After all, there is always poetry. This month’s poem, written by William Carlos Williams, is all about the experience of being at the ballpark, with all the messiness that goes with it. It’s called “[The crowd at the ball game],” which you can read at the Poetry Foundation website. Give it a look, and then we’ll start with some background info.
Poets have long been drawn to baseball as a subject, so it’s not exactly surprising that Williams dabbled in baseball writing. But David Ward, in an overview of baseball poetry published at the Smithsonian magazine website, suggests that Williams’s poem is a noteworthy piece within context of modernist poetry. Even though baseball has had significant influence on the American consciousness, modernist poets tended to ignore the game as a subject “because it was too associated with a romantic, or even sentimental, view of life.” That so prominent a modernist poet as Williams would choose baseball as a subject is thus surprising, though Ward laments that Williams is more interested in “the relationship between the crowd and the individual” than in the game itself, which is largely absent from the poem.
The opening lines present us with a thesis statement on the nature of the crowd, a direct account of why people have chosen to gather at the ballpark:
The crowd at the ball game is moved uniformly
by a spirit of uselessness which delights them— (lines 1-4)
The second stanza offers us the first surprise of the poem: the fact that the crowd can find the “uselessness” of watching a baseball game delightful. In Ward’s account, this is because baseball is “a time out from the hum-drum grind of daily work,” but I don’t find this answer satisfying. It might be a sensible response to James Wright’s “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio,” which I’ve written about before. Wright’s poem is haunted by the imagery of the post-industrial Midwest, so of course in that poem sport functions as an escape from a laborious life. But there really are no such references to such work in Williams’s poem, so Ward’s analysis is purely speculative. I think we need to take Williams’s speaker more literally: the useless of the ball game is delightful not in contrast with something else, but in itself.
We might expect to find that delight in the action of the game, in the same way that the people in “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” find release in how the high school football players “grow suicidally beautiful / At the beginning of October / And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies” (lines 10-12). But Ward is correct in saying that baseball is not the actual subject of “[The crowd at the ball game].” The description of the game that the crowd is watching is hopelessly vague:
all the exciting detail of the chase
and the escape, the error the flash of genius— (5-8)
Compare this description of baseball to, say, Williams’s description of a fire engine in “The Great Figure” or a barnyard scene in “The Red Wheelbarrow”. Those poems are not exactly lush in their language, but they are precise in their details and remain evocative after multiple readings. But in “[The crowd at the ball game],” the words are inexact (“the chase / and the escape” from what?) and tend to lean on abstraction (“the flash of genius”); if we weren’t given the subject in the first line, I would never have guessed it from these stanzas.
This description is so uncharacteristic of Williams’s work that I can only conclude that it’s a deliberate irony: there is no “exciting detail” in the game itself, because that’s not where the excitement actually lies. The speaker may go on to tell us that these aspects of the game are “all to no end save beauty / the eternal” (9-10), but that’s only to set up the poem’s next twist: the crowd is the poem’s true site of beauty. The parallel is explicit in both form and content: “So in detail they, the crowd / are beautiful” (11-12). Williams’s choice to repeat the word “detail” and to reemphasize aesthetics with the word “beautiful” keeps the reader’s mind focused on the same ideas even as the subject shifts.
Granted, given how limp his description of the ball game is, this may also prime the reader for a further disappointment. While repeating “detail” and “beautiful” gives the poem’s argument cohesion, it also highlights how little has actually been said so far, how little detail and beauty we have encountered. And truth be told, there is little beauty to be found in the poem, at least in the conventional sense. The speaker says the crowd “is alive, venomous // it smiles grimly / its words cut” (14-16). It’s menacing, this crowd, although just how is unclear. Is this a harmless, playful fury, the sort that lies in the call to kill the umpire? Or is this a mob out for blood?
As we get more details of the crowd, its nature becomes both more worrisome and more ambiguous. The speaker highlights the diversity of people in the crowd, and how they relate to the greater collective:
The flashy female with her mother, gets it—
The Jew gets it straight—it is deadly, terrifying
It is the Inquisition, the Revolution (17-22)
To paraphrase “The Red Wheelbarrow,” so much depends upon the meaning of “gets it”. One possibility is that the women and the Jew “get it” because they are the recipients of the crowd’s abuse, the people who the crowd’s “words cut”. In this interpretation, the diverse elements of the crowd are an unwelcome sight to the rest of it. Williams’s invocation of the Inquisition becomes rather loaded in this reading, as the Inquisition was an especially dark chapter in the history of antisemitism. To call the crowd “deadly, terrifying” in this context borders on understatement.
But there is another possible interpretation of “gets it,” and that’s to say that the women and the Jew understand the sentiment of the crowd and embrace it. They are included in the general passion; their words cut just as well, their smiles are just as grim. All members of the crowd are equal members in the Inquisition and the Revolution. You will note that this is still a rather sinister scenario, though at least the victims of the violence have been elided from the poem. In either case, we seem to be a long way from the sense of brotherhood one finds in “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio.” Williams does not resolve this tension as the poem progresses. It is a tension that the reader must accept from start to finish.
But while the nature of the crowd remains ambiguous, the poem does develop the notion of beauty that Williams has in mind here. The speaker once again asserts that “beauty” can be found in this scene, but it’s not the sort that one can appreciate the way that one appreciates an artwork. This beauty “lives // day by day in them / idly” (24-26). This beauty is a potential that goes untapped the vast majority of the time, but can be unleashed in certain circumstances. (Ward may have overextended himself in linking this feeling to “the hum-drum grind of daily work,” but he was not completely off-base.) The occasion of the ball game allows something, specifically the passion of the inquisitor or the revolutionary, to express itself. It’s not for nothing that the speaker remarks on the time of year, as it connects the moment to something spiritual: “It is summer, it is the solstice” (29).
Broadly construed, both the spirituality of a solstice rite and the pastime of a baseball game are forms of play. Both occur in what the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga would call a “magic circle,” a metaphysical space where the ordinary rules of society are temporally suspended, whether for the purposes of law, religion, or entertainment. This goes back to the notion that the ball game has “a spirit of uselessness”: it happens outside the normal world. But just because it is useless does not make it worthless, in the same way that the “play” of ritual is still a serious matter. Just look at how Williams ends the poem:
the crowd is
cheering, the crowd is laughing in detail
permanently, seriously without thought (30-34)
For as difficult as it is to figure out the nature of the crowd, for as difficult as it is to see what it is about baseball that makes this moment possible, for all of that—the sheer exuberance of the moment comes through strongly. Whatever the experience has done to the crowd, I believe the impact has been tremendous, that they have been “permanently, seriously” moved.
What are your thoughts on “[The crowd at the ball game]”? Do you have a poem or a story that puts you in the mood for baseball season? Then sound off in the comments below! If you enjoyed this deep dive into a poem, then you’ll be happy to know that I write one of these every month. Most recently I analyzed Tracy K. Smith’s found poem “Declaration,” so why don’t you start there and start exploring?
Last Christmas, my brother gave me a copy of Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers, and Emo (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2003), Andy Greenwald’s document of emo subculture right as it was reaching new heights of prominence in the mainstream. Nothing Feels Good has its share of problems (not least among them, it really could have used another round of copy editing), but on the whole I found it to be an engaging piece of popular music criticism. This comes despite the fact that I was familiar with almost none of the music that Greenwald discusses in the book.
It was fascinating, really: all this music is from the not-too-distant past, yet the only songs I recognized were Jimmy Eat World’s “The Middle” and the singles from Weezer’s first album. Why was so much of this book’s material foreign to me? Partly, it’s a simple matter of timing. In 2003, I was just entering middle school, which would have put me at the very youngest edge of the traditional emo fanbase. If hadn’t heard any songs by Dashboard Confessional or Thursday, it’s because I wasn’t in their target audience. It would still take a couple of years before I aged into that particular bracket, by which point a new crop of emo acts had come around and overtaken them.
At least, that theoretically might have happened. Truth is, when I was a teenager, I didn’t have any emo acts to call my own.
Okay, I know that sounds like bragging, given how the word “emo” is loaded with negative connotations, but that’s not what mean. Before we go any further, it’s probably wise to define our terms. Greenwald, rather than defining emo in terms of any essential musical components or any historical connections to the D.C. hardcore punk scene of the 1980s, takes a more functionalist, more audience-centered approach to the genre. What’s important is not what emo music is, but what it does. To quote at length from the introduction:
Emo isn’t a genre—it’s far too messy and contentious for that. What the term does signify is a particular relationship between a fan and a band. It’s the desire to turn a monologue into a dialogue, to be part of the art that affects you and to connect to it on every possible level—sentiments particularly relevant in an increasingly corporate, suburban, and diffuse culture such as ours. Emo is a specific sort of teenage longing, a romantic and ultimately self-centered need to understand the bigness of the world in relation to you. It takes its cues from the world-changing slap of community-oriented punk, the heart-swollen pomp of power ballads, and the gee-whiz nostalgia of guitar pop. Emo is as specific as adolescence and lasts about as long.
from “Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers, and Emo,” pp. 4-5 (emphasis original)
What emo is supposed to do, in Greenwald’s telling, is to elicit certain emotions in the listener and to foster a connection between audience and artist. It’s a form of music that, moreso than other genres, is intensely personal and interpersonal. It’s why Greenwald spends less time analyzing the music itself and more time interviewing the teenagers who listen to it: that’s where the true nature of emo is to be found.
That functional approach to the genre seems fairly intuitive to me. It explains how Dashboard Confessional, originally the solo project of acoustic guitar–playing singer-songwriter Chris Carrabba, can be placed into what is ostensibly an offshoot of punk rock. The musicological features of their music don’t matter nearly as much as the fan communities surrounding them. Further, Greenwald’s approach allowed me to at least intellectually appreciate emo for what it is. Had he focused more on the music, had he encouraged the reader concentrate on aesthetics, well, based on the lyrics he quotes I’d have concluded that nothing of value had been forgotten fifteen years on.
