Melville, spring 1851

While those around him savored the renewed warmth and light of spring, Melville, unused to the sun and habituated to daytime reclusiveness, wrote to a friend that “like an owl I steal about my twilight.” During the days, he sat alone, as Hawthorne wrote of him, “shaping out the gigantic conception of his white whale, while the gigantic shape of Mount Greylock looms upon him from his study window.” The second-floor study of his house was Melville’s sanctuary, a bright corner room filled with morning light streaming through its eastern window and affording a view of Mount Greylock framed in a second window that looked north over an expanse of fields. Despite her best efforts, Melville’s wife later recalled, he sometimes worked on the book “at his desk all day not eating anything until four or five o’clock,” and then, according to his own account, retired for the evening “in a sort of mesmeric state.”

Delbanco, Andrew. Melville: His World and Work, Vintage, New York, 2005: 140.

Emerson’s watershed moment

On March 29,1832, 28-year-old Ralph Waldo Emerson visited the tomb of his young wife, Ellen, who had been buried a year and two months earlier. He was in the habit of walking from Boston out to her grave in Roxbury every day, but on this particular day he did more than commune with the spirit of the departed Ellen: he opened the coffin. Ellen had been young and pretty. She was 17 when they were engaged, 18 when married, and barely 20 when she died of advanced tuberculosis. They had made frantic efforts at a cure, including long open-air carriage rides and massive doses of country air. Their life together had been stained almost from the start by the bright blood of Ellen’s coughing.

Opening the coffin was not a grisly gothic gesture, not the wild aberration of an unhinged lover. What Emerson was doing was not unheard of. At least two of Emerson’s contemporaries did the same thing. […] Emerson opened not only the tomb or family vault but the coffin itself. The act was essential Emerson. He had to see for himself. Some part of him was not able to believe she was dead. He was still writing to her in his journals as though she was alive. Perhaps the very deadness of the body would help a belief in the life of the spirit. […] We do not know exactly what moved Emerson on this occasion, but we do know that he had a powerful craving for direct, personal, unmediated experience. This is what he meant when he insisted that one should strive for an original relation to the universe. Not a novel relation, just one’s own. […]

Emerson’s own journal entry from this March day was terse: “I visited Ellen’s tomb and opened the coffin.” They had been utterly in love, and for a moment, on September 30, 1829, their wedding day, the future had seemed clear. Notes and letters flew back and forth. They traveled and wrote verses together and laughed at the Shakers who tried to woo them to celibacy. She intended to be a poet, he a preacher. He had accepted a pulpit in Boston and they set up a home that became at once the center of the Emerson family, as both his mother and younger brother came to live with them. Now, a little more than a year after Ellen’s death, Emerson’s life was unraveling fast. Though he was a much-loved minister in an important Boston church, he was having trouble believing in personal immortality, trouble believing in the sacrament of communion, and trouble accepting the authority and historical accuracy of the Bible. The truth was that Emerson was in a fast-deepening crisis of vocation. He could not accept his ministerial role, he was unsure of his faith, and he felt bereft and empty. He was directionless.

At Ellen’s grave that day in Roxbury in 1832 Emerson was standing amidst the ruins of his own life. More than 10 years had passed since he left college. Love had died and his career was falling apart. He was not sure what he really believed, who he really was, or what he should be doing. […]

In the months immediately ahead he continued to walk to Ellen’s grave every day but now his concentration on death was broken and he reached a major watershed in his long struggle with religion. He would live no longer with the dead. “Let us express our astonishment,” he wrote in his journal in May, “before we are swallowed up in the yeast of the abyss.”

Before the year was out, Emerson had resigned his pulpit, moved his mother, sold his household furniture, and taken ship for Europe. He set out on Christmas Day, 1832. A northeast storm was on its way as the ship sailed from Boston, plunging into the grey expanse of the North Atlantic.

Emerson: The Mind on Fire, by Richardson, Robert D. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1995: 3-5.

The Great Wall, by Eliot Weinberger

Richard Nixon, visiting the Great Wall of China in 1972, said: “I think you would have to conclude that this is a great wall.”

Ronald Reagan, visiting the Wall in 1984, said: “What can you say, except it’s awe-inspiring? It is one of the great wonders of the world.” Asked if he would like to build his own Great Wall, Reagan drew a circle in the air and replied: “Around the White House.”

Bill Clinton, visiting the Wall in 1998, said: “So if we had a couple of hours, we could walk ten kilometers, and we’d hit the steepest incline, and we’d all be in very good shape when we finished. Or we’d be finished. It was a great workout. It was great.”

George W. Bush, visiting the Wall in 2002, signed the guest book and said: “Let’s go home.” He made no other comments. 

Barack Obama, visiting the Wall in 2009, said: “It’s majestic. It’s magical. It reminds you of the sweep of history, and that our time here on Earth is not that long, so we better make the best of it.” During his visit, the Starbucks and KFC at the base of the Wall were closed.

Weinberger, Eliot. The Ghosts of Birds, New Directions Books, New York, 2016: 91.

