime. Illuminated objects can appear to us as though in twilight shapes. Like the unreal, inverted city we find after an exhausting trip, things and beings strike us as though they no longer composed a world, and were swimming in the chaos of their existence. Such is also the case with the “fantastic,” “hallucinatory” reality in poets like Rimbaud, even when they name the most familiar things and the most accustomed beings. The misunderstood art of certain realistic and naturalistic novelists, their prefaces and professions of faith notwithstanding, produces the same effect: beings and things that collapse into their “materiality,” are terrifyingly present in their destiny, weight and shape. Certain passages of Huysmans or Zola, the calm and smiling horror of de Maupassant’s tales do not only give, as is sometimes thought, a representation “faithful to” or exceeding reality, but penetrates behind the form which light reveals into that materiality which, far from corresponding to the philosophical materialism of the authors, constitutes the dark background of existence. It makes things appear to us in a night, like the monotonous presence that bears down on us in insomnia.The rustling of the there is … is horror. We have noted the way it insinuates itself in the night, as an undetermined menace of space itself disengaged from its function as receptacle for objects,as a means of access to beings. Let us look further into it.

Continue reading

from & about cosmos, by the great witold gombrowicz


‘Cosmos,’ by Witold Gombrowicz

 The Plotlessness Thickens

By Neil Gordon

November 20, 2005

 A Polish student, seeking peace and quiet to study for his exams, and his friend, desperately needing a vacation from his oppressive office job, leave the city to board for a time with a rural family. Afflicted with anomie and a strange laziness, Witold and Fuks don’t suspect what’s ahead. Little by little, they find themselves drawn into a mystery hidden deep in the boarding house and the pretty summer countryside. But it is a mystery – and they are detectives – unlike any others.

The first sign of trouble is real enough: a sparrow is found hanging by the neck on a wire in a tree, "its little head to one side, its beak wide open." The second, while more troubling, is less clearly the work of a malefactor: wandering alone in the garden that evening, Witold begins to think there’s a troubling connection between the sparrow and the "slithering," "slippery" lips of two of the women in the house. "A tiresome game of tennis evolved, for the sparrow sent me to the mouth, the mouth back to the sparrow, and I found myself between the sparrow and the mouth, one hiding behind the other." The third sign is even more tenuous: there is a line on the ceiling of Witold and Fuks’s room that may or may not resemble an arrow, pointing at something. Who put it there? What might it mean? The two young men, increasingly worried, venture outside to confer. "Did one of the windowpanes look at me with a human eye?" Witold wonders. "It was conceivable that the one watching us was the same person who sneaked into our room, most likely during the morning hours, and gouged the line that created the arrow."

Lips, lines, arrows, sparrows. With the addition of these elements, the plot – although it may be about absolutely nothing – seems to thicken. There is a broken farm tool lying on a pile of rubbish in the door of the garden shed. Is it pointing somewhere deliberately, like the arrow? Fuks finds the evidence overwhelming: "There is a track where the wood scraps have been moved, as if the whiffletree lay in a different position before."

So progresses the investigation in Witold Gombrowicz’s sly, funny, absorbing fourth novel, published in Polish in 1965 and lovingly translated by Danuta Borchardt. The two neurotic detectives single-mindedly interrogate the meaning of their surroundings, seeking in the most mundane objects and events the solution to a mystery only they can see, their suspicions growing and growing until we begin to fear for their sanity – or ours.

Writing in the online magazine Words Without Borders, Benjamin Paloff calls Gombrowicz "probably the most important 20th-century novelist most Western readers have never heard of." Praised by Sontag, Updike, Kundera, Sartre and Milosz, he is the underdog in late modernism’s literary competition – perhaps, in part, because he left Poland in 1939, just before the German invasion, and remained in exile in Argentina for the next 25 years. He died in France in 1969, but since then his fiction and plays and his renowned three-volume diary have stubbornly refused to be forgotten, not only in Poland but throughout the world.

Critics have tended to treat "Cosmos" as a fictional reflection on the nature of meaning: a novel that asks whether we impose meaning on reality or discover it there. Is something truly amiss in the lips, the tree, the sparrow? Or is their portentous symbolism just a product of the nervous, erotic imagination of the characters? But if Gombrowicz’s 1937 novel, "Ferdydurke," can be called a philosophical novel, then "Cosmos," published roughly 30 years later, strikes me as a novel about language . . .


Witold Gombrowicz
chapter 1


I’ll tell you about another adventure that’s even more strange . . .


