Words with Hats–Matthew Batt

“Consider the lilies, how they grow: they labour not, neither do they spin.”

                                                            —Luke, 12:24

My wife and I traveled recently to New York City with our six-year-old boy, and every so often he would point out a detail that, to him, was emblematic of the New York he’d seen in Spiderman comics, or on Night in the Museum, or in the beginning of the first Madagascar movie, or lord-knows-where. A detail of a mosaic while waiting for a subway, an advertisement for an Irish play starring two bowler-hatted English actors, the impossibly shiny spire of the Chrysler Building, the Easter Island sculpture at the Museum of Natural History, all of Times Square, the webwork of the Brooklyn Bridge . . . “that’s awfully New Yorkish,” he would say.

Technically, everything in New York is awfully New Yorkish, of course. But, for a moment, you might bicker. What about all the crappy tchotchke hawkers and their spangly wares of foreign provenance? What about all the Connecticut investment bankers who are just there on a day’s business? The oafish Minnesota tourists (us)? The hopeless Irish busker outside a falafel shop in Dumbo (you)? The gilded heiress fighting with me over the last puffy-vested FAO Schwartz commemorative teddy bear (I lost)? Little Italy? Chinatown? Hell. Vast swaths of Manhattan don’t even resemble themselves anymore. Chelsea? The Village? What Village, I ask. Most of the Village feels like a riff on a song co-written by Whole Foods, Lululemon, and Martha Stewart.

But still. Isn’t that perfectly New York? All of it? After all, it’s not meant to be a theme park of itself as though it were torn from a page of a George Saunders’ story (with the conspicuous exception of Times Square, which is not so much a place as an occasion for data, aspiring actors, tzatziki sauce, and a continuous flash mob eager to prove that everything happening all at once is the same as a void). But New York is New York when it isn’t Old York. There is no way for New York to remain itself without always redefining what’s so, well, New Yorkish about New York.

The way to find this out, of course, is to wander. All of Manhattan and its surly boroughs too, you just can’t take it all in at once. Which is true, of course, of everywhere, of everything, of everyone. Nabokov says we must read each work of narrative art at least twice because we don’t know its frame nor its limits until we’ve reached its end, therefore its perspective, its balance, its priorities are unknown. So we must read and we must reread. In that fashion, as somebody vaguely famous said, all writing too is rewriting. But our cities and our lives and, when we think about it, our texts too, evolve. Not usually while we’re looking at them—unless we’re on some heavy duty pharmaceutical influence and/or trapped under something heavy and thereby able/forced to stare at the same thing until robbed of our consciousness—but rather change, evolution, difference emerges like the dew—from both above and without and also from beneath and within.

So wander we must. Wander to discover the change. Wander to make the change possible. Wander to be the change, you beautiful, hopeless Irish busker, you. You fierce Quatarian princess with your unquenchable affection for plush things sporting jaunty sleeveless outerwear. You silly, six-year old from St. Paul skipping through Hell’s Kitchen. Change is the comet’s tail. Change is the Doppler effect echoing ahead of us. Change, too, is the vacuum left when we’re neither coming or going. When we’ve been there but aren’t any more. The pivot, unwobbling. The world wobbling all around it.

There are, too, many ways to wander, and, if we’re so inclined, we might crank up the stuffiness of this conversation and invite, say, Walter Benjamin and a few of his affected friends on this walking tour. For there is a word for this—a word for this literary wandering—this wavering—this wondering—and it is a word, too, with a bonus diacritical mark in the rough shape of a beret to make it not only French in etymology, but conspicuously, physically, concretely Super French.    The Flânuer.

But the word comes not only with the regular baggage of its conspicuous Frenchiness—because there is no cognate, no English translation or equivalent—but it also comes with the fancy brass-cornered Louis Vuitton valise-style baggage of the 19th century aristocracy. To be Baudelaire or Benjamin’s flaneur, one was not only intentionally wandering the city streets, one was idly strolling. Loafing practically. Egad.

