Sunshine Recorder

Link: A Scanner Darkly

Short of participating in a genocide, how can you know what it’s like to be thoughtless on the level of Adolf Eichmann? Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones makes the attempt by immersing its reader in a dense, intensely readable marsh of information.

There are a lot of shocking things about Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, a novel about the destruction of the European Jews that is narrated by a matricidal SS officer named Max Aue, whose greatest joy is having anal sex with his twin sister; but the one that shocks deepest, and longest, is how easily the novel draws you in. I read the book in French (Littell was born in America in 1967, but grew up in France; he wrote The Kindly Ones in French) a couple of years ago and again this winter in Charlotte Mandell’s adroit English translation. Both times, I found myself looking forward to the moment when I was done with other business and could get back to reading about Max Aue and his grisly travels.

I am not the only one: the book has sold well over a million copies in Europe, and won the Prix Goncourt, France’s biggest literary prize. As I write this essay, it’s too soon to say if The Kindly Ones will be a big seller in the United States, but some omens are good. When the English translation was published in March of this year, Michael Korda wrote in the Daily Beast, “I guarantee you, if you read this book to the end, and if you have any kind of taste at all, you won’t be able to put it down for a moment—lay in snacks and drinks!” Yes, by all means, if you can keep them down. Reading The Kindly Ones isn’t a comfortable experience, or an ennobling one, but it’s certainly compelling, at least for some readers. The question I want to ask is, why?

Maybe the place to begin is near the end of The Kindly Ones, when Aue finds himself in a marsh:

We made our way through a little meadow covered with tall, thick grass, sodden and bent; beyond stretched out more sheets of water; there was a little padlocked hunter’s cabin, also standing in water. The snow had completely disappeared. There was no use sticking to the trees, our boots sank into the water and the mud, the wet ground was covered with rotten leaves that hid quagmires. Here and there a little island of firm land gave us courage. But farther on it became completely impossible again; the trees grew on isolated clumps or in the water itself, the strips of earth between the puddles were also flooded, wading was difficult, we had to give up and go back to the dyke.

This isn’t by any means the toughest terrain Aue has crossed. In the fall of 1941 he slogged through “black, thick mud” from Kiev to Kharkov, following the Wehrmacht’s advance into the U.S.S.R.; in the winter of 1943 he was skulking in the rubble of Stalingrad; he has seen the death camps at Auschwitz and survived the Allied bombing of Berlin. Max Aue witnesses every phase of the Final Solution; in fact, this witnessing is the reason for his existence. Littell, in an interview withLe Monde des Livres, describes Aue as a “roving X-ray, a scanner.” He exists so Littell can attempt a human answer to the questions that still loom over the history of the Holocaust: why? And how?

I want to set those questions, and Aue’s answers, aside for a moment, to talk about this relatively unimportant moment in which Aue, along with his friend Thomas and their driver, Piontek, are trying to rejoin the German lines. What can we say about it? Well, for one thing, the little cabin is remarkable. By the time Aue gets to the marsh, the book is almost over, and we know, in gross, anyway, how the story will end: the Germans are going to lose. And yet Aue takes the time to see the cabin, to remember it, and to describe it. This is a literary strategy known, I believe, as “realism,” but there’s something hallucinatory about Aue’s refusal to sort important from unimportant information, as though he really were a “scanner” and not a person. (Littell has refused to sell the film rights to The Kindly Ones, on the grounds that it would be impossible to make the book into a film, but the effect is distinctly cinematic.) In this scene, the beneficiary of Aue’s X-ray vision is the landscape, which rolls past as if in real time; Aue is trudging, and you, the reader, have to trudge along with him.

[…] The preternatural quality of Max Aue’s memory has been remarked on before; it’s the basis for one of the most telling and often-cited criticisms of The Kindly Ones.Claude Lanzmann, who directed the film Shoah, wrote that

Littell’s “hero” speaks torrentially for 900 pages, this man who doesn’t know what a memory is remembers absolutely everything. One has the right to ask, is Aue flesh and blood? Is Aue a man? Does Aue exist? He speaks like a book, like all the history books Littell has read. At the moment when the last witnesses of the Shoah are disappearing, and the Jews are anxious because memory is becoming History, Jonathan Littell flips the terms of the opposition, and gives his memoryless SS “hero” History as memory.

The danger of this procedure is that it will undermine the value of witnessing, precisely because it’s more complete than any eyewitness account. No one could have seen as much as Max Aue, but there’s something impossibly seductive about the idea that someone could have seen it all, that we could have both the totality of History and the authority of presence. Lanzmann fears that people will stop watching Shoah, stop reading Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews, and pick up The Kindly Ones instead, that the fiction will in time replace the fact.[2] It’s a possibility worth fearing; but let’s assume for a moment that Jonathan Littell is not an idiot—pace the opinion of at least one German critic[3]—and that he knows what risk he runs by this procedure of turning History into memory. Why would he do it?

Here we come back to the question of how. How could the Final Solution have taken place? As Lanzmann observes, the SS don’t speak; it’s impossible to get them to tell their side of the story. Max Aue does speak, but the answer he gives is as predictable as it is unsatisfying: he is “just like you,” and people like you are capable of carrying out even the most horrific acts when the circumstances demand it. “[I]f you are an American, consider your little Vietnam adventure,” he writes,

which so traumatized your fellow citizens. You lost fifty thousand troops there in ten years: that’s the equivalent of a little less than three days and two hours’ worth of dead on the Eastern Front, or of some thirteen days, twenty-one hours, and twenty-five minutes’ worth of dead Jews. I obviously am not including the Vietnamese dead; since you never speak of them, in your books or TV programs, they must not count for much to you. Yet you killed forty of them for every single one of your own dead, a fine effort even compared to our own, and one that certainly speaks for the value of technical progress.

Never mind that the Vietnam war was conducted under an idea, however absurd, of strategic gains and losses, whereas the Final Solution had the distressing and unfathomable quality of being an end in itself; in a total war there can be no civilians (this is Aue’s reasoning), only the fight of one mass against another. In such a fight every participant is equally guilty: the killers with blood on their hands and the supply officers who fuel the trucks. You might have died rather than shoot, but would you have died rather than pump gasoline?

This is an argument that got tested at Nuremberg without a lot of success; it does not compel belief. That’s what Aue’s prodigious memory is for. In the middle of the novel, and the war, Max Aue is sent to inspect the concentration camps of Poland, to see what he can do about getting the inmates better rations, a quixotic errand. When he gets to the Lublin camp, things turn out to be complicated, not only because Aue’s mission is incompatible with the purpose of the camp, but also, and above all, because it’s hard to figure out who’s in charge. “Out of about four hundred and fifty men, not counting the Hiwis [local recruits],” a deputy explains,

almost a hundred were assigned to us by the Führer’s Chancellery. Almost all our camp commanders are from there. Tactically, they’re under control of the Einsatz, but administratively, they depend on the Chancellery. They supervise everything having to do with salaries, leaves, promotions, and so on. Apparently it’s a special agreement between the Reichsführer and Reichsleiter Bouhler. Some of those men aren’t even members of theAllgemeine-SS or of the Party. But they’re all veterans of the Reich’s euthanasia centers; when most of those centers were closed, some of the personnel, with Wirth at their head, were transferred here so the Einsatz could profit from their experience.

Get it? Not quite? Good. The enormous quantity of information contained in The Kindly Ones (you could call the novel “encyclopedic,” but, given its narrator’s subjective bias, “wikipedic” might be a better way of putting it) serves not only to enchant, but also to distract. With so many administrative structures in play, so many names and ranks and acronyms and badges and bosses to keep track of, how can you think about what KL Lublin[4] was for? The more immediate, and more satisfying because more achievable, task consists in doing what Aue does: sussing hierarchies, admiring or deploring moves made in the game of Nazi power.

It’s thinking like this that got Eichmann in trouble. Hannah Arendt, reporting on the SS officers’ 1961 trial for the New Yorker, observed that “except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, [Eichmann] had no motives at all.” Max Aue, who meets Eichmann again and again over the course of The Kindly Ones, puts it more bluntly: “He had a very harsh attitude but at bottom it was the same to him whether or not the Jews were killed, the only thing that counted, for him, was to show what he could do, to prove his worth, and also to use the abilities he had developed, for the rest of it, he didn’t give a fuck, either about industry or about the gas chambers for that matter, the only thing he did give a fuck about was that no one fucked with him.…” Eichmann was guilty of mass murder, but he is infamous for thoughtlessness, for not giving a fuck. As Arendt says, “He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing.

Call it the danger of Too Much Information: if your mind is occupied with bureaucratic turf wars, how can you make room to think about what’s happening in the crematoriums that smoke just a few hundred meters away, polluting the air with the smell of burning flesh? Especially when the gulf between the one kind of awareness and the other is so vast: the first belongs to the world of information, whereas the second belongs to the order of knowledge. You can have all the information in the world about the camps—Eichmann had much of it—butknowing them is something else entirely.

Now think for a moment about the complicated, perverse thing which The Kindly Ones does to you, the reader. Anyone could tell you that information and knowledge are two different things, that it’s possible to be ignorant even in the thick of the facts. Arendt could tell you that; her remark that Eichmann’s self-important ignorance illustrates the banality of evil has itself become a banality. But how, short of participating in a genocide, can you know what it’s like to be thoughtless? This is the door to which Max Aue holds (or rather is) the key. The book abounds with markers of lived experience: the icy waters of the marsh, the “insomniac dead” who lie scattered by the side of the road to Kiev, the diarrhea and vomiting fits that plague Aue all through the war, and afterward. These signs draw you in; they give you the feeling of knowing, but all you’re getting is information. The effect is weirdly stupefying—which is, perhaps, how Eichmann felt, after a while.

Link: The Long Haul of Solitary Death: Michel Houellebecq and the Decline of Western Sexuality

A prophet-provacateur faithful to French traditions of lucidity, sensuality, and alienation, Houellebecq believes we are all doomed. The Map and the Territory continues his great project of exposing the limits of individualism.

Michel Houellebecq condemns the soullessness of our consumer society, yet paradoxically he reserves his worst contempt for those endeavors one might naturally suggest as an antidote or palliative. The possibility of having children is generally treated with derision in his work, and it’s the same with any kind of humanitarian project. Houellebecq is especially scathing about “human rights” – in any of his novels, a character using this term is immediately identified as an idiot.

His novel Atomised (called The Elementary Particles in the U.S. translation) disparages the “sexual revolution” —

“As the lovely word ‘household’ suggests, the couple and the family would be the last bastion of primitive communism in liberal society. The sexual revolution was to destroy these intermediary communities, the last to separate the individual from the market. The destruction continues to this day.”

(In French the word in quotes is “ménage,” a more beautiful word than “household,” with connotations of order and human scale.)

In Atomised, the grandmother of Michel and Bruno is selflessly devoted to her family, while their mother, an apostle of the sexual revolution, is horrendously self-centered. Michel and Bruno themselves both prove incapable of committing to the most important women in their lives, and Michel goes on to pave the way for a future where sexual reproduction is abandoned in favor of cloning. Houellebecq denies that a society can be run according to secular humanist ideals – a passage in Atomised sweepingly blames the notions of “personal freedom,” “human dignity,” and “progress” for the alleged fact that “human history from the fifteenth to the twentieth century was characterized by progressive decline and disintegration.”

Yet he is not a reactionary, he tells Bernard-Henri Lévy in the letter collection Public Enemies, because he believes in the “absolute irreversibility of all processes of decay once they have begun.” All that is left for his characters is the search for sexual gratification, in a society whose decline and fall is irrevocably determined – or, for those more theoretically inclined, the hastening of a post-reproductive future.

Houellebecq apparently regrets not having experienced a more traditional upbringing himself, and the narrator of his novel Platform laments his own lack of a civic sense —

“I suddenly realized to my embarrassment that I considered the society I lived in more or less as a natural environment – like a savannah, or a jungle – whose laws I had to adapt to. The notion that I was in any way in solidarity with this environment had never occurred to me. It was like an atrophy in me, an emptiness. It was far from certain that society could continue to survive for long with individuals like me.”

Although he expresses contempt for radical Islamists, the narrator of Platform occasionally sounds like one —

“For the west, I do not feel hatred. At most I feel a great contempt. I know only that every single one of us reeks of selfishness, masochism, and death. We have created a system in which it has simply become impossible to live, and what’s more, we continue to export it.”

Houellebecq’s latest novel, The Map and the Territory, opens with a description of an oil painting depicting Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons, a work by the fictional character Jed Martin. Imagining Hirst and Koons painted in oils invests them with a Lovecraftian and monstrous aura, obsessive figures fighting intricate battles for domination. Is a novel about contemporary man as incongruous as an oil painting of Koons? What earlier era could have produced a novel in which the hero drifts apart from the heroine largely because of apathy – as Jed loses touch with the novel’s main female character, Michelin PR representative Olga Sheremoyova?

The Map and the Territory shows a France in demographic decline, more dependent on tourism than industry, where most of a priest’s job is to conduct funerals. Houellebecq’s nostalgia for lost glory comes across in his evident shock that as culturally authoritative a French institution as Michelin is now largely owned by foreign institutional investors. A fascination with Michelin maps crops up throughout Houellebecq’s work, and is shared by Jed, whose lifework Houellebecq envisages as “a homage to human labor.”

When Michelin posts Olga back to Russia, Jed stops exhibiting and selling photographs of maps and starts making oil paintings of contemporary professional figures. Unable to finish the painting of Jeff Koons – “it was as difficult as painting a Mormon pornographer” – Jed decides instead to work on Michel Houellebecq – “a loner with strong misanthropic tendencies: it was rare for him even to say a word to his dog.” And Houellebecq is certainly easier to visualize as an oil painting than is Koons, the resulting painting inspiring one of the book’s most Lovecraftian sentences – “The expression in the eyes appeared at the time so strange that it could not, in the critics’ view, be compared to any existing pictorial tradition, but had rather to be compared to certain archival ethnological images taken during voodoo ceremonies.”

In Houellebecq’s version of history, “free-market economics redrew the geography of the world in terms of the expectations of the clientele.” He captures a village in the Loiret with this juxtaposition – “The multipurpose cultural center offered a permanent exhibition on local crafts. For a long time there had probably been only second homes here.” The place strikes a visiting detective as “a fake village recreated from a television series,” with a church that has been “pitilessly restored.” The provinces become what the metropolis wants them to be, as France itself is repackaged for overseas visitors – Houellebecq’s prediction in Public Enemies, that the economic future of France is as “a sort of tourist brothel,” starts to become realized within the timeline of The Map and The Territory (some of which takes place in the 2020s, in a future where the French birth rate has begun to decline again). In another scene, at a party thrown by French television personality Jean-Pierre Pernault – a man nationally famous for his advocacy of regionalism — musicians of Breton and Corsican, Savoyard and Basque origin perform, sometimes simultaneously, in a cacophony of localisms that is absurdly Parisian.

Other French public intellectuals appear as characters, including the novelist Frédéric Beigbeder, who gains sympathy points for being the only character who tries to get Jed and Olga to reunite, in vain – Olga’s primary purpose in the novel seems to be to demonstrate the impossibility of love in our time. In general Houellebecq shows a willingness, romantic in its own way, to extrapolate from any single failed affair the “decline of Western sexuality” – the phrase comes from Platform. Romantic love is like many other traditions for Houellebecq, in that he thinks it’s important yet cannot make himself believe in it. He told the Paris Review that love may no longer exist because of “the materialist idea that we are alone, we live alone and we die alone. That’s not very compatible with love.” Seemingly he would endorse the statement of another provacateur, the Protestant theologian Stanley Hauerwas, that “liberalism is that cluster of theories about society that are based on the presumption that we must finally each die alone.”

Houellebecq fears the work ethic is likewise doomed. Jed’s father, an architect, defends the vision of Charles Fourier – “Fourier had lived under the Ancien Régime, and he was conscious that, well before the appearance of capitalism, scientific research and technical progress had taken place, and that people worked hard, sometimes very hard, without being pushed by the lure of profit but by something, in the eyes of modern man, much vaguer; the love of God, in the case of monks, or more simply the honour of the function.”

(“L’honneur de la fonction” is another phrase that sounds better in French.)

A phrase halfway through the book summarizes Jed’s life – “he had produced a body of work, as they say, without ever encountering, or even contemplating, happiness.” Yet Jed’s solitary old age is encapsulated in the gently apocalyptic vision of him shopping at the local Carrefour on Tuesday mornings when it is least crowded – “He sometimes had the supermarket all to himself – which seemed to him to be quite a good approximation of happiness.” His last works are montages of electronic components superimposed on vegetation, suggestive of the world our species will leave behind. According to Jed, “everyone in Western Europe seemed persuaded that capitalism was doomed, and even doomed in the short term, that it was living through its very last years, without, however, the ultra-left parties managing to attract anyone beyond their usual clientele of spiteful masochists. A veil of ashes seemed to have spread over people’s minds.” Sackcloth suits Houellebecq well — “I feel only a faint sense of solidarity with the human species,” the character Houellebecq tells Jed, the author portraying himself over-playing himself with admirable theatricality.

Adept at balancing the lyrical with the clinical, and the confessional with the socio-analytical, Houellebecq wrestles with many ideas in this novel without letting them overwhelm it. Occasional flashes of prose lifted from Wikipedia foreshadow the eventual victory of the hive mind and “death of the author.” In The Map and The Territory this death is enacted literally, since the character Houellebecq is viciously murdered – an exercise the author Houellebecq must surely have found therapeutic.

Houellebecq’s rejection of all political developments since the fifteenth century and palpable sense of living in a fallen world, together with such claims as that “all the theories of freedom, from Gide to Sartre, are just immoralisms thought up by irresponsible bachelors,” might seem to presage a conversion to a right-wing form of Catholicism. The character Houellebecq, before being murdered, does in fact mysteriously get himself baptized. Certainly Houellebecq seems temperamentally ripe for some kind of conversion, were his will to believe only stronger.

His anti-heroes, although affable and not unkind, seem incapable of love or even friendship – generally the most intense thing they can feel is sexual infatuation. These are men who blame societal decadence for their own lack of any self-sacrificial motivation or capacity for true love – perhaps what makes them sympathetic is that it’s a lack they genuinely regret, if with a certain detachment.

Houellebecq’s big moral insight is that self-obsession individuates us less than self-sacrifice does, that ties to a community restrict us less than the absence of such ties, that consumer freedom may turn us into clones. He is capable of sensing something admirable about community-spiritedness, without to date having been able to work up any actual enthusiasm for it – but perhaps there remains the possibility that, after his symbolic murder in The Map and The Territory, he will be reborn from the ashes with the seeds of a more committed vision.