One might object, however, to this functionalist approach to the genre. If emo is defined by what it does to the listener, by the personal connection that the listener has with the artist, then two people could disagree on whether a certain song or artist was “emo,” and there would be no objective criteria to determine who was correct. Greenwald, though, seems willing to bite the bullet on that. “In short,” he says after laying out the definition above, “everyone has their own emo” (p. 5). Now, I would concede that the term “emo” is too laden with associations at this point for Greenwald to expand the definition that radically, though of course I’m writing with the benefit of a decade-and-a-half of hindsight. Going forward, I shall substitute the phrase “angst music” to describe the sort of thing that Greenwald investigates in Nothing Feels Good. It’s not a perfect equivalent, I admit; “angst” is really a subset of the emotions that emo is supposed to elicit. But it’s good enough for rock ‘n’ roll.
Which brings me back to my initial point. I feel like I missed out on something when I was a teenager, because I didn’t have any good angst music.
II: “I Built a Time Machine”
When I was in high school, I was very disconnected from contemporary popular culture. I distinctly remember hearing some of my classmates in 11th grade health class talking about the Taylor Swift–Kanye West incident at the 2009 VMAs, and I had no clue what they were talking about. I don’t just mean that I didn’t know about the incident—I didn’t know who either of those people were. Nowadays, I’m still not all that knowledgeable about current popular tastes, but it’s not like I’ll respond to the name “Ariana Grande” with a confused squint.
It should come as no surprise, then, that most of the music I listened to back then came from the past. I picked up my love of Neil Young from my father, and I eventually started devouring Bob Dylan records, too. I loved both of those artists dearly, and would spend hours listening to their music, with something like the intensity that Greenwald sees in the teenagers he interviews in Nothing Feels Good. But there’s a key difference between my experience and theirs. They could relate to the music that they were listening to, and if I’m being honest, I could not.
On a surface level, Dylan and Young seem like good candidates for angst music—not for their whole discographies, perhaps, but for certain beloved and acclaimed albums. Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks (1975) is a contender for the greatest break-up album of all time, and doesn’t heartache describe a good chunk of teenage angst music? Similarly, Young’s Tonight’s the Night (1975) is a naked and ramshackle outpouring of grief, which fits with the blunt and bombastic emotions that Greenwald emphasizes. And could appreciate all those emotions, but only on an abstract level. Dylan and Young sang about adult problems with adult complexities. Meanwhile, I was a sheltered, shut-in kid from the rural suburbs; I never had a decade-long marriage fall apart or lost multiple friends to drug overdoses. If I had quoted any of their lyrics on hypothetical message board posts, it would have looked like, and would have been, a pose.
(Okay, one exception: “I’ll find somewhere where they don’t care who I am,” from Young’s “Albuquerque”. That’s pretty easy for anyone to apply to themselves.)
Beyond my forays into classic rock, the other context in which I heard a lot of angst music was in sports video game soundtracks. My brother and I spent a lot of time playing ice hockey video games, like EA Sports’s NHL series and Midway’s NHL Hitz. Both series had a penchant for genres like pop-punk and nu-metal, classic angst music styles. And their selections were…not very good. The first thing I used to do after booting up NHL 06 was change the song playing on the menu screens, because the soundtrack always started off with Fall Out Boy’s “Our Lawyer Made Us Change the Name of This Song So We Wouldn’t Get Sued”. I just could not stand how smug, snotty, and self-satisfied Patrick Stump’s vocal delivery was, especially given Pete Wentz’s kinda-cute-but-not-actually-clever lyrics.
Not every song on those soundtracks was unbearable, though. I quite enjoyed Brand New’s “The Quiet Things That No One Ever Knows”, easily the best song on NHL 2004. The sweeps between quiet and loud on the track are pretty and even somewhat cathartic in a way I can’t quite figure out. Still, I could never manage to use it as angst music, largely because I couldn’t understand the lyrics. That’s both because they don’t enunciate clearly and because the situation is described with the exact wrong amount of concrete detail. It’s neither sketched-in enough to be a vivid scene nor vague enough to feel universal; it’s in the uncanny valley of description.
Best as I can figure, the closest thing I had to angst music as a teenager was, of all bands, Guster. I’ve talked about them before, when I analyzed the lyrics of their third album, Lost and Gone Forever (1999), but I didn’t get into the band until I heard the lead single to their fifth album, Ganging Up on the Sun (2006). That single, “One Man Wrecking Machine”, is a quintessential depiction of suburban teenage malaise. The speaker’s concerns are stereotypically high school: he wants to go to the Christmas dance with the homecoming queen (“Maybe now I’ll get in her pants”), “pass around a skinny joint” with his friends, and get out of his parents’ house already. These issues are small, but the title blows them up to an operatic scale: the speaker isn’t just angsty, he’s a one man wrecking machine. It’s a song that captures the visceral experience of being a teenager.
Except, not really. Angst music tends to be immediate: the problems it addresses are set in the here and now, and the emotions it elicits are felt in the here and now. To the extent that the genre allows for reflection on the past, it comes from the perspective of a teenager remembering childhood. The artist isn’t supposed to be reflecting back on being a teenager—that’s too distant a perspective for the assumed audience. But “One Man Wrecking Machine” is explicitly a retrospective song. The opening line, “I built a time machine,” places everything that happens in the speaker’s own distant past. He wants to “relive all [his] adolescent dreams,” which only makes sense if he’s moved well beyond them. I didn’t really notice that the first time I heard it, but after a while it became obvious: this is a song about having a midlife crisis.
It’s also not a song that is content to let the speaker indulge in his emotions. The last repetition of the chorus alters the lyrics slightly to highlight the futility of the song’s central gesture: “I tried to pull it apart and put it back together / No point in living in my adolescent dreams.” That’s a very earnest songwriting choice, but it’s earnest in a way that’s less reminiscent of punk rock than it is of country music. The guys in Guster are correct, of course, and perhaps those of us listening to angst music could use that little bit of perspective they throw in at the end. But if someone’s in the mood for angst music, I’m not sure that they want perspective; what they want is for their feelings to be validated. In that mindset, I couldn’t blame them if they took friendly advice as condescension.
At any rate, even if I wanted Guster to be my angst music, I would have found myself disappointed right quick. Sure, they had songs like “Demons” and “Happier” in their back catalog, but their next album, Easy Wonderful (2010), was as sugary as a pop-rock album can get. As it happens, Easy Wonderful was the album that really made me a fan, so that didn’t bother me none, but there’s a possible world where the sunshiny one-two punch of “Architects & Engineers” and “Do You Love Me?” broke my already-broken heart.
That more or less takes us up through my high school graduation, right past the peak listening years for angst music. It wouldn’t be until college that I discovered the band that filled a void in my past-self’s soul, a void that past-me didn’t even know existed. And that band was Frightened Rabbit.
III: “Not Deep Enough to Never Be Found”
It took me some time to come around to Frightened Rabbit. I first heard of the band in the comments section of The A.V. Club, under an article that mentioned former folk-rock superstars Mumford & Sons. The commenters at The A.V. Club hated Mumford & Sons, and often brought up Frightened Rabbit as the superior version of that sound. (I’m not sure why, actually; I don’t think the two bands sound anything alike.) I began to associate Frightened Rabbit with the self-impressed hipster set, and when I gave a listen to their then–most recent album, The Winter of Mixed Drinks (2010), I wasn’t too taken with it. Sure, “Swim Until You Can’t See Land” was fun, but everything else just left me cold.
Maybe a year-and-a-half later, though, I was out on a late-afternoon walk around the campus of Carnegie Mellon, listening to WYEP, a local community radio station. The DJ introduced the next song as the latest single from Frightened Rabbit, entitled “State Hospital”. The track was hauntingly austere, with lonely guitar plucks overlapping with the percussion and Scott Hutchison’s vulnerable vocals taking center stage. He starts telling “the most threadbare tall story the country’s ever heard,” the story of a woman born into a life of poverty and abuse. Hearing the song for the first, I wanted to reject it as a piece of mawkish, manipulative sentimentality, as too many works on that subject are. But Hutchison’s lyrics proved too precise, too poetic to dismiss. By the time we got to the chorus, by the time the song went from sparse to anthemic, Hutchison sang that “[h]er heart beats like a breeze block thrown down the stairs,” and I was sold.
“State Hospital” is more empathetic than it is angsty—the third-person perspective doesn’t lend itself to the emotional release and connection that the first-person perspective does—but their next single, “The Woodpile,” is angst distilled and refined. The speaker of “The Woodpile” yearns for a human connection but his held back by crippling social anxiety. A man “bereft of all social charms” and “struck dumb by the hand of fear,” the speaker finds himself at a dance club and instinctively retreats from the action, “look[ing] for a fire door / An escape from the drums and barking,” and “fall[ing] into the corner’s arms.” Yet still he calls out for companionship, wishing that “you would brighten [his] corner / A lit torch to the woodpile.” That line, coupled with the blasting guitar in the instrumental bridge, elevates he speaker’s anxiety to heart-bursting levels. It’s perfect angst. And it was perfect angst for me: a song I could not only appreciate, but relate to.
“State Hospital” and “The Woodpile” set the stage for Frightened Rabbit’s fourth album, Pedestrian Verse (2013), which over the years has become one of my most listened-to albums. Each song is a jewel of self-doubt and self-loathing, sometimes backed with a spare, mournful arrangement, more often with electric rock energy. A great sense of worry pervades the album: the secrets in “Backyard Skulls” are “not deep enough to never be found,” the speaker in “Holy” is “too far gone for a telling,” and a title like “Dead Now” seems self-explanatory. Yet the tunes are always so alive and memorable. It’s like Jimmy Eat World’s “The Middle” played over 12 tracks, only I’m not embarrassed to sing along with the lyrics.
I loved Pedestrian Verse in the moment, of course, but even more I’m convinced that past-me would have worshiped it. The pain on Pedestrian Verse is almost entirely internal, the sort that comes from no apparent cause. Scott Hutchison doesn’t sound betrayed by an ex, and he certainly is not railing against overbearing parents. The speaker of a Frightened Rabbit song is miserable because he is miserable. That really was my sort of teenage angst, the feeling that I wanted validated. I would have especially loved “Holy”, though I probably would taken the religious metaphor more literally than I think it’s intended: “I can dip my head in the river, cleanse my soul / I’ll still have the stomach of sinner, face like an unholy ghost.”
