Hazlitt Magazine

The Ethnography of Photography

A photograph is no more a memory or a gun than it is a murder or a moral code: On the work of Matt Bialer and the streets of New York City.

Animals Strike Curious Poses: On Prince's Under the Cherry Moon

Released thirty years ago, Prince’s directorial debut seemed calculated to frustrate the fans who bought tickets to Purple Rain weekend after weekend.

Our Final Constellation

How can we live without learning how to die?

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Animals Strike Curious Poses: On Prince’s Under the Cherry Moon

Released thirty years ago, Prince’s directorial debut seemed calculated to frustrate the fans who bought tickets to Purple Rain weekend after weekend.

The beautiful man playing the piano wears a sequined jacket, a high-collared and ruffled blouse, eyeshadow, kohl, mascara, some sort of brocaded turban, and a look of intent distraction. This club gig is a sideline to his gigolo career, so when a wealthy older woman takes the nearest seat he starts vamping, mouth agape, as if to vacuum that cherry off her cocktail stick. “Once upon a time in France,” the voiceover says, “there lived a bad boy named Christopher Tracy.” But the Art Deco opening credits introduce him by another title: Starring Prince. Music by Prince & The Revolution. Under the Cherry Moon, a film by Prince. The 1986 romance was his directorial debut—he took over from Mary Lambert a week into production. Prince is pantomiming a seduction for himself.Under the Cherry Moon almost seems calculated to frustrate the fans who bought Purple Rain tickets weekend after weekend. It’s a tragicomedy shot in languid black and white by Fassbinder’s cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, its French Riviera socialites idling through a circus of perpetual decadence. The only other cast member returning from Purple Rain is Morris Day henchman Jerome Benton, now playing Christopher’s fellow hustler Tricky. Prince withholds one of the two musical numbers until the final credits. The rest of Cherry Moon’s soundtrack, which saw release as Parade, bursts past the images in snippets: Prince reduces psychedelia to miniatures of dynamic stasis. Even Christopher and Tricky coming from Miami, not Minneapolis, feels like an arch geographical joke at the previous movie’s expense.When Prince meets the patrician heiress Mary Sharon—Kristin Scott Thomas’s first film role—he starts scheming to inherit her inheritance, but the conman falls in love with the mark. (Mary’s father disapproves, and secondary Octopussy villain Steven Berkoff plays him with the sleek hairline and insinuated menace of an eel skimming its reef.) That antique premise recalls Trouble in Paradise, the 1932 Ernst Lubitsch comedy, where a flirtatious perfume magnate complicates the romance between two thieves swindling her. The sophistication governing Lubitsch’s films was a system of desire confided through repartee, euphemism, ellipsis and silhouettes. His characters would lean nonchalantly over a volcano.In Under the Cherry Moon, all these angled mirrors spin out of place. The tone leaps around breathlessly from scene to scene, and often within one. People recite quips they wish they’d thought of last night, then flit to a new non-sequitur. After Mary protests that Christopher doesn’t really love her, he says, “Okay, I hate you.” When she first spots him at a party, everyone else scampers out of the frame, and the camera zooms slowly towards Prince, wearing a cropped bolero shirt, fingering his lips, and standing next to a toy clown. The glamour here is a spell gathering together flimsy translucencies.If white supremacy in America is sanctified by evil fables, stylish old Hollywood movies among them, at least Prince could play his own kind of trickster figure.Warner Bros. allowed their star to take over the shoot because Purple Rain made $70 million on a budget one-tenth the size. Prince only ostensibly went in front of the camera that time, but cinema fascinated him—an earlier project called The Second Coming fell apart after his perfectionist demands exasperated the director—and he influenced every aspect of the production, limiting every musical performance to three takes (it worked) and insisting that his personal designer Marie France would provide all the outfits. Prince’s old protégé Jill Jones told the journalist Alan Light: “We used to watch so many old films. A lot of Italian films—he loved Swept Away—old Cary Grant. He got into David Lynch at one point, so he really started looking at, like, Eraserhead; I remember screaming at that little worm-baby or whatever it was. He was looking at European directors, trying to pull all of that in. He was really into the old studio system, too, Louis B. Mayer, he had books on those, looking at how that was structured.”Prince finished Under the Cherry Moon under budget and ahead of schedule. He also gave it the kind of casually surreal images his songs parade: Animals strike curious poses. Bats roost inside a seaside bistro; a conga line pauses watching breaths of fire; boys with pomaded hair and demonic eyeshadow bark, “We have Porsche, we have cable. How about it, baby?” Even Prince’s most elaborate metaphors, like “Little Red Corvette,” seldom constrict themselves to fill a verse; the lyrics collapse perspectives into a single fluid image. His camera keeps swooping around the parties that Christopher and Tricky crash, enamoured for a moment with the panicking servants and jaded sybarites, the piano lounging on a cliff, the petals falling from the sky. A sheen glows luminously from Prince’s hair. Curtains quiver with fluorescence.Aside from the Village Voice’s J. Hoberman, who deemed Prince “the wittiest heterosexual clown since Mae West,” most critics reacted to all this with appalled glee. Walter Goodman of the New York Times sounded like Mary’s father; to him, Christopher was “a self-caressing twerp of dubious provenance.” That primly coded gibe should embarrass anyone calling Prince “post-racial.” But if white supremacy in America is sanctified by evil fables, stylish old Hollywood movies among them, at least he could play his own kind of trickster figure. Midway through Under the Cherry Moon, Christopher infuriates Mary and delights himself by asking what a “wrecka stow” is. (“If you wanted to buy a Sam Cooke album, where would you go?”) Her voice just stiffens helplessly, with all its ornaments of race and class, while Prince giggles into the tablecloth. Later on, he jokes about making her “get black,” squealing: “Oh, Christopher! Oh shit!”The gigolo doesn’t only caress himself. He spares some affections for Tricky as well, calling him “honey,” playfully wrestling, saying things like: “Do you love me? Come on, you know what I’m talking about.” Tricky later declares: “I’m my own man. Like Liberace.” Their outfits say high-femme, but the banter is low camp. (Christopher Isherwood described the latter register as “a swishy boy with peroxided hair, dressed in a picture hat and a feather boa, pretending to be Marlene Dietrich,” which sounds like one of Prince’s early notices.) Christopher and Tricky remind me of the carousing sailors in Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers: “They spent their time doing nothing … They let intimacy fuse them.” Genet writes that “a man who fucks a man is twice a man,” leaving a riddle: What does this alchemy make of the man getting fucked?A few friends recently sent around an interview in which Prince’s old bandmates Wendy & Lisa describe him as a “fancy lesbian.” They weren’t so close anymore, spurned first by a lack of recognition and then his deepening religious conservatism, but just before all that the trio co-wrote “Mountains,” my favourite Prince song. The lyrics are some of his simplest and most elusive: “It’s only mountains, and the sea / There’s nothing greater, you and me.” The whole band plays it over Under the Cherry Moon’s end credits, Wendy resting her guitar on her knees like an ancient lyre. No longer the martyr for love, and now onto his third crop top, Prince gyrates a tambourine. The background behind them keeps shifting, from the peaks to the waves, fading into a sky foamy with clouds.Hundreds of miles away from the French Riviera, under the delirious blossoms of the Commune, an artist named Eugène Pottier coined the slogan “communal luxury”—that each person, no matter their status, has the right to beauty. Prince’s vanity always seemed curiously inclusive to me. Most of his protégés looked kind of like him, but anyone can look kind of like Prince. Is it merely self-absorbed to yearn for a twin, if that also demands yielding to another? I want to be all of the things you are to me, Prince sang on “If I Was Your Girlfriend.” When Christopher gazes at Mary in the dark, searching and longing, their inky eyes blur together. You can’t tell who’s seducing whom. The beads of his blouse shine against her sequins, bodies improvising a constellation.
The Ethnography of Photography

A photograph is no more a memory or a gun than it is a murder or a moral code: On the work of Matt Bialer and the streets of New York City.

Artists of every stripe incline even at their best to overweening gravitas, photographers included. The medium tends to invite such airs. Received on one side with idolatry, shunned on the other as the mere industry of hobbyists, photography arouses in us—practitioners, collectors, and critics alike—questions that at times seem no more than hifalutin riddles. What is this thing that both reflects our world and apparently stands beside it? we ask, pendulous between despair and delight.Salman Rushdie said, “A photograph is a moral decision.”Alfred Stieglitz said, “Photography is a reality so subtle that it becomes more real than reality.”Susan Sontag said the photograph is “an ethics of seeing.”Sontag said, as well, that to “photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed,” and that “to collect photographs is to collect the world.”Sontag said, further, that to “photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder—a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.”And William S. Burroughs, taking Sontag’s last thought to its logical extreme, said, “There is in fact something obscene and sinister about photography, a desire to imprison, to incorporate, a sexual intensity of pursuit.”But for me, a photograph is no more a memory or a gun than it is a murder or a moral code. Life itself is morality in progress, and the photograph is but one of the countless products of living, a means both to memory and anticipation. Still, it’s as far from the reality of the thing it purports to have captured as we are from the nearest black hole. That inclination to perceive the photograph as an instrument to judge, contain, kill, or even rape—as opposed to one that enables us simply to make sense of our relationship to that with which we share the world—reflects more our modern condition than anything else. For too many of us, in a world where time and space are contracting faster than we can reasonably abide, reality itself is that proverbial rug pulled endlessly from beneath our feet. In the perpetual freefall that is life today, the future is always now and yet somehow, vexingly, always past. And the present, and the peace of living in it, is as much the object of our nostalgia as the halcyon days we believe have slipped away. From this vantage, the image of what was, as presented in the photograph, carries a heavy burden: the weight of what we want to hope will forever remain. So long as we can hold the image in our hands, then, if only in the gizmo in our hands, we can soothe ourselves with the fantasy that we are in control, that in possessing what was we possess as well what is and might still be.Don DeLillo, among others, saw this clearly. “We’re not here to capture an image,” he said, “we’re here to maintain one … We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception.”Diane Arbus, too, understood this well. “A picture is a secret about a secret,” she said. “The more it tells you the less you know.”Franz Kafka, when told that “the necessary condition for an image is sight,” said, “We photograph things in order to drive them out of our minds. My stories are a way of shutting my eyes.”And, finally, piercingly, Gary Winogrand said, “A still photograph is the illusion of a literal description of how a camera saw a piece of time and space ... A photograph can only look like how the camera saw what was photographed.”[[{"fid":"6695706","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"660","width":"950","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Had Winogrand added more, he might have said that the photographic image has never sat in the group of things we nominally think of as “things,” abiding, mutually exclusive entities that adhere to abiding, mutually exclusive properties. Its reality is the reality of the rest. The things the image is made of were untold bazillions of quantums of matter incessantly and eternally in flux, all “seen” as arranged when the photographer used her camera to create the “image” of them, whatever forms the image presents those “things” as having assumed—bricklayers, children, signposts, horses, umbrellas, a glove in the snow, forlorn, what have you. The same holds true for the photograph itself, a given arrangement of matter: the piece of paper and the ink on it, themselves untold bazillions of quantums of matter incessantly and eternally in flux, the particular arrangement of which creates the illusion we call an “image” of the things the photographer was trying to “capture” when—and only when—she “made” the photograph, and which gives the word “photograph” its meaning.***Happily, almost none of us think this way about photographs, or their eponymous images, or, for that matter, anything else. Imagine, though, a world in which people went about doing only this, seeing this way, thinking this way, and, subsequently, struggling to talk this way. That world wouldn’t be the world today. Seeing, thinking, and talking as such—struggling, in essence, to describe the meaning of this thing we call “life”—is all we’d ever do. There would be no time for anything else.We know, after all, that a photograph is no more the things its image reflects than a map is the territory we use it to follow, and yet many of the greatest street photographers have more or less espoused this very misperception, if only implicitly. As though anticipating Sontag’s notion of the camera as an instrument of violation, for instance, Henri Cartier-Bresson said that photography is the single art that can “fix forever the precise and transitory instant,” and that it was through photography that he could “give meaning to the world.” As though the world itself weren’t meaning a priori, as though reality were “going” somewhere, as though reality were here one moment and not the next (“continually vanishing,” he was fond of saying)—Cartier-Bresson believed himself a preeminent artist whose purpose was to “go out to discover the image and seize it.” He stood with his camera, he said, “in the face of fleeting reality,” intent on “mastering an image” for the “great physical and intellectual joy” it gave him.But this is the thing: “things” never “vanish,” but simply and ever change.The Real is all there is.[[{"fid":"6695711","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"660","width":"950","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Little wonder, then, that icons such as William Klein felt animosity toward photographers in the Cartier-Bresson camp, as well as toward the establishment that rejected Klein’s work as long as it did, because, as it claimed, his work was “too ugly, too seedy, and too one-sided”—because, as Klein was told, “[it wasn’t] photography, [it was] shit!”Klein stood for nothing if not for a patent argument against craftsmen like Cartier-Bresson. This wasn’t any secret. Often and freely, Klein proclaimed he “had a lot of old scores to settle [with] the Henri Cartier-Bresson scriptures.” Like Walker Evans and Robert Capa before him, like Garry Winogrand alongside him, and, in a sense, like Lee Friedlander after him, Klein wanted something different. He was, he said, “a make-believe ethnograph in search of the straightest of straight documents, the rawest snapshot, the zero degree of photography.” The Real isn’t make-believe, Klein understood—only our notions of it are. But the zero degree of photography he’d hoped to attain was impossible, of course. The photograph and its image are never indistinguishable from the things they represent.It’s Klein’s aspiration, born of his relationship to The Real, that we ought to note. In favor of radical nearness, Klein wanted to ditch the gap between, on one side, the world he encountered and tried to understand and, on the other, the world the people looking at his photographs saw and tried to understand. To see and not know is far worse than to not see and not know. In seeing and knowing, and, more, in the effort to see and to know, as any artist will say, lies the meaning of existence. Anything else can’t be held as more than farce.***Ethnography is a mode of study whose intent is to explore, record and, far more importantly, understand a given set of cultural phenomena.New York City, for artists like Friedlander, Winogrand, and Klein, was a phenomenon of cultural multiplicity so vast that a description of it, like one of The Real itself, was hopeless to attain. There were too many people and too many things moving way too fast—or, at any rate, faster than the mind can comprehensively grasp.New York City—in all its polysynesthetic magnitude—seemed and continues to seem not just a phenomenal reality, but a phenomenal hyperreality no unaided human can begin to fathom. Winogrand and Klein et al, though they never explained it as such, understood the city’s nature: universe on universe filled with untold bazillions of quantums of matter incessantly and eternally in flux, none of which can ever be truly “seen” but, at best, only gestured toward.As their work makes clear—Capa’s shots, for instance, of murder and death, at once slippery, grainy, ghostly and fraught, riven, stunned; Klein’s wide-angle views of children frolicking about industrial badlands and contortionists contorted in the gloom of tenement streets, neither faces nor landscapes themselves quite discernible, only what feels vaguely to be some “essence”; Friedlander’s obsession, like Ed Ruscha’s, with letters and signs and the relativity they scream across our chasms of frequently pointless effort, his predilection, impish, toward imposing his own image, whether by shadow or reflection, in his frames; Arbus’s embrace of the outcast and freak and the poignant humanity with which her pictures endow them; Winogrand’s ability to present the absurdity of modern life in his ironic juxtapositions of “nature” and man—these artists know their activity is but an unending process in which what they think they see is all too often very different from what is.Friedlander mused deeply on this paradox. Knowing his pictures were but illusions of stasis, he left them packaged for years at a time before deciding their fates, returning now and then to review them, realizing again and again that what he’d thought he’d seen was not what he now saw and, in all likelihood, wouldn’t see the next time he looked. This ongoing transformation of things was one of his greatest pleasures. Returning to Evans’ American Photographs over a thirty-year period, Friedlander reported that with every new glance he’d always “see something [he] never saw before.”[[{"fid":"6695716","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"660","width":"950","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]The ethnography of photography, goofy as the expression may sound, is the ethnography of The Real—not the ethnography of what seems, but of both what is and is not.The image has never been the thing. It will never be the thing, unless we’re speaking of the image per se as it’s a thing, which certainly it is. And what is—in the photograph itself—is an illusion of what was, or, far more commonly, an image of what might or could have been, whose certainty will forever remain a mystery.When we’re honest, we can’t say what a picture “holds” any more than we can say what The Real is or isn’t—or, similarly, what God is or isn’t. As God is The Great I Am, whose name can’t be named, so The Real is The Great What Is, and The Photograph The Great What Might or Could Have Been. And it’s in this wondrous fog, like a lover’s secret, that the allure of the image waits, casting the spell of restlessness we’ve been under since we stumbled onto the photograph back in the 1820s.***Matthew Bialer’s photographs of the people and streets of New York City owe a great deal to the legacies of the artists mentioned here, whatever their philosophies, to say nothing of countless others—Ansel Adams, Melissa Breyer, Harry Callahan, Andre Kertesz, Aaron Siskind, Lisette Model, William Eggelston, Berenice Abbott, and Tony Ray-Jones among them—but most especially to Gary Winogrand and his ever-looming shadow.Bialer’s pictures, as well, owe in equal portions to the legacies of the many artists, modes, and phenomena he’s studied or loved, across media and genres, from Robert Penn Warren and Robert Motherwell to John Ashbery and UFOs, from Sonny Rollins and Bigfoot to Skinwalkers and Franz Kline, from Chuck Close and Markus Hartel (a contemporary whom I admire, also) to Sally Davies and Ornette Coleman.Photographs aren’t the only things Bialer makes. When he’s not shooting, he paints landscapes in watercolor and writes epic poems on subjects ranging from professional wrestling to conspiracy theories, his latest concerning the “hoax” perpetrated against the world in the form of NASA’s Apollo Moon Landings.These concerns, and specifically the modes with which Bialer approaches them, at first appear to lack cohesion. This, however, we could say only from the shadow of the rash. Bialer is, to use a woefully abused expression, a 21st-century Renaissance man whose curiosity is to him as Dante is to Virgil: he allows himself the ethnographic freedom to follow what he will, however far afield. The cement, then, that binds his oeuvre across photographs, paintings, and poems is nothing more or less than The Real. It’s as though, for him, no single artistic medium suffices to meet The Real—and, of course, he’s right.Landscapes are not The Real, but merely part of The Real.Poetry is not The Real, either, but, again, only part of The Real.And we can say as much for the photograph, too.[[{"fid":"6695721","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"660","width":"950","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]The photograph, as Bialer also knows, isn’t the weigh station for nostalgia that so many of us take it to be here in the Age of Information, which is the Age of Capitalism, which is the Age of Speed. Nowadays, nothing seems sufficient because sufficiency in the here-and-now is dead. Only in some dimly conjectured future does it sulk, like a teddy bear in a warehouse—a future where, paradoxically, it will be exchanged for something else that, in the very exchange, itself becomes as insufficient as the corpse of the sufficient we swapped to get it.Here in this Age of Speed, our actions and our thoughts, together with the things we produce—when we do produce them—hold no value save as means to ends, themselves, always, in a cycle of haunted yearning, turned sadly to even further means. As for the end, however we construe it, its doom is perennial neglect.***The sense that everything’s slipping away, delusional though it is, has bored into the depths of our psyches, a lethal cafard. Neither here nor there nor seemingly anywhere, yet ever omnipresent, our anxiety feeds on us as surely as screw worms on a chicken. And the more frantic we become in our helplessness to stop it, the greater our dependence on the image as secular idol—“taking” pictures now, it seems, among other tics, with every third breath.The selfie is only the most insidious symptom of this illness, a prayer and a cry, each a mutual cancellation—the first to The Powers That Be for our salvation, the second against The Powers That Be for the promise of our annihilation.The Real is forever, but we are not, save as part of The Real, in whatever form—dinosaur tears, stardust, pigeon poop, silver and gold.We know this with the certainty that we hate it.And though we know it, and though deep down we know there’s no difference between life and death, the fear of the unknown with which death fills us (as if in all its fathomlessness we know life any better) mercilessly drives us to grasp at every little thread, the photographic image chief among them, until at last we reach that place where there’s nothing left to hold, as there never really was, because there is, in fact, nothing, ever, to hold.Bialer gets all of this. He gets also the nature of his endeavors, vain though they are—but, as did his artistic forebears, pursues them anyway. Probably, like Klein, Freidlander, and, to an extent, Winogrand, his sensitivity to these matters accounts for why the wormholes that gobble up so many other photo geeks send Bialer into a coma. His obsessions don’t include equipment or technique or effect. He uses a single camera, a Panasonic LUMIX G, with a 14mm f/2.5 ASPH II lens that he keeps set to autofocus. Nor does he manipulate his shots in any way—he hasn’t the skills to do so, he says, nor a need for them. Rather, a few times a year, when he’s happy with a photo he’s uploaded to his machine, Bialer simply emails a jpeg to his long-time printer.The dynamo behind the work itself is Bialer’s desire to see and to study the ceaseless transformations of matter that is The Real. Like Winogrand’s famous picture at the zoo, for instance, featuring two children (a boy and girl) hanging upside down from the barrier to a rhino pit, two rhinos in the pit, and two adults (a man and woman), Bialer’s work tends to reveal the emergence of unexpected patterns, typically in the form of duos and trios, none of which he’d have the good fortune to encounter were it not for his discipline of availing himself to them.Patterns are at the heart of Bialer’s photography, not so much as a means to make sense as to see the sense at the heart of The Real.[[{"fid":"6695726","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"660","width":"950","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]A single, inestimably complex pattern within which numberless patterns rise and fall in endless codependence of matter and form—this is The Real, hence the wisdom from Zen, “Form is emptiness, emptiness form.” A koan for some, the verity’s easier to unpack when we view it through the scope of our bottomless human insistence.The moment we want something to be, we make it be. The truth, regardless of context, is often a pesky nuisance—by hook or by crook, we are getting our way. How else could the Emperor be decked out in the planet’s sartorial best when plainly he is naked? This is the vantage—that of desire—from which best to see this puzzle’s meaning: Form is emptiness full of thought, and emptiness form without it. Or, put another way yet: Without thought, there is no I; without I, there is no you; without you, there is no Other.The lack of “effect” in Bialer’s work is both its affect and a function of these concerns. Looking at his pictures, we’re not supposed to revel in “style.” Often, though the work does in fact reveal his style—the pictures reflect Bialer’s mind when he makes them, which, for all the hoopla tossed about as to the nature and meaning of style, is the definition of it—the pictures at times feel crooked or flat or, like a child’s drawing, depthless. Composition isn’t premeditated, but presented. Color, what there is of it, even in black and white, derives from exposure, itself a function of time and place in concert with his camera’s automated settings. Nothing’s clean, nothing’s formal, nothing smacks of the professional, professional though they are.But this is the point. The style of Bialer’s pictures reflects The Real the pictures exist to convey—just this, just this, just this, nothing more, nothing less.The walks and ways north of 14th Street and south of 57th, Bialer’s preferred terrain, are teeming with humanity, locals and tourists both, as we see, some with destinations, others only wandering, some working the streets themselves, others watching the workers work it. The whole—like the images Bialer makes of its parts, like the photographs the images are part of—is a tableau of untold bazillions of quantums of matter incessantly, eternally moving. It’s a mother lode of potential to a man with a passion for coaxing from their hiding places right before our eyes these myriad levels of patterns.But whatever we see in these pictures, it’s critical we understand that the last thing they suggest, superficially, anyway, is comfort or repose.It’s equally important to realize that none of them hint at mayhem or madness, either, even those in which reflection-fraught windows—full to bursting with people behind, before, and, obviously, in them—mirror the swarm we’re all part of.From these photographs, rather, we sense only that nothing is what it seems.Look, they seem to whisper, here we are, shadows of what once was, if you were there to see it, though either way you didn’t, couldn’t, which is why we’re here, talking to you, now.And hearing this, if we do hear it, we don’t panic, but relax.In the end, Bialer’s pictures are a sort of imagistic pig Latin. They speak to us in ways we once spoke to ourselves as children, in tongues that were as plain as they were secret. We told ourselves many things, but mostly we told the truth, the way these pictures do now, again. Hidden though their secrets are, everything is just what it is, as it all should be.
Banner for Little Teeth Returns Part 3 for Hazlitt
Little Teeth Returns Pt. 3