To invoke Benjamin is to be pre-wearied for most but the supplementally-oxygenated. This notion of the flaneur as it steams across the Atlantic aboard the SS Condescension is staggeringly pretentious, studded like a tufted chaise lounger with pointless shiny buttons. I can barely even write the word Benjamin without trembling in anticipation of being slapped with a dough-white glove for yet again mispronouncing it—It’s not been-JAM-ing, you silly tart, it’s bin-ya-MEEEN!

But we need not be shamed to invoke a little French—think of how embarrassing it was when we tried out “Freedom Fries”?—after all, there is another very germane, very Frenchy word that goes right alongside flaneur—or rather right before it, alphabetically anyway: essay. Or rather: essai.

It is not as it was when we were in school: a tedious, strictly academic exercise in futilely trying to replicate in only thinly veiled original language the thoughts, prejudices, and other constipations of our teachers.

It is: a try, an attempt, an endeavor.

And, it is not only a noun (a paper).

It is a verb. Try. Attempt. Endeavor.

Whereas “flaneur” is the linguistic equivalent of spats, when coupled with “essay” and beat adequately enough with the disrespectful stick of Americanized English so that most of the Provencal mites are flung to their doom, we can take both back—from the 19th century Continental elitism, as well as from our very own slovenly selves. And we can both justify the seeming sloth of the wanderer, and praise and embrace the momentary ignoramus. We don’t have to wear cravats or great velvet capes or dot our walks with silver-tipped canes or anything. Words, after all, are defined not by dictionaries, but by usage.

Just last week, after all, the phrase “‘selfie’ trumps ‘twerk’” appeared as a headline in the New York Times.

We can flaneur if we want to. (We can leave our friends behind.)

 

In his acrobatic essay “Not Knowing,” Donald Barthelme writes that “art thinks ever of the world, cannot not think of the world, could not turn its back on the world even if it wished to.” However, he continues, “this does not mean that it’s going to be honest as a mailman; it’s more likely to appear as a drag queen.” Because, when it comes down to it, unless we’re only trying to learn cursive or its literary equivalent by simply tracing letters or words on the page, life, consciousness, and the literature that comes from it must be supple. “Art,” Barthelme writes, “cannot remain in one place.”

So then, neither should we. Not in terms of what we write about, nor where we sit, nor where we put our texts, nor in which genre our texts are situated.

Perhaps we can return then to Benjamin—howsoever the hell you pronounce it—who suggests that as the flaneur walks, “his steps create an astounding resonance on the asphalt. The gaslight shining down on the pavement casts an ambiguous light on this double floor. The city as a mnemonic for the lonely walker: it conjures up more than his childhood and youth, more than its own history.” The writer, as he wanders, both discovers and remembers his past in his present, and his present, of course, inscribes a new story on the city. The city is a mnemonic for the walker, and the walker, too, is a mnemonic for the city.

We not only remember each other. We member each other too.

And in that fashion, all good writing is travel writing.

And all good travel is writing.

Text, after all, is no longer just a noun either, nor is it merely something our students do while we’re jabbering away about past-participles and the like. Text is what we do to one another, with one another, to and with and through and because of our writing. We text one another.

We inscribe the world with our footprints and our trash, with our exhaust and our expired breath, with the texts we create and the texts we read and the texts we alter and the texts we are, and in that way, the world inscribes itself upon us. Upon our flesh, beneath our skin, into our eyes, and then—after that most complicated of upside-downing-and-backwarding of translations through various rods and cones and all the other metaphors and mysteries of vision—upon our minds where foreverafter—regardless of whether it was a physical or an intellectual or an olfactoral or whatever experience—regardless of the vehicle, LIFE has been texted upon our minds, and not through a lifetime of analysis and psychopharmacutical curing and aging will we ever be able to tell what was fact and what was fiction because—ask the neuroscientist—ask the psychiatrist—ask the seminarian—ask the poet—there is no difference between fact and fiction in the world of our memory and imagination. All of it is just bombardment—all that gregarious and grotesque and freakish and beautiful pornographicopia of data—all of it raining down like a waterfall of electric light on a triptych of paralytics—a little whorl of Midwesterners around which, for a moment, the whole of Times Square spins like a top, when then, in return, the string now taut, we spin right back.