Granted, there’s another reason I think Pedestrian Verse could have been my angst music had it come out earlier. There’s a certain amount of self-critique and irony to the album, an attitude that Greenwald would suggest is anathema to emo. That sort of music is supposed to be entirely, humiliatingly sincere. Pedestrian Verse, on the other hand, seems skeptical of itself. I mean, the album is called Pedestrian Verse, a self-deprecating assessment of the lyrical content. And the last two songs, “Nitrous Gas” and “The Oil Slick”, see Hutchison poke fun at his own histrionic tendencies. On the latter, he suggests that “only an idiot would swim through the shit [he] write[s]”: it’s so sad and self-serving, how can it appeal to anyone else? “Nitrous Gas” is even more extreme: he is “dying to be unhappy again,” “dying to bring you down with [him],” and more than willing to substitute happiness with the title chemical.
As an adult, I see those self-critical flashes as a necessary balance to some of the album’s more indulgent moments, like the phrase “knight in shitty armor” from the album opener “Acts of Man.” But as a teenager, those same flashes would have provided my ego with some plausible deniability. I wasn’t listening to angst music, I could have told myself, it’s a parody of angst music. That argument would not have held the slightest water, but whether it was true or not was irrelevant. Past-me would have needed that escape hatch to justify listening to something so straightforwardly emotional. I remember all those extended quotes from the teenagers Greenwald talks to in Nothing Feels Good, and while I may cringe at how what they say can get overblown and lose perspective, I still admire how open they are about it. I was incapable of such openness at their age.
So I’m totally down with angst music now, right? Well, not quite. There’s still one thing about it that troubles me.
IV: “A Particular Relationship”
If, like me, you watch a lot of video producers on “Left Tube” (or “Bread Tube” or whatever people are calling it now), you have probably come across the term “parasocial relationship,” which is the term for a one-sided relationship in which a person emotionally invests in someone who does not know that they exist. Think of how you might admire a particular television personality, or how you might root for a particular fictional character—those are classic examples of parasocial relationships.
I first heard the term “parasocial relationship” on an episode of the YouTube show NerdSync, which discussed the concept in the context of the comic book series Ms. Marvel. In the video, presenter Scott Niswander mentions how, although parasocial relationships “can be a relief from strained real-life relationships and act as a buffer against a loss of self esteem,” there’s always the risk that one will end up “project[ing] certain attributes onto the celebrity to fit their own wants and needs.” More recently, a YouTube series from Shannon Strucci, called Fake Friends, has been exploring the potential negative aspects of parasocial relationships, most notably in the second installment, “Parasocial Hell”.
Recall how Greenwald defines emo: “a particular relationship between a fan and a band,” “a desire to turn a monologue into a dialogue.” It’s a genre of music that invites parasocial relationships, to a greater extent than popular music naturally must. It invites devotion, however short-lived it tends to be in the genre. When we listen to angst music and conclude that the artist understands what we’re going through, it’s rather easy to make a leap as to what the word “understands” means in that sentence.
Frightened Rabbit means a lot to me, though I didn’t quite realize how much until Scott Hutchison’s death last May. I don’t wish to dwell on it for fear of exploiting it for personal use, so I’ll just say that I think I felt similar to how countless people felt after Chester Bennington’s death the year before that. I felt half-numb for few days afterwards, and wondered whether I needed to reevaluate my assumptions about Hutchison as a result.
Parasocial relationships set us up for disappointment, as the probability that an artist will wholly match our perceptions of them is close to zero. And that’s not even addressing the chance that an angst music artist proves to be terrible person. I mentioned Brand New earlier, and in the course of researching this piece I discovered that their lead singer, Jesse Lacey, has faced multiple allegations of grooming underage fans. Were I a fan of Brand New, had I formed a parasocial relationship with Lacey, would I be tempted to ignore or deny the allegations for the sake of preserving a particular mental construct—especially had that construct helped me through some difficult times? I can’t prove or disprove a counterfactual, but it’s not a comforting prospect.
In “Parasocial Hell,” Strucci criticizes the tendency for fans of celebrities to assert, without actual intimate knowledge, that so-and-so public figure is a “good person,” particularly after allegations of sexual misconduct. And if I have one reason to still find angst music distasteful, that might be it—no matter how much I may, in fact, derive from it.
Thank you for reading through this overly long post! I’ve had something like this kicking around in my mind for about as long as I’ve been keeping this blog, and the more I thought about it the more it started sprawling on me. I eventually realized that if I didn’t just write the damned thing already it would never get out of the conceptual stage. The result is what you’ve just read.
Anyhow, if you’re new to the blog, I’ve recently undertaken the Classics Club reading challenge, and I think my first write-up for it, on W. H. Auden’s The Dyer’s Hand, is representative of how I like to approach culture. Hope you enjoy it!
The above image is an 1884 painting called The Breakfast Table. The artist is the American portraitist John Singer Sargent, and the subject is the artist’s youngest sister, Violet. In this painting, Sargent has captured his sister in an instant of the perfectly everyday: reading a book over breakfast.
It’s clearly a page-turner, given that she’s staring down at the text while peeling an orange, not even glancing back at the blade that she’s sliding under the skin. If you look closely, you’ll notice that she’s even got the book propped up on some more oranges, which is perhaps the most charming detail here. It’s a potentially chaotic moment in this otherwise composed setting: what if her hand slips? what if the oranges roll off? When one thinks on it perhaps too long, the scene seems to have the potential for slapstick. Yet, looking at Violet’s expression, I cannot believe that any such calamity could occur. She’s too studious in her reading, too steady with the knife she’s holding, for any ill to befall her. I know, intellectually, that she will need to turn the page at some point, but I can imagine her holding this position for hours on end, a model of concentration.
The fact that I can see both chaotic and controlled futures in the world of the painting perhaps explains why I’m uncertain how to categorize it. It’s easy to call The Breakfast Table a genre painting, that is, a painting that depicts a scene from everyday life. Genre paintings tend to be alive with action; in this case, it’s the tension surrounding the woman, the book, and the knife. But we also see the poise associated with traditional portraiture, and given how much physical space on the canvas is dedicated to the breakfast room’s furnishings, one could even call it an artificial landscape.
You might think that such labeling is merely academic, but the context in which one views a work of art is important, and genre is a massive piece of context. I first saw The Breakfast Table with the expectation of seeing a portrait, based on what I knew of the artist, and so I first focused on the features and demeanor of the one person in the frame. But were I instead told it was a genre painting ahead of time, I’d likely focus my attention on the subject’s actions, and if someone said it was a landscape, I’d give myself over to the gestalt sensation of the room. In each case, I’d still judge the painting by how compelling and truthful it is, but just what would constitute truth may vary depending on which frame of reference I employ. Would the warmth of a morning at the breakfast table, which I’d want to find in a landscape, necessarily be welcome in the expression of someone being portrayed deep in concentration? I think it unlikely.
The Breakfast Table is currently part of the collection of the Harvard University Arts Museums in Cambridge, Massachusetts; according to their website, one can view the painting in Room 2100 on the second floor, a gallery themed around “Centuries of Tradition, Changing Times: Art for an Uncertain Age” (perhaps I was onto something in the above section regarding all those tensions). As you have probably gathered from that last sentence, I have not seen The Breakfast Table in person. I was not even aware that Harvard had art museums, though that fact shouldn’t really surprise me.
Instead, I found The Breakfast Table through an art book, specifically, John Singer Sargent by Trevor Fairbrother (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994). The book, which was made in association with the Smithsonian, is more or less what you would expect, with scans of paintings from all stages of Sargent’s development as an artist and informative writing from Fairbrother to place those paintings in context. At least, that’s what I assume one would expect, as this is only the second art book that I’ve read.
I’m honestly not sure why I haven’t read more art books in the past. Art history represents a significant hole in my knowledge base; watching Jeopardy!, few categories fill me with as much dread as the fine arts ones. My ignorance is especially odd because I write so many ekphrastic poems. (The last poem I had published, for example, was inspired by Fernand Léger’s painting Animated Landscape.) Every time I sit down to write something on a painting or a sculpture or what have you, I rediscover that I can’t really place the poem in its full historical context. I may know, for example, that a given work was made during the Gilded Age, but what art was like during the Gilded Age, or how it differed from what came before or after, is beyond me. Art books seem like a perfect way to fill that gap, especially now that I live in the country, where there are far fewer art museums.
Granted, I find art books to be somewhat odd on a conceptual level. Let’s set aside that, to build on Walter Benjamin, such books cannot convey the “aura” that viewing the original in person does, and instead let’s focus on the nature of books and paintings. To read a book is a continuous process; you are always moving from one word to the next, turning the pages to pull the thread of the book along. This is different from how you view of a painting, where you linger over the brushstrokes and the play of light and so forth. If someone were to stop dead in their tracks and observe the same spot on a canvas for twenty minutes, we’d assume they that were deep in aesthetic appreciation; if someone did the same to the book they were reading, we’d assume that they had merely zoned out.
To read an art book, I’d say, is to negotiate the tension between two impulses. At least, that’s what I’m finding as I read Fairbrother’s book. To the extent that I’m reading a book, my instinct is to keep moving along, to read more about, for instance, the context in which Sargent painted The Breakfast Table (the scandal surrounding his Portrait of Madame Pierre Gautreau at the Salon of 1883, his experiments in Impressionism, etc.). To the extent that I’m admiring a collection of paintings, though, my instinct is to slow down, to investigate each painting I come across, to scour The Breakfast Table for evidence of the claims Fairbrother makes. I simultaneously believe I am moving too quickly and too slowly, which is as good an approximation of life as any.
In describing how Sargent frames The Breakfast Table with furnishings cropped by the edge of the canvas, Fairbrother states that the artist wishes to “enhance the viewer’s sense of privileged intrusion into the scene” (p. 56). The word “privileged” there carries two connotations. The first sense, the one that Fairbrother certainly intends, is the connotation of intimacy. The subject, a woman reading to herself, is engaged in an inherently private activity. She is alone not only in her physical space, but in her mental one as well. To read is to temporarily seal oneself off from the surrounding environment by imagining a different one, and to view this painting is to breach that seal.