Yeah, you’re the antagonist in so many chapbooks here.

Featuring Mya Taylor
A five on beauty (10:56), singing Deborah Cox (20:21), and why North Dakota is better than L.A.(27:30)
‘Serious While Being Funny and Funny While Being Serious’: An Interview with Geoff Dyer

Talking with the author of White Sands about blurring the boundaries of fiction and nonfiction, the disappointments of pilgrimage, and the possibilities of serious comedy.

When I called Geoff Dyer at his home in Los Angeles, where he is a writer-in-residence at the University of Southern California, he congratulated me on doing so on time, precisely at the ten o’clock morning hour. The sheer delight in his voice at this turn of events was surprising for someone who has made a life’s work out of being late—to a flight, scene, or epiphany. In Dyer, resolution is never found at the time it is supposed to; it only comes together later, in the writing, if it arrives at all.Dyer is a writer who both chafes at definitions and yet today seems to define a category himself, with its own mounting heritage of canonical works, imitators, and innovators. The author of books like Out of Sheer Rage, a volume about doing everything but writing about D.H. Lawrence, and Paris Trance, an elegiac novel about expatriate youth in Europe, Dyer’s obvious boredom with the separation between fiction and non-, or art and life, presages the concerns of authors like Ben Lerner and Sheila Heti.White Sands is Dyer’s latest book, named for a sprawling field of white sand dunes in New Mexico where the author and his wife pick up a hitchhiker, perhaps unwisely. Via pilgrimages to cultural landmarks and ill-fated trips to exotic locales, Dyer examines what it means to experience a work of art as well as how humans shape the landscapes around them.We spoke about the disappointments of pilgrimage, the difficulties of writing about art, and the possibilities of serious comedy, or comedic seriousness.*How did this book come together?I'd kept a file going of travel pieces over quite a long period of time. A couple of years ago, I got the sense that there might be a book, not just in terms of the number of words, but in terms of a thematic and aesthetic unity as well. There were a couple of places that I was thinking of writing about in Los Angeles, Watts Towers and the Adorno House. When I went to visit them, I realized I had something to say about these places, and they would fit in quite nicely with what was already there.How did you go about ordering the pieces, creating the flow of the book?Originally, the first piece was "Forbidden City," and I really liked that—I liked the way it started with a story. But I felt that the Gauguin piece introduces so many of the ideas in the book. I'm even thinking now that maybe for the paperback, I might change the order of those first two pieces and go back to having "Forbidden City" first.The other slight structural issue is, it made sense for the thing to move west, to sort of stay in America. But in the middle of it we go back to Europe, to the Northern Lights. I thought it just served as a nice interlude. It ends up in Los Angeles—I thought it was obviously important that we end at the very extreme point of the western world.Was your intention to write a book about travel?If I think of a book like Zona, the [Andrei] Tarkovsky book, it never occurred to me when I started writing it that that could become a book. That was just something I did to pass the time. What I don't like to have, typically, is a contract whereby I'm obliged to deliver a book by a certain time. They just tend to become books under their own steam. But typically, even though I haven't been commissioned by a publisher, I will have kind of commissioned myself to try to get something done on a certain subject.This book is very different than a collection of random essays, like Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, which was a complete random jumble of stuff just tipped into a kind of container, no real form or structure. I actually don't even see it as an essay collection. I see it as a book, and it just happens that this stuff has been published before. If people call it an essay collection, then I immediately want to say, hey, but there are stories as well!What’s the difference for you between a more narrative story like “Forbidden City” and a more essayistic piece, like the Gauguin one?I think one of the reasons I ended up calling the book White Sands is because that story is the nexus of things. It's got that inherent narrative attraction of a story. Or narrative propulsion, I should say. It's a journey, which always has narrative interest, and it's got a certain degree of suspense, but at the same time it doesn't really conform properly to the New Yorker template of what a story should be, because it's partly also an essay on these photographs by Taryn Simon.In a piece like the Gauguin, that's more obviously digressive or analytical with less narrative, less story traction in it. But the key thing is the distinction is all the time dissolving. In some pieces, the narrative story dimension is more pronounced than in others. But I think few of the pieces are entirely essays, and judged by the template of traditional storytelling, the ones that are more obviously stories aren’t entirely successful as stories.There's this continuum between narrative and criticism. But you move between those fairly freely, all the time.Yeah, I really do. And I'm really pleased that I do. I can trace that back right to university, when we would spend the vacations reading the actual books, you know, Shakespeare or Dickens or whatever, and then spend the term time reading the criticism. And the one was fun and the other was so boring.I can so remember this time when we were reading Julius Caesar and then I came across by this poem by Roy Fuller, "The Ides of March," which was a dramatic monologue spoken as though by Brutus. There was a way of combining the analytical task of criticism with the storytelling that we associate with fiction. In other words, the gap between these things could shrink, and I liked that. John Berger was the person who really did that most successfully for me.It's funny how it sometimes seems like the narrative can't be critical, and the critical can't be narrative. But really the two can happen at the same time.Yeah. Obviously my jazz book But Beautiful really does it—those scenes about the jazz musicians double as a kind of commentary on the music. Paris Trance is a version of Tender Is the Night, and Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi in some ways is a commentary on Mann's Death in Venice.It’s sort of like musicians covering each other’s music.All of this stuff is made so clear in jazz, really. You're never trying to copy what has gone before. If you just copy it, then you're failing to do justice to it.You have a very accessible, participatory way of writing about art in White Sands, far from academic art history. Like the chapter on Walter de Maria’s “Lightning Field.”You experience art not in some realm that's just the realm of study. It's so part of the lived experience of your life—travel, romance, all of this stuff. In my case, that all comes to a head in the Jeff in Venice book, where there's this kind of romance going on in the middle of this art jamboree. When that book came out, people thought it was a satire in the art world. I think it was me describing my idea of a good time.How do you balance the objective description of an art object versus your own subjective experience of that piece? Do you feel an obligation to the artwork?It's such a big question, that. It's one that applies equally to travel writing, doesn't it? Because if you think of somebody like D.H. Lawrence, on the one hand, he writes with this incredible responsiveness to places, and can detect things going on in those places. They're quite reliable accounts. Other times, it seems he's just projecting onto a place the mood he happens to be in at that time. We can transfer that across to the discussion of art as well. So it's really a question of being responsible, isn't it?There's no point in just blah‐ing on about yourself and what you are doing unless that's a way of bringing out something that's actually there, that's latent or explicitly in the work itself. Otherwise, you're just being self‐indulgent. If you're describing the phase of your life when you encountered it, then maybe that's a way of bringing out something that is inherent in the work.You always take care to narrate your sensory experience of art. But in the contemporary art world, there’s so much work that’s relatively non-visual. You just need it explained to you, rather than standing in front of it.There's this idea that it's conceptual. But a kid of five can grasp the concept behind much so allegedly conceptual work. It's often just this really thin glaze of thought put on it. It's pretty feeble, I think. I've got nothing against either contemporary or conceptual art, but jeez, I want to make sure the concepts are worthy of the name. I'd rather just look at something pretty, you know? So much of it is just a waste of one's eyes, I feel.Have you been discovering Los Angeles as an historic artistic center? It’s had a resurgence lately.I think I've never been so interested in architecture as I have since living here. Where we live in Venice, you know, on the canals, you've just got this wonderful jumble of something super modernist, clean‐angled, big windows kind of stuff, right next to some version of Anne Hathaway's cottage, but writ large. And that's the classic L.A. thing, isn't it. It's not pledged to any particular period, it’s just this incredible free‐for‐all.Are you getting outdoors more on the west coast, too?Oh, what a horrible question. Before my wife and I lived here, we were always coming to the American Southwest. We were always flying to Utah from London, and now since we've been here, we don’t actually spend that much time outdoors. You know, there's no part of the world that I'd rather have on my doorstep than the American Southwest. Whenever we go to Joshua Tree or something we say, oh, this is so great, we’ve got to do something like this every weekend. And then as we drive back on the Sunday, we realize why we don't do it every weekend. You end up not having a weekend when you go away. We certainly should do more of it.This book often focuses on pilgrimages—there’s always a destination, an intentional trip. What does pilgrimage mean to you?I'm always up for a bit of pilgrimage, really. But I'm so aware of the capacity of the secular pilgrimage to disappoint, whereby you go to the place the great writer lived, and it doesn't work for you. That's something I talk about in the Lawrence book [Out of Sheer Rage]. You can't fake it. You might try to summon up the feeling, but quite often you can't. So although the pilgrimage itself might be disappointing, quite often there'll be all sorts of incidentals that render the pilgrimage worthwhile. So in the case of that chapter on Gauguin, you know, it pretty well all sucked, all the Gauguin stuff in Tahiti that I encountered, but there were other incidental things that made it very worthwhile.Whereas the religious pilgrimage, I think it's much more that particular thing. You go to Mecca, and it's really all about that big black cube that you have to see. That's got to deliver. Whereas the side effects or the incidentals can be redemptive in the secular pilgrimage. My appetite for pilgrimage is never diminished by particular instances of it not delivering.You still always have that desire to go see the real place where something happened.L.A. is particularly interesting in that respect, because it's not London or England or Stratford‐on‐Avon, where everything has got a blue plaque saying “this happened here.” But it's got a huge history, L.A., and it's pretty uncurated, really. They've been so indifferent to preserving it.You’ve always talked about blurring the boundaries of fiction and nonfiction, and pushing nonfiction into a new space. Do you feel like people are catching up to that now, with this vogue for essays and innovative nonfiction?I've been doing this for a while, and I hadn't realized that actually one will get greater recognition for something when more people start doing it. There's a lot of it around; it's recognizable now as a phenomenon, I think, as opposed to just something that a particular writer, in this case, me, was doing. It seems to me it's the product of quite a few people becoming a bit weary with conventional novelization.Are there any writers you’d particularly suggest in this vein?I think the last two people that I've been really, really heavily influenced by would be Annie Dillard and Rebecca West.As the narrator or protagonist, you always play a role in your nonfiction work. Do you come up with a different conception of yourself as that protagonist, a different character, for each piece?The character emerges from the style, and the particular tone is appropriate to the subject. In White Sands, it sort of helped to write about Adorno in this light‐hearted, funny way, because of the contrast with this person of such unrelenting seriousness.As a point of honor, I've always felt that it really is essential in anything I write that nobody comes across looking worse than I do. That’s a basic courtesy, and that's kind of fun for me. I'm writing something, and then I start to have a good time when I spy an opportunity to make myself really look like a jerk. Then it starts to become fun.Do you identify those moments when you experience them, or is it when you sit down to write?Some things will happen that are inherently funny at the time. More often, it will happen at the desk. I don't feel any qualms at all about introducing in dialogue something that I didn't say at the time, but thought of 10 minutes later and wished I'd said. I like this idea of that movement between serious and comedy. At its best, the flickering back and forth between comedy and seriousness, ideally you almost can't tell the difference between the two. That's the absolute ideal, that you're being serious while being funny and funny while being serious.
Our Final Constellation

How can we live without learning how to die?

