Allegory Stuff—A Series: Where the Project Came From

After more than a year away from it, I’m finally back to work on my book about allegory. During my Spring 2018 sabbatical, I withdrew from blogging and social media and didn’t post anything online the whole semester. I got a lot done, but there was something pretty monastic about that whole semester that isn’t possible or even desirable right now. Because I’m not working in academia this year, I don’t have the kind of built-in support for this kind of scholarly work that I’ve had in the past; because I’m working on the book evenings and weekends around a full-time and demanding non-academic job, I need to think about how to stay motivated. I’m working on the book proposal right now, and part of that document is writing brief summaries of each chapter. It’s hard to boil down a whole chapter into a paragraph, and that made me think I might enjoy writing informally here in this blog about some of the things I’m working through in each chapter of the book.

So this first post is about the pre-history of the project, and then I’ll occasionally post some chapter summaries and—who knows?—maybe other things about or from the book as well.

How I became interested in allegory: When I was working on my book on Spenserian satire (free download in hyperlink), I ended up naming Edmund Spenser’s way of writing satire “indirect,” in contrast to the more direct style of satire that became possible when press censorship became less extreme in England (thank you, John Milton!). This more direct style flourished in the eighteenth century and became what we think of when we think about satire: sharp, vituperative, naming-names kinds of satirical attacks. But in the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century, it was quite a bit more dangerous to speak your mind in print: you might have your hand chopped off for publishing a comment on Queen Elizabeth’s love life (John Stubbs), you might be put to death for having printed the Martin Marprelate tracts (John Penry), or you might be imprisoned for seven years and have your ears cut off for writing a book against plays at a time when Queen Henrietta Maria had recently appeared in a play (William Prynne). So the most prominent theorists of satire, who not surprisingly tend to be specialists in eighteenth-century British literature, will look at the kind of satires written during Spenser’s period and think these writers were a bunch of milquetoasts . . . but it was a different censorship situation.

While working on that book, I read a lot of satirical poetry written during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, some more “direct” and some more “indirect”—poems by Edmund Spenser, of course, but also, in no particular order, John Marston, Thomas Middleton, Thomas Nashe, Joseph Hall, Tailboys Dymoke, Everard Guilpin, “Martin Marprelate,” William Shakespeare, John Skelton, John Donne, Michael Drayton, George Wither, “Peter Woodhouse,” Richard Niccols, John Hepwith, anonymous libels aimed at Robert Cecil, and more. When I first started the project, I was hunting foxes . . . really. Spenser used fox imagery to criticize Robert Cecil’s father, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, in his Mother Hubberds Tale, and my beginning to the project was to look for places where a fox reference might actually be an allusion to Spenser and might therefore be subtly satirical. In its essence, indirect satire is allegorical, because it criticizes without naming who or what is criticized.

What happened as I continued to work on the satire book was that I shifted from hunting foxes and other obvious symbols to something more subtle: the more I read, the more I came to sense intuitively when a poem had shifted from straight narrative or exposition to a passage of allegorical satire. I believe that by immersing myself in so much satire of that time period, I picked up the same sort of habits of attentive reading that led Spenser’s contemporaries—and, unfortunately, also people like Queen Elizabeth and Lord Burghley—to find critical references to famous and powerful people even when no one was mentioned by name. This is “the allegorical intuition,” and it is not exclusive to satirical works but is, I think, what makes allegory recognizable. Medieval and Renaissance allegories tend to announce themselves pretty clearly as allegories, but I started to think about how it is that a reader can recognize a text as allegory when the author doesn’t explicitly proclaim, as Spenser does about The Faerie Queene, that the poem is “cloudily enwrapped in Allegorical devices.” Even when an author does announce an allegory, the nature of the beast is that the work doesn’t refer directly to the “hidden meaning” (that’s what makes it hidden, after all), so a reader is clearly doing some cognitive heavy lifting in order to make sense of any allegory.

I started to think that the brain is doing something very particular when a person recognizes and interprets allegory, so it seemed likely that cognitive metaphor theorists would have already addressed this . . . but they hadn’t. Only one scholar, Peter Crisp, had tried to develop a thorough theory of allegory through the lens of cognitive metaphor theory, and he had not—in my opinion—fully succeeded, because he went down the wrong path when he rejected the idea that allegory has anything to do with what Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner call “blended spaces,” a mental space where ideas, images, and concepts can blend together.