Link: Herbert Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man, A Mini-Tutorial Part 1

I now begin what I hope will be a series of mini-tutorials, each perhaps only a few parts long, on books that I think are important or interesting, and which may not be familiar to the readers of this blog. As I proceed, I will find it necessary, for clarity and coherence, to repeat some things I have said in other tutorials. I apologize for this, but it has been borne in upon me that not every visitor to this blog has read the 300,000 or so words I have posted on serious subjects over the last year and a half. I find this incredible [ :) ], but I must bow to the exigencies of the cultural norms of the medium.

Herbert Marcuse was born in Germany in1898, and died at the age of eighty-one, in 1979. He was a student of Heidegger and Husserl and was deeply influence by the philosophy of Hegel. [Faithful readers will know that I have an allergic reaction to Hegel, so I consider it an evidence of my admirable broadmindedness that I am willing to take Herbert’s works seriously, as I do.] In 1932, Marcuse published his first major work, Hegel’s Ontology and Theory of Historicity. The next year, he joined the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, which had gathered to itself the most brilliant left-wing thinkers in Germany — Horkheimer, Adorno, Benjamin, Fromm, and many others. In 1934, fleeing the Nazis like many other intellectuals, Marcuse came to the United States. During the Second World War he worked in Washington for the organization that eventually became the CIA, heading up the German Desk. It was there that he met and befriended Barrington Moore, Jr., who was working on the Soviet desk. They remained close friends for the rest of Marcuse’s life, and it was at Moore’s house that I first met Marcuse in 1960 or 61.

Although Marcuse was a formidably raffine German intellectual, he became, almost through a serious of accidents, the inspiration and idol for young, rebellious German, French, and American students in the 1960’s, gaining such wide name recognition that at one point he even was mentioned in a New Yorker cartoon. Herbert was somewhat bemused by this fame, and publicly disavowed any interest in it, but I have always thought he was secretly amused and pleased by it. Marcuse taught for some years at Brandeis, and then, when he reached retirement age and Brandeis would not extend his contract, he went for a time to UC San Diego, where he taught Angela Davis, among others. The two books by which he is best known in the United States are Eros and Civilization, published in 1955, and One-Dimensional Man, published in 1964.

In order to understand One-Dimensional Man, it is essential to have some grasp of the set of issues that Marcuse and the other members of the Frankfort Institute were grappling with in the 1930’s and afterward. I believe this is what French intellectuals and their American epigones would call his “problematic,” although I dislike that term. For these thinkers, the two great influences on their understanding of the world around them were Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx [and on mine as well, I might add.] But it was very difficult to see how the insights of these two great thinkers were to be combined, or even held in the same consciousness. Freud took the larger social and economic world of himself and his patients as a given fact, to which, as a medical doctor, he gave very little thought. His realm of investigation was the individual unconscious, with heavy emphasis on the development of the unconscious in early childhood. Perhaps his central analytical concept is the notion of repression, the forcing into the unconscious of “unacceptable” thoughts and wishes, which, despite the repression, retained their power to disrupt conscious adult functioning. Freud was deeply pessimistic about the human condition, as he made clear in such speculative works as Civilization and its Discontents. The survival of the human race, he argued, requires the stifling of powerful libidinal instincts, or at the very least, the sublimation of erotic energies in productive and socially acceptable activities, such as art, literature, industry, and even war. No amount of psychoanalysis, Freud thought, however successful in relieving neuroses, could alter the fact that the infantile fantasy of instantaneous gratification of libidinal desires is incompatible with the reality orientation required for survival and for civilization itself. Notice that although these views seem to be about the social and economic world, their universality and pessimism is such that they leave that world untouched, unaltered, and hence unchallenged. In this sense, Freud’s views, while scandalous to his world, were in fact in their effect conservative rather than revolutionary.

The focus of Marx’s mature work was the socio-economic structure of capitalist economies — what he called, echoing Newton, “the laws of motion of capitalist economy.” Although in his twenties he wrote some very suggestive and important essays about the psychodynamics of labor in a capitalist economy — essays that, as we shall see, had a considerable effect on Marcuse and other mid-twentieth century left intellectuals — it was the economic theory set forth in the five thousand pages of the six volumes of Capital and several other works that were his great legacy. Particularly after the success of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, carried out in his name if not in his spirit, it was Marx’s theories of capitalist exploitation, of crises, and of the possible transition from capitalism to socialism, not the early speculations on unalienated labor, that were most widely associated with his name.

The key concept of Marx’s analysis of capitalism is surplus labor — the labor that workers expend over and above what is necessary to reproduce their conditions of existence. In any society, under any circumstances, a certain amount of labor just be expended to grow food, produce clothing and shelter, provide medical and other services, and care for the children who are new generation of workers. Marx calls this ”necessary labor,” and he makes it clear that this labor must be performed no matter what the “social relations of production” may be. But because capitalists own or control the means of production, they can force workers to labor longer hours than is necessary for their existence. The capitalists appropriate this “surplus labor,” in the form of the products which they sell in the market. Marx’s central analytical claim is that profit is nothing but the money form of the surplus labor extracted from the workers. Marx calls this appropriation of surplus labor “exploitation.” Thus, the central conclusion of Marx’s analysis, which, despite certain technical and mathematical problems I consider fundamentally correct, is that capitalism rests on the exploitation of the working class.

The central project of the Frankfort School, to put it in a phrase, was to bring Freud and Marx into fruitful conjunction, and, by somehow fusing their insights and teachings, produce an integrated theory of human existence in a mature capitalist economy and society. In their different ways, Horkheimer, Adorno, Fromm, Marcuse and others were all embarked upon this same quest. After the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the advent of Nazism, their principal effort was to understand how such horrors could come to be in a society that seemed to be at the height of refinement, intellectual development, and artistic and cultural realization. Many of the great works of the mid-century period deal, in one way or another, with this question. [See, for example, Horkheimer and Adorno’s study of The Authoritarian Personality — note the fusion of psychoanalytic and socio-political themes in the title itself.]

In Eros and Civilization, Marcuse, in a truly brilliant coup de theatre, combines the concepts of repression and surplus labor, and gives us, as a key to understanding life in a capitalist society, the concept of surplus repression. Tomorrow, we will see what he means by this suggestive phrase.

Link: Simone de Beauvoir, The Art of Fiction No. 35

Simone de Beauvoir had introduced me to Jean Genet and Jean-Paul Sartre, whom I had interviewed. But she hesitated about being interviewed herself: “Why should we talk about me? Don’t you think I’ve done enough in my three books of memoirs?” It took several letters and conversations to convince her otherwise, and then only on the condition “that it wouldn’t be too long.”

The interview took place in Miss de Beauvoir’s studio on the rue Schoëlcher in Montparnasse, a five-minute walk from Sartre’s apartment. We worked in a large, sunny room which serves as her study and sitting room. Shelves are crammed with surprisingly uninteresting books. “The best ones,” she told me, “are in the hands of my friends and never come back.” The tables are covered with colorful objects brought back from her travels, but the only valuable work in the room is a lamp made for her by Giacometti. Scattered throughout the room are dozens of phonograph records, one of the few luxuries that Miss de Beauvoir permits herself.

Apart from her classically featured face, what strikes one about Simone de Beauvoir is her fresh, rosy complexion and her clear blue eyes, extremely young and lively. One gets the impression that she knows and sees everything; this inspires a certain timidity. Her speech is rapid, her manner direct without being brusque, and she is rather smiling and friendly.

Madeleine Gobeil: For the last seven years you’ve been writing your memoirs, in which you frequently wonder about your vocation and your profession. I have the impression that it was the loss of religious faith that turned you toward writing.

Simone De Beauvoir: It’s very hard to review one’s past without cheating a little. My desire to write goes far back. I wrote stories at the age of eight, but lots of children do the same. That doesn’t really mean they have a vocation for writing. It may be that in my case the vocation was accentuated because I had lost religious faith; it’s also true that when I read books that moved me deeply, such as George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, I wanted terribly much to be, like her, someone whose books would be read, whose books would move readers.

Have you been influenced by English literature?

The study of English has been one of my passions ever since childhood. There’s a body of children’s literature in English far more charming than what exists in French. I loved to read Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, George Eliot, and even Rosamond Lehmann.

Dusty Answer?

I had a real passion for that book. And yet it was rather mediocre. The girls of my generation adored it. The author was very young, and every girl recognized herself in Judy. The book was rather clever, even rather subtle. As for me, I envied English university life. I lived at home. I didn’t have a room of my own. In fact, I had nothing at all. And though that life wasn’t free, it did allow for privacy and seemed to me magnificent. The author had known all the myths of adolescent girls—handsome boys with an air of mystery about them and so on. Later, of course, I read the Brontës and the books of Virginia Woolf: Orlando, Mrs. Dalloway. I don’t care much for The Waves, but I’m very, very fond of her book on Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

What about her journal?

It interests me less. It’s too literary. It’s fascinating, but it’s foreign to me. She’s too concerned with whether she’ll be published, with what people will say about her. I liked very much “A Room of One’s Own” in which she talks about the situation of women. It’s a short essay, but it hits the nail on the head. She explains very well why women can’t write. Virginia Woolf is one of the women writers who have interested me most. Have you seen any photos of her? An extraordinarily lonely face … In a way, she interests me more than Colette. Colette is, after all, very involved in her little love affairs, in household matters, laundry, pets. Virginia Woolf is much broader.

Did you read her books in translation?

No, in English. I read English better than I speak it.

What do you think about college and university education for a writer? You yourself were a brilliant student at the Sorbonne and people expected you to have a brilliant career as a teacher.

My studies gave me only a very superficial knowledge of philosophy but sharpened my interest in it. I benefited greatly from being a teacher—that is, from being able to spend a great deal of time reading, writing and educating myself. In those days, teachers didn’t have a very heavy program. My studies gave me a solid foundation because in order to pass the state exams you have to explore areas that you wouldn’t bother about if you were concerned only with general culture. They provided me with a certain academic method that was useful when I wrote The Second Sex and that has been useful, in general, for all my studies. I mean a way of going through books very quickly, of seeing which works are important, of classifying them, of being able to reject those which are unimportant, of being able to summarize, to browse.

Were you a good teacher?

I don’t think so, because I was interested only in the bright students and not at all in the others, whereas a good teacher should be interested in everyone. But if you teach philosophy you can’t help it. There were always four or five students who did all the talking, and the others didn’t care to do anything. I didn’t bother about them very much.

You had been writing for ten years before you were published, at the age of thirty-five. Weren’t you discouraged?

No, because in my time it was unusual to be published when you were very young. Of course, there were one or two examples, such as Radiguet, who was a prodigy. Sartre himself wasn’t published until he was about thirty-five, when Nausea and The Wall were brought out. When my first more or less publishable book was rejected, I was a bit discouraged. And when the first version of She Came to Stay was rejected, it was very unpleasant. Then I thought that I ought to take my time. I knew many examples of writers who were slow in getting started. And people always spoke of the case of Stendhal, who didn’t begin to write until he was forty.

In The Blood of Others and All Men Are Mortal you deal with the problem of time. Were you influenced, in this respect, by Joyce or Faulkner?

No, it was a personal preoccupation. I’ve always been keenly aware of the passing of time. I’ve always thought that I was old. Even when I was twelve, I thought it was awful to be thirty. I felt that something was lost. At the same time, I was aware of what I could gain, and certain periods of my life have taught me a great deal. But, in spite of everything, I’ve always been haunted by the passing of time and by the fact that death keeps closing in on us. For me, the problem of time is linked up with that of death, with the thought that we inevitably draw closer and closer to it, with the horror of decay. It’s that, rather than the fact that things disintegrate, that love peters out. That’s horrible too, though I personally have never been troubled by it. There’s always been great continuity in my life. I’ve always lived in Paris, more or less in the same neighborhoods. My relationship with Sartre has lasted a very long time. I have very old friends whom I continue to see. So it’s not that I’ve felt that time breaks things up, but rather the fact that I always take my bearings. I mean the fact that I have so many years behind me, so many ahead of me. I count them.

In the second part of your memoirs, you draw a portrait of Sartre at the time he was writing Nausea. You picture him as being obsessed by what he calls his “crabs,” by anguish. You seem to have been, at the time, the joyous member of the couple. Yet, in your novels you reveal a preoccupation with death that we never find in Sartre.

But remember what he says in The Words. That he never felt the imminence of death, whereas his fellow students—for example, Nizan, the author of Aden, Arabie—were fascinated by it. In a way, Sartre felt he was immortal. He had staked everything on his literary work and on the hope that his work would survive, whereas for me, owing to the fact that my personal life will disappear, I’m not the least bit concerned about whether my work is likely to last. I’ve always been deeply aware that the ordinary things of life disappear, one’s day-to-day activities, one’s impressions, one’s past experiences. Sartre thought that life could be caught in a trap of words, and I’ve always felt that words weren’t life itself but a reproduction of life, of something dead, so to speak.

That’s precisely the point. Some people claim that you haven’t the power to transpose life in your novels. They insinuate that your characters are copied from the people around you.

I don’t know. What is the imagination? In the long run, it’s a matter of attaining a certain degree of generality, of truth about what is, about what one actually lives. Works which aren’t based on reality don’t interest me unless they’re out-and-out extravagant, for example the novels of Alexandre Dumas or of Victor Hugo, which are epics of a kind. But I don’t call “made-up” stories works of the imagination but rather works of artifice. If I wanted to defend myself, I could refer to Tolstoy’s War and Peace, all the characters of which were taken from real life.

In every one of your novels we find a female character who is misled by false notions and who is threatened by madness.

Lots of modern women are like that. Women are obliged to play at being what they aren’t, to play, for example, at being great courtesans, to fake their personalities. They’re on the brink of neurosis. I feel very sympathetic toward women of that type. They interest me more than the well-balanced housewife and mother. There are, of course, women who interest me even more, those who are both true and independent, who work and create.

None of your female characters are immune from love. You like the romantic element.

Love is a great privilege. Real love, which is very rare, enriches the lives of the men and women who experience it.

In your novels, it seems to be the women—I’m thinking of Françoise in She Came to Stay and Anne in The Mandarins—who experience it most.

The reason is that, despite everything, women give more of themselves in love because most of them don’t have much else to absorb them. Perhaps they’re also more capable of deep sympathy, which is the basis of love. Perhaps it’s also because I can project myself more easily into women than into men. My female characters are much richer than my male characters.

You’ve never created an independent and really free female character who illustrates in one way or other the thesis of The Second Sex. Why?

I’ve shown women as they are, as divided human beings, and not as they ought to be.

After your long novel, The Mandarins, you stopped writing fiction and began to work on your memoirs. Which of these two literary forms do you prefer?

I like both of them. They offer different kinds of satisfaction and disappointment. In writing my memoirs, it’s very agreeable to be backed up by reality. On the other hand, when one follows reality from day to day, as I have, there are certain depths, certain kinds of myth and meaning that one disregards. In the novel, however, one can express these horizons, these overtones of daily life, but there’s an element of fabrication that is nevertheless disturbing. One should aim at inventing without fabricating. I had been wanting to talk about my childhood and youth for a long time. I had maintained very deep relationships with them, but there was no sign of them in any of my books. Even before writing my first novel, I had a desire to have, as it were, a heart-to-heart talk. It was a very emotional, a very personal need. After Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter I was unsatisfied, and then I thought of doing something else. But I was unable to. I said to myself, “I’ve fought to be free. What have I done with my freedom, what’s become of it?” I wrote the sequel that carried me from the age of twenty-one to the present time, from The Prime of Life to Force of Circumstance

At the meeting of writers in Formentor a few years ago, Carlo Levi described The Prime of Life as “the great love story of the century.” Sartre appeared for the first time as a human being. You revealed a Sartre who had not been rightly understood, a man very different from the legendary Sartre.

I did it intentionally. He didn’t want me to write about him. Finally, when he saw that I spoke about him the way I did, he gave me a free hand.

In your opinion, why is it that, despite the reputation he’s had for twenty years, Sartre the writer remains misunderstood and is still violently attacked by critics?

For political reasons. Sartre is a man who has violently opposed the class into which he was born and which therefore regards him as a traitor. But that’s the class which has money, which buys books. Sartre’s situation is paradoxical. He’s an antibourgeois writer who is read by the bourgeoisie and admired by it as one of its products. The bourgeoisie has a monopoly on culture and thinks that it gave birth to Sartre. At the same time, it hates him because he attacks it.

In an interview with Hemingway in The Paris Review, he said, “All you can be sure about, in a political-minded writer is that if his work should last you will have to skip the politics when you read it.” Of course, you don’t agree. Do you still believe in “commitment”?

Hemingway was precisely the type of writer who never wanted to commit himself. I know that he was involved in the Spanish civil war, but as a journalist. Hemingway was never deeply committed, so he thinks that what is eternal in literature is what isn’t dated, isn’t committed. I don’t agree. In the case of many writers, it’s also their political stand which makes me like or dislike them. There aren’t many writers of former times whose work was really committed. And although one reads Rousseau’s Social Contract as eagerly as one reads his Confessions, one no longer reads The New Héloïse.

The heyday of existentialism seems to have been the period from the end of the war to 1952. At the present time, the “new novel” is in fashion; and such writers as Drieu La Rochelle and Roger Nimier.

There’s certainly a return to the right in France. The new novel itself isn’t reactionary, nor are its authors. A sympathizer can say that they want to do away with certain bourgeois conventions. These writers aren’t disturbing. In the long run, Gaullism brings us back to Pétainism, and it’s only to be expected that a collaborator like La Rochelle and an extreme reactionary like Nimier be held in high esteem again. The bourgeoisie is showing itself again in its true colors—that is, as a reactionary class. Look at the success of Sartre’s The Words. There are several things to note. It’s perhaps—I won’t say his best book, but one of his best. At any rate, it’s an excellent book, an exciting display of virtuosity, an amazingly written work. At the same time, the reason it has had such success is that it’s a book that is not “committed.” When the critics say that it’s his best book, along with Nausea, one should bear in mind that Nausea is an early work, a work that is not committed, and that it is more readily accepted by the left and right alike than are his plays. The same thing happened to me with The Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter. Bourgeois women were delighted to recognize their own youth in it. The protests began with The Prime of Life and continued with Force of Circumstance. The break is very clear, very sharp.

The last part of Force of Circumstance is devoted to the Algerian war, to which you seem to have reacted in a very personal way.

I felt and thought about things in a political way, but I never engaged in political action. The entire last part of Force of Circumstance deals with the war. And it seems anachronistic in a France that is no longer concerned with that war.

Didn’t you realize that people were bound to forget about it?