“Speaking of deathand decayit hardly mattersWhichsince we both are on theway, maybe—to being daffodils.”-Once, Alice Walker.“This thing is constantly aspiring to be a man or a woman, and never achieving it—here, surely, is death but death strung out over a whole lifetime; here, surely is life, but life that death congeals before abolishing.”-War and the Iliad, Simone WeilTwo years ago I almost died. Or at least, I guess, I thought I had died. Or, sometimes, I think: maybe I actually did die, and all that I’m feeling now is an alter-reality, the sweet aftermath of my young and unfortunate death.I almost died—or actually maybe died—on the cold tiles of the bathroom floor in my uncle’s house in Dhaka in the last week of March, right through to the first week of April, 2014. It was a long, drawn-out event, my frail body spewing out its contents for two weeks. I had contracted dysentery. The nerd in me found this quite impressive: through my congealed vomit I remembered how young soldiers in World War One had also died of a similar disease, of a similar painful protraction. For two weeks my body couldn’t process a thing. I would puke out coconut flesh, and shit out murky bloody water; I couldn’t, and didn’t, eat solids for days at a time. I felt hollow, but also strangely alive in my deathly stillness. Nothing felt normal, but in those moments, on my knees, my innards strewn across the stench-filled bathroom floor, I felt so close to my mortality, and thus so close to the conceptualized state of being. I saw my own broken cavity through a looking glass, and for the first time realized: That’s me. A rare instance of solipsistic self-objectivity.As I lay dying (literally) I thought of the fickleness of our bodies, and, yet, the daily strength it takes to just be, to just survive. How could I have hated myself for those many years, when my body, each day, despite being brutalized by my mind’s weakness, kept going, kept moving, oh baby, oh baby. How could I hate something that was a privilege, this body of mine?When you are stripped of all your regularities, you begin to see existence through a strange portal, a mystical mirror. Everything shifts, and so the presence of death, not so ironically, becomes the perfect absolution. It brings you closer to yourself, it brings you closer to God. In those instances, something magical happens; within the state of almost dying you truly begin to practice living. Your consciousness hits a point of enlightenment; the boundaries of your own mortality.*I have always thought about dying with a punchy, cacophonous obsession.When I was ten years old I was too afraid to sleep in my own bed, and would regularly sneak into the middle of my parents' queen, like a life-size pillow I would weave my way through, a caterpillar waiting its cocoon. Then, unable to fall back asleep, I would stare up at my dad’s triangular black nostrils and see stars, see a whole ecosystem, and think about dying. Around the same time I learnt about Nostradamus and properly conceptualized that dying meant not >>existing<< anymore, and therefore my mind, which I privileged beyond anything else, would one day cease to exist. I started sweating profusely as I lay there, between my adult-sized parents, thinking and rethinking what it meant to die. Circling my projections in my head, I questioned my mind, again and again, this apocryphal awakening:What would it mean to not be alive?What would it feel like to not be anymore?Would I feel it when happened, when my spirit dissolved?What kind of strange cruelty that we were forced out from our mothers’ wombs right into this sticky mess. Only to pay our dues, and then bid adieu once again when our time was up, black stars beckoning our souls, back to the abyss from whence we came. The fear of dying was intoxicating, like strumming alcohol strung out from nerve to nerve. From the age of ten onwards, I started having regular anxiety attacks about death. Avoiding it like a trigger warning. Most recently it happened while watching Emma starring Romola Garai, eating homemade ramen that turned blue and cold as my heartbeat stuck like bile in my clumpy throat; the first time when I was cocooned in that bed, between my mother and my father.*My young parents first landed their feet in Canada in the ‘80s. Excited by the new world around them, they had an interesting battle with the perversity of greed; what it does to you; how it usurps the inquisitive beauty of being; how it makes you ill and anguished, never satiated. As young socialists who came from a land where poverty was expansive, and tangible, they knew little of the workings of white people, and the unnecessary entitlement of money. For my parents, the gulf between wanting, and the possibility of getting, was always too large. But, capitalism emphasizes that the mild feeling of benign knots in your stomach can be put at ease with just a little bit of this, or that, or something—that thing you've never had before, but trust me, it’s good.Capitalism makes you feel that quenching your desire should be the main objective of your humanity, that as a sentient being with a reasonable amount of intelligence, you should endeavor to want for things and then acquire them. Greed reminds you of your failings and promises you a better life. And, maybe, for a few prize years (for some their whole lives) you take what isn't yours as an elixir against death. You mistake the objects you have as your own trusted companions, and within your self-made cloud, you forget that you will have to say goodbye to this earth, one day, and that your flesh will become ash, so soon.It feels sincere to be awake with the knowledge of death.As a way of challenging capitalism, my parents weren't just content to live, they needed to understand the nature of our meanness, and our little hypocrisies. They explored their mortality, and the privileges of being alive with so much access, so much ostensible advantage, by focusing on how capitalism cheats you into thinking that your greed is paramount to your own sanity, to your entropic happiness. Greed is a denial of mortality, my father would tell me. It’s a dilution of reality, of rationale. Capitalism is a reification of the idea that individual pleasure is better than collective empowerment, because capitalism is the abstract philosopher’s stone. We buy to cheat death, we buy to avoid thoughts of dying. This resonates in the vast landscape of the emptiness that I oftentimes feel usurp the Western experience.My mother conserves everything. In Australia, where she now lives, hers was one of the first households to have solar panels on the roof. She wastes nothing. That wet, insoluble paper towel can be used again; all food can eventually be mulch; drops of water are watched thoroughly by her leering eyes. When we were younger, for weeks at a time in our home in Sydney, we would wash ourselves from a leaking tap that would drip into a cherry red bucket, our mainline water source. It would frustrate me so—I wanted a showerhead! I wanted to feel the strokes of water pulse through my dirty hair! I mistook these acts of her control as stinginess, but as I got older I began to understand that conservation was a means of honoring the world, and nature, and about confronting her own greed, waste—and most importantly, her own inevitable death. Sometimes, even now, when I ask her to explain why she does it, she tells me, in Bangla, which is far more poetic, “Ēkadin āmarā maratē habē, ēbong ē'i sab āra thākabē nā.” One day we will have to die, and all this will be no more.*Death is the closest thing to zero. As a compound; no more. Death is cyclical like the oblong of a zero’s curves.Japanese culture has a constant awareness of death through mono no aware, which means the “pathos of things,” an acknowledgment in the ephemera of the universe. This has been adopted into wabi sabi, a way of life through aesthetic, which is the nexus in which Japanese culture operates. It permeates art, and architecture, with an understanding that things are made more beautiful by their impermanence, and thus imperfection.In Arabic there’s dhikr al-maut which is the remembrance of death, similar to the Latin phrase of memento mori which translates as “remember that you can (or will) die.” The cultural understanding of our intimate end calms me with a faint reverie. It feels sincere to be awake with the knowledge of death, for it to consume you as a constant reminder. Not to be feared, but to be remembered. Being aware of death is like a state of constant meditation. What lies behind the locked door of death is unknown, but in its abstractness it’s almost cosmic.*I have tried to kill myself three times; my mother has tried to kill herself over thirty. As I get older neither fact is as bleak as you would think it to be, maybe because my mother and I have some strange proclivity to death, as though it’s a hymn that sings its tune and we are swayed by its pull at any painful turn. Whenever I think of killing myself, these days, however, I am reminded that in Islam there’s an understanding that if you commit suicide you will never enter the gates of heaven, but repeatedly die the way you ended things; your very own self-imposed Promethean fate.When I was in my teens, some days my mother would write a tawdry suicide note, walk out the door in the afternoon, and be back by dinner. Tepid, and silent, a harrowing sight. I guess we both craved the gentle lull of death’s imagination, as it was better than our reality. Reading The Bell Jar at thirteen, she reminded me so much of Sylvia Plath. Other teens were charmed by Plath’s insouciance. No, for me, Plath was my mother, Ted Hughes my father, and my sister and I Frieda and Nicholas. Death was always a solution for my mother, and therefore for me. Those eerie and awful accidental bromides that our mothers teach us. Plath wrote in Winter Trees, “The surgeon is quiet, he does not speak. He has seen too much death, his hands are full of it.” To be full with death as if to control it; to be full with it so much that it always lingers, pervasive in every touch, in every sentence.“DyingIs an art, like everything else.I do it exceptionally well.I do it so it feels like hell,I do it so it feels real.I guess you could say I’ve a call.”-Lady Lazarus, Sylvia PlathDo I look back in pain for my history, for my childhood that was torn between dramatic acts of self-harm, and my own mother’s violent despondency? Most days; no. I think, with a searing blindness, the cocky self-destructive attitude of both hers and mine obscured my sanity, severing my anxiety in half with violence turned inward. Because, back then, death was like an absent abusive lover; you wished for its embrace at every awkward painful turn, hoping this time it’d finally do the job. Death seemed like an option because it felt like the end, the end of everything, the end of me and my pathetic life, and hers.The “death wish” is a desire to return to the womb, William H. Gass explains in Life Sentences, and the root of that theory lies in the Freudian concept of the “death drive.” I used to play my trauma on loop, because there was something comforting in self-destruction, in performing my pain again and again. I understand this to be my ego, playing the masterful disguise as my savior, because when I fell, I fell so completely, and so I craved total obliteration.Have you ever played and replayed a memory so many times, and at the end, every time, you die? A few summers ago, high on MDMA at 3 in the morning, I went to an art deco loft on Avenue du Parc in Montréal, a stunning twenty-or-so metres high, for a best friend’s party. A large window framed the side of the room, open and breezy, and as I watched its haunting I began to dance to an unknown song with a crepuscular fervor. I danced with a soft lull, a short spring, sway to and fro, silently creeping, getting closer and closer to the open window, wide and gaping with freedom. My rationality, and hidden sobriety, moved me away from my self-destruction, but my anxieties kick in every time I replay that memory, the soft hush in the ear wondering if I had jumped, or been pushed, or fallen, where would I be now? For in my dreams I tipped over, falling straight onto the black fence beneath me, like one of the five sisters in The Virgin Suicides. Death in the air, “Now this would be a beautiful death/Jumping out the window/Letting everything go,” humming in my ear as I fell, splat.Amor fati—what is our fate if not death? The low muttering of death’s song haunts me like a threnody to myself. Is it repugnant that I think about the noises of death? What does one hear when they’re about to fade into the dark abyss of our final form? This is my dark secret. I think too fondly, and once too often, about dying.*I have both a best friend and an ex-lover whose houses, as kids, were burnt down in small Canadian towns. I found this out after the lover and I had split and Z, my friend, told me over white wine, with a passing tone of this grave shared experience. They knew each other, and had possibly each lamented to the other about the loss. I became fixated on a household fire as an act of death. Do we sing a dirge for those items, lost, in and out of our control?Shouldn’t we all practice that kind of goodbye? I thought, once she told me.When I was ten years old I walked into an old man, in the streets of Kuala Lumpur, whose eyes had been scooped out of his face, the sockets waxy, caramel and taut. He braced for my hand, but I turned in fear. Allahu Akbar, he said again and again, don’t turn away from God, he reminded me, death is at our door, always. Sukrât al-maut in Arabic means the rapture, the intoxication of the dying person’s last breath. I looked at him and all I could see was death.*Our ontological inquiry is that we are alone and what then? Is there a pause, period or question mark after loneliness? What is it punctuated with? We’re all so terrified of living because we’re scared of dying; that’s it—that’s what drives us: the fear. So we stand still, knees buckled, stomachs pulled in like a tightrope: how to learn how to die? Wouldn’t that be our biggest relief, the sigh that we could use as momentum? I can crave the alluring accents of death’s praise all I want, but the reality is that it’s inevitably your fate, and mine; sanctifying it won’t lessen the blow.I’ve looked at my depression with fondness, like an old friend whose rhythms I’m beginning to understand, but in reality my littered past, with all its sadness, has begun to bore me. Now that I know what it’s like to feel your veins turn cold as your body slowly turns on you, as I’ve felt what illness does when your body fights to live, I no longer wish for its end, for its demise.As I'd lain there dying on the cold, acid-wreaked tiles I realized I didn’t want to die, not really.I’ve been wondering recently whether the metamorphosis of blooming into the state of real existence is understanding and accepting this fate, our whole fate; that death is our absolute fate, even if the act itself is not absolute. If we navigate within this paradigm, knowing that one day the thrills that we seek, the people we’ve destroyed, ruined and deceived, will come to an end, because one day our bodies will be dust, maybe then, within that understanding, we could be better as a people. Living within the aegis of my ever-looming death has been a vibration I’ve always sought, it’s the reminder I always needed: not tomorrow, today. It’s pushed me out of my large vacuous pain I once proselytized to myself, and others, and, instead, it constantly stands as a reminder that death is not to be lamented, as it’s our humble, and assured, final constellation. Rich and poor, no matter how many Nixonian cryogenic bodies we amass, one day we will still have to die.In the Paris Review memoriam of David Bowie, they wrote, “He’d been planning for death like a Roman.” Nothing seemed as beautiful, as hypnotic or devotional as the self-reflexive state of focusing on how to pass blissfully into our next form. If we could all remember this, with the sentiment it deserves, we could live a powerful existence. This life is precious, I found out. If we were to turn ourselves inwards, and see the beauty that exists in life, in its thrills and passions, in the blazing halo of the moon, in the large yellowness of the sun so expansive and luminous, the colors of the seas and sky, couldn’t we move closer to our pure design, the one to be better human beings? Isn’t our evolution as people to be better? Smarter, yes, but also to be kinder? More generous? More cognizant of our humanity? The transience of human life flashes by so fast, alarming and paralyzing, so all we have is now, right now.Focusing on that has been my salvation. I’ve embraced death, finally, in a beautiful way. In a way that is no longer about me. No longer mourning me, but celebrating everyone, and life. There’s no jeremiad I should sing for your death, or mine, because almost dying brought me back to life, because almost dying taught me how to really live.
‘Go Out and Fight Nature and Lose’: An Interview with Blair Braverman

The author of Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube on dog sledding, abuse, and the lure of the Arctic. 