I looked at other theorists of allegory, and I saw over and over again what I think is another mistake: creating definitions of allegory that require that allegory be a narrative. The thing is, when you have a term as old as allegory—a term that names an extremely remarkable feat of the human mind—you end up with a lot of problematic definitions because it really is very hard to explain. So a lot of the erroneous belief that allegory must be narrative in form stems from the very old conflation of allegory with extended metaphor. I came to believe that they are distinct.

And then, during my sabbatical, I was reading a lot of philosophy and theory—posthumanist theory, object-oriented ontology, ideas about vital materialism—all of which share a general desire to topple humans from their unquestioned-for-millennia belief that humans are above everything else on earth, second only to God and then, to the extent that we have moved into a post-religious present, second to no one. Immersing myself in these ideas changed my perspective on a lot of things. One day as I was rereading Angus Fletcher’s “Allegory without Ideas,” in which he mourns the loss of a belief in allegory’s “chief traditional claim” “to be able to project permanent truths,” I suddenly really got that Fletcher, along with C. S. Lewis, Walter Benjamin, and others, attribute something divine or magical to allegory, because yeah, how does it work to get your reader to project out from what is there on the page to other meanings? It’s mysterious AF. So though I knew that this was part of the history of thinking about allegory, it was in that moment that I realized that the view is incompatible with both posthumanist philosophy and also with insights from cognitive science.

That seems like a good place to stop for now. So this was the genesis of the project.


A Tiny Trauma

A year or two ago, I was at the dentist having a filling done. They put something in my mouth so that I couldn’t close it, probably something like this:

Plastic Mouth Opener

I absolutely hated this experience. Tears were rolling out of my eyes, one after the other, dripping down into my hair, and instead of asking them to remove the thing, I tried to talk myself through it. They’re not hurting me, it makes their job easier, I can get through this, this is OK, this won’t last very long. I didn’t want to ask for something special, didn’t want to make their jobs harder, didn’t want to be difficult. I got through the experience and went along with my life.

But now when I’m in a dentist’s chair, the same thing happens. I tremble while big fat tears roll down my face into my hair. And I’ve had a couple of particularly crappy dental procedures this year: I had a root canal in March, and last week I broke a tooth, so there was a long appointment to prepare for a crown. For both of those, I took a Xanax and listened to music very loudly through my earbuds—but needing to do that made sense, because those were procedures that everyone agrees are unpleasant dental experiences. But this past Thursday, I had to admit that something is now deeply messed up with my relationship with dentists.

My temporary crown fell off Thursday morning, so I scheduled a trip back to the dentist for the lunch hour. I forgot to bring a Xanax to work, but I wasn’t too worried, because this was just not going to be a big deal at all. When I got there, the technician said she didn’t think there was any need to numb me, because creating a new temporary crown was going to be pretty quick and thoroughly painless. And it was.

But it didn’t matter. Same tears, same trembling, same feelings of utter abjection and helplessness. I think this is what trauma is, right—an experience that doesn’t leave you, the afterlife of which you can’t control? And this is innocuous—something that is not secret or embarrassing or humiliating or shameful, as so many traumas are; something that is not so horrific that I can’t even think or talk or write about it. So if it seems dumb that I’m saying I was traumatized by ten minutes in a dentist’s chair with a piece of plastic in my mouth . . . well, I think it’s dumb, too, but I think it helps me to understand trauma better.

I did a lot of emotional work in my late teens and twenties, mostly because I had to, and I learned enough through four years of weekly therapy to have a pretty stable adult life. Eventually, though, in the past couple of years, I figured out that a lot of what I had learned was about control and clamping down and avoiding anything that looked like a potential slippery slope to depression. I had learned to “stop it,” as the Bob Newhart skit advises:

I really hate that skit.

I became adept at “stopping it” through the kind of mind-body split exemplified by my self-talk when I was trying to get through that experience at the dentist: trying to *think* enough that I wouldn’t *feel*, using thoughts to deny my emotional experience, which was also necessarily my physical experience.

And I don’t think that these were bad skills to develop when I was in my early twenties. I just think I relied on them for too long and didn’t realize that they were tools, not truth. I’ve been working for the past couple of years on doing a better job of welcoming my difficult emotions, and that means also accepting the ways those feelings are in my body.

I don’t really know how to get to where I can be calm in a dentist’s chair again. By not advocating for myself in the moment when I needed to, I now have a problem that I have figure out how to solve (preferably before I get the permanent crown placed in a couple of weeks, hahaha). It’s helpful for me to have had this experience, though, because it confirms so much of what I’ve been thinking about the emotional work I need to do now, all these decades after I felt like I had figured things out.