Essays and Encyclopedias–Ned Stuckey-French

I was reading S/Z: An Essay, Chapter LXXXVII – THE VOICE OF SCIENCE.[1] In the previous chapter, THE VOICE OF EMPIRICS, Barthes argued that the narrative, like Sarrasine, will die; now he adds that the cultural codes “will also be extinguished.” There is, however, one small difference. The narrative will come to an end, whereas the references will be used up. The Voice of Empirics is silenced when the end of the long chain of the “already-written, already-seen, already-read, already-done” is reached, when last domino has fallen. At such a point, we are finally at the tail end of the tale. 1001 Nights minus one and counting.

Roland Barthes

The Voice of Science, on the other hand, is paradigmatic, rather than syntagmatic. Field theory applies, not linearity. The Cultural or Referential Codes live in neighborhoods, not on the street. They are grouped in farragoes, medleys, or conglomerations, a little here, a little there. Or, alternately, one might say they reside in books—a “set of seven or eight handbooks accessible to a diligent student in the classical bourgeois educational system,” says Barthes (though he then lists nine).

I was a diligent student—hardworking, curious, the straightest of arrows—and when I was a kid, my parents bought me, because I was their oldest child and so diligent, a child’s encyclopedia. It was called the Book of Knowledge. For a long time, it was for me the “anonymous Book,” the “anterior Book” to which Barthes refers, a kind of Platonic Realm wherein all answers resided. I would ask my parents why cats had whiskers or the sky was blue, and they’d tell me to look it up in the Book of Knowledge. Soon, however, I found that I had to go beyond the Book of Knowledge and so I moved down the shelf to my parents’ Encyclopedia Americana, sure it would have the missing answers and that soon I would learn everything.

To be honest, I’m still possessed of some of that same pride, or at any rate, I still like to look things up. I own a Columbia Desk Encyclopedia, William Rose Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, the American Family Encyclopedia, an O. E. D. (with magnifying glass), Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers from Plato to John Dewey, a Hammond’s Natural Atlas, several field guides, Jeremy Hawthorn’s Concise Glossary of Contemporary Literary Theory, M. H. Abrams’s Glossary of Literary Terms, and so on and so on. Part of me still hopes my reference books will join forces and become Barthes’ “anonymous” or “anterior Book.”

Encyclopédie of Denis Diderot and Jean d’Alembert

It’s the same dream Diderot had in 1751 when he launched his encyclopedia. In the entry for “Encyclopédiein the Encyclopédie, he wrote, “It would have been difficult to propose a more extensive object than covering everything related to human curiosity, duty, needs, and pleasures.” Then, apparently having already caught some guff, he quickly added, “For this reason some persons accustomed to judge the possibilities of an enterprise by the limited resources they recognize in themselves have pronounced that we will never bring ours to completion.” Diderot gave the project twenty-five years of his life, continuing on even when his co-editor (and now former friend) d’Alembert dropped out in 1759. D’Alembert was discouraged because the government (in league with the Church) had banned their attempt to make all knowledge available to all people. By then, however, the Encyclopédie had become a big business, employing 140 contributors (including Jefferson, Franklin, and Voltaire) and scores of illustrators, engravers, typesetters and printers. The shear size of the project enabled Diderot to keep it going. It became a kind of open secret. He would eventually publish 28 volumes, containing 71,818 articles and 3,129 illustrations.

To those limited persons who dared judge the possibilities of his enterprise, Diderot said,

They shall have as sole reply this passage from Chancellor Bacon, which seems to address them specifically: “As for the impossibility, I take it for granted that those works are possible which may be accomplished by some person, though not by every one; which may be done by many, though not by one; which may be completed in the succession of ages, though not within the hourglass of one man’s life; and which may be reached by public effort, though not by private endeavor.”

