The value of not having accomplished anything

This was a speech I gave on June 2, 2012 as the invited guest speaker at the graduation for my old high school.  I decided to take a different tone than is normal in such speeches, and hopefully suggest a more accurate picture of life after graduation.

Being asked to speak at a graduation, especially your high school’s graduation a half decade after your own, carries with it certain attendant implications and assumptions.  Speeches like this are basically just talking about yourself, and hoping you can find something in your own experience that will speak to other people in very different situations.  So one assumption is that I have something to say, some way to speak to you all in your positions out there, from my position here.  Not only that, but when people ask you to speak, they assume that you should say something valuable, which means that someone has assumed I have some idea of what is going on.  A second assumption, since it wasn’t too long ago that I was sitting out there is that since I’ve been asked to come back to speak to you, in the five years since I was sitting there, I have done something with myself.

So of course, my first thought when I was asked to come back and speak to you today was: “Wow, they’ve really jumped the gun.”

I decided that this is what I’m going to talk to you about today.  It’s a day when, as family, teachers, and friends have told you, you’ve accomplished so much.  But how do you judge what you’ve accomplished, and where do you go from here?  Is there some value in feeling like you’ve accomplished nothing, like me?  Now, to put my thought about jumping the gun in context: I’ll fully admit that I’ve done quite a lot of things up to this point.  Obviously I’ve graduated from high school, and thanks to the Randolph County Community Foundation and the Lily Endowment, I’m also the first person in my immediate family to get a four-year college degree.  No small feat on top of that: I’m also the first person in my family to pursue graduate studies.  I’ve presented at research conferences, I’ve given other speeches in other situations, I’ve even studied abroad in London, which is just something I’d never thought I’d do.  I’ve been afforded wonderful opportunities, and I’ve taken them.  But does that really qualify as having done something?  Does doing things count as accomplishing something?  Sometimes, when I look to the future, it doesn’t really feel like it.

Let’s start with graduate school.  If any of you know me, or knew me when I was here at Southern, then you probably know I was pretty good at school overall.  Not only am I good at school, but I like it.  I like it so much that after twelve collective years spent here, I spent another four years down in Richmond at Earlham, and I liked that so much that I’m spending at least another six years at IU Bloomington to get my next two degrees.  I say six because that’s as much funding as my current fellowship offers – in reality, depending on how you plan things out, a PhD may take as many as ten years.  That’s obviously not my plan.  My plan is to do this thing in six.  I’ll also be honest in admitting that my circumstances are exceptional.  I’ve been extremely privileged in that the amount of debt I’ve accrued for undergraduate and graduate studies is manageable, and if I live very frugally, should remain so.  My second point of exception is that I know that right now I am on my way to doing – I am in fact already doing – the one job that I want to do, the one job I can see myself doing for years to come.

From an early age I was a good reader, and I knew I liked stories.  English was always my best subject.  I remember the fateful day here, atRandolphSouthern, in what I believe was ninth grade homeroom.  We were filling out these these short surveys for opting into college or university mailing lists, which you may or may not still do.  There was a little section on this thing where you had to put in your career plans.  Now I didn’t have a particular design in mind at this time, though obviously with my academic bent it made sense that I would function best in a scholastic environment.  But of course, the scholastic environment I was most familiar with at the time was high school.  So I looked up at my homeroom teacher, who was Mrs. Reed, and I asked something like, “Hey, do you think I should be a teacher?”

She paused for a moment, deliberated, and said, “You would make a good college professor.”

And I, in my 15 years of innocence, thought:  Yes.  Yes I would.

And the rest, as they say, is history.  Or it will be history eventually.  I’m not a professor yet, but barring catastrophe, it’ll probably happen.  The point of this story is to get across how incredibly single-minded I am.  The nicer way to put that is to say I’m driven.  I’ve known exactly what I’ve wanted to do with my life, more or less, for almost ten years.  I’m not deluded; I know that this isn’t how most people operate.  In fact most of my friends my age – some who aren’t in grad school, and even some of the ones who are – have no idea what they want to do.  The position you guys are in, just getting ready to leave high school, isn’t necessarily any better. The question in the same.  What’s going to come next?

You might be so impressed with me right now that you are thinking, yeah, this guy’s pretty on top if it, I could go to college and then go to grad school.  So let me give you some perspective on what exactly I’ve gotten myself into.  I am 23 years old – in a few weeks I’ll be 24.  I’ve so far spent 17 of those years in some sort of school, and if I get my PhD at 29, that’ll be 22 years.  Rounding up, I will have spent 76% of my life in the classroom or doing homework.  And what will I have to show for it?  Well obviously, Michael – you say – you’ll have your MA and your PhD and you’ll get a tenure-track position at a teaching college and pull a livable salary.  To that I say: hmmmm, maybe.

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, tellingly titled “The PhD Now Comes with Food Stamps” shows something rather frightening: in 2007, the year I graduated from Southern, there were 9,800 people with doctorates receiving federal living assistance.  In 2010 that number rose to 33,700.  Of course, I’m lucky – PhD candidates like me often receive more financial aid from their institutions.  For folks who just got their master’s, in 2007 there were 102,000 degree holders receiving aid, and a whopping 293,000 in 2010.

I should think it’s obvious that economically the country is not right now in the best possible position.  This is true even in – perhaps especially in – academia.  States are cutting funding, and private donors are finding fewer opportunities or less of an inclination to be generous.  Austerity measures at many educational institutions mean eliminating perceived extraneous teaching positions, minimizing the number of tenured faculty and increasing the number of adjuncts.  In other words, there are fewer solid job opportunities for people like me.  At the same time undergraduate tuition costs are going up and students are taking out more and more loans to pay for it.  The total student loan debt in theUSis over 1 trillion dollars, and it’s rising.  But many students are finding that, upon taking on all this loan debt in hopes that it will pay off once they have their degrees, there aren’t any jobs for them once they graduate.  So they go to work in the service industry, where the degree nets them approximately zero benefits.  And eventually, thinking that a higher degree will net them a better salary, they start looking at grad school.

It’s only natural to think this way.  All of us, at one point or another, have probably been assured that the more education you have, the better your life will be – the better your job, the better your income.  We were not lied to.  That used to be true.  But from where I’m standing right now, it’s not true anymore – and it may not be true again for a while.  Things are changing.  17 years of school under my belt, I don’t even have my final degree, and my generation is already looking at one of the worst job markets in recent history, regardless of level of education.

So the question again arises: what, Michael, have you done?  Or to put the emphasis on that question more correctly: Michael, what have you done?

Now here’s the part where you probably start thinking I’m a little insane.  Because this is the part where I tell you, with utmost sincerity and gravitas, that I’m not unhappy with anything that I’ve done – or what I haven’t done, or what I haven’t yet done.  As I said earlier, I know that I am doing the one thing that makes me happy.  I mean, it is literally my job to read books and write papers, and teach other people to read books and write papers.  I’m playing to my strengths.  And if making bank was my ultimate goal, I would never have wanted to become a college instructor in the first place, economic climate regardless.  So where do I get off being so pleased with myself?  My reasoning is this:

We all have to drink from wells we did not dig.  That’s a proverb I was very recently reminded of when attending a speech by the poetry scholar and Quaker thinker Paul Lacey.  “We all have to drink from wells we did not dig.”  It may seem lately that the wells dug for us offer less than palatable waters, or in some cases, are running dry altogether.  And those bitter waters may make us bitter.  But the danger here is to forget, in our anger and bitterness, our own responsibility to dig new wells for the future. This was Paul Lacey’s point in invoking this proverb: to emphasize not only our dependence on the communities that precede us, rear us, and nurture us, but the importance of remembering that we ourselves are responsible for rearing the generation to come.  And so I find myself here today, back in the community that nurtured me, with that thought in particular pressing on my mind.  Things will not get better unless, together, we make it happen.  If the wells dug for us go bad, then we dig new ones.  And it’s our responsibility to remember that these wells will not belong only to us.

All of my statistics about the postgraduate lifestyle was probably not incredibly relevant to you.  I can perhaps alleviate some of the fear I may have instilled by saying that if your field of interest is the hard sciences, things look a bit brighter for you: funding is tight, but not as tight as is in the humanities, and the availability of private sector work for scientists means more job opportunities.  At the end of the day, I’m an academic, so apart from that, I can’t speak to each of you out there, not as personally as I’d like to be able to, about your situations and futures.  You have your own plans, proclivities, interests and uncertainties.  Maybe you’re going to go after an undergraduate degree, and maybe you won’t.  Maybe you’ll take a few years off, maybe you’ll join the military, maybe you’ll just get a job and live your life.   What matters is passion and confidence.  I’ve been able to make my choices because I was lucky enough to know early on what I was good at and what I could do with myself.  Feeling confident in what I can do and what I will do has helped me get this far.

Finding a similar confidence is a task you now face.  What can do you with your life to fully occupy the world that is to come, the one outside these doors, the world that we will make together?  Each of you will encounter personal and social circumstances which are, in varying degrees, both similar to and distinct from those I’ve encountered.  It is true, in a broad, cultural sense, that many of the problems you will face will be the problems I face.  We are close enough in age, you and me, to be in this together.  But generations are tricky things.

Five years ago, in 2007, when I was up here giving my salutatorian speech, I quoted Kurt Vonnegut in saying that true terror is waking up one morning and realizing your high school class is running the country.  Now, us ‘07 kids, we’re almost there.  I can feel that encroaching terror.  For all my self-deprecation, I am on my way to becoming a gatekeeper of higher education.  Whether or not the field recovers from its current unfavorable state, whether or not I get a job after I get my degree, for the next few years I’ve at least put myself into a position of digging new wells.  In the fall, I’ll officially be an Associate Instructor at Indiana University Bloomington.  My job will be teaching IU’s intro to composition course to first-year students.  I will have a greater effect on their early undergraduate education than any other teacher, because it will be my responsibility to impart to them the skills necessary to navigate the years to follow.  If any of you are going toBloomingtonin the fall and end up in a class called W131, I may be your instructor.  I’ve already been installed as an authority figure for you, as weird as it is for me to think about that.

At some point, yes, you will realize that your high school class is in charge of running the country.  You may not think you’re ready now, and you may not think you’re ready in five years or even ten.  But that doesn’t matter.  The fact that I’m standing here, right now, speaking to you, only further proves that point.  Whether I feel ready for it or not, whether I’ve done something or not, the world is asking me to step up.  I’m being asked to dig some more wells, and so that’s what I’ll try to do.

Today, class of 2012, I can offer you, I think, one solid piece of advice.  You have just accomplished something remarkable – you’ve made it to your high school graduation.  But I speak from experience when I say that the troublesome thing about accomplishments is that no matter how amazing and world-ending they may seem in the moment, you keep doing stuff afterward, or you at least keep being asked to do stuff.  You will start to feel like you have to live up to the things you’ve already done, and you will start to feel like maybe you can’t.  As this goes on, it may eventually start to feel like you haven’t done anything at all.  But that’s only natural; remember that while today you celebrate, you still have the entirety of your lives ahead.  You still have wells to dig, though you may not know where you and how you’ll do it, in all the large and small ways now available to you.  As it turns out, the value of not having accomplished anything is, in fact, immense: it is a driving force, a point of both profound anxiety and sublime motivation.

Not having accomplished anything means knowing you still have something yet to do.

So let’s get on with it, Class of 2012.  Let’s do this.

Texts from Last Night

The library here is a lot stranger than any others I’ve ever been in.

It’s two towers of aging Indiana limestone that have stood here for forty years and for all I know might stand for forty more.  Unlike most major university libraries students are allowed to browse the stacks freely, which is of course quite a privilege, and something that makes me excited to have it at a resource.  Actually being there, however, is quite an experience.

It’s far larger than any academic library I’ve been in, and thinking about the books it’s acquired throughout the years — for the first time in my life if I want to read something I can almost guarantee it’s close by — it’s a little unsettling.  On one hand, it’s exciting to consider all of those books around me, all of those things freely available for me to pick up and read.  On the other it makes me intensely aware that there are many more books available to me than I could ever read, literal decades of accumulated attempts at communication, more than I could ever comprehend or understand or synthesize into a coherent whole.

This becomes especially pertinent if you hit the library during a slow period, or if you end up in part of the stacks where no one usually goes, and have plenty of time on your hands.  You may be surprised at what you find.

I was on the ninth floor of the east tower — the highest you’re allowed to go if you’re not staff — when I first saw the phone.  It was probably the beginning of September and I was dropping by to pick up some books for a possible research project.  I stepped out of the elevator and into the small hallway situated in the dead center of the stacks.  Immediately across from the elevator bank are the restrooms, plus a table supporting a yellowed dictionary (which seemed adorably quaint to me upon first glance) and I noticed, right by that, a purple cell phone.

Cell phones aren’t unusual, of course, and I figured this one wasn’t my problem.  Someone had left it — probably after sending a text or making a call, which incidentally is a big no-no since cell phone use is prohibited beyond the main lobby.  After waiting around for a few minutes, listening for anyone approaching or to see if anyone ducked out of one of the nearby bathrooms, I realized that the owner probably wasn’t going to come back any time soon. Because I’m something of a Good Samaritan, I decided to take the phone down to the Lost and Found, after I got the Milton biography I came for.

I grabbed the cell phone — a purple Motorola — and slipped it into my bag before running my errands.

It wasn’t until I got back to my apartment that I realized I’d forgotten about the phone entirely.  I’d been distracted in the stacks and gotten a deal more than the Milton bio I was aiming for, and the Motorola had slipped my mind.  I found it when I emptied out my bag and instantly felt a sharp pang of embarrassment.  Of course, all was not lost.  I just turned the phone on.

I already mentioned it was a Motorola.  It was also marked as a Verizon phone, and beyond being purple was mostly nondescript.  It was one of the models that slides open to reveal a perpendicular QWERTY keyboard.  It also had a camera, but the background was what looked like a default image: two figures silhouetted against a sunset on a beach.  Above that the time was displayed, the signal strength (good), and the battery life (about half).  My plan was to see who the last person contacted was and hit them up letting them know a friend’s phone was missing, so I quickly navigated through the menus.

I discovered the lists of incoming and outgoing calls were both blank.  The text message in- and outboxes were likewise empty, and so was the address book.

I can’t say I wasn’t suspicious.  This simply wasn’t how people use phones. Yet, if someone had chosen to clear out their phone, well, more power to them, no matter how weird it was.  That just meant I had no way of getting it back to them on my own, and at the time I remember being distinctly grateful that the next day I could just drop it off at the library Lost and Found, as per my original plan, and be done with it.

So I set the phone aside, and went about my business.  It was a Wednesday, which meant my roommates would be out most of the evening for various reasons, so I took advantage of the situation by making full use of the kitchen.  I was dipping chicken thighs in Italian dressing when I got the first text.

I’d left the phone on, and right next to my own phone in the pile of homework I habitually keep on the kitchen table when I’m cooking.  There was no ringtone, only a setting to vibrate, so when the text came, I thought it was my own phone going off.  (I personally hate ringtones.)  But I was surprised to see, after washing my hands and heading over,  that it was the purple Motorola’s screen that had lit up with a message notification.  One new text message.

Thinking I might be able to return the phone in person after all, I opened the message.  It was prefaced by the number of the sender — no name, since there was nothing in the address book — and I could tell at first glance that the number wasn’t local.  The message said

are you home yet?

I hit reply and with fingers not at all used to the keyboard wrote back that I wasn’t the owner of the phone, that I’d found it in the library, but I’d be happy to return it if I could figure out who it belonged to.  I hit send and waited.

I expected a response within at least a few minutes.  In my admittedly limited experience with things like this, people are pretty prompt when a phone is missing.  But as it turned out, I didn’t get a response until half an hour later, after my chicken and sweet potatoes had been in the oven for a quarter of their bake time.  I was sitting at the table doing homework when the next text came.

are you home yet? this is harder than i thought lol

Confused I spent some time comparing the originating phone numbers  They were the same, but the second seemed oblivious to my reply to the first.  Not sure what to do, I replied again, something along the lines of, I’m sorry, this isn’t my phone, I said I found it, could you tell me who it belongs to?

The phone was silent again until I was doing dishes almost an hour later.  I took my time checking it, since I was already expecting something less than helpful, and sure enough I wasn’t disappointed.

when they knocked i didnt answer so its ok. ive been drinking a little. ok maybe alot lol what about you?

Still the same number.  I didn’t respond to it this time, figuring that whoever was on the other side of this conversation was probably a bit more than drunk.  Instead, as a mild curiosity, I googled the number, idly fantasizing I’d find it associated with a Facebook page or something.  No such luck there, but I did manage to pin down a region: Rancho Palos Verdes, CA.  Nowhere close to local, but the university takes students from all over.

I shrugged this off as I went about my business, finishing up the dishes and moving on to more homework.  It occurred to me at one point that due to the time difference, my mystery correspondent was drinking a little (okay maybe a lot) at four in the afternoon.  Strange, but I hear they have odd ways in California.

Regardless of my own lack of response, I saw the purple phone had received yet another text after I got out of the shower.

hes been weird since you left

By this point I was beginning to feel a bit uneasy.  Whose phone was this, who was texting it, and why were they ignoring me?  I began to consider the possibility that this was an elaborate prank, or maybe part some psych doctoral student’s research project.  Of course it made me wonder what sort of prank or research project relied on people stealing a cell phone from a library and sending those people aimless texts.  I wondered if it were some sort of trolling gimmick — someone with money to blow was hoping to get a rise out of me, and would upload a transcript of my hilarious reactions to a cutting edge comedy website, or a 4chan board or something.

That still didn’t make any sense.

I got another text while I was pondering the possibilities, though.

i saw lights outside my window are you home yet

I swallowed.  It had to be a trick.  Someone’s dumb game.  Would I be playing into their plans if I called?

Only one way to find out.

I called the number and waited.  One ring, two rings, three rings, four and five and — someone picked up.  “Hello?” came a voice.  It sounded like a woman’s voice, maybe middle-aged.

“Hello,” I said, doing my best to organize my thoughts.  I honestly hadn’t expected anyone to answer and now I didn’t know what to say. “I’m not sure whose phone I’m calling from, I found it in the library here and when I received a text from your phone I tried asking for a name so I could–”

There was a groan.  “I’m so sick of this,” the woman said.  “Don’t you have anything better to do?”

Then she hung up on me.

I stared at the screen for a few moments, watching  CALL ENDED blink on the screen, and then set the phone aside again.  It was certainly some kind of trick, I decided.  I was getting texts from the woman’s number.  I got one just before I called her.  There was no way she didn’t know what I was referring to.  It was a prank, a really elaborate and inscrutable and asinine joke.

A bigger man, at this point, would have checked out, just turned the phone off.  But I was beginning to feel indignant and more than a little pissy toward whoever was orchestrating this game, and more than a little anxious to see if they tried anything further.  So I just set the phone aside on my night stand, right next to my own phone, and went about the rest of my nightly routine, finishing up reading for the next day’s classes.  As 11:30 rolled around, the purple phone hadn’t shown any signs of life.  I went to bed.

I’m a heavy sleeper, which somewhat explains what happens next.  How I remember it beginning is rolling over in bed during the night, as I think most people do, and becoming aware that something was off about the light level in the room.  That set me on the path for a full awakening, and as I smashed my face into my pillow in protest I became aware of a low buzzing sound.  The sound of a phone vibrating against my night stand.

I’d forgotten about the purple Motorola and immediately assumed it was my phone going off, that there was an emergency somewhere.  I reached out, my hand scrabbling around the nightstand until I felt my phone’s familiar case, and cracked open my eyes.

The screen was dark.  The light was coming from the other phone.  Memories returned and, irritated, I picked up the Motorola with the intention of turning it off.

That was when I caught sight of what the screen said.  It was not a call, of course, but a text message.  But not just one.  The screen said there were now 15 new messages.

I dropped the phone, my hand reaching out again for my glasses.  I blinked as I pulled them on, wondering if I’d read the screen correctly.  On the night stand the phone buzzed again as I picked it up.  16 new messages.

I hit a button, automatically opening the most recent.

im coming now let me in

I closed the message and frowned, still trying to get the sleep out of my eyes.  As I focused on the screen I noticed two things.  The first was that it was past two in the morning.  The second was that the battery icon was flashing.

But before I could fully comprehend that, the phone died, the screen flicking to black in an instant.  But in that instant I saw once again the background image, the wallpaper, that sunset.

Then I was alone in the dark.

I took the phone back to the library the next day, not even bothering to see if my own phone cord would suffice to recharge it.  I decided, after my night of intermittent sleep and uneasy dreams, that I didn’t want to see whatever else it had to say.

“Hey,” I said to the man behind the reference desk, “I was wondering if you had a Lost and Found here.”

“Sure do,” he said.  “Lose something?”

I shook my head and showed him the phone.  “I found that up in the stacks on the ninth floor,” I said.  “No one was around, so I figured if anyone came back looking for it they’d check here.”

“Ninth floor?” said the man.  “Thank you very much.”  He took the phone and dropped it somewhere below the counter as I walked away.

I wondered if I had imagined the look on his face when I set the phone down between us.  It was almost surprise, or rather, the look someone trying to hide surprise.  Or recognition.  Maybe I had imagined it, I decided.  Just like when I glimpsed the phone’s wallpaper for the last time, and in my confused, half-asleep state imagined I saw, standing black against an orange beachside sunset, a solitary silhouette where I had before seen two.


Last week I got a call from an unfamiliar number.  I usually don’t answer them but occasionally, if the mood strikes me, I will.

This time, after maybe four or five rings, I did.

“Hello?” I asked.  I was standing in the hallway of the apartment, just getting ready to head out for the night.

“Hello,” said a voice, a young woman’s voice.  “I’m sorry, I don’t know whose phone this is, I found it today, but you’ve been texting me and–”

I understood what was happening, at least on a surface level.  I suddenly understood, with perfect clarity, as if I could see it physically, what phone this girl had found.

But I still don’t know what came over me.  I knew, as she was speaking to me, exactly what it was I was going to say.  I don’t know why I said it, but with a heavy sigh I did: “I’m so sick of this.  Don’t you have anything better to do?”

And then I hung up.

My phone began to buzz in my hand almost immediately; she was calling me back.  I held down the red END button, watching as my phone’s screen went black, and I kept it off for the rest of the day.

When I turned it on the next morning, I was relieved to see there were no new messages.

if we stop teaching we’ll need someone to raise us from the dead

“What are you preparing to study?” asks the woman next to me on the bench.

English literature, I say.

It is approximately 82 degrees Fahrenheit and our bench, which does not have a protective awning, is placed squarely in the sun.  Three hours have passed since I first got off the bus at this stop, and I have walked in toto something like three and a half miles in a pair of sandals not made to live up to my usual brisk walking pace, so consequently my feet hurt like hell.  I have visited four bookstores and have $250 (15 pounds, ~6.8 kilograms) of books in my lap, this being no doubt the reason the woman asks me what I am studying.  My bus back to my apartment will arrive, by my estimates, in more or less 25 minutes.

“English, good,” says the woman.  “It’s a good thing to learn.  Good luck to you and bless you.”

She hesitates.  “God bless you, I mean,” she says after a moment of thought.  “His blessing has got a lot more weight to it than mine, I can say from experience.”  She laughs.

I laugh too, to be polite and thank her.  “I know it can be a hectic time right now,” she says.  “A big, new experience.”

I tell her that it is indeed, though I sort of have a head start.  I’m here for my MA/PhD, I already have my BA, but that was from a much smaller institution, and a very different institution, with only about 1,000 students combined compared to this place’s 40,000.

“Well, maybe you can teach them to concentrate,” the woman says, and laughs.

I laugh too.

“I know it’s supposed to be a place of learning,” she says, “but come dusk…”  She shakes her head.

I know what she means.  I’ve been here for only a week and multiple times now, and before 11 o’clock hits, I’ve seen the roaming herds of frat guys and sorority girls drunkenly jaywalk, like flocks of petulant birds in muscle shirts or miniskirts, respectively.

“Your degrees,” she says, “after the first one, when you get those does that mean you’re gonna teach the teachers?”

I say yes, because, well, I am sure some of my hypothetical future students will teach in their turn.

“Ah, that’s good.  I don’t have any degrees, but I have some experience with that area.”

The woman is maybe forty-something (she is 54, she will tell me later) and has on her lap a K-mart bag with some boxes in it and a Nalgene.  When I first sat down the woman was eating goldfish crackers from the K-mart bag, popping handfuls into her mouth.  She is thin without looking drawn in the way that some older people sometimes have, though her blonde hair is starting to look a bit gray in a certain light.  She is wearing a pair of sunglasses that sit close on her cheeks, the lenses so large and round that they obscure a third of her face and look a bit like goggles.

I am already mentally kicking myself when I ask her what it is exactly she does, because I dislike talking to strangers generally and dislike talkative strangers even more, plus what are the odds a random bus station conversation will not turn weird, especially given the God thing from earlier,  but there I go, I ask her, I ask her what it is exactly she does.

“I teach ministry,” she says, smiling that I’ve asked.  “I work with a group of believers here and do some street evangelizing.”

I nod and consider asking her if she’s associated with any particular church but don’t.  I also consider mentioning Quakerism, the theology with which for various reasons I tend to be most copacetic, but don’t.  Instead I ask her how long she’s been in town.

“A year,” she says.  “I was doing some wandering — I was in fact part of the homeless community for a while — and ended up in a tent.  Literally, in a tent!  Like Abraham!”

I know there is something of a housing crisis in the city, forcing many lower-income locals into nearby tent communities, and I am struck by the Old Testament parallel the woman has drawn.

“Of course, we’re moving on now,” the woman continues, “and the ministry has gotten stronger.  We were in our prayer circle back then,” I assume she means the tent city, “and we heard God telling us ‘boot camp.’  My minister-friend just looked at me and he says, ‘Boot camp.'”

The chain of association here is beyond me, though I guess the idea is that boot camp whips you into shape for deployment whether you like it or not, and the woman and her prayer circle were being told by God to stop feeling sorry for themselves in a tent community and move on with their lives, an act which apparently consists of spiritual deployment into the Gomorrha of a Big Ten University town.  Whatever the case, combinations of military and religious terminology make me uneasy (cf. Quakerism, above), so I just nod and cross my arms over my books.

“And you know,” she is saying, “it took some humbling when I heard that.  I had to get rid of my pride.  My minister-friend asked me, if you were ministering in a jungle somewhere where they hadn’t heard of Christ, would you try to change their culture, or be Christ-like in their presence?”

Though I’m still not really following the chain of association, I think this is a pretty good theological sticking point and I tell her so.

She nods.  “That shut me right up,” she says.  “Now I think that when we do minister, we have a lot more behind us than we wouldn’t have without that experience.”

Yeah, I agree, it seems to me she and her friends would have a strong foundation from which to work.  They know what it’s like to be in tough spots, unlike some ministers.

She nods again.  “I may not have any letters next to my name, but I did go to college, and I’m 54 years old, and I got experience.”  She offers me her hand and tells me her name is Tracey.

I shake her hand and tell her my name is Michael.

Something flits across her face and she says, “Of course it’s Michael,” which is a pretty weird thing to say and I mentally kick myself some more while I wait to see where this is going.  “You know what that name means, right?”

I say I don’t remember the Hebrew meaning, but I know that Biblically Michael is an Archangel, the general of Heaven’s army.  (I know this because I read Milton.)

“And what it originally means,” she says, “is ‘Who is like God?'”

I know this is correct, because I remember the fact as she says it, as sometimes we remember facts.  I think it’s a rhetorical question, because the correct answer is that there is no one like God.

She says, “I know that because it’s also the name of the father of my child.”

Oh Lord, I think.

“We looked it up once.”

This is the end of this particular tangent, apparently, as she goes onto how names are very interesting, very meaningful.  I sort of wish I knew what ‘Tracey’ meant so I could say something about it, or maybe I could ask her because she probably knows, but I don’t.

The topic of names steers her toward the topic of her ministry again.  She works in prisons, leading classes with names like “Emotional Healing” and “Positive Attitudes.”  She makes it a point to memorize each prisoner’s name — and with God’s help she does it within the first six weeks — because names are important.  A lot of those people aren’t used to being called by their names, just their numbers by the guards and their doctors, and sometimes by their doctors’ diagnoses, which trap them into cycles of thinking about themselves in certain ways, ways which limit how they can act and feel.  And part of her job as a teacher, she says, is to help break those cycles, to show those people that they can be loved, to help them learn how to be loved.  If you can’t be loved then you’ll never love anyone yourself.

I look in my lap at a copy of The Duchess of Malfi, which is a play where a corrupt cardinal confesses his sins to his mistresses and then murders her by persuading her to kiss the poisoned cover of a Bible.

I tell her what’s she saying is very true.  I’m angry at myself a little because I know that despite the sappy rhetoric what she is saying is true, I’m angry at myself for thinking that and at the same time thinking it’s absolutely cheesy, and I’m angry at this woman for talking to me, and I’m angry at myself for talking back, and I’m angry I have this impulse to immediately start forming counterarguments, I’m angry that I have to squash a desire to say, Well, yes, but aren’t there some people who just won’t learn to love?

“It’s all about attitude,” says Tracey.  “You have to keep your attitude positive, because — and I know this — in a lot of situations, all you really can control is your attitude about things.”

I agree again, this time more enthusiastically because it really is true, and I don’t think this is a cheesy thing to believe or say, even though I’m aware that other people probably do.  It’s a shame, a real shame, I say, that there are so many people who never learn that, who aren’t taught that.

“You’re right,” Tracey says.  “And a problem with a lot of people who haven’t learned that early, is later on they won’t learn it.  They’ll think they already learned everything.”

I think, what if this were a Flannery O’Connor story?  The street evangelical and the modern malaised intellectual at a bus top on a hot day.  If this were a Flannery O’Connor story Tracey would be blind behind those sunglasses, or she’d have a club foot.  If this were a Flannery O’Connor story I would probably die at the end.

“I have a saying,” Tracey tells me: “If we stop teaching we’ll need someone to raise us from the dead.”

This doesn’t make sense to me at first blush.

“Something I’ve learned, while teaching,” she says, “is that if you’re teaching, you’re also learning, and if you’re learning more, you should understand each time you learn more, how much more you haven’t learned.”

Again she’s saying things I agree with, which makes me happy but then also makes me uneasy, because it makes me wonder how much of what I believe is basically bromides for street evangelists, and then I am angry at myself for wondering for even the tiniest second that something being a bromide, or something being believed by both myself and a street evangelist, makes it inherently lesser.

I tell her that’s she speaking a lot of sense, and I see my bus is coming, so I tell her good luck with the ministry.  And then I think Oh hell why not, and I tell her God bless, too.

She takes the same bus as I do, but we have different stops and sit pretty far apart, so by the time I get off she’s already having an involved conversation with the unsteady old man who sat beside her.

I think about how when I first sat down she was eating little goldfish crackers, and the little fish connected with the fact she’s a Christian minister would be symbolically significant in a short story, but I don’t know how to make it work without it seeming silly.

Tables of Memory: Fathers, Sons, and Ghosts in Ellis, King, and Shakespeare

REMINDER: you can buy Arcane #1 in print or for your ereader of choice right now, and it has a story by me!

But today I’ve gone through my archives and found this essay on Shakespeare, Stephen King, and Bret Easton Ellis, because certainly those things all belong in an essay together!  Anyway, if you’ve ever wondered how I can reconcile my love of Shakespeare with being a huge horror geek and pop culture nerd, this is probably the best example.  Please note that this essay will discuss the plots of all three texts in depth, so if for some reason you are wary of “spoilers” for old books, beware!

Read, enjoy, comment if you like, and so on.

Tables of Memory:

Fathers, Sons, and Ghosts in Ellis, King, and Shakespeare

–What is a ghost? Stephen said with tingling energy.  One who has faded into impalpability through death, through absence, through change of manners.  …  Who is the ghost from limbo patrum, returning to the world that has forgotten him?  Who is King Hamlet?

– Joyce, Ulysses


Bret Easton Ellis’s Lunar Park is unquestionably connected to Hamlet — one of the novel’s epigraphs is Hamlet’s vow after the ghost of his father tells him to seek revenge in I.v: “From the table of my memory / I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records, / All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past / That youth and observation copied there.”  The bulk of its action also takes place on Elsinore Lane, near Ophelia Boulevard and within spitting distance of Fortinbras Mall and Horatio Park.  Thematically, Ellis seems to concern himself with the relationships between fathers and sons — and how the son remembers the father who has passed on, as with Hamlet’s vow after meeting with Old Hamlet’s ghost.  And yet in addition to Shakespeare, another writer looms large over Ellis’s novel.  Following an incident where Bret-the-Narrator storms into his family’s house, drunk and high, wielding a handgun in order to fend off the serial killer he thinks is hiding out on the second floor, his wife Jayne refuses to let him sleep in her bed.  Bret brings up an earlier conversation they had about starting over, about “new beginnings,” to which Jayne replies, “You screwed that up sometime last night …. You screwed that up with your big Jack Torrance routine” (219).

Jack Torrance is the protagonist of The Shining, a 1977 horror novel by Stephen King, dealing with substance abuse, familial disintegration, and — a concern it shares with Hamlet and by extension Lunar Park — the relationships between fathers and sons.  I suggest, however, that Jayne’s seemingly offhand comment is a single explicit reference to the text from which Ellis draws most of King’s themes, giving them center-stage in a book that simultaneously rewrites Hamlet and The Shining, bringing to light elements of the former that are more obscure in the latter and raising the possibility that The Shining is itself another rewriting of Hamlet.  What this means is that Ellis’s novel, being the most recent text, does not simply include conscious references to Shakespeare and King, but embarks on what might be termed a renovation of both works, a very direct campaign to dismantle, remodel, and improve Shakespeare’s play and King’s novel so that the end result (to carry the house metaphor) has different molding, flashier wallpaper, new windows, more rooms, but still rests on what is essentially the same foundation.

This foundation, the key element that unites all three of these texts, is the way they dramatize the relationships between fathers and sons, and the mechanism of this dramatization is the supernatural — specifically the concepts of haunting and ghosts.  A ghost in fiction, speaking in very broad terms, is simply an indicator of trauma, of the past exerting some sort of malign or at least upsetting influence on the present.  In other words, the ghost in fiction can be a very powerful tool for presenting the way in which a character’s memory influences his actions — the past has an effect on the present because the living are constantly beset by their memories of the dead.  This is most concisely encapsulated in Hamlet’s meeting with Old Hamlet’s ghost: Hamlet’s dead father, or some demon taking that form, is speaking to him, calling him to action.

But Hamlet, no matter what he vows, is placed in a situation where he is uncertain of his father figures; Old Hamlet, a headstrong and commanding warrior, has been replaced on the throne by the physically weak but wordy and cunning Claudius, and while Hamlet admires his namesake more he wonders why his mother should marry his “father’s brother, but no more like my father / Than I to Hercules” (I.ii.157-158).  Hamlet’s concern here is primarily why his mother should have remarried so quickly – “within a month.”  Yet as Hamlet contemplates the situation, he remarks: “O, most wicked speed, to post / With such dexterity to incestuous sheets! / It is not, nor it cannot come to good. / But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue” (161-164).

To hold one’s tongue means to stop speaking, which of course makes sense as other characters have just entered the room, but it also suggest Hamlet must not say something in particular.  What could he possible feel so strongly about?  Voicing his dismay the marriage?  Everyone seems to know he’s upset.  Rather, I believe has made a realization, and the reason for his mother’s quick marriage has become very clear: if Gertrude did not in fact love Old Hamlet as she seemed, she may have been having an affair with Claudius for years, thus explaining the speedy marriage; and if this is the case, then there is a strong chance that Claudius is Hamlet’s biological father.  After all, Old Hamlet was a fearsome warrior, like Hercules, and Claudius is a talky intellectual; Hamlet knows he is nothing like Hercules, but in this scene he suddenly understands that he is a young man who likes to read books and hear himself speak — he’s more like Claudius than the man he’s believed to be his father.

Hamlet, perhaps unaware of what he is doing, even acts like Claudius for most of the play: we know that when Old Hamlet wanted something done (eg annexing part of Norway) he simply challenged the rival king to single combat; when Claudius wants something done (eg, the king dead and the throne and queen all to himself) he sets up an elaborate plot involving ear poison and a lie about a serpent in an orchard.  Hamlet seems to take after Claudius, in that when he wants to exact his revenge on his uncle he must first feign madness and put on a play in order to determine Claudius’s guilt.  If Hamlet is Claudius’s son, the implication might be that he naturally acts as his father does.

Yet Hamlet also has a moment of self-realization: while being escorted to England, he is struck by the similarity between Fortinbras’s self-motivation and Old Hamlet’s escapades, and wonders: “Why yet I live to say ‘This thing’s to do,’ / Sith I have cause, and strength, and means, and will / To do ’t” (IV.iv.47-49).  Hamlet’s epiphany here is that — regardless of who his biological father is — he still has the power to act and to choose how he acts; if Fortinbras can be so forceful despite his own father falling to Old Hamlet, then so can young Hamlet, even if he might be Claudius’s son.  And from this point on in the play Hamlet does away with scheming, boldly doing battle with pirates, escaping back to Denmark, and calmly and confidently accepting the invitation to duel to Laertes.

Old Hamlet is distanced from his son by death; Claudius (if the usurper is indeed his father) has been absent for most of Hamlet’s life, and is furthermore estranged from Hamlet by his crime.  One possible point of Hamlet is that the young prince must make the choice of whether to heed the call of not one father, but two possible fathers; to choose not only to heed the call but to also choose which call to heed: will Hamlet do as the ghost of the old king or the nature of the new king bids him?  To choose one father over the other means to choose one way of acting over another; for Hamlet, for the son, it means choosing what sort of life he wants to live.  This is not only the crux of Shakespeare’s play, but the crux of the two rewritings of it I will discuss, and while Hamlet contains only one ghost in a minor role, the supernatural is unleashed with a vengeance in the other texts.

Of the three texts, King’s The Shining comes the closest to embodying the typical modern conception of a ghost or haunted house tale.  It is the story of the Torrance family (Jack, Wendy, and six-year-old son Danny) who are hired as the winter caretakers of the haunted Overlook Hotel, an establishment with a sordid history of illegal gambling, mob connections, suicide, and murder.  When the snow piles high, trapping the family inside the hotel, the Overlook’s past begins to seep out of the woodwork; it becomes apparent that the hotel itself has been bestowed with some sort of sentience by the aggregate emotional trauma experienced within it, and it desires to add Danny, who is a powerful psychic and telepath, to its menagerie of specters.  This is all suitably pulpy, the kind of supernatural melodrama that King is most well known for, and if the hotel simply used its collection of ghostly mobsters and turn-of-the-century business moguls to accomplish its goals the novel wouldn’t be much more than that.  However, it takes on a deceptive complexity in the way the Overlook chooses to attack the Torrance family: from the inside out, using Jack as its agent in the attempted murder of Danny.

The Overlook’s ghosts are unconnected to the Torrances, but when the hotel goes to work on Jack its methods become deeply personal.  He is a recovering alcoholic when the story begins, a point made clear in the early chapters.  As the novel develops, we learn two important details: first, that Jack has trouble controlling his temper (he broke Danny’s arm a few years before and was recently fired from his teaching job for assaulting a student) and Jack’s father was similarly violent and alcoholic, implying that his present behavior is tied to his father’s abuse.  During one of Jack’s more lengthy flashback sequences, we learn that he idolized his father, completely innocent as to the nature of his dad’s alcoholism.  However,“[l]ove began to curdle at nine, when his father put his mother into the hospital with his cane” during an irrational, drunken dispute at the dinner table:

[Jack’s father was] up out of his chair and around to where she lay dazed on the carpet, … [his] jowls quivering as he spoke to her just as he had always spoken to his children during such outbursts.  “Now.  Now by Christ.  I guess you’ll take your medicine now.  Goddam puppy.  Whelp.  Come and take your medicine.”  The cane had gone up and down on her seven more times before [Jack’s brothers] got hold of him, dragged him away, wrestled the cane out of his hand.  Jack … knew exactly how many blows it had been because each soft whump against his mother’s body had been engraved on his memory like the irrational swipe of a chisel on stone. (224-225)

The hotel, which appears to be psychic in its own right, uses Jack’s memories of his father to manipulate him; it conjures alcohol for him to drink, it speaks in his father’s voice through the Overlook’s emergency radio; his father’s bludgeoning of his mother is reminiscent of Jack’s eventual assault on his wife and son with a roque mallet, and the hotel (speaking to Jack through the person of Delbert Grady, the last caretaker to murder his family in the Overlook) casts the necessity of murder in terms of patriarchal punishment and discipline: “[Your son] needs to be corrected, if you don’t mind me saying so.  He needs a good talking-to, and perhaps a bit more” (352).

Jack has a choice to do as the spirit(s) of the Overlook command him or to protect his family; his wife Wendy understanding the crossroads her husband stands at, and casts it in very telling terms: “[Jack] looked to her like an absurd twentieth-century Hamlet, an indecisive figure so mesmerized by onrushing tragedy that he was helpless to divert its course or alter it in any way” (297).  The hotel, like the demon Hamlet initially supposes the apparition of the old king to be, is a monster in the form of Jack’s father, calling him to terrible action, and Jack, unfortunately, answers.  This culminates in him echoing his dad’s drunken cries while he stalks Wendy and Danny through the hotel corridors:  “You’ll take your goddam medicine for this, I promise you!” (383).  In a way, by making this decision, by siding with the Overlook, Jack becomes his father.[1]

This raises an interesting problem for King: if the nature of trauma is somehow recursive, if the sort of abusive father-son relationships The Shining explores are actually a self-replicating phenomenon, then what does the future hold for Danny?  This is remedied by Danny’s own unique nature; the manifestation of his psychic abilities is a ghostly young man he calls Tony, a figure the adults around him believe to be some sort of imaginary friend.  But Tony shows Danny the future, gives him hints as to what will come, and before Danny’s final confrontation with Jack at the end of the novel he sees Tony more closely than ever before:

And now Tony stood directly in front of him, and looking at Tony was like looking into a magic mirror and seeing himself in ten years ….  The hair was light blond like his mother’s, and yet the stamp on his features was that of his father, as if Tony — as if the Daniel Anthony Torrance that would someday be — was a halfling caught between father and son, a ghost of both, a fusion.  (420-421)

Danny is saved by this vision, by the implicit realization that while he may resemble his father he is not and does not have to be a copy of him; Danny cannot fully shed Jack’s influence and legacy of abuse, perhaps, but he still is (and will be) his own person, and is not doomed to imitate his father’s (or his father’s father’s) mistakes.  This sort of generational tension, the eventual self-realization of the son, and the personal nature of haunting are all Hamlet-esque elements of The Shining that Bret Ellis draws to the fore of Lunar Park, which he admitted in a Today Show interview to be his “homage to Stephen King.”

In the first chapter of Lunar Park Bret-the-Narrator gives an extensive overview of his early home life and his rise to fame as a young novelist in the 80s, with special attention paid to his troubled relationship with his father: “[M]y father had always been a problem — careless, abusive, alcoholic, vain, angry, paranoid — and even after my parents divorced … his power and control continued to loom over my family” (6).  He repeatedly mentions that leaving California for college in New England was a type of “escape,” and his unexpected success as a writer granted him a financial independence from his father that allowed the man to be cut from his life almost entirely.  When Bret’s father died, Bret explains, he stored the ashes in a California bank vault rather than scatter them in the ocean, and he let himself forget about them.

Yet despite his attempts to distance himself from his father, Bret falls into many of his dad’s bad habits; though he’s not physically abusive, he’s careless, alcoholic, and vain: “And soon I became very adept at giving the impression I was listening to you when in fact I was dreaming about myself: my career, all the money I had made, the way my life had blossomed and definde me, how recklessly the world allowed me to behave” (12).  The real meat of the novel lies outside the first chapter; Bret settles down with movie star Jayne Dennis and her two children: Sarah, from one of Jayne’s previous relationships, and most importantly Robby, who is actually Bret’s biological son, born after a tryst between Bret and Jayne a dozen years before their marriage (and, notably, conceived in the aftermath of Bret’s father’s death — Robby is named after the deceased).  Bret is “thrust into the role of husband and father” (38) and takes up teaching at a New England college.  However, the situation is fragile; Bret wants to continue the self-centered drug-abusing lifestyle he’s used to, while his new position as part of a family demands some measure of responsibility.

The tension between Bret’s old life and the requirements of his new one would make satisfactory fodder for a normal dramatic novel or perhaps a second-chance romantic comedy but, like The Shining, Lunar Park uses the supernatural as a vocabulary for (self)destructive behavior, the resulting disintegration of the family unit, and the ability of the past to encroach on the present.  Bret-the-Narrator (who is to some degree based on Bret Ellis the writer) wrote a novel called American Psycho about the serial killer Patrick Bateman who was, he confesses, inspired by his father: a rich, successful, vain man with a propensity toward staggering and horrific violence.  Bret is a little ashamed and afraid of the novel; he likens the experience of writing it to having been possessed.  And when Patrick Bateman (who for all intents and purposes is the conglomeration of all of Bret’s negative feelings about his father) shows up at a Halloween party, driving the vintage car Bret’s father drove, he becomes understandably upset.

The idyllic existence Bret has managed to construct for himself becomes more and more uncanny: he receives apparently blank emails from the bank where his father’s ashes are, a series of murders mimicking those perpetrated by Bateman in American Psycho occur in the surrounding area, Sarah’s toy bird takes on a life of its own and begins eviscerating stray animals, and boys Robby’s age are disappearing all over the county.  Throughout the ordeal Bret is the only character who suspects that something supernatural is at the root of what is happening — only he seems to see Bateman, or a college student named Clay who resembles both the narrator of Ellis’s first novel and Bret himself and perhaps even a younger version of his father.  Bret grows intensely paranoid and afraid, confused about what is happening around him but unwilling to explain it to anyone.  This stress only makes his drinking and drug use worse, and when he acts rashly (such as the episode recounted at the beginning of this essay, where Jayne compares him to Jack Torrance) the people around him assume drug use is finally taking its toll.  Much as in The Shining then, the supernatural is a mechanism by which 1) substance abuse is worsened, and 2) the family is forced apart.  Though Bret doesn’t attempt to murder anyone, the supernatural forces at work intensify the weaknesses already present in his relationships with his family, and they are particularly harsh for him because they are in some way related to his dad.

This is especially troubling for Bret because he finds that Robby treats him with much the same distaste that he treated his own father: after ignoring his son for twelve years Robby is a resentful stranger, and Bret’s inability to understand his son leads him to believe that the disappearing boys are actually running away from home, working together in some sort of conspiracy to escape their parents, and that Robby will soon join them.  Bret’s distrust of his son is also one of the key facets of the way in which Ellis works with Hamlet, in this case actually restaging an aspect of Shakespeare’s play while maintaining the notion of recursive or generational trauma found in The Shining.  Bret takes on the role of Claudius, the scheming usurper of the throne who is doing his best to guess the mind and motives of his petulant stepson, Hamlet/Robby.  But Bret hasn’t always been Claudius — he was once, in his own way, Hamlet His father, he tells us, “had no faith in my talent as a writer … [and] demanded that I attend business school at USC,” and despite this, Bret chooses to go to college in New Hampshire: “My father, typically enraged, refused to pay tuition.  However my grandfather — who at the time was being sued by his son over a money matter so circuitous and complicated that I’m still not sure how or why it began — footed the bill” (8).

The relationship between Brett and his father here mirrors — though not exactly — that between Hamlet and Claudius in I.ii, when Claudius orders his stepson not to leave Elsinore to return to school at Wittenberg.  Ellis switches things up by doing the opposite of what would happen in a Hamlet adaptation with closer analogues: he lets Bret, the Hamlet character in this scenario, go off to college against the wishes of the father.  However, Bret escapes to college only because of his grandfather, who in turn has a soured relationship with his own son.  Bret’s grandfather sends Bret to school just to spite Bret’s father, who in the meanwhile is carrying out a bitter legal battle against him.  This is an important move on Ellis’s part because it shows us that this Hamlet-like estrangement between fathers and sons is not some one-off event, but like King’s conception: a generational phenomenon, something that happens over and over again.  There is not just one scheming Claudius and one avenging Hamlet, but an interlocking history of them, and they move in and out of their roles when appropriate, as they age and father their own children.

Ellis is notable in his handling of the self-realization or self-determination of the son, the attempt to break out of the shadow of the father — because unlike Shakespeare and King, he shows that it may go wrong.  Bret ran away to college and essentially disowned his father, demonizing him in American Psycho, all in an attempt to free himself.  However, as Bret admits early on: “As much as I wanted to escape his influence, I couldn’t.  It had soaked into me, shaped me into the man I was becoming” (7).  So the escape was not entirely successful; we know this because we’ve seen Bret become a sort of lo-fi version of his vain, alcoholic father, though it doesn’t become obvious to Bret himself until he sees that Patrick Bateman (along with all the other monsters he created out of fear of his father) has come back.

“…[S]pirits who show themselves between night and dawn want something,” a paranormal investigator explains to Bret, bringing to mind Old Hamlet’s ghost walking at night and returning to the fires of purgatory at dawn.  He goes on: “It means they want to frighten you …. It means they want you to realize something” (340).  Like the Overlook Hotel masquerading as Jack Torrance’s father, or Old Hamlet appearing before his son, the appearance of Patrick Bateman, the mysterious emails, and every other supernatural facet of the novel is also, in a way, Bret’s father calling him to action — in this case, though, not murder or revenge per se, but to right old wrongs.

What the wrong seems to be, in the end, is that fact that Bret did his best to wipe his father from his memory, to forget him entirely, to leave his ashes locked in a bank vault in California, and only call upon him should he need fodder for a despicable character in a novel.  And Bret’s father probably was vindictive and abusive — though Bret is unreliable we have no real reason to doubt that, he probably doesn’t hate his father without reason.  But it seems that at some point, without Bret realizing it, his father changed.  When he finds an email video attachment showing his father’s death, Bret sees his father as he truly was at the end of his life: the product of a selfish, abusive existence, a weak old man who died alone and unloved and knew that was how he was dying.  And because he has copied the worst traits of his father despite himself, Bret is in danger of meeting the same end, of losing his son and everyone close to him and dying alone, pathetic, and reviled.

At the end of the novel, we discover that Bret had one opportunity to change this course of events.  The last time he met with his father in person was for dinner in LA; the older man was “fat and drunk” and Bret wonders to himself, “What if I had done something that day?” (394).  He elaborates:

The decision was: should you disarm him?  That was the word I remember: disarm.  Should you tell him something that might not be the truth but would get the desired reaction?  And what was I going to convince him of, even though it was a lie?  Did it matter?  Whatever it was, it would constitute a new beginning.  The immediate line: You’re my father and I love you.  I remember staring at the white tablecloth and contemplating this.  Could I actually do it?  I didn’t believe it, and it wasn’t true, but I wanted it to be. … I realized it could actually happen, and that by saying this I would save him.  I suddenly saw a future with my father.  But the check came … and I simply stood up and walked away …[,] thinking I could just let go of the damage that a father can do to a son.  (394-395)

Bret’s attempts to escape, to determine his own life, result only in tragedy.  His father is fractured, both in Bret’s memory and in his manifestations in the outside world: the human part of his father, the part that deserved pity and forgiveness, has been overtaken by Bret’s fear and hate for the man.  Added to that, Bret becomes a copy of his father, a repetition, and when he confirms that Robby is indeed part of a conspiracy of sons attempting to escape their parents, he finds himself in a situation analogous to that of his dad years before, when a young Bret insisted on going to college in New England and, once he achieved independent success, attempted to sever all ties.

Also like his father, Bret is unsuccessful in maintaining a connection with his son; by the end of the novel Robby has left him, just as Bret left his father, heading off “to the land where every boy forced into bravery and quickness retreats: a new life” (397).  Their final meeting in person, many years after the main events of the novel, mirrors that of Bret and his father: they have lunch together, and Bret is depressed and high on heroin.  But Robby doesn’t sit passively by, waiting for the check; he speaks, he tells his father that everything is okay, that he is “not lost anymore,” and when Bret tells his son he is sorry, Robby says he understands (396).  As Bret, after much denial and hardship, heeds the call of his father and forgives him for his wrongs, so does Robby forgive Bret, preemptively ending the father-son cycle of trauma and haunting – should we choose to believe Bret is writing the truth, and not a wish.

Hamlet puts forth that a son has a choice about which of his fathers (or father-figures) to listen to, whether they are estranged from the son by the son’s hate or by the father’s death.  The Shining holds that a son must not be his father, must contain the part of him that resembles his forebear, for not doing so means repeating his father’s mistakes and destroying himself.  Lunar Park also shows that a son must make a decision, must determine what sort of person he will be, and choose his own life; yet in fleeing his father’s influence, in containing that aspect of his being, he runs the risk of not actually escaping, but only continuing a cycle of resentment and fear with his own sons.

Every Hamlet, fearful and suspicious of his father, may grow up to be a Claudius, fearful and suspicious of his sons; every guilty Claudius may end up a wronged Old Hamlet, tortured in the fires of a purgatory real or imagined and begging to be set free.  To really make peace with his father and the past, a son must be forgiving; he must recognize that his father probably faced many of the same decisions he faces (or will face) and perhaps did not choose wisely; every father was a son once.  This is how the cycle is broken; this is how to make peace with the past and one’s memory of it.  This, Ellis seems to say, this is how ghosts are finally laid to rest.


Works Cited

Ellis, Bret Easton.  Lunar Park. 2005.  New York: Vintage, 2006.

“Easton Ellis on Lunar Park book.”  The Today Show.  Prod. NBC Studios, 8/15/2005.


Accessed 11/26/2009.

King, Stephen.  “Before the Play.”  Whispers Magazine, 1982.

King, Stephen.  The Shining.  New York: Doubleday, 1977.

Shakespeare, William and Barbara A. Mowat, Paul Werstine (eds).  Folger Shakespeare Library: Hamlet.  1992.  New York: Washington Square Press, 2002.

[1] This bit is hammered home quite soundly in an earlier draft of the manuscript, in a prologue King excised.  Eventually released as a standalone story called “Before the Play” and now extremely difficult to find, the prologue gives a lengthy history of the Overlook and includes a short vignette from Jack’s childhood:  “In that long hot summer of 1953, the summer Jacky Torrance turned six, his father came home drunk one night from the hospital and broke Jacky’s arm. He almost killed the boy. He was drunk.”  Not only does this parallel Jack’s breaking of Danny’s arm, the vignette ends with young Jack passing out from the pain, thinking feverishly to himself, “What you see is what you’ll be.


A Serious Game Part 6: The Only Way to Lose Is Not to Play

It’s been a long, crazy journey through A Serious Game, but with this entry the series draws to a close.  Just think back on what we’ve learned about the way fiction and reality mingle and and what this means for us. After that I did my best to make Harlan Ellison into the biggest bogeyman of 20th century speculative fiction.  I allowed myself a digression into ethical action and postmodern disillusionment, and then more or less took back almost everything I said before about Harlan Ellison.  Today the essay draws to a close, and I offer a few reflections and some tentative suggestions about how we can be better — more ethical — readers in the future, and affirm what I think is my purpose in the study of literature.

MacIntyre points out that the good we receive from ethical practice “can only be achieved by subordinating ourselves within the practice in our relationship to other practitioners” (191).  This is why I study literature: to become more aware of myself as one person in the context of many others, and more conscientious in my ethical evaluations.  This comes about through my reading of diverse texts, but also through my relationships with other practitioners: reading a wide selection of criticism on those texts, and my individual interactions with professors and fellow students.  I have played a game throughout this essay, at varying levels, with texts that I enjoy for myriad reasons, and in writing about it I have invited you to play the game with me.

Wayne Booth offers the metaphor of a book-as-friend, with some books being more worthy of our company than others, but with all of them, generally, deserving of at least minimal attention to determine that.  I think this is workable, but for my part I would like to combine it with a notion implied by my Borges epigraph, the idea of the author-as-chessmaster.  In ethical reading we are playing a friendly game of chess — but we must remain alert whenever we are in danger of being drawn into check, or sometimes cheated.  In a game of chess between friends, or potential friends, victory is not important.  Getting to know one another is: spotting your opponents’ gambits and strategies, their strengths and weaknesses, and learning how they think.  Above all, we must recognize that any bad turn is not indicative of some inherent, all-consuming malevolence on our opponents’ part, but rather due to the fact that texts are the products — us in our act of reading, and the author in his or her act of writing, and the cultures that gives rise to our expectations in either case — and therefore capable of every prejudice and imperfection we are heir to.  Just as chessmasters are not angels, they are by no means demons.

Interacting with stories is a game insofar as doing so is quite selfish: I read the texts because I enjoy them, though my reasons are slightly different in each case.  My approach to stories is not that reading them is at the forefront practical, in the same way washing the car or buying groceries is practical.  But I am also aware of the serious ethical dimension of this game; texts may invite me to think some things that I know to be wrong, or in subtler instances, not think about something that I would recognize as wrong.  I can anticipate and block these moves because my life, both everyday and scholastic, has trained me otherwise.  MacIntyre claims that inherent to the future of virtue is “the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained” (263).

The reliance on a community is what makes ethics problematic; differences between communities will engender different ethical approaches.  But while the hope of an ideal ethical communal space is probably just as much of a pipedream as true ethical universality, some grasp at that community is why I believe the study of literature is important.  Academic study initiates the student into a practice of thinking and acting where both aesthetic and practical considerations of texts matter, a community where concerns about a text’s stance on class, gender, race, or economic policy can be discussed alongside a text’s language, form or genre.  These modes of reading are not exclusive, and this is where the possibility of ethical reading flourishes.  A morally bankrupt work, like The Jew of Malta, may be immensely entertaining, while a formally clumsy and sometimes boring work such as Edward P. Jones’s The Known World may have a vibrant ethical core.  An ethical reader, active in a civil, intellectual and moral community, should have the power to appraise both of these works, enjoy them for the reasons they are enjoyable, and allow that enjoyment to be tempered by the ways in which they falter.

Ethical reading is a serious game, and it is through a wide-ranging and conscientious study of literature and criticism that we learn how to play it.  I did not always read ethically; it was a gradual process, lasting many years and only becoming a conscious issue as my college courses exposed me to the many natures and schools of criticism and interpretation available.  I had to learn understand that literature did something.  I had to learn, first, how stories could shape my world and the life I lived in it.  If literature is a force that contributes to making us who we are, it follows that our assent to stories can make us better or worse people.  In the case of my childhood encounters with Old Hickory, it seemed incredibly easy to assent to a story entirely, to just believe.  As this dawned on me, I began to wonder: how likely was it that I unthinkingly accepted or applied patently untrue or unhealthy narratives?  How many of them, instead of teaching me to tread very softly on hardwood floors, were teaching me to demonize, discount, or oppress?  How many of them were convincing me to harm myself or others?  And how would I deal with stories that did this,  but were still beautiful or elegant or clever in some other way?  Booth makes a poignant analogy of this dilemma: “…[Stories] offer every opportunity to miseducate ourselves, and therein lies the task of ethical criticism: to help us avoid that miseducation.  The trick is always to find ways of doing that without tearing the butterfly apart in our hands” (477).

I think this is the key: the butterfly is in our hands.  We are not powerless, but in fact are given a very important task as readers.  Barthes’s idea of a mediator applies just as well to readers as authors, for as Eco suggests, the reader is a “fundamental ingredient not only of the process of storytelling but also of the tale itself. …[A text] cannot say everything about the world.  It hints at and then asks the reader to fill in a whole series of gaps” (Walks 1, 3).  The text has the power to shape us, yes, but it is not an autocrat; we can resist and to some degree shape the text.  To believe, though, that people and literature should be good — or should be made good — for all times and places is fallacious.  In understanding how narratives do make us who we are, we must also be aware of the ways in which narratives could shape us but do not or should not, because they probably have shaped others in those ways, and we could just as easily have been shaped.

We must play our games cautiously and wisely, we must maintain intellectual and moral civility, for the things at our disposal — our literature, our narratives, the building blocks of ourselves and those around us, the butterflies and the chess-pieces — are fragile.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland.  “The Death of the Author.”  Image — Music — Text.  Trans. Stephen Heath. NY: Hill and Wang, 1977. 142-148.

Booth, Wayne C.  The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Borges, Jorge Luis. “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.”  Labyrinths.  1962. Trans. James E. Irby.  New York: Modern Library, 1983.

Dickens, Charles.  Great Expectations. 1860-61.  Ed. Charlotte Mitchell.  London: Penguin, 2003.

Eco, Umberto.  Five Moral Pieces.  1997.  Trans. Alastair McEwen.  New York: Harcourt, 2001.

—.  Six Walks in the Fictional Woods.  1994.  Boston: Harvard University Press, 2004.

Ellison, Harlan. “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ said the Ticktockman.”  The Essential Ellison.  Ed. Terry Dowling, et al.  1987.  New York: Morpheus International, 2001. 877-886.

Gardner, John. On Moral Fiction. 1978.  New York: Basic Books, 2000.

Gregory, Marshall.  Shaped by Stories: The Ethical Power of Narratives.  Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009.

Johnson, Samuel.  “Rambler No. 4”.  1750.

MacIntyre, Alasdair.  After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory.  1981.  Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe.  “A Defense of Poetry.” 1821

Wilde, Oscar.  “The Decay of Lying.”  1891.

Wallace, David Foster.  “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky.”  Consider the Lobster.  2005.  New York: Black Bay Books, 2007.

A Serious Game Part 5: Harlequinagain

A Serious Game continues!  If you’re just tuning in, then you should know that we’ve already discussed how stories influence our lives and seen the reality of fiction in action, then I said a lot of really melodramatic things about Harlan Ellison.  After a brief sojourn into the problem of postmodern ethics, today I return to Mr. Ellison to make amends for the many wrongs I have perpetrated against his text.

Ethical criticism is difficult because, in addition to the far easier task of dissenting from those narratives which prove faulty, we must also, as Booth said, “open ourselves to ‘others’ who seem initially dangerous or worthless, and yet prepare ourselves to cast them off whenever … we must conclude they are potentially harmful” (488) while still coming to understand those others on their own terms.  It is highly idealistic to even think we might stumble across a narrative completely devoid of some objectionable implications, but ethical reading as I’ve described it allows us to take the good with the bad.  John Gardner, despite his intentions, makes the mistake of every censor and party-line aesthete in history: supposing there is a universally applicable syllogism to ethical criticism that can be used to declare whether or not, in all instances and for all readers, a given work will be harmful.  The irony, of course, is that to determine this to be the case, the censor must review the work firsthand.  This idea makes about as much sense as me saying to you, as you lift a glass of a mysterious beverage to your lips, “Don’t drink that, it’s poison!”  After I slap the glass to the floor you turn to me, bewildered, and say, “Thank you, I suppose, but how did you know it was poison?”  I reply with a healthy grin: “Simple enough!  I drank some before you.”

For a moment, then, let’s try to pick up the glass I so rudely knocked down, rinse it off, and have another drink.  We can return to a story I have done a disservice.  “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ said the Ticktockman” is not a perfect tale; it is not ethically flawless.  But it also does not deserve the thrashing that I, in my John Gardner persona, gave it.  I’ve already mentioned that the ironic humor of “Harlequin” might be its saving grace, and it is the also the largest aspect of the text Gardner does not give us tools to deal with.  So taken for what it is, “Harlequin” is a comedic story.  The very premise — a society so overcome by punctuality that timeliness becomes a matter of public execution — is ridiculous enough to indicate that we are not meant to take everything in this dystopia so seriously.

But I went to great lengths to establish early on that, silly or not, the reader will come to a story with a desire to transfer something from reading onto his or her own life.  My Gardner reading was caught up in the plausibility of the Harlequin’s revolution — since the story doesn’t allow deep delving into matters of sympathy, I was instead concerned with the example it sets and its lack of seriousness, realism, and gravity.  But now that I’m willing to laugh a bit, I can instead think about other things.  I can rest easily with believing the Harlequin has done something good, first of all.  If the authoritarianism of his society is so absurd, then I can also forgive the method of its eventual overthrow for being absurd as well — and this ironic distance also allows me to think of the more elliptical ways the story speaks of our own lives.

Like the people of the story, we may find ourselves enmeshed in worlds not entirely of our own devising, at the mercy of systems and institutions we cannot control and which can, in instances, be heinously unjust.  But simply because the world is the way it is, and simply because we’ve allowed it to become that way, doesn’t mean things have to stay that way.  Revolutions, as the story suggests, aren’t always large-scale actions, but tiny acts of disobedience that, though they may not seem significant or may even appear to be failures, can have profound consequences within larger contexts.  Ellison’s choice to quote Thoreau in this regard does not appear to be ironic at all.  Another benefit of the new approach is that I am also now free to appreciate the way the story itself is written, without fear that it will necessarily lead to my inevitable, tragic doom.  For instance, the disordered chronology is a clever mirror to the story’s themes of timeliness, and the conversational, almost breathless narrative voice seems very handy for making the story both exciting and amusing, and its linguistic playfulness actually results in a few memorable lines.[1]

But for all these goods intentions, to paraphrase Thoreau, people are as likely to serve the Devil as they are to serve God, even when they don’t mean it.  So of course “Harlequin” has its flaws, but they are largely not the ones my Gardner reading focused on.  The more point of concern is the repeated demonstration of negative female characters.  In one interlude “the wife” of a man named Marshall Delahanty receives a notice that someone in the family is to be ‘switched off’ by the Ticktockman; an inner monologue relates her desperate wish for it to be her husband instead of her, and her relief when this turns out to be the case (883-884).  The Harlequin himself has an exasperated lady-friend of ambiguous intimacy named (of all things) Pretty Alice, who eventually turns him in because “she wants to conform” (886).

Female characters are repeatedly shown as secondary to male characters, and their roles are insidiously negative.  They are portrayed as weak and selfish, unable to shore themselves against the forces men like the Harlequin and the Ticktockman represent.  On the story’s own terms, this misogyny is probably its biggest issue.  But the ethical reader can recognize the appealing and repelling parts of the story, and is willing to listen to the text for the duration of the former, while still objecting to the latter.  The instinctual move is to attribute this misogyny to Ellison, and while a cursory glance at his oeuvre and biography shows it is unfortunately a recurring element,[2] I am in this essay dealing only with this story itself.  Even if Ellison were a first-rate feminist save for this one slip-up, the ethical reader is obligated to call “Harlequin” on its misogyny.  I will admit that my esteem for the story is devalued by the tale’s ethical flaws.  But I find it worthwhile enough in that it is funny and well written that I can bring myself to read it even in spite of that, just as the generally misogynistic and juvenile nature of Ellison’s output does not stop me from liking this particular story.

David Foster Wallace made the claim that “some art is worth the extra work of getting past all the impediments to its appreciation” (263), like the complex and bewildering social context needed to make total sense of Dostoevsky’s Russia.  I venture that this applies equally well to our ethical evaluations of literature.  Ellison’s story, for instance, is worth appreciating for some reasons, but we must also come to terms with what is not worth appreciating about it.  It may now seem like I’m saying everything should be read, and everything should be taught.  I would qualify my enthusiasm for an open literature with the idea that things should be free to be taught, but not compulsory.  I certainly do not think everyone should be forced to read The Jew of Malta, and I’d object to someone telling me it was in my best interest to read de Sade or Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight.

To make such a claim would require a perfect universality contrary to the situational nature of ethics as conceived in this paper; a text really cannot be right for all people at all times.  Criticism is a good way of addressing this.  Recall the multitude of readings of Paradise Lost I was subjected to; each geared the text toward and made it accessible to holders of that worldview, or members of that critical community.  Ethical reading, like situational ethics, is a cooperative act, and if you (or, I suppose, the text) don’t feel like going along with things for the sake of it, or even with a critical angle in mind, then there’s probably no good reason to.[3] Perhaps someday I will be in a situation where reading de Sade is, in fact, necessary for my continued growth as a person — but for now I’ve attempted it, and I didn’t like what I read, and felt no reason to finish.

What should be read is situational.  Middle school children may benefit from reading Huckleberry Finn, and at the same time learn to deal with the ethical paradox of how currents of racist thought still underlie what is intentionally and quite overtly, I think, a story about the absurdity of racism.  But this is not the only way this lesson could be learned, and a teacher or administration uncomfortable with assigning the text should not have any obligation to teaching it.  Ethical reading is difficult, and we need to practice it; we will be assailed numberless times throughout our lives to read or understand a narrative; in these situations we are implicitly being asked to play along with the text.  In many cases we will have no choice but to do so, and ethical reading allows us to maintain greater degrees of control.  Hopefully, like athletes, we become better practitioners with time.

[1] One particular phrase which currently floats around in the mental pool of favorite sentences I’ve read is “Timewise, it was jangle” (879).  Almost Joycean!

[2] Though I echoed Dr. Johnson’s adage about writing and living back when discussing Dostoevsky, Ellison certainly pushes the limits sometimes.  He is notoriously officious, and in his heyday often openly groped women during social functions.  One anecdote passed around the speculative fiction community describes his encounter at a party with a particularly tall woman, whom he boldly propositioned: “What would you say to a little fuck?”  The woman, a smile on her lips, leaned down to him and said: “Hello, little fuck.”

[3] Unless you’re a student with assigned reading.  Telling your professor you just aren’t getting along with a book might gain you a look of consternation or an appointment with a therapist, depending on how genuinely you seem to think the book is being stubborn.

A Serious Game Part 3: “Repent, Harlan Ellison!” said the Hackwork Man

Here we are, in Part 3 of the series A Serious Game.  So far we’ve discussed how stories influence our lives and seen the reality of fiction in action.  Today, I’m going to say a lot of inflammatory things about Harlan Ellison!

The question now becomes: how is anyone qualified to make a moral or ethical judgment, especially in regards to literature?  One of the most public attempts to tackle such a question was that of author John Gardner, in his book On Moral Fiction.  Taking a look at Gardner’s effort may underscore some of the difficulties of ethical criticism.  His basic stance is that anything that is art is necessarily moral; to call something that is immoral “art” would be an ontological mistake, and a symptom of either a sick artistic or critical culture.  Wilde, for his part, claimed morality to be only a possible subject of art, but Gardner alleges his view is the longstanding one: “The traditional view is that true art is moral.  It seeks to improve life, not debase it, it seeks to hold off, at least for a while, the twilight of the gods and us” (5).

By gods Gardner does not mean divine entities literally, rather that gods and religious figures historically are abstractions or personifications of human values.  Gods are values, which are life-affirming ideals; the majority of these ideals, Gardner claims, are unchanging.  We need these values in order to stand against a basically unfavorable existence: “Art is essentially serious and beneficial, a game played against chaos and death, against entropy.  It is a tragic game, for those who have wit to take it seriously, because our side must lose” (6).  Gardner’s bleak existentialist humanism is actually quite romantic, despite this emphasis on inevitable tragedy; he says it is the job of the writer to idealize an imperfect world and present works of art that are either “a vision of how things ought to be or what has gone wrong” (16).  In the past, the author presented this vision by way of the protagonist or hero: “Every hero’s function is to provide a noble image for men to be inspired and guided by in their own actions” (Gardner 29).

Talk of heroism seems clear enough given the logic so far.  I have established that people are given to imitating stories, or applying stories to their lives; therefore, the writer should only present positive, moral ideals to be imitated or applied.  This line of thought goes back at least to Samuel Johnson, who commented that art, in its great ability to imitate nature, “should also distinguish those parts of nature … most proper for imitation” (2874).  But who, exactly, decides the morals in a piece of literature?  The author, presumably, but how should we expect moral perfection from an author?  Well, maybe it is the true artist who “can distinguish between conventional morality and the morality that tends to work for all people throughout the ages” (Gardner 50).  But regardless of that, wouldn’t art thus directed inevitably fall into didacticism?  Yet Gardner similarly argues against didacticism, saying “morality is infinitely complex, too complex to be knowable, and far too complex to be reduced to any code,” and this “is why [morality] is suitable matter for fiction, which deals in understanding, not knowledge” (135).

So maybe literature allows the reader to imagine an intimate relationship with the consciousness of someone else, inspiring sympathy, what Shelley claimed to be “the faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man” (844).  Gardner argues that “the effect of great fiction is to temper real experience, modify prejudice, humanize” (114), asserting that literature is “a conceptual abstraction of our actual experiences of moments of good in human life” (136).  In other words, the issue is not whether a reader can and should imitate what happens in a story, but how well a reader can understand the human motivations implicit in the narrative.  When I read a story I do so not because there is a hero for me to emulate successfully, but because the story presents me with another personality — regardless of the status of the character — whose life I am invited to consider, evaluate, and most importantly, understand.  But that thought seems to conflict in some profound ways with what Gardner said earlier, and it raises the question of which moral function — imitation or understanding — is correct, or at least the more operant mode for any ethical reading.

To clarify some of these questions, both for myself and for rhetorical effect, I will attempt to put Gardner’s ideas into practice.  To start: what sort of story is immoral, by Gardner’s terms?  What sort of fiction “tends toward destruction … [and] is not properly art at all” (6)?  So as not to make the conversation too grim, I can choose something light for my study — Harlan Ellison’s short story, “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ said the Ticktockman.”  This is quite an immoral story, though superficially it may seem moral; “Harlequin” appears to be concerned with a sickness of a culture and a desire to rehabilitate it.  But it is superficial; reading the story as a moral critic indicates its message to be cynical posturing.  Ellison begins the story by telling us the “point,” breaking the narrative structure to provide us with an excerpt from Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience to satisfy “those who ask, what is it all about?” (877).  So even before we can get to the end of the story, before we can even begin to have a question, we are given an answer.  “That is the heart of it,” Ellison says, initiating what will be one of the story’s recurring themes — and problems: “Now begin in the middle, and later learn the beginning; the end will take care of itself” (877).

“Harlequin” takes place in a future world where a totalitarian government lethally enforces a rigid time schedule, led by the Master Timekeeper or Ticktockman.  Being chronically late results in execution; the Harlequin is a freedom fighter who sets out to thwart the Ticktockman’s regime.  There is nothing too reprehensible here on first glance.  Such an authoritarian society would hardly be considered moral, and overturning it would indeed be a moral act.  And the story itself is quite amusing; it’s absurd and knows it (a major plot point involves a rain of one hundred-fifty thousand dollars’ worth of jelly beans).  Like the Harlequin of the title, the story is a motley assortment of vignettes from various chronologies, stitched together and presented with a knowing smirk by a manic third-person narrator.  But investigating Ellison’s presentation of this world unmasks the Harlequin, showing the story to be juvenile and nihilistic.  Behind that knowing smirk there is only an abyss.

The world the story takes place in is “the very world it was, the very world they had allowed it to become” (877-878).  The middle part of the story, which is chronologically the beginning, dramatizes the absurd way in which the story’s society becomes increasingly dependent on punctuality, from train schedules to voting times, eventually resulting in the creation of the Ticktockman and his power over life and death: “And so by this simple scientific expedient … the System was maintained.  It was the only expedient thing to do.  It was, after all, patriotic.  The schedules had to be met.  After all, there was a war on!” (882).  Society becomes the System only bit by bit, gradually; authoritarianism works on a ratchet, gaining power while being rationalized into the current situation and ideology.  The story alleges that “they” (the people) allowed this to happen through their own inaction and conformity.

The Harlequin is the ultimate individual nonconformist, the man who is habitually late in a society where punctuality means life or death.  His crusade to bring down the Ticktockman ends ultimately in his capture and brainwashing.  However, the implication at the end of the story is that the Harlequin is truly triumphant over the Ticktockman — because the Ticktockman shows up late to work.  The narrator tells us “that’s the way it happens, and if you make only a little change, then it seems to be worthwhile” (886).  The story is obsessed with these tiny changes — the Harlequin’s tiny changes to the System’s schedule end up causing monstrous tangles as each instance of lateness causes more problems.  “He had tapped the first domino in the line,” the narrator says of the jellybean incident, “and one after another, like chik chik chik, the others had fallen” (880).

Too often the story presents us with this attitude: that small actions matter, which is not untrue in and of itself, but there is an implication that these small actions often end up being all that matter.  It doesn’t matter if the Harlequin is captured because he’s already won; so what if the System is still in place, for the Harlequin has already cracked the Ticktockman himself, apparently by just existing.  Sidestepping of the real matter of societal change to give the reader its result recalls the story’s structure, which tells us its “point” before it even begins.  Nothing has to truly be “done” and accomplished.  As revolutionary agitprop that thought may be comforting, but it’s troubling in that it is also the way in which the authoritarian System comes to be: through the stacking of tiny actions, or rather, widespread inactions and acceptances.  Oppression rises amid human apathy, so does revolution, and it does not matter.  The end, as Ellison tells us, will take care of itself; both defeat and victory are so easily obtainable as to be meaningless.  This is to say nothing of the didactic simplicity with which Ellison draws his world.  Conformity is bad and nonconformity is good; conformists are boring and pitiable, noncomformists daring and noble.  We like the Harlequin and want to imitate him, so we should be noncomformists; we noncomformists should also pity the conformists for not being so enlightened, for it’s not their fault they’re boring.

If everything is starting to sound a bit ridiculous, I think that’s because it is.  Gardner’s terms, in application, do not become any less troublesome.  Wayne C. Booth called Gardner’s book “courageous but careless” (7n.2), and that is probably the best way to describe it.  Gardner’s framework fails to address its basis in two opposing views — do we imitate art, or do we merely understand it?  “Harlequin” obviously invites me to imitate the titular clown — he is the hero, by Gardner’s framework, and also the most colorful figure in a drab and authoritarian future.  But exactly how should I imitate him?  What values does he represent?  Nonconformity and habitual lateness, I suppose; but his nonconformity is extreme and implausible, and since when has being untimely been any sort of virtue?  If anything, imitating the Harlequin would make me a rather unpleasant person to associate with.  If the story is attempting to humanize — to garner sympathy and understanding — who is it humanizing?  Not the Ticktockman or his lackies, since they remain one-dimensional; the Harlequin, perhaps, but he is similarly never a very “human” character.  This is not a story that is interested in probing the depths of human emotional capacity, it seems, and in that regard it leaves Gardner treading water.

Also unhelpful is that Gardner often makes judgments or statements without clarifying what he means.  For instance, he leaves the door open to an author to be ironic and affirm values indirectly (106), but he fails to describe how any of this would work.  I think the largest caveat to the reading of “Harlequin” I’ve set forth lies in this possibility of irony; the story is self-consciously silly, so how far can I take the silliness?  How much of Ellison’s tale is irony?  If we accept the story as a half-joke, then it suddenly makes sense why the characters are so flat, why their actions are so implausible.  But Gardner gives no guidance here.  Just as the true artist will know the true morals, I suppose the true reader will recognize the true artist?

A Serious Game, Part 2: Moral as the Dickens

Welcome back to A Serious Game, my final senior essay on why I study literature.  Last time we talked about Borges.  Now we’re going to talk about a book that everyone I know hates!  Hooray!

The ways we interact with fiction and reality are more similar than we may be instinctually inclined to believe.  We may in fact “read” the real world as if it were a piece of fiction.  As Umberto Eco describes it, “the reader maps the fictional model onto reality — in other words, … the reader comes to believe in the actual existence of characters and events” (Walks 125).  This can be as silly as five-year-old me believing that Old Hickory is real, as my grandfather’s stories suggested: he told me a monster was trying to pull me into the walls of the house, and the walls of the house had a strange habit of knocking me on the skull whenever I was overexcited and let my guard down, so it seemed safe enough to assume the monster was the reason.  Or perhaps it’s as innocuous as someone reading a fudged historical fact in a Dan Brown thriller and, with no reason to question it, spending the rest of his or her days having an inaccurate but generally non-threatening misconception about the nature and content of the Gnostic Gospels.  Yet it could also be graver: reading Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta may teach me that Catholics are greedy, lascivious, and hypocritical; that women are emotional and unreliable; that Muslims are treacherous but simple-minded butchers; and that Jews are inhuman, murderous masterminds.  The narrator of “Tlön” feels a deep unease about the sudden a full assent of the human race to the new, fictional world it has discovered, and reading presents a similar problem: by forgetting the chessmaster nature of the authors of a fiction, readers run the risk of creating a way of life that may not be beneficial to them personally or for us as a species.

This where the necessity of an ethical reading practice becomes apparent, for despite the possible dangers of fictional mapping we still return to fiction and narrative.  The fact is, we need them.  Eco says it is in fiction that “we seek a formula to give meaning to our existence.  Throughout our lives, after all, we look for a story of our origins, to tell us why we were born and why we have lived” (Walks 139).  A striking example of such a practice in a fictional work itself can be found in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, the Victorian bildungsroman of Pip, written as an autobiography chronicling his life, mishaps, and adventures.  In writing his story, Pip gives a formula to his life, as Eco postulates, but what is also remarkable is how Pip’s narrative is, in the end, also a noticeable (re)construction of various other narratives that he has encountered.

For instance, Pip’s narrative takes on various veils or tones of multiple generic modes at different points; his visits to Miss Havisham, for instance, are usually Gothic:

…we came to Miss Havisham’s house, which was of old brick, and dismal, and had a great many iron bars on it. … The cold wind seemed to blow colder there, than outside the gate; and it made a shrill noise in howling in and out of the open sides of the brewery, like the noise of wind in the rigging of a ship at sea.  (Dickens 55-56)

In a similar matter later on, when Mrs. Joe is assaulted by an unknown culprit, Pip’s narration becomes reminiscent to that of a mystery or detective novel, with a full account of the situation prior to and after the incident, gathered from statements of a few witnesses, and the presentation of scattered pieces of specific evidence, such as the “convict’s leg-iron” (120) used to do the deed — though the ‘mystery’ is not solved immediately.

Yet the way in which Pip’s narrative is given to sliding from a psychological account into shades of other literary modes seems to lend credence to Oscar Wilde’s claim — in anticipation of Eco’s thoughts — that “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life” (1991).  In a more direct sense, Pip’s tendency to change genres supports the Wildean idea that “Things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the Arts that have influenced us” (1992, my italics).  Pip’s story is most easily related to the reader not as some wholly original tale but as part of several preexisting artistic discourses and traditions, from which Dickens and the reader both draw to complement the narrative.  To put it another way, Wilde suggests that the true purpose of nature is to “illustrate quotations from the poets” (1997) — that is, to reflect the qualities of art we enjoy.  In Great Expectations, we see a more practical application of this theory in Pip who, as a sort of pseudo-Wildean aesthete, translates his life into the borrowed, communally comprehensible discourses that underscore his story, or rather the telling of it.

For Pip, the telling of his own story is the primary motivator of the autobiography project.  He presents himself to us as an author, as the writer of his own narrative, and in addition to the aesthetic discourses in which he operates Pip must contend not only with the actual fictional discourses he uses to color his tale, but with several competing author figures (or perceived author figures) who make their own narrative designs on his life.  Most of the principal characters have great expectations (as the phrase goes) for Pip, and in particular the way their plans for his life augment their own lives.

Pip, for his part, has a romantic arc plotted out in which he becomes a gentleman, marries Estella, and claims Miss Havisham’s estate; Joe plans for Pip to be his apprentice blacksmith; Miss Havisham sees Pip as a pawn in her plans for revenge; Estella sees Pip as a means to an end, a heart to break and a way to fulfill her purpose; Magwitch wants to raise Pip as a gentleman to overcome his own unfortunate history as a peasant and criminal.  Pumblechook is, in a way, a parody of all of these characters, in that he constantly, falsely, and successfully claims to be one of “them which brought [Pip] up by hand” (Dickens 26), intrinsic to Pip’s success, and thereby passes himself off as a great and powerful authority in Pip’s native village.  If, as Wilde and Eco suggest, Pip’s and our understanding of art and fiction is the framework through which Pip’s narrative becomes intelligible, then these great expectations are the raw material from which that narrative is fashioned.

It is profitable now to turn to Barthes, who claims that “writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin.  Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost” (142).  Pip tells us his story, relating it to the reader through selective representation and preexisting generic discourses, for as Barthes says, “the responsibility for a narrative is never assumed by a person but by a mediator, shaman or relater” (142).  Pip’s identity arises from Barthes’s oblique space of writing.  The novel also shows ways in which Pip’s own arc for his life intertwines and clashes with the plans of other characters; Pip is articulated as an individual through his mediating and recombining of a web of social narratives pressed onto him.

Pip cannot win Estella and Satis House and achieve his personal heroic dream of doing “all the deeds of the young Knight of romance” (Dickens 231), but crucially neither can he fully separate himself from the various plots others lay.  Estella herself shows acquiescence to Havisham’s plans: “We have no choice, you and I, but to obey our instructions” (265).  Pip does not give in, instead creating a personal narrative to reconfigure these various influences on his own terms.  To return to Barthes, Pip’s narrative is “a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash,” so Pip’s story, forged from the great expectations of myriad sources and seen through the lenses of Pip’s digested fictions, is “a tissue of quotations drawn from innumerable centers of culture” (146).  Pip mediates the conflicting narratives of himself and the characters surrounding him in order to make a sensible arc of his life, a plotted autobiography.  Late in the novel he describes the horror that overcomes him when he is nearly murdered by Orlick and realizes his story might remain forever ‘unfinished’ and, importantly, untold:

none would ever know what I had suffered, how true I had meant to be, what an agony I had passed through.  The death before me was terrible, but far more terrible than death was the dread of being misremembered after death. (425)

Fortunately, Pip survives to tell us his tale: his history, a combination of his expectations, the expectations and histories of those around him, and a healthy sprinkling of generic juggling.  Each of us is in a sense like Pip, a Barthesian mediator of the various narratives passed onto us by our family, friends, culture, and literature; it is through the processing of these narratives and their conventions that we shape our own identities, give form to our existences.  We reside in what Eco describes as a “tangle of individual and collective memory” that “prolongs our life … by extending it back through time, and appears to us as a promise of immortality” (Walks 131).

So fiction maps onto my life and helps make me who I am.  But I cannot accept this premise without facing the fact that there must be an ethical consciousness in how I should process and appropriate narratives.  For instance, it might be observed that the reading of Great Expectations I’ve offered poses some problems.  To an extent, it privileges characters’ ability to read and write and even their ability to interpret over other concerns — such as how class or gender seems to implicitly affect how well a person can do any of these things.  Magwitch is similar to Pip in that he is an orphan who only knows his name — not because he reads it on a tombstone, as Pip does, but because it is in a manner self-evident for him, he knows it “[m]uch as [he] know’d the birds’ names” (346).  His identity is not constructed, as we see Pip’s being constructed, but simply a statement of fact.  Joe, likewise, is illiterate for most of the novel, and portrayed in a similarly tautological way: a blacksmith who knows how to be a blacksmith and is happy to be a blacksmith.  Estella and Miss Havisham do not face the problem of being illiterate, but still fall into strange spaces within the narrative.  Unlike Magwitch, who gets the majority of a whole chapter in his own voice, a similar chapter devoted to Estella is told in Pip’s voice, from Pip’s point of view.  Pip himself, though in one way the master mediator of all the novel’s narratives, is also ensconced economically by his debts to Pocket.  One may speculate that the writing of Pip’s autobiography is some attempt to provide an illusion of a wider agency in his own life, but in doing so he privileges his own narrative over those of others.  It may make him less than ethical as both a reader and a writer, and since the text itself doesn’t seem to take issue with Pip’s practices in this regard, some readers may be inclined to say that Great Expectations itself is unethical.  Do we want to follow in Pip’s example?  I certainly don’t want to think that in the telling of my own story (should I ever bother) I subjugate or simplify the many people I’ve known.  But on the other hand, I really don’t have a choice in my imitation of Pip, for we are all  to some degree like him: we must constitute an identity from the narratives and contexts our surroundings provide us.  The best we can do is be conscientious about it; our processing of narratives, including literature, must include an ethical critical concern.

A Serious Game: The Ethical Dimension of Literature, Part 1: A Personal Reflection

Howdy, friends and neighbors!  This is the first post in a series of six that will encapsulate A Serious Game, my final senior essay on the power and nature of literature.  It’ll be a long read but I hope it will be worth it.  Tune in every Friday for the next section — if there have ever been posts I’ve made that deserve the “i hope you like text” and “limitless literary pretension” tags it’s these.  I hope you enjoy them!

“Enchanted by its rigor, humanity forgets over and again that it is a rigor of chessmasters, not of angels.”

– Borges, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius

When I was a child there was a monster called Old Hickory that lived in the woodwork of my grandparents’ house.  It was not uncommon for this creature on occasion to reach out and attempt to grab me, my siblings, or my cousins.  Though Old Hickory never succeeded — each failed attempt to abscond with me or one of the other children simply ended with a solid thump of wood on a head, knee, or elbow, with the related sobbing one might expect — I spent a significant portion of my childhood absolutely and absurdly terrified of my grandparents’ furniture.  Old Hickory was described to us many times, though always with the same grotesque humor, by my grandfather, who had imagined the creature as a sort of joke to explain the normal rough-and-tumble bumps and scrapes children acquire when they are playing in a home filled with a few decades’ worth of accumulated furniture.  Whenever one of us blundered face-first into the corner of the couch or the wood paneling of the living room during a game of Red Rover, we would fall down bawling, and my grandfather would chuckle to himself and say, “Old Hickory almost got you.”

I offer this story because it serves well as an introductory metaphor for my concerns in this paper.  It is appropriate not because it speaks specifically of literature but it at least sheds personal light on why I concern myself with literature’s study; in broader terms, my anecdote about Old Hickory speaks of narrative and storytelling, of which literature is a primary form.  Wayne C. Booth argued that all narrative is a form of rhetoric; narratives ask the reader or listener to understand a certain situation in a certain way.  They require us to give assent, and by listening to them, we do.  We come to narratives expecting an “efferent transaction” — that is, we are motivated by “a search for some practical guidance, or for some special wisdom, or for some useful ‘carry-over’ into non-fictional life” (Booth 13).  We approach even acknowledged fiction as if there is some grain of truth to it, some way it speaks — no matter how elliptically — of the world in which we live.

These truths, when we find them or think we find them, can have serious ramifications on the ways we view and interact with the world.  Old Hickory certainly wasn’t real, but my thinking about it was; I responded as if it did exist, I believed in it, and so in that sense, Old Hickory was quite real to my five-year-old self.  Not until I grew older did the idea of a terrible creature living in the woodwork of a house become obviously impossible; in retrospect it was clear that my grandfather was simply telling a joke.  He’d exaggerated reality, personified the furniture I was constantly slamming my elbows and forehead into, to amuse himself.[1] But my reaction — because I was a child, and prone to magical thinking, and because he was my grandfather, and therefore a direct authority on all aspects of life — was not one of amusement, but fear.  What was a game for my grandfather was something dreadfully serious to me.

But I think it is this sort of tension that has drawn me to literature.  My earliest memories of stories all involve people close to me — my grandfather, my mother, and my older sister — telling me stories about strange or bizarre entities and events.[2] As I grew older it became obvious that a great number of these stories were improbable if not impossible, and yet I still enjoyed them.  Learning to read (and of the obsession with reading that soon followed) seem to intensify the feelings I had while listening to people tell me stories — except now I was in control of what stories were told and when.  Even though the things that happened in most of the stories I consumed never factually occurred, or in some cases could never occur, there was an innate pleasure in contemplating the possibility of these worlds and how they were or were not like the one I knew.  Reading, and by extension literature, was a game, something I did for fun and personal amusement.

My classes at college stressed the capacities in which literature is a social force — the ways it gives or takes voice, the way it implicitly approves or disapproves of social currents, and so on.  This critical atmosphere presented a problem for me.  On one hand, I wanted to be able to look at a text and merely play my game with it, interrogate its plausibility, its structure and consistency; on the other hand, I was intrigued by the way in which various people found methods to appropriate something wholly imaginary as a tool to speak about the real world in ways much more direct and diverse than I’d ever envisioned.  For instance, was Paradise Lost an epic, a religious apology, a liberal political manifesto, a reactionary conservative apologia, a valuable tract in the fight for women’s rights, a tool of patriarchic oppression, or a dramatization of imperialist economics?  Somehow my classes managed to present me with theorists and critics who argued all of these points — and all of them seemed, in their own ways, to make sense.  How could I reconcile all of these compelling readings of a poem that I, on my own terms, had read as a simple adventure story?  More pressingly, how could something so obviously fictional be of so much evident real-world importance?  To understand this, I had to comprehend on a more conscious level the efferent nature of reading, and the way stories influence our lives.

This paper’s epigraph comes from Jorge Luis Borges’s story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” in which a cadre of intellectual luminaries conspires throughout the course of human history to imagine and disseminate a fictional world by way of false encyclopedia entries and misprinted history books.  I read it at 17 and thought it was a neat piece of speculative fiction; when I read it again at 20, after two years of a serious study of literature, the tale’s actual significance broke through to me.  It helped put into perspective the issues I’d been facing, but could not articulate.  In the story, the fabrication of the world of Tlön is so extensive and intricate that by the time the conspiracy is discovered, the human race becomes enamored with the uniqueness and complexity of the fiction their brightest minds have imagined.  As the story ends antiques from Tlön — clever forgeries, of course, but no one cares — are starting to appear in markets, and the languages of Tlön are being taught in schools.  The narrator intimates that, in time, our world will for all practical purposes become Tlön.  The game of imagination has enchanted humanity so that they forget they are even playing a game; the creators of Tlön are thought of not as the planners and chessmasters they are, but divine angels.

Before intensive literary study led me to see things otherwise, I had focused chiefly on the ways in which fiction presented worlds that were not the one I inhabited.  In so doing I overlooked the fact that even this was a way in which fiction defined my inhabited reality.  The multiplicity of readings my literature courses exposed me to were methods of refining and focusing that definitional power, attempting to draw my attention to a single aspect of the world and the way in which a text invited me to understand or think about that aspect.  Though fantastic to the extreme, Borges’s story put this into perspective on my second reading.  In the tale, fiction is used to effectively draft a new world.  It is a disturbing development, as the narrator seems convinced that nothing good will come of unquestioningly embracing this new reality — or rather this new way of looking at and interpreting the old reality.  That was the key for me: fiction is, partially, a device for the interpretation of the real world.

[1] And maybe he meant to amuse me, too.  I am amused now, anyway.

[2] Highlights include: a nameless monster that kidnapped little boys who caused a fuss when they had to get haircuts, a race of extraterrestrials who traveled through to space via mirrors rather than starships, and a seven-foot-tall Kentucky dentist who used whiskey as anesthetic.

Here I Am

2010 was probably the best year of my life.  I say this without exaggeration.

Throughout the last year, for various reasons, I’ve been contemplating the way we devise narratives with our lives.  We read our lives, so to speak, in the same way we read stories: we look for beginnings, middles, and ends; we look for progression and change and development.  These things are not there, in the objective sense — unless you subscribe to the notion of God as a master author/reader — but things we construct in our own contemplation.  We want our lives to be stories; we need stories to give form and order to our existence.  This is all stuff you’ll hear more on in the new year, when I begin serializing my final senior essay on literature.

I’ve often thought that my life, as a story, is not one worth telling.  This is why blogging as an autobiographical platform holds little appeal for me; the narrative of my life is of interest to pretty much me and, perhaps, those closest to me.  Not you, Stranger on the Internet.

But it has become increasingly obvious that if there is, so far, a time in my life worth writing about, it is the year 2010.  It was, as I said, the best year of my life.

I mean this in a qualified sense.  I don’t mean that nothing but good things happened to me this year; in fact quite a few unfortunate things happened.  But it was the best year of my life in that I end it feeling fulfilled, because many things happened, and many of them were exciting or interesting.  Most of all, they have made me more like me, if you follow.  I am more myself now than I have ever been.

Another way of putting it is that 2010 in the Life of Michael actually makes a pretty good story.

I began this year by moving to London for four months — an adventure in and of itself, a wonderful experience that I’m grateful for having.  Then I moved out on my own for the first time, temporarily.  I sold and published my first short story.  I completed an independent research project and I helped teach a summer literature course.  In the fall, I reunited with what I suddenly understood was an extensive and important network of friends.  For the first time, I recognized how much I like the people around me.  I also realized, quite abruptly, that the cold steel barrel of my senior year was pressed against my forehead.  In response, I applied to grad schools.  Yesterday morning, I was woken up by an earthquake.

Other things happened, things great and small, things you wouldn’t care about, but they happened and I am glad they did.  I made it through, somehow, alive.

I am inclined to say that 2010 was a turning point, that I can definitively say in the future that, after this year, things were different.  Things will be different.  I am a different person now than I was 12 months ago.

In the sense of Heraclitus, this is true every year.  But it’s never been so obviously true.

I can’t say with certainty — Heraclitus again, or maybe Hume! — that 2010 was a turning point, or even really as important in the long run as it seems.  But I know that right now, it was one of the most significant years of my life, maybe a defining chapter in the narrative of my life, and here I’d like to take a moment to publicly thank all of you who made it what it was, and made me what I am.  I can’t help but cast myself as the protagonist and you all as the supporting characters — the great but necessary lie of autobiography — but I hope that in your own stories, you’re ending the year as fulfilled as I am.  And if not, then I hope the next chapter’s better.

Here is the last theory quote I stumbled upon in my senior research.  It’s about the intertwining of life and narrative, and of life and fiction I’ve been discussing and will discuss in my senior paper.  It comes from the essay “Fictional Protocols” in the collection Six Walks in the Fictional Woods by one of my great heroes and influences, Umberto Eco. I leave you, and 2010, with it:

At any rate we will not stop reading fictional stories, because it is in them that we seek a formula to give meaning to our existence.  Throughout our lives, after all, we look for a story of our origins, to tell us why we were born and why we have lived.  Sometimes we look for a cosmic story, the story of the universe, or for our own personal story (which we tell our confessor or our analyst, or which we write in the pages of a diary).  Sometimes our personal story coincides with the story of the universe.

It happened to me, as the following piece of natural narrative will attest.

Several months ago I was invited to the Science Museum of La Coruña, in Galicia.  At the end of my visit the curator announced that he had a surprise for me and led me to the planetarium.  Planetariums are always suggestive places because when the lights are turned off, one has the impression of being in a desert beneath a starlit sky.  But that evening something special awaited me.

Suddenly the room was totally dark and I could hear a beautiful lullaby by de Falla.  Slowly (though slightly faster than in reality, since the presentation lasted fifteen minutes in all) the sky above me began to rotate.  It was the sky that had appeared over my birthplace, Alessandria, Italy, on the night of January 5-6, 1932.  Almost hyperrealistically, I experienced the first night of my life.

I experienced it for the first time, since I had not seen that first night.  Perhaps not even my mother saw it, exhausted as she was by giving birth; but perhaps my father saw it, after quietly stepping out onto the terrace, a little restless because of the (to him at least) wondrous event which he had witnessed and which he had jointly caused.

The planetarium used a mechanical device that can be found in a great many places.  Perhaps others have had a similar experience.  But you will forgive me if during those fifteen minutes I had the impression that I was the only man, since the dawn of time, who had ever had the privilege of being reunited with his own beginning.  I was so happy that I had the feeling — almost the desire — that I could, that I should, die at that very moment, and that any other moment would have been untimely.  I would cheerfully have died then, because I had lived through the most beautiful story I had read in my entire life.  Perhaps I had found the story that we all look for in the pages of books and on the screens of the movie theaters: it was the story in which the stars and I were protagonists.  It was fiction because the story had been reinvented by the curator; it was history because it recounted what had happened in the cosmos at a moment in the past; it was real life because I was real, and not the character of a novel.  I was, for a moment, the model reader of the Book of Books.

That was a fictional wood I wish I had never had to leave.

But since life is cruel, for you and for me, here I am.