“I’d become acutely aware that adventure was a kind of violence, too,” writes Blair Braverman in Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube, her debut literary memoir. Braverman’s story begins at the edge of a bonfire in a village called Mortenhals, a speck of a place that sits on Norway’s Malangen fjord, population: 342. What follows is a decades-long exploration of what anchors the 28-year-old so tightly to the Arctic, a place she feels inexplicably drawn to despite a childhood spent in California.As a ten-year-old, Braverman spent a year in Norway living with her parents while her father worked as an anti-smoking researcher. She becomes an adolescent enthralled by her newly discovered destiny: to be a polar explorer, obviously. Six years later, she returns to Norway on a year-long exchange and discovers the darkness that resides up there, through the fear and intimidation imposed on her by her host father. He molests her in the backyard one day during a snowball fight, an experience that sends Braverman into a spiral of confusion and introspection. After graduation, she returns again, to attend a folk school where she learns to dog-sled. Instead of coming home to California after the year is up, she seeks out dog-sledding jobs and takes one, working on a glacier in southeast Alaska for the aptly named Dog World operation.It’s there that the gender dynamics of these places are drawn into sharp focus: no doesn’t mean no here on the ice, she realizes quickly, as she is raped repeatedly by her musher boyfriend. And yet, she can’t divest herself from the cold, returning again for another season at Dog World and later carving out a life for herself in Mortenhals.It would be easy for this book to tell the straightforward narrative adopted by many contemporary adventurers and memoirists: woman flies north, finds self, returns home. Instead, Braverman returns again and again, exploring what it means to be a woman in a desolate place where survival reigns, and finally settles in Wisconsin as a dog musher and farmer to build a northern outpost of her own.Katherine Laidlaw: What does your life look like right now?Blair Braverman: I just dropped off two dogs at a monastery, a literal castle. A friend of a friend bought this monastery in Wisconsin and is turning it into an artist residency and a luxury home for retired sled dogs. So I brought two of ours there. They were a little iffy—they’d never been inside before, and didn’t know what to make of it. “Where’s my raw beaver meat?” I live on a farm in Mountain, Wisconsin. I’m also having puppies this week. I’m really excited about the puppies.Your book is coming out at what seems like the perfect time—there’s an ongoing conversation about gender politics, and we’re seeing a surge in adventure memoir written by women. Was it an intimidating prospect, taking on a book that would place you within a tradition that includes writers like Cheryl Strayed and Tracy Ross?I didn’t think too much about it. I’m honoured to be part of that tradition, for sure. But my background is in environmental law and I’ve read a lot of nature writing—I really resist a lot of its conventions. I set out to write a nature book that was almost entirely about people. You see these patterns emerge in that genre: romantic landscapes, female-identified nature writing that’s full of wonder, women watching birds or young fathers dealing with their new fatherhood in the woods. And then there’s masculine-identified nature writing, where it’s like, I went out and I saw nature and I won. I was playing with that. What does that look like, to take that male narrative of going out and fighting and winning, and instead go out and fight nature and lose?[[{"fid":"6695646","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"1412","width":"2118","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Photo by Aladino MandoliOkay, let’s talk about dogs. It sounds like, in the book, in part you were attracted to the idea of developing and running a dog team because the emotional trajectory was straightforward—they wanted to love and be loved, and you wanted that too. Is sledding still a big part of your life? I’m more involved than I’ve ever been before. At the end of the book, I got the first six dogs, and a year after the epilogue concludes a musher I admire offered me his whole kennel, all his equipment and all his dogs, just as a package, for free. He was getting out of the sport. [My fiancé] Quince and I thought about it for three months. We said yes, and went from having six dogs in the garden to having an Iditarod’s worth of equipment and 21 dogs on the farm, overnight. That was last September. I decided this winter that I’m training for the Iditarod [the world’s longest dogsled race.] That’s an 1,100-mile race—a lot more people have climbed Everest than have done the Iditarod. I think it’s one of the craziest things a person can do. Now I’m shaping my team toward that, and hopefully these puppies will carry me across Alaska.One thing I really related to in the book was the point when you’re describing being out in remote Norway alone, walking for hours to try to make it to Bromme, the village where your friend Oda lives, and wanting nothing more than to lie down somewhere to sleep. But you can’t, because your fear of a man, any man, possibly seeing you go into the bushes to rest overpowers your body’s desire to sleep. So you keep walking along the highway, and walk for almost 24 hours. And I wonder whether your time in the north changed how you think about safety, or how you feel about spending time outdoors as a woman. I think it’s an entirely different thing to spend time outdoors as a woman and I think men don’t know that. Because, how could they? I’m always interested in that dynamic—it’s a fear I’ve dealt with a lot. There’s a paradox at the middle of it which I can’t quite make sense of, which is that the point of wilderness is that there aren’t people, and the reason that question is gendered is because of vulnerability to people. I think one of the reasons I’m drawn to the cold so much is that I don’t have that fear when I’m in the cold. Nobody’s going to bother me when it’s 20-below. When I’m in a dogsled race, I’m just not worried. Everyone’s job in the cold is to pay attention to their own body, not to other people, and that’s very freeing for me. There were some cases in the Iditarod this year where women were attacked. That’s so terrifying to me, to be doing something so vulnerable and intense, and have someone act malevolent toward you. When I’m in a race, I find ultimately you can’t pretend that you’re not on the same side—maybe you’re competing but, really, you each have ten dogs strapped to a little piece of balsam wood.[[{"fid":"6695651","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"640","width":"800","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Photo by Hanna ÅlerudThat part of your book when you arrive, haggard and lost, in Malangen, and have this epiphany that you’ve found a refuge that, after such a gruelling journey, feels safe, that was such a relief to read—that there is such a place out there for us. I don’t know whether it’s a safe space but I think I figured out that I was safe there. This is just on my mind because it happened yesterday but my sled dog is about to have puppies and I was bringing her inside—I only have six dogs on the farm and I’m on my own now so most of the dogs are just loose. As I was bringing her in—she’s having mood swings because she’s pregnant—she got into a fight with this other dog. The other dog bit off her nipple while I was there breaking up the fight. I separated them, and they were wagging their tails and happy again. I had this moment where I thought, oh my god, I’m alone here and this dog has had her nipple bitten off. I brought her into the bathroom and reattached her nipple with medical tape. I couldn’t stop my hands from shaking. The dog was fine, she wanted to lick my face. That experience encapsulated a lot of the emotions of the arctic and dogsledding for me. Moments of supreme beauty and joy, as there are puppies kicking in this momma’s belly. And also I’m reattaching her nipple in the bathroom.
The Wedding Cake, Annotated

Notes on a short story.

