“I worried about my fantasies, I knew I could not come without them”—early fiction from ian mcewan


In McEwan’s short story “First Love, Last Rites,” the eagerness a young couple have for each other both physically and emotionally finds a perverse counterpoint in the sounds of a large rat (ahem… traditional Eng.Lit. symbolism, Freud’s Rat Man, the gothic horror tradition, etc., anyone?) which is living behind the walls of their flat . . . 

First Love, Last Rites

From the beginning of summer until it seemed pointless, we lifted the thin mattress on to the heavy oak table and made love in front of the large open window. We always had a breeze blowing into the room and smells of the quayside four floors down. I was drawn into fantasies against my will, fantasies of the creature, and afterwards when we lay on our backs on the huge table, in those deep silences I heard it faintly running and clawing. It was new to me, all this, and I worried, I tried to talk to Sissel about it for reassurance. She had nothing to say, she did not make abstractions or discuss situations, she lived inside them. We watched the seagulls wheeling about in our square of sky and wondered if they had been watching us up there, that was the kind of thing we talked about, mildly entertaining hypotheses of the present moment. Sissel did things as they came to her, stirred her coffee, made love, listened to her records, looked out the window. She did not say things like I’m happy, or confused, or I want to make love, or I don’t, or I’m tired of the fights in my family, she had no language to split herself in two, so I suffered alone what seemed like crimes in my head while we fucked, and afterwards listened alone to it scrabbling in the silence. Then one afternoon Sissel woke from a doze, raised her head from the mattress and said, ‘What’s that scratching noise behind the wall?’

My friends were far away in London, they sent me anguished and reflective letters, what would they do now?

Who were they, and what was the point of it all? They were my age, seventeen and eighteen, but I pretended not to understand them. I sent back postcards, find a big table and an open window, I told them. I was happy and it seemed easy, I was making eel traps, it was so easy to have a purpose. The summer went on and I no longer heard from them. Only Adrian came to see us, he was Sissel’s ten-year-old brother and he came to escape the misery of his disintegrating home, the quick reversals of his mother’s moods, the endless competitive piano playing of his sisters, the occasional bitter visits of his father. Adrian and Sissel’s parents after twenty-seven years of marriage and six children hated each other with sour resignation, they could no longer bear to live in the same house. The father moved out to a hostel a few streets away to be near his children. He was a businessman who was out of work and looked like Gregory Peck, he was an optimist and had a hundred schemes to make money in an interesting way. I used to meet him in the pub. He did not want to talk about his redundancy or his marriage, he did not mind me living in a room over the quayside with his daughter. Instead he told me about his time in the Korean war, and when he was an international salesman, and of the legal fraudery of his friends who were now at the top and knighted, and then one day of the eels in the River Ouse, how the river bed swarmed with eels, how there was money to be made catching them and taking them live to London. I told him how I had eighty pounds in the bank, and the next morning we bought netting, twine, wire hoops and an old cistern tank to keep eels in. I spent the next two months making eel traps.

On fine days I took my net, hoops and twine outside and worked on the quay, sitting on a bollard. An eel trap is cylinder-shaped, sealed at one end, and at the other is a long tapering funnel entrance. It lies on the river bed, the eels swim in to eat the bait and in their blindness cannot find their way out. The fishermen were friendly and amused. There’s eels down there, they said, and you’ll catch a few but you won’t make no living on it. The tide’ll lose your nets fast as you make them. We’re using iron weights, I told them, and they shrugged in a good-natured way and showed me a better way to lash the net to the hoops, they believed it was my right to try it for myself.

When the fishermen were out in their boats and I did not feel like working I sat about and watched the tidal water slip across the mud, I felt no urgency about the eel traps but I was certain we would be rich.

I tried to interest Sissel in the eel adventure, I told her about the rowing-boat someone was lending to us for the summer, but she had nothing to say. So instead we lifted the mattress on to the table and lay down with our clothes on. Then she began to talk. We pressed our palms together, she made a careful examination of the size and shape of our hands and gave a running commentary. Exactly the same size, your fingers are thicker, you’ve got this extra bit here.

She measured my eyelashes with the end of her thumb and wished hers were as long, she told me about the dog she had when she was small, it had long white eyelashes. She looked at the sunburn on my nose and talked about that, which of her brothers and sisters went red in the sun, who went brown, what her youngest sister said once. We slowly undressed. She kicked off her plimsolls and talked about her foot rot. I listened with my eyes closed, I could smell mud and seaweed and dust through the open window.

Wittering on, she called it, this kind of talk. Then once I was inside her I was moved, I was inside my fantasy, there could be no separation now of my mushrooming sensations from my knowledge that we could make a creature grow in Sissel’s belly. I had no wish to be a father, that was not in it at all. It was eggs, sperms, chromosomes, feathers, gills, claws, inches from my cock’s end the unstoppable chemistry of a creature growing out of a dark red slime, my fantasy was of being helpless before the age and strength of this process and the thought alone could make me come before I wanted. When I told Sissel she laughed. Oh, Gawd, she said. To me Sissel was right inside the process, she was the process and the power of its fascination grew.

She was meant to be on the pill and every month she forgot it at least two or three times. Without discussion we came to the arrangement that I was to come outside her, but it rarely worked. As we were swept down the long slopes to our orgasms, in those last desperate seconds I struggled to find my way out but I was caught like an eel in my fantasy of the creature in the dark, waiting, hungry, and I fed it great white gobs. In those careless fractions of a second I abandoned my life to feeding the creature, whatever it was, in or out of the womb, to fucking only Sissel, to feeding more creatures, my whole life given over to this in a moment’s weakness. I watched out for Sissel’s periods, everything about women was new to me and I could take nothing for granted. We made love in Sissel’s copious, effortless periods, got good and sticky and brown with the blood and I thought we were the creatures now in the slime, we were inside fed by gobs of cloud coming through the window, by gases drawn from the mudflats by the sun.

I worried about my fantasies, I knew I could not come without them. I asked Sissel what she thought about and she giggled. Not feathers and gills, anyway. What do you think about, then? Nothing much, nothing really. I pressed my question and she withdrew into silence.

I knew it was my own creature I heard scrabbling, and when Sissel heard it one afternoon and began to worry, I realised her fantasies were involved too, it was a sound which grew out of our lovemaking. We heard it when we were finished and lying quite still on our backs, when we were empty and clear, perfectly quiet. It was the impression of small claws scratching blindly against a wall, such a distant sound it needed two people to hear it. We thought it came from one part of the wall. When I knelt down and put my ear to the skirting-board it stopped, I sensed it on the other side of the wall, frozen in its action, waiting in the dark. As the weeks passed we heard it at other times in the day, and now and then at night. I wanted to ask Adrian what he thought it was. Listen, there it is, Adrian, shut up a moment, what do you think that noise is, Adrian? He strained impatiently to hear what we could hear but he would not be still long enough. There’s nothing there, he shouted. Nothing, nothing, nothing. He became very excited, jumped on his sister’s back, yelling and yodelling. He did not want whatever it was to be heard, he did not want to be left out. I pulled him off Sissel’s back and we rolled about on the bed. Listen again, I said, pinning him down, there it was again. He struggled free and ran out of the room shouting his two-tone police- car siren. We listened to it fade down the stairs and when I could hear him no more I said, Perhaps Adrian is really afraid of mice. Rats, you mean, said his sister, and put her hands between my legs.

By mid-July we were not so happy in our room, there was a growing dishevelment and unease, and it did not seem possible to discuss it with Sissel. Adrian was coming to us every day now because it was the summer holidays and he could not bear to be at home. We would hear him four floors down, shouting and stamping on the stairs on his way up to us. He came in noisily, doing handstands and showing off to us. Frequently he jumped on Sissel’s back to impress me, he was anxious, he was worried we might not find him good company and send him away, send him back home. He was worried too because he could no longer understand his sister. At one time she was always ready for a fight, and she was a good fighter, I heard him boast that to his friends, he was proud of her.

Now changes had come over his sister, she pushed him off sulkily, she wanted to be left alone to do nothing, she wanted to listen to records. She was angry when he got his shoes on her skirt, and she had breasts now like his mother, she talked to him now like his mother. Get down off there, Adrian. Please, Adrian, please, not now, later.

He could not quite believe it all the same, it was a mood of his sister’s, a phase, and he went on taunting and attacking her hopefully, he badly wanted things to stay as they were before his father left home. When he locked his forearms round Sissel’s neck and pulled her backwards on to the bed his eyes were on me for encouragement, he thought the real bond was between us, the two men against the girl.