The second sense, the one that Fairbrother does not likely intend but is still fitting, is the connotation of wealth and status. In his caption to the painting, Fairbrother calls The Breakfast Table “an interior devoted to the charms and comforts of middle-class domesticity: silver, linen, and roses in an aura of tranquility and privacy” (p. 55). While the woman at the table is the focal point of the work, the great majority of the canvas is dedicated to depicting the fine and tasteful décor that surrounds her. In viewing the scene from this angle, the audience may have a chance to see how the other half lives.
I don’t think that the woman’s reading is incidental to this display of material privilege, either. Even with rising literacy rates and falling production costs over time, reading is still in some sense a luxury activity, or at least a luxurious one. There is obviously the monetary cost of acquiring new books, but let’s not forget the cost in time as well. Even the shortest of novels will take hours to read, and if a person must work to make a living, or must care for children or elderly family members, they will have far less time to enjoy literature than will the idle rich. (For an almost comical illustration: think how long it can take to linger over a monstrously sized art book, and then imagine someone trying to squeeze it into their commute on public transportation.)
More than anything else, that’s what The Breakfast Table has come to mean for me: a reminder that to read, to write poetry, to even consider running this blog on the side, are all products of relative privilege. There are invisible costs to every human activity, but we can become aware of them in oddest ways. I cannot imagine Sargent had anything like this in mind when he painted his sister reading in his family’s dining room. But a work of art is an opportunity for self-reflection, as much a mirror as it is a window.
Thank you for reading this most recent installment in my “Fragments” series. You would perhaps like to check out my previous efforts in the form: on the 2017 National Book Festival, on nothing, and on a photograph of Yankees game. And if you have any thoughts on John Singer Sargent’s The Breakfast Table, art books, or anything else on topic, let me know in the comments!
Guster are among popular music’s most underappreciated tunesmiths. Their brand of jangly, acoustic guitar–driven pop has proven to be surprisingly versatile over the years, perfect for cheeky kiss-off songs like “Amsterdam,” heartfelt love songs like “Satellite,” and whatever the hell “Red Oyster Cult” is about. The fact that they’ve never had a real hit song à la Fountains of Wayne’s “Stacy’s Mom” never ceases to confuse me.
Still, while Ryan Miller et al. are phenomenal at crafting catchy hooks, I’ve never thought of them as particularly great lyricists. They have some sparkling lines here and there (e.g., “Stay right where you are / You’ll be half of who you were” from “Homecoming King”), but for the most part their lyrics are secondary to the tunes. That’s why it came as a surprise to me when, as I was re-listening to their 1999 album Lost and Gone Forever, my mind became fixated on a certain, and appropriate, lyrical motif: how difficult it is to say something meaningful.
On Lost and Gone Forever, communication can often seem nigh impossible. Sometimes the speakers have been holding back their thoughts and emotions far more than is healthy. The speaker of the break-up song “So Long,” for example, is “blue, but from holding [their] breath,” while the voice of “Center of Attention” brags that no one will catch on to their self-centered attitude if they can “keep [their] mouth shut tight.” Other times, they’re resentful to be hearing anything at all, as on the chorus to “Fa Fa”: “You were always saying something you swear you’d never say again.” (It’s not for nothing that the song’s title consists of non-lexical vocables.)
Now, an entire album where people refuse to have authentic conversations with each other could get frustrating pretty quickly; there are only so many ways to say you would rather not speak. But the album finds a way to get around that limitation, finds a way to say something without actually saying anything: quoting phrases associated with childhood. The album’s title comes from the folk song “Oh My Darling, Clementine,” which people are most likely to hear as children. Both “I Spy” and “What You Wish For” incorporate ritualistic lines from children’s games. And “Happier” (probably my favorite song on the album) includes a extended riff on fatherly advice.
Why resort to phrases from childhood? I can think of at least two reasons. First, these songs about failed communication are implicitly about a failure to act like adults; one of the hallmarks of maturity is the ability to solve conflict through language. Invoking childhood gives one the impression that the subjects of these songs are emotionally stunted, that they’re locked in a perpetual preadolescence. (This is, as it happens, a recurring theme in Guster’s discography, e.g., “Homecoming King” and “One Man Wrecking Machine.”) Second, because these phrases are the sort that come to mind automatically, without conscious thought, they function a sneaky ways of shutting down discussions. Rather than allowing the speakers to indirectly confront their problems, they allow the speakers to sidestep them.
Let’s take a look at two songs in a little more depth. The first one I’d like to talk about is “I Spy”:
The scenario of this song is a bit vague, as there are not that many lyrics to analyze. We know that the speaker and the addressee are at “the May Parade,” and that the speaker wants to tell the addressee something, but just what that something is and why the May Parade is significant remain unclear. One reason why it’s hard to say anything concrete about the song is that the verse changes slightly with each repetition. Did they go “down to the May Parade” or “down at” it, and was it “we” or “it” that went down? Were “mumbled words” or “bitter words” under the speaker’s breath (or was it just “alcohol”)? Is he “meaning” or “dying” to tell you something? It’s as though the speaker is subtly rewriting the events of the song as they’re singing it.
Into this guessing game of a narrative, the speaker throws in a literal guessing game. It would seem that the speaker has been meaning/dying to tell the addressee that they’ve “been so damn sad / ‘Cause [they] spy something red.” This could be a private symbol for the speaker, but from the audience’s perspective “something red” could be basically anything. It’s not a reason for the speaker’s sadness, but rather a substitute for a reason. In fact, the language of I Spy suggests that the addressee is supposed to find that response enigmatic, because when playing the came, one wants to pick a object that will be difficult for the other players to spot.
Alas—or should it be thankfully?—the speaker cannot keep up this obfuscation for long. While the verse leans into ambiguity, the chorus is far more direct. Direct, and bitter:
You don’t know how far you’ve gone Or recognize who you’ve come How’d you grow to be so hard? Sick of playing my part
(Granted, the speaker can’t entirely escape the urge to rewrite things: the second version of the chorus changes the question in line 3 to “When’d…?”)
Whereas “I Spy” uses the language of childhood to put-off answering an important question, the same technique in “Happier” sounds like a more sincere attempt to articulate an emotion (though, spoilers, it also ends in bile).
The emotional narrative of “Happier” is a scattershot series of accusations and insults, of passive-aggression and plain old aggression. The voice of verses (sung by Adam Gardner) wants out of the relationship, while the voice of the first half of the chorus (sung by Ryan Miller) tells their partner to “go on, if this’ll make [them] happier,” before the two voices sing over each other in the second half of the chorus. If Lost and Gone Forever has a centerpiece of poor communication, it’s this song.
The childhood language appears right at the midway point, at the end of the second verse. Instead of a phrase borrowed from a time-passing game, Gardner’s voice brings up a saying from Miller’s voice’s father:
Like your father said, “Just do what was done unto you, always” In your father’s steps You’ll do what was done unto you It won’t be hard to start again
This is arguably the most tender-sounding moment of the song, where the instruments quiet down and Miller drops his shouty, harmonized vocals. On a musical level, this sounds like a comforting passage. But the more I think on it, the more vicious it seems. First off, the father’s advice here is a perversion of the Golden Rule. For the father, tit-for-tat is the proper ethos for getting through life. That much is clear from the get-go, but the framing is really what sells it. Putting that destructive worldview in a friendly package conceals the true venom of those lines. It’s less an excuse to avoid speaking and more an excuse to speak horribly.
Second, what the speaker offers the addressee here is not consolation, as might be expected when mentioning someone’s father. Rather, the speaker is predicting that the addressee will continue this cycle of retribution. Indeed, by linking that future to the addressee’s father, they make it sound like it’s an inherent part of their character. And really, after all the bile spewed in this song, what should Miller’s voice do but further inflict that pain? They’re damned right it “won’t be hard to start again.”
I feel I could apply a similar lens to just about every song on the album, from the self-consciously immature “Center of Attention” to the celebrity-stalking “Barrel of a Gun.” And I feel that this exercise has shown me something about Guster as songwriters: they may not be wordsmiths, but they are more than capable of carrying a lyrical mood from track 1 to track 11. That’s not going to win them a Pulitzer any time soon, but maybe they deserve more credit than I’d been giving them.
Thanks for reading! If you have any thoughts on Guster’s Lost and Gone Forever, or another album which uses borrowed language to great effect, let me know in the comments. And if you’d like some more lyrical analysis, I recently talked about Lucinda Williams’s song “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten,” which you can read here.
Something that makes Emily Dickinson a poet worth revisiting is the sheer quantity of her output. In his 1998 edition of Dickinson’s complete poems, R. W. Franklin identified 1,789 different poems to include in the collection. Even if most of her poems are on the short side—the piece we’re going to look at today is only eight lines long—that is a vast amount of material for the reader to appreciate. Once one gets tired of “[Because I could not stop for Death –]” and “[I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –]” and all the other classroom staples, there’s still so much more of Dickinson’s work to discover. And the fact that so much of her poetry has survived for our enjoyment has some bearing on the poem I’d like to look at now.
In Franklin’s numbering, this is poem 930; if you prefer the older Johnson numbering system, it’s 883. Either way, this is a slightly lesser known entry in Dickinson’s bibliography: “[The Poets light but Lamps –].” Let’s give it a quick read-through before we start pulling it apart.
[The Poets light but Lamps–]
The Poets light but Lamps – Themselves – go out – The Wicks they stimulate If vital Light
Inhere as do the Suns – Each Age a Lens Disseminating their Circumference –
If you know anything about Emily Dickinson, you’ll know that there were two big ideas that possessed her, that she returned to time and again in her poetry: death and immortality. We see both of those obsessions on display in this poem, as the speaker grapples with the question of how, or whether, art can endure when the ones who create that art are mortal beings. And, if you’ve been following my poem analyses for the past few months, this problem should be a familiar one.