We asked Madeleine Thien to annotate this short story, written in Montreal two years ago, to give us a sense of her process. The footnotes, written from Beirut as Thien prepared for the release of her latest novel, provide a window into Thien's own life as the story progressed, creating parallel narratives between artist and art. Joseph sat across from the others. He was a stocky man whose every movement seemed sudden and whose nickname, Abu Victor, with Victor pronounced in the French way, had come to him when his son was born twenty-five years ago just as, fifty years ago, his own father had become Abu Joseph when Joseph himself came into this world. It was common.The four men sat around the patio table. It was late afternoon and sunlight sliced a line through the wedding cake, cutting a diagonal shadow from its decorative roses to its perimeter, reminding Abu Victor of a sundial. The deck creaked, the whole patio had been declared structurally unsound, but the owner11Last year, the new landlord, P., repossessed our apartment, claiming his parents were moving in. Un menteur, of course, and when we left, he simply found new tenants and raised the rent. We didn't fight. The building was broken, and the neighbourhood, Mile End, was making me sorrowful. It was time to leave. But the thing...  was too poor to fix it. Finally, last year, the owner had sold the whole building to a developer. Abu Victor and his wife, Nadia, would be moving at the end of month to a smaller apartment in a different neighbourhood. The timing was right. Unlike their neighbours, they were not fighting the eviction.But what about the cake? Abu Victor had wondered, waking suddenly two nights ago. Nadia was away, visiting her sister in Vancouver, and in her absence, their bed had felt wide and uneven; it had seemed to tilt and slide him onto the floor. He had gotten up. The room was a furnace. In a daze, Abu Victor went to the fridge and opened the freezer door. How long he stood there, he couldn’t say. Chilly air washed against his surface. At last, he removed the cake, which was encased in plastic wrap22... that made it hard was P. himself, who couldn't leave us in peace. "What does the fucker want now?" my love asked, each time P. banged at our window. It was early summer. Day after day, we packed. We had to shed at least a thousand books.   and had been in the freezer since 2011. He set it on the counter.He waited until 5 a.m. to call his best friend, George.“Catastrophe,” was all Abu Victor could say at first. He feared that different words might pull the imaginary knife out of his gut, cause him to bleed imaginary blood and die an imaginary death. “Catastrophe.”“What happened?”“We can’t move the cake into the new apartment. But we can’t throw it out either.”“What does your wife say?”“She doesn’t say anything. Nadia says nothing.” He was crying now and he hoped George couldn’t tell. “She won’t be back until the weekend.”His friend had proposed a solution. On Friday, George would bring Tony and Elias to Abu Victor’s house, and together they would eat the wedding cake.33Ten years ago, on my first night in this city, my love took me up the 283 steps of the Oratoire Saint-Joseph. At the top, where true believers get down on their knees...The cake somehow looked both shellacked and softening. It was probably inedible.Abu Victor withdrew his right foot from its leather slipper and scratched his left ankle. He had not set out any plates because now, in the clear light of Friday afternoon, he wasn’t sure that eating the cake was such a good idea.In Beirut, before the war,44...we stood tall, looking back at the way we had come: Montreal, located at the confluence of the rivers, clothed in winter. I had a sudden image of my father who, as a young man in Borneo, walked up to the town’s Jesuit monastery at the top of the hill, ... the four of them had been merely kids. Tony, rocket-shaped, was the leader. George, blinded in an accident, used a cane. Elias was a snob who spoke French at home and one day pronounced himself Le Colonel. And finally there was Joseph, who excelled at sports. From birth, they had lived in the same building, their mothers drank coffee together, and their fathers repeated the same jokes.Decades later, the four had arrived in Canada via separate trajectories, and now they lived in different neighbourhoods of the same city; Montreal had pulled so many of their friends and neighbours across the seas. There had been a war, after all, and how could any family be expected to live beneath bombs and snipers for fifteen years? Still, it was odd, Abu Victor often thought, how many of his fellow Lebanese had left in 1990, just as the war was winding down, after having seen everything and lived through enough.It was in 1990, in fact, that Abu Victor had glimpsed Tony crossing the street in downtown Montreal. Tony had grown to over six feet tall. He was still rocket-shaped, still wild in the eyes. Abu Victor would know him anywhere. He had shouted his friend’s name, they had hugged, cried, slapped each other’s backs, gotten deliriously drunk, talked about everything and nothing as one does. Tony had been in contact with Le Colonel, and Joseph was close to George, and so a few nights later, the four found themselves in a restaurant, twenty-five years old all of a sudden, with nothing between them except food, four bleeding steaks, and drink, three hefty pints of beer and Le Colonel’s bulbous glass of Château Margaux.What kind of life was this,55...and when his knock at the door was answered, my father told the priest he wanted to renounce desire and devote himself to God ("If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me"), but the priest shook his head. “Go home,” he said tiredly. “Find a girl and get married. Live your life.” My father, whose own father had died a violent death, kept his Canadian immigration papers in a plastic bag; he waited ("lonely," Dai Sijie put it, "as a red-haired horse")...  Joseph had wondered then. How miraculous.The waitresses loved George; they were fascinated by his dark glasses and watchful face, by the white cane he wielded as confidently as a weapon.Drifting in nostalgia, Joseph had mentioned the narrow crevice in their shared building where, as kids, they used to hide, one at a time, until it became too dangerous, when they grew too tall, too thick, when they risked getting stuck in the wall.“Just think!” Tony had said. “These days, even one of my thighs wouldn’t fit.”Le Colonel had made a joke about something else that wouldn’t fit.Of the four, only Joseph was married and had a child. His friends had raised their glasses and christened him the Proud Father of Victor, Abu Victor.Joseph had glanced up at a clock on the restaurant wall66...until the last possible day to leave for Canada. From the plane, he looked back at the way he had come, the town clothed in evening, the pale back of the sea.  and found himself inexplicably breathing the clean, mysteriously perfumed scent of his wife’s skin. Nadia, Nadia, Nadia. Victor, Victor, Victor.Around the patio table, Le Colonel was laughing over some joke that George had told. George had collected jokes ever since he was a kid. He and his small white cane used to wander all over the neighbourhood to beg, borrow, or steal one-liners from the old men idling forever in cafés.77And now, here in Montreal, why did it seem like everyone was packing up to go? Headed to greener pastures in the Laurentides, or more commonly, to jobs in Toronto. The boarded up storefronts on St-Laurent left us guessing, we couldn’t remember... Later, George had collected jokes in the bomb shelters. Plenty of jokes then. His grand dream had been to write his own joke book, but as Abu Victor always said, What the hell kind of dream is that?Now the sun was three-quarters down. On the opposite balcony, university students were being obnoxious; their rowdy laughter ran roughshod down the alleyway, scattering wave after wave of birds.Le Colonel glared at the students and said, “God in heaven, I want to poke their eyes out!” He taught at the Université de Montréal and was a specialist of the Peripatetic school, Aristotle, Strato, people like that. “In this country, when they’re serious, they whisper! But when they’re frivolous, they shout! They only want you to hear their stupidities!”George began, “It’s just like that joke, when Abu El Abed goes into the restaurant in Bourj Hammoud and the owner says to him—”“The cake looks okay,” said Tony.“Wedding cakes are for decoration only.” Le Colonel’s voice was reedy and aggravating. “Not to be insensitive, Abu Victor, ya akhi, but you’ve had it in the fridge for three years.”Abu Victor leaned back in his chair. They all did, and for a moment he felt as if he could pull each and every one of them on a string, that he could reel them in or push them back, that everything they did was, unbeknownst to them, compelled by some action of his. They were all trying to shelter him like leaves along a branch. If he leapt from the patio, would they follow him? But when had their faces grown so heavy, their hips rotund, their feet so flat?88...which shop or restaurant had been there before, and my love, who had arrived here in the mid-'90s, pointed out the same establishments over and over as if they might, like a crease of sunlight, disappear without warning. 350 years ago...  When had they all started looking like their grandfathers? He knew his friends wanted to help him, maybe some part of them even wanted to make light of the catastrophe because, all through the war, hadn’t they made light of the catastrophes of others? To joke was heroic; it proved one’s indifference. It was these kinds of emotions—not weeping, not tearing your hair, not thoughts of suicide—that showed you had survived intact.George tapped his cane firmly on the ground. “I think, Abu Victor, you might bring the cake to the new apartment. There’s no reason to do anything with it until you’re ready.”“Yes, George. When will I be ready?”“But why eat it at all, habibi?” Le Colonel asked.The question was reasonable but Abu Victor felt a surge of irritation. He imagined sculpting a perfect likeness of a chocolate eclair and serving it to Le Colonel on a plate. That would break his precious teeth.Tony said, “Maybe we should set it on fire. Taoists do this, don’t they? Make burnt offerings.”That Tony should know anything about Taoists was so surprising, they could say nothing.Finally, George spoke up. “But what is this cake made of? It might burn for seven days and seven nights."99...French colonists named this outpost Villa-Maria, City of Mary, and later Montreal, but the archaeological objects unearthed here date back to 4000 BC and to a history that precedes history. ("She asked," Dionne Brand wrote, "what had happened in the rest of the world, did anybody else die? Was anybody else heroic?")“Why don’t you donate it to the homeless?”Abu Victor ignored Le Colonel’s question and gazed across the alleyway. He had lived in this apartment with his wife and son for almost twenty years, while Victor was growing up. It was rent-controlled and, in consequence, nearly falling down. There were cracks in the plaster, lines emerged from the walls as if the building was writing them a message. Meanwhile, the neighbour on the second floor despised him. She complained that, when he walked, bits of plaster fell from her ceiling. “Can’t you at least take off your shoes?”Abu Victor had told her, sadly, “No. I can’t. You want to see the eczema on my feet?” He didn’t have eczema, but his deceased grandfather had suffered from the ailment. Cracked soles, so painful there were times when poor Jidi could barely walk. “I have to keep Vaseline on my feet twenty-four hours a day. If I don’t wear these special slippers, I might slip and break my neck. Those slippers are as important to me as a white cane is to a blind man. Our relations are not perfect, but even you wouldn’t wish disaster upon me. Would you?”The neighbour was too polite, and perhaps pitied him too much, to call him a liar to his face.Not his wife, though. Nadia had called him a liar every day of their life together, sometimes teasingly, but lately only in despair. Was it really every day? Well. Even if he was exaggerating, didn’t he have the right? The grief inside this house would soon kill them both. He couldn’t breathe.The wedding cake had come from, of all places, a Japanese bakery in Montreal. Yuki and Hank, wedding cake makers. It looked like four ladies’ hats of diminishing sizes resting one on top of the other. Abu Victor’s son, Victor, had chosen the cake with his fiancée, Mi-yung. It was not common to see a young Lebanese man with a young Korean woman. The two had been together for six years and had planned a small wedding with no more than sixty guests.The cake glinted in the sun like a giant tooth. He imagined Victor in a suit with a cake knife in his hand, a smile upon his lips. Imagining his son made Abu Victor want to tear his heart out. What could he ask of his friends? Would a friend hold him underwater? What friend could help him die, save his marriage, take his life, and rip it up and begin again?Tony swivelled his chair away from the patio table. He looked out at the alleyway and told them: One afternoon in the spring of 1987, he walked into a café in Montreal. He sat down and ordered an espresso and a baba au rhum to celebrate the end of the Lebanese civil war. He’d thought, But what if it’s all lies? What if it’s all in jest? Maybe the war is not really over. But I no longer care! Every single time they say it might be over, I’m going to buy myself something that I like.1010We earned $200 from our discarded books, and celebrated by eating the sublime croissants at Guillaume. We continued packing. He’d put on ten pounds, maybe fifteen, before he finally realized his plan was faulty. He told himself, These militia pigs are making me fat. What should I do to stay lean? I’ll have to fall in love. That’s what he did.“You fell in love?” Le Colonel asked.“Didn’t I look good then?”George said, “It’s a city of beautiful women.”“That’s why we stayed, isn’t it?”Le Colonel said, “Speak for yourself.”Tony didn’t say that he’d fallen in love with Nadia. Beautiful, teasing Nadia, with her long, piano-playing fingers and her scented, heavy hair. With Abu Victor’s wife, Tony had felt himself becoming another kind of man. He’d tried to steal her but he had failed. That was a long time ago, ancient history. But why had he said so much, and why now of all times? When Tony started telling the story, he’d forgotten the ending. He’d forgotten there had been an ending at all. He stared at the cake, struck silent by his own confusion.The sobriety around the patio table was unnerving. Abu Victor brooded, turning his wineglass round and round in his hand. George could hear music crackling from another balcony. His French was only passable, but he thought the singer was shouting, Take off! Take off! Take off your shirt! George wiped his nose. His dark glasses were slipping, it was very hot. When he was a child, the neighbours used to whisper, “Poor George, with his white cane and his dark glasses, he already looks like a little old man.” He smiled. The neighbours had no idea that women were drawn to his blindness like stars to the night sky.George slid his left hand across the table, and someone, probably Abu Victor, pushed a glass up to his fingers.“Water, George?” It was Tony. “The evening is still so hot.”“I’d prefer wine. You know what Abu El Abed says, ‘If you’re going to steal something, make sure it’s a camel.’” The water was lifted away. The stem of a wineglass was fitted between his fingers. “Thanks.”One of them leaped suddenly from his chair. Abu Victor, no doubt. He never did anything slowly.George heard steps, the screen door opening and slamming shut. Opening again. Abu Victor came back with plates and utensils. Probably forks. The sun was making a red venous pattern, like the back of a leaf, against his eyelids. It was very bright out.The morning they unwrapped the bandages from George’s eyes, he had felt so devastated he had asked his parents for a new name. They had thought he was only joking, so he had remained George. Because he had been ten years old when the accident happened, he had experienced plenty of colours already and so colours in his mind never went away. Colours were visited upon him in streaks and textures, in tessellations that bandaged the world. Doctors, nurses, adults, and priests told him all sorts of things: how lucky he was to have survived the explosion, how fortunate he was to have the chance to experience God’s earth in a different way. God, they said, had surely been looking out for him! George observed the spidery lines breathing behind his eyelids: they made the forms of animals, the metre of languages, the stomping of colours. They were lines attached to wires that exploded but left no victims. 1975, the year the war began, he, Joseph, Tony, and Le Colonel were all ten years old. They liked to tease him, waving their hands in front of his eyes, their movements distorting the colours he saw and making a breeze against his skin. The three boys would pick up his hands and run them over the surfaces of things,1111My love, for whom this apartment and neighbourhood were home, was desolate. Our friend, John, the poet, had died the previous year, and we had a shelf full of his books, a library of Arabic literature, their thin covers sheltering them from the passage of years, countries and owners, divorce and war and children's hands. John used to come and sit on our patio...  the shell of a bullet, a stolen negligee, a rock in the shape of Napoleon, a cat named Foufou. He remembered, most of all, how Joseph, Tony, and Le Colonel would run him down to the bomb shelter at the bottom of their building, all their hands on his body—holding his wrists, elbows, back, head—as they spirited him down the staircase, the racket of their feet so small against the deafening explosions. Just the sound made you feel as if you’d died.1212...his foldable white cane resting against his knee; he had lost his sight in an accident when he was young. “What do you think I should wear / to the theatre tonight?” he once wrote. “Will there be any fingerprinting and / will anyone mention / the war during the intermission?” He’d had the sensation that they were the bomb falling, rushing headlong down the stairs. Or more precisely, he was the bomb carried in the belly of their hands, about to be tossed into the shelter, to take everyone, loved ones and enemies, family and strangers, away with him. “Joseph, Joseph,” he would cry, and the other boy would shout “George,” and the sound of his own voice seemed to call a different George out of George’s chest, and this boy, too, would pull him along. To where? Not to safety. Only the next step, the next hiding place, the next onrush of feeling.1313My love wrapped the books carefully. Our new home would be tiny. John’s books would have to go to storage. But now, as he sat beside Joseph, he did not know what to wish for his friend except numbness. The death of feeling. Joseph’s son, Victor, had always had a soft voice. The soft voice is always drowned out.“Might as well give me some wine too,1414Friends stopped by for a drink. On the patio, they argued, smoked, and told...  eh, Tony?”Le Colonel’s voice reminded George of seagulls.Tony said, “The wine is very sweet, habibi.”“Eat the cake,” George said quietly, “and the wine won’t seem so sweet.”“Abu Victor,” Le Colonel said, “is that a new sculpture?”“New? New from three years ago.”“How can that be? Have I not visited you in so long?”Silence.“The last time I saw you,” Le Colonel continued, “there was also a war.”“A different war.”“Same fucking war,” Tony said.Le Colonel wanted to bring up something from the past, from when they were kids. If he said the right thing, he was sure the four of them would just relax. The present was a minefield. Peace was such a tricky thing. And how could they be expected to help Abu Victor? Nothing could replace Victor, who even at twenty-two had still possessed the sweetness of a child.Tony said, “George, old man. You want cake?”“Why not?”“Yes,” Abu Victor said. “Why not?”Abu Victor held the knife and dish in his hand. He put the dish down and, with both hands, positioned the blade on the highest tier of the cake.“I would start from the bottom,” Tony said.“You would, would you?”“Shall I do it for you?” Tony asked.“No, my friend. You’ve done enough.”Le Colonel laughed. The laughter felt odd. Abu Victor felt as if the sky itself was staring at them and passing judgment, and that he was disappointing not only his three friends, not only Nadia, but also the sky itself.“Who’s the oldest now?” Le Colonel asked, even though he knew.“Tony. He’s the first to turn fifty-one.”“I stopped getting old a long time ago, George. Are you fucking blind?”“Your girlfriend, what’s-her-name,” George hummed. “I saw her very well. Oh La La.”“Remember Miss Oh La La!” Le Colonel said. “The little breasts of Miss Papineau. The shapely legs of Madame Le Normand!”“One day,” George said, “a Parisian, an American, an Iranian, and Abu El Abed met at a conference.1515...Abu El Abed jokes. I was tired and made my excuses. I lay in bed, glad that the sound of Arabic filled our home and rained down on P., reminding me of when I was young, and my parent’s Hakka and Cantonese transformed our kitchen into another country. All of...  In the middle of their conversation, they—”“No more jokes,” Abu Victor begged.Tony knocked over his glass of wine. No more jokes. The wine spilled on George, whose body didn’t react at all. The pitch-black lenses of his glasses turned away from the cake and in the direction of the sun. His white cane, disturbed by a twitch of his knee, clattered to the floor.Downstairs, the neighbour shouted in frustration, “Mais, non! Non!” but perhaps it wasn’t meant for them to hear.Tony leapt up, ran inside looking for a cloth, and returned with a handful of paper towels.“Was it red wine?” George asked.“Yes.”“I see.”They cleaned up and settled down again.“Cut the cake, Abu Victor,” George said.“Yes,” he answered. Father of Victor, Father of Victor.1616...our grandparents were born in villages; now we, wearing our grandparents' faces, will, like half the world, live and die in cities. My grandfather, orphaned, arrived to Borneo when he was a child. My parents and siblings gave up their Malaysian and Hong Kong papers when they left for Canada. My love’s...  “Thank you. I will.”The cake melted slowly in Abu Victor’s mouth. It surprised him, the sugar tunnelling through his body. Maybe a person didn’t have to know all the things he or she did. Abu Victor felt so sick of knowing, he thought he might be drowning in knowing. And today, more bombs had fallen on those poor, accursed people. What could anyone do? There was no justice.1717...country, Lebanon—in geographical terms only twice the size of the Island of Montreal—has 4 million people, plus 1.5 million Syrian refugees, and half a million stateless Palestinians who arrived and couldn’t leave. They remember... He was tired of knowing. The fighting in Lebanon had ended slowly. That had been Abu Victor’s experience. Actually, for twenty years, one didn’t know if it was really all right to turn around and go home to Beirut. One didn’t know if peace was just an interregnum, a little pause-café, a short afternoon nap before killing, which had its own relentless schedule, resumed. Also you didn’t know when you would open a door1818...that street, those shops and restaurants, a place culled from the map ("For we went, changing our countries more than our shoes"). My love once joked, It’s not only the rich who have many homes.  and have the past rush toward you with its hysterical weeping and outstretched arms. In truth, he preferred the past to the present. Mi-yung had told Victor of a Korean saying, “To thrive in calamity but perish in soft living.” Mi-yung’s parents had lived through the Korean War, they’d been children back then. “You’ll feel at home with them,” Victor had predicted, and he had been right.Abu Victor understood Beirut, but he believed there was something ill and volatile about Montreal. Was it the air, the water, the hard ice of winter?What made people go mad, even momentarily?Why did the sun seem so frivolous here?His son had grown up in Canada. If, in different circumstances, Victor had ever needed someone to help him, he could easily have come to his father, to Tony, to Le Colonel, even to George! (A blind man could kill a person by accident. This had been their joke when they were kids: George could accidentally shoot any number of people.) Survival was that easy. As teenagers, they thought everything they touched turned, if not to gold, to life itself. The act of living was nothing more than taking matters into one’s own hands.Mi-yung, who should have been his daughter-in-law, didn’t need this cake. A year ago she had met someone else. Despite their attachment to her, Abu Victor and Nadia had decided not to attend Mi-yung’s wedding. It would have felt too much like giving away their own daughter. Mi-yung’s parents were fortunate; they had three children, but Abu Victor and Nadia had only their one beloved, their son, Victor.Now Abu Victor remembered an earlier incident. He started to tell Tony, Le Colonel, and George about it. Abu Victor and his son had been in the car. Victor had just gotten his licence, so he would have been seventeen years old. They had been driving through the intersection of Saint-Laurent and Mont-Royal1919Bit by bit, the apartment emptied. Once the books were gone, the walls were unfamiliar. I went to the used bookstore, S.W. Welch, which displayed...   when a cyclist ran the light, swerving so close that Victor came within inches of, accidentally, running him down. The cyclist was an idiot. Completely oblivious to the fact that he’d cheated death. In shock, Victor had rolled down the window. He’d shouted, “What’s wrong with you? Don’t you see I nearly killed you?”The cyclist laughed. In French, he said, “Where are you from, you piece of shit?”Abu Victor had felt as if the entire street, the whole city, maybe even the entire country,2020...our former books in the window. I stood on the sidewalk drinking coffee, pretending I was on my patio and the pages were my relations. had turned to stare at them. Silence covered him like a cloth.Victor broke the silence. “I’m from here,” the boy had shouted. He’d shouted in French, then English, then Arabic. “From here! From here, you asshole. And I’m not going anywhere! You hear me, you racist shit? We’re here and we’re not going anywhere.”Were they from here? Abu Victor asked his friends now. The car had driven on and Victor had repeated only two words:That bastard, that bastard. Victor had always been soft-spoken, his temper non-existent, and Abu Victor had been inordinately proud of him for standing his ground. He’d said it aloud: “Victor, you really showed that ghabi! Did you see the look on his face? I’m proud of you.”Around the patio table, no one answered him. Their discomfort and sadness felt like smoke inside his lungs.Abu Victor drank his wine and took another bite of cake.His son’s name, Victor, belonged to this place—to Montreal, to Paris, to Beirut—and the name had also belonged to Joseph’s own father. All was belonging. But had a name ever been enough to bind a person to a piece of land?2121My love walked through the empty apartment shaking his head. “That fucker,” he said, and laughed. We’re going soon, I thought. We’re leaving. We're free. Our friend, John, once wrote... “People don’t belong to other people,” Nadia had told him only last week. “Mi-yung doesn’t belong to Victor, our son doesn’t belong to you, you don’t belong to me. And none of us, none of us, belong here. None of us.”“If not here,” he had said, wanting to take her in his arms but knowing deep in his heart she did not want him, “then where?”“I don’t know, Joseph.” Her tears had scalded him. “Why don’t we have any answers?”Now he said to the air, to Tony, Le Colonel, and George, “If you bleed into the ground, as Victor did, don’t you have the right to call the land your own?”“Abu Victor,” George said. “It was an accident.”“What is accident, George, and what is catastrophe?”Le Colonel said, “I agree with you, Abu Victor. But maybe all of it, everything, is accident. Not the will of God, just the unending motion and weight of accident.”Abu Victor shook his head. “Is that all this is?”“But you misunderstand. That is not a small thing."2222"In the summer, the war travels from tree to tree, and we hide for a while under a branch afraid that love will be taken away. Ever since we’ve known love there has been a war and we’ve had no idea what would rise from the ground or fall from the sky." Victor had been on his way to work downtown. It had been very early in the morning. A stranger had been causing a disturbance, he was having some kind of breakdown, waving a knife around. The police said the man was making too much noise, he was ripping up bags. Victor, approaching from the opposite direction, heard the confrontation. Had he entered the alleyway on purpose? He spoke three languages, maybe he thought he could speak any language. He’d graduated in engineering and was working toward his professional licence; he knew about crumbling cities where things fall down, brought low by shoddy construction, or bombs, or hate. Like his father, Victor always woke early, by 5 a.m. at the latest. Victor had opened his eyes in the bed of the apartment he shared with Mi-yung. He was very precise with time, it was like he had a clock ticking away inside him. He bicycled to work at exactly 6:30 a.m. He and his bicycle had turned onto the scene. Had his presence caused someone to flinch? The police, when they shot dead the man with the knife, accidentally shot Victor as well. A bullet had ricocheted off a wall and struck Victor in the chest. The police tried to help him. No one would tell Abu Victor if his son had said anything as he lay in the alleyway. In the ambulance, Victor had still been breathing. But neither he nor Nadia, nor Mi-yung, had reached the hospital in time. At the moment his son died, Abu Victor had been awake as usual. He had been sitting in this very chair, looking up at the changing light over the rooftops. Afterwards, the police gave Abu Victor his son’s clothes, his bicycle helmet, and his bicycle. The knife brandished by the homeless man turned out to be only a butter knife. The shooting was in the news, there was an outcry, the police apologized, the ensuing inquest called it a tragedy, and then it was over. Everything was gone. All this had happened three years ago, at 6:40 a.m.How can it be, Abu Victor wondered, that I am still the father of someone? Would it not be better if I became nameless? Abu. Father of.2323Which part of us is for living, which for the public record, and which for art? I've been thinking about my mother again, and of a friend whose young brother committed suicide. The greatest heartache defies language. “Non finito,” a Renaissance sculptural technique for leaving work unfinished, an unresolved thought, the rough edges that desire something other than completion, the underdrawing of a painting left visible, a no man’s land between the private and the public work, a story told “imperfetta,” reminding us that all the materials at our disposal—paint, paper, ink, memory, kilobytes, hands, and selves—are subject to decay.  He cut the cake cleanly, from the bottom tier, and served a second helping to Le Colonel, who said, “It’s surprisingly soft inside.”“I broke all the bones already.”Le Colonel laughed but looked nauseated.So it’s true, Abu Victor thought. A joke is a knife. A joke can spill blood.Tony accepted the piece that was given to him. All through the apartment, Tony saw reminders of Nadia. Photographs of Nadia and Victor, Victor and Nadia. Nadia and Mi-yung, Victor and Mi-yung. Nadia had wrapped the wedding cake in plastic wrap and put it in the freezer. Why had she done that? What would she do when she came home and found it gone? He had not seen Nadia in such a long time. She was a good and upright person. Abu Victor might have lost his son, but he still had a home and someone who loved him. Shouldn’t that count for something?“Yuki and Hank made this cake,” Abu Victor said drunkenly. “We should send them a letter of gratitude. We should tell them their cake has lasting quality.”George’s cane had the lightness of a cat’s paw against his knee. He thought the cake was ten storeys high and wreathed with pink roses. He had seen a cake like this when he was a boy, at a wedding in Harissa, a village in the mountains, in the region where his mother was born.Le Colonel: “Remember that night in Cyprus when we met the princesses ...”“I don’t remember a fucking thing,” Tony said.They laughed.Tony again: “I’ve loved the formality of wedding cakes ever since I was a child.”George pushed his plate across for a third helping. “Tony, what does formality taste like? Do you know the one about Abu El Abed going to a wedding in Jounieh . . .”My son in a suit. My son in a suit of clothes. My father in a suit. Father and son, Victor and Victor. “I really don’t know either.”Tony: “Are you drunk, Abu Victor?”“I would pay a lot of money to be drunk.”“Do they eat this kind of cake in Japan?” Le Colonel asked.Abu Victor wanted to laugh and laugh. “Every single bloody day.”The cake was surprisingly delicious. Le Colonel found himself listing the things they had once picked up from the streets. All the sweets he, Joseph, Tony, and George had eaten after trading bullet casings, cigarette packages, marbles, anything, with other bands of brothers in the neighbourhood. He remembered all the older boys who had sauntered by with beautiful girls on their arms. Ever-changing girls in ever-changing dresses and ever-changing shoes. Of course they weren’t really changing, material goods had been in short supply . . . But the streets of Beirut had once been kaleidoscopic, alive and more alive with each rotation of the hours.2424Today, we’re in Beirut, the city of my beloved. This morning, his brother’s cat leaped onto a tall chair and somehow managed to smack him in the face. My love returned to bed, confused. Outside: horns, the rush of mobylettes, flocks of birds, the murmur of women, men, leaves. The cat, who is hearing impaired, is frequently startled by us. Outside, shrines to the Virgin Mary adorn the corners (Mary, Aphrodite, Ishtar, Astarte, gazing down from their grottoes, looking back at the way we came). The war had lasted a long time and eventually they had all left Lebanon. Le Colonel himself had been the first to go. He had fallen in love with a French girl, and he had followed her; Le Colonel had told his parents he wished to study philosophy, and they had happily paid the bills. In France, he’d fallen in love with a Lebanese man who never experienced the war. Now they had a home together in Hampstead, a wealthy Montreal enclave that had its own public security department. But he couldn’t recall the order of the others’ departures. Was it Abu Victor in 1984, then George in ’86? Had Tony really stayed all the way to 1990? He couldn’t remember. It was a nothing place, Beirut. He refused to go back. Le Colonel was not that child anymore, a boy who could be satisfied with sweets, with watching the world go by. The philosopher Strato observed that water pouring from a spout separates into individual droplets, Strato imagined that everything in this universe was produced by weight and motion. Old Strato thought he could free God himself, make it so that God was no longer responsible for creation: all that was required for life to continue was weight, was motion.2525What can any human being put into such a cake?     Freed from the idea of God, Strato believed, we would finally be free of fear.Le Colonel had been introduced to the ideas of Strato when he fled Beirut for Paris, but from the beginning he had carried a seed of doubt. Le Colonel did not fear God. God barely made any claims these days, it was people who thought they were responsible for all of creation. Society was bloated with ego. When he thought of men, Le Colonel felt an almost incapacitating terror. In his entire lifetime, there had been not a single minute in which war did not exist. Peace, therefore, was the grand illusion. And those who lived in peace lived in a dream about to vanish. Le Colonel had been awake in Beirut, but he had fallen asleep in Paris. He slept still. He slept and chose sleep rather than the terrible sadness of waking.Softly, George was telling a joke about Abu El Abed taking a class on the environment.2626("But teacher, aren't you underestimating the absorbency of sea sponges?") George was a master of comic timing. The other three men leaned forward as one to hear the punchline. The joke was absolutely filthy. Le Colonel could barely breathe, he was laughing so hard. His nose ran and tears dripped from his eyes.Afterwards, Tony said, “I think I’ll leave Montreal. When this cake is finished, I’m going to go home and pack my bags.” He had not been back to Beirut since 1987. He ate a pink rose made of sugar and found that it was still frozen in the middle.George took a fourth helping. In their mother tongue, blindness is used as an expletive. Al’ama. But they didn’t know. His friends couldn’t see all these colours and all this sun. All they could see was this cake. He said, “Good for you, Tony. Send us a letter now and then.”Victor was riding his bicycle down Avenue du Parc, and the world was quiet. He was trying not to think about the wedding. Instead he watched as a pale, liquid light slid over the towers of downtown Montreal. His bicycle was whistling down the hill. He passed the city’s centrepiece, Mont-Royal, a hillock, really, compared with the mountains of Lebanon. There was an immense statue, a woman balanced on the ball of one foot, arms uplifted, asking for justice.2727("Eternal Aphrodite," Sappho wrote, "leave me not in sorrow and bitter anguish of soul to suffer, but come to me ...") Victor did not know what to ask for. He was worried about Mi-yung, who was worried about her grandmother in Seoul. They would go to Korea, they would take care of things. That’s what he most wished for, to be able to take care of things for her. To set their world, just their small part of this city, in order.2828On August 1st, P. took the house keys into his own hands. He looked at us smugly as if he had won. But nothing stays in place. Today, Beirut’s afternoon light bends against the brise-soleils and falls against the page. The first written reference to this city dates back 3500 years. The Chinese say that we eat bitterness and, in so doing, we endure. My love and I celebrated by savouring cake. One day, he would engineer a transparent building. Imagine that. He flew down the hill, savouring the breeze against his skin, and imagined himself as an object falling down into the world.George dropped his fork.“What is it?” Abu Victor said.George’s voice was almost lost behind the laughing clamour of the young students on the opposite balcony. “Nothing,” he said. “I was thinking about the staircase of our old building in Beirut. I thought I saw something that wasn’t there.” George fell silent. But he saw it still, a weight and a motion, falling past them. A bird on an electric pole was chirping in an even ticking, like a clock measuring time, and then it stopped.Abu Victor heard the front door opening. It could be Nadia coming home. She would come out onto the patio. She would see Tony. She would see him. Why did you do this, Joseph? Don’t you understand? I saved it. I saved it.He wanted to ask her, What can any human being put into such a cake? If this is all that God, the universe, nature, Buddha, I-don’t-know-who, gives us, what is there for us to add? Let me take it into my own hands or else how can I continue? Tell me, Nadia, please, how I can remove your sorrow. Your sorrow, our sorrow, is killing us.Tell me, my love, my life. I beg you. Where is justice? Tell me.Incredulous, Abu Victor saw George, unaided, taking a fifth slice of cake.
Keep Norwegian Weird