He did not see there was no encouragement, he wanted it so badly. Sissel never sent Adrian away, she understood why he was here, but it was hard for her. One long afternoon of torment she left the room almost crying with frustration. Adrian turned to me and raised his eyebrows in mock horror. I tried to talk to him then but he was already making his yodelling sound and squaring up for a fight with me. Nor did Sissel have anything to say to me about her brother, she never made general remarks about people because she never made general remarks.

Sometimes when we heard Adrian on his way up the stairs she glanced across at me and seemed to betray herself by a slight pursing of her beautiful lips.

There was only one way to persuade Adrian to leave us in peace. He could not bear to see us touch, it pained him, it genuinely disgusted him. When he saw one of us move across the room to the other he pleaded with us silently, he ran between us, pretending playfulness, wanted to decoy us into another game. He imitated us frantically in a desperate last attempt to show us how fatuous we appeared. Then he could stand it no more, he ran out of the room machine-gunning German soldiers and young lovers on the stairs.

But Sissel and I were touching less and less now, in our quiet ways we could not bring ourselves to it. It was not that we were in decline, not that we did not delight in each other, but that our opportunities were faded. It was the room itself. It was no longer four floors up and detached, there was no breeze through the window, only a mushy heat rising off the quayside and dead jellyfish and clouds of flies, fiery grey flies who found our armpits and bit fiercely, houseflies who hung in clouds over our food. Our hair was too long and dank and hung in our eyes. The food we bought melted and tasted like the river. We no longer lifted the mattress on to the table, the coolest place now was the floor and the floor was covered with greasy sand which would not go away. Sissel grew tired of her records, and her foot rot spread from one foot to the other and added to the smell. Our room stank. We did not talk about leaving because we did not talk about anything.

Every night now we were woken by the scrabbling behind the wall, louder now and more insistent. When we made love it listened to us behind the wall. We made love less and our rubbish gathered around us, milk bottles we could not bring ourselves to carry away, grey sweating cheese, butter wrappers, yoghurt cartons, overripe salami. And among it all Adrian cart-wheeling, yodelling, machine- gunning and attacking Sissel. I tried to write poems about my fantasies, about the creature, but I could see no way in and I wrote nothing down, not even a first line. Instead I took long walks along the river dyke into the Norfolk hinterland of dull beet fields, telegraph poles, uniform grey skies. I had two more eel nets to make, I was forcing myself to sit down to them each day. But in my heart I was sick of them, I could not really believe that eels would ever go inside them and I wondered if I wanted them to, if it was not better that the eels should remain undisturbed in the cool mud at the bottom of the river. But I went on with it because Sissel’s father was ready to begin, because I had to expiate all the money and hours I had spent so far, because the idea had its own tired, fragile momentum now and I could no more stop it than carry the milk bottles from our room.

Then Sissel found a job and it made me see we were different from no one, they all had rooms, houses, jobs, careers, that’s what they all did, they had cleaner rooms, better jobs, wewere anywhere’s striving couple. It was one of the windowless factories across the river where they canned vegetables and fruit. For ten hours a day she was to sit in the roar of machines by a moving conveyor belt, talk to no one and pick out the rotten carrots before they were canned. At the end of her first day Sissel came home in a pink-and-white nylon raincoat and pink cap. I said, Why don’t you take it off? Sissel shrugged. It was all the same to her, sitting around in the room, sitting around in a factory where they relayed Radio One through speakers strung along the steel girders, where four hundred women half listened, half dreamed, while their hands spun backwards and forwards like powered shuttles. On Sissel’s second day I took the ferry across the river and waited for her at the factory gates. A few women stepped through a small tin door in a great windowless wall and a wailing siren sounded all across the factory complex. Other small doors opened and they streamed out, converging on the gates, scores of women in pink-and-white nylon coats and pink caps. I stood on a low wall and tried to see Sissel, it was suddenly very important. I thought that if I could not pick her out from this rustling stream of pink nylon then she was lost, we were both lost and our time was worthless.

As it approached the factory gates the main body was moving fast. Some were half running in the splayed, hopeless way that women have been taught to run, the others walked as fast as they could. I found out later they were hurrying home to cook suppers for their families, to make an early start on the housework. Latecomers on the next shift tried to push their way through in the opposite direction. I could not see Sissel and I felt on the edge of panic, I shouted her name and my words were trampled underfoot. Two older women who stopped by the wall to light cigarettes grinned up at me. Sizzle yerself. I walked home by the long way, over the bridge, and decided not to tell Sissel I had been to wait for her because I would have to explain my panic and I did not know how. She was sitting on the bed when I came in, she was still wearing her nylon coat. The cap was on the floor. Why don’t you take that thing off? I said. She said, Was that you outside the factory? I nodded. Why didn’t you speak to me if you saw me standing there? Sissel turned and lay face downwards on the bed. Her coat was stained and smelled of machine oil and earth. I dunno, she said into the pillow, I didn’t think. I didn’t think of anything after my shift. Her words had a deadening finality, I glanced around our room and fell silent.

Two days later, on Saturday afternoon, I bought pounds of rubbery cows’ lungs sodden with blood (lights, they were called) for bait. That same afternoon we filled the traps and rowed out into mid-channel at low tide to lay them on the river bed. Each of the seven traps was marked by a buoy. Four o’clock Sunday morning Sissel’s father called for me and we set out in his van to where we kept the borrowed boat. We were rowing out now to find the marker buoys and pull the traps in, it was the testing time, would there be eels in the nets, would it be profitable to make more nets, catch more eels and drive them once a week to Billingsgate market, would we be rich? It was a dull windy morning, I felt no anticipation, only tiredness and a continuous erection. Ihalf dozed in the warmth of the van’s heater. I had spent many hours of the night awake listening to the scrabbling noises behind the wall.

Once I got out of bed and banged the skirting-board with a spoon. There was a pause, then the digging continued.

It seemed certain now that it was digging its way into the room. While Sissel’s father rowed I watched over the side for markers. It was not as easy as I thought to find them, they did not show up white against the water but as dark low silhouettes. It was twenty minutes before we found the first. As we pulled it up I was amazed at how soon the clean white rope from the chandlers had become like all other rope near the river, brown and hung about with fine strands of green weed. The net too was old-looking and alien, I could not believe that one of us had made it. Inside were two crabs and a large eel. He untied the closed end of the trap, let the two crabs drop into the water and put the eel in the plastic bucket we had brought with us. We put fresh lights in the trap and dropped it over the side. It took another fifteen minutes to find the next trap and that one had nothing inside. We rowed up and down the channel for half an hour after that without finding another trap, and by this time the tide was coming up and covering the markers. It was then that I took the oars and made for the shore.

We went back to the hostel where Sissel’s father was staying and he cooked breakfast. We did not want to discuss the lost traps, we pretended to ourselves and to each other that we would find them when we went out at the next low tide. But we knew they were lost, swept up or downstream by the powerful tides, and I knew I could never make another eel trap in my life. I knew also that my partner was taking Adrian with him on a short holiday, they were leaving that afternoon. They were going to visit military airfields, and hoped to end up at the Imperial War Museum. We ate eggs, bacon and mushrooms and drank coffee. Sissel’s father told me of an idea he had, a simple but lucrative idea. Shrimps cost very little on the quayside here and they were very expensive in Brussels. We could drive two vanloads across there each week, he was optimistic in his relaxed, friendly way and for a moment I was sure his scheme would work. I drank the last of my coffee. Well, I said, I suppose that needs some thinking about. I picked up the bucket with the eel in, Sissel and I could eat that one. My partner told me as we shook hands that the surest way of killing an eel was to cover it with salt.

I wished him a good holiday and we parted, still maintaining the silent pretence that one of us would be rowing out at the next low tide to search for the traps.

After a week at the factory I did not expect Sissel to be awake when I got home, but she was sitting up in bed, pale and clasping her knees. She was staring into one corner of the room. It’s in here, she said. It’s behind those books on the floor. I sat down on the bed and took off my wet shoes and socks. The mouse? You mean you heard the mouse?

Sissel spoke quietly. It’s a rat. I saw it run across the room, and it’s a rat. I went over to the books and kicked them, and instantly it was out, I heard its claws on the floor- boards and then I saw it run along the wall, the size of a small dog it seemed to me then, a rat, a squat, powerful grey rat dragging its belly along the floor. It ran the whole length of the wall and crept behind a chest of drawers.