Sweat, Fuks is walking, I’m behind him, pant legs, heels,

sand, we’re plodding on, plodding on, ruts, clods of dirt,

glassy pebbles flashing, the glare, the heat humming, quivering,

everything is black in the sunlight, cottages, fences, fields, woods,

the road, this march, from where, what for, a lot could be said, actually

I was worn out by my father and mother, by my family in

general, I wanted to prepare for at least one of my exams and also

to breathe in change, break loose, spend time someplace far away.

I went to Zakopane, I’m walking along the Krupowki, thinking

about finding a cheap little boarding house, when I run into Fuks,

his faded-blond, carroty mug, bug-eyed, his gaze smeared with

apathy, but he’s glad, and I’m glad, how are you, what are you

doing here, I’m looking for a room, me too, I have an address—

he says—of a small country place where it’s cheaper because it’s

far away, out in the sticks somewhere. So we go on, pant legs, heels

in the sand, the road and the heat, I look down, the earth and the

sand, pebbles sparkling, one two, one two, pant legs, heels, sweat,

eyelids heavy from a sleepless night on the train, nothing but a

rank-and-file trudging along. He stopped.


“Let’s rest.”


“How far is it?”


“Not far.”


I looked around and saw whatever there was to see, and it was

precisely what I didn’t want to see because I had seen it so many

times before: pines and fences, firs and cottages, weeds and grass,

a ditch, footpaths and cabbage patches, fields and a chimney . . .

the air . . . all glistening in the sun, yet black, the blackness of trees,

the grayness of the soil, the earthy green of plants, everything

rather black. A dog barked, Fuks turned into a thicket.


“It’s cooler here.”


“Let’s go on.”


“Wait a minute. Let’s sit down a while.”


He ventured deeper into the bushes where recesses and hollows

were opening up, darkened from above by a canopy of intertwining

hazel branches and boughs of spruce, I ventured with

my gaze into the disarray of leaves, twigs, blotches of light, thickets,

recesses, thrusts, slants, bends, curves, devil knows what, into

a mottled space that was charging and receding, first growing

quiet, then, I don’t know, swelling, displacing everything, opening

wide . . . lost and drenched in sweat, I felt the ground below,

black and bare. There was something stuck between the trees—

something was protruding that was different and strange, though

indistinct . . . and this is what my companion was also watching.


“A sparrow.”




It was a sparrow. A sparrow hanging on a piece of wire. Hanged.

Its little head to one side, its beak wide open. It was hanging on a

thin wire hooked over a branch.


Remarkable. A hanged bird. A hanged sparrow. The eccentricity

of it clamored with a loud voice and pointed to a human hand

that had torn into the thicket—but who?


Who hanged it, why, for what reason? . . . my thoughts were

entangled in this overgrowth abounding in a million combinations,

the jolting train ride, the night filled with the rumble of the

train, lack of sleep, the air, the sun, the march here with this Fuks,

there was Jasia and my mother, the mess with the letter, the way

I had “cold-shouldered” my father, there was Roman, and also

Fuks’s problem with his boss in the office (that he’s been telling

me about), ruts, clods of dirt, heels, pant legs, pebbles, leaves, all

of it suddenly fell down before the bird, like a crowd on its knees,

and the bird, the eccentric, seized the reign . . . and reigned in

this nook.


“Who could have hanged it?”


“Some kid.”


“No. It’s too high up.”


“Let’s go.”


But he didn’t stir. The sparrow was hanging. The ground was

bare but in some places short, sparse grass was encroaching on it,

many things lay about, a piece of bent sheet metal, a stick, another

stick, some torn cardboard, a smaller stick, there was also a beetle,

an ant, another ant, some unfamiliar bug, a wood chip, and so on

and on, all the way to the scrub at the roots of the bushes—he

watched as I did. “Let’s go.” But he went on standing, looking, the

sparrow was hanging, I was standing, looking. “Let’s go.” “Let’s

go.” But we didn’t budge, perhaps because we had already stood

here too long and the right moment for departure had passed . . .

and now it was all becoming heavier, more awkward . . . the two

of us with the hanging sparrow in the bushes . . . and something

like a violation of balance, or tactlessness, an impropriety on our

part loomed in my mind . . . I was sleepy.


“Well, let’s get going!” I said, and we left . . . leaving the sparrow

in the bushes, all alone.