Bolaño on working writers

No one forces you to write. The writer enters the labyrinth voluntarily—for many reasons, of course: because he doesn’t want to die, because he wants to be loved, etc.—but he isn’t forced into it. He’s no more forced than a politician is forced into politics or a lawyer is forced into law school. The great advantage for the writer is that the lawyer or the politician, outside his country of origin, tends to flounder like a fish out of water, at least for a while—whereas a writer outside his native country seems to grow wings. The same thing applies to other situations. What does a politician do in prison? What does a lawyer do in the hospital? Anything but work. What, on the other hand, does a writer do in prison or in the hospital? He works. Sometimes he works a lot (not to mention poets). Of course the claim can be made that in prison the libraries are no good and that in hospitals there often are no libraries. It can be argued that in most cases exile means the loss of the writer’s books, among other material losses, and in some cases even the loss of his papers, his unfinished manuscripts, projects, letters. It doesn’t matter. Better to lose manuscripts than lose your life. The point is that the writer works wherever he is, even while he sleeps, which isn’t true of those in other professions. Actors, it can be said, are always working, but it isn’t the same: the writer writes and is conscious of writing, whereas the actor, under great duress, only howls. Policemen are always policemen, but that isn’t the same either, because it’s one thing to be and another to work. The writer is and works in any situation. The policeman only is. And the same is true of the professional assassin, the soldier, the banker. Whores, perhaps, come closest in the exercise of their profession to the practice of literature.

Bolaño, Roberto. Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles, and Speeches, 1998–2003. Translated by Natasha Wimmer, New Directions Books, 2011: 57.

your books

The books you sent

lie on the shelf

I don’t read them

Austen and Maugham

books on old films

Nazi biographies

furry with dust

purposefully neglected

lies, all of it

histories of French kings

by church-going luminaries

not to be gifted or donated

sentenced to a life unread

books about

dandies and rich bitches

dogs in human form

Agatha Christie

biographies of propagandists

revered by some but

not me

books not worth the flame

not worth time

lying books to lie decoratively

(like all lies)

as long as I control

James Forman on cop gangs

 

[D.C. police] aggressiveness [in the 1990s] came at an appalling human and eventually financial cost. A 73-year-old retired postal worker was beaten after officers mistook him for a suspect; the man ended up with a broken arm. A 56-year-old-woman was beaten with a nightstick after challenging officers involved in an altercation with two of her children; another woman was cursed at, hit, and maced outside of the restaurant where she worked. Much like Staten Island’s Eric Garner, a 31-year-old deaf man named Frankie Murphy stopped breathing while an officer held him in a choke hold;  he died in police custody. After a dangerous ride in a police wagon–much like the one suffered by Freddie Gray in Baltimore–a 28-year-old former US Marine named James Cox won two separate lawsuits against the police. As a result of such incidents, D.C. paid out about $1 million per year to victims of police misconduct during the early 1990s. Yet the abuses continued.

At the same time, a culture of impunity flourished with regard to less violent but more common police intrusions into the daily lives of black citizens. Swearing and yelling, making belittling remarks, using illegitimate orders, conducting random and unwarranted searches, demanding that suspects “get up against the wall”–these behaviors rarely led to lawsuits or newspaper coverage. But for residents of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, especially young people, this treatment became part of the social contract, a tax paid in exchange for the right to move in public spaces. Police mistreatment became part of growing up.[1]

Whatever their individual intentions or motivations, officers were bound by a system that was the source of their orders, training, and beliefs. Their job was to make teeth rattle, “arrest those s.o.b.s,” and to prove that they were the biggest gang in town. In cities across America, they still do.[2]


[1]  Forman, Jr., James. Locking up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2017: 171.

[2] Ibid: 183-184.

Ta-Nehisi Coates on Black Bodies

Son … I write you in your fifteenth year. I’m writing you because this was the year you saw Eric Garner choked to death for selling cigarettes; because you know now that Renisha McBride was shot for seeking help, that John Crawford was shot down for browsing in a department store. And you have seen men in uniform drive by and murder Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old child whom they were oath-bound to protect. And you have seen men in the same uniforms pummel Marlene Pinnock, someone’s grandmother, on the side of the road. And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate reaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy. Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. And all of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible. 

There is nothing uniquely evil in these destroyers or even in this moment. The destroyers are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy. It is hard to face this. But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege and even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.[1]

Here is what I would like for you to know: In America it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage. Enslavement was not merely the antiseptic borrowing of labor—it is not so easy to get a human being to commit their body against its own elemental interest. And so enslavement must be casual wrath and random manglings, the gashing of heads and brains blown out over the river as the body seeks to escape. It must be rape so regular as to be industrial. There is no uplifting way to say this. I have no praise anthems nor old Negro spirituals. The spirit and the soul are the body and brain, which are destructible—that is precisely why they are so precious. And the soul did not escape. The spirit did not steal away on gospel wings. The soul was the body that fed the tobacco and the spirit was the blood that watered the cotton, and these created the first fruits of the American garden. And the fruits were secured through the bashing of children with stovewood, through hot iron peeling skin away like husk from corn.[2]


[1] Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me, Spiegel & Grau, New York, 2015: 9-10.

[2] Ibid, 103-104. 

Teju Cole on American Racism

American racism has many moving parts and has had enough centuries in which to evolve an impressive camouflage. It can hoard its malice in great stillness for a long time, all the while pretending to look the other way. Like misogyny, it is atmospheric. You don’t see it at first. But understanding comes.

“People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.” The news of the day (old news, but raw as a fresh wound) is that black American life is disposable from the point of view of policing, sentencing, economic policy, and countless terrifying forms of disregard. There is a vivid performance of innocence, but there’s no actual innocence left.

 

Cole, Teju. Known and Strange Things: Essays, Random House, New York, 2016: 15-16.