I deleted lots of pages from that section. I therefore realized that it would be anachronistic. On the other hand, I absolutely wanted to talk about it, and I’m amazed that people have forgotten it to such a degree. Have you seen the film La Belle Vie, by the young director Robert Enrico? People are stupefied because the film shows the Algerian war. Claude Mauriac wrote in Le Figaro Litteraire: “Why is it that we’re shown parachute troopers on public squares? It’s not true to life.” But it is true to life. I used to see them every day from Sartre’s window at Saint Germain des Prés. People have forgotten. They wanted to forget. They wanted to forget their memories. That’s the reason why, contrary to what I expected, I wasn’t attacked for what I said about the Algerian war but for what I said about old age and death. As regards the Algerian war, all Frenchmen are now convinced that it never took place, that nobody was tortured, that insofar as there was torture they were always against torture.

At the end of Force of Circumstance you say: “As I look back with incredulity at that credulous adolescent, I am astounded to see how I was swindled.” This remark seems to have given rise to all kinds of misunderstandings.

People—particularly enemies—have tried to interpret it to mean that my life has been a failure, either because I recognize the fact that I was mistaken on a political level or because I recognize that after all a woman should have had children, etc. Anyone who reads my book carefully can see that I say the very opposite, that I don’t envy anyone, that I’m perfectly satisfied with what my life has been, that I’ve kept all my promises and that consequently if I had my life to live over again I wouldn’t live it any differently. I’ve never regretted not having children insofar as what I wanted to do was to write.

Then why “swindled”? When one has an existentialist view of the world, like mine, the paradox of human life is precisely that one tries to be and, in the long run, merely exists. It’s because of this discrepancy that when you’ve laid your stake on being—and, in a way you always do when you make plans, even if you actually know that you can’t succeed in being—when you turn around and look back on your life, you see that you’ve simply existed. In other words, life isn’t behind you like a solid thing, like the life of a god (as it is conceived, that is, as something impossible). Your life is simply a human life.

So one might say, as Alain did, and I’m very fond of that remark, “Nothing is promised us.” In one sense, it’s true. In another, it’s not. Because a bourgeois boy or girl who is given a certain culture is actually promised things. I think that anyone who had a hard life when he was young won’t say in later years that he’s been “swindled.” But when I say that I’ve been swindled I’m referring to the seventeen-year-old girl who daydreamed in the country near the hazel bush about what she was going to do later on. I’ve done everything I wanted to do, writing books, learning about things, but I’ve been swindled all the same because it’s never anything more. There are also Mallarmé’s lines about “the perfume of sadness that remains in the heart,” I forget exactly how they go. I’ve had what I wanted, and, when all is said and done, what one wanted was always something else. A woman psychoanalyst wrote me a very intelligent letter in which she said that “in the last analysis, desires always go far beyond the object of desire.” The fact is that I’ve had everything I desired, but the “far beyond” which is included in the desire itself is not attained when the desire has been fulfilled. When I was young, I had hopes and a view of life which all cultured people and bourgeois optimists encourage one to have and which my readers accuse me of not encouraging in them. That’s what I meant, and I wasn’t regretting anything I’ve done or thought.

Some people think that a longing for God underlies your works.

No. Sartre and I have always said that it’s not because there’s a desire to be that this desire corresponds to any reality. It’s exactly what Kant said on the intellectual level. The fact that one believes in causalities is no reason to believe that there is a supreme cause. The fact that man has a desire to be does not mean that he can ever attain being or even that being is a possible notion, at any rate the being that is a reflection and at the same time an existence. There is a synthesis of existence and being that is impossible. Sartre and I have always rejected it, and this rejection underlies our thinking. There is an emptiness in man, and even his achievements have this emptiness. That’s all. I don’t mean that I haven’t achieved what I wanted to achieve but rather that the achievement is never what people think it is. Furthermore, there is a naïve or snobbish aspect, because people imagine that if you have succeeded on a social level you must be perfectly satisfied with the human condition in general. But that’s not the case.

“I’m swindled” also implies something else—namely, that life has made me discover the world as it is, that is, a world of suffering and oppression, of undernourishment for the majority of people, things that I didn’t know when I was young and when I imagined that to discover the world was to discover something beautiful. In that respect, too, I was swindled by bourgeois culture, and that’s why I don’t want to contribute to the swindling of others and why I say that I was swindled, in short, so that others aren’t swindled. It’s really also a problem of a social kind. In short, I discovered the unhappiness of the world little by little, then more and more, and finally, above all, I felt it in connection with the Algerian war and when I traveled.

Some critics and readers have felt that you spoke about old age in an unpleasant way.

A lot of people didn’t like what I said because they want to believe that all periods of life are delightful, that children are innocent, that all newlyweds are happy, that all old people are serene. I’ve rebelled against such notions all my life, and there’s no doubt about the fact that the moment, which for me is not old age but the beginning of old age, represents—even if one has all the resources one wants, affection, work to be done—represents a change in one’s existence, a change that is manifested by the loss of a great number of things. If one isn’t sorry to lose them it’s because one didn’t love them. I think that people who glorify old age or death too readily are people who really don’t love life. Of course, in present-day France you have to say that everything’s fine, that everything’s lovely, including death.

Beckett has keenly felt the swindle of the human condition. Does he interest you more than the other “new novelists”?

Certainly. All the playing around with time that one finds in the “new novel” can be found in Faulkner. It was he who taught them how to do it, and in my opinion he’s the one who does it best. As for Beckett, his way of emphasizing the dark side of life is very beautiful. However, he’s convinced that life is dark and only that. I too am convinced that life is dark, and at the same time I love life. But that conviction seems to have spoiled everything for him. When that’s all you can say, there aren’t fifty ways of saying it, and I’ve found that many of his works are merely repetitions of what he said earlier. Endgame repeats Waiting for Godot, but in a weaker way.

Are there many contemporary French writers who interest you?

Not many. I receive lots of manuscripts, and the annoying thing is that they’re almost always bad. At the present time, I’m very excited about Violette Leduc. She was first published in 1946 in Collection Espoir, which was edited by Camus. The critics praised her to the skies. Sartre, Genet, and Jouhandeau liked her very much. She never sold. She recently published a great autobiography called The Bastard, the beginning of which was published in Les Temps Modernes, of which Sartre is editor-in-chief. I wrote a preface to the book because I thought that she was one of the unappreciated postwar French writers. She’s having great success in France at the present time.

And how do you rank yourself among contemporary writers?

I don’t know. What is it that one evaluates? The noise, the silence, posterity, the number of readers, the absence of readers, the importance at a given time? I think that people will read me for some time. At least, that’s what my readers tell me. I’ve contributed something to the discussion of women’s problems. I know I have from the letters I receive. As for the literary quality of my work, in the strict sense of the word, I haven’t the slightest idea.

Link: The Danger for Mankind is Me and You

"The Kindly Ones" by Jonathan Littell. Harper Perennial, 2009. 992pp.

Written in French by a bilingual Jewish-American, featuring a philosophical SS officer who exterminates Jews in Russia, Poland and Kiev while believing he inhabits a Greek tragedy, Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones seeks to approach the Holocaust through the medium of a European novel of ideas. So it’s easy to see why it has caused such a fuss. Awarded the Prix Goncourt and the Academie Française prize in France when it appeared in 2006; condemned by a battery of German historians; decried as “grotesque” in the US; and already dividing the critics in Britain, this novel gleefully squares up to the questions we pose of all creative work that draws on the Holocaust for material.

Can our capacity for empathetic understanding be usefully excited to remind us of the horrors suffered by the Jews in Europe? Or should we agree, with Adorno, that “through aesthetic principles or stylisation… the unimaginable ordeal still appears as if it had some ulterior purpose”, and so, is “transfigured and stripped of some of its horror”?

The Kindly Ones is the memoir of Maximilien Aue, first encountered as the proprietor of a contemporary lace-making factory in France, who loses no time in letting the reader know what not to expect from his war stories. “I probably did go a little far towards the end, but by that point I was no longer entirely myself,” he muses, before embarking on a sequence of blood-chilling aperçus on the principles of Nazi extermination. “In most cases the man standing above the mass grave no more asked to be there than the one lying, dead or dying, at the bottom of the pit.

“Total war means there is no such thing as a civilian, and the only difference between a Jewish child gassed or shot and a German child burned alive in an air raid is one of method.” He saves his trump card for the peroration: “You should be able to admit to yourselves that you might also have done what I did… The real danger for mankind is me, is you.”

And so begins a sort of whistle-stop tour of Nazi atrocity, which sees Aue posted, with suspicious fortuity, to the pivotal areas and events in the wartime European theatre. He stands and reports as the Einsatzgruppen embark on their bungled and vicious campaign of extermination during the German invasion of Russia. He assists at the massacre of Babi Yar in Ukraine, in which nearly 34,000 Jews were murdered in two days. In the Caucasus he attempts to establish the ethnicity of various mountain tribes, before being wounded in the siege of Stalingrad. Later he ends up at Auschwitz, tasked with increasing “efficiency of production”, then he returns to besieged Berlin to witness first-hand the fall of the Reich.

The novel relies on jarring contrasts and improbable juxtapositions for its best effects. The passages of violence have a cold-burning, accretive barbarity that reminds less of Tolstoy (to whom Littell has been compared) than the sexualised battlescapes of the French writer Pierre Guyotat, as amid the gore and excrements, moments of ghastly banal clarity surface. “The attitude of the Jews didn’t make things any easier,” reports Aue. “The men got blood and brains in their faces, they were complaining.” Elsewhere, though, the style becomes arresting and coolly beautiful as it annotates the tiniest of details: a duck stooping in flight to land on water, or the snow piling on a roof.

But The Kindly Ones is not simply a product of that vexed genre, docu-fiction. In addition to Aue’s role as detached observer of human catastrophe, Littell furnishes him with a complex erotic back story that in some respects mirrors the Oresteia: his life is dominated by an incestuous relationship with his twin sister in childhood, after which he forswears women and takes to sodomy in an attempt to “feel almost everything she felt”. In a moment of amnesiac possession he murders his mother and her lover, subsequently finding himself pursued by a pair of sinister avenging detectives (The Kindly Ones of the title are the Eumenides, the propitiatory term for the Greek Furies). Combined with his obsessive interest in bodily functions and his tendency to speechify, this all makes for a confusing, hallucinated mix.

Whether it all works or not will depend on the reader. Much criticism has focused on the character of Aue, whose sexual interests and dedicated classicism threaten to draw the clichéd parallel between Nazism and perversity, refuting his claims to be “just like us”. But The Kindly Onesnever sets out to be the tale of a Nazi Everyman, a story of the banality of evil: it leaves that to the wealth of documentary testimony and factual commentary on the war. Instead, it is a magnificently artificial project in character construction, a highly literary and provocative attempt to create a character various enough to match the many discontinuous realities of the apocalyptic Nazi world-view. The result is a sprawling, daring, loose-ended monster of a book, one that justifies its towering subject matter by its persistent and troubling refusal to offer easy answers and to make satisfying sense. It feels very important indeed.

Link: Walter Benjamin’s Afterlife

Fame comes in many sorts and sizes, from the one-week notoriety of the cover story to the splendor of an everlasting name.” When Hannah Arendt wrote this sentence 46 years ago in the pages of The New Yorker, she was reflecting on the newfound halo of attention atop one of the most versatile men of letters the 20th century had known, Walter Benjamin.

In Benjamin’s case, fame had proved an odd and unpredictable phenomenon—the writer had, by Arendt’s reckoning, been all but forgotten in the years leading up to his death, spent largely in France in flight from the Nazi war machine. And following his suicide in 1940 at age 48, in Portbou, Spain, his name had been kept alive by a small number of friends and colleagues, the kind of trickle of a readership that hardly suggested he would one day be counted among the most significant and far-ranging critics, essayists, and thinkers of the past 100 years—and one whose reach may still not be completely fathomed. As impressive as the Walter Benjamin comeback tale looked to Arendt in 1968, it pales in comparison to the renown attached to his name today.

We get several glimpses of Arendt in the new Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life, just published by Harvard University Press, an epic, 700-page-plus saga of his peripatetic life and his whirlwind of productivity, written by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings. Most poignantly, Eiland and Jennings—two veterans of Benjamin studies—recount Benjamin’s beginning to take English lessons with Arendt and her husband, Heinrich Blücher (and working their way through Bacon’s “Antitheta” as an English-language primer) in preparation for what seemed their likeliest safe haven, the United States. Of course, Arendt and Blücher would establish themselves in a new land; Benjamin would never probe the experience of being what he called the “last European” in a new world. (The day after he committed suicide, after being threatened with deportation back to France by Spanish customs officials, Benjamin’s traveling companions were permitted to continue their journey.)

Yet the story of his afterlife runs through the United States—and more specifically through Cambridge, Mass., and the offices of Harvard University Press. While it was the Institute for Social Research—relocated to New York from Germany (via Geneva) before its eventual repatriation to Frankfurt after World War II—that was responsible for the stipend that kept Benjamin alive in exile in Paris after Hitler’s ascent to power, his posthumous story can’t be recounted without consideration of Harvard’s positively European approach to bringing to print the critic’s writing, and sustaining it over time. Any writer should be so lucky to have such a long commitment—and it’s one that younger readers, who may find it impossible to recall how obscure Benjamin’s reputation was not so long ago, may not appreciate in its scope.

"Paul de Man used to talk to me about him, for hours and hours," says Harvard University Press’s executive editor, Lindsay Waters, whom Eiland and Jennings laud in the acknowledgments of Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life as the “godfather of this book.” “It was clear how much de Man’s reading of the Trauerspiel"— Benjamin’s Habilitation, whose inability to find an academic sponsor (the equivalent of being rejected by a dissertation committee) denied him the financial safety of a university home—”had liberated him as a thinker.” As a graduate student at the University of Chicago, where he earned his Ph.D. with a dissertation on the 15th-century poet Luigi Pulci, Waters overlapped with de Man during the latter’s term as a visiting professor, and the theorist sparked Waters’s interest not just in Benjamin but in a broad range of untranslated European cultural criticism and literary theory.

De Man would cast a long shadow over the 88-volume Theory and History of Literature series that Waters inaugurated in 1981 as an editor at the University of Minnesota Press, one of the staggering achievements of university publishing in the 1980s and 90s. But curiously, for all the series’s influence in shaping and reflecting the leviathan of “theory” on American campuses, Benjamin is a conspicuous absence among the wealth of titles. “He was like a planet that you can’t see all of at any time,” Waters says today. “In his lifetime, even his friends couldn’t see him.”

Waters, who moved to Harvard in 1984, has made up for lost time. He has done as much as possible to ensure that every inch of Planet Benjamin, craters and all, is visible. WithWalter Benjamin: A Critical Life, he hopes as well to capture the path of his orbit. The book is a victory lap for the press, which since publishing the first volume of Benjamin’s collected writings, in 1996, has turned out more than 3,000 pages of the author’s work, in addition to packaging essays in thematic volumes (like a 2008 collection on media, which included Benjamin’s vastly cited essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” or, as it’s more frequently translated, in the version written later, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility”).

Harvard has also brought into print Benjamin’s remarkable surrealist-inspired title A Berlin Childhood Around 1900, and his journal of drug experimentation, On Hashish, both translated by Eiland. The press had earlier published Benjamin’s correspondence with Adorno, who, as the writer’s literary executor, was responsible for the first collection of Benjamin’s writing to be published 15 years after his death—a two-volume edition of some of the writer’s better-known essays, works that reintroduced him to the world but scanted the fullness of his range and ambition. (Along with the collection of Benjamin’s lifelong correspondence with the great scholar of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem, published by Schocken in 1989, these epistolary volumes offered the best glimpse of Benjamin’s day-to-day existence before Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life, which also draws heavily on the writer’s letters to colleagues and acquaintances.)

Most magnificently, Harvard published more than a decade ago, and to great acclaim, Benjamin’s Arcades Project, the archaeology of 19th-century Paris that defies categorization and which Benjamin labored over at the Bibliothèque Nationale for the final decade of his life before fleeing Paris. He entrusted the unfinished, perhaps impossible to finish, work to Georges Bataille to hide in the library’s archives. If it is a pleasant mirage that all of Benjamin could one day be published, Harvard, and Waters, seem determined to continue in pursuit.

Link: The Way of All Flesh: On Tolstoy and Mortality

You probably won’t be around for your death, and it’s probably all right that you miss it. In Middlemarch, Edward Casaubon’s death is another of life’s myriad experiences, albeit a “commonplace” one that becomes both an abomination and an act of imagination—​one’s mind plays tricks, including spiritual tricks, as the mind and body die. In Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, doctor Hofrat Behrens tries to comfort the mother of noble young officer Joachim Ziemssen, who lies dying in a sanatorium: “We come out of the dark and go into the dark again, and in between lie the experiences of our life. But the beginning and the end, birth and death, we do not experience; they have no subjective character.” Samuel Johnson told James Boswell, in typical Johnsonian fashion, that it simply doesn’t matter how a man dies, only how he lives, because dying doesn’t last that long. Unless, of course, it does, and for Leo Tolstoy’s character Ivan Ilyich, dying is a protracted process that assumes just as much importance as living—​a process that indeed takes meaning away from or gives it to the life lived.

Who but Vladimir Nabokov, in his peerless Lectures on Russian Literature, could have noticed that “Ilyich” is pronounced ill-​itch—​“the ills and itches of mortal life.” Nabokov was clear in pointing out that Tolstoy’s famous novella is not about Ivan’s death, but about his life (despite the fact that less than a quarter of the novella is devoted to Ivan’s life). Nabokov dubs the story Tolstoy’s “most artistic, most perfect, and most sophisticated achievement,” and that, ladies and gentlemen, is saying quite a lot. The esteemed Tolstoy biographer Henri Troyat called The Death of Ivan Ilyich a “double story of the decomposing body and awakening soul.” This double quality, this wedding of antithetical forces, is part of what contributes to the immortal force ofIvan Ilyich. The binary of the soul’s ascension and the body’s decline works only if, as Nabokov asserts, the story becomes about proper living instead of inevitable dying. Johnson meant that dying wasn’t important because there was nothing that could be learned from it, nowhere to go after it: As an experience it’s worthless, which is exactly what Ludwig Wittgenstein suggested when he wrote in his Tractatus, “Death is not an event of life. Death is not lived through.”