Higglety Pigglety Pop! Or, Children’s Books That Are Not Really for Children

For some reason, when I was in first grade I made up my mind that I wanted always to be prepared. (I was not a Boy Scout.) I decided on a set of things that I should always have with me, and I made sure that every day, my jeans pockets were weighted down with the entire collection: small pencil (with the tip stuck into one of those triangular pieces of rubber that help children learn to hold a pencil correctly, so I didn’t stab myself), pad of paper, Kleenex, and I can’t remember what-all. My only other strong memory from first grade was being annoyed when someone else succeeded in opening a jar that I had not been able to open. I’m sure I was a pill and also, evidently, something of a worrier or control freak.

The next year, when I was seven, my parents gave me a signed copy of Maurice Sendak’s Higglety Pigglety Pop! Or, There Must Be More to Life. The book haunted me, from then to now. It made me strangely sad and lonely and discontented, but I kept reading it until it became part of me. You can listen to the whole thing now if you like:

HPP Cover

If you didn’t listen, OK then. Jennie the Dog has “everything”: “her own comb and brush, two different bottles of pills, eyedrops, eardrops, a thermometer, and for cold weather a wool sweater. There were two windows for her to look out of and two bowls to eat from.” But Jennie is discontented because “There must be more to life than having everything!” So she throws “everything” into the nice leather bag you see on the cover of the book and sets out to find something she doesn’t have. She decides that she wants to be the leading lady of the World Mother Goose Theater, but she is told she needs experience. To get experience, she becomes nursemaid to a baby who won’t eat, whose nurses are punished when they can’t make Baby eat by being fed to the lion in the basement.

Jennie fails to make Baby eat because she accidentally eats everything herself (she has a prodigious appetite). She manages to avoid being eaten by the lion, but she is a failure, and everything in her bag has gotten broken over the course of the story. She huddles alone in the woods, her bag full of useless everything next to her:

Jennie Failed in the Woods

But then the shadowy figures of the members of the World Mother Goose Theater troupe approach.

The WMGT comes to Jennie Correct Orientation

It turns out that they consider almost having been eaten by a lion to be an “experience,” and so they invite her to accompany them to the Castle Yonder to become their leading lady in their production of Higglety Pigglety Pop! She goes with them, leaving the leather bag that holds everything by the tree:

Alone two page spread

The Epilogue tells us that “Now Jennie has everything. . . . She is content.” Yet she still writes a letter to her old master:


As you probably noticed, I went away forever. I am very experienced now and very famous. I am even a star. Every day I eat a mop, twice on Saturday. It is made of salami and that is my favorite. I get plenty to drink too, so don’t worry. I can’t tell you how to get to the Castel Yonder because I don’t know where it is. But if you ever come this way, look for me.


The book was almost unbearably sad to me when I was a child. Jennie was happy, but why couldn’t she have taken the bag with her? Why couldn’t her master visit her? Why did the book have to be written such that the cost of the new life was the entire sum of the old life?

And what is “everything” anyway? I think of this book when I think about the ridiculous multiplicity of all the objects I own. I think of this book when I mention to a coworker that I have three pairs of eyeglasses in my cubicle, because I’m middle class (the prescription sunglasses) and middle aged (the progressive lenses balanced by a special pair of computer glasses). I thought of it this morning when I packed up my backpack for a work “team-building” trip to the zoo: umbrella, sunscreen, prescription sunglasses, Chapstick, mints, a book, a sweater, earbuds, a Clif bar. I don’t travel light even though, when it comes right down to it, I don’t really mind being rained on. I don’t need a book or earbuds to entertain me. I don’t need a snack. I think it’s the same thing that made me load down my pockets as a six-year-old: not so much a desire for comfort as a desire to Be Prepared, to be someone who has her shit together.

Thinking tonight of this book, which was so overwhelming for me as a child, I wonder if it was emotionally autobiographical. What did it cost Maurice Sendak to become an artist? What did it cost him to be a gay man who lived with his partner for fifty years but never came out to his parents? It probably cost him something so near to the entirety of his old life that it may have felt at times like it was the entirety. But he chose it anyway, because “there must be more to life than having everything.” There is living something genuine. There is following your own path. There are all the moments and thoughts and experiences without which Sendak could not have created the body of work that he did.

Sendak Collage

I’m Nobody! Who Are You?