How do you preserve a language while still letting it grow? 

My grandfather, who lives in Meldal, Norway, often talks about our family in Minnesota. The descendants of the original emigrant relative, Sivert Pederson Ree, have been back to visit us in Europe several times. I remember one of these visits, listening to a distant relative speaking her broken, heavily accented Norwegian, the language vastly transformed by distance and time. Her husband, bored and a little lost as the only one speaking nothing but English, was visibly relieved to meet me—I was the only one present whose English was fluent, meaning I could talk to him without getting tired.Telling this story always elicits the same reaction: “But you Scandinavians speak such good English!” This is true—a lot of us do, especially young people. But my grandparents speak none. My parents speak a very serviceable English, but there are lots of holes. With that comes uncertainty, which leads to hesitation and lots of heavy lifting for the brain. This means that after sixty minutes of speaking English they’re exhausted, and desperate to go back to the language closest to the heart. After an hour on the phone with them from my adopted home of London, England, I get that feeling too: there’s a sense of relief when I can go back to English. Finally, I can stop scrambling for words.*This is a story about a small language being slowly overwhelmed by English, written in English by someone whose mother tongue is so stiff from lack of use it’s hardly serviceable. The irony isn’t lost on me.The small language in question is Norwegian, spoken by about five million people and also by me, once upon a time. I grew up in Norway and lived there until I was 19, so sure, I can carry a conversation. But my entire adult life has happened in English. It’s been over a decade since Norwegian was the language I used to get around. It doesn’t sit comfortably in my mouth anymore, because another language has taken its place. I struggle to find the words to express an idea more complicated than the weather. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to write this in the language of my home country.As I’ve grown more English, so has Norwegian. New words keep appearing in speech, but they don’t sound like they belong. Most of the new words are English ones. I understand what they mean, of course, but the first time you hear “fancy11stilig” or “touch22berøre” randomly dropped into a sentence in a different language, it sounds so alien. I catch myself wondering, who decides which English words the people of Norway will adopt this year? Where does this come from?Languages are living things, constantly evolving. In that sense, you could argue that resisting change is unnatural. But as a speaker of a small language, it can be alarming to hear the rapidly increasing influx of new words from a dominant force. Back in 2000, linguistics researcher Sylfest Lomheim caused upheaval by claiming the Norwegian language wouldn’t survive the next century. Is this the beginning of the end?*Now, a warning: this is where I reveal myself as a cranky old lady of 35, complaining about the butchering of the Norwegian language. Because this trend, as is often the case, is led by the young. My friend Irene Størseth Knutzen and I bond over this issue, although her credentials for criticism are more sound; we both got top marks in Norwegian and English when we went to upper secondary school together, but Irene’s native language has continued to develop because she stayed put in Norway.So when tell her I’m writing about the influx of English into Norwegian, Irene is immediately keen to discuss. “This is exciting and relevant!” (Except where noted, all quotes in this article are translated from the Norwegian.) “Kids nowadays, they think they’re so cool!” Irene laughs. “But on a serious note, I do think lots of people use English while speaking Norwegian because they think it sounds good.” Irene lists examples from technology— such as streaming33 strømming —new phenomena for which people often reach for the original term. But this isn’t what annoys Irene, who’s a stickler for accuracy in language. It’s the random use of English when there are perfectly decent, established Norwegian words. When a Norwegian says “weekend,” this isn’t because there’s no good local alternative. There most certainly is, and it’s even shorter and snappier: “helg.”As we video chat, Irene’s baby daughter keeps popping into the frame; she’ll probably be effortlessly bilingual when she’s grown. I, on the other hand, take ages to switch between languages. It’s obvious which language dominates my thoughts: I construct sentences with the English word order. I’ll catch myself picking the Norwegian word that sounds like the English one—the languages are related, so this is a common error if you’re not fluent. But I’m not alone in doing this, says Irene, who’s a manager at Norway’s state alcohol retailer. She tells me how a colleague recently talked about growing vegetables—the correct word in Norwegian is “dyrke” but he said “gro,” which actually means heal. I know why I mess this up, but why does he?Even Irene isn’t immune to English language creep. In fact, everyone I spoke to for this article used an English word a couple of times. Irene says she makes an effort when she’s out, but admits it can get pretty bad when she’s just with her husband. They often discuss films or TV shows, most of which are in English: “It’s easier to use the expressions you hear on screen. Half the time we can’t be bothered to translate.” She lists some examples: “surveillance,44 overvåkning ” “in character”55 inne i rollen —they’re currently watching The Americans. “It’s completely unnecessary to use those English terms. Plain laziness! But I suppose it’s because when you’re inside that world, the Norwegian language is simply not present."*I call Janne Bondi Johannessen, a prominent linguistics research professor at the University of Oslo, to ask if she’s concerned about English eclipsing Norwegian in everyday use. “What’s happening has far more to do with trends, than with practicalities,” she tells me. Most of the time there are local words available, even for new things; the Norwegian for "memory stick" is the nifty “minnepinne,” a direct translation. Some people use the new word, while others prefer the English. But this doesn’t explain why people will all of a sudden start using English words like “fresh” and “keen” in the middle of Norwegian sentences, abandoning local terms “frisk” and “ivrig.”“When you pull new words into a language, it’s not necessarily because you need them. It can just feel trendy or cool,” says Bondi Johannessen. From a linguistics perspective, this “coolness” is actually at odds with how languages normally evolve: “Nouns tend to be the open category, where you see new words emerging. But this isn’t the case for spoken Norwegian.” Instead, you tend to see new adjectives popping up, and interjections: “Those types of words are where you express personality.” The fact that Norwegians watch a lot of English-speaking TV and film has a lot to do with it, says Bondi Johannessen. “Interjections, like ‘wow’ and ‘cool’, are very expressive. They tell you a lot about someone.” Then there’s the fact that they’re often stand-alone words, making it a lot easier to reach for English. Nouns are trickier because they have to be put it into grammatical context, which can end up sounding comical.A language lives as a loose agreement between the people who use it. The English language is constantly evolving as well, with new words popping up all the time. But in Norway, new ways to use language tend to follow one simple recipe: reach for English. The Norwegian slang for kissing used to be “kline,” a lighthearted word that literally means “smear.” But now, teenagers say “hook’e”—adding the E at the end so it works grammatically—from the English “hooking up.” Bondi Johannessen thinks young Norwegians are exposed to English to such an extent they’re starting to feel like it’s a second mother tongue.Some Norwegians are strongly against this. “For them, it’s like saying, ‘We won’t be pushed around, let’s do something fun with our own language!’” Bondi Johannessen points to a recent surge in Norwegian-language pop and rock, not to mention the fact that Norwegian rappers have always stuck to local prose.*At this point I start to wonder: who am I to question how Norwegians choose to speak? Leaving a country separates you from language development, because a language is not a static thing. It lives as a loose agreement between the people who use it. North America has nearly as many Norwegians as the old country itself, mostly descendants of immigrants arriving around the latter half of the 19th century. These people speak a Norwegian heritage language, which has branched off and now lives its own life.Being influenced by English, today’s Lingua Franca, is not exclusively a Norwegian problem. And it’s not like no one is trying to stem the tide: this is the remit of the Language Council of Norway, a state-funded organisation. I call Nina Teigland, head of Language in Higher Education and the Private Sector, who tells me she doesn’t think the Norwegian language is under threat by the introduction of the occasional foreign word. “The point at which this becomes a problem is when an entire language area starts to drift towards English. The domains most exposed are finance, technology and cutting edge research.” Teigland points out that only a third of today’s Norwegian language stems from the original Norse: the rest has been influenced, primarily by Low German.One of the tasks of the Language Council is to come up with replacement words. Teigland laughs when I ask how this works: is there a crack team sitting in a small room throwing rhymes and puns around? The process is actually pretty organic: the Language Council keeps an eye out for replacement words emerging among industry professionals or in the media, and promotes the best ones. Take the Norwegian for “tablet computer:” “nettbrett,” literally, “web tray.” People have embraced this new term, rendering it it a hit—but not every suggestion sticks. Teigland says the trick is to get in early and introduce local alternatives before the English has become ingrained. The new word can’t be too long-winded, but it also should be self-explanatory. Then, to ensure it spreads, you have to get influencers to use it.“Our priority is to ensure Norwegian remains a full-coverage language that you can use in every walk of life,” says Teigland. This means making sure there’s Norwegian film, literature, and computer games; essentially local options for people who want them. “If there are no Norwegian alternatives, or if an entire domain starts becoming English-only, we’d no longer have a full-coverage language. That’s when we’d sound the alarm.”*I vividly remember my first English lesson at age 10, before which time I didn’t speak a word of the language. Page one of my textbook: “I am Jill. I am Bill. Hi Jill! Hi Bill! Hello everybody.” Five new words to memorize, with thousands to follow. Back then I didn’t quite understand why I was so hellbent on learning this new thing. All I knew was that my gut feeling was overwhelming: this is important! The world is so much bigger than Norway, a small country of five million people, and English is such a big part of it.For me, my mother tongue will always exist as an artifact from 1999, the year I moved away. New English words will continue creeping into the Norwegian language, and I’ll probably never stop feeling rattled when I hear one for the first time. “I think the trick is to find a balance,” says Nina Teigland. “To be able to have two thoughts, or two languages, in your head at the same time.” I’ve been working on this since I was ten years old. Any day now.
‘The Darn Story Just Didn’t Go Away’: An Interview with Bill Genovese and James Solomon

In a new documentary about the 1964 killing of Kitty Genovese, her brother confronts the myth that 38 people turned a blind eye to her murder. 