Back in July, I covered Percy Bysshe Shelley’s sonnet “Ozymandias,” and I made much of how his poem complicates the traditional narrative of achieving immortality through art: the statue of the great king Ozymandias is a near-ruin, and the speaker’s account of the monument is filtered through multiple layers of hearsay. The reader is thus denied the consolation that comes from a poem such as Edmund Spenser’s “[One day I wrote her name upon the strand],” which promises that one may live forever through verse.
Like the speaker in Shelley’s poem, Dickinson’s speaker is not content with the easy comfort of that traditional poetic narrative, but I think her argument is more optimistic than the one we find in “Ozymandias.” One would not suspect as much, though, from reading the opening lines. We are told that “[t]he Poets light but Lamps” (line 1)—and as it turns out, a lamp is a complicated metaphor for poetry.
On the one hand, lamps are a source of illumination, of literal enlightenment, which is just what readers come to poetry to find. They even have some divine connotations, as seen in the Beatitudes: “Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house” (Matthew 5:15, King James Version). On the other hand, lamps are a fleeting source of illumination. True, they provide a more sustained source of light than an uncontained flash, or a stray spark from a flint. But candles are only so long, and fuel, when it burns, is spent. It would seem, that from the starting premise, the immortality of art is in doubt.
What’s not it doubt is the mortality of the poets, for “Themselves – go out” (line 2). To say that they “go out” is, I think, a surprisingly stark way of putting it. They are not “put out” or “snuffed out” by some external force. There is no dramatic, violent end to the poets’ lives, in the way that the statue of Ozymandias makes for a striking ruin. Nor, if there is no external force at work, is there any obvious way of preventing their demise. No, the lives of the poets simply cease when the last drops of life energy are used.
So, if the poets “go out” and their works are “but Lamps,” that is, if neither is immortal, then how can one say that Dickinson’s poem is optimistic? The key is that the speaker, after laying out these rather bleak premises, finds an unexpected continuation to the argument: “The Wicks they stimulate / If vital light // Inhere as do the Suns” (lines 3-5). Dickinson has set up a whole domain of images around the theme of illumination. On the one side, we have the temporary “Lamps” and “Wicks,” and now opposing them, we have “Suns.” At least relative to all human affairs, “the Suns” are an everlasting light source, and are themselves divine rather than being symbolic of it.
Perhaps your first response is to say that Dickinson’s speaker has just contradicted herself: the poets cannot both “light but Lamps” and have those “Wicks they stimulate” be like “the Suns.” But the speaker might respond that she is not stumbling into a contradiction, but is rather setting up a deliberate tension.
First, let’s take a look at that word “Inhere.” “Inhere” is the verb from which we derive the more common word “inherent,” a synonym of words like “intrinsic” or “essential.” Grammatically, “inhere” requires an adverbial complement: X does not “inhere,” but rather “inheres in Y.” Yet Dickinson’s poem does not present us with an obvious adverbial complement for the verb; Dickinson is never one for unambiguous syntax. We know that the wicks inhere “as do the Suns,” but that describes the manner in which they inhere, not what they inhere in.
I would be most tempted to say that “vital light” is part of the intended adverbial complement here, with the word “in” elided for the sake of the ballad meter. This reading has a certain appeal. To call light “vital” not only says that it’s important, but also that it’s life-sustaining (especially given the context of “the Suns”). If the works of the poets inhere in that light, then perhaps it doesn’t even matter if their work will never be immortal, for it will always be necessary. That would, in a sense, be its own kind of immortality.
I find this reading a little unsatisfying though, and that dissatisfaction hinges on one word: “If.” That word presents two potential problems for what I’ve suggested in the above paragraph. First, the more natural reading of lines 3-5 is something like, “If the Wicks they stimulate are vital light, then they inhere as do the Suns.” This reading still leaves the adverbial complement of “inhere” unclear. Second, the phrase “if vital light” is conditional; there is the logical possibility that the light may not actually be vital. But if the light’s vital nature is conditional, then how exactly can it be an essential or intrinsic feature of anything, whatever it’s supposed to inhere in?
The effect of lines 3-5 is to unsteady the poem, as well as the reader’s progress through it. The pat message suggested by lines 1-2, that poets and their work are both immortal, no longer seems tenable, at least so baldly stated. But the rebuttal that lines 3-5 appear to offer, that the poets’ works will always be life-sustaining, proves illusory, because the speaker presents that suggestion in conditional and ambiguous language. There are only three lines left in this poem, and we seem to be further from the answer than when the poem began.
Here’s my proposal for how to proceed. That whole business about finding the adverbial complement for “inhere”? That was a feint, an act of misdirection on the author’s part. In addition to poems about death and immortality, Dickinson was also fond of riddles, and a good riddle needs to temporarily lead the reader astray before they find the solution. In the case of this poem, the word “inhere” makes us consider inherent properties. We’re tempted to ask questions like, “What property of poetry might make it immortal?” or “What property of light might make it vital?” As it turns out, those questions are simply of the wrong sort.
Lines 6-8 are where the riddle makes it last-second, clarifying snap. Instead of thinking about an object’s inherent properties, we need to think about its relational properties. What matters is not what poetry or light is like, but what they are like in relation to something else: the observer, the audience. “Each Age,” the speaker tells us, is “a Lens / Disseminating their / Circumference.” In the same way that a lens will focus or disperse sunlight, “Each Age” (i.e., each generation of readers) will interpret the poets’ works in its own way. Something of the original intent may be lost through these interpretations, but the speaker’s use of the word “Disseminating” reminds us that something survives the process, too.
In the end, Dickinson’s poem is neither the celebratory ode to immortal art seen in the traditional narrative, nor is it the ominous counter-narrative that we find in “Ozymandias.” Rather, it’s an acknowledgment of the importance of poets’ readerships in preserving their work. To perhaps extend her metaphor beyond its purpose, the poets’ lamps may go out, but maybe the audience can replenish the oil. Dickinson’s own work, it’s fair to say, has survived in the exact same manner.
But what do you think? What are your thoughts on “[The Poets light but Lamps –]”? Do you have a favorite Dickinson poem that you wish got more attention? Either way, feel free to share in the comments!
Normally, there is where I’d link to another post of mind of that is tangentially related to what you just read, but in this case, I’ll just point you back to that analysis of “Ozymandias” that I linked above. I spent weeks thinking my way through that poem before I felt comfortable analyzing it, and the result is one of my favorite posts on this blog.
There’s a moment near the end of Frank Brady’s 2011 biography Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall—from America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness which both caught me off guard and,did not surprise me in the slightest. In late 2007, as Fischer was slowly dying in an Icelandic hospital, Dr. Magnus Skulasson, a psychiatrist (though not Fischer’s psychiatrist), frequently came to visit him, just to give Fischer some friendly company in his last weeks.
I’ll let Brady pick up the moment from there:
Bobby asked him to bring foods and juices to the hospital, which he did, and often Skulasson just sat at the bedside, both men not speaking. When Bobby was experiencing severe pain in his legs, Skulasson began to massage them, using the back of his hand. Bobby looked at him and said, “Nothing soothes as much as the human touch.” Once Bobby woke and said: “Why are you so kind to me?” Of course, Skulasson had no answer. (p. 318)
Just in terms of the prose, it’s clear that Brady finds this moment arresting, too. There’s that colon right before Bobby’s question, which signals that whatever follows is going to be significant. And that tossed-off “Of course” right before the last clause just underscores how difficult answering that question is. Why should Skulasson be kind to Bobby Fischer? Or rather, why should anyone be kind to him?
And if we’re going to hope to answer that question, then we’re going to need some context.
Bobby Fischer, at the very least in the United States, is history’s most famous chess player. His 1956 “Game of the Century” against Donald Byrne is one of the most celebrated games ever played; his triumph over Boris Spassky in the World Chess Championship 1972 represents the height of chess’s cultural and political relevance. Every rising American player from Joshua Waitzkin to Fabiano Caruana is heralded as “the next Bobby Fischer.” His name may as well be synonymous with chess.
Fischer was also a wretched human being. Even in our current political moment, when antisemitism and violent rhetoric are once again on the rise, his comments on Jewish people and September 11th are still shocking in their virulence. I had long known Fischer was “politically incorrect,” to dress things up politely, but reading excerpts from his press conferences and radio interviews made my eyes bulge. And that’s to say nothing of his day-to-day interactions with people. Fischer was consistently petulant, dismissive, ungrateful, and paranoid. The fact that anyone could stand to be in his presence for more than three minutes is itself a revelation.
Reading Endgame, I kept waiting for the moment when people would finally give up on Bobby Fischer. But no matter how many paranoid and hateful rants he’d subject his friends and colleagues to, no matter how often he’d respond to generosity with bile, people kept reaching out to him, kept giving him second chances. Chess masters would give him companionship and a place to stay while he was a fugitive. Admirers would write him letters and plead for his picture. A whole consortium of Icelandic public figures spent godless amounts of time and effort to extract him from his imprisonment in Japan. All that attention and affection, given to someone manifestly unworthy of it. Why?
Part of the answer, undoubtedly, lies in Fischer’s celebrity status. Fame invariably will grant one the benefit of the doubt in the eyes of the public. After all, one might argue, Fischer’s accomplishments in chess are undeniable: aesthetically, theoretically, technologically and economically, he did so much for the game. His victory in the World Chess Championship 1972 more or less put the city of Reykjavík on the map. It’s disappointing that so many people were willing to overlook or excuse his behavior, but I can’t say it’s too shocking, either. It’s not like the world is free of Cosby and Polanski apologists.
Second, especially in his earlier years, it’s not as though Fischer the person was wholly undeserving of sympathy. His childhood was far from idyllic: his family struggled financially for many years, and his mother was under government surveillance due to her left-wing political activities. And he seems to have been searching for purpose in his life for decades. Before he really embraced antisemitism as a guiding ethos—the same way, I suppose, one might try embracing a cactus for comfort—Fischer was an unofficial member of the Worldwide Church of God, an apocalyptic Christian denomination to which he tithed a good chunk of his world championship winnings. However, there’s only so much that a difficult life can account for, and calling for the mass murder of Jews is way, way beyond that.