My new official job title is a hoot—no, really. I am a “scientific communications scientist”—me, a person with a PhD in Pretty Pretty Poems! If the root for “science” appeared only once in my official job title, it would be amusing . . . ironic. But twice? TWICE?!?! ROFLMAO

So then today at lunchtime I ran to the pet store to buy a Feliway diffuser to help my cats, who are super-pissed at me for drugging them, caging them, and then moving them with no notice and against their wills to this shitty apartment in West Lafayette. At the cash register, some anti-anxiety soft-chew cat treats caught my eye, and I thought for a second before telling the clerk: “Naw, I need to try one thing at a time. It wouldn’t be good scientific method to do both.”

I got to the car and was like “Who the fuck am I?”—the same question I asked myself last week while biking home from work—I, who have biked to work I think twice in the thirteen years I’ve worked at my previous job, biked to work three times last week. Who am I? If you were to plop me down into a new life in New Orleans, I’d have a southern accent in like five minutes, and in the same way (apparently), I make dumb science-y jokes now instead of English-major jokes. ~shrug~

My gorgeous bike commute to work

Eight years ago, I wrote a little essay about Buddhist ideas of non-self and my then-recent experience of trying two different SSRIs to help me deal with the massive anxiety triggered by going through the tenure and promotion process. On Lexapro, I learned what it’s like to be bored: “I would walk from my car to my office thinking, ‘I have no pep. I have no pep. I am pep-less.’ Come 9:00 at night, I would start thinking about going to bed, not because I was tired, but because I wasn’t interested in doing anything else with my day.” My doctor switched me to Prozac, and suddenly I was “Rachel 2.0! . . . But then I went past Rachel 2.0 into Too Much Energy: I would lie in bed trying to sleep, and it was as though I could feel every cell of my body pulsing with energy.” I concluded:

I’ve been going to the library every day since Thursday to watch some visiting Tibetan Buddhist monks create a sand mandala, which they will then destroy in a ceremony on Tuesday evening. One Eastern religious concept that has always been hard for me to grasp is the idea that what one thinks of as one’s self—personality, predilections, interests, tastes, etc.—is actually just ego. I have identified completely with my personality, and so it was nearly impossible to understand that idea. And yet, in the past two months, my personality has changed three times: from my normal state to my anxious state, to a bored and lethargic state, to a hyperenergetic but non-ruminative and also non-creative state. So who is “I”? I feel less sure of that than I did before, and also, at least this morning, slightly less attached to the idea of “I” that has been a source of pride for all these years. Being around the monks makes me, at least temporarily, a nicer person. Being on these medications gives me experiences of other types of lives: bored! hyper! Being rushed makes me anxious. Skipping exercise makes me sick. When teaching goes well I get energy; when it doesn’t go well, I lose energy. I am not “I,” but a process, a series of interactions with the rest of the world, with the rest of you.

This whole thing of finding a non-academic job started a year and a half ago, when I had an epiphanic experience that included the insight that I needed to care less about what people thought about me professionally. I had started to recognize the insatiability academia had created in me as insatiable. It always made sense before that I wanted more, because there was always the next summit: finish PhD, get tenure-track job, get tenured and promoted to associate professor, get promoted to full professor. Once I had achieved those things and still felt hungry, I started to realize that it’s not possible to get full at this particular feast. I had managed to avoid craving material possessions, but I began to see my craving for respect and recognition as being a stumbling block to peace. I worked consciously on detaching from my professional identity for the sake of peace, and then I ended up succeeding enough that when a job for an English teacher was advertised at the state-supported boarding school for gifted 11th– and 12th-graders where my daughter was to be starting school this fall, I applied. I made it to the campus interview stage, but when I began to feel sure that I wasn’t going to get the offer, I decided to look for non-teaching jobs. It was time for a change. Fortunately, my experience with medical editing, which put me through graduate school in Pretty Pretty Poems, was enough to get me this gig as a “scientific . . . scientist,” lol.

I feel like a different person in a different life, but I don’t want to press too hard on the idea that I have no essential self, because one thing I remembered in my first week in this job is that something that feels like one of the basics of my personality is that I love to learn. After fourteen years as a professor, I spent a lot more time teaching than I did learning, and way more time on committee work than on learning as well. And of course it’s valuable to teach, and of course the more one knows, the deeper one’s learning in a subject area can be . . . but my delight in my new job so far is the delight of new learning, the delight that it is *my job* to learn about a whole new physical condition and the medical device designed to cure or palliate that condition, to write a report on the clinical evidence for the safety and performance of the device, and then move on to learn about something else totally new, every four to six weeks. And if I also ride my bike to work, and if I also makes friends in the woods by the Celery Bog with little guys like this . . .


It’s because I’m Nobody, really, just like Emily Dickinson.