We’ve got to get it out of here, Sissel wailed, in a voice which was strange to me. I nodded, but I could not move for the moment, or speak, it was so big, the rat, and it had been with us all summer, scrabbling at the wall in the deep, clear silences after our fucking, and in our sleep, it was our familiar. I was terrified, more afraid than Sissel, I was certain the rat knew us as well as we knew it, it was aware of us in the room now just as we were aware of it behind the chest of drawers. Sissel was about to speak again when we heard a noise outside on the stairs, a familiar stamping, machine-gunning noise. I was relieved to hear it. Adrian came in the way he usually did, he kicked the door and leaped in, crouching low, a machine- gun ready at his hip. He sprayed us with raw noises from the back of his throat, we crossed our lips with our fingers and tried to hush him. You’re dead, both of you, he said, and got ready for a cartwheel across the room. Sissel shushed him again, she tried to wave him towards the bed.

Why sshh? What’s wrong with you? We pointed to the chest of drawers. It’s a rat, we told him. He was down on his knees at once, peering. A rat? he gasped. Fantastic, it’s a big one, look at it. Fantastic. What are you going to do?

Let’s catch it. I crossed the room quickly and picked up a poker from the fireplace, I could lose my fear in Adrian’s excitement, pretend it was just a fat rat in our room, an adventure to catch it. From the bed Sissel wailed again.

What are you going to do with that? For a moment I felt my grip loosen on the poker, it was not just a rat, it was not an adventure, we both knew that. Meanwhile Adrian danced his dance, Yes, that, use that. Adrian helped me carry the books across the room, we built a wall right round the chest of drawers with only one gap in the middle where the rat could get through. Sissel went on asking, What are you doing? What are you going to do with that? but she did not dare leave the bed. We had finished the wall and I was giving Adrian a coat-hanger to drive the rat out with when Sissel jumped across the room and tried to snatch the poker from my hand. Give me that, she cried, and hung on to my lifted arm. At that moment the rat ran out through the gap in the books, it ran straight at us and I thought I saw its teeth bared and ready. We scattered, Adrian jumped on the table, Sissel and I were back on the bed. Now we all had time to see the rat as it paused in the centre of the room and then ran forward again, we had time to see how powerful and fat and fast it was, how its whole body quivered, how its tail slid behind it like an attendant parasite. It knows us, I thought, it wants us. I could not bring myself to look at Sissel. As I stood up on the bed, raised the poker and aimed it, she screamed. I threw it as hard as I could, it struck the floor point first several inches from the rat’s narrow head. It turned instantly and ran back between the gap in the books. We heard the scratch of its claws on the floor as it settled itself behind the chest of drawers to wait.

I unwound the wire coat-hanger, straightened it and doubled it over and gave it to Adrian. He was quieter now, slightly more fearful. His sister sat on the bed with her knees drawn up again. I stood several feet from the gap in the books with the poker held tight in both hands. I glanced down and saw my pale bare feet and saw a ghost rat’s teeth bared and tearing nail from flesh. I called out, Wait, I want to get my shoes. But it was too late, Adrian was jabbing the wire behind the chest of drawers and now I dared not move. I crouched a little lower over the poker, like a batsman. Adrian climbed on to the chest and thrust the wire right down into the corner. He was in the middle of shouting something to me, I did not hear what it was.

The frenzied rat was running through the gap, it was running at my feet to take its revenge. Like the ghost rat its teeth were bared. With both hands I swung the poker down, caught it clean and whole smack under its belly, and it lifted clear off the ground, sailed across the room, borne up by Sissel’s long scream through her hand in her mouth, it dashed against the wall and I thought in an instant, It must have broken its back. It dropped to the ground, legs in the air, split from end to end like a ripe fruit. Sissel did not take her hand from her mouth, Adrian did not move from the chest, I did not shift my weight from where I had struck, and no one breathed out. A faint smell crept across the room, musty and intimate, like the smell of Sissel’s monthly blood. Then Adrian farted and giggled from his held-back fear, his human smell mingled with the wide-open rat smell. I stood over the rat and prodded it gently with the poker. It rolled on its side, and from the mighty gash which ran its belly’s length there obtruded and slid partially free from the lower abdomen a translucent purple bag, and inside five pale crouching shapes, their knees drawn up around their chins. As the bag touched the floor I saw a movement, the leg of one unborn rat quivered as if in hope, but the mother was hopelessly dead and there was no more for it.

Sissel knelt by the rat, Adrian and I stood behind her like guards, it was as if she had some special right, kneeling there with her long red skirt spilling round her. She parted the gash in the mother rat with her forefinger and thumb, pushed the bag back inside and closed the blood-spiked fur over it. She remained kneeling a little while and we still stood behind her. Then she cleared some dishes from the sink to wash her hands. We all wanted to get outside now, so Sissel wrapped the rat in newspaper and we carried it downstairs. Sissel lifted the lid of the dustbin and I placed it carefully inside. Then I remembered something, I told the other two to wait for me and I ran back up the stairs.

It was the eel I came back for, it lay quite still in its few inches of water and for a moment I thought that it too was dead till I saw it stir when I picked up the bucket. The wind had dropped now and the cloud was breaking up, we walked to the quay in alternate light and shade. The tide was coming in fast. We walked down the stone steps to the water’s edge and there I tipped the eel back in the river and we watched him flick out of sight, a flash of white underside in the brown water. Adrian said goodbye to us, and I thought he was going to hug his sister. He hesitated and then ran off, calling out something over his shoulder.

We shouted after him to have a good holiday. On the way back Sissel and I stopped to look at the factories on the other side of the river. She told me she was going to give up her job there.

We lifted the mattress on to the table and lay down in front of the open window, face to face, the way we did at the beginning of summer. We had a light breeze blowing in, a distant smoky smell of autumn, and I felt calm, very clear. Sissel said, This afternoon let’s clean the room up and then go for a long walk, a walk along the river dyke. I pressed the flat of my palm against her warm belly and said, Yes.

—from First Love, Last Rites (1975)


some of the history behind cormac mccarthy’s blood meridian: glimpses of the real-life judge holden

Samuel E. Chamberlain (1829 – 1908) was a soldier, painter, and author who travelled throughout the American Southwest and Mexico.  Chamberlain was a participant in the era’s Texas/Mexico border disputes and rode with the infamous Glanton gang, commanded by the truly frightening John Glanton. Chamberlain’s My Confession was a key source for Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and is the only personal document written by a member of Glanton’s gang: 
The second in command, now left in charge of the camp, was a man of gigantic size called “Judge” Holden of Texas. Who or what he was no one knew but a cooler blooded villain never went unhung; he stood six feet six in his moccasins, had a large fleshy frame, a dull tallow colored face destitute of hair and all expression. His desires was blood and women, and terrible stories were circulated in camp of horrid crimes committed by him when bearing another name, in the Cherokee nation and Texas; and before we left Frontreras a little girl of ten years was found in the chapperal, foully violated and murdered. The mark of a huge hand on her little throat pointed him out as the ravisher as no other man had such a hand, but though all suspected, no one charged him with the crime. (271)




Holden was by far the best educated man in northern Mexico; he conversed with all in their own language, spoke in several Indian lingos, at a fandango would take the Harp or Guitar from the hands of the musicians and charm all with his wonderful performance, and out-waltz any poblana of the ball. He was “plum centre” with rifle or revolver, a daring horseman, acquainted with the nature of all the strange plants and their botanical names, great in Geology and Mineralogy, in short another Admirable Crichton, and with all an arrant coward. Not but that he possessed enough courage to fight Indians and Mexicans or anyone where he had the advantage in strength, skill and weapons, but where the combat would be equal, he would avoid it if possible. I hated him at first sight, and he knew it, yet nothing could be more gentle and kind than his deportment towards me; he would often seek conversation with me and speak of Massachusetts and to my astonishment I found he knew more about Boston than I did. (271–272)




He also was fluent regarding the ancient races of Indians that at a remote period covered the desert with fields of corn, wheat, barley and melons, and built large cities with canals bringing water from rivers hundreds of miles distant. To my question “how he knew all this,” this encyclopaedian Scalp Hunter replied, “Nature, these rocks, this little broken piece of clay (holding up a little fragment of painted pottery such are found all over the desert), the ruins scattered all over the land, tell me the story of the past.” (283–284)


 —from Samuel E. Chamberlain, My Confession: Recollections of a Rogue. New York: Harper, 1956. The excerpts above are cited in John Sepich’s Notes on Blood Meridian, University of Texas Press, (2008).