Peter Carson’s new translation of The Death of Ivan Ilyich—​for the first time paired with Tolstoy’s devastating spiritual memoir Confession—​has its own double story: As Ilyich was dying on the page, Carson was dying at his desk, besieged by the late-​stage cancer that would kill him. A revered English publisher, editor-​in-​chief of Penguin and then Profile Books, Carson was also the translator of Ivan Turgenev’s imperishable novel Fathers and Sons. Classicist Mary Beard, in her touching introduction to this volume, writes that Carson was “one of the finest translators there has ever been of nineteenth century Russian literature.” After his cancer death sentence in 2012, he left Profile and toiled full time on Tolstoy’s two classics, and it’s impossible not to imagine that this urgent task served as Carson’s own spiritual bulwark against the despair of his fate. How determined he must have been to complete this task—​his final life’s work—​even as he felt himself corroding daily from the disease. Carson isn’t the only scholar who chose to spend his last mile working on the complexities of Count Tolstoy: The historian William Shirer—​author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich—​died in 1993 just after he completed Love and Hatred: The Stormy Marriage of Leo and Sonya Tolstoy

Peter Carson has composed translations so nuanced and potent they are sure to be the benchmark for decades to come. His ingenious decision to pair these important narratives allows us the privilege of apprehending them as Tolstoy intended, because even for the most secular among us, dying can never be entirely devoid of spiritual yearning. Carson died on January 9, 2013, at the age of seventy-​four, having finished both translations just two days earlier. As Beard tells us, the last lines of Ivan Ilyich,translated by Carson himself, were read aloud at his funeral:

“It is finished!” someone said above him.

He heard these words and repeated them in his heart. “Death is finished,” he said to himself. “It is no more.” 

He breathed in, stopped halfway, stretched himself, and died.

Death is finished. It’s an extraordinary statement, wholly different from saying I am finished, and one akin to John Donne’s unforgettable image in his Devotions: “When one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of a book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated.” If Donne had been available in Russian, Tolstoy would have admired his feat of imagining—​lives translated into better lives—​and would have found much of his own artistic/spiritual logic in Donne’s most famous sonnet, “Death Be Not Proud.”

Almost all the English translations ofIvan Ilyich prettify Tolstoy’s gnarled syntax and staccato cadences in an attempt to make him a smoother, more lyrical storyteller. Carson remains exceedingly loyal to the Russian original, to that element in Tolstoy which Nabokov dubbed “the groping purist”: Tolstoy “unwraps the verbal parcel for its inner sense, he peels the apple of the phrase, he tries to say it one way, then a better way, he gropes, he stalls, he toys, he Tolstoys with words.” This Tolstoying with words can make for some syntactical tangles and repetitions, stop-​and-​go paragraphs wanting in fluidity. The simplicity of Tolstoy’s plot—​an ordinary judge falls from a ladder, bumps his side, becomes ill, and for months lies on a sofa dying in agony—​and the almost childlike simplicity of Tolstoy’s style—​“Ivan llyich’s past life had been very simple and ordinary and very awful”—​are, as in Ernest Hemingway, deceptive simplicities. Nabokov reminds us that “no major writer is simple… . Mom is simple. Digests are simple. Damnation is simple. But Tolstoys and Melvilles are not simple.”

Some context is in order. After he completed Anna Karenina in 1877, Tolstoy experienced what we might call a nervous breakdown—​a religious crisis which led him to abandon fiction and become a soapboxer, an aspiring saint, a preacher of austerity and fulminator against Orthodoxy. The conversion occurred at the steep expense of friends and his family’s harmony. Turgenev, for one, was by turns befuddled and appalled by Tolstoy’s conversion, while Sonya Tolstoy and their children refused to follow in his ascetic new beliefs, though many around the world would do just that, and give those beliefs a name, too: Tolstoyism—​an iffy doctrine hostile to both Church and State, an Earthly enactment of God’s plan to be realized through peaceful rebellion. Tolstoy could hardly have claimed surprise or displeasure when his soapboxing erupted into a worldwide doctrine, since as a young man in his midtwenties he noted in his diary that he wanted to found a fresh religion, a “religion of Christ but purged of dogmas and mysticism.” It’s true that Tolstoy’s religious writings lack the mystical blather that so titillated a thinker such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but Tolstoy never acknowledged that any spiritual program, no matter how divorced from institution, is organically susceptible to dogma. 

Written in 1886, The Death of Ivan Ilyich was the first fiction Tolstoy published after the spiritual upheaval he chronicles in Confession. It’s easy to imagine Ilyich as the old and bearded sage-​looking man Tolstoy was upon his death, but he’s only forty-​five years old, and this fact adds to the tremendous pathos of the story: The death of a young man is always more awful than the death of an old man. The priest gives Ilyich little spiritual consolation, and the doctors are self-​important fools, incapable of mitigating his pain. His co-​workers are disgusted by the thought of his wasting body and care only about jockeying for cozier positions once he dies. His wife and children, occupied by the minutiae of their quotidian lives, refuse to admit what has befallen him. He finds their refusal to confront this fanged truth most disgusting of all: “Ivan Ilyich’s chief torment was the lie—​that lie, for some reason recognized by everyone, that he was only ill but not dying.” His sole comfort comes from Gerasim, the peasant servant who does not recoil from the foul stench, who accepts the inevitability of all flesh. If Ilyich’s upper-​crust friends regard death as indecent, Gerasim knows otherwise: His peasant’s dirty-​hands understanding of life, his calm acceptance of every person’s fate, helps to calm Ilyich into his own acceptance. (The peasantry’s calm acceptance of death, by the way, can be noticed in Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Solzhenitsyn, to name a few—​it seems to fall somewhere in line between Russian literary trope and Russian cultural myth.) Relief for Ilyich comes only after he has followed Gerasim’s lead and acquiesced to his fate.

Much has been written about exactly what disease or injury afflicts Ilyich—​Troyat is certain it’s stomach cancer—​but the narrative makes clear that the name or physical nature of the affliction matters not at all. Some have read Ilyich’s ordeal as a manifestation of a profoundly sick society wed to Mammon, an indication that an entire culture has been corroded by hedonism and greed. Nadine Gordimer has written that Ilyich “was fatally sickened by his times.” Philip Rahv, in an inspired piece on both Ivan Ilyich and Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial, wrote: “As to the mysterious catastrophe which destroys Ilyich, what is it in historical reality if not the ghost of the old idealism of status returning to avenge itself on its murderer? Through Ilyich’s death the expropriators are expropriated.” What we behold in Joseph K. and Ilyich, says Rahv, is “the historic depletion of man.” It’s important to remember the essence of Tolstoy’s ideology when he was composing Ivan Ilyich: The uncomplicated of-​the-​land peasantry was the paragon of human living, while the city-​poisoned bourgeoisie was submerged in the spiritual quicksand of its own rampant materialism. 

Rahv has written that this novella “would be utterly pointless if it were to see Ivan Ilyich as a special type and what happened to him as anything out of the ordinary. Ivan Ilyich is Every-man.” The literary scholar Victor Brombert agrees; in his lovely new book Musings on Mortality: From Tolstoy to Primo Levi, he writes of Ivan Ilyich: “It is hard to imagine a more unremarkable first name and patronymic. It is like calling the protagonist John Smith or Every-man. And nothing could be more common or widespread than death.” But it’s mistaken to think that every person experiences death precisely as Ilyich does, especially when you heed Nabokov’s injunction to see the story as about his spiritually vacant and frivolous life. Despite the universality of his predicament, Ilyich is no Everyman because not everyone spends his final months remorseful over a misguided life. Ivan Ilyich is, rather, more like Count Tolstoy himself: probing, railing, regretful, conflicted, intransigent to the last. 

Because Ilyich “sees the light,” as the cliché has it, because he comes to comprehend that his existence has been in error, the story amounts to a confirmation of the Christian paradox that one must die in order to live, that one’s true life—​true because eternal—​begins at death. Scholars have noted, too, that the ending of Ivan Ilyichsmacks of Christ’s crucifixion: Ilyich’s final agonizing stretch of three days, his exacerbated inquiry, “Why, why do you torment me so horribly?” an unambiguous echo of Christ’s famous “Why hast Thou forsaken me?” Brombert skillfully shows how “the transition from chapter 6 to chapter 9 closely parallels the transition from the sixth to the ninth hour of the Crucifixion.” All this Christian special pleading makes for a convenient ending, both too hasty and too tidy. Worse, it smells suspiciously of propaganda—​the narrative tortures a man only so that he can receive the deliverance which was, we can’t help but see, a forgone conclusion. Worse still, it’s an obese bromide: One must travel through hell to reach heaven? This is what happens when the fiction writer allows himself to be breathed on by the pamphleteer.

Some scholars view Tolstoy’s spiritual crisis as a rupture in his creativity, his conversion as destruction, but look closely at Tolstoy’s fiction prior to 1878 and you’ll see that the rupture was no such thing, that the quartet of spiritual books he produced from 1878 to 1882—​Confession, Critique of Dogmatic Theology, Harmony and Translation of the Four Gospels, and What I Believe—​was penned by the same creative hand which penned War and Peace and Anna Karenina. The question, How can one live without despair? crops up everywhere in the work, and one suspects that without his tremendous worldly success Tolstoy would have easily morphed into Kafka, overwhelmed by every breath, stomped under the shoe of existence. What’s more, his intense fear and contemplation of death and dying was not unique to the post-​conversion period. Five of his thirteen children died before their tenth birthdays—​never underestimate how such calamity can warp even the most stoic of men. Tolstoy was crushed by his brother Nikolai’s death from consumption in 1860 (he also visited Anton Chekhov during the younger writer’s dying from the same disease). As early as 1869 he experienced what Maxim Gorky named the “Arsamasian Terror”: During the night in a hotel in Arzamas, Tolstoy woke suddenly with a cutting dread of death and the certain knowledge that living was futile (he’d been eyebrow-​deep in the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, which explains much). One of the central meanings of War and Peace is how human beings have as much control of history as they have of their own mortality. And look at the dying of Nikolai Levin in Anna Karenina to see how similar it is to the dying of Ivan Ilyich: 

His sufferings, growing more and more severe, did their work and prepared him for death… . Hitherto each individual desire aroused by suffering or privation, such as hunger, fatigue, thirst, had brought enjoyment when gratified. But now privation and suffering were not followed by relief, and the effort to obtain relief only occasioned fresh suffering. And so all desires were merged in one—​the desire to be rid of all this pain and from its source, the body. But he had no words to express this desire for deliverance, and so he did not speak of it.

Here’s what Meursault contemplates in Albert Camus’s Stranger while he’s waiting in prison to be executed for murder, a contemplation at the very crux of the spiritual disaster in Tolstoy’s Confession

Deep down I knew perfectly well that it doesn’t much matter whether you die at thirty or at seventy, since in either case other men and women will naturally go on living… . Whether it was now or twenty years from now, I would still be the one dying. At that point what would disturb my train of thought was the terrifying leap I would feel my heart take at the idea of having twenty more years of life ahead of me. But I simply had to stifle it by imagining what I’d be thinking in twenty years when it would all come down to the same thing anyway. Since we’re all going to die, it’s obvious that when and how don’t matter.

Never the low aimer, Tolstoy called his memoir Confession with both Saint Augustine and Jean-​Jacques Rousseau in mind. From grievous detail to grievous detail—​“life is nonsense … nothing ahead but doom … complete annihilation”—​the book recounts Tolstoy’s hard path between spurious “Church” belief and “true” Christian belief, one denuded of officiating and ostentation. Orthodoxy is “stupid, cruel, and immoral”—​replace “Orthodoxy” with “Catholicism” and Tolstoy has more in common with Martin Luther than he would have dared admit. In his masterwork A History of Russian Literature, D. S. Mirsky calls Confession “the greatest piece of oratory in Russian literature,” and while that might be a bit of hyperbole, Confession does boast an oratorical acuity all the more remarkable because it pretends to do no such thing. The question at its core is this: “Is there any meaning in my life that wouldn’t be destroyed by the death that inevitably awaits me?” It’s the very question—​the very horror—​that pesters Ivan Ilyich during his months-​long agon against death. And Camus must have had these lines in mind when he was composing Meursault’s demise: “You can only live as long as you’re drunk with life; but when you sober up, you can’t help but see that all this is just a fraud, and a stupid fraud. Precisely that: there’s nothing even amusing or witty about it; it’s simply cruel and stupid.”

And so the great man searched. Schopenhauer, Solomon, and Buddha offered no solace.Scientific rationalism was a coffin for his soul. Others of his own class and education had no clue. Then, in a suicidal stupor, he began to see that the supernaturalism and irrationality of faith, and all the vulgate attached to it, wasn’t so stupid after all: “It alone gives mankind answers to the questions of life and consequently the possibility of living.” Writing War and Peace and Anna Kareninawasn’t enough; the love of his wife wasn’t enough; the lives of his children weren’t enough; Leo Tolstoy also had to have an invitation from the infinite. And those who mailed him this invitation to the infinite were the peasants—​because, like Gerasim inIvan Ilyich and unlike all the poseurs from Tolstoy’s own set, the peasants didn’t pretend. Their beliefs weren’t disconnected from their lives; their superstitions were meaningful because they enhanced happiness. Furthermore, their privation and ceaseless hardship were not sources of wonder or remorse—​they accepted existence as it was. And by accepting existence as it was they accepted its cessation too. Tolstoy’s rabid dread of death turned him into something of a slummer: This genius with deep wealth and unmatched renown tried unsuccessfully to embrace privation and even took to wearing the peasant’s traditional dress. But it’s one thing to wear their clothes; quite another to live their lives.

In the powerful conclusion of his long essay on Tolstoy, The Hedgehog and the Fox, Isaiah Berlin describes the agony of Tolstoy’s dying as an inability to resolve “the conflict of what there is with what there ought to be.” For Tolstoy, what ought to have been was his physical immortality—​his death struck him as an unconscionable affront to the cosmic order. How could an intelligence and imagination that vast ever die? He succumbed to pneumonia at the age of eighty-​two at a railway station in Astapovo, a far-​off Russian village. He’d fled his dismaying and dismayed wife and their estate, called Yasnaya Polyana, ten days earlier. “I am doing what old men of my age usually do,” he wrote in his farewell letter to Sonya; “leaving worldly life to spend the last days of my life in solitude and quiet.” He died in the care of his daughter Sasha, his family doctor, and a probably awe-​smacked peasant stationmaster—​his Gerasim—​while Sonya was forbidden to see her husband of forty-​eight years. (There’s a famous, heart-​stabbing photo of her peering into a window of the modest home where her husband lay dying. There’s also a novel by Jay Parini called The Last Station which beautifully imagines the torture of the Tolstoys’ final year.) So eminent was Tolstoy that many hundreds, including the Tsar’s operatives and a battalion of reporters, descended on Astapovo and created an international commotion. It’s highly unlikely that Leo Tolstoy, even in his weakened and addled state, wasn’t aware of how his life had just transformed into his fiction, of how by some creative miracle he had augured this very demise twenty-​four years earlier in The Death of Ivan Ilyich.

Link: The Bitter Women of Japanese Noir

Modern Japanese crime thrillers give a seamy voice to societal discontent.

I have a suspicion that Japanese works often get dumbed down during translation. Why that is I don’t have the authority to say, except to note that with vastly different grammatical structures and subtleties in language, particularly in social contexts, properly conveying the material can be a difficult balancing act. The feeling that something is lost is particularly apparent in works like Hitomi Kanehara’s Snakes and Earrings, which from the opening paragraphs bears the distinctive mark of that awkward, distanced dialogue so common among said translations, or Natsuo Kirino’s Real World, with its substitutions for teen slang—so many “dudes” that we wonder if the story doesn’t take place on a California beach. Or Kirino’s novel Grotesque, shortened and censored to the point where characters and their motives appear shallow. As a result there is a clunkiness that in most cases I’m not quite sure who to criticize for, if anyone at all.

All of this simply to say that it’s neither the translation nor the writing itself that draws me to the genre of Japanese crime fiction in the first place. It’s the emotional pull lurking under the occasionally flat text, as well as the notable proliferation of female authors who, within traditionally masculine parameters, have gained a foothold in the telling of darker psychological narratives. Kirino, hailed in the States as the quintessential author of Japanese feminist noir, has struck a chord in Japan, and what sets her apart is not about her style but in what she expresses. In an interview withTheme Magazine from 2007, she shares what readers have told her: “Thank you for writing what I feel.”

A housewife assists in dismembering the body of an unfaithful husband, a female office worker plots a traceless murder, and a group of schoolgirls help a high school outcast escape arrest for matricide. They derive no benefit from their stereotypes; they are too hard-bitten, too unattractive, too young to be taken seriously, or too old to be socially desirable. Their stories are usually ignored, and their voices yield contempt. In the U.S., we like stories of horror or violence that speak to concerns about sexuality and emasculation, but we do not have as much interest in female antiheroes. There exists a fine yet definite line between the serial killer protagonist who gets to head a premium cable show and the twisted fantasies of a woman steeped in a lifetime of frustrated ambitions.

The nameless narrator of Grotesque, for example, is an extraordinarily difficult character to sympathize with, and an ugly one to get lost in. Her jealousy of her beautiful sister, a prostitute whose murder forms the backdrop of the story, is all-consuming (it may be worthy of note here that prostitution is almost portrayed as a form of empowerment—if not for the fact that both prostitutes in the novel are murdered during the course of their work). She is petty, spurred on by injustices and humiliations both real and imagined, fatalistic about any attempt at being recognized as a person of worth. She draws the reader into her ugly world, for the worse, and directs our stare into the wound left by a lifetime of resentment. “Was it my lot in life,” she muses, “to stand forever on heaven’s shores watching the glittering swirl of celestial bodies on the other side?”

This is a side of Japan that isn’t often shown—the lives of women who aren’t cute or child-like, the ones who can’t afford to depend on anyone and aren’t really liked enough anyway, who work on the fringes of society and look forward to the bleakest of futures. We’re familiar with men whose aggressive efforts to attain a proper, virile masculinity reveal them as weak and pathetic; we know stories of children who were never nurtured by kind, broad-minded adults, who grow into physical and psychological abusers in their own right. While these narratives have entered the mainstream, a more resistant barrier exists for women who are neither helpless victim nor sultry femme fatale. They are slotted into a different role, one that exists to dismiss them: the bitter woman.

Resentment is classified as hostility toward another group, a privileged group perceived as being responsible for one’s feelings of powerlessness or inferiority. The feeling is chronic, indirectly expressed, bitter. It wishes to even the scales by bringing others down. A search for “bitter women” online comes up with a bevy of results that imply, even today, that women have a reputation for it. Angry Men and Bitter WomenAre You a Bitter Woman? Why Are Some Women So Bitter? Two of the results on the front page feature black women.


As with Grotesque, Miyuki Miyabe’s All She Was Worth features a twin set of murders, both committed by women motivated by their limited financial mobility: one weighed down by Japan’s credit economy and legal insistence on family ties, the other by dependence on her husband’s income. The inspector investigating the case is limited by bureaucracy, his own worth lowered when he has to take medical leave. There is a common theme throughout Japanese crime narratives: an inescapable social structure, a culturally endorsed sense of inevitability, and a sense of being the protruding nail that (so goes the phrase) is hammered down. In wider readings this type of discontent is not restricted to Japanese women. Some may be more vulnerable to this system than others, but to maintain such vast class imbalances, no one can be immune. And murder, in a system that fosters spite, is a tantalizing retaliation.