Two Ways a Novel Can Be True: My Take on Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (with Spoilers*)

Earlier this month, I was crying while reading the news, as we do now. Maria Isabel Bueso, 24, has been in the United States since the age of 7, when she was invited to come from Guatemala to California to participate in a clinical trial for the treatment of the rare genetic disease mucopolysaccharidosis VI. Her participation in the clinical trial helped others with the disease and also extended her own life, but she must continue receiving treatment to stay alive. Two weeks earlier she had received a letter informing her that she must leave the country within 33 days or else be deported.  I felt powerless to do anything other than cry at the breakfast table, helpless (since I drafted this essay, the Trump administration has reversed course, after many people suffered a great deal of emotional anguish and expended a great deal of emotional energy). I wrote in my last post here about the power of art to create specifics and individuals rather than generalities of the large scale. But here I was encountering a story about a specific person, and what I felt was the same helplessness I usually feel when reading the news.

But when I finished reading Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous the next day, I didn’t feel hopeless. Yet both of these were specific and true stories about real individuals. What is the difference?

Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is billed as a novel/memoir about being Vietnamese in America, or about being the son of a mother traumatized and damaged by the war in Vietnam, or about coming of age as “the queer yellow faggot that I was and am” (199), but Vuong’s political commitments extend beyond race and sexuality, widening out by the end of the novel to include an indictment of Purdue Pharma—whose lies about OxyContin led to the opioid epidemic, which has had and still has a disproportionate impact on lower-class people of all races—and the human race, whose careless and selfish exploitation of animals serves throughout the novel as rich source of metaphoric meanings: the tortured macaque whose brains are spooned from its still living head and eaten by virility-seeking men becomes, metaphorically, both Little Dog’s grandmother and his mother. Little Dog himself is, of course, a dog, reminiscent of the line in Vuong’s poem “Thanksgiving 2006,” where the speaker tells a stranger: “I am ready. / I am ready to be every animal / you leave behind.” (Yes, Vuong is a vegan.)

Little Dog is a thinly fictionalized version of Vuong—part of the book was published in The New Yorker as memoir two years ago). So when he writes early in the novel that he is 28 years old (10) and then later tells his mother that “I’m not with you ’cause I’m at war. Which is one way of saying it’s already February and the president wants to deport my friends” (173), I check Wikipedia to learn Vuong’s birthdate and see that the February when he was 28 was 2017—days or weeks after Trump’s travel ban threw down the gauntlet, a klaxon blare telling us that he wasn’t kidding and he wasn’t pandering: the racism, the xenophobia, the hatred, the fear of all brown people and Muslims were truly Donald Trump.

From the beginning, the novel read like a memoir, so much so that I had to stop myself from googling the author to learn how many of the details tracked from the novel to reality. But then there came a moment when I was absolutely sure, beyond any doubt, with every fiber of my being, no need to google or speculate: Trevor was a real person that the real Ocean loved, and Trevor died. The shift was sudden, easy to identify in terms of genre: the book shifted from the form of a novel to an extended prose poem, and the emotional impact on me as a reader was immediate: I started to cry and kept crying through all eight pages of the prose poem. It called to mind the weirdness of arriving at the section titled “More Winter” in Carole Maso’s The Art Lover (1990)—a layered novel that plays with the distance between fiction and reality, starting with the novel-within-the-novel written by Caroline, the main character of the novel, shifting back and forth from novel to novel-within-the-novel until “More Winter,” when suddenly the speaker is Carole Maso, addressing her dead friend Gary Falk. She had spent the novel fictionalizing their friendship, his death from AIDS, turning their lives into the story of Caroline and Steven, and then she speaks to him. Caroline had been a first-person narrator, but when Carole speaks, she introduces a second-person addressee: “you” . . . Gary.

In both cases, the shift in style signals a shift in the assumed truth value of what is written. How do we know? It’s not so hard with the Maso novel: the name “Gary,” a new name, appears in the third paragraph, and “Carole” is named in the fourth paragraph. The name “Carole” on the book’s cover and Gary’s illness make the reader’s work effortless: Gary is to Steven as Carole is to Caroline. I have the hardback version, the first edition, and the book jacket copy makes it clear as well, from the beginning of Maso’s story’s life in the world: “In a daring and heartrending move, Maso breaks the fictive form with a harrowing account of her friend Gary Falk’s death from AIDS.  She exposes the nearly unutterable wound at the center of The Art Lover, and we are allowed to see what is at stake for the author in her creation.”