That’s why, to bring this back to the beginning, Magnus cannot possibly have an answer to the question, “Why are you so kind to me?” It’s a level of kindness that defies reason, perhaps even rejects it. We can say, as Brady does off-handedly a few paragraphs earlier, that Magnus “had a great reverence for the accomplishments of Bobby Fischer and an affection for him as a man” (p. 318). But that’s not really an explanation; at most, it just pushes the question back down a level: “Why do you have affection for me as a man?” I mean, I still get chills watching Fischer’s mating combination in the Game of the Century, and I wouldn’t want to be in the same country as him.
Still, whereas every other time someone helped Fischer out filled me with frustration, Magnus’s leg-stroking inspired some more ambiguous feeling in me. The end of Fischer’s life is the rare spot in Endgame where he seems truly helpless. Yes, he’d been facing the threat of extradition to the United States for 15 years, but he also had the resources and stature to evade that threat for just as long. Yes, he’d gotten roughed up while in custody at Narita International Airport for traveling with an invalid passport, but that felt like perverted justice rather than injustice per se. But Fischer lying prone, vulnerable, in a hospital bed? That was something almost pitiable.
Tony Hoagland has a poem called “Lucky,” whose opening stanza has stuck with me ever since I first read it back in 2013:
If you are lucky in this life,
you will get to help your enemy
the way I got to help my mother
when she was weakened past the point of saying no. (lines 1-4)
I’ve never been certain what Hoagland means here. Is this a wish that we treat our enemy with pity, that we find a way to be a better person? Or is helping someone when they are “weakened past the point of saying no” a sort of cruelty, an act of revenge we’d be dying to enact?
And, however you answer that question, is that the sort of thing that you would want to do to someone like Bobby Fischer?
Here in the United States, we’re currently in the midst of American football season, which means it’s historically a fallow time for poetry. Unlike with baseball or basketball, there isn’t really a long tradition of poetry about football. As a sport, it lacks the aura of pastoral myth that surrounds baseball and the graceful control of the body that defines basketball. No, football is kind of an ugly sport: violent and dangerous, cloaked in concealing equipment, and overly complicated to describe. It just doesn’t lend itself to poetry.
There are, however, some noteworthy poems on the sport, like the one I’d like to talk about today: James Wright’s “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio.” Unlike every other poem I’ve previously given a close reading for, this poem is still protected by copyright, but you can read it over at poets.org, where they also have a recording of Wright reading the poem aloud.
Compared to those examples, “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” is relatively restrained, simply giving us the time and place. The first line of the poem then narrows the focus even further, placing us in “the Shreve High football stadium” (line 1). With a little knowledge of American sports schedules, one can piece together that it’s the start of the high school football season. So there’s our subject: a high school football game.
Except, the speaker then immediately moves the poem outside the football stadium, outside the bounds of Martins Ferry. Rather than talking about the game in front of him, he turns to the lives of working class people in the surrounding towns:
I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes. (2-5)
There’s a Whitmanesque quality to these lines, listing off the laborers who make the Ohio River region what it is. But where Whitman might celebrate the image of the American worker, Wright takes a more subdued approach. People are “nursing” their drinks; they’re “ruptured” or have “gray faces.” When he ends the stanza by claiming that they’re “[d]reaming of heroes,” it sounds less aspirational and more hopelessly escapist. Life in the Wheeling area is drudgery, and the most that people can do is to imagine something better.
The landscape of the post-industrial Midwest is a recurring feature of Wright’s poetry. “Outside Fargo, North Dakota” opens with the image of “the sprawled body of the derailed Great Northern freight car,” while “In Response to a Rumor…” is actually about women leaving a vinegar factory and appearing to disappear into the Ohio River. A sense of isolation and unease often overwhelms the speaker’s thoughts in these works: he is “lonely / And sick for home” in Fargo, and “will grieve alone” in Wheeling. Finding a similar malaise hanging over small towns in Ohio and West Virginia, then, is of a piece with the rest of Wright’s work.
Still, I detect something more personal in “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio.” In most of what I call his Midwest Hellscape poems, the speaker is an interloper, a visitor to vast decay, one who may interact with the people around him but only on a surface level. There’s no intimacy with the man in the train in “Outside Fargo, North Dakota” or the factory workers of “In Response to a Rumor…,” just a fearful fascination. But here, if only in the speaker’s mind, we follow the crowd back home.
There’s some initial ambiguity in just who the “proud fathers…ashamed to go home” refer to (6). Are they the various workers mentioned in lines 2-5, or the people joining the speaker in the stands of the football stadium. Of course, that ambiguity may well be meaningless, and I feel the poem is richer if one supposes that they’re both: steel workers on aluminum bleachers. Yes, they’ve come to watch their kids, but also to avoid a home life that they’ve long neglected—their wives are likened to “starved pullets,” i.e., young hens (7). And what are they starving from? They’re “[d]ying for love” (8). The struggles of the industrial working class don’t stop at the factory gates. They follow them into the house.
It is perhaps more than a coincidence that James Wright’s hometown is Martins Ferry, Ohio.
The final stanza, though, is where I think this poem truly becomes something special, which is interesting because it opens with one of the least poetic words in the language. Line 9 is the only one-word line in the poem, and that word is: “Therefore.”
Up until this point, you’d be forgiven for thinking this poem wasn’t making an argument, but just presenting a landscape. This sudden introduction of rhetorical logic is a little disorienting at first. The reader must readjust their expectations, and understand that the preceding stanzas are in fact the premises for the conclusion which is to follow:
Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each others bodies. (9-12)
I adore this last stanza for two reasons. First, it perfectly captures the contradictions at the heart of watching football. The game is both a showcase of humanity’s physical potential and an exercise in self-destruction. Look at the language Wright uses here: “suicidally beautiful,” “gallop terribly.” The sons of Martins Ferry embody both these aspects of football in two strange yet powerful word pairs.
Second, as a final stanza and a conclusion to an argument, these four lines offer something of a twist. Introducing this wholly mundane scene—beautifully described, yes, but mundane as a scene—with such a heavy “Therefore” is the exact sort of surprise I look for in a poem. It’s attempting to justify something that we take for granted: why do kids play football? In Wright’s poem, the answer lies in everything that came before. What good does it do the sons of Martins Ferry? Lord knows, but then again, they are “suicidally beautiful.” The endgame may well not be the point. All that matters is the feeling that comes from “galloping terribly against each other’s bodies.”
What do you all think about “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio?” Are there any other poems (or stories, etc.) that you think do well in tackling the reasons we play sports? Let me know in the comments!
In his reference book A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation, Noah Lukeman calls the section break “the most subjective of punctuation marks,” noting that “there is not even a consensus on how to indicate it” (p. 160). Some books use a blank space between paragraphs to mark a section break, while others use a dingbat for the same purpose. The section break is such a nebulous punctuation mark, in fact, that I hadn’t even considered it as such until reading Lukeman’s book.
Now, even if you would rather think of section breaks as structural devices rather than punctuation, I think you can agree that their usage is somewhat interesting.
As with any break in the text of a book (paragraph, chapter, etc.), the section break is primarily used to indicate a transition, whether it’s in terms of location, time, or point of view. It’s a way of bridging the gap between two passages which are conceptually close (they are, after all, in the same chapter), but are disconnected enough that moving directly from one to the other would seem jarring. It can also be used to give the reader an extended moment to pause, to reflect on what they’ve just read.
In his discussion of the section break, Lukeman advises writers to practice moderation in using it. He gives two main reasons for this. First, he says that the section break’s brief pause can literally take the reader out of the book:
When considering whether to use a section break, the first thing you must realize is that every time you use one, you give the reader a chance to put your book down. The section break carries nearly the power of a chapter break and also has nearly the visual appeal of one: it creates a nice, too-convenient place for a reader to rest. So first ask yourself if you truly need it. Can the chapter live without it? (p. 167)
Second, he argues that using too many section breaks in a chapter can hamper the reader’s ability to parse the text:
Sometimes one encounters a work where there are four, five, or more section breaks per chapter, and the effect is immediate. It lends the chapter a choppy feel, as if it’s been carved into small parts. As a rule of thumb, there should rarely be more than one or two section breaks per chapter. There is a certain satisfaction for the reader in absorbing himself in fifteen or twenty pages at once; multiple section breaks detract from that…It also makes them work harder, as they’ll have to exert the mental energy of going through multiple beginnings and endings, going through major transitions (whether of time, setting, or viewpoint) several times in a single chapter. (p. 174)
I think it’s fair to say that Lukeman’s advice holds true in most contexts. Most pieces of writing don’t require more than handful of section breaks, and as Brandon Taylor recently observed, writers often use section breaks to “conclude” passages they haven’t fully thought through yet. (Case in point: my “X Fragments on Y” posts, with the Roman numerals in place of dingbats.)
Yet wherever there’s sound advice, there’s also room to ignore it with abandon, and such experiments often have artistically interesting results.
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The first place I remember seeing section breaks used imaginatively was in Chapter 3 of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932). If Lukeman would find four section breaks in a chapter suspicious, then he would have Huxley arrested on the spot for what he does there. In my edition of the book, Chapter 3 is 27 pages long, and by my count contains 119 section breaks; that’s an average of more than four such breaks per page. What’s more, the sections are of widely variable length. While the first fragment of text goes on for about four pages, the sections grow progressively shorter, even as short as one line. The result is the print equivalent of a fast-cutting, action movie montage.
At least, it is on a formal level. The content is not nearly so exciting. The bulk of the chapter consists of three conversations that Huxley “intercuts” for his montage: Mustapha Mond’s history lecture, which he delivers to a group of confused students; Lenina’s dressing room chat with her friend Fanny, which centers on their sex lives; and a conversation about Lenina which Bernard Marx, our alleged protagonist, overhears and internally condemns. At no point do these threads actually intersect in the chapter; they merely occur simultaneously and in very rough proximity.
If you’ve ever listened to a radio frequency while at the edge of two station’s ranges, you’ll recognize the feeling of reading this chapter: picking up pieces of different discussions, but in such a way that it’s difficult to piece together a coherent through-line for them. At a certain point, you lose track of which words are coming from which station, and all that noise becomes one song. Such is the case for Chapter 3. If you pay attention to context clues, it’s possible to assign every section to its proper scene, but it’s easier—tempting, even—to just indulge in the implied poetry of all that rapid cutting.