Further march down the road in the sun scorched and wearied

us, so we stopped, disgruntled, and again I asked “is it far?” Fuks

answered by pointing to a notice posted on a fence: “They’ve got

rooms for rent here too.” I looked. A little garden. In the garden

there was a house behind a hedge, no ornaments or balconies,

boring and shabby, low budget, with a skimpy porch sticking

out, wooden, Zakopane-style, with two rows of windows, five

each on the first and second floors, while in the little garden—a

few stunted trees, pansies withering in the flower beds, a couple

of gravel footpaths. But he thought we should check it out, why

not, sometimes in a dingy place like this the food could be finger-licking

good, cheap too. I was ready to walk in and look, though

we had passed a few similar notices and hadn’t paid any attention,

and besides, I was dripping with sweat. He opened the gate, and

we walked along the gravel path toward the glittering windowpanes.

He rang the bell, we stood a while on the porch until the

door opened and a woman, no longer young, about forty, came

out, maybe a housekeeper, bosomy and slightly plump.


“We’d like to see the rooms.”


“One moment please, I’ll get the lady of the house.”


We waited on the porch, the din of the train still in my head, the

journey, the previous day’s events, the swarm, the haze, the roar.


Cascading, overwhelming roar.What intrigued me in this woman

was a strange deformity of the mouth in the face of a bright-eyed,

decent little housekeeper—her mouth was as if incised on one

side, and its lengthening, just by a bit, by a fraction of an inch,

made her upper lip curl upward, leap aside, or slither away, almost

like a reptile, and that sideways slipperiness slipping away repelled

me by its reptilian, frog-like coldness, and, like a dark passage, it

instantly warmed and aroused me, leading me to a sin with her,

sexual, slippery, and lubricious. And her voice came as a surprise—

I don’t know what kind of voice I had expected from such a

mouth—but she sounded like an ordinary housekeeper, middleaged

and corpulent. I now heard her call from inside the house:

“Auntie! A couple of gentlemen are here about the room!”


After a few moments the aunt trundled out on her short little

legs as if on a rolling pin, she was rotund—we exchanged a few remarks,

yes indeed, there is a room for two, with board, please

come this way! A whiff of ground coffee, a narrow hallway, a small

alcove, wooden stairs, you’re here for a while, ah, yes, studying, it’s

peaceful here, quiet . . . at the top there was another hallway and

several doors, the house was cramped. She opened the door to the

last room off the hallway, I only glanced at it, because it was like

all rooms for rent, dark, shades drawn, two beds and a wardrobe,

one clothes hanger, a water pitcher on a saucer, two small lamps

by the beds, no bulbs, a mirror in a grimy frame, ugly. From under

the window shade a little sunlight settled in a spot on the floor, the

scent of ivy floated in and with it the buzzing of a gadfly. And

yet . . . and yet there was a surprise, because one of the beds was

occupied and someone lay on it, a woman, lying, it seemed, not

quite as she should have been, though I don’t know what gave me

the sense of this being, let’s say, so out of place—whether it was

that the bed was without sheets, with only a mattress—or that her

leg lay partially on the metal mesh of the bed (because the mattress

had moved a little), or was it the combination of the leg and

the metal that surprised me on this hot, buzzing, exhausting day.

Was she asleep? When she saw us she sat up and tidied her hair.

“Lena, what are you doing, honey? Really! Gentlemen—my



In response to our bows she nodded her head, rose, and left

silently—her silence put to rest the thought of anything out of the



We were shown another room next door, exactly the same but

slightly cheaper because it wasn’t connected directly to a bathroom.

Fuks sat on the bed, Mrs.Wojtys, a bank manager’s wife, sat

on a little chair, and the final upshot was that we rented the

cheaper room, with board, of which she said: “You’ll see for yourselves.”


We were to have breakfast and lunch in our room and supper

downstairs with the family.


“Go back for your luggage, gentlemen, Katasia and I will get

everything ready.”


We returned to town for our luggage.


We came back with our luggage.