The murder of Kitty Genovese is a case you’ve heard of even if you haven’t heard of it. In March 1964, Genovese was stabbed to death on her way home from her bar manager gig in Queens. There were over 600 homicides in New York City that year, but what made Kitty’s resonate for decades were the particular circumstances of her killing: Winston Moseley, who’d killed another woman just two weeks before, stabbed her in front of her apartment building in Kew Gardens. People—her neighbours—heard her screams. Moseley, spooked, ran off then returned minutes later to finish the murder, in a stairwell of Kitty’s building.The New York Times, then not only the “paper of record” but a monolithic cultural force of truth in America, ran the headline that made Kitty’s murder, if not Kitty herself, immortal: “37 Who Saw Murder Didn't Call the Police.” A chilling story of urban indifference and passive cruelty. The case went on to be discussed in countless psychology and sociology classes, books, and loose adaptations, with this one element in common: a woman was murdered and no one did anything to help her.But the Times got it wrong. Kitty was murdered, and Winston Moseley was her killer, but the story of the disinterested witnesses? Not a complete invention, but a simplification that borders on a lie. A.M. Rosenthal, author of that iconic cover story on Kitty’s murder, turned the story into what Kitty’s younger brother Bill calls a “morality play,” a chance to discuss what was wrong with America, with city living. In 2004, the Times itself ran an article on the inadequacies of the reporting in Rosenthal’s original account, which had by then become an embedded part of urban culture. Bill Genovese, Kitty’s closest sibling, who was 16 when she was murdered, partnered with director James Solomon to investigate what really happened the night Kitty died. In the process, they made a film that explores Kitty’s life, and the haunted relationship Bill has to his vanished sister.Naben Ruthnum: Witness, this documentary, took eleven years to research, shoot, and assemble. Why this story? Why did it take this long, and why, James, were you attracted to telling this story and reaching out to Kitty’s brother to aid you in the telling? James Solomon: I’m a screenwriter by profession. I’m drawn to iconic stories we think we know.In the late 1990s I got interested in doing a scripted film on the story that we all know of Kitty Genovese: 38 watched, no one helped. I sold a pitch to HBO and was doing it in combination with two others: Joe Berlinger, wonderful filmmaker, and Alfred Uhry, wonderful playwright.That’s when I met Bill for the first time. When you meet Bill, it takes three minutes to realize how remarkable he is: what he has overcome in his life, personally and physically, and what a full life he’s had.The other thing that had a deep impact on me when I first met him, was that Bill said to me: “I’ve needed to not only prove that I would have been someone who opened the window that night, but would have gone down into the street.” That has shaped many of the decisions that Bill has made during the course of his life.There were 80 people interviewed for this film. I wanted to cast as wide a net as possible and that meant anyone who knew his sister in life or through her death was someone Bill wanted to speak with. Bill approaches people as an ethologist. He doesn’t come with an a priori agenda, he just tries to find the truth wherever it will lead. Keep in mind Bill was a Field Intelligence Captain in Vietnam. He is always the scout. He is always ahead of his platoon, trying to find the truth. What’s remarkable about Bill is that he’s always open to it.Many of us for decades have chewed on this story. Screenwriters, songwriters, graphic novelists, sociologists, academics, have written, opined, offered their interpretations about this story. But those most deeply and profoundly impacted by what took place the night of March 13th, 1964, for the most part, have not been heard from. Most prominently, Kitty’s own family. I think what you find—I think the only reason the people who were in the film were willing to open up (not all but many), to share their private stories, was because of Bill. In my estimation, many felt, and many said this to us, they felt they owed it to Kitty, and Bill is Kitty’s surrogate.Bill really draws stories out of people: the potential witnesses of Kitty’s murder, the journalists who covered the story—he has a talent for getting people to talk. JS: I think that’s in part driven by the fact that he’s been in the chair, with this disability, since he was 19, and he’s used to people feeling uncomfortable with his disability. [Bill Genovese is a double amputee, due to injuries sustained in the Vietnam War.] He puts them at ease, and after a short while, you just forget and move on. That’s part of it, but also—and I think this is really important—I think that Bill has an innate and very singular understanding of physical and emotional trauma. By virtue of his life experiences, people who have had traumatic experiences and who are talking about it see in Bill that he gets it, and they’re willing to open up to him. That’s why so many people who had either experienced loss or are feeling guilt were willing to share it to Bill because they understood that he would get it. I think that goes to your question about why so long—people held on to these stories for decades. Families held on.Except for the one striking reenactment that ends the film, where Bill positions himself to witness a simulation of Kitty’s last moments, you use animation to give visual representation to the stories and information that Bill gathers. JS: Well, there was a lot of text: a lot of information that Bill was gathering. The filmmaker’s challenge was how I could make what Bill was gathering internally accessible? The idea behind the wonderful animations done by the Moth Collective was—I was looking for a way of externalizing Bill’s developing understanding of what took place. I didn’t want a full-form animation: to me, truth is sketched. It’s pieces, it’s lines, it’s not full formed ideas.The motif that I wanted to use was the whiteboard that Bill uses to gather information. So that’s why the animations feel very consonant with the whiteboard that he uses.And the layering of information is really the way that truth, that information is gathered: that was the design behind the animation that was so beautifully executed by the Moth Collective. I was trying to externalize what was happening within Bill: pieces of information, putting together a puzzle. Nothing literal: gathered information.The recreation [the final minutes of the film] was totally different. That was something that Bill wanted to do: to experience something that had been in his mind for decades. He did it in a very particular way. It was not meant as a stunt, or to test the neighbourhood: The City of New York had been contacted, it was permitted. We’d leafleted in the neighbourhood, and keep in mind we’d been filming there for years. That neighbourhood knew us. We shot in the early evening: April 1st, the same time of year that Kitty was murdered. It gets dark very early.It was Bill’s attempt to figure out—as a scientist, sort of empirically—to figure out what it looked like, or what it sounded like. I think he was surprised to find out that what took over for him was the emotional aspect of the experience.Bill, this film, so much of the substance of it, comes from your ability to get people to talk, to open up. How did you come by this skill?Bill Genovese: I would say that it probably comes from the fact that in my career, working as a financial analyst for Uniroyal and then as an administrator for a small psychiatric residence that we built into a bigger facility, there were a number of times that I’d have to address an audience. I just have an empathetic way of being, and—because of my disability, I think people open up to me, because they figure they’re not going to shock me with anything they’re going to say. Some people would think the opposite. But I’ve always had a way of making people feel comfortable with my situation, because I can see in peoples’s eyes: early on, when I first came out of the service, the discomfort.I’ll give you an example. I get onto an elevator. There’d be a mother with a six or seven year old kid, and you can see the mother inching the kid into the corner so he’s not gonna ask some embarrassing question like, “Where are your legs?” I could see that happening, so I’d tell the mom, “You know, the smartest kids ask the most questions.” Then I’d look at the kid and say “Hi there, my name’s Bill,” and they’d ask their questions and everything would be fine. So I think a combination of the jobs that I did and this phenomenon that I lived through, and basically being empathetic about our fellow beings.I got the impression that Kitty’s death has impacted many of your choices: particularly your decision to go to Vietnam. BG: Kitty was a tremendous influence in my life, but really it was our conversations that set me up [for that decision]. I was born in 1948, I grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s: it was the Cold War, we were all Cold Warriors. I remember distinctly the many times having to practice going under the desk after the flash of a nuclear bomb. Then Kennedy gets inaugurated and says “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” That was there, and Kitty and I would talk current events a lot, talk history, and it seemed to fit in. The “monolithic Communist threat.” When she was murdered, and the Times said it was fact [the collective indifference]: still, I can’t say that [her murder] was the only motivation.I think anybody who simplifies things like that… at least that wasn’t my experience. The apathy that I experienced directly was in high school: some of the people I was acquainted with (I grew up in a fairly wealthy town, New Canaan Connecticut—we were middle class people who thought we were poor, living in that town): they would say things like “I was going to travel to Europe this summer, but I can’t, because if I don’t go to college I’ll get drafted.” To me that smacked of apathy. And then I was thinking that I was going to be like one of the people in the windows who didn’t do anything.It was a convergence of all those things.Close to the story that you uncover in this documentary, the real circumstances of the reaction to Kitty’s death, the holes and omissions in the NYT story that made your sister’s death famous, is the idea that this paper and its core journalists failed your sister, that they failed ethically. That’s how I saw it.BG: First of all, I wasn’t out to do a hatchet job on Rosenthal or anyone else. I wanted people to open up and tell me what they thought, what they remembered they thought. Being strident with someone doesn’t help them let down their guard and say what they’re actually thinking.The institutional New York Times? I don’t think failed. I think A.M. Rosenthal failed, because he put a morality play out there. I wouldn’t counter what he was thinking: that we really need to get the message out to people to help the police. Call in. Do this, do that. But as a journalist, he should have delved futher. Like, with Sophia Farrar [one of Kitty’s neighbours], where she did come down, she did run out and put herself in danger, this small little woman who was a friend of Kitty’s. There were other papers that two days after did mention Sophia. But once the New York Times article came out on the front page two weeks later? Sophia Farrar disappeared. Everybody sort of genuflected to the Times and let it go at that.That year there were 630 some-odd murders in New York. Even Annie-May Johnson, who Winston Mosley murdered two weeks before my sister, no one has heard of her, because there was no spectacular, riveting story about 38 eye-witnesses.Stepping into being an on-camera subject and driving force in a documentary after a full career in a different field, and with such a personal subject, must have caused you some anxieties. I got the sense from the film that Kitty wasn’t discussed in your family, and by the witnesses, for long periods of time after her death.BG: Right after the murder, my mother within a year, at age 53, had a major stroke. So for thirty-odd years our chore as a family was to protect my mother from everything that would be sent to her by friends: little newspaper clippings. The darn story just didn’t go away. So that was part of it.After Mosely went to federal court to get his district court verdict overturned, which failed, my mom had passed away by then. So I was ready to come out and do my own research. We got in touch with the Queens DA, I asked for every bit of information about the case that I was allowed to get. I started doing research on my own.When Jim and I got together, he was working on a project for HBO that didn’t pan out. He got in touch with me at that point because he had seen me in some interviews in Federal Court. We knew about each other by then. Then the 2004 article in the NYT, written by a freelance writer name Jim Rasenberger, came out, and it was like a lighting bolt for both of us.And yes, when I first started doing the documentary it was very anxiety-provoking. But there was something strange that happened soon after—which was that I had a peacefulness that came over me. And this is what I felt, I don’t know if it’s some sort of dated psychological construct that was going on in my head. What I felt was “This is what I should be doing, and I must do it.”Cameras never bothered me. I did my best to ignore them, and Jim did his best to get the hell out of the way. We filmed for 250, 300 hours, and that had to be edited to 90 minutes.Did you discuss the living Kitty much with your own family—your kids, your wife—before you started making Witness?BG: In the beginning, when my kids were younger, my mom was still around, so we sort of avoided the whole concept of Kitty. It would just upset my mother so much that she would go into a tailspin. My mother was a very meek—an intelligent woman, but not sophisticated. She had been raised to be an Italian housewife. She only got as far as the 8th grade, then went to work.All three of my children, in college, either in a sociology or psychology course, had courses about Kitty. When my mom passed away, we explained to them that I had a sister who was murdered, and that was about all they knew. And whenever they would ask questions, we would answer the questions. I was, at about the time they were starting to go off to college, doing my own research. Then I started talking more and more about it. Early on, probably about 2004 or 5, my daughter came along to a couple shoots in Kew Gardens. The thing about that neighbourhood: it is exactly the same as it was 52 years ago.And your family, including your siblings, reacted well to the finished film?BG: No matter how guarded they were about what I was doing, they were thrilled when they saw the final product, because it brought Kitty to life.
Our Adored Cadavers

From the heartsick graverobbers of early Romantic literature to the latest gritty cable crime drama, the dead woman is never simply mourned and forgotten, but fully objectified and consumed.

On an exterior wall of St. Sebastián’s church in Madrid, there’s a little tile sign dedicated to a poet. “In this church,” it reads, “Lope de Vega Carpio was buried in the year 1635.” The sign is decorated with a sketch of the church to which it’s affixed, showing the building in its pre-1930s state, before bombs leveled it during the Spanish Civil War. The shape of the building is still recognizable, but it’s drawn from the back and features a cemetery where an outdoor flower shop stands today. There is something funereal that clings to that flower shop. It’s in the black iron fence and the floral arrangements. It’s in the new black sign arching over the entrance that says, “Never stop dreaming.” A harmless cliché, but once you know the history of the place, it reads like a memo to the bodies once buried below. Never stop dreaming. Please, don’t let anyone disturb you from your eternal sleep.María Ignacia Ibáñez was a body who should’ve stayed at rest. She was buried here, at St. Sebastián’s, in 1771, after dying of typhoid at the age of twenty-five. She was a famous actress in Madrid, but despite her success, she didn’t get a little sign like Lope de Vega; she isn’t even included in the church’s list of notable deaths next to other artists, architects, and writers. But this is unsurprising: the church would probably like to forget about her, her gravesite, and most of all, her boyfriend, José Cadalso. This is thanks to Cadalso’s prose poem, Noches Lúgubres (Lugubrious Nights), which he wrote after her death. It’s the story of a man just like himself who breaks into a cemetery just like St. Sebastián’s and attempts to dig up the corpse of a woman just like Mariá Ignacia.Lugubrious Nights was a grisly piece of writing, but it was also an influential one; if Cadalso began work on it the same year as María Ignacia’s death, as some scholars speculate, then it was easily the first piece of Romantic literature in continental Europe, preceding even Goethe’s sturm und drang classic The Sorrows of Young Werther. Cadalso’s gloomy body snatcher could also be seen as the first Byronic hero, years before Lord Byron was a gleam in his father, Mad Jack’s, eye. But despite the fact that Lugubrious Nights was ahead of its time, it wasn’t quite as innovative as it seemed. A subtitle from some early editions hints at this: Imitating the Style of those that Dr. Young Wrote in English.And in this case, style didn’t simply refer to form. Dr. Young’s poem featured a familiar plot line: a man, very much like the author, breaking into a cemetery.Grief Changes a ManThe Reverend Dr. Edward Young was an English poet, but not only was he not a Romantic, he also wasn’t the type of fiend who would make a hobby out of pilfering bodies from cemeteries. It’s true that, as a student, he blacked out his windows and worked by candlelight radiating from a human skull, but he saw this proclivity as artistic Adderall, the work-habit of a bona fide poet that could help him catch up after slacking off at school. As an adult he outgrew his goth phase, settling in as a serious Protestant and even becoming a royal chaplain, his poetry evolving in the Neoclassical style. Etchings of him show a Hostess Donette of a man—a white powdered wig on a doughy face, sitting on a doily cravat. His body of work mostly featured poems with long, fawning dedications to patrons who always seemed to go broke just after hiring him. (An embarrassing habit—as Jonathan Swift quipped, “Young must torture his invention/To flatter knaves, or lose his pension.”)Which is how Young likely would’ve been remembered, and quickly forgotten, had he not confessed:With pious sacrilege, a grave I stole,With impious piety, that grave I wrong’dShort in my duty, coward in my grief,More like her murderer than friend, I creptHe wrote those lines in The Complaint: or, Night-Thoughts on Life, Death, and Immortality (commonly called Night Thoughts), which he published in nine parts called “nights” from 1742 to 1745. This passage comes from the poem’s famous third night, wherein Young writes himself in as a man who breaks into a cemetery with the corpse of a young woman named Narcissa in tow. Alone and distraught, he buries the mysterious woman secretly in another man’s grave.Night Thoughts is a classic example of Graveyard Poetry, a movement mostly remembered as a brief stop along the way to Romanticism when otherwise dull Neoclassicists took to the cemeteries. (It was a genre tailor-made for Edward Young. One hopes he kept his skull in storage for just such an occasion.) But while the gloomy backdrop was new, the poetry itself was rather conservative. Night Thoughts is a 10,000-line meditation on death, written in blank verse, draped in classical allusion and decorated with righteous Christian thoughts about resurrection. There’s little in the way of narrative, so the dozen-or-so lines in which Young describes sneaking into the cemetery are surprisingly cinematic—so much so that they inspired a popular painting by Pierre-Auguste Vafflard. In the painting, Young looks like a different man entirely; he’s gaunt but strong, pallid in the moonlight with fashionably tousled hair, not a powdered wig in sight. His arms clasp around a woman so stiff and pale she seems carved out of marble. In this painting, it’s easy to see why, from Night Thoughts on, Young was no longer considered second-rate, no longer a punch line: A dead woman lent him the gravitas he craved; she revamped his image and secured his place in literary history. No wonder, then, that José Cadalso wanted to imitate Young’s style nearly fifty years later.For all Cadalso’s claims of imitation, there’s a glaring difference between his Lugubrious Nights and Young’s Night Thoughts, even if you overlook the difference between Young’s blank-verse meditation and Cadalso’s plot-driven prose: Cadalso’s fictional proxy, Tediato, doesn’t come to the cemetery to bury his unnamed lover—he comes ready to dig her up. And while Young keeps his “sacrilege pious,” Tediato’s post-exhumation plans start with taking the corpse to bed. At the end of Cadalso’s first night (borrowing Young’s structural device), Tediato takes a moment to address his lover’s body, which remains buried despite his efforts:“Oh you, image now of what I shall be shortly; soon I shall return to your tomb, I will take you home with me, you will rest on a bed next to mine; my body will die next to yours, adored cadaver. Expiring I will set my domicile on fire, and you and I will turn into ashes in the midst of those of the house.”People immediately found it suspicious that Cadalso, a man grieving the sudden death of his girlfriend, would write a poem that included such a bizarrely specific plan: dig up his lover, get the corpse into bed, commit suicide, then somehow self-cremate by setting the house on fire. He had to be thinking of María Ignacia when he wrote that passage. So when Cadalso referred to his poem’s “true part” in a letter to a friend, it seemed like he confessed to what many assumed to be true: That, fueled by grief, or more likely a heroic amount of booze, Cadalso broke into the cemetery at St. Sebastián’s and tried to exhume María Ignacia’s corpse.[[{"fid":"6695566","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"706","width":"707","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Given these scandalous rumors surrounding Lugubrious Nights, it’s doubtful the Reverend Dr. Young would have been flattered to find his name on the cover of Cadalso’s poem. Still, he might have been sympathetic to the kind of grief Cadalso described.In 1740, Young’s son-in-law, wife, and closest friend all died within a year. These misfortunes came on top of the death of his stepdaughter Elizabeth four years earlier; the eighteen-year-old newlywed died of consumption in Lyon on her way to Nice. Like Young, Elizabeth was Protestant, so the nearby Catholic cemeteries refused to bury her in their consecrated ground. Young was outraged:“Denied the charity of dust to spreadO’er dust! a charity their dogs enjoy.”This was his character’s justification for gatecrashing the cemetery in Night Thoughts, the implication being that the Catholic cemetery had rejected Narcissa’s Protestant body. To anyone who knew Young, there was no doubt the mysterious Narcissa was a pseudonym for Elizabeth.But in Young’s retelling of Elizabeth’s burial, he changed another identifying detail: the city of Lyon became Montpelier. Here, his poetic license began to blur with the truth: Gossip spread about a Protestant poet forced to sneak his daughter’s body into a Catholic cemetery in France; sympathetic Protestants even made pilgrimages to Montpelier, attempting to locate and collect dirt from poor Narcissa’s grave.This misreading of Night Thoughts highlights one last similarity between Edward Young and José Cadalso, something beyond poetry, grief, dead women, and rumors of busted cemetery locks—that is, despite all the lingering aspersions, neither story is true. Or rather, Elizabeth and María Iganacia’s deaths are real, but neither poet ever snuck into a cemetery.Truth Told SlantElizabeth was, in fact, buried in Lyon, in the general hospital’s Protestant cemetery. Her tomb was there all along, even as misguided Englishmen searched Montpelier for her unmarked grave. While Young’s fans focused on the wrong city, the hospital converted the cemetery into a medicinal garden. Leaves grew over Elizabeth’s headstone, weather softened the Latin engraving, and the real Narcissa was forgotten. This matter wasn’t corrected until her grave was rediscovered by bibliophile and dilettante-historian Alfred de Terrebasse in 1832, much to the relief of the long-maligned French Catholics.Elizabeth’s burial was modest, but it certainly wasn’t surreptitious, since it was in a graveyard set aside for Protestants. Edward Young, however, had a real, if less macho, reason for remembering Elizabeth’s burial as particularly harrowing: He was charged an unconscionable 729 livres for her funeral and grave, an amount that would still be out of line one hundred years later. (For comparison’s sake, his first play, Busiris, was considered a success, and earned 84 livres.) Though he bristled at the cost, this petty complaint disappeared in Night Thoughts: In the poetic version of Elizabeth’s burial, rather than paint himself as an ineffectual, grieving stepfather stuck with the bill, he makes himself an 18th-century Walter White, a man who took matters into his own hands and did wrong only in order to do right.As for María Ignacia Ibáñez, there are still those who believe the church of St. Sebastián got rid of its cemetery as a response to Cadalso’s impromptu exhumation. You can hear that rumor repeated as fact if you listen to tour groups pass the church today. But the truth is that most parish cemeteries halted burials in the 19th century due to Napoleon’s public health codes. Corpses—not only in Madrid but in cities across Europe—were banished to sprawling modern cemeteries on the outskirts of town. Later, as cities grew, many of the small, decommissioned churchyard cemeteries relocated their remaining bodies so the land could be repurposed. Somewhere in this shuffling of graves, María Ignacia vanished.One of the last published mentions of St. Sebastián’s cemetery comes from Curzio Malaparte’s account of a night in 1934. He wrote that a group of drunk men walked past the soon-to-be-demolished cemetery to gawk at the corpses lying aboveground in open coffins, waiting to be moved to a mass grave in one of the newer suburban cemeteries. According to Malaparte, an author in this group dedicated a poem to the corpse of a young woman he saw that night. It wasn’t María Ignacia, but in theory, she should have been there, dug up for good this time, though it seems too much to ask to find her there, the muse for yet another poet. It was as if Cadalso had already consumed her, bones and all, leaving nothing for this last ghoulish party to pick through.Elizabeth and María Ignacia’s epilogues are worth documenting if for no other reason than literary critics in the past have been too credulous with both writers—too eager to mistake the emotional truth of poetry for the facts of history. But the fictional autobiographies in Night Thoughts and Lugubrious Nights are still worthy of consideration. Even if they can’t give us the facts and just the facts, they can tell us how Young and Cadalso’s minds worked, what they valued and how they imagined themselves to be.Young’s logic for burying Elizabeth is immediately understandable. The stand-in he wrote for himself is devout, serious, and smart enough to conceal his emotions behind opaque references to the ancient Greeks. His goal, to bury the dead, even has a classical echo. He is Antigone, bravely risking his own honor to properly bury his stepdaughter.And then there’s Cadalso with his Romantic ideas about digging up his lover and dragging her body away so he can die by her side. What would possess a man of the Enlightenment to write himself as so utterly unhinged? More to the point, what would make so many other writers follow suit? The fate of María Ignacia’s corpse became a hallmark of Romantic literature: the dead woman is never simply a person to be mourned and forgotten (like Elizabeth). Rather, she is fully objectified and consumed. Her body becomes a source of constant craving, an impossible possession, a grieving man’s objet petit a. Look around and you’ll see her in Annabel Lee, the first Mrs. de Winter, and Laura Palmer. There was something bigger at work in the Romantic movement as a whole as it spread through continental Europe to England and back again—something that would have influenced Cadalso in Spain, but not Young in England.[[{"fid":"6695571","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"706","width":"707","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]A hypothesis: that influence is Rome. It’s in the name of the movement, as it is in the phrase Romance language. But perhaps the most accurate way to describe it is Romish, a pejorative Protestant term for all things Catholic. Later Romantics became fascinated with Rome and its ghastlier Catholic rituals. Chateaubriand and Stendhal wrote of barefoot confraternity members carrying corpses through the streets by candlelight. A letter from Lord Byron described masked Catholic priests with black crucifixes who presided over a public execution (which he watched through his opera glasses). Nathanial Hawthorne shuddered at the mummified Capuchin friars on Via Veneto, and Goethe marveled at a mass for the dead on All Soul’s Day. But before these writers traveled abroad to experience this culture shock, Cadalso tapped into it in his native Catholic Madrid. There, he could hardly avoid the influence of Rome—especially when those Romish rituals involved digging someone up.Tour Bus to the River StyxCadalso’s Catholic impulses are more easily understood if you leave the cemetery at St. Sebastián’s and take a bus just outside Madrid’s city limits to El Escorial, the royal monastery devoted to death. There, you’ll find two rooms that clarify his motive: the putridero and the relicario.There are thousands of people in the relicario, but it’s difficult to see them that way. They aren’t really people anymore—they’re objects: 144 heads, 306 arms and legs. All told, more than 7,000 holy relics, the parts and pieces of Catholic saints collected by King Philip II, are stored here.Philip II pursued saints’ relics with the same zeal as the original relic collector—the Empress Helena. She scrounged the Holy Land in the 4th century in search of dubious pieces of the passion, sending crosses, thorns, and nails back home to her imperial palace in Rome. But Philip II wasn’t one for archaeological digs. Instead, he frantically asked every parish in Spain if their relics were displayed prominently enough, if the displays were opulent enough, and if enough people were coming to see them—if not, he offered them a new home in his jealously guarded collection at El Escorial. He kissed the relics, prayed with them, and laid them all over his ailing body—a saint’s arm on his arm, a kneecap on his kneecap. It was said that on his deathbed, the only thing that would snap him back to consciousness was to casually mention someone else touching his beloved relics.In Lugubrious Nights, Tediato refers to his lover’s corpse as a “sad relic.” Like the precious bones in the relicario, she’s no longer a person to him, but a missing piece of his collection, a sacred object to be rescued from the isolation of the grave. In this context, there is no higher honor than to be hoarded and venerated; to be objectified, to lose your humanity, is to become something more than human, not less. In Cadalso’s world, it’s an honor befitting a saint—or royalty.The secular version of El Escorial’s relicario is the putridero. It’s a secret room behind the royal crypt. Only monks and royal corpses are allowed inside. When a king or queen who has birthed a king dies, this is the room where the first of two burials takes place.Traditionally, many Catholics in Italy are buried twice: once when they cease to live and again when their bodies cease decaying. This tradition was exported to Spain (via the Spanish-ruled Kingdom of Naples) in the form of El Escorial’s putridero, but here, as is often the case with imports, it has a certain cachet that’s absent in its home country. In Italy, the bodies of monks or nuns are often left to rot on strainer-seats or covered with a few inches of dirt in public crypts, but in Spain the royal bodies are hidden away in wooden caskets. During this period, the first death, the body is dead but lacks the stillness death brings. It purges fluid. It sheds flesh. It’s unpleasant. At the same time, the body’s soul is thought to be in purgatory, an equally unpleasant and liminal place. Purgatory is where souls are purified in a metaphysical lake of fire before being admitted into heaven.The Church isn’t clear about whether all heaven-bound souls go to purgatory, or if they do, for how long. No one can seem to translate time spent in the afterlife into the units of time used in our world. This is why it falls to the organic timeline of decay, a period of experienced instead of measured time—kairos instead of chronos, as the ancient Greeks would say. As long as the body is purging flesh, the soul is thought to be purging sin. When only a clean, white skeleton is left, the soul is considered at peace in heaven. That’s when the monks at the royal monastery move the remains into one of the identical marble caskets in the pantheon: a secular kind of reliquary.Disturbing a grave in this context is a privilege, so somewhere in Cadalso’s Catholic subconscious, he may have imagined digging up María Ignacia as a way to honor her like a queen or saint. Drawing on the ritual of double-burial even explains his character Tediato’s needlessly difficult plan to commit suicide and somehow burn down his house afterwards. To mirror the Catholic ritual, the deaths must happen in that order. The body dies first; finality and peace only come with the second death, after the purgatorial fire.These ideas were repellant to Protestant reformers, of course, and contrary to the burial customs Edward Young practiced. Young never considered the physical realities of Narcissa’s corpse, even as he described her burial; he had no use for corporeal Catholic rituals. Instead, he consoled himself with thoughts of the Day of Judgment yet to come. To linger on the thought of her body would be excessively morbid and distasteful to him.A Cold and Drowsy HumorCadalso’s references to double-burial and relic veneration set his Romish Romantic poetry apart from Young’s Protestant Graveyard poetry. But Cadalso wasn’t the first Spanish writer to exploit Catholicism’s porous boundary between the living and dead, especially when the corpse in question belonged to a beautiful young woman.As the sign on St. Sebastián’s advertises, there was a much more famous tomb in the cemetery where María Ignacia was laid to rest: the playwright and poet Lope de Vega was buried there in 1635. (Though his tomb is now inside the church—avoiding a move to a mass grave is one perk of being famous.) He was interested in dead women, too, though no one ever accused him of consorting with one.In de Vega’s play La Difunta Pleiteada (The Deceased was Petitioned), a Sicilian girl’s father arranges her marriage to a man other than her lover, which causes the girl to succumb to an antiquated lady-in-love-psychosis and die. But before her tomb is sealed up, her lover sneaks into the church where she’s laid out and steals a cold embrace. Instantly she’s resurrected, though this leads to a protracted lawsuit between the two men who want to marry her.[[{"fid":"6695576","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":""},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":"706","width":"707","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]Though both The Deceased was Petitioned and Lugubrious Nights deal in dead women, the former is rather quaint compared to the latter. In de Vega’s version, the girl’s resurrection seems to have a halo sketched around it, a hopeful shine that only a true believer would include. De Vega was, in fact, a devout Catholic. He believed in the supernatural powers of the Church and often re-told miraculous stories that were passed down to him through ballads and folklore. For this reason, de Vega is often compared to his contemporary, Shakespeare, since both writers used plots from existing sources. But de Vega’s writings are also indebted to hagiography. Like the writers who recorded the lives of the saints, he was more interested in truthfully documenting the wonder of the world than the reality of it. These priorities were understood during his time, but today they strike most readers as false. Modern audiences have yet to untangle themselves from the insistence on psychological realism and the concept of authenticity the Romantics demanded—which is exactly what Cadalso offered in addition to his fascination with Catholic rituals.There is a pervasive, if morbid honesty in Lugubrious Nights, particularly in Cadalso’s willingness to record his own dark thoughts and his affinity for observing nature—even to the point of imagining maggots in the body of his lover. In the poem, Tediato exclaims:“Into these worms, oh! Into these your flesh has been turned! From your once beautiful eyes these sickening creatures have been engendered! Your hair, which in the height of my passion I called a thousand times not only more blond but more precious than gold, has produced this rot. Your white hands, your loving lips have turned into matter and decay!”But perhaps Cadalso’s honesty is most apparent, and most sympathetic, in the way he paints Tediato as someone drawn to the traditions of the Church long after his faith in God has been irrevocably shaken by rationalism.This rationalism was noted by none other than the Spanish Inquisition in Córdoba, who banned Lugubrious Nights in 1819. They objected to Tediato’s planned suicide and the fact that he never fears hell; Tediato’s omission of the Catholic afterlife becomes particularly obvious when he rejects the idea of a secular afterlife altogether. When his gravedigger-accomplice retreats, fearing ghosts in the cemetery, Tediato suddenly sounds like a modern skeptic:“What’s frightening you is your very own shadow together with mine. They are produced by the position of our bodies with respect to that lamp.”In other words, death is not just real to him, but final. Tediato (and therefore Cadalso) stared into the void without a supernatural glimmer of hope.As Mario Praz wrote in his book The Romantic Agony, a Romantic is interested in the natural monstrosities and aberrations of our world. And like a true Romantic, Cadalso was only interested in the observable—the natural and psychological aspects of death instead of the supernatural. A good Catholic in his day would fear an eternity in hell for that, but perhaps Cadalso was punished in another way. Unlike more devout writers like Lope de Vega or even Edward Young, Cadalso’s agnostic grief continues to ring true in the modern world—so much that people have mistaken it for literal truth for over two centuries now.A Gentleman’s StiffThe subtle nihilism of Lugubrious Nights feels modern, but there’s one detail that would certainly change if the story were told today: Cadalso is never clear if Tediato succeeds in digging up his lover’s body. On the first night he runs out of time, on the second he’s waylaid by the police. The third ends enigmatically when he meets his gravedigger-accomplice one last time and says:“You will contribute more to my happiness with that pick, that mattock… vile instruments in the minds of others… venerable in mine… Let’s go friend, let’s go.”That’s the end, ellipses and all. There’s no climax. No one witnesses the consummation of Tediato’s nightmarish plan nor his anguished failure.The fact is, Cadalso can’t give us what we’re looking for. His outlook was bleak enough to imply that Tediato’s happiness could only be found with the gravedigger’s tools—a pick and a mattock—but he can’t quite bring himself to elaborate. Like later Romantics, he concerns himself with longing but not satisfaction. Satisfaction in this case would require the reader to want to see the last grim scene between Tediato and his lover’s corpse. And that desire could be called sadistic. Those whose tastes lean in that direction only need to look as far as the most obvious source—the Marquis de Sade, who couldn’t resist rewriting de Vega and Young and Cadalso’s tale one more time in Juliette. But unlike Romantic Cadalso, he could do so with the promise of satisfaction, no matter how perverse. And so the dead woman shifts again: from pious saint to romantic obsession to object of decadence.The Marquis borrowed his setting from Lope de Vega: an Italian church where a shrouded young woman awaits burial. From Edward Young he borrowed the character of the bereaved father. Then, in his own inimitable style, he combined that character with José Cadalso’s distraught lover. This man, Cordelli, bribes the gravedigger for some time alone in the church before his daughter’s vault is sealed.Once he’s alone, Cordelli incestuously embraces the girl, though she doesn’t revive like she would in one of Lope de Vega’s plays. (Sadism and decadence, being vagaries of Romanticism, require a certain degree of naturalism.) The permanence of the girl’s death is for the best anyhow: The scene devolves into a long and bloody orgy, the details of which can be found around page 1,046. There is no passage to reasonably quote.The novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans once said that sadism is the bastard of Catholicism—a direct descendent, but an embarrassing byproduct of its ecstasies. Cadalso may have preferred to end his poem before creating such an abomination, but Catholicism kept influencing writers long after him, eventually ushering in the likes of de Sade and the Decadents who were happy to pick up where he left off. Like Cadalso, they were inspired by the martyrs and their objectified bodies in crystal caskets—they just also had a predilection for the tortures that put them there in the first place.There’s no turning back in this evolving story of the beautiful dead girl. The literary tradition that bubbles up from beneath that funereal flower shop at St. Sebastián’s continues today. Like Tediato, modern audiences still find happiness in picks and mattocks, and have access to de Sade’s racks and knives as well. We put them into constant use in the latest gritty cable crime-drama, providing the latest dead girl with her arched back, rolled eyes, clenched fists, and unwilling willingness. It’s a work-around. It provides a one-sided kind of sex—a necessity, because Catholicism’s persistent influence ensures we still love virgin-martyrs the very best. Like de Vega, Cadalso, Young, and de Sade, we’re still hauling out their bodies, filling up our reliquaries, and making new adored cadavers.
South Pole

“ ‘It’s a 10-hour flight, and you only have 12 or 13 hours of fuel on board,’ Alberta bush pilot Sean Loutitt said. ‘You’re monitoring the weather the whole time, but eventually you get to a point of no return. Then you’re committed to the pole, no matter what.’”…

"'It's a 10-hour flight, and you only have 12 or 13 hours of fuel on board,' Alberta bush pilot Sean Loutitt said. 'You're monitoring the weather the whole time, but eventually you get to a point of no return. Then you're committed to the pole, no matter what.'"-Sarah Kaplan, The Washington Post: "A rare, risky mission is underway to rescue sick scientists from the South Pole"