Spite, as opposed to resentment, is expression thrown outward, externalized, weaponized. There’s a lot to be said, that has been said, against it. Yet spite can be useful as a temporary motivator, a fallback that is tough if not noble. We know that the spiteful are not popular, they are never loved, and maybe they never have been, and that’s what makes it a lifestyle—a perpetual reaction against a hostile, unloving world. It’s better than lying down, accepting circumstances, and waiting to die.

While it may not be a wholly sustainable source of power, it is a form of power—a repressed form, a distorted, deformed, mutant offspring of it. The women of today’s Japanese crime fiction do have a dark, swirling energy that makes them impossible to simply wave aside. Held back, their spite grows tenfold and is hurled out at the world in short, violent outbursts whose effects reverberate; but society, as ever, refuses to acknowledge this seething undercurrent. Things in the dark are left to the dark, dialogue is cut short, and even those in their clean offices and expensive homes suffer for it.

The resentful, according to Nietzsche, become filled with pent-up spite. They become secretive and sly, creating secret enemies, scapegoating others, becoming ever more clever and vindictive in order to sustain themselves. They create, by imagining every kind of retribution; they deny, by bottling up and containing all the cruelties and exercises of power that elude them. Nietzsche scathingly disparaged the morality this produces, which forms a basis for the dichotomy of good and evil—the implication of such a setup being that, eventually, the wicked group will one day face divine retribution. But the bitter woman of the Japanese crime narrative does not believe that God’s wrath will punish the privileged. She acknowledges her own filth as well and maintains that she does not care; she does not believe in an ultimate moral vanquishment and doesn’t fight for one. There is, ultimately, no moral climax, no clarion call to something like justice or pity. She is satisfied in being a cancer to society solely by remaining alive and poisonous. She is its dark mirror—if not divine, then at least eternal.

In an archetypal sense this is something akin to the wrath of Izanami, punished for her gender and trapped in a defiled realm; or from Western myth, the wrath of Lilith, whose resentment is the envy of the dead toward the living: the hatred of their joys, and the fact that they hardly seem to think twice about the matter. Their spite stems from the fact that the living continue to keep on living, ignorant to their trials and contributions, without them.

Kirino, Kanehara, and Miyabe channel this destructive power back into something creative, refusing to add romance or any positive insight, and in doing so succeed in making their readers feel as uncomfortable as they do. It’s a deep, nagging discomfort, the kind that sticks like a barb long after the stories are over. The character in question simply disappears from our view when the novel ends: perhaps she is dead, perhaps she has moved forward, perhaps, somewhere, her life continues the way it always has.

It’s a disturbingly easy vanishing. Even if someone did care for her, as with teen runaway Kiririn of Real World or Shoko Sekine of All She Was Worth, she does not believe it. She has already given up on faithful attachments, jaded as she is by warped perceptions of a person’s value. It’s the basis for a crime like Sekine’s murder—the belief that no one would care for a loveless woman, that no one will go looking for her after her disappearance. “No emotional attachments,” the narrator notes, “no orders from anybody. She’s like a wall covered with paper in a bright floral pattern: underneath it, reinforced concrete. Impenetrable, as solid as they come. An iron will to survive. For herself and no one else.”

That’s what becomes safe for her, what’s comfortable and familiar. Anything else belongs to that other world, that seemingly bright, happy world that she’s not allowed admittance to, and which she eventually refuses entirely. Accustomed to her combative existence, she grows inwardly ever more distorted, ever more isolated. If the world does not care for her, after all, then there is no reason she should care for it.

Excerpt from “Le Sermon sur la Chute de Rome” by Jérôme Ferrari

Pendant trois jours, les Wisigoths d’Alaric ont pillé la ville et traîné leurs longs manteaux bleus dans le sang des vierges. Quand Augustin l’apprend, il s’en émeut à peine. Il lutte depuis des années contre la fureur des donatistes et consacre tous ses efforts, maintenant qu’ils sont vaincus, à les ramener dans le sein de l’Église catholique. Il prêche les vertus du pardon à des fidèles qu’anime encore l’esprit de vengeance. Il ne s’intéresse pas aux pierres qui s’écroulent. Car bien qu’il ait rejeté loin de lui, avec horreur, les hérésies de sa jeunesse coupable, peut-être a-t-il gardé en lui des enseignements de Mani la conviction profonde que ce monde est mauvais et ne mérite pas que l’on verse des larmes sur sa fin. Oui, le monde est rempli des ténèbres du mal, il le croit toujours, mais il sait aujourd’hui qu’aucun esprit ne les anime, qui porterait atteinte à l’unité du Dieu éternel, car les ténèbres ne sont que l’absence de lumière, de même que le mal indique seulement la trace du retrait de Dieu hors du monde, la distance infinie qui les sépare, que seule Sa grâce peut combler dans les eaux pures du baptême. Que le monde passe dans les ténèbres, si le cœur des hommes s’ouvre à la lumière de Dieu. Mais chaque jour, des réfugiés apportent en Afrique le poison de leur désespoir. Les païens accusent Dieu de n’avoir pas protégé une ville devenue chrétienne. Depuis son monastère de Bethléem, Jérôme fait retentir l’impudeur de ses lamentations sur toute la chrétienté, il gémit sans retenue sur le sort de Rome livrée aux flammes et aux assauts des barbares et il oublie, dans son chagrin blasphématoire, que les chrétiens n’appartiennent pas au monde, mais à l’éternité des choses éternelles. Dans les églises d’Hippone, les fidèles partagent leurs troubles et leurs doutes et ils se tournent vers leur évêque pour apprendre de sa bouche à quel noir péché ils doivent un si terrible châtiment. Le berger ne doit pas reprocher à ses brebis leurs craintes stériles. Il doit seulement les apaiser. Et c’est pour les apaiser qu’Augustin, en décembre 410, s’avance vers eux dans la nef de la cathédrale et prend place sur l’ambon. Une foule immense est venue l’écouter et attend, pressée contre les chancels dans la douce lumière de l’hiver, que s’élève la voix qui l’arrachera à sa peine.

Écoutez, vous qui m’êtes chers,
Nous, chrétiens, nous croyons à l’éternité des choses éternelles auxquelles nous appartenons. Dieu ne nous a promis que la mort et la résurrection. Les fondations de nos villes ne s’enfoncent pas dans la terre mais dans le cœur de l’Apôtre que le Seigneur a élu pour bâtir son Église car Dieu n’érige pas pour nous des citadelles de pierre, de chair et de marbre, Il érige hors du monde la citadelle de l’Esprit-Saint, une citadelle d’amour qui ne s’écroulera jamais et se dressera toujours dans sa gloire quand le siècle aura été réduit en cendres. Rome a été prise et vos cœurs en sont scandalisés. Mais je vous le demande, à vous qui m’êtes chers, désespérer de Dieu qui vous a promis le salut de Sa grâce, n’est-ce pas là le véritable scandale ? Tu pleures parce que Rome a été livrée aux flammes ? Dieu a-t-Il jamais promis que le monde serait éternel ? Les murs de Carthage sont tombés, le feu de Baal s’est éteint, et les guerriers de Massinissa qui ont abattu les remparts de Cirta ont disparu à leur tour, comme s’écoule le sable. Cela tu le savais, mais tu croyais que Rome ne tomberait pas. Rome n’a-t-elle pas été bâtie par des hommes comme toi ? Depuis quand crois-tu que les hommes ont le pouvoir de bâtir des choses éternelles ? L’homme bâtit sur du sable. Si tu veux étreindre ce qu’il a bâti, tu n’étreins que le vent. Tes mains sont vides, et ton cœur affligé. Et si tu aimes le monde, tu périras avec lui.

Vous qui m’êtes chers,
Vous êtes mes frères et sœurs et je suis triste de vous voir ainsi affligés. Mais je suis bien plus triste encore de vous trouver sourds à la parole de Dieu. Ce qui naît dans la chair meurt dans la chair. Les mondes passent des ténèbres aux ténèbres, l’un après l’autre, et si glorieuse que soit Rome, c’est encore au monde qu’elle appartient et elle doit passer avec lui. Mais votre âme, remplie de la lumière de Dieu, ne passera pas. Les ténèbres ne l’engloutiront pas. Ne versez pas de larmes sur les ténèbres du monde. Ne versez pas de larmes sur les palais et les théâtres détruits. Ce n’est pas digne de votre foi. Ne versez pas de larmes sur les frères et sœurs que l’épée d’Alaric nous a enlevés. Comment pouvez-vous demander à Dieu de rendre compte de leur mort, Lui qui a livré Son fils unique en sacrifice, pour la rémission de nos péchés ? Dieu épargne qui Il veut. Et ceux qu’Il a choisi de laisser mourir en martyrs se réjouissent aujourd’hui de ne pas avoir été épargnés selon la chair car ils vivent à jamais dans la béatitude éternelle de Sa lumière. C’est cela, cela seul, qui nous est promis, à nous, qui sommes chrétiens.

Vous qui m’êtes chers,
Ne vous troublez pas non plus des attaques des païens. Tant de villes sont tombées, qui n’étaient pas chrétiennes, et leurs idoles n’ont pu les protéger. Mais toi, est-ce une idole de pierre que tu adores ? Rappelle-toi qui est ton Dieu. Rappelle-toi ce qu’Il t’a annoncé. Il t’a annoncé que le monde serait détruit par le glaive et les flammes, Il t’a promis la destruction et la mort. Comment t’effraies-tu de ce que s’accomplissent les prophéties ? Et Il a aussi promis le retour de Son fils glorieux dans ce champ de ruines afin que soit instauré le règne éternel de la lumière auquel tu participeras. Pourquoi pleures-tu au lieu de te réjouir, toi qui ne vis que dans l’attente de la fin du monde, si du moins tu es chrétien ? Mais peut-être ne convient-il ni de pleurer, ni de se réjouir. Rome est tombée. Elle a été prise mais la terre et les cieux n’en sont pas ébranlés. Regardez autour de vous, vous qui m’êtes chers. Rome est tombée mais n’est-ce pas, en vérité, comme s’il ne s’était rien passé ? La course des astres n’est pas troublée, la nuit succède au jour qui succède à la nuit, à chaque instant, le présent surgit du néant, et retourne au néant, vous êtes là, devant moi, et le monde marche encore vers sa fin mais il ne l’a pas encore atteinte, et nous ne savons pas quand il l’atteindra, car Dieu ne nous révèle pas tout. Mais ce qu’Il nous révèle suffit à combler nos cœurs et nous aide à nous fortifier dans l’épreuve, car notre foi en Son amour est telle qu’elle nous préserve des tourments que doivent endurer ceux qui n’ont pas connu cet amour. Et c’est ainsi que nous gardons un cœur pur, dans la joie du Christ.

Augustin interrompt un instant son sermon. Dans la foule, il voit des visages attentifs dont beaucoup sont redevenus sereins. Mais il entend encore des sanglots étouffés. Tout près de lui, contre le chancel, une jeune femme lève vers lui ses yeux voilés de larmes. Il lui jette d’abord un regard sévère de père courroucé mais il voit qu’elle lui sourit étrangement à travers ses larmes et, juste avant de reprendre la parole, il lui adresse un signe de bénédiction et c’est à ce sourire qu’il repense, vingt ans plus tard, allongé sur le sol de l’abside, tandis que des clercs à genoux prient pour le salut de son âme, dont personne ne doute.
Augustin est en train de mourir dans sa ville qu’assiègent depuis trois mois les troupes de Genséric. Peut-être ne s’est-il rien passé à Rome en août 410 que l’ébranlement d’un centre de gravité, l’amorce du basculement léger dont l’impulsion a finalement précipité les Vandales à travers l’Espagne et, par-delà les mers, jusque sous les murs d’Hippone. Augustin est à bout de forces. Les privations l’ont rendu si faible qu’il ne peut même plus se redresser. Il n’entend plus les clameurs de l’armée vandale ni les voix apeurées des fidèles réfugiés dans la nef. Dans son esprit épuisé, la cathédrale semble être redevenue un havre de lumière et de silence que protège la main de Dieu. Bientôt, les Vandales déferleront sur Hippone. Ils y feront pénétrer leurs chevaux, leur brutalité et l’hérésie arienne. Peut-être détruiront-ils tout ce qu’il a jadis aimé dans sa faiblesse de pécheur, mais il a tant prêché sur la fin du monde qu’il ne devrait pas s’en préoccuper. Des hommes mourront, des femmes seront violées, le manteau des Barbares se teintera encore de leur sang. Le sol sur lequel repose Augustin est partout marqué de l’Alpha et de l’Oméga, le signe du Christ, qu’il touche du bout des doigts. La promesse de Dieu n’en finit pas de s’accomplir et l’âme agonisante est faible, vulnérable à la tentation. Quelle promesse Dieu peut- Il faire aux hommes, Lui qui les connaît si peu qu’Il resta sourd au désespoir de Son propre fils et ne les comprit pas même en Se faisant l’un d’eux ? Et comment les hommes se fieraient-ils à ses promesses quand le Christ lui- même désespéra de sa propre divinité ? Augustin frémit sur le marbre froid et, juste avant que ses yeux ne s’ouvrent à la lumière éternelle qui brille sur la cité qu’aucune armée ne prendra jamais, il se demande avec angoisse si tous les fidèles en pleurs que le sermon sur la chute de Rome ne put consoler n’avaient pas compris ses paroles bien mieux qu’il ne les comprenait lui-même. Les mondes passent, en vérité, l’un après l’autre, des ténèbres aux ténèbres, et leur succession ne signifie peut-être rien. Cette hypothèse intolérable brûle l’âme d’Augustin qui pousse un soupir, gisant parmi ses frères, et il s’efforce de se tourner vers le Seigneur mais il revoit seulement l’étrange sourire mouillé de larmes que lui a jadis offert la candeur d’une jeune femme inconnue, pour porter devant lui témoignage de la fin, en même temps que des origines, car c’est un seul et même témoignage.  

Link: "Life without Principle" by Henry David Thoreau

At a lyceum, not long since, I felt that the lecturer had chosen a theme too foreign to himself, and so failed to interest me as much as he might have done. He described things not in or near to his heart, but toward his extremities and superficies. There was, in this sense, no truly central or centralizing thought in the lecture. I would have had him deal with his privatest experience, as the poet does. The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me whatI thought, and attended to my answer. I am surprised, as well as delighted, when this happens, it is such a rare use he would make of me, as if he were acquainted with the tool. Commonly, if men want anything of me, it is only to know how many acres I make of their land, — since I am a surveyor, — or, at most, what trivial news I have burdened myself with. They never will go to law for my meat; they prefer the shell. A man once came a considerable distance to ask me to lecture on Slavery; but on conversing with him, I found that he and his clique expected seven eighths of the lecture to be theirs, and only one eighth mine; so I declined. I take it for granted, when I am invited to lecture anywhere, — for I have had a little experience in that business, — that there is a desire to hear what I think on some subject, though I may be the greatest fool in the country, — and not that I should say pleasant things merely, or such as the audience will assent to; and I resolve, accordingly, that I will give them a strong dose of myself. They have sent for me, and engaged to pay for me, and I am determined that they shall have me, though I bore them beyond all precedent.

[2] So now I would say something similar to you, my readers. Since you are my readers, and I have not been much of a traveller, I will not talk about people a thousand miles off, but come as near home as I can. As the time is short, I will leave out all the flattery, and retain all the criticism.

[3] Let us consider the way in which we spend our lives. 

[4] This world is a place of business. What an infinite bustle! I am awaked almost every night by the panting of the locomotive. It interrupts my dreams. There is no sabbath. It would be glorious to see mankind at leisure for once. It is nothing but work, work, work. I cannot easily buy a blank-book to write thoughts in; they are commonly ruled for dollars and cents. An Irishman, seeing me making a minute in the fields, took it for granted that I was calculating my wages. If a man was tossed out of a window when an infant, and so made a cripple for life, or scared out of his wits by the Indians, it is regretted chiefly because he was thus incapacitated for — business! I think that there is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay, to life itself, than this incessant business.

[5] There is a coarse and boisterous money-making fellow in the outskirts of our town, who is going to build a bank-wall under the hill along the edge of his meadow. The powers have put this into his head to keep him out of mischief, and he wishes me to spend three weeks digging there with him. The result will be that he will perhaps get some more money to board, and leave for his heirs to spend foolishly. If I do this, most will commend me as an industrious and hard-working man; but if I choose to devote myself to certain labors which yield more real profit, though but little money, they may be inclined to look on me as an idler. Nevertheless, as I do not need the police of meaningless labor to regulate me, and do not see anything absolutely praiseworthy in this fellow’s undertaking any more than in many an enterprise of our own or foreign governments, however amusing it may be to him or them, I prefer to finish my education at a different school.

[6] If a man walk in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer; but if he spends his whole day as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making earth bald before her time, he is esteemed an industrious and enterprising citizen. As if a town had no interest in its forests but to cut them down! 

[7] Most men would feel insulted if it were proposed to employ them in throwing stones over a wall, and then in throwing them back, merely that they might earn their wages. But many are no more worthily employed now. For instance: just after sunrise, one summer morning, I noticed one of my neighbors walking beside his team, which was slowly drawing a heavy hewn stone swung under the axle, surrounded by an atmosphere of industry, — his day’s work begun, — his brow commenced to sweat, — a reproach to all sluggards and idlers, — pausing abreast the shoulders of his oxen, and half turning round with a flourish of his merciful whip, while they gained their length on him. And I thought, Such is the labor which the American Congress exists to protect, — honest, manly toil, — honest as the day is long, — that makes his bread taste sweet, and keeps society sweet, — which all men respect and have consecrated; one of the sacred band, doing the needful but irksome drudgery. Indeed, I felt a slight reproach, because I observed this from a window, and was not abroad and stirring about a similar business. The day went by, and at evening I passed the yard of another neighbor, who keeps many servants, and spends much money foolishly, while he adds nothing to the common stock, and there I saw the stone of the morning lying beside a whimsical structure intended to adorn this Lord Timothy Dexter’s premises, and the dignity forthwith departed from the teamster’s labor, in my eyes. In my opinion, the sun was made to light worthier toil than this. I may add that his employer has since run off, in debt to a good part of the town, and, after passing through Chancery,(3) has settled somewhere else, there to become once more a patron of the arts. 