We unpacked while Fuks was explaining how lucky we were, the

room was inexpensive, the other one, the one that had been recommended

to him would surely have been more expensive . . .

and also farther away . . . “The grub will be good, you’ll see!” I

grew more and more weary of his fish-face, and . . . to sleep . . .

sleep . . . I went to the window, looked out, that wretched little

garden was scorching in the sun, farther on there was the fence

and the road, and beyond that two spruce trees marked the spot

in the thicket where the sparrow was hanging. I threw myself on

the bed, spun around, fell asleep, mouth slipping from mouth, lips

more like lips because they were less like lips . . . but I was no

longer asleep. Something had awakened me. The housekeeper was

standing over me. It was morning, yet dark, like night. Because it

wasn’t morning. She was waking me: “The Mr. and Mrs. Wojtys

would like you to come down for supper.” I got up. Fuks was already

putting on his shoes. Supper. In the dining room, a tight

cubbyhole, a sideboard with a mirror, yogurt, radishes, and the

eloquence of Mr.Wojtys, the ex–bank manager,who wore a signet

ring and gold cufflinks:


“Mark you, dear fellow, I have now designated myself to be at

the beck and call of my better half, and I am to render specific services,

namely, when the faucet goes on the fritz, or the radio . . .

I would recommend more sweetie butter with the radishes, the

butter is tip-top . . . ”


“Thank you.”


“This heat, there’s bound to be a thunderstorm, I swear on the

holiest of holies, bless me and my grenadiers!”


“Did you hear the thunder, Daddy, beyond the forest, far

away?” (This was Lena, I hadn’t seen much of her yet, I hadn’t seen

much of anything, in any case the ex-manager or the ex-director

was expressing himself with a flourish.) “May I suggest a teensy-weensy

helping of curdled milk, my wife is a very special specialist

when it comes to curdled milkie, and what is it that makes hers

the crème de la crème, my dear fellow? It’s the pot! The quality of

milk fermentation depends on the lactic attributes of the pot.”

“What do you know, Leon!” (The ex-manager’s wife interjected

this.) “I’m a bridge player, my dears, an ex-banker, now a bridge

player in the afternoons as well as Sunday nights, by special wifely

dispensation! So, gentlemen, you are here to study? Quite so, perfect,

peace and quiet, the intellect can wallow like fruit in a compote

. . . ” But I wasn’t really listening, Mr. Leon’s head was like a

dome, elf-like, its baldness riding over the table, accentuated by the

sarcastic flashing of his pince-nez, next to him Lena, a lake, and the

polite Mrs. Leon sitting on her rotundity and rising from it to preside

over supper with self-sacrifice, the nature of which I had not

yet grasped, Fuks saying something pallid, white, phlegmatic—I

ate a piece of meat pie, still feeling sleepy, they talked about the

dust in the air, that the season had not yet begun, I asked if it was

cool at night, we finished the meat pie, then the fruit compote

made its appearance, and, after the compote, Katasia pushed an

ashtray toward Lena, the ashtray had a wire mesh—as if an echo,

a faint echo of the other net (on the bed), on which a leg, a foot, a

calf lay on the wire netting of the bed when I had walked into the

room etc., etc. Katasia’s lip, slithering, found itself near Lena’s little





Continue reading

“fear was the price for living”—glimpses of the life and work of chester himes


the life of chester himes


Chester Himes, (1909–1984), novelist. A prolific writer whose career spans fifty years, Chester Himes is best known for his naturalist and detective fiction. A gambler, hustler, burglar, ex-convict, and expatriate, Himes’s Catholic experiences and peripatetic life provided him abundant material for fiction that portrays the near existential “absurdity” of blackness in America. Focusing on violence—physical, political, and psychic—as a ubiquitous dynamic in American culture, Himes’s fiction ponders the often futile struggle to resist a relentlessly hostile environment.



Himes grew up in a middle-class home in Missouri and in Ohio. While a freshman at Ohio State University, Himes was expelled for a prank, and in late 1928 he was arrested and sentenced to jail and hard labor for 20 to 25 years for armed robbery. Imprisoned in Ohio Penitentiary, he began writing short stories which were published in national magazines. For Himes, writing and publishing was a way to earn respect from guards and fellow inmates, as well as avoid violence.

In 1934 Himes was transferred to LondonPrison Farm and in April 1936 he was released on parole into his mother’s custody. Following his release he did part time jobs and at the same time continued to write. During this period he came in touch with Langston Hughes who facilitated Himes contacts with the world of literature and publishing.

In the 1940s Himes spent time in Los Angeles, working as a screenwriter but also producing two novels, If He Hollers Let Him Go and Lonely Crusade that charted the experiences of the wave of black in-migrants, drawn by the city’s defense industries, and their dealings with the established black community, fellow workers, unions and management. 