“I don’t want gardening and all that crap. / Fornication. That’s what a man needs.”

Siân Hughes’ use of idiomatic language is superb, and often has the effect of lulling the reader into a feeling of the quotidian, leaving him or her unprepared for the poem’s ending. More on Hughes, pulled from her publisher’s Web site: 


Siân Hughes was born in 1965 and grew up in a village in Cheshire. She studied English at Durham, Birmingham and Reading, and is now a postgraduate student at The University of Warwick. She has lived in Birmingham, Stafford, Manchester, London, Devizes and Oxford, sometimes with a partner, but more often alone, and now lives more or less in the middle of nowhere with her two young children.  


She has worked as an infant teacher, a community publishing worker, education officer for The Poetry Society, English lecturer, journalist, writer-in-residence, shop assistant, life-model, washer-up, sandwich-maker, mother and step-mother.  


Out of sheer rage that her second novel was not good enough to get published, she began writing poetry on an Arvon course in 1994, and in 1996 won the TLS / Poems on the Underground competition with “Secret Lives”. She published a pamphlet of poems “Saltpetre” with smith/doorstop in 1998 and in 2000 won a Southern Arts Award for Poetry. Her work appeared in Anvil New Poets III in 2001. In 2006 she won first prize in The Arvon Poetry Competition with “The Send-Off”, an elegy for her third child.


And from Hughes’ new book, The Missing:



The Double at Highbury


The day Arsenal won the double you stayed out of town

while I went looking for a houseboat for one.

It was moored under the tropical aviary at the Zoo

and, having no engine of any kind, was staying there.


The toilet arrangement was a bucket and hose

and relied on the cover of darkness. This was June,

but the owner made light of the way the tin roof

turned it into a floating methane-fuelled oven.


There was a washing-machine, with a patched out-let pipe

and a generator wired to an illegal stand on the tow path.

The owner waved his cigarette in the vague direction

of the single bunk bed and told me to look round.


On the way home I struck lucky in the local hospice shop

with exactly the right kind of shirt for £4. It’s amazing

what people throw out. I was home before the whistle,

when shouting and horn-blowing filled the street,


went on until the sirens joined in at eleven. All night

heat held the sounds in close-up. The air would not move.

I waited for you to call soI could hold the receiver

up to the open window and let you into my world.





Your desk faces north, mine faces the wall :

over each of them you hang a picture

of your wife, in case we forget who we are

or what we are doing here. ‘After I’m dead,’

you say, ‘she’ll come back for the library.’


The staircase separates fiction from drafts,

pornography fills the loft. The landing

with a leaking roof (biography, misc.)

is ordered on a private system (by friends,

of friends, for sale, the rest.)


If I take the basement, (romance, plays) you’re left

with everything you like to think might be true :

poetry, newspapers, letters, Fine Art, those volumes

in dark covers under the sink, her memoirs, bath books,

city guides, dictionaries, and all the stuff in the attic.



Secret Lives


Sometimes your dressing gown unhooks

and slides out under the garden door

with three aces up his sleeve.


He flies in the face of next door’s dog,

back flips down the middle of the street,

opening himself to the breeze.


Something in pink nylon flutters a cuff

from an upstairs window. He twirls his cord

to beckon her outside.


They’re heading for a club they know

where the dress code is relaxed midweek,

and the music is strictly soul.



The Girl Upstairs


The girl upstairs wears white lycra shorts

even in winter. ‘They’re comfy’

she says, ‘What’s the problem ?’

From the back door you can hear

the steady scratch of her electric meter.


The corner shop sends messenger boys

up the road with her grocery boxes.

Cling peaches in syrup, carnation milk,

baby carrots, peas. Her freckles

are pale orange under a homemade tan.


The landlord says ‘She could make it nice.

Homely. But she’s not the type.’

Her boyfriend laughs. ‘When I come home

I don’t want gardening and all that crap.

Fornication. That’s what a man needs.’


read more hughes …

gnosticism and mccarthy’s blood meridian

The (in)famous and gnomic epilogue of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in The West: 

In the dawn there is a man progressing over the plain by means of holes which he is making in the ground. He uses an implement with two handles and he chucks it into the hole and he enkindles the stone in the hole with his steel hole by hole striking the fire out of the rock which God has put there. On the plain behind him are the wanderers in search of bones and those who do not search and they move haltingly inthe light like mechanisms whose movements are monitored with escapement and pallet so that they appear restrained by a prudence or reflectiveness which has no inner reality and they cross in their progress one by one that track of holes that runs to the rim of the visible ground and which seems less the pursuit of some continuance than the verification of a principle, a validation of sequence and causality as if each round and perfect hole owed its existence to the one before it there on that prairie upon which are the bones and the gatherers of bones and those who do not gather. He strikes fire in the hole and draws out his steel. Then they all move on again. 

Leo Daugherty’s essay is one of the best explications of the Gnostic underpinning of Blood Meridian, since, unlike so much of the so-called critical exegesis of the novel, it manages to account for the presence of the epilogue in an inclusive way, both structurally and thematically.  

Gravers False and True:
Blood Meridian as Gnostic Tragedy

Leo Daugherty 

I want to argue here that gnostic thought is central to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. I will go about this by discussing four of its characters—the judge, the kid, the graver and the mysterious man of the epilogue—and the particular sort of world they inhabit. I am aware at the outset of the difficulties involved in establishing a relationship between any two things (in this case Blood Meridian and Gnostic thought) when some readers may have a working knowledge of only one of them (in this case, I hope, the novel). While it is impossible to provide more than an introductory sketch of Gnosticism here, I believe that its dualistic core can be simply and briefly shown, and that it can then be understood well enough to make clear its connections with McCarthy’s book. 

I. The Gnostics 

No one knows exactly how or when Gnosticism originated, but it is generally agreed that it came about as yet another answer to the question, How is it that the world is experienced as so very evil and that so many people’s central response to it is alienation? The Gnostic answer took two basic forms, the Syrian-Egyptian and the Iranian, the latter of which probably stemmed from Zoroastrianism and found its principal exponent in Mani (215277 AD). Because Blood Meridian exemplifies the latter, I will use it almost exclusively here. 1

In the beginning, there was a “pleroma,” a condition of perfection and thus of literal plenitude, in the divine realm. This realm was made up of God and the lesser divinities, themselves called aeons. Then, somehow, this unity was sundered, either from within or without. In the Iranian version it was riven from without, by some sort of opposing “dark force.” (This presupposes, as Hans Jonas has noted, some yet more primal dualism [“Gnosticism” 338].) In the words of one scholar of this (Manichean) version: “All existing things derive from one of these two: the infinite light of spiritual goodness or the bottomless darkness of evil matter, coexistent and totally opposed to each other” (Greenlees 167). A state of affairs ensued which is termed the “crisis in the pleroma,” one result of which was the “falling” or “sinking” of some of the aeons, including (in Mani’s system) “primal man.” Of these, some became the archons (lords), who took charge of the various lower realms. The characteristics most typically found in them are judgment and jealousy, and their “creative” energies are spent in satisfying their “ambition, vanity, and lust for dominion” (Jonas 338).

One of the archons’ works was the creation of the world. A second was the creation of man, who would contain some of the original divine substance. Their motive for making human beings is unclear, but Jonas argues convincingly that it was either simple envy and ambition, or the more calculating “[motive] of entrapping divine substance in their lower world by the lure of a seemingly congenial receptacle [the body] that will then become its most secure bond” (339). As Robert Grant has noted, “The Gnostic, like the Platonist, regarded his body as a tomb” (327). To him, it is this, then, that is the imago Dei of Genesis, and in Manicheanism the imago is that of the original fallen “primal man.” Yet the spirit within humans is not from the archons. Rather, it is from the great original god of the pleroma, and it is imprisoned in humans by the archons—in Mani’s version through a violent victory of the archons over the real, good god of the pleroma—and the result, on the earth, is obviously a state of affairs in which the good and the light are eternally trapped inside the evil and the dark.

The spirit imprisoned within matter is called pneuma—the “spark of the alien divine,” in the familiar Gnostic phrase—and its presence naturally causes some humans to feel alienated, although they are for the most part comatose. The spirit within is, however, capable of learning, and the alienation it feels is its clue that there is indeed something to be learned. In the various Gnostic systems, knowledge is the key to extrication. It is thus a central task of the archons to prevent the human acquisition of liberational knowledge at all costs. To this end, they have established heimarmene—Fate—which is, in Jonas’s words, a “tyrannical world rule [which] is morally the law of justice, as exemplified in the Mosaic law” (“Gnosticism” 339).