But that very temptation, to just bathe in the pleasures of the rhythm without regard to meaning—that seems to be on Huxley’s mind here.
The previous chapter of Brave New World, Chapter 2, introduces a concept called “hypnopædia,” that is, sleep-teaching. While they are sleeping, children in the conditioning centres “listen” to recordings of lectures and pithy sayings that espouse the values of this society. The constant repetition, heard subconsciously, fundamentally shapes the mind of every person to guarantee their contentment with the status quo. As the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning tells his students, hypnopædia continues until
“…at last the child’s mind is these suggestions, and the sum of the suggestions is the child’s mind. And not the child’s mind only. The adult’s mind too—all his life long. The mind that judges and desires and decides—made up of these suggestions. But all these suggestions are our suggestions…Suggestions of the State.” (pp. 28-29, emphasis original)
Chapter 3, however, is where the reader first sees the effects of hypnopædia outside the context of the conditioning process, with two characters who flout the norms of society. The first is Lenina, who, contrary to societal expectations of promiscuity, has been exclusively going out with the same coworker for the past four months. Fanny cajoles her into seeing someone else, but Lenina seems passively stubborn until Fanny whips out a hypnopædic proverb: “After all, every one belongs to every one else” (p. 43). Confronted with the inculcated wisdom, Lenina finally relents.
The second is Bernard, the one eternally glum man in London and the target of much ridicule and rumor. His coworkers mock him with exhortations to simply drug his way to happiness, knowing he’ll scoff at their suggestions. “One cubic centimetre is worth ten gloomy sentiments,” one person tells him. “And do remember that a gramme is better than a damn.” (pp. 54-55). Bernard predictably gets riled up, and they leave with a good laugh.
As it happens, Bernard specializes in hypnopædia, and so one might assume that he resists obeying conditioning because he knows how it works. (“Sixty-two thousand four hundred repetitions make one truth. Idiots!” [p. 47]) But as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that Bernard doesn’t actually reject the values of his world; he’s simply unhappy because he doesn’t feel like he’s benefiting from them. Once he’s accepted into the higher echelons of society, his rebellious attitude evaporates. Hypnopædia, as it turns out, is hard to escape—which is why, when the verbal montage really kicks into gear, Huxley starts interpolating some of the hypnopædia recordings into the mix.
To give you a taste of what this montage feels like, have a look at page 49:
The rhythm of the short sections becomes so incessant that it takes on the air of a chant, of an indoctrination. It’s an effect I’m not sure could be achieved without heavy use of the section break.
However, Chapter 3 is an outlier in the novel. Nowhere else does Huxley deploy the section break with anywhere near this frequency, and as such the whole chapter can feel like an experiment, even a gimmick. (Huxley’s not even consistent with how he breaks sections in the novel: most chapters just use line-spacing, but Chapters 4-6 split chapters into explicitly labelled parts.) For a more consistent demonstration of the power of section breaks, we’ll need to look elsewhere.
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I recently finished John Hersey’s Hiroshima (1946), a journalistic account how six people lived through the atomic bombing of the Japanese city on August 6, 1945, and its immediate aftermath, with an extended epilogue added to the 1985 re-printing that catches up on the subjects’ post-bombing lives. As a work of journalism, the fact that Hiroshima would feature more section breaks than is standard is not all that surprising; articles tend to include them at much briefer intervals than novels do. Indeed, Hiroshima was originally supposed to be printed as a series of four articles in The New Yorker before the editors decided to dedicate an entire issue to the work and printed it all at once. To a certain extent, it simply bears the marks of its medium.
However, I would still say Hersey uses the section break more often that Lukeman would ever deem strictly necessary. For example, the third chapter, “Details Are Being Investigated,” has 27 section breaks over the span of 24 pages. That’s not quite a Chapter 3 of Brave New World clip, but it still averages out to more than one per page. And unlike Huxley, Hersey keeps up with this rough pace for the entire length of the book. Why does he do that?
Part of the reason is practical. As in the third chapter of Brave New World, Hiroshima follows multiple groups of people through events that are happening simultaneously. The section breaks quickly tell the reader that the narrative is moving from one part of the city to another, shifting perspectives among its central figures. That extra space between paragraphs gives the reader’s mind a chance to recalibrate, to file one person’s experiences away for the time being and give their full attention the next part of the story.
The first chapter, “A Noiseless Flash,” is methodical in how it uses its section breaks. The first section lists off what each of the survivors the book follows was doing at the moment before the A-bomb exploded, functioning as a dramatis personae. After the first section break, Hersey gives a more detailed account of one of those person’s actions, the Rev. Kiyoshi Tanimoto’s. After another section break, Hersey briefly turns back the clock and does the same for the second survivor, Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, and so on for each figure. Everyone’s lives, in Hersey’s telling, are allowed to play out in parallel.
At least, they are at first, and this is where Hersey’s book demonstrates the real versatility of the section break. As the book progresses, and the various survivors start to cross paths and interact with each other, the strictly-divided sections give way to something more patchwork, more like verbal montage. Granted, the sections are not nearly as short as in Huxley’s case, but the narrative of the bombing’s aftermath does move quickly from setpiece to setpiece.
The subtle change in how the section break is applied underscores the dramatic change in how the central characters experience the world. Before the atomic bomb drops, there is something resembling order in Hiroshima. Yes, the city is struggling through the waning days of the war, with air raid sirens constantly warning of impending destruction. But in a way, everyone involved has adjusted to that status quo; their daily rhythms are unorthodox, but they’re still present. The atomic bomb, however, obliterates them. Confusion reigns over the city, so much so that one could conceivably turn Hersey’s journalism into a mystery story: What on earth just happened?
Hersey’s section breaks resemble montage in another sense: the juxtaposition of one section with another allows for commentary. We see this in Huxley, of course, what with those hypnopædic proverbs, but Hersey’s usage, though less frequent, is even more blunt. In “The Aftermath,” the epilogue written forty years later, Hersey writes about Rev. Tanimoto’s efforts as a peace activist, and inserts into that narrative brief snippets of world affairs, none of which are promising. Consider the following sequence from page 139, after President Harry Truman refuses to acknowledge a petition from the peace-oriented United World Federalists:
Hersey does this repeatedly in the home stretch: Rev. Tanimoto’s peace advocacy, confronted with incessant nuclear proliferation. Blunt? Yes. But a perfect example of how a section break is not just functional, but meaningful.
Finally, Hersey’s use of section breaks actually makes me question one of the premises of Lukeman’s discussion: that something has gone wrong if the reader feels like putting the book down mid-chapter. Perhaps an author might think that there are situations where doing so is perfectly fine.
The subject matter of Hiroshima is, to put it mildly, heavy. It’s the sort of book that inspires one to spend some time staring blankly at a wall, reflecting on the fallen state of humanity. One moment in particular got to me: a short section, which I shall quote in full, in which Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a German priest, attempts to comfort a girl rescued from a river following the bombing.
The night was hot, and it seemed even hotter because of the fires against the sky, but the younger of the two girls Mr. Tanimoto and the priests had rescued complained to Father Kleinsorge that she was cold. He covered her with his jacket. She and her older sister had been in the salt water of the river for a couple of hours before being rescued. The younger one had huge, raw flash burns on her body; the salt water must have been excruciatingly painful to her. She began to shiver heavily, and again said it was cold. Father Kleinsorge borrowed a blanket from someone nearby and wrapped her up, but she shook more and more, and said again, “I am so cold,” and then she suddenly stopped shivering and was dead. (p. 45)
Readers may well find themselves overwhelmed with anger or despair or some other powerful emotion here. The section break serves as a humane exit point. “Do you need some time to process what you just read?” this use of the section break asks. “Well, here’s a fine spot to leave off. Come back when you’re ready.”
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What do you think? Are there other books that you think use section breaks in creative or unique ways? Are there other punctuation marks or literary techniques that you think deserve more scrutiny? Share your thoughts down in the comment section.
Writing these close readings as a regular feature for the blog has given me many things: a chance to sort out my own, disordered thoughts; a venue to practice my critical reading skills; even a microscopic audience for my writing. But one benefit I’ve just started to appreciate is that, in writing up these pieces, I’ve introduced myself to some interesting historical figures. I wasn’t much aware of Charlotte Smith’s role in the early Romantic movement, or Thomas Moore’s involvement in revolutionary Irish politics. But I think, in terms of having a fascinating biography, no one I’ve covered quite stacks up to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.
We’ll hit some of those notes along the way, but for now, let’s take a look at one of her poems: “A Receipt to Cure the Vapors.” The title alone got my attention, we’ll give the whole text a read-through.
A Receipt to Cure the Vapors
Why will Delia thus retire,
And idly languish life away?
While the sighing crowd admire,
‘Tis too soon for hartshorn tea:
II. All those dismal looks and fretting
Cannot Damon’s life restore;
Long ago the worms have eat him,
You can never see him more.
III. Once again consult your toilette,
In the glass your face review:
So much weeping soon will spoil it,
And no spring your charms renew.
IV. I, like you, was born a woman,
Well I know what vapors mean:
The disease, alas, is common;
Single, we have all the spleen.
V. All the morals that they tell us,
Never cured the sorrow yet:
Chuse, among the pretty fellows,
One of honor, youth, and wit.
VI. Prithee hear him every morning
At the least an hour or two;
Once again at night returning—
I believe the dose will do.
We might as well begin with the title, which promises the reader something useful: “A Receipt [i.e., a formula] to Cure the Vapors.” The “vapors,” as the term was used in the 18th century, refers to a nebulous mental disorder primarily diagnosed in women and characterized by depression, hypochondria, fainting, and so forth. (The name comes from its supposed cause: gaseous emanations from the internal organs. This condition was also known as “spleen,” as we see in the fourth stanza.) Thus, the poem presents itself as a remedy for something that resembles depression.
That Lady Mary would write a poem of medical advice is not surprising when you consider her biography. In addition to her career in letters, Lady Mary was England’s leading advocate for small inoculation, which she learned about during her husband’s tenure as an ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Reading this “Receipt,” one gets the sense that the speaker’s medical knowledge covers more than smallpox; she says it is “too soon for hartshorn tea” (line 4), an ammonia-based brew related to smelling salts that was commonly used to treat the vapors.
In addition to any public-minded goals, Lady Anne may have had a personal impetus to write this remedy down. The footnotes to the poem in The Norton Anthology of Poetry say that the “Receipt” was “apparently written to Lady Anne Irwin, widowed eight or nine years previously,” though she is not referred to by name here. Rather, the speaker gives her the generic poetic name of Delia, and so one can reverse engineer that Damon in stanza 2 is Lady Anne’s deceased husband. These pseudonyms allow Lady Mary to respect her friend’s privacy while still using her situation to address a social concern.
So what is this promised cure for the vapors? Well, it takes the speaker the length of the poem to actually get to it. Indeed, the speaker spends much more time detailing the symptoms of Delia’s condition. Delia is inclined to “retire, / And idly languish life away” (1-2), suffers from “dismal looks and fretting” (5), and is given to “So much weeping” that she may “spoil” her appearance permanently (11). Whether or not “a case of the vapors” is the best way to describe her condition, it certainly seems that Delia is severely despondent.
To go off on a slight tangent: the poem’s musicality tends to underscore the uneasy feeling associated with the vapors. The poem’s base rhythm is alternating lines of trochaic tetrameter (eight syllables, alternating stressed and unstressed: “All those | dismal | looks and | fretting”) and trochaic tetrameter catalectic (same as before, but with the last unstressed syllable dropped: Cannot | Damon’s | life re | store“). Trochaic rhythms are particular incessant, always pushing forward, yet the stress pattern means one tends to end on the unstressed, weaker syllables. One leaves a trochaic line feeling incomplete, as though one more syllable is needed to round things out. That seems fitting for the vapors, doesn’t it? (One could say the same of the poem’s use of slant rhymes.)
Not only does the speaker linger over the symptoms of the vapors, but also she deploys some misdirection in prescribing her cure. From the first two-thirds of the poem, one would get the impression that what Delia really needs is a stern lecture. In the second stanza, the speaker tells her in no uncertain terms that her beloved Damon is gone: “Long ago the worms have eat him, / You can never see him more” (7-8). In the third, she commands her to “consult [her] toilette,” her “face review,” with the warning that “no spring [her] charms [will] renew” if she keeps on weeping (9-10, 12). And in fourth, she says the vapors are just a common problem for women: “Single, we have all the spleen” (16). The speaker doesn’t quite say, “Just get over it,” but the sentiment creeps close to it.
Yet right as the speaker got me scratching my head, the fifth stanza offers a bit of a swerve. “All the morals that they tell us,” the speaker says, “Never cured the sorrow yet” (17-18). In other words, the sort of lecturing the speaker has indulged in up to this point is of no use in bringing Delia out of her despondency. That’s an unexpectedly comforting thought coming from 1730. Further, rather than offering a universal cure for the vapors, the speaker suggests something more specific to her friend’s case.
And that cure is: another man. She tells Delia to “Chuse, among the pretty fellows, / One of honor, youth, and wit” (19-20). If the death of Damon is the cause of her condition, the thinking goes, then finding a new man to love should remedy it. It’s a little disappointing that the speaker’s cure is so other-centered, but it’s in keeping with Lady Mary’s larger body of work. Her most famous poem, “Epistle from Mrs. Yonge to Her Husband,” is a critical look at society’s double standards regarding gender relations, particularly how “The judging world expects [women’s] constancy” (14), but will forgive men their infidelity. Viewed in this context, the “Receipt” is a cheekier variation on the same theme.
This context also brings into sharp focus an ambiguity in stanza four that I haven’t mentioned yet. The last line of that stanza, “Single, we have all the spleen,” can be taken two ways. The first way, I’ve already mentioned: women are “Single” in succumbing to the vapors, that is, they are the only ones who suffer from it. But that line can also be paraphrased as, “Women will suffer the vapors when they are single, i.e., not in a relationship.” No one would object if a man in a similar position tried out the dating scene again; why should it be any different for a woman?
Again, this is not necessarily great advice. Companionship can certainly be comforting for those in a depressed state, but those relationships can’t solve the fundamental problem. But the speaker doesn’t advise going all in with this “pretty fellow,” either. She instead recommends, as one should with any remedy, exercising moderation. Delia ought to “hear him every morning, / At the least an hour or two,” and hear him “Once again at night returning” (21-23). That, for the speaker, ought to be the sufficient “dose” to overcome the vapors (24). It’s like taking two aspirin, except it’s two rendezvous.
By the end, one gets the sense that this was never “A Receipt to Cure the Vapors” at all, but rather a critique of the whole diagnosis. Conceptually, “the vapors” is not too far removed from the clinical sense of “hysteria”: a medical-sounding term used to dismiss women’s emotional states as disordered. Such states are not diseases; they’re not like smallpox. One cannot simply administer smelling salts or devise an inoculation and have them be “cured.” One must treat those who suffer “the vapors” as fellow humans, and nothing less.
Albert Camus’s 1939 essay “The Minotaur, or The Stop in Oran” (translated into English by Justin O’Brien and collected in The Myth of Sisyphus and OtherEssays) presents the reader with an unusual landscape of the Algerian city. Oran, in Camus’s estimation, is a city that has walled itself in, a place “devoid of poetry.” Yet when he says that, he is not disparaging the city—he is singing its virtues.
“The Minotaur” begins with one of Camus’s grand assertions about the state of the world: “There are no more deserts. There are no more islands.” He is, obviously, not referring to the physical geography of the earth but rather to the role that such places play in our psychology. “In order to understand the world,” he says, “one has to turn away from it on occasion; in order to serve men better, one has to hold them at a distance for a time.” The deserts and islands of the world, literal or metaphorical, allow one the space and silence to reflect, to confront the absurdity of our existence and accept it.
Yet, as Camus argues, it can be difficult to find such a place, especially at this late point in human history. Too many cities “are too full of the din of the past,” swarming with too many potential distractions. I’ll quote his quick tour of Europe’s cultural capitals at length, both because it will illustrate his point, and because it features some of the most sparkling prose in the collection:
Paris is often a desert for the heart, but at certain moments from the heights of Père-Lachaise there blows a revolutionary wind that suddenly fills that desert with flags and fallen glories. So it is with certain Spanish towns, with Florence or with Prague. Salzburg would be peaceful without Mozart. But from time to time there rings out over the Salzach the great proud cry of Don Juan as he plunges toward hell. Vienna seems more silent; she is a youngster among cities. Her stones are no older than three centuries and their youth is ignorant of melancholy. But Vienna stands at a crossroads of history. Around her echoes the clash of empires. Certain evenings when the sky is suffused with blood, the stone horses on the Ring monuments seem to take wing.
By contrast, as Camus would have it, Oran is the rare city “without soul and without reprieve.” Rather than classical music and Gothic architecture, a visitor to Oran will find much more evidence of the contemporary: boxing matches, commercial kitsch, and youths who model their fashion off Clark Gable and Marlene Dietrich. One might associate such modern diversions with the culture of advertising—that is, with the opposite of silence—but I can see how these features of Oran might bring one solitude. Such things can seem ephemeral, lacking the persistence of Mozart or Louis XIV. They come and go so quickly, one may fail to even take notice of them.
But for as much as I enjoyed “The Minotaur” on an aesthetic level, I can’t help but think Camus finds silence in Oran simply because he hasn’t listened closely enough. The whole world is stuffed to the brim with connections waiting to be uncovered.
I often think back to the stone wall that runs through the woods by my old middle school in northwest New Jersey. It’s the sort of feature that Camus would surely love in Oran. (Seriously, he’s rather obsessed with the role of stones in the city.) But it’s also a structure charged with history. True, I don’t know the name of the person who piled stone upon stone. But I know it was built with a purpose: to mark the boundaries between farms, back in the days before suburban encroachment. And I know the geological processes that made it possible: the receding of glaciers from the last ice age, and the raw materials they left behind. This is far from a glamorous, textbook-style history, yes. But those thoughts are still capable of distracting me from pure contemplation.
Indeed, perhaps because he is a writer, Camus cannot help but think on the history of Oran, cannot help but distract himself from his ostensible purpose. For example, when he spends a night around the boxing ring, he indulges himself by exploring the socio-historical context behind one of the bouts, a battle between a fighter from Oran and one from Algiers:
Back in history, these two North African cities would have already bled each other white as Pisa and Florence did in happier times. Their rivalry is all the stronger just because it probably has no basis. Having every reason to like each other, they loathe each other proportionately. The Oranese accuse the citizens of Algiers of “sham.” The people of Algiers imply that the Oranese are rustic. These are bloodier insults than they might seem because they are metaphysical. And unable to lay siege to each other, Oran and Algiers meet, compete, and insult each other on the field of sports, statistics, and public works.
Again, this is not necessarily the lofty sort of history that Camus has in mind when he talks about Paris or Vienna. But it’s still history, still a force that contextualizes life for the screaming fans who have flocked to the fights.
I suspect that Camus finds the silence he seeks in Oran not because it is present there, but because Camus needs it to be present. As Namara Smith has argued, the Algerian desert, a fixture of Camus’s writing, acts as a blank canvas for his thematic concerns. “Although Camus, in his journalism,” Smith argues, “was a perceptive and sympathetic observer of the mistreatment of Arab and Berber Algerians by French colonial authorities, the novels and essays on which his reputation depends all use the empty Algerian desert to stage their dramas of solitary heroism.” To say Camus denies the history present in Oran and other such places may be a stretch, but he seems willing to overlook it to suit his own artistic ends. It’s a beautiful essay, “The Minotaur,” one that I’m sure that I’ll reread many times in the future, but it’s a piece that can’t help but ring the slightest bit false.
* * *
Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed this slight detour into philosophy. I don’t often write about the subject, but if you liked this piece, then you may be interested in “Living Like the Reeds,” a post about stoicism, Aesop’s Fables, and the poetry of A. R. Ammons.