In City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles, Mike Davis cites Himes’ brief career as a screenwriter for Warner Brothers as an example of the ongoing racism of Hollywood: he was terminated when Jack Warner heard about him and said “I don’t want no goddamned niggers on this lot.” (p 43). Himes later wrote in his autobiography:

Up to the age of thirty-one I had been hurt emotionally, spiritually and physically as much as thirty-one years can bear. I had lived in the South, I had fallen down an elevator shaft, I had been kicked out of college, I had served seven and one half years in prison, I had survived the humiliating last five years of Depression in Cleveland; and still I was entire, complete, functional; my mind was sharp, my reflexes were good, and I was not bitter. But under the mental corrosion of race prejudice in Los Angeles I became bitter and saturated with hate. 

By the 1950s Himes had decided to settle in France permanently, a country he liked in part due to his critical popularity there.

Chester Himes was born in Jefferson City, Missouri in 1909 and died in Spain in 1984 from Parkinson’s Disease.

—from wikipedia, at 


some quotations from himes’ work



on violence as the singular American narrative

There is no way that one can evaluate the American scene and avoid violence, because any country that was born in violence and has lived in violence always knows about violence. Anything can be initiated, enforced, contained or destroyed in the American scene through violence; it comes straight from the days of slavery, through the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Indian wars, the gunslingers killing one another over fences and sheep and one goddamned thing after another; they grew up in violence …. The only people that the American community has tried to teach that it is Christian to turn the other check and live peacefully are the black people. . .   

My French editor says, the Americans have a style of writing detective stories that no one has been able to imitate …. There’s no reason why the black American, like all other Americans, and brought up in this sphere of violence which is the main sphere of American detective stories, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t write them. It’s just plain and simple violence in narrative form …. American violence is public life, it’s a public way of life; it became a form, a detective story form. 

Chester Himes, “My Man Himes” (1976)

 If I had wanted to express my revulsion for violence then I would have made the violence even more repellent, really repellent. I am simply creating stories that have a setting I know very well. 

—Nova (January 1971), 52 


on race 

 The American black is a new race of man; the only new race of man to come into being in modern time. And for those hackneyed, diehard, outdated, slavery-time racists to keep thinking of him as a primitive is an insult to the intelligence. In fact, intelligence isn’t required to know the black is a new man, complex, intriguing, and not particularly likeable. I find it very difficult to like American blacks myself; but I know there’s nothing primitive about us, as there is about the most sophisticated African. 

—Himes, The Quality of Hurt (1972)  


on writing (and race) 

 No matter what I did, or how I lived, I had considered myself a writer since I’d published my first story in Esquire when I was still in prison in 1934. Foremost a writer. Above all a writer. It was my salvation and is. The world can deny me all other employment, and stone me as an ex-convict, as a nigger, as a disagreeable and unpleasant person. But as long as I can write, whether it is published or not, I’m a writer, and no one can take that away. “A fighter fights, a writer writes”, so I must have done my writing . . .  

Himes, The Quality of Hurt 

I had the creative urge, but the old, used forms of the black American writer did not fit my creations. I wanted to break through the barrier that labeled me as a “protest writer.” I knew the life of an American black needed another image than just the victim of racism. We were more than just victims. We did not suffer, we were extroverts. We were unique individuals, funny not clowns, solemn but not serious, hurt but not suffering, sexualists but not whores in the usual sense of the word; we had tremendous love of life, a love of sex, a love of ourselves. We were absurd.

 —Himes, My Life of Absurdity


from his novels

 In Lonely Crusade (1947), the protagonist Lee Gordon is a man pushed to the edge. At the start of the novel the omniscient narrator observes that “Fear was the price for living”; nevertheless, after a run of unemployment, Gordon manages to become a union organizer. However, his happiness soon turns to a kind of self-fuelling fear:

… when he boarded the streetcar with white Southern war-workers that war spring of 1943, being a Negro imposed a sense of handicap that Lee Gordon could not overcome. He lost his brief happiness in the seas of white faces … he had once again crossed into the competitive white world where he would be subjected to every abuse concocted in the minds of white people to harass and intimidate Negroes ….  and to be afraid, and hate his fear himself for fearing it, and hate himself for feeling it. The fear in him was something a dog could smell … he could see the hostile faces of the white workers, their hot, hating stares; he could feel their antagonisms hard as a physical blow; hear their vile asides and abusive epithets with a reality that cut like a knife.