Humans are comprised of flesh, souland spirit. Of these, the first two are from the archons and the third is from the original, good god. This god has nothing to do with the world the archons made, and is in fact as alien to it as the spirit of humankind. But he feels something akin to incompleteness, and he is thus moved to “call his spirit home.” He does this by means of messengers, who go into the world with the “call of revelation.” This revelation is the ”facts of the case—”the knowledge necessary to enable humans to overcome the world and return to their true home with him. God’s revelational messenger “penetrates the barriers of the [lower spheres, including the world], outwits the archons, awakens the spirit from its earthly slumber, and imparts to it the saving knowledge from without” (340). These salvational Gnostic envoys—those in possession of gnosis—called (and still call) themselves “pneumatics.” Their work necessarily entails assuming “the lot of incarnation and cosmic exile”; moreover, in Mani’s system, the revelator is “in a sense identical with those he calls—the once-lost parts of his divine self[thus giving rise] to the moving idea of the ‘saved savior’ (salvator salvandus)” (340).

Manichean Gnosticism is easily confused with nihilism, as the latter is commonly understood. The reason is that the Gnostic god, being totally not of this world, generates no nomos, no law, for either nature or human activity. The law, instead, is the law of the archons, and justice is theirs as well. And so is vengeancethe “vengeance that is mine.” God’s only activity with respect to matter is his attempt, via his suffering-servant pneumatic messengers, to rescue the spirit within humans—the truth of them—out of matter. So, while Jonas is right in arguing that Gnostic “acosmism” makes for the worldly appearance of nihilism, the mere fact that the Gnostic god has a rescuing function makes Gnosticism and nihilism differ importantly (Jonas, Gnostic 332). In Gnosticism, because of this difference, there is conflict and drama. Its human drama takes place within and is a microcosm of its larger cosmic drama which pits spirit against matter, light against darkness and the alien god (and the alien pneumatic spirit within sleeping humankind) against the archons. It is precisely a war. For humans, it is a war against the archons’ heimarmene, but this is merely part of the larger war in which the fate of the original god is the primal stake. Mani taught that the cosmic drama amounts to “a war with changing fortunes [in which] the divine fate, of which man’s fate is a part and the world an unwilled byproduct, is explained in terms of captivity and liberation ” (Jonas, “Gnosticism” 341). And in his teachings, the primal man, the ”knightly male figure, the warrior, assumes the role of the exposed and suffering part of divinity” (341).

With respect to this warrior-knight, Wilhelm Bousset, who was perhaps the most esteemed nineteenth-century authority on Gnosticism, held that he represents god in the form of a hero 

who makes war on, and is partly vanquished by, darkness. He descends into the darkness of the material world, and in so doing begins the great drama of the world’s development. From [god] are derived those portions of light existing and held prisoner in this lower world. And as he has raised himself again out of the material world, or has been set free so shall also the members of the primal man, the portions of light still imprisoned in matter, be set free. (156)

The practicing Gnostics naturally saw themselves as such heroes, as such messengers of god or “primal men.” And in this fact, Bousset concludes, is to be found the obvious meaning of the primal man figure in some Gnostic strains, including Mani’s; for it provides a simple (and self-serving) answer to the question, “How did the portions of light to be found in the lower world, among which certainly belong the souls of [us] Gnostics, enter into it?” (156).

So, whereas most thoughtful people have looked at the world they lived in and asked, How did evil get into it?, the Gnostics looked at the world and asked, How did good get into it? This was of course a very sensible question, and remains so. After all, the Satan of Roman Catholicism, the Orthodox Church and the Protestant Reformation is a strikingly domesticated, manageable, partitioned-off personification of evil as the Gnostics saw evil. They saw it as something so big that “evil” is not really an applicable term—because it is too small. For them, evil was simply everything that is, with the exception of the bits of spirit emprisoned here. And what they saw is what we see in the world of Blood Meridian.

II. The Archon and His World 

Early in Blood Meridian, the reader comes upon this passage: “The survivors slept with their alien hearts beating in the sand like pilgrims exhausted upon the face of the planet Anareta, clutched to a namelessness wheeling in the night” (46). Anareta was believed in the Renaissance to be “the planet which destroys life,” and “violent deaths are caused” when the “malifics” have agents in “the anaretic place” (OED entry, “anareta”). Because McCarthy has not placed a comma after “pilgrims,” it is likely that his simile includes the entire remainder of the phrase; yet it is easily possible to read the passage as if a comma were present, thus producing the reading: this is Anareta. Either way, the implication is clearly that our own Earth is Anaretic. And in Blood Meridian, the Earth is the judge’s.

Even so, on our own evil planet Judge Holden’s power is not yet complete, since his will is not yet fulfilled in its passion for total domination. He is working, as he implies to Toadvine, to become a full “suzerain”one who “rules even where there are other rulers,” whose authority “countermands local judgements” (198). Yet this was also necessarily true of the Gnostic archons, just as it was true of the Old Testament Yahweh, whom they saw as evil. And, like those archons, Holden also possesses all the other characteristics of Yahweh as the Gnostics saw him: he is jealous, he is vengeful, he is wrathful, he is powerful and—most centrally—he possesses, and is possessed by, a will. And he is enraged by any existence or any act outside that will. At one point, he places his hands on the ground, looks at Toadvine, and speaks:
This is my claim, he said. And yet everywhere upon it are pockets of autonomous life. Autonomous. In order for it to be mine nothing must be permitted to occur upon it save by my dispensation. (199) 
In Holden, the stressed archonic element is of course judgment. Yet, like Yahweh, he judges things simply according to the binary criterion of their being inside or outside his will. In one of the passages most crucial to an adequate understanding of Blood Meridian, he tells David Brown, “Every child knows that play is nobler than work,” that “Men are born for games” and that “all games aspire to the condition of war for here that which is wagered swallows up game, player, all” (249). We are reminded here of the novel’s epigraph from Jacob Boehme: “It is not to be thought that the life of darkness is sunk in misery and lost as if in sorrowing. There is no sorrowing. For sorrow is a thing that is swallowed up in death, and death and dying are the very life of the darkness.” Indeed, war is the ultimate cause of unity, involving as it does the “testing of one’s will and the will of another within that larger will [i.e., war itself] which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god” (249).

And it is the warrior judge’s work to achieve dominion—to be the realized territorial archon of this Anaretic planet—through becoming the totalizing victor in all conflicts, real and perceptual, involving his will. The corollary is to show no mercy to those others whose wills have led them to be outside one’s own: as Holden tells the kid late in the novel, “There’s a flawed place in the fabric of your heart. You alone reserved in your soul some corner of clemency for the heathen” (299). And because the kid has shown them mercy, the judge must not show him any—and does not. Ultimately, a person serves the god of war, as Holden tells Tobin, in order to be “no godserver but a god himself” (250).

III. The Name of the Gun

The Earth is the judge’s, and, when he names his gun, the judge makes ironic comment upon the fact that not only is the earth his, but also that it is an anti-pastoral, anti-Arcadian world. The gun’s name is Et in Arcadia Ego (125).

This is a familiar late Renaissance proverb, dating back at least to Schidoni (c. 1600). It was a commonplace memorial inscription for tombs and representations of tombs, it was scrawled as graffiti under pictures of skulls, and it was conventionally employed by painters such as Poussin and Reynolds as a verbal/visual icon. It means, “Even in Arcadia there am I [Death].” The more interesting, least sentimentalizing pastoral poets had stressed this all along, of course, and had accordingly positioned death prominently in their Arcadias—Marguerite of Navarre in her Heptameron, as well as Shakespeare in Love’s Labors Lost, for example, and most importantly Sidney in the seminal Arcadia.

Blood Meridian centers upon what can be reasonably thought of as a fraternity of male shepherds who kill the sheep entrusted to them. One of the shepherds is the kid, who feels the “spark of the alien divine” within him through the call of what seems to be conscience. He thus “awakens” a bit, attaining in the process a will outside the will of his murdering shepherdic subculture and the archon who runs it. The kid reminds us here of Huckleberry Finn, who, in the crucial act of saving his friend Jim from slaveholder justice, similarly defies the will of a pernicious subculture, but who is judged only by his own cultural conscience, saying to himself at the novel’s turning point, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell.” Both these boys are a little bit awakened by the spark of the divine, and both extend acts of fraternal mercy when they are “not supposed to.” In the Mark Twain world, Huck gets away with it; in the McCarthy world, the kid is killed by the judge for it in an outhouse. The kid has “awakened,” but he is not progressed sufficiently in wisdom much beyond mere awakening and thus has no chance at survival, much less at the victory of Gnostic liberation.