[8] The ways by which you may get money almost without exception lead downward. To have done anything by which you earned money merely is to have been truly idle or worse. If the laborer gets no more than the wages which his employer pays him, he is cheated, he cheats himself. If you would get money as a writer or lecturer, you must be popular, which is to go down perpendicularly. Those services which the community will most readily pay for, it is most disagreeable to render. You are paid for being something less than a man. The State does not commonly reward a genius any more wisely. Even the poet laureate would rather not have to celebrate the accidents of royalty. He must be bribed with a pipe of wine; and perhaps another poet is called away from his muse to gauge that very pipe. As for my own business, even that kind of surveying which I could do with most satisfaction my employers do not want. They would prefer that I should do my work coarsely and not too well, ay, not well enough. When I observe that there are different ways of surveying, my employer commonly asks which will give him the most land, not which is most correct. I once invented a rule for measuring cord-wood, and tried to introduce it in Boston; but the measurer there told me that the sellers did not wish to have their wood measured correctly, — that he was already too accurate for them, and therefore they commonly got their wood measured in Charlestown before crossing the bridge.

[9] The aim of the laborer should be, not to get his living, to get “a good job,” but to perform well a certain work; and, even in a pecuniary sense, it would be economy for a town to pay its laborers so well that they would not feel that they were working for low ends, as for a livelihood merely, but for scientific, or even moral ends. Do not hire a man who does your work for money, but him who does it for love of it.

[10] It is remarkable that there are few men so well employed, so much to their minds, but that a little money or fame would commonly buy them off from their present pursuit. I see advertisements for active young men, as if activity were the whole of a young man’s capital. Yet I have been surprised when one has with confidence proposed to me, a grown man, to embark in some enterprise of his, as if I had absolutely nothing to do, my life having been a complete failure hitherto. What a doubtful compliment this is to pay me! As if he had met me half-way across the ocean beating up against the wind, but bound nowhere, and proposed to me to go along with him! If I did, what do you think the underwriters would say? No, no! I am not without employment at this stage of the voyage. To tell the truth, I saw an advertisement for able-bodied seamen, when I was a boy, sauntering in my native port, and as soon as I came of age I embarked.

[11] The community has no bribe that will tempt a wise man. You may raise money enough to tunnel a mountain, but you cannot raise money enough to hire a man who is minding his own business. An efficient and valuable man does what he can, whether the community pay him for it or not. The inefficient offer their inefficiency to the highest bidder, and are forever expecting to be put into office. One would suppose that they were rarely disappointed.

[12] Perhaps I am more than usually jealous with respect to my freedom. I feel that my connection with and obligation to society are still very slight and transient. Those slight labors which afford me a livelihood, and by which it is allowed that I am to some extent serviceable to my contemporaries, are as yet commonly a pleasure to me, and I am not often reminded that they are a necessity. So far I am successful. But I foresee that if my wants should be much increased, the labor required to supply them would become a drudgery. If I should sell both my forenoons and afternoons to society, as most appear to do, I am sure that for me there would be nothing left worth living for. I trust that I shall never thus sell my birthright for a mess of pottage. I wish to suggest that a man may be very industrious, and yet not spend his time well. There is no more fatal blunderer than he who consumes the greater part of his life getting his living. All great enterprises are self-supporting. The poet, for instance, must sustain his body by his poetry, as a steam planing-mill feeds its boilers with the shavings it makes. You must get your living by loving. But as it is said of the merchants that ninety-seven in a hundred fail, so the life of men generally, tried by this standard, is a failure, and bankruptcy may be surely prophesied.

[13] Merely to come into the world the heir of a fortune is not to be born, but to be still-born, rather. To be supported by the charity of friends, or a government pension, — provided you continue to breathe, — by whatever fine synonyms you describe these relations, is to go into the almshouse. On Sundays the poor debtor goes to church to take an account of stock, and finds, of course, that his outgoes have been greater than his income. In the Catholic Church, especially, they go into chancery, make a clean confession, give up all, and think to start again. Thus men will lie on their backs, talking about the fall of man, and never make an effort to get up.

[14] As for the comparative demand which men make on life, it is an important difference between two, that the one is satisfied with a level success, that his marks can all be hit by point-blank shots, but the other, however low and unsuccessful his life may be, constantly elevates his aim, though at a very slight angle to the horizon. I should much rather be the last man, — though, as the Orientals say, “Greatness doth not approach him who is forever looking down; and all those who are looking high are growing poor.”

[15] It is remarkable that there is little or nothing to be remembered written on the subject of getting a living; how to make getting a living not merely honest and honorable, but altogether inviting and glorious; for if getting a living is not so, then living is not. One would think, from looking at literature, that this question had never disturbed a solitary individual’s musings. Is it that men are too much disgusted with their experience to speak of it? The lesson of value which money teaches, which the Author of the Universe has taken so much pains to teach us, we are inclined to skip altogether. As for the means of living, it is wonderful how indifferent men of all classes are about it, even reformers, so called, — whether they inherit, or earn, or steal it. I think that Society has done nothing for us in this respect, or at least has undone what she has done. Cold and hunger seem more friendly to my nature than those methods which men have adopted and advise to ward them off. 

[16] The title wise is, for the most part, falsely applied. How can one be a wise man, if he does not know any better how to live than other men? — if he is only more cunning and intellectually subtle? Does Wisdom work in a tread-mill? or does she teach how to succeed by her example? Is there any such thing as wisdom not applied to life? Is she merely the miller who grinds the finest logic? It is pertinent to ask if Plato  got his living in a better way or more successfully than his contemporaries, — or did he succumb to the difficulties of life like other men? Did he seem to prevail over some of them merely by indifference, or by assuming grand airs? or find it easier to live, because his aunt remembered him in her will? The ways in which most men get their living, that is, live, are mere makeshifts, and a shirking of the real business of life, — chiefly because they do not know, but partly because they do not mean, any better. 

[17] The rush to California, for instance, and the attitude, not merely of merchants, but of philosophers and prophets, so called, in relation to it, reflect the greatest disgrace on mankind. That so many are ready to live by luck, and so get the means of commanding the labor of others less lucky, without contributing any value to society! And that is called enterprise! I know of no more startling development of the immorality of trade, and all the common modes of getting a living. The philosophy and poetry and religion of such a mankind are not worth the dust of a puffball. The hog that gets his living by rooting, stirring up the soil so, would be ashamed of such company. If I could command the wealth of all the worlds by lifting my finger, I would not pay such a price for it. Even Mahomet (6) knew that God did not make this world in jest. It makes God to be a moneyed gentleman who scatters a handful of pennies in order to see mankind scramble for them. The world’s raffle! A subsistence in the domains of Nature a thing to be raffled for! What a comment, what a satire, on our institutions! The conclusion will be, that mankind will hang itself upon a tree. And have all the precepts in all the Bibles taught men only this? and is the last and most admirable invention of the human race only an improved muck-rake? Is this the ground on which Orientals and Occidentals meet? Did God direct us so to get our living, digging where we never planted, — and He would, perchance, reward us with lumps of gold?

[18] God gave the righteous man a certificate entitling him to food and raiment, but the unrighteous man found a facsimile of the same in God’s coffers, and appropriated it, and obtained food and raiment like the former. It is one of the most extensive systems of counterfeiting that the world has seen. I did not know that mankind were suffering for want of gold. I have seen a little of it. I know that it is very malleable, but not so malleable as wit. A grain of gold will gild a great surface, but not so much as a grain of wisdom.

[19] The gold-digger in the ravines of the mountains is as much a gambler as his fellow in the saloons of San Francisco. What difference does it make whether you shake dirt or shake dice? If you win, society is the loser. The gold-digger is the enemy of the honest laborer, whatever checks and compensations there may be. It is not enough to tell me that you worked hard to get your gold. So does the Devil work hard. The way of transgressors may be hard in many respects. The humblest observer who goes to the mines sees and says that gold-digging is of the character of a lottery; the gold thus obtained is not the same same thing with the wages of honest toil. But, practically, he forgets what he has seen, for he has seen only the fact, not the principle, and goes into trade there, that is, buys a ticket in what commonly proves another lottery, where the fact is not so obvious. 

[20] After reading Howitt’s account of the Australian gold-diggings one evening, I had in my mind’s eye, all night, the numerous valleys, with their streams, all cut up with foul pits, from ten to one hundred feet deep, and half a dozen feet across, as close as they can be dug, and partly filled with water, — the locality to which men furiously rush to probe for their fortunes, — uncertain where they shall break ground, — not knowing but the gold is under their camp itself, — sometimes digging one hundred and sixty feet before they strike the vein, or then missing it by a foot, — turned into demons, and regardless of each others’ rights, in their thirst for riches, — whole valleys, for thirty miles, suddenly honeycombed by the pits of the miners, so that even hundreds are drowned in them, — standing in water, and covered with mud and clay, they work night and day, dying of exposure and disease. Having read this, and partly forgotten it, I was thinking, accidentally, of my own unsatisfactory life, doing as others do; and with that vision of the diggings still before me, I asked myself why I might not be washing some gold daily, though it were only the finest particles, — why I might not sink a shaft down to the gold within me, and work that mine. There is a Ballarat, a Bendigo for you, — what though it were a sulky-gully?(8) At any rate, I might pursue some path, however solitary and narrow and crooked, in which I could walk with love and reverence. Wherever a man separates from the multitude, and goes his own way in this mood, there indeed is a fork in the road, though ordinary travellers may see only a gap in the paling. His solitary path across lots will turn out the higher way of the two.

[21] Men rush to California and Australia as if the true gold were to be found in that direction; but that is to go to the very opposite extreme to where it lies. They go prospecting farther and farther away from the true lead, and are most unfortunate when they think themselves most successful. Is not our native soil auriferous? Does not a stream from the golden mountains flow through our native valley? and has not this for more than geologic ages been bringing down the shining particles and forming the nuggets for us? Yet, strange to tell, if a digger steal away, prospecting for this true gold, into the unexplored solitudes around us, there is no danger that any will dog his steps, and endeavor to supplant him. He may claim and undermine the whole valley even, both the cultivated and the uncultivated portions, his whole life long in peace, for no one will ever dispute his claim. They will not mind his cradles or his toms. He is not confined to a claim twelve feet square, as at Ballarat, but may mine anywhere, and wash the whole wide world in his tom.

[22] Howitt says of the man who found the great nugget which weighed twenty-eight pounds, at the Bendigo diggings in Australia: “He soon began to drink; got a horse, and rode all about, generally at full gallop, and, when he met people, called out to inquire if they knew who he was, and then kindly informed them that he was ‘the bloody wretch that had found the nugget.’ At last he rode full speed against a tree, and nearly knocked his brains out.” I think, however, there was no danger of that, for he had already knocked his brains out against the nugget. Howitt adds, “He is a hopelessly ruined man.” But he is a type of the class. They are all fast men. Hear some of the names of the places where they dig: “Jackass Flat,” — “Sheep’s-Head Gully,” — “Murderer’s Bar,” etc. Is there no satire in these names? Let them carry their ill-gotten wealth where they will, I am thinking it will still be “Jackass Flat,” if not “Murderer’s Bar,” where they live.

[23] The last resource of our energy has been the robbing of graveyards on the Isthmus of Darien, an enterprise which appears to be but in its infancy; for, according to late accounts, an act has passed its second reading in the legislature of New Granada, regulating this kind of mining; and a correspondent of the “Tribune” writes: — “In the dry season, when the weather will permit of the country being properly prospected, no doubt other rich ‘Guacas’ [that is, graveyards] will be found.” To emigrants he says: — “do not come before December; take the Isthmus route in preference to the Boca del Toro one; bring no useless baggage, and do not cumber yourself with a tent; but a good pair of blankets will be necessary; a pick, shovel, and axe of good material will be almost all that is required”: advice which might have been taken from the “Burker’s Guide.” And he concludes with this line in Italics and small capitals: “If you are doing well at home, STAY THERE,” which may fairly be interpreted to mean, “If you are getting a good living by robbing graveyards at home, stay there.”

[24] But why go to California for a text? She is the child of New England, bred at her own school and church.

Link: "The Call of Cthulhu" by H.P. Lovecraft

(Found Among the Papers of the Late Francis Wayland Thurston, of Boston)

"Of such great powers or beings there may be conceivably a survival… a survival of a hugely remote period when… consciousness was manifested, perhaps, in shapes and forms long since withdrawn before the tide of advancing humanity… forms of which poetry and legend alone have caught a flying memory and called them gods, monsters, mythical beings of all sorts and kinds…" — Algernon Blackwood

I. The Horror In Clay

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

Theosophists have guessed at the awesome grandeur of the cosmic cycle wherein our world and human race form transient incidents. They have hinted at strange survivals in terms which would freeze the blood if not masked by a bland optimism. But it is not from them that there came the single glimpse of forbidden eons which chills me when I think of it and maddens me when I dream of it. That glimpse, like all dread glimpses of truth, flashed out from an accidental piecing together of separated things - in this case an old newspaper item and the notes of a dead professor. I hope that no one else will accomplish this piecing out; certainly, if I live, I shall never knowingly supply a link in so hideous a chain. I think that the professor, too intented to keep silent regarding the part he knew, and that he would have destroyed his notes had not sudden death seized him.

My knowledge of the thing began in the winter of 1926-27 with the death of my great-uncle, George Gammell Angell, Professor Emeritus of Semitic Languages in Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island. Professor Angell was widely known as an authority on ancient inscriptions, and had frequently been resorted to by the heads of prominent museums; so that his passing at the age of ninety-two may be recalled by many. Locally, interest was intensified by the obscurity of the cause of death. The professor had been stricken whilst returning from the Newport boat; falling suddenly; as witnesses said, after having been jostled by a nautical-looking negro who had come from one of the queer dark courts on the precipitous hillside which formed a short cut from the waterfront to the deceased’s home in Williams Street. Physicians were unable to find any visible disorder, but concluded after perplexed debate that some obscure lesion of the heart, induced by the brisk ascent of so steep a hill by so elderly a man, was responsible for the end. At the time I saw no reason to dissent from this dictum, but latterly I am inclined to wonder - and more than wonder.

As my great-uncle’s heir and executor, for he died a childless widower, I was expected to go over his papers with some thoroughness; and for that purpose moved his entire set of files and boxes to my quarters in Boston. Much of the material which I correlated will be later published by the American Archaeological Society, but there was one box which I found exceedingly puzzling, and which I felt much averse from showing to other eyes. It had been locked and I did not find the key till it occurred to me to examine the personal ring which the professor carried in his pocket. Then, indeed, I succeeded in opening it, but when I did so seemed only to be confronted by a greater and more closely locked barrier. For what could be the meaning of the queer clay bas-relief and the disjointed jottings, ramblings, and cuttings which I found? Had my uncle, in his latter years become credulous of the most superficial impostures? I resolved to search out the eccentric sculptor responsible for this apparent disturbance of an old man’s peace of mind.

The bas-relief was a rough rectangle less than an inch thick and about five by six inches in area; obviously of modern origin. Its designs, however, were far from modern in atmosphere and suggestion; for, although the vagaries of cubism and futurism are many and wild, they do not often reproduce that cryptic regularity which lurks in prehistoric writing. And writing of some kind the bulk of these designs seemed certainly to be; though my memory, despite much the papers and collections of my uncle, failed in any way to identify this particular species, or even hint at its remotest affiliations.

Above these apparent hieroglyphics was a figure of evident pictorial intent, though its impressionistic execution forbade a very clear idea of its nature. It seemed to be a sort of monster, or symbol representing a monster, of a form which only a diseased fancy could conceive. If I say that my somewhat extravagant imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature, I shall not be unfaithful to the spirit of the thing. A pulpy, tentacled head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings; but it was the general outline of the whole which made it most shockingly frightful. Behind the figure was a vague suggestions of a Cyclopean architectural background.

The writing accompanying this oddity was, aside from a stack of press cuttings, in Professor Angell’s most recent hand; and made no pretense to literary style. What seemed to be the main document was headed “CTHULHU CULT” in characters painstakingly printed to avoid the erroneous reading of a word so unheard-of. This manuscript was divided into two sections, the first of which was headed “1925 - Dream and Dream Work of H.A. Wilcox, 7 Thomas St., Providence, R. I.”, and the second, “Narrative of Inspector John R. Legrasse, 121 Bienville St., New Orleans, La., at 1908 A. A. S. Mtg. - Notes on Same, & Prof. Webb’s Acct.” The other manuscript papers were brief notes, some of them accounts of the queer dreams of different persons, some of them citations from theosophical books and magazines (notably W. Scott-Elliot’s Atlantis and the Lost Lemuria), and the rest comments on long-surviving secret societies and hidden cults, with references to passages in such mythological and anthropological source-books as Frazer’s Golden Bough and Miss Murray’s Witch-Cult in Western Europe. The cuttings largely alluded to outré mental illness and outbreaks of group folly or mania in the spring of 1925.

The first half of the principal manuscript told a very particular tale. It appears that on March 1st, 1925, a thin, dark young man of neurotic and excited aspect had called upon Professor Angell bearing the singular clay bas-relief, which was then exceedingly damp and fresh. His card bore the name of Henry Anthony Wilcox, and my uncle had recognized him as the youngest son of an excellent family slightly known to him, who had latterly been studying sculpture at the Rhode Island School of Design and living alone at the Fleur-de-Lys Building near that institution. Wilcox was a precocious youth of known genius but great eccentricity, and had from chidhood excited attention through the strange stories and odd dreams he was in the habit of relating. He called himself “psychically hypersensitive”, but the staid folk of the ancient commercial city dismissed him as merely “queer.” Never mingling much with his kind, he had dropped gradually from social visibility, and was now known only to a small group of esthetes from other towns. Even the Providence Art Club, anxious to preserve its conservatism, had found him quite hopeless.

On the ocassion of the visit, ran the professor’s manuscript, the sculptor abruptly asked for the benefit of his host’s archeological knowledge in identifying the hieroglyphics of the bas-relief. He spoke in a dreamy, stilted manner which suggested pose and alienated sympathy; and my uncle showed some sharpness in replying, for the conspicuous freshness of the tablet implied kinship with anything but archeology. Young Wilcox’s rejoinder, which impressed my uncle enough to make him recall and record it verbatim, was of a fantastically poetic cast which must have typified his whole conversation, and which I have since found highly characteristic of him. He said, “It is new, indeed, for I made it last night in a dream of strange cities; and dreams are older than brooding Tyre, or the contemplative Sphinx, or garden-girdled Babylon.”

It was then that he began that rambling tale which suddenly played upon a sleeping memory and won the fevered interest of my uncle. There had been a slight earthquake tremor the night before, the most considerable felt in New England for some years; and Wilcox’s imagination had been keenly affected. Upon retiring, he had had an unprecedented dream of great Cyclopean cities of Titan blocks and sky-flung monoliths, all dripping with green ooze and sinister with latent horror. Hieroglyphics had covered the walls and pillars, and from some undetermined point below had come a voice that was not a voice; a chaotic sensation which only fancy could transmute into sound, but which he attempted to render by the almost unpronounceable jumble of letters: "Cthulhu fhtagn."