Of his novel The End of the Primitive (1955), Himes stated that “I put a sexually frustrated American woman and a racially-frustrated black American male together for a weekend in a New York apartment, and allowed them to soak in American bourbon. I got the result I was looking for: a nightmare of drunkenness, unbridled sexuality, and in the end, tragedy.” the doomed Jesse’s dream life is conveyed with an hallucinatory absurdity worthy of De Quincey:

He dreamed he was in a house with a thousand rooms of different sizes made entirely of distorted mirrors. There were others besides himself but he could not tell how many because their reflections went on into an infinity in the distorted mirrors. Nor could he see their true shape because in one mirror they all appeared to be obese dwarfs and in another tall, thin, cadaverous skeletons. He ran panic-stricken from room to room trying to find a familiar human shape, but he saw only the grotesque reflections, the brutal faces that leered from some distortions, the sweet smiles from others, the sad eyes, the gentle mouths, the sinister stares, the  treacherous grins, the threatening scowls, hating and bestial, suffering and saintly, gracious and kind, and he knew that none of them was the true face and he continued to run in frantic terror until he found a door and escaped.

Thus America as a deranged fun-house. When Jesse kills the white girl Kriss, he believes, paradoxically, that he has now joined the ranks of humanity:

You finally did it …. End product of Americanism on one Jesse Robinson – black man. Your answer, son. You’ve been searching for it. BLACK MAN KILLS WHITE WOMAN …. Human beings only species of animal life where males are known to kill their females. Proof beyond all doubt. Jesse Robinson joins the human race. “I’m a nigger and I’ve just killed a white woman,” Jesse said, giving the address on 21st Street and hung up. “That’ll get the lead out of his ass,” he thought half-amused.


the detectives Grave Digger and Coffin Ed

 An inconspicuous black sedan pulled out from the kerb and parked at the end of the block unnoticed, and the two tall, lanky colored men dressed in black mohair suits that looked as though they’d been slept in got out and walked towards the scene. Their wrinkled coals bulged beneath their left shoulders. The shiny straps of shoulder holsters showed across the fronts of their blue cotton shirts. The one with the burnt face went to the far side of the crowd; the other remained on the near side. Suddenly a loud voice shouted, “Straighten up!” An equally loud voice echoes, “Count off!”

The Crazy Kill (1959)


their code 

 As set out in A Rage in Harlem (1965):

Grave Digger and Coffin Ed weren’t crooked detectives, but they were tough. They had to be tough to work in Harlem. Colored folks didn’t respect colored cops. But they respected big shiny pistols and sudden death. It was said in Harlem that Coffin Ed’s pistol would kill a rock and that Gravedigger’s would bury it. They took their tribute, like all real cops, from the established underworld catering for the essential needs of the people – gamekeepers, madams, streetwalkers, numbers writers, numbers bankers. But they were rough on purse snatchers, muggers, burglars, con men, and all strangers working any racket. And they didn’t like rough stuff from anybody but themselves. “Keep it cool,” they warned, “Don’t make graves.”


Harlem, their patrol grounds:

 Unwed young mothers, suckling their infants, living on a prayer; fat black racketeers coasting past in big bright-colored convertibles with their solid gold babes, carrying huge sums of money on their person; hardworking men, holding up buildings with their shoulders, talking in loud voices up there in Harlem where the white bosses couldn’t hear them; teen-age gangsters grouping for a gang-fight, smoking marijuana weed to get up their courage; everybody escaping the hot-box rooms they lived in, seeking respite in a street made hotter by the automobile exhaust and the heat released by the concrete walls and walks.

The Crazy Kill


on violence as the singular American narrative

from the opening chapter of fanny howe’s indivisible


Fanny Howe’s novel Indivisible (2000) does things with words and with the good old Aristotelian categories of time and space that you don’t see much of these days. Henny, a filmmaker, is married to McCool, an alcoholic musician. They live in a working-class part of Boston. Without children of their own, Henny raises foster kids and also opens their door to transients for much-needed money. Tragedy and betrayal result, and there’s lots of good stuff about mysticism and philosophy in general and Buddhism, Marxism and Catholicism in particular. Nietzsche and Bambi — who else would you expect? — also figure into the story. On the verge of a religious conversion, Henny locks her husband in the closet…









I locked my husband in a closet one fine winter morning. It was not a large modern closet, but a little stuffy one in a century old brick building. Inside that space with him were two pairs of shoes, a warm coat, a chamber pot, a bottle of water, peanut butter and a box of crackers. The lock was strong but the keyhole was the kind you can both peek through and pick. We had already looked simultaneously, our eyes darkening to the point of blindness as they fastened on each other, separated by only two inches of wood. Now I would not want to try peeking again. My eyes meeting his eyes was more disturbing than the naked encounter of our two whole faces in the light of day. It reminded me that no one knew what I had done except for the person I had done it with. And you God.