Even so, it would be a gross understatement to call Blood Meridian a “pastoral tragedy,” or even to term it “anti-pastoral.” The point of the gun’s name is not that because of its appearance in the landscape, or by synechdoche the judge’s appearance, death has been introduced into an idyllic Arcadia: the entire novel makes clear (primarily through the judge, who continuously emphasizes the point in his preachments) that the human world is, and has always been, a world of killing. This is surely the point of the book’s third epigraph, a quote provided by McCarthy from a 1982 news release: “Clark, who led last year’s expedition to the Afar region of northern Ethiopia, and UC Berkeley colleague Tim D. White, also said that a re-examination of a 300,000-year-old fossil skull found in the same region earlier shows evidence of having been scalped.” Rather, I would argue that the name suggests the judge’s awareness of, and his enthusiastic endorsement of, the reality that the world has been a place of murder ever since the first victorious taking of a human life by another human. The judge’s name Et in Arcadia Ego stands not for his gun and not for himself, but rather for murderous humankind on this very real killing planet.

Blood Meridian is a study of power relations within what, to the habituated expectations of our “received culture,” ought by all rights to have been a pastoral setting. But McCarthy’s long-meditated observations, coupled with his reading of the relevant southwestern history, have led him to other conclusions, and he extrapolates from what he knows of the Glanton gang’s exploits to make a narrative about a world-program seemingly set up by something like a gnostic grand demiurge and enjoyed by him as proprietor, with earthly power being that of judgment sprung from will (the judge’s judgment, the judge’s will, both perhaps signifying the author’s as-above-so-below—and vice-versa—notions), untempered by mercy and wisdom: this is Yahweh’s programmatic power (as the Gnostics saw it), exercised by his archonic overseer. A good “alien” god exists somewhere, as is always the case in Gnosticism, and he is the god of the epilogue who put the fire in the earth and part of himself in the souls of humans, including the kid—to which we will return. But: with respect to these southwestern doings on this southwestern set, so what?2


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nihilism unbound: john zerzan on the spirit of our age

The theories of the anarcho-primitivist John Zerzan derive in part from the negative dialectics of Theodor Adorno, as well as concepts from other Frankfurt School theorists, including their analyses of alienation and society, art and culture, and so on. Zerzan posits for humanity a pre-historical golden age, which lasted until the advent of our original sin — the emergence of symbolic thought or “culture.” The little humanity we have left will soon be totally eclipsed by the dominance of robotic and cyborg technologies and virtual reality simulations: “Progress has meant the looming specter of the complete dehumanization of the individual and the catastrophe of ecological collapse.” (Running On Emptiness, p. 79).

The Age Of Nihilism


Technological mediation and separation continue on their emptying ascendancy, embodying so well capital’s impoverishing penetration of every level of life on this planet. But there are signs that an era of unchecked cynicism, engendered by this rampant advance of techno-capital, is finally being challenged. The challengers, moreover, are quickly deepening their understanding of how fundamental the challenge must be if it is to succeed.


With this in mind, the following comments on nihilism may well be less apropos than they would have been even a year or two ago. For the focus of this essay is passive nihilism, rather than the probing, critical variety, which is the active nihilism now emerging as a force to be reckoned with. Nonetheless, the question of how and why an enfeebling ethos of meaninglessnessand indifference came to predominate may still be of some interest.


In Fathers and Sons, Turgenev described the nihilist as one "who looks at everything critically … who does not take any principle for granted, however much that principle may be revered." But during the same period, Dostoevsky portrayed modern, passive nihilism in Notes from Underground. Its protagonist was merely disgruntled, and lacked the passion and conviction necessary to hold convention to the flame of critique.


During the following century, it appears, the sense that nothing matters became widespread. One current among others, quite obviously, but a growing one. Nothing counts more than anything else, so nothing really counts. Nietzsche had said that nihilism "stands at the door" of modern civilization, and that door opened wider as the important sources of meaning and value steadily revealed themselves as inconsequential and irrelevant, unequal to the rigors of modern life.


Heidegger found in nihilism "the fundamental movement of the history of the West," and what was the bane of the nineteenth century became, by the 1990s, a banality. Nihilism, in the current postmodern clime, is simply the matter-of-fact state of mind of our period—so widespread today is the attitude that little or nothing is compelling, authentic, or makes a difference. Distinctions of value or meaning and the value or meaning of distinctions are less and less persuasive. There is a cultural exhaustion in the movement through decadence into nihilism. According to John Gray, nihilism constitutes modernity’s "only truly universal inheritance to humankind."


That inheritance has accelerated, it seems, since the failure of the movement of the 1960s, when belief in continuous Progress had reached its peak. As utopian oases dried up, a desert of inertia and pointlessness spread. By the ’80s, with nothing to look for and nowhere to go, youth were tagged as slackers, Generation X, etc. In the summer of 1990, the New York Times called kids the generation "that couldn’t care less."


With young people looking ahead to a lifetime of strain and empty consumerism, it should surprise no one that teens’ suicide rate has tripled in the past 30 years. Or that network television now offers what amount to "snuff" programs for the jaded and bored, as the population in general experiences its life-world as more and more of a vacuum in every way. A melancholy escapism flowers in this Dead Zone, this Nowhere.


Development is a given; this cancer of a system would soon collapse without its steady onslaught. It continues its onrush into the hypermodern vista of high-tech unreality. Nietzsche saw nihilism as a consequence of the erosion of the Christian world view. But this is a superficial judgment, in many ways confusing effect with cause.


A deeper causative factor is the march of technology, in the direction of the complete industrialization of society. From the present apex of cultural homogenization and standardized life, this is easier to see than it was for Nietzsche more than a century ago. The hollowing out of the substance and texture of daily existence is being completed, a process intimately related to the near impossibility of experiencing the world without technological mediation. The overall destruction of experience speaks to the deprivation at the heart of both technology and nihilism,


With this absence of unmediated personal experience at the heart of technological progress, skyrocketing levels of stress and depression cannot be surprising. Technology mediates between individuals and nature, ultimately abolishing both. With the triumph of technology, autonomy regresses and negates itself. The promises have all been lies. One is the promise of connection, so mercilessly (though inadvertently) mocked in a recent TV commercial: "I’ve got gigabytes. I’ve got megabytes. I’m voice-mailed. I’m e-mailed. I surf the Net. I’m on the Web. I am Cyber-Man. So how come I feel so out of touch?"


A set-up whose essence is efficiency is already fundamentally nihilist. Technical rules are rapidly supplanting ethical norms by making them irrelevant. What is more efficient or less efficient holds sway, not some moral consideration, even as the systemic goals of techno-capital are shaped by the evolution of its technology. Production, based on mastery and control, becomes more visibly a process of humanity devouring itself.


When powerlessness prevails, a generalized sense of paranoia is not an illogical symptom. Similarly, a current and telling form of cynicism is technological fatalism ("There’s nothing we can do about it"), further exposing the tendency of cynicism to shade into conformity. As Horkheimer and Adorno observed, "technological rationale is the rationale of domination itself."


Understanding and responsibility succumb to an ever-increasing fragmentation, a division of labor that is always unequal and alienating. The only wholeness resides in the fundamental system that turns all else into parts. As the moral self recedes, it becomes harder to grasp the relationship of these parts to one another and to see what they are part of. Domination and nihilism’s crisis of meaning are inseparably entwined.


For Heidegger, technology constitutes the final phase of nihilism. Under its sign all talk of freedom, happiness, emancipation becomes a mockery. In fact, technology itself becomes the ideological basis of society, having destroyed the possibility of other, overt forms of justification. Engagement or belief are hardly necessary for technology’s effective rule. In this way the nagging problem of declining participation in the system can be mitigated, or deferred.


Technology is the embodiment of the totalizing system of capital, and media is an indispensable, ever more defining bridge between technology and the commodity system. If the high-tech information explosion cancels all meaning in a meaningless noise, the mass-entertainment industrial complex pumps out increasingly desperate diversions to a society of relentless consumerism.