This verbal jumble was the key to the recollection which excited and disturbed Professor Angell. He questioned the sculptor with scientific minuteness; and studied with frantic intensity the bas-relief on which the youth had found himself working, chilled and clad only in his night clothes, when waking had stolen bewilderingly over him. My uncle blamed his old age, Wilcox afterwards said, for his slowness in recognizing both hieroglyphics and pictorial design. Many of his questions seemed highly out of place to his visitor, especially those which tried to connect the latter with strange cults or societies; and Wilcox could not understand the repeated promises of silence which he was offered in exchange for an admission of membership in some widespread mystical or paganly religious body. When Professor Angell became convinced that the sculptor was indeed ignorant of any cult or system of cryptic lore, he besieged his visitor with demands for future reports of dreams. This bore regular fruit, for after the first interview the manuscript records daily calls of the young man, during which he related startling fragments of nocturnal imaginery whose burden was always some terrible Cyclopean vista of dark and dripping stone, with a subterrene voice or intelligence shouting monotonously in enigmatical sense-impacts uninscribable save as gibberish. The two sounds frequently repeated are those rendered by the letters "Cthulhu" and "R’lyeh."

On March 23, the manuscript continued, Wilcox failed to appear; and inquiries at his quarters revealed that he had been stricken with an obscure sort of fever and taken to the home of his family in Waterman Street. He had cried out in the night, arousing several other artists in the building, and had manifested since then only alternations of unconsciousness and delirium. My uncle at once telephoned the family, and from that time forward kept close watch of the case; calling often at the Thayer Street office of Dr. Tobey, whom he learned to be in charge. The youth’s febrile mind, apparently, was dwelling on strange things; and the doctor shuddered now and then as he spoke of them. They included not only a repetition of what he had formerly dreamed, but touched wildly on a gigantic thing “miles high” which walked or lumbered about.

He at no time fully described this object but occasional frantic words, as repeated by Dr. Tobey, convinced the professor that it must be identical with the nameless monstrosity he had sought to depict in his dream-sculpture. Reference to this object, the doctor added, was invariably a prelude to the young man’s subsidence into lethargy. His temperature, oddly enough, was not greatly above normal; but the whole condition was otherwise such as to suggest true fever rather than mental disorder.

On April 2 at about 3 P.M. every trace of Wilcox’s malady suddenly ceased. He sat upright in bed, astonished to find himself at home and completely ignorant of what had happened in dream or reality since the night of March 22. Pronounced well by his physician, he returned to his quarters in three days; but to Professor Angell he was of no further assistance. All traces of strange dreaming had vanished with his recovery, and my uncle kept no record of his night-thoughts after a week of pointless and irrelevant accounts of thoroughly usual visions.

Here the first part of the manuscript ended, but references to certain of the scattered notes gave me much material for thought - so much, in fact, that only the ingrained skepticism then forming my philosophy can account for my continued distrust of the artist. The notes in question were those descriptive of the dreams of various persons covering the same period as that in which young Wilcox had had his strange visitations. My uncle, it seems, had quickly instituted a prodigiously far-flung body of inquires amongst nearly all the friends whom he could question without impertinence, asking for nightly reports of their dreams, and the dates of any notable visions for some time past. The reception of his request seems to have varied; but he must, at the very least, have received more responses than any ordinary man could have handled without a secretary. This original correspondence was not preserved, but his notes formed a thorough and really significant digest. Average people in society and business - New England’s traditional “salt of the earth” - gave an almost completely negative result, though scattered cases of uneasy but formless nocturnal impressions appear here and there, always between March 23 and and April 2 - the period of young Wilcox’s delirium. Scientific men were little more affected, though four cases of vague description suggest fugitive glimpses of strange landscapes, and in one case there is mentioned a dread of something abnormal.

It was from the artists and poets that the pertinent answers came, and I know that panic would have broken loose had they been able to compare notes. As it was, lacking their original letters, I half suspected the compiler of having asked leading questions, or of having edited the correspondence in corroboration of what he had latently resolved to see. That is why I continued to feel that Wilcox, somehow cognizant of the old data which my uncle had possessed, had been imposing on the veteran scientist. These responses from esthetes told disturbing tale. From February 28 to April 2 a large proportion of them had dreamed very bizarre things, the intensity of the dreams being immeasurably the stronger during the period of the sculptor’s delirium. Over a fourth of those who reported anything, reported scenes and half-sounds not unlike those which Wilcox had described; and some of the dreamers confessed acute fear of the gigantic nameless thing visible toward the last. One case, which the note describes with emphasis, was very sad. The subject, a widely known architect with leanings toward theosophy and occultism, went violently insane on the date of young Wilcox’s seizure, and expired several months later after incessant screamings to be saved from some escaped denizen of hell. Had my uncle referred to these cases by name instead of merely by number, I should have attempted some corroboration and personal investigation; but as it was, I succeeded in tracing down only a few. All of these, however, bore out the notes in full. I have often wondered if all the the objects of the professor’s questioning felt as puzzled as did this fraction. It is well that no explanation shall ever reach them.

The press cuttings, as I have intimated, touched on cases of panic, mania, and eccentricity during the given period. Professor Angell must have employed a cutting bureau, for the number of extracts was tremendous, and the sources scattered throughout the globe. Here was a nocturnal suicide in London, where a lone sleeper had leaped from a window after a shocking cry. Here likewise a rambling letter to the editor of a paper in South America, where a fanatic deduces a dire future from visions he has seen. A dispatch from California describes a theosophist colony as donning white robes en masse for some “glorious fulfiment” which never arrives, whilst items from India speak guardedly of serious native unrest toward the end of March 22-23.

The west of Ireland, too, is full of wild rumour and legendry, and a fantastic painter named Ardois-Bonnot hangs a blasphemous Dream Landscape in the Paris spring salon of 1926. And so numerous are the recorded troubles in insane asylums that only a miracle can have stopped the medical fraternity from noting strange parallelisms and drawing mystified conclusions. A weird bunch of cuttings, all told; and I can at this date scarcely envisage the callous rationalism with which I set them aside. But I was then convinced that young Wilcox had known of the older matters mentioned by the professor.

Link: Albert Camus' Acceptance Speech at the Nobel Banquet at the City Hall in Stockholm, December 10, 1957

In receiving the distinction with which your free Academy has so generously honoured me, my gratitude has been profound, particularly when I consider the extent to which this recompense has surpassed my personal merits. Every man, and for stronger reasons, every artist, wants to be recognized. So do I. But I have not been able to learn of your decision without comparing its repercussions to what I really am. A man almost young, rich only in his doubts and with his work still in progress, accustomed to living in the solitude of work or in the retreats of friendship: how would he not feel a kind of panic at hearing the decree that transports him all of a sudden, alone and reduced to himself, to the centre of a glaring light? And with what feelings could he accept this honour at a time when other writers in Europe, among them the very greatest, are condemned to silence, and even at a time when the country of his birth is going through unending misery?

I felt that shock and inner turmoil. In order to regain peace I have had, in short, to come to terms with a too generous fortune. And since I cannot live up to it by merely resting on my achievement, I have found nothing to support me but what has supported me through all my life, even in the most contrary circumstances: the idea that I have of my art and of the role of the writer. Let me only tell you, in a spirit of gratitude and friendship, as simply as I can, what this idea is.

For myself, I cannot live without my art. But I have never placed it above everything. If, on the other hand, I need it, it is because it cannot be separated from my fellow men, and it allows me to live, such as I am, on one level with them. It is a means of stirring the greatest number of people by offering them a privileged picture of common joys and sufferings. It obliges the artist not to keep himself apart; it subjects him to the most humble and the most universal truth. And often he who has chosen the fate of the artist because he felt himself to be different soon realizes that he can maintain neither his art nor his difference unless he admits that he is like the others. The artist forges himself to the others, midway between the beauty he cannot do without and the community he cannot tear himself away from. That is why true artists scorn nothing: they are obliged to understand rather than to judge. And if they have to take sides in this world, they can perhaps side only with that society in which, according to Nietzsche’s great words, not the judge but the creator will rule, whether he be a worker or an intellectual.

By the same token, the writer’s role is not free from difficult duties. By definition he cannot put himself today in the service of those who make history; he is at the service of those who suffer it. Otherwise, he will be alone and deprived of his art. Not all the armies of tyranny with their millions of men will free him from his isolation, even and particularly if he falls into step with them. But the silence of an unknown prisoner, abandoned to humiliations at the other end of the world, is enough to draw the writer out of his exile, at least whenever, in the midst of the privileges of freedom, he manages not to forget that silence, and to transmit it in order to make it resound by means of his art.

None of us is great enough for such a task. But in all circumstances of life, in obscurity or temporary fame, cast in the irons of tyranny or for a time free to express himself, the writer can win the heart of a living community that will justify him, on the one condition that he will accept to the limit of his abilities the two tasks that constitute the greatness of his craft: the service of truth and the service of liberty. Because his task is to unite the greatest possible number of people, his art must not compromise with lies and servitude which, wherever they rule, breed solitude. Whatever our personal weaknesses may be, the nobility of our craft will always be rooted in two commitments, difficult to maintain: the refusal to lie about what one knows and the resistance to oppression.

For more than twenty years of an insane history, hopelessly lost like all the men of my generation in the convulsions of time, I have been supported by one thing: by the hidden feeling that to write today was an honour because this activity was a commitment - and a commitment not only to write. Specifically, in view of my powers and my state of being, it was a commitment to bear, together with all those who were living through the same history, the misery and the hope we shared. These men, who were born at the beginning of the First World War, who were twenty when Hitler came to power and the first revolutionary trials were beginning, who were then confronted as a completion of their education with the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, the world of concentration camps, a Europe of torture and prisons - these men must today rear their sons and create their works in a world threatened by nuclear destruction. Nobody, I think, can ask them to be optimists. And I even think that we should understand - without ceasing to fight it - the error of those who in an excess of despair have asserted their right to dishonour and have rushed into the nihilism of the era. But the fact remains that most of us, in my country and in Europe, have refused this nihilism and have engaged upon a quest for legitimacy. They have had to forge for themselves an art of living in times of catastrophe in order to be born a second time and to fight openly against the instinct of death at work in our history.

Each generation doubtless feels called upon to reform the world. Mine knows that it will not reform it, but its task is perhaps even greater. It consists in preventing the world from destroying itself. Heir to a corrupt history, in which are mingled fallen revolutions, technology gone mad, dead gods, and worn-out ideologies, where mediocre powers can destroy all yet no longer know how to convince, where intelligence has debased itself to become the servant of hatred and oppression, this generation starting from its own negations has had to re-establish, both within and without, a little of that which constitutes the dignity of life and death. In a world threatened by disintegration, in which our grand inquisitors run the risk of establishing forever the kingdom of death, it knows that it should, in an insane race against the clock, restore among the nations a peace that is not servitude, reconcile anew labour and culture, and remake with all men the Ark of the Covenant. It is not certain that this generation will ever be able to accomplish this immense task, but already it is rising everywhere in the world to the double challenge of truth and liberty and, if necessary, knows how to die for it without hate. Wherever it is found, it deserves to be saluted and encouraged, particularly where it is sacrificing itself. In any event, certain of your complete approval, it is to this generation that I should like to pass on the honour that you have just given me.

At the same time, after having outlined the nobility of the writer’s craft, I should have put him in his proper place. He has no other claims but those which he shares with his comrades in arms: vulnerable but obstinate, unjust but impassioned for justice, doing his work without shame or pride in view of everybody, not ceasing to be divided between sorrow and beauty, and devoted finally to drawing from his double existence the creations that he obstinately tries to erect in the destructive movement of history. Who after all this can expect from him complete solutions and high morals? Truth is mysterious, elusive, always to be conquered. Liberty is dangerous, as hard to live with as it is elating. We must march toward these two goals, painfully but resolutely, certain in advance of our failings on so long a road. What writer would from now on in good conscience dare set himself up as a preacher of virtue? For myself, I must state once more that I am not of this kind. I have never been able to renounce the light, the pleasure of being, and the freedom in which I grew up. But although this nostalgia explains many of my errors and my faults, it has doubtless helped me toward a better understanding of my craft. It is helping me still to support unquestioningly all those silent men who sustain the life made for them in the world only through memory of the return of brief and free happiness.

Thus reduced to what I really am, to my limits and debts as well as to my difficult creed, I feel freer, in concluding, to comment upon the extent and the generosity of the honour you have just bestowed upon me, freer also to tell you that I would receive it as an homage rendered to all those who, sharing in the same fight, have not received any privilege, but have on the contrary known misery and persecution. It remains for me to thank you from the bottom of my heart and to make before you publicly, as a personal sign of my gratitude, the same and ancient promise of faithfulness which every true artist repeats to himself in silence every day.


Prior to the speech, B. Karlgren, Member of the Royal Academy of Sciences, addressed the French writer: «Mr. Camus - As a student of history and literature, I address you first. I do not have the ambition and the boldness to pronounce judgment on the character or importance of your work - critics more competent than I have already thrown sufficient light on it. But let me assure you that we take profound satisfaction in the fact that we are witnessing the ninth awarding of a Nobel Prize in Literature to a Frenchman. Particularly in our time, with its tendency to direct intellectual attention, admiration, and imitation toward those nations who have - by virtue of their enormous material resources - become protagonists, there remains, nevertheless, in Sweden and elsewhere, a sufficiently large elite that does not forget, but is always conscious of the fact that in Western culture the French spirit has for centuries played a preponderant and leading role and continues to do so. In your writings we find manifested to a high degree the clarity and the lucidity, the penetration and the subtlety, the inimitable art inherent in your literary language, all of which we admire and warmly love. We salute you as a true representative of that wonderful French spirit.»

Link: Kill Your Martyrs

Many of us have a habit of being overly credulous to stories that flatter our biases.

When I was 19, maybe 20, I took a sociology class at Middlesex Community Technical College in my hometown of Middletown, Connecticut. In the class, we read The Mole People, by Jennifer Toth. The book is an ostensibly nonfiction account of the destitute people in New York City who, driven by homelessness or mental illness or both, live underground in the labyrinthine tunnels that run under the pavement. The book is Toth’s narrative, personal and passionate, about her trips below the surface, where she befriended the people who scratched out desperate lives there. Over the course of many visits, some accompanied by a violent but sympathetic criminal she refers to as Blade, Toth explored these spaces and found not just people but something like community. Though they lived the most precarious of lives, the people Toth wrote about helped each other where possible and cobbled together some semblance of a functioning social space in the most improbable of locales. In the end, Toth flees the tunnels and Blade, frightened for her life but still amazed at what the destitute and forgotten have built underground.

At the time, it moved me deeply, and I needed to be moved. Toth didn’t pull punches about the desperation and risk that these people lived with, and in many ways the book served as an indictment of a New York City, and an America, in which the elect could live lives of affluence while poor and mentally ill people scratched out survival literally underneath them. But the book also seemed a testament to the human desire for community and the ways people can look out for one another. It was a lesson about the drive for a society built on mutual responsibility. The conditions these people faced made me depressed, but their dedication to improving each other’s lives brought me hope.

Unfortunately, it appears that very little of it was true.

Years after its publication, Joseph Brennan, a systems engineer at Columbia University, set out to verify the details of Toth’s book. He did this in a brutally efficient way: by investigating the physical architecture of the places Toth had claimed to visit. Brennan compared the places Toth describes in her books with the physical reality, visiting them himself and checking them against blueprints, maps, and plans. Again and again, he found the areas she described to be in reality substantially different or nonexistent. After presenting his evidence, Brennan writes, “Every fact in this book that I can verify independently is wrong.” A reporter got in touch with Toth following Brennan’s allegations, and her response, such as it was, almost amounts to an admission of guilt— hedging on her past descriptions, admitting she had only been below the surface two or three times, and referring the reporter to a woman who actually refuted  Toth’s version of events.

The book’s dubious claim to being nonfiction has not dimmed its popularity. It is still in print. It carries no disclaimers. Dozens of Amazon reviews praise it, including several that describe it as truth that’s stranger than fiction.

Looking back, I felt stupid for having believed the book in the first place; what Toth described should have set off alarms even without any independent vetting. (And, really … “Blade”?) But the truth is, I didn’t see any problem with it precisely because I was so invested in its vision of destitute people coming together for their mutual good.

Many of us have a habit of being overly credulous to stories that flatter our biases.

A few years before I read The Mole People, I read I, Rigoberta Menchú, a personal narrative of a Guatemalan woman of indigenous descent who endured the horrors of the Guatemalan civil war, in a high school class. By that time, the book’s factual authenticity had been challenged, though neither we in the class nor our teacher seemed to know. Had I known at the time, in my teenaged righteousness, I would have been outraged. Now, I’m less sure. Even if the events that Menchú detailed were not supportable, the horrors in the book reflected the reality of Guatemala and what the United States had condoned and supported. The book was one of those rare vehicles for showing Americans recent crimes against humanity in which their government was complicit, but its factual inaccuracies became the instrument through which the larger, perfectly accurate story of Guatemala was dismissed.

You could turn it over in your mind again and again, and I have. What is the value of compelling and righteous political narrative if it comes at the expense of the facts?


So here are some facts, then.

On the night of October 6, 1998, in Laramie, Wyoming, a Matthew Shepard, a gay 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming, was brutally attacked. His killers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, drove him from a bar to a secluded area, where they ambushed him. He was strapped to a fence post, beaten, and pistol-whipped until his brain stem was crushed. The attack constituted not just murder but torture, the killers making special effort to ensure that Shepard suffered, even removing his shoes on a freezing-cold evening. Shepard lay hanging, likely brain dead but unquestionably suffering, for hours. He lingered for five days in the hospital before he succumbed to his injuries. His killers were apprehended, confessed, were fairly tried, and fairly convicted for the murder. They will and should spend the rest of their lives in prison. Shepard left behind a grieving family, a shocked community, and a disgusted nation.

Beyond that, it seems, little is certain.

Those facts are among the few that Stephen Jimenez does not trouble in his meticulous, frequently maddening, and necessarily incomplete investigation of the Shepard murder,The Book of Matt. Jimenez spent the better part of a decade in Laramie investigating the killing, what precipitated it, and its aftermath. He interviewed, at length, members of the police who participated in the investigation, members of the legal teams involved in the trial, friends of Shepard’s and his attackers, and various community figures. His findings, the preliminary version of which was presented in a immediately notorious episode of ABC’s 20/20, are not kind to the received version of the Shepard story.