A gold and oily sun lay on the city three days later. Remember how coldly it shone on the faces of the blind children. They stayed on that stoop where the beam fell the warmest. I wasn’t alone. My religious friend came up behind me and put his arm across my shoulder.

“We have to say goodbye,” he murmured.

I meant to say, “Now?” but said, “No.”

I had seen I’m nobody written on my ceiling only that morning.


Brick extended on either side. The river lay at the end. Its opposite bank showed a trail of leafless trees. My friend was tall, aristocratic in his gestures — that is, without greed. He said the holy spirit was everywhere if you paid attention. Not as a rewarded prayer but as an atmosphere that threw your body wide open. I said I hoped this was true. He was very intelligent and well-read. He had sacrificed intimacy and replaced it with intuition.


I wanted badly to believe like him that the air is a conscious spirit. But my paranoia was suffusing the atmosphere, and each passing person wore a steely aura. “Please God don’t let it snow when I have to fly,” he said and slipped away. My womanly body, heavy once productive, and the van for the children, gunning its engine, seemed to be pounded into one object. It was Dublin and it wasn’t. That is, the Irish were all around in shops and restaurants, their voices too soft for the raw American air and a haunt to me. “Come on. Let’s walk and say goodbye,” he insisted. We walked towards St. John the Evangelist.


“I’ve got to make a confession,” I told him. “Can’t I just make it to you? I mean, you’re almost a monk, for God’s sake.”

“No,” said Tom. “The priest will hear you. Go on.”

Obediently I went inside. The old priest was not a Catholic. He was as white as a lightbulb and as smooth. His fingers tapered to pointed tips as if he wore a lizard’s lacy gloves. It was cold inside his room. Outside – the river brown and slow. A draft came under the door.

I think he knew that a dread of Catholicism was one reason I was there. He kept muttering about Rome, and how it wouldn’t tolerate what he would, as an Anglican.


Personally I think pride is a sin. But I said “a failure of charity” was my reason for being there. This was not an honest confession, but close enough. The priest told me to pray for people who bothered me, using their given name when I did. He said a name was assigned to a person before birth, and therefore the human name was sacred. Then he blessed me. Walking out, I felt I was dragging my skeleton like a pack of branches. After all, a skeleton doesn’t clack inside the skin, but is more like wood torn from a tree and wrapped in cloth.

Outside Tom was waiting and we walked over the snow. “I missed that flute of flame that burns between Arjuna and Krishna — the golden faces of Buddha, and Yogananda, Ramakrishna, Milarepa, and the dark eyes of Edith Stein and Saint Teresa. Are all Americans Protestant? The church was cold, austere. I’m a bad Catholic.”

He nodded vaguely and said: “But you’re a good atheist. Catholicism has an enflamed vocabulary, don’t worry. You can transform each day into a sacrament by taking the eucharist. You just don’t want to bother.”


Even the will to raise and move a collection of bones can seem heroic. Only an object on one side — or a person — can draw it forwards — or on another side an imagined object or person. Maybe the will responds to nearby objects and thoughts the way a clam opens when it’s tapped. “Mechanistic…. We really should put more trust in the plain surface of our actions,” I said.

“Do we really have to say goodbye? And leave each other in such a state?”

“We do.”

“But first, Tom — I have one favor to ask you.”



Exactly ten years before, during a premature blizzard, I left all my children at home and went to meet my best friends in the Hotel Commander. I did so carrying the weight of my husband like a tree on my back. This was a meeting I couldn’t miss, no matter how low I stooped.

The walk from the subway to the hotel was bitter, wet and shiny. Traffic lights moved slowly on my right, while the brick walls and cold gray trees sopped up the gathering snow. I kept my eyes fixed on the left where dark areas behind shrubs and gates could conceal a man, and stepped up my pace.

Lewis and Libby were already seated in a booth in a downstairs lounge. I shook off my coat and sat beside Libby and we all ordered stiff drinks, recalling drunker meetings from earlier youth. I leaned back and kept my eyes on the door, in case my husband appeared and caught me offguard.

“Relax, Henny,” Lewis reproved me.

“I’ve never met him,” Libby cried. “It’s unbelievable.”

“He’s unbelievable,” said Lewis.

“He can’t be that bad.”

“He is. He should be eliminated. He won’t let her out of the house, without her lying. She probably said she had a neighborhood meeting tonight. Right?”

“Henny’s not a coward.”

“She likes to keep the peace though. That’s not good.”

“I’m going to be back in the spring. I’ll meet him then,”

Libby said. “And if he’s all that bad, I will do something to him.”

“Henny has an mercenary army of children around her, protecting her against him,” Lewis explained. “They aren’t even her own.”

“Hen, tell me the truth. Do you wish he would die? I’ll make him leave you if you want me to,” said Libby.

A renunciatory rush went down my spine when I saw, out in the lobby, the back of a man in a pea-jacket and woollen cap. Gathered over, I left the table for the rest room, and Libby followed breathless. She was wringing her hands, smelling of musk rose, and dancing on her pin-thin legs in high heel boots that had rings of wet fur around the tops while I sat in the sink. “Was it him? Was it him?”

We never found out.

That was the same night we climbed out the hotel kitchen window and walked up a slippery hill, one on each side of Lewis, hugging to his arms, while the snow whipped against our cheeks and lips, and we talked about group suicide.

“Phenobarbital, vodka and applesauce, I think.”

“No, Kool-aid, anything sweet.”

“For some reason.”

“Jam a little smear of strawberry on the tongue.”

“Or honey.”

“Catbirds and the smell of jasmine and we all lie in a line under the stars.”

“With great dignity.”

“Despite the shitting.”

“And die.”

“Die out.”

“I can dig it,” said Lewis. “I can dig it.”

“But we have to do it all together,” Libby said.



There is a kind of story, God, that glides along under everything else that is happening, and this kind of story only jumps out into the light like a silver fish when it wants to see where it lives in relation to everything else.


Snow is a pattern in this story. It was snowing the day of my first visit to the Federal Penitentiary. The ground was strung with pearly bulbs of ice. I had visited many social service offices in my day, but never a prison. I associated prison with sequence and looked around for a way to break out. As a first-time visitor, and in the early moments, I remembered nervously standing with a crowd of strangers waiting for someone familiar to emerge from behind a green door with a big light over it. For each one of us, the familiar person would be a different person, but our experience would be the same. I already know that some conflicts in life have no resolution and have to be treated in a different way from common problems.


But prison seemed to relate to issues of privacy in ways that were unimaginable to those who had never been forcibly hidden. Simplistically I was scared of being in a jail because it was a space that was unsafe from itself, the way a mind is. But I forced myself, as I sometimes do, to go to the place I dreaded the most — to the place that was so repugnant, it could only change me. Maybe the sacred grove of our time is either the prison or the grave site of a massacre. I have always believed I must visit those sacred groves, and not the woodlands, if I want to know the truth. In this case, I only wanted to see someone I loved and to comfort her by my coming. And surely enough, I did undergo a kind of conversion through my encounters with the persons there. When you visit someone in prison, this paranoid question comes up: Do I exist only in fear? The spirit hates cowards.

It broods heavily in the presence of fear. I only felt as safe as a baby when I was holding a baby or a child and so, sitting empty-armed, in a roomful of strangers, watching the light over the heavy door, was a test of will.

Then I saw a child — a little boy in the room with me — he was like a leaf blowing across an indoor floor. And while waiting for my friend to comeout the door, I moved near him.

I asked him what book he had brought with him. He kept his face down and said, “Gnomes.”

“Do you read it yourself, honey?”

“No, I can’t. Tom reads it to me.”

“Do you want me to read some?”

“Sure,” he said and lifted his smile. His eyelids were brown and deeply circled and closed, as long as the eyelids of the dead whose lashes are strangely punctuated by shadows longer than when they were alive and batting. He wore a limpid smile that inscribed a pretty dimple in his right cheek.

“I’m getting obsessed,” he said, “with books about gnomes, goblins, elves, hobbits.”

“How do you mean obsessed?”

“I want to know everything about them. And sometimes I’m sure they really exist and run around my feet.”

“How can you tell?”

“My shoelaces come untied sometimes, and I think I feel them on my shoes.”

“I don’t know, honey. I’ve never seen one. Let’s go read about gnomes.”

When I took his hot little hand in mine, I felt the material charge of will and spirit return to me. I had an instinctual feeling that the room held me fast by my fate. To be here was to be physically “inside” but the way a ghost is inside the world when it returns to haunt someone and still can depart at will. The ghost is confused, paralyzed by its guilt at being present without paying the price for it. Punishment is easily confused with safety.  

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