"Infotainment" and McJournalism are the latest pop culture products of nihilism. Why bother with truth if nothing can be done about reality anyway? And yet media, like technology, is always promising solutions to problems it has created, or worsened. One example among many is the significant rise in teen smoking in the 1990s despite an enormous media campaign aimed at reducing teen smoking. Strangely enough, beefing up the media does not combat alienated behaviors.


In the United States, and soon to spread elsewhere as not less than a function of development, we witness the recent transition to an amusement society of commodified spectacles and simulations. The eclipse of nonmediated reality feeds still greater urges to escape an emptied everyday life. Massified culture works in favor of distraction, conformity, and culturally enforced stupidity. The consequent lack of authenticity produces a mass turn-off, not unrelated to the decline of literacy.


The collapse of the distinction between reality and simulation in the world of representation can be seen as the ultimate failure of the symbolic. Art, music, and other forms of symbolic culture are losing their power to pacify and console us. Simulation technologies are just the most recent steps away from lived life, toward represented life. Their failure to satisfy means that the system must turn, increasingly, to containment and control.


To protect the desolate society an alternative to that society is safely set up, by means of image technologies. As the social dimensions of human life disappear along with meaning and value, a consumer society in cyberspace becomes the next stage of human existence. We are moving steadily toward the goal of complete illusion—virtual life in a virtual reality.


Under the Juggernaut, the subject is not supposed to have any sense of social causality, structure, coherence, or motive. Virtual Reality’s merely surface experience is exactly mirrored by postmodernism’s fascination with surfaces. As the culture that can just barely still be called one, postmodernism celebrates its own depthlessness, and is thus nihilism’s essential accomplice. It comes to pervade society when too many have given up hope that they can plumb the depth and roots of the whole. Postmodern perspectives are grounded in the incapacity to specify why change might be desirable or how it might come about.


Postmodernism is fundamentally the collapse and refusal of the chance to understand the totality. This indeed is the postmodern boast, mirroring the fragmentation of life instead of challenging it. Its "politics" is that of pragmatism, the tired liberalism that accommodates to the debased norm.


Deconstruction, for example, treats every moral statement as an endlessly manipulable fragment that possesses neither meaning nor intrinsic worth. Rem Koolhaus formulates the overall PM subjugation as follows: "According to Derrida we cannot be Whole, according to Baudrillard we cannot be real, according to Virilio we cannot be There."


Postmodernism, it might be argued, expresses fewer illusions, but the basic ones remain unchallenged. Its exhausted, ironic cynicism is prostrate before the nihilist ascendancy. What could be more passive than critique-less postmodernism double talk—an ideology of acquiescence.


Falsely laying claim to the protection of the particular as against the universal, postmodernism presents no defense whatsoever against the most universalizing force of all, technology. In the guise of particularity it incarnates nothing less than the realization of technology’s universalizing Midas touch.


Postmodernism emphasizes plurality, accessibility, absence of boundaries, endless possibility. Just as consumerist society does. And just as speciously. Where culturally a glut of meaningless information and incoherent fragments hold sway, the glut of ersatz commodities provides a perfect economic parallel. The liberty that remains to us is essentially the freedom to choose among brands A, B, and C, and the KFC in Tienanmen Square expresses domination as surely as the suppression of human rights protesters there in 1989.


"Systematic consumer segmentation and micro-marketing" is the dominant model of individualism today in the nihilist ethos of listless yet restless buyers. In fact, in an overwhelmingly commodified existence, consumption becomes the number one form of entertainment. Little wonder that academic journals now seriously discuss not only the McDonaldization of society but also its Disneyization, while life is largely defined in terms of consumer styles. The cognitive and moral focus of life becomes that of consumer behavior—including, it should be noted, voting and recycling.


Nihilism has effectively leached out the substance and texture from the life-world in the painful progression by which capital and technology have reduced and debased everything in their way. There is no exit from the closed system except by the elimination of that system.


Civilization begins by myth and ends in radical doubt, to paraphrase E.M. Cioran. This may remind us that cultural radicalism, which has become such a convention, feeds the dominant system rather than undermining it. Culture, born of alienation, needs alienation to go on. We must challenge the idea of symbolic culture as well as the reality of high-tech barbarism.


Nihilism is not a one-way street with no return, rather a route that has revealed the ensemble of domination for what it is. There are now very visible signs of the possibility of breaking its hold, redeeming its long, dark night.




—from John Zerzan, Running On Emptiness: The Pathology of Civilization (Feral House), 2002, pp. 109 – 114.

“disposed to the general truth that it is a dangerous and pagan notion that beauty palliates evil”

Although he is known, if at all, as being Paul Theroux’s less famous brother, Alexander Theroux has as much claim as anyone after Thomas Pynchon and Cormac McCarthy to having written the post-Melville, post-James Great American Novel.  According to its publisher, Alexander Theroux’s long novel, Darconville’s Cat, is:


about love and hate. Among other matters, it deals with the delicate tensions between Life and Art, the Ideal and the Real, God and Satan, and, above all, with the crises and conflicts between Man and Woman, the tragic implications of which reach all the way back to the Primal Fall.


One could add Madness, Revenge and Misogyny to that list. The narrative is about a love affair between Alaric Darconville, a Professor of English at a southern U.S. women’s college, and one of his students, Isabel. The book’s style is heavily influenced by James Joyce and Vladimir Nabokov, and its spirit is suffused with Rabelaisian wit, as evidenced by Theroux’s satiric observation on the culture of the militaristic Southern states:


The Americanistic pitch, of course, was old hat on the Bible circuit, as were subterranean virility fears common, the latter always animating the former in the extra-defensive and recurrent dream of the evangelist in which he sees himself, in full color and cinemascope, a lantern-jawed begrenaded U.S. Marine leaping out of a trench to beat the living shit out of the Devil who, widespread was the assumption, wore perfume, spoke Russian, and carried a purse.

   The opening pages of Darconville’s Cat:



 The Beginning

  Delirium is the disease of the night.

              —-St. PONTEFRACT

DARCONVILLE, the schoolmaster, always wore black. The single tree, however, that shanked out of the front yard he now crossed in long strides showed even more distinct a darkness, a simulacrum of the dread probationary tree—trapfall of all lost love—for coming upon it, gibbet-high and half leafless in the moonlight, was to feel somehow disposed to the general truth that it is a dangerous and pagan notion that beauty palliates evil.

  He was alone. It had always seemed axiomatic for him that he be alone: a vow, the linchpin of his art, his praxis.

  The imperscrutable winds of autumn, blowing leaves across the porch, had almost stripped the tree, leaving it nearly naked and essential against the moon that shone down on the quiet little town in Virginia. It was late as he let himself into the house and walked up the creaking stairs to his rooms where, pulling a chair to the window, he sat meditatively in that dark chamber like a nomadic gulsar—his black coat still unbuttoned—and was left alone with those odd retrospective prophecies borne in on one at the start of that random moment we, for some reason, choose to call the beginning of a new life.

  The night, solemn and beautiful, seemed fashioned to force those who would observe it to look within themselves. He watched awhile and then grew weary. He took a late mixt of some rolls and a bottle of ale and soon dropped asleep on his bed, dreaming out of fallen reason the rhymes received with joy he shaped accordingly. It was only early the following morning that he found on the bedside table next to his pen and unscrewed cap—a huge Moore’s Non-Leakable—the open commonplace book in which, having arisen in the middle of the night to do so, he had written a single question: "Who is she?"


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the hollywood-inspired, addiction-fuelled, depression-scarred wisdom of oscar levant

Oscar Levant on Oscar Levant:

There’s a fine line between genius and insanity.
I have erased this line.

It’s not a pretty face, I grant you. But underneath
its flabby exterior is an enormous lack of character.

on his fellow actresses:

I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin.    

Now that Marilyn Monroe is kosher, Arthur Miller can eat her.
—after Marilyn Monroe’s conversion to Judaism

on life:

So little time and so little to do…

It’s not what you are, it’s what you don’t become that hurts.

ned flanders, depraved sex fiend: a new take on the simpsons from javier calvo


The short stories of Spanish writer Javier Calvo are shot through with manipulated quotes from other texts, both middle-brow and academic, while his plots are often cribbed from novels, television shows and films, and his "open" conception of narrative derives from the so-called Free Cinema and the montage techniques of avant-garde filmmakers. But what he does with all of this is a concoction all his own . . . poor Matt Groening!