The story that has been ingrained in the public consciousness—and my own—is the perfect picture of a hate crime. A young gay man in a conservative town in a conservative state goes to a bar, where he chats with a couple of young local men. Maybe he flirts, maybe he just strikes up conversation, but in any event, they learn of his homosexuality. In a fit of gay panic, they lure him into their car, with the promise of a ride home, then betray his trust by robbing and murdering him, all because he was guilty of the sin of being gay.

This was always a leaky narrative. Laramie is not a uniquely hostile environment for a young gay man but a fairly progressive college town, as Robert Blanchard argued in a 1999 piece for Reason. But Jimenez’s argument goes much deeper. Based on the testimony he has collected, he argues that McKinney and Henderson in fact knew Shepard well, and his homosexuality was openly understood among the three of them. McKinney, Jimenez argues, had a history of homosexual encounters in his past, which certainly adds relevant context to a narrative of a gay bash, if true. With less certainty, Jimenez suggests that McKinney and Shepard had a sexual history. Most controversial of all, Jimenez argues that not only were McKinney and Henderson players in the Laramie drug scene (an uncontroversial claim) and under the influence of drugs on the night of the attack but that Shepard himself was a regular user of crystal meth and likely an occasional dealer. The galvanizing story of a cruel hate crime thus becomes instead a tangled narrative of sex and drugs and depression. No wonder the book has encountered so much resistance.

Much resistance, but shockingly little review. Despite its pedigree, publisher, and subject matter (Matthew Shepard’s murder was one of the most important political moments of the ’90s and without exaggeration can be said to have contributed tremendously to the fight for gay marriage that took place in the 2000s), the press has widely ignored The Book of Matt. To their credit, The NationThe Advocate, andThe Guardian have all run fair, appropriately critical considerations of Jimenez’s book, but bizarrely, there has been no review in the New York TimesThe New York Review of Books, or The New Yorker. No consideration that I can find in The Atlantic or The New Republic. This silence suggests that many in the establishment media would simply rather not look too closely at the book or the events it describes.

When the major publications that define conventional wisdom fail to engage with a text, inevitably, partisan media rushes in to fill the vacuum. Jimenez’s book has been taken up by the right-wing press, which has prompted Luke Brinker, in an angry piece for Media Matters, to insist that Jimenez, who is himself gay, deliberately framed his book to perform a hatchet job on Shepard and undermine the gay rights movement. But the book actually attempts to reframe Shepard as a plausible human being, complex and fallible, rather than the secular saint he has been made into.

Brinker calls attention to Jimenez’s use of anonymous sources and sources whose credibility is suspect — arguably inevitable in an investigation of a crime involving drugs and sexual habits that took place 15 years ago. But if Jimenez got his reporting wrong, why has no one else attempted to do better reporting? The broad silence about this book plays into the hands of those on the right asserting some sort of gay media conspiracy.

Not that there isn’t any valid reason to criticize Jimenez’s claims. The corroboration for all of the tangled assertions in Jimenez’s book is inconsistent, as any reported history will be, and Jimenez’s readiness to accept the counternarrative frequently made me uncomfortable. Indeed, the book is a lesson in the seductiveness of opposing the common narrative, which leads Jimenez to undermines his case by eagerly overstating it. What would be truly beneficial is if Jimenez was willing to say “we don’t know what happened” with greater zeal than when he suggests a controversial version of events, as when he suggests that McKinney and Shepard had a sexual relationship.

Fairly or not, given the incendiary nature of his charges and the constancy with which he injects himself into his reporting , the story about The Book of Matt was always going to be about Jimenez’s credibility. He does himself no favors with his departures from straight journalism. In a scathing reviewat ThinkProgress (which, like Brinker’s piece, largely avoids the actual factual controversies at the heart of the book), Alyssa Rosenberg points out that Jimenez announces at the beginning that he has engaged in some “slightly less stringent” methods. This makes it too easy to dismiss him in ways that are unhelpful.

The question is whether Jimenez meant to actively court this kind of criticism. Two things become clear to me as I read The Book of Matt:that Jimenez has undertaken a enormous effort to produce a sensationalistic but profoundly necessary piece of reporting, and that Jimenez deeply enjoys his position as a rabble-rouser and iconoclast. He participated in a series of video interviews about his book for Andrew Sullivan’s blog The Dish, one of the few prominent outlets to give him a forum to defend his work. At times, he acquits himself well, other times, less so. While I certainly don’t begrudge Jimenez the opportunity to stand up for his work, there is a self-aggrandizing and pious quality to his public reaction to the controversy. The worst moments in his book are ones that reveal his self-seriousness. He writes about himself in a way that biographers typically reserve for a hero or crusader. In a text that proudly takes aim at the pieties and pretense of the gay rights movement, the tendency to devolve into self-mythologizing becomes not merely annoying but intolerable. If Jimenez’s critics are guilty of turning attention away from his factual claims about the Shepard case toward issues regarding his motives as a reporter, unfortunately Jimenez often is too.

Still, Jimenez cites no less than ten sources as the evidence for a prior relationship, of whatever kind, between Shepard and his murderers. He also details the large number of mutual friends and acquaintances shared by Shepard and his killers, leaving the odds of the three of them never interacting extremely low, particularly in a small town like Laramie. If all his claims are inventions, why are so many people in Laramie willing to corroborate them? Why would one of the chief investigators of the murder, Ben Fritzen, claim that the murder “comes down to drugs and money”? Why would Ted Henson, a sexual partner of Shepard’s, corroborate Shepard’s relationship with McKinney? Why would so many of the people Jimenez interviewed lend credence to Jimenez? How would they profit from lying? And why is the burden of proof assumed to lie solely on Jimenez rather than on those defending a conventional wisdom unsupported by reporting as thorough and extensive as Jimenez’s? The book has given our broader media a perfect opportunity to explore these questions and perhaps to rebut Jimenez’s claims. That opportunity has been met with silence.

Excerpt from Raoul Vaneigem’s “The Revolution of Everyday Life”

It was as if they were in a cage whose door was wide open without their being able to escape. Nothing outside the cage had any importance, because nothing else existed any more. They stayed in the cage, estranged from everything except the cage, without even a flicker of desire for anything outside the bars. it would have been abnormal — impossible in fact — to escape into something which had neither reality nor importance. Absolutely impossible. For inside this cage, in which they had been born and in which they would die, the only tolerable framework of experience was the Real, which was simply an irresistible instinct to act so that things should have importance. Only if things had some importance could one breathe, and suffer. it seemed that there was an understanding between them and the silent dead that it should be so, for the habit of acting so that things had some importance had become a human instinct, and one which was apparently eternal. Life was the important thing, and the Real was part of the instinct which gave life a little meaning. The instinct didn’t try to imagine what might lie beyond the Real, because there was nothing beyond it. Nothing important. The door remained open and the cage became more and more painful in its Reality which was so important for countless reasons and in countless ways.

We have never emerged from the times of the slavers.

On the public transport which throws them against one another with statistical indifference, people wear an untenable expression of disillusion, pride and contempt, like the natural effect of death on a toothless mouth. The atmosphere of false communication makes everyone the policeman of his own encounters. The instincts of flight and aggression trail the knights of wage-labour, who must now rely on subways and suburban trains for their pitiful wanderings. If men were transformed into scorpions who sting themselves and one another, isn’t it really because nothing has happened, and human beings with empty eyes and flabby brains have ‘mysteriously’ become mere shadows of men, ghosts of men, and in some ways are no longer men except in name?

We have nothing in common except the illusion of being together. Certainly the seeds of an authentic collective life are lying dormant within the illusion itself — there is no illusion without a real basis — but real community remains to be created. The power of the lie sometimes manages to erase the bitter reality of isolation from men’s minds. In a crowded street we can occasionally forget that suffering and separation are still present. And, since it is only the lie’s power which makes us forget, suffering and separation are reinforced; but in the end the lie itself comes to grief through relying on this support. For a moment comes when no illusion can measure up to our distress.

Malaise invades me as the crows around me grows. The compromises I have made with stupidity under the pressure of circumstances rush to meet me, swimming towards me in hallucinating waves of faceless heads. Edvard Munch’s famous painting, The Cry, evokes for me something I feel ten times a day. A man carried along by a crowd, which only he can see, suddenly screams out in an attempt to break the spell, to call himself back to himself, to get back inside his own skin. The tacit acknowledgments, fixed smiles, lifeless words, listlessness and humiliation sprinkled in his path suddenly surge into him, driving him out of his desires and his dreams and exploding the illusion of ‘being together’. People touch without meeting; isolation accumulates but is never realized; emptiness overcomes us as the density of the crowd grows. The crowd drags me out of myself and installs thousands of little sacrifices in my empty presence.

Everywhere neon signs are flashing out the dictum of Plotinus: All beings are together though each remains separate. But we only need to hold out our hands and touch one another, to raise our eyes and meet one another, and everything comes into focus, as if by magic.

Like crowds, drugs, and love, alcohol can befuddle the most lucid mind. Alcohol turns the concrete wall of isolation into a paper screen which the actors can tear according to their fancy, for it arranges everything on the stage of an intimate theatre. A generous illusion, and thus still more deadly.

In a gloomy bar where everyone is bored to death, a drunken young man breaks his glass, then picks up a bottle and smashes it against the wall. Nobody gets excited; the disappointed young man lets himself be thrown out. Yet everyone there could have done exactly the same thing. He alone made the thought concrete, crossing the first radioactive belt of isolation: interior isolation, the introverted separation between self and outside world. Nobody responded to a sign which he thought was explicit. He remained alone like the hooligan who burns down a church or kills a policeman, at one with himself but condemned to exile as long as other people remain exiled from their own existence. He has not escaped from the magnetic field of isolation; he is suspended in a zone of zero gravity. All the same, the indifference which greets him allows him to hear the sound of his own cry; even if this revelation tortures him, he knows that he will have to start again in another register, more loudly; with morecoherence.

People will be together only in a common wretchedness as long as each isolated being refuses to understand that a gesture of liberation, however weak and clumsy it may be, always bears an authentic communication, an adequate personal message. The repression which strikes down the libertarian rebel falls on everyone: everyone’s blood flows with the blood of a murdered Durruti. Whenever freedom retreats one inch, there is a hundred-fold increase in the weight of the order of things. Excluded from authentic participation, men’s actions stray into the fragile illusion of being together, or else into its opposite, the abrupt and total rejection of society. They swing from one to the other like a pendulum turning the hands on the clock-face of death.

Link: David Cronenberg on The Metamorphosis, The Fly, and the Aging Process

This essay appears as the introduction to Susan Bernofsky’s new translation of The Metamorphosis.

I woke up one morning recently to discover that I was a seventy-year-old man. Is this different from what happens to Gregor Samsa in The Metamorphosis? He wakes up to find that he’s become a near-human-sized beetle (probably of the scarab family, if his household’s charwoman is to be believed), and not a particularly robust specimen at that. Our reactions, mine and Gregor’s, are very similar. We are confused and bemused, and think that it’s a momentary delusion that will soon dissipate, leaving our lives to continue as they were. What could the source of these twin transformations possibly be? Certainly, you can see a birthday coming from many miles away, and it should not be a shock or a surprise when it happens. And as any well-meaning friend will tell you, seventy is just a number. What impact can that number really have on an actual, unique physical human life?

In the case of Gregor, a young traveling salesman spending a night at home in his family’s apartment in Prague, awakening into a strange, human/insect hybrid existence is, to say the obvious, a surprise he did not see coming, and the reaction of his household—mother, father, sister, maid, cook—is to recoil in benumbed horror, as one would expect, and not one member of his family feels compelled to console the creature by, for example, pointing out that a beetle is also a living thing, and turning into one might, for a mediocre human living a humdrum life, be an exhilarating and elevating experience, and so what’s the problem? This imagined consolation could not, in any case, take place within the structure of the story, because Gregor can understand human speech, but cannot be understood when he tries to speak, and so his family never think to approach him as a creature with human intelligence. (It must be noted, though, that in their bourgeois banality, they somehow accept that this creature is, in some unnamable way, their Gregor. It never occurs to them that, for example, a giant beetle has eaten Gregor; they don’t have the imagination, and he very quickly becomes not much more than a housekeeping problem.) His transformation seals him within himself as surely as if he had suffered a total paralysis. These two scenarios, mine and Gregor’s, seem so different, one might ask why I even bother to compare them. The source of the transformations is the same, I argue: we have both awakened to a forced awareness of what we really are, and that awareness is profound and irreversible; in each case, the delusion soon proves to be a new, mandatory reality, and life does not continue as it did.

Is Gregor’s transformation a death sentence or, in some way, a fatal diagnosis? Why does the beetle Gregor not survive? Is it his human brain, depressed and sad and melancholy, that betrays the insect’s basic sturdiness? Is it the brain that defeats the bug’s urge to survive, even to eat? What’s wrong with that beetle? Beetles, the order of insect called Coleoptera, which means “sheathed wing” (though Gregor never seems to discover his own wings, which are presumably hiding under his hard wing casings), are notably hardy and well adapted for survival; there are more species of beetle than any other order on earth. Well, we learn that Gregor has bad lungs they are “none too reliable”—and so the Gregor beetle has bad lungs as well, or at least the insect equivalent, and perhaps that really is his fatal diagnosis; or perhaps it’s his growing inability to eat that kills him, as it did Kafka, who ultimately coughed up blood and died of starvation caused by laryngeal tuberculosis at the age of forty. What about me? Is my seventieth birthday a death sentence? Of course, yes, it is, and in some ways it has sealed me within myself as surely as if I had suffered a total paralysis. And this revelation is the function of the bed, and of dreaming in the bed, the mortar in which the minutiae of everyday life are crushed, ground up, and mixed with memory and desire and dread. Gregor awakes from troubled dreams which are never directly described by Kafka. Did Gregor dream that he was an insect, then awake to find that he was one? “‘What in the world has happened to me?’ he thought.” “It was no dream,” says Kafka, referring to Gregor’s new physical form, but it’s not clear that his troubled dreams were anticipatory insect dreams. In the movie I co-wrote and directed of George Langelaan’s short story The Fly, I have our hero Seth Brundle, played by Jeff Goldblum, say, while deep in the throes of his transformation into a hideous fly/human hybrid, “I’m an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it. But now the dream is over, and the insect is awake.” He is warning his former lover that he is now a danger to her, a creature with no compassion and no empathy. He has shed his humanity like the shell of a cicada nymph, and what has emerged is no longer human. He is also suggesting that to be a human, a self-aware consciousness, is a dream that cannot last, an illusion. Gregor too has trouble clinging to what is left of his humanity, and as his family begins to feel that this thing in Gregor’s room is no longer Gregor, he begins to feel the same way. But unlike Brundle’s fly self, Gregor’s beetle is no threat to anyone but himself, and starves and fades away like an afterthought as his family revels in their freedom from the shameful, embarrassing burden that he has become.

When The Fly was released in 1986, there was much conjecture that the disease that Brundle had brought on himself was a metaphor for AIDS. Certainly I understood this—AIDS was on everybody’s mind as the vast scope of the disease was gradually being revealed. But for me, Brundle’s disease was more fundamental: in an artificially accelerated manner, he was aging. He was a consciousness that was aware that it was a body that was mortal, and with acute awareness and humor participated in that inevitable transformation that all of us face, if only we live long enough. Unlike the passive and helpful but anonymous Gregor, Brundle was a star in the firmament of science, and it was a bold and reckless experiment in transmitting matter through space (his DNA mixes with that of an errant fly) that caused his predicament.

Langelaan’s story, first published in Playboy magazine in 1957, falls firmly within the genre of science fiction, with all the mechanics and reasonings of its scientist hero carefully, if fancifully, constructed (two used telephone booths are involved). Kafka’s story, of course, is not science fiction; it does not provoke discussion regarding technology and the hubris of scientific investigation, or the use of scientific research for military purposes. Without sci-fi trappings of any kind, The Metamorphosis forces us to think in terms of analogy, of reflexive interpretation, though it is revealing that none of the characters in the story, including Gregor, ever does think that way. There is no meditation on a family secret or sin that might have induced such a monstrous reprisal by God or the Fates, no search for meaning even on the most basic existential plane. The bizarre event is dealt with in a perfunctory, petty, materialistic way, and it arouses the narrowest range of emotional response imaginable, almost immediately assuming the tone of an unfortunate natural family occurrence with which one must reluctantly contend.

Stories of magical transformations have always been part of humanity’s narrative canon. They articulate that universal sense of empathy for all life forms that we feel; they express that desire for transcendence that every religion also expresses; they prompt us to wonder if transformation into another living creature would be a proof of the possibility of reincarnation and some sort of afterlife and is thus, however hideous or disastrous the narrative, a religious and hopeful concept. Certainly my Brundlefly goes through moments of manic strength and power, convinced that he has combined the best components of human and insect to become a super being, refusing to see his personal evolution as anything but a victory even as he begins to shed his human body parts, which he carefully stores in a medicine cabinet he calls the Brundle Museum of Natural History.

There is none of this in The Metamorphosis. The Samsabeetle is barely aware that he is a hybrid, though he takes small hybrid pleasures where he can find them, whether it’s hanging from the ceiling or scuttling through the mess and dirt of his room (beetle pleasure) or listening to the music that his sister plays on her violin (human pleasure). But the Samsa family is the Samsabeetle’s context and his cage, and his subservience to the needs of his family both before and after his transformation extends, ultimately, to his realization that it would be more convenient for them if he just disappeared, it would be an expression of his love for them, in fact, and so he does just that, by quietly dying. The Samsabeetle’s short life, fantastical though it is, is played out on the level of the resolutely mundane and the functional, and fails to provoke in the story’s characters any hint of philosophy, meditation, or profound reflection. How similar would the story be, then, if on that fateful morning, the Samsa family found in the room of their son not a young, vibrant traveling salesman who is supporting them by his unselfish and endless labor, but a shuffling, half-blind, barely ambulatory eighty-nine-year-old man using insectlike canes, a man who mumbles incoherently and has soiled his trousers and out of the shadowland of his dementia projects anger and induces guilt? If, when Gregor Samsa woke one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed right there in his bed into a demented, disabled, demanding old man? His family is horrified but somehow recognize him as their own Gregor, albeit transformed. Eventually, though, as in the beetle variant of the story, they decide that he is no longer their Gregor, and that it would be a blessing for him to disappear.

When I went on my publicity tour for The Fly, I was often asked what insect I would want to be if I underwent an entomological transformation. My answers varied, depending on my mood, though I had a fondness for the dragonfly, not only for its spectacular flying but also for the novelty of its ferocious underwater nymphal stage with its deadly extendable underslung jaw; I also thought that mating in the air might be pleasant. Would that be your soul, then, this dragonfly, flying heavenward? came one response. Is that not really what you’re looking for? No, not really, I said. I’d just be a simple dragonfly, and then, if I managed to avoid being eaten by a bird or a frog, I would mate, and as summer ended, I would die.