What about the Vuong novel? When we literature teachers teach our students a lyric poem, we always caution them You can’t assume that the speaker of the poem *is* the author of the poem. The speaker is a fiction. But you can say it all day; people are still going to equate the speaker of a lyric poem with the poet. Why? And why did I do it so naturally upon turning the page and reading the first line, “Trevor rusted pickup and no license”? The narrative pauses – a sign that we are now in lyric mode – and the emotional tenor changes. It’s hard to keep believing that this is fiction, because it’s hard to imagine someone merely imagining so much raw pain. The shift in genre is the only explicit hint that we are now some distance closer to reality—Vuong doesn’t signal it, instead focusing on how Trevor, meat-eating product of the toxic masculinity that makes him hate and fight his queerness, nevertheless was too gentle to eat veal: “Trevor who would never eat a child. Trevor the child with the scar on his neck like a comma” (156). But Trevor is also the calf.

Only later, after the narrative picks up again, does Vuong reference the truth value of the character: “Trevor was a boy who had a name, who wanted to go to community college to study physical therapy. Trevor was alone in his room when he died, surrounded by posters of Led Zeppelin. Trevor was twenty-two. Trevor was” (178). This is “the unutterable wound at the center” of this novel.

I wrote last time about the emotional work that art helps us do. Vuong is explicit about the transformations that writing allows him to make:

You asked me what it’s like to be a writer and I’m giving you a mess, I know. But it’s a mess, Ma—I’m not making this up. I made it down. That’s what writing is, after all the nonsense, getting down so low the world offers a merciful new angle, a larger vision made of small things, the lint suddenly a huge sheet of fog exactly the size of your eyeball. (189)

And this is the second way that a novel can be true. If Vuong opens a wound and bleeds his suffering out for eight pages of true true true poetry, why didn’t he just write a memoir for the rest of the book? Why call it “A Novel” on the cover? He answers the question in an interview published in The Paris Review:

This is why I chose the novel as the form for this project. I wanted the book to be founded in truth but realized by the imagination. I wanted to begin as a historian and end as an artist. And I needed the novel to be a praxis toward that reckoning.

This is the same things that James Joyce gets at when he has his alter-ego Stephen Dedalus proclaim: “Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” That transformation of “truth” or of “the reality of experience” through the artist’s praxis is a bigger and broader way of being true than a memoirist can achieve.

* I am not a book reviewer but a literary scholar by training and vocation—in the world of literary scholarship, we assume that our reader has read the same work, and thus we are free to speak of what strikes us most, interests us most, without the coyness required of the book reviewer, who must tease and titillate while leaving the most delectable morsels for the reader to discover on her own.



On the News, Emotions, and Art

I had an emotionally painful time at the one-day Zen retreat yesterday—all day long, just me and pain, no distractions. So at the end of the day, when we were no longer silent and the Zen teacher started a discussion about what to do with the distress created these days by the news, I didn’t really want to talk at all. But then someone said something that struck me as a wrong-headedly intellectualizing approach. Thinking work isn’t emotion work, and I really hate the narrative that emotional distress means you’re not sincere enough in your practice of religion: #tooblessedtobedepressed and similar bullshit. So I said something about art, and how the artists are working overtime to make sense of this moment—literally to make sense, meaning, and story out of meaningless meanness and hopeless facts. But I said it all jumbled and garbled and without visual aids, and I didn’t even articulate the main thing, which is that thinking can’t transform feeling, that the only way to do emotion work is to do emotion work, and that imagination has a role to play in all of this.

I was in Chicago last month and visited the Museum of Contemporary Art. Usually I snap a photo of the most striking pieces of art I see whenever I go to a museum, but I didn’t take a picture of the piece that has haunted me ever since, Adrian Piper’s “Imagine [Trayvon Martin]” (2013):


Here is a story in the second person. The bright red crosshairs encourage “[you]”—the bracketed “you” that a grammarian would include as the implied subject of the imperative verb—to imagine that moment of looking down the barrel of a gun, but the soft-focused, faded version of the same photo that accompanies Martin’s Wikipedia page [] is a gentle reminder that the story of his life was bigger than the story of his death. Imagine that, too.

Ross Gay’s poem “A Small Needful Fact” (2015) was making the rounds on social media last week:

“A Small Needful Fact”

Is that Eric Garner worked

for some time for the Parks and Rec.

Horticultural Department, which means,

perhaps, that with his very large hands,

perhaps, in all likelihood,

he put gently into the earth

some plants which, most likely,

some of them, in all likelihood,

continue to grow, continue

to do what such plants do, like house

and feed small and necessary creatures,

like being pleasant to touch and smell,

like converting sunlight

into food, like making it easier

for us to breathe.