“ned flanders”

by javier calvo


The neon lights of the motel are reflected in old Flanders’ glasses. Inside the room, a cigarette slowly burns down between his thick yellow fingers. Behind him, Lisa is sitting on the bed. A sheet half covers the yellow nakedness of her child’s body. Flanders silently watches the cars flash past at speed on the interstate. Lisa is taking slow melancholy gulps from the neck of a bottle of Jack Daniels. All of a sudden old Flanders’ short-sighted eyes encounter the reflection in the dirty glass of the window of little Lisa’s round, alcohol-fuddled eyes. That moment encapsulates all of their lives. Their present, their past and their future. It is all there, inscribed in the deoxyribose-nucleic skein of the sweating night. The years of apprenticeship, the first job, marriage, the slow incursion of boredom, the kids and, in the end, the sudden discovery that neither work nor family can promise more than a resigned and unremarkable decline. And the embryo of what lies in store for them: Flanders’ old age, the final pangs of melancholy and the efforts to conceal his secret life, that false compartment where the last vestiges of his desire are concentrated. And Lisa leaving, going far away from little Springfield, to a brighter future of big cities, doctorates cum laude, academic seminars and a senior post in the administration that her parents will contemplate with tears and the blissful smile of irremediable ignorance. A future in which Ned will be no more than an escapade to be forgotten, exciting for the two or three weeks it takes to sate the little girl’s curiosity. It’s all there, exposed, beneath the revealing light of the neon sign. The past versus the future. The fag end in his yellow fingers. Ned Flanders.


"Subversion is a type of violence reserved for the strong. All that is left for the rest of us mortals is perversion."

Michel Foucault


—read the rest of “Ned Flanders” at The Barcelona Review



imagine if paul bowles was an englishman and wrote ghost stories . . .

William Sansom (1912-1976), was an English short story writer, novelist, travel writer, and author of children’s books. Sansom’s short stories are characterized by his minutely detailed descriptions and depictions of people confronting extremities of experience. Eudora Welty said that "the flesh of William Sansom’s stories is their uninterrupted contour of sensory impressions. The bone is reflective contemplation." In his short story “A Woman Seldom Found,” a disillusioned young man holidaying in Rome meets a mysterious and beautiful woman and begins to believe that there is such a thing as “the perfect encounter.”


a woman seldom found
by william sansom


ONCE a young man was on a visit to Rome.


It was his first visit; he came from the country but he was neither on the one hand so young nor on the other so simple as to imagine that a great and beautiful capital should hold out finer promises than anywhere else. He already knew that life was largely illusion, that though wonderful things could happen, nevertheless as many disappointments came in compensation: and he knew, too, that life could offer a quality even worse — the probability that nothing would happen at all. This was always more possible in a great city intent on its own business.


Thinking in this way, he stood on the Spanish steps and surveyed the momentous panorama stretched before him. He listened to the swelling hum of the evening traffic and watched as the lights went up against Rome’s golden dusk. Shining automobiles slunk past the fountains and turned urgently into the bright Via Condotti, neon-red signs stabbed the shadows with invitation; the yellow windows of buses were packed with faces intent on going somewhere — everyone in the city seemed intent on the evening’s purpose. He alone had nothing to do.


He felt himself the only person alone of everyone in the city. But searching for adventure never brought it — rather kept it away. Such a mood promises nothing. So the young man turned back up the steps, passed the lovely church, and went on up the cobbled hill towards his hotel. Wine bars and food shops jostled with growing movement in those narrow streets. But out on the broad pavement of the Vittorio Veneto, under the trees mounting to the Borghese Gardens, the high world of Rome would be filling the most elegant cafes in Europe to enjoy with aperitifs the twilight. That would be the loneliest of all! So the young man kept to the quieter, older streets on his solitary errand home.


In one such street, a pavementless alley between old yellow houses, a street that in Rome might suddenly blossom into a secret piazza of fountain and baroque church, a grave secluded treasure-place — he noticed that he was alone but for the single figure of a woman walking down the hill toward him.


As she drew nearer, he saw that she was dressed with taste, that in her carriage was a soft Latin fire, that she walked for respect. He face was veiled, but it was impossible to imagine that she would not be beautiful. Isolated thus with her, passing so near to her, and she symbolizing the adventure of which the evening was so empty — a greater melancholy gripped him. He felt wretched as the gutter, small, sunk, pitiful. So that he rounded his shoulders and lowered his eyes – but not before casting one furtive glance into hers.


He was so shocked at what he saw that he paused, he stared, shocked, into her face. He had made no mistake. She was smiling. Also — she too had hesitated. He thought instantly: ‘Whore?’ But no — it was not that kind of smile, though as well it was not without affection.

And then amazingly she spoke.


"I — I know I shouldn’t ask you… but it is such a beautiful evening — and perhaps you are alone, as alone as I am…"


She was very beautiful. He could not speak. But a growing elation gave him the power to smile. So that she continued, still hesitant, in no sense soliciting.


"I thought… perhaps… we could take a walk, an aperitif…"


At last the young man achieved himself.


"Nothing, nothing would please me more. And the Veneto is only a minute up there."


She smiled again.


"My home is just here…"


They walked in silence a few paces down the street, to a turning the young woman had already passed. This she indicated. They walked to where the first humble houses ended in a kind of recess. In the recess was set the wall of a garden, and behind it stood a large and elegant mansion. The woman, about whose face shone a curious pale glitter — something fused of the transparent pallor of fine skin, of grey but brilliant eyes, of dark eyebrows and hair of lucent black – inserted her key in the garden gate.


They were greeted by a servant in velvet livery. In a large and exquisite salon, under chandeliers of fine glass and before a moist green courtyard where water played, they were served with frothy wine. They talked. The wine — iced in the warm Roman night — filled them with an inner warmth of exhilaration. But from time to time the young man looked at her curiously.


With her glances, with many subtle inflections of teeth and eyes she was inducing an intimacy that suggested much. He felt he must be careful. At length he thought the best thing might be to thank her – somehow thus to root out whatever obligation might be in store. But here she interrupted him, first with a smile, then with a look of some sadness. She begged him to spare himself any perturbation; she knew it was strange, that in such a situation he might suspect some second purpose; but the simple truth remained that she was lonely and — this with a certain deference — something perhaps in him, perhaps that moment of dust in the street, had proved to her inescapably attractive. She had not been able to helpherself. The possibility of a perfect encounter — a dream that years of disillusion will never quite kill — decided him. His elation rose beyond control. He believed her. And thereafter the perfections compounded.


At her invitation they dined. Servants brought food of great delicacy; shellfish, fat bird flesh, soft fruits. And afterward they sat on a sofa near the courtyard, where it was cool. Liqueurs were brought. The servants retired. A hush fell upon the house. They embraced. A little later, with no word, she took his arm and led them from the room. How deep a silence had fallen between them! The young man’s heart beat fearfully — it might be heard, he felt, echoing in the hall whose marble they now crossed, sensed through his arm to hers. But such excitement rose now from certainty. Certainty that at such a moment, on such a charmed evening — nothing could go wrong. There was no need to speak. Together they mounted the great staircase. In her bedroom, to the picture of her framed by the bed curtains and dimly naked in a silken shift, he poured out his love; a love that was to be eternal, to be always perfect, as fabulous as this their exquisite meeting. Softly she spoke the return of her love. Nothing would ever go amiss, nothing would ever come between them. And very gently she drew back the bedclothes for him.


But suddenly, at the moment when at last he lay beside her, when his lips were almost upon her — he hesitated.


Something was wrong. A flaw could be sensed. He listened, felt – and then saw the fault was his. Shaded, soft-shaded lights by the bed — but he had been so careless as to leave on the bright electric chandelier in the centre of the ceiling. He remembered the switch was by the door. For a fraction, then, he hesitated. She raised her eyelids — saw his glance at the chandelier, understood. Her eyes glittered. She murmured, "My beloved, don’t worry — don’t move …"


And she reached out her hand. Her hand grew larger, her arm grew longer and longer, it stretched out through the bed-curtains, across the long carpet, huge and overshadowing the whole of the long room, until at last its giant fingers were at the door.


With a terminal click, she switched out the light.


—from The Oxford Book of Twentieth-Century Ghost Stories, ed. Michael Cox, Oxford University Press, 1997

two 20th century diaries of obscure women now twitterized

a daily diary of Depression-era life from 1937 to 1941:




for background, see:





a 99-year-old woman’s 1974 diary:


“The Year is 1974. My name is Eva Pratt. It’s 1974. I’m 99 years old, and I ‘Twitter’ nearly every day. We just don’t call it that yet.”




see also: