Since Dad died I’ve been putting on the gloves three times a week, working the combinations: jab, cross, left hook, right hook, uppercut, body. Nearly a year dropping sweat, flailing the air, swatting mitts—now for the first time squaring off to hit and be hit. I do everything wrong, circling into his power hand, chin high and vulnerable, blinded by the headgear. I take one on the nose, spring tears, suck wind. Again. Try to put the left in his face, make him react, bring the hook around, slip his punch, breathing hard, still standing. The exhilaration is total.
The knot of this not-novel cannot be untied without dissociating its components: the thought and image of Hannah Arendt’s struggle to think the human condition in the shattering light of mass death against the atavistic existential lure of her master Heidegger, who taught that our only authenticity emerged in our being-toward-death. In undoing, never entirely, his influence so as to think anew—the possibility of newness, natality, something like the birth of a radical hope—Arendt was like Whitman: “He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher.” MASTER after all, first and last, means teacher. HANNAH, from the Hebrew means favor or grace, specifically in the context of Samuel’s mother Hannah in the books of the Hebrew Bible that bear not her name but his. The Lord graced the infertile Hannah with a child only after she swore that no razor would touch her son’s head. That son would grow up to anoint Israel’s first king, but only after warning the Israelites what a king really is: a man who takes from the people what is rightfully theirs. They of course didn’t listen, and so Saul was crowned, and history went its ugly bloody way. But it might have been otherwise. That otherwise, that counter-history, begins with HANNAH pouring out her soul before the Lord. It begins with grace.
HANNAH stands thus twice removed from the kingship and polity, she makes possible. Call it a critical distance. Call it a capacity for doubleness in thought. Call it the enabling space of her retort against Being-toward-death: love of the world.
This book began as a attempt to think with the tools made available by the experience of the horrors of the twentieth century the horrors of the twenty-first. Against what I call the WAVE, the rising seas of fascism and the fascism that may be furthered and enabled by the fact of rising seas. The desert-jungle of the real, at once impoverished and overgrown, entangled with ideas of selfhood and nationhood that have passed their day. This book is a katabasis, a nekuia, a Greek search through the entrails of specifically Jewish patterns of twentieth century thought. It is a work of speculative fiction. It is a play, not for the stage maybe, but a theatricalization of ideas and affects, clashing and colliding. Hannah is the protagonist, metamorphosing as she goes from replicant to rebel, assisted and impeded by a chorus of secular saints: Benjamin, Celan, Weil. Heidegger is the antagonist, the atavist. The Shoah is the background that won’t stay background, that migrates into the now. Protagonist and antagonist are lovers. They grapple one another. They hurtle their bodies into the abyss between their opposing patterns of thought.
The oncoming WAVE does not cover this struggle; it reveals it.
This book is for Hannah Arendt and the doubleness of her thought.
A film so nice they made it twice, walking the razor’s edge of melodrama, double exposure of a women’s picture whose unspeakably glamorous star is called upon to manifest an ordinary life with the realism of interruptions, of arrhythmic arthouse cuts into the middle of shots and out of them again, as Julianne Moore demands of us with every artfully attuned muscle in her face to surrender our distance, to say admiringly as she has sex, dances, smokes cigarettes, brushes her teeth she’s just like us, from behind big glasses she pelts the hapless with red paint, rings our bell.
He stands on the platform head bent to his book, disclosing a gentle fall of tousled brown hair shot with gray. Trim, face unlined: I envy him his self-containment. A reader! a real reader, with no visible markers of his being a writer of any kind (but what such markers could there be? An inkhorn in his buttonhole?). How lovely to simply read books, uncontaminated by any urge to write them. I glance over his shoulder: bright clear paper, black delineated words marching in orderly rows and columns, saying anything. I wish I were him. I wish it were me.
Rejection is a habit, numbing like all habits, rituals, routines—I reject rejection, let it crawl across my skin scrupulously, ostentatiously, disregarded but not unnoticed, letting it cling to me like protoplasm dripping from every joint, weighing down the corners of my eyes, my mouth. Something of which I put myself in the way repeatedly, mulishly, daily and weekly, out of obtuseness and a sort of holy dread: bring forth the one to be sacrificed, the works of one man, behold them, my despair. I do it exceptionally, head down a well, listening for the echo—dropped feather, heart, splash.
for Sandra Simonds
O life! In the raveled cardigan of my cares
I eat jelly donuts, one after another
And generalize, and say Phoo! Phoo! Phooey!
And laugh and cry, and fall into a bowl of chop suey,
And make a spectacle of my spindly legs
And sneeze all over a dusty volume of poetry
Sneering badly, sneering most unconvincingly and awfully,
Reticent for antecedents and fol-de-rol and whatnot
Because I’m the only poet in this poem you kids get offa my lawn
And head back to your clubhouse with the rained-on girly mags
And stare at your phones limpidly until the moon needs a haircut—
There’s never any end to Baudelaire’s syphilitic wanderings
So why should I be different, or you, or the moon
That spills its coffee on my carpet, shagged with corpses of bees—
And now the pointless cursing—Fuck! Fucking shitheads!
O Life you fucking shithead you’ve fucked up my most cherished shit!
But at least I have the low-rolling donut of language to hide in—
Take a flying fuck at poetry, Life—
Take a flying fuck at life, O poetry—
And give yourself a hand up the pirate’s treehouse
And send the ladder clattering down after you
And dream a while vaping a cloud big enough to carry me away.
It reads almost as parody, this profile of a white genius South African Olympic-level swimmer turned poet turned painter, spouse to glamor, whose every environ reeks of privilege and American pretensions to culture, written by a writer of undergraduate earnestness, dutifully transcribing key passages from T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Only the paintings and their process persuade: sedimentary layers of wood, linen, cardboard, canvas, sometimes set afire, sometimes unextinguished, molten with repurposed texts—Kafka, Zbigniew Herbert, “a few other distinguished shamans.” Sacks and Graham alike astonish by forswearing all irony: absurdly magnificent monsters of the morality of art.
All too human she comes twitching and bending and switching her voice, her shoulders, her hips, weaving and receiving the adoration of a crowd that’s found the right madness in her impressions of her stoic Minnesota mother and reticent Minnesota dad and of her own unmedicated self. The voices seethe and bubble in her, colliding physical comedy of so many conscience-struck ids, of aging pugs, her husband, her therapist, all coming to a boil on stage in front of this scalded hipster Chicago are-you-not-entertained audience sobbing out laughs. We just met a clown named Maria: grotesquely, we cry: It me.
"A good work of visual art carries a person who is capable of appreciating it out of life into ecstasy: to use art as a means to the emotions of life is to use a telescope of reading the news. You will notice that people who cannot feel pure aesthetic emotions remember pictures by their subjects; whereas people who can, as often as not, have no idea what the subject of a picture is. They have never noticed the representative element, and so when they discuss pictures they talk about the shapes of forms and the relations and quantities of colours. Often they can tell by the quality of a single line whether or not a man is a good artist. They are concerned only with lines and colours, their relations and quantities and qualities; but from these they win an emotion more profound and far more sublime than any that can be given by the description of facts and ideas."
—Clive Bell, Art (1913)
The photos shimmer out their own blackness, framing day for night for day for the night of history overlaying these ordinary American scenes made sinister by the glimmering overlay of darkness visible. Lake Erie wears an ominous mask of trees and fronds, framing unknowable waters; white picket fences like gleaming rows of teeth smile out the boundaries of shadowed houses and farms. No faces, no bodies visible, save for the dim reflections of museumgoers, my own outline pricked out by the negative space of Bey’s American selfie, in which the best of us lies concealed, conducting a freedom nobody earns.
More bitter than sweet, more than a hint of the reality hunger characterizing other recent forays (Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry, Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy) into the meta-literary: novels about novels, novels about what novels have become in the age of their diminishing clout, a diminishment tuned to diminished whiteness and maleness, a canny examination of what is left to fiction of authenticity in the form of Apollo, the Apollonian Great Dane at the heart of Nunez’s darkly funny negotiation of the razor’s edge between cynicism and sentimentality. Pull down thy vanity, dear dead author, and take your dog for a walk.
It begins in Montreux. Sculptural, possessed by a stillness that can’t quite conceal the intensity of the vibration deep within, bowed beside the piano, the swan of her. Later, dressed in white, that uncanny dance, snake or swan, wild with knowing. That dance, that voice, that face. The hands flying not over but into the piano keyboard, piloting time and space. Mad America hurt Eunice into Nina as her husband hurt her, as madness, as she hurt her daughter and herself. We say: we have the music, she had that, martyr-song, young gifted and. My baby just cares for. Still.
An inspector calls: intrepid eyebright Paul Celan stalks Herr Doktor Heidegger to his Hütte on the mountain named for death, where gnomically they rehash their lives. Celan presses the question, Heidegger evades him, falling back into steamy memories of Hannah Arendt and her green dress. All the actors are English and have English accents save Heidegger, played by the great Joss Ackland, man of White Mischief, who rolls his South African growl into the jocular menace of a German master. The play captures little or nothing of the poet’s anguish or his poetry, but consider the possibilities: Paul Celan, P.I.
Stagger the line between loneliness and sociability—back in Louisville, Ali’s town, prince of the Southern Rust Belt, for my turn in the bourbon barrel, hunched in streets or stretched between the interstate and the partial-brick purgatory of the Humanities building. In cinderblock classrooms casual brilliance on display, nearly spontaneous Festschriften in which the author is present, head bowed, smiling; or else dead, enigmatic, rescued (Jack Sharpless thy lovely lines). Snug with poets on hotel couches or encircling a table at that goddamn Persian place, hovering over the groaning board of dear Alan Golding’s, reading out poems and each other.
How did I fail you, how didn’t I fail you? Life accelerates and pulls away, redshifting friendship, car taillights burning out of sight. Fell into fatherhood then my own father fell. Entangled in webs of illness and loneliness, the call every half-year became too much or not enough. Unanswered texts, emails, my calls unreturned. There used to be more of you—still you move in the world. Others read you, speak of you, as the intimate thread stretches and slims without ever entirely snapping. Unfriended hollowed-out shape in my chest—you, the wound, so lovely a man—I hope, unhealed.
Is our journey westward back or forth? Swoon, Gabriel, swoon in tragic misapprehension of your wife’s nether regions, planting a pliant face there, while her heart and eyes fill with sentiment for the young man that’s dead. Screwed together upon the scaffold erected for us by the Misses Morkan whose name means in Danish darkness and in Welsh the sea. Chastened foolish Gabriel Conroy dreams his way to dissolution like us all—be it death or regeneration or a bit may be of both. “The Lass of Aughrim” grims its way through Gretta’s dreaming mind, tenor-born. That man could sing.
Ten degrees whirls eddies of shivery air over the black-and-white tile floor, curling around everybody’s ankles, mirroring the steam curling from the tops of lattes. A dozen years gone and the same green painting of the old man smiling down at us, same bearded barista serving up banter, same Brian, same John. Under the old man old men gather at their usual table with biographies and newspapers, talking through the times. The giveaway shelf: thrillers, Twilight, Arthur C. Clarke, Retire Rich! and Pamuk’s Snow. Heat climbs down the ceramic mug of my coffee-for-here. Voices fly to the ceiling. Stay warm.
Parties are what elude us, what join and separate the many bodies of Machado’s title, the procedural bodies, the queer bodies, the mother-bodies, all the violent and violated women stalked by Law & Order’s silver hammer, talking back now as they love and vanish and erupt in mysterious blemishes and fall, photographed as if dead, never more or less than alive. Strike through the mask of first-person, convulse into the scarred beauty of these sentences, lean into these pregnant words: pops, grapefruit, bottle, blades. Sick and scared with eros, entranced into dalliance, making love in the world they never made.
It’s the dialogical spirit of pluralism as embodied by a green-skirted Arendt versus the unitary monoculture of Being as represented by the Magus of Messkirch, from whom Hannah makes the most equivocal of her escapes. A slangy, nearly sexy Walter Benjamin steals the show with his life and death, while Krimstein’s pencil wavers between cartoony verisimilitude and something blankly visionary, as asterisked references pile up the wreckage of proper names for the benefit of readers insensible of their loss. No one’s fool, Heidegger’s femme fatale slips out of Dichtung into history with the key to all ideologies in her pocket.
What’s duller than two teams you don’t care about punting their way ingloriously for three hours while we put away nachos and Buffalo wings? Duller than a boy band past its sell-by date, duller than the edge of Outkast’s less interesting half puffed up in your great-aunt’s piss-yellow furs? At least we’ll always have Jørgen Leth’s Andy Warhol choking down a burger in blank silence, wondering why no one thought to provide him something to drink; we’ll always have ads for spectacle, ads for advertising, ads for no particular product but consumerism itself. Rally the team scorelessly. Go to bed.