Here, too, there is a reminder: the story of Eric Garner’s life was bigger than the story of his death. He lived and did things and cared about things and made things happen that may perhaps still be happening. What I love about this poem is the speculation, the invitation to imagine that Gay emphasizes by the repetitions of “perhaps” and “in all likelihood.” Gay doesn’t know—he’s just spinning out a train of speculations to imagine the meaning of a life that meant more than the death that ended it. He’s creating a story that is fiction, but true in the way that fiction can be true. It’s hard for us to imagine the lives of other people—we are born narcissists who grow into empaths, if we do, through training, the love of others, and speculation . . . and much of that speculation is nourished and guided by artists and storytellers.

Journalists are bound to nonfiction, and capturing, say, what is happening at our border involves creating a sense of the massiveness of the human suffering currently being sadistically perpetrated by our government, with our money, in our names. There are of course individual vignettes, little snippets within the news about individual human beings with names, but the impression I get of the news coverage of what is happening at the border is a sense of the scale, not a sense of the individuals. This is appropriate, because the scale is an abomination.

Politically engaged art is not enough to fix the world—as Anne-Marie Grey of the UN Refugee Agency reminds us, social change requires more than storytelling. But this is not about fixing the world—it’s about how to work with the emotional distress caused by the news. Over and over again in the past three years, I’ve read and heard people talking about the strong emotions they feel when they engage with the news: anger, fear, anxiety, hatred, despair. Art won’t transform those emotions; I’m suspicious of anything that professes to transform emotions, because I think most of people’s words on this topic are about intellectualizing or repressing.  Politically engaged art elicits different emotions, and maybe the best we can hope for is a wider emotional palette in response to what is happening in the world, rather than to magically and impossibly turn anger into joy or the dispassionate calm that people wrongly think is what the word “Zen” means. Reading news coverage of police brutality against black people makes me feel anger and despair and guilt. Engaging with the works of Piper and Gay that I’ve written about here makes me feel love and grief and perhaps especially wonder, as I imagine the years and years of ordinary minutes and ordinary days that added up to daily lives that had meaning for these two men I never met and never will—only when all meaning ended for them did their lives become meaningful to the whole world, and that diminishes them. The art that moves me the most overwhelms me with a sense of the bigness of what I don’t see and can’t see, the rich mysteries that hover at the edges of what I can perceive, think, know. So there is another emotion: humility.


On Taking Love Seriously; or, a meandering review of Julian Barnes’s The Only Story (with spoilers)

“Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less, and suffer the less?” So begins Julian Barnes’s most recent novel, The Only Story (2018), before the narrator acknowledges that it is actually not a real question, “because we don’t have the choice. Who can control how much they love? If you can control it, then it isn’t love. I don’t know what you call it instead, but it isn’t love” (3). A few weeks ago, when I was rereading Philip Sidney’s extremely long prose romance The New Arcadia and bemoaning to myself the fact that we don’t take love seriously anymore, not like Sidney did in the sixteenth century, I was forgetting about Julian Barnes, who is basically obsessed with love and has been for his entire career (almost four decades now).

But mostly, I think I’m at least a little bit right. In so many of our stories—novels, movies, television—love is either a product (as in the wildly successful Bachelor/Bachelorette franchise), a plot device, or a joke. Love provides a convenient happy ending that the audience has been trained to accept as the tying up of a loose end instead of the unraveling of a new one. People in love are stupid and irrational, and the suffering they experience is their own damn fault for feeling too much.

And so it struck me how interested Sidney is in the experience of love, what it feels like to fall in love. So much attention to step-by-step progressions of love in the characters Pyrocles and Philoclea, so many exemplary stories of what true love looks like, so much conversation among the characters about love, even a story about suffering in love told to illustrate Cupid’s vindictiveness toward those who refuse to love. But over and above all, Sidney conveys a sense of love not as foolishness but as something that must be respected because of its power. Pamela warns her sister Philoclea that “virtue itself is no armour of proof against affection,” and the tale provides numerous examples of characters whose lives and plans are changed beyond recognition by the sudden experience of love. Instead of treating these characters as ridiculous, Sidney suggests that this is just the way it is: love is more powerful than individual will, and sometimes that works out well, and sometimes it doesn’t.

And so it is in the world that Barnes creates in The Only Story, which begins in the late 1960s in Surrey. In Part One, he creates an unlikely pair of lovers: 19-year-old Paul, home from university for the summer, who meets and falls in love with Susan, the 48-year-old married woman with whom he is randomly matched for a doubles tennis match at the local club. Barnes painstakingly chronicles the progression, development, and experience of love so carefully that it seems at first that his whole point is about love. Why must there be the age gap? I think because most people would consider these lovers to be ridiculous, a matter of laughter like so many stories in which the person in love is the butt of the joke. But here, the love is never anything less than real, total, and life changing, and by the end of Part One, when they move together to a small house in London, it reads like a happy ending:

We were together—under the same roof, that is—for ten or more years. Afterwards, I continued to see her regularly. In later years, less often. When she died, a few years ago, I acknowledged that the most vital part of my life had finally come to a close. I shall always think of her well, I promised myself.

And this is how I would remember it all, if I could. But I can’t. (100)

If you were to stop reading before that last sentence, it would be just as though you had seen a performance of Into the Woods Jr., which cuts out the entire second act of Sondheim’s brilliant and heartbreaking tale of suffering in order to have a happy-ending play that children can perform as their parents coo proudly, because Barnes’s novel is not a love story about an unlikely pair of lovebirds but an exploration of the cost of love, measured in suffering.

I read because there is so much I don’t understand, and the only way to become a compassionate person is to understand more and better, at least a little bit. I tell people that the thing of most value that I got from reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest was some ability to imagine what it’s like to be an addict—the horrific, phantasmagoric scene of Mt. Dilaudid, with the leaked-out piss damaging the finish of the wood floor, the smell of the shit that had escaped, Pamela Hoffman-Jeep’s broken bones, and all of it predicated on Fackelmann’s choice to tackle Mt. Dilaudid even though doing so meant certain death at the hands of the man he had double-crossed. Coming at the end of the novel, though, after hundreds of pages of addiction, suffering, and overcoming and not overcoming addiction, the scene was horrifying but not incomprehensible.

Halfway through Part Two of The Only Story, I thought of Infinite Jest. “Ah, now I can imagine what it’s like to love an addict,” I thought. Because after they move together to London, Susan becomes an alcoholic and destroys her mind. And Paul loves her, because he loves her. In Part Three, Paul—now an old man whose heart was “cauterised” by this first and only love—collects sententious sayings about love and mulls over whether they are true or false; one that he finds true is “In my opinion, every love, happy or unhappy, is a real disaster once you give yourself over to it entirely” (245). Part Two is as painstaking a description of the disaster into which their love brings them as Part One was of the experience of first love. At the end of this section, it seemed to me that the book was “about” what it’s like to love an addict.

But the quality that makes literary fiction literary—as I will someday argue in print, unless I don’t—is its rich propensity to become allegory. It’s not just a story, but a story that can broaden out to be about my life, or about life in general. Paul, looking back from the vantage point of the present day, describes his life after Susan in the third person: with his “cauterised” heart, he attempts to keep a good distance between himself and the women he dates, and he mostly succeeds. Love is a dangerous force, as dangerous as it was when people created the god Cupid to explain this thing that overtakes us; as powerful as it was in Sidney’s Arcadia, when it turns the previously virtuous Queen Gynecia into a fool when she falls in love with Pyrocles, who is already in love with Gynecia’s daughter Philoclea. The upside of love is that you have a partner with whom to share your suffering; the downside is that double the amount of suffering enters your life: your own suffering and the suffering of your beloved. Paul will not make that mistake again: “the key was: ‘Once you give yourself over to it entirely.’” You don’t have to, and Paul won’t, ever again.

We believe in love, don’t we? And because we believe in love, Paul’s loveless life after Susan seems an unhappy ending. But we believe in giggling baby Cupid love, not malicious Cupid-of-the-lead-arrow love. But both of these are true metaphors for the experience of true love. Another of Paul’s favorite aphorisms—“In love, everything is both true and false; it’s the one subject on which it’s impossible to say anything absurd” (201) calls to mind Barnes’s interest in “fabulation” (see A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters [1989] and also p. 170 of The Only Story) and also the “Chronology” chapter of Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), in which he provides three chronologies of Gustave Flaubert’s life: the chronology of triumphs, the chronology of failures, and the chronology of what Flaubert himself wrote about his life at various points. If you flick the lens a bit, ignore some parts and overemphasize others, a happy story can become an unhappy one, and vice versa. Everything we see, every moment we experience, is colored by who we are in that moment, and we lie to ourselves as much as we lie to others, without even knowing it.

Per Anaximander, I will never read this book again in the same way, but I hope that I will always be as interested in love, take it as seriously, as Barnes does.