He took this passage from Bacon’s unfinished De augmentis scientiarum (Partition of Sciences).  We essayists are now, I think, mostly Montaigneans and reading the passage, we’re liable to dismiss it as typical of Bacon, who was, after all, a systematizer, originator of the scientific method, utopian novelist, and writer of closed, careful, didactic, aphoristic and short impersonal essays.  But we might do well to remember that Montaigne, though certainly more hesitant, humble and forthcoming than Bacon, was not without ambition. In his own way, he too was after it all. In the three editions of his Essais (1580, 1588, 1595), Montaigne rarely subtracted. Instead, he added—sometimes just a word or a sentence, sometimes a whole essay. He may have been less afraid of contradicting himself than Bacon was, but the fact remains that his book kept growing, and his search for what he knew stopped only with his death.  Essai means a trial or an attempt, and we usually characterize the attempt as provisional, but the root leads also to assay, an analysis or trial meant to tell us once and for all whether we’ve been fooled or the gold is real.

The essay, split at its root between Bacon’s empiricism and Montaigne’s subjectivity, is still split, or at least its practitioners continue to maintain different relations to knowledge. They include generalists and specialists writing as generalists, all of them trying to figure out what they do and don’t know. Scott Sanders has nicely called the essay “an amateur’s raid on the world of specialists,” but it’s also the genre of choice for specialists who want to shake off their jargon and talk to the general public. Among twentieth-century American experts alone who were also essayists the list includes at least Aldo Leopold (M.S., Forestry, Yale, 1909), Rachel Carson (M.S., Zoology, Johns Hopkins, 1932), Loren Eiseley (Ph.D., Anthropology, Pennsylvania, 1937), Lewis Thomas (M.D., Harvard, 1937), and Stephen Jay Gould (Ph.D., Paleontology, Columbia, 1967).

I’m no expert but as I said, I do know how to look things up. The reference books on my shelves still get some use, but I’m no fool. I know the Digital Age means publishers will no longer be printing dictionaries and encyclopedias. Why would they when a digital version is so much easier to search? We say Google makes us stupid, but our iPads and smart phones have resurrected Diderot’s dream. All of us have all of the answers right at our fingertips. Google Books makes every book available to everybody, or at least it will, says Google, if we can loosen the copyright laws and usher in Lewis Hyde’s gift economy. Then, everyone will have borrowing privileges at Borges’ Library of Babel, which contains every possible book.

But will we?

Google is trying to scan every book, but every book is not – as both Borges and Barthes knew – the same thing as every possible book.

First, I outgrew my Book of Knowledge, then I outgrew my parents’ Encyclopedia Americana, and then, I went off to college and outgrew my parents. No one knows as much as a college freshman, or at least the college freshman that I was. I thought I knew everything, or at least, with the help of my college education and some new smarty-pants reference books, I soon would. Suddenly my parents seemed hopelessly middlebrow. My father the college professor might be an intellectual, but he was just a G. I. Bill intellectual, and my mother…well, she only had an associate’s degree. She was just a Book-of-the-Month Club intellectual, which was no intellectual at all. Oh, I was full of myself.

I came home from college for the summer, but this time I didn’t have a job lined up. June was edging toward July and my lollygagging was driving my dad crazy so he hired me himself. Every year for maybe a decade he had written the World Book Yearbook entry on Agriculture and now he was getting tired of doing it. Plus, he had a lazy ingrate in the house who needed a job. He handed me a file full of clippings and said, “Here’s last year’s entry, some articles, and the current data from the USDA. Update the entry. I need a draft in two weeks.”

I did need the money. And how hard could it be? A G. I. Bill intellectual had done it on autopilot. Boredom would probably be the big challenge.

But, I would come to find out, both encyclopedia articles and the middlebrow people who write and read them were more complicated than I had thought.

“‘Middlebrow,’” according to cultural historian Nicola Humble, “has always been a dirty word.” From the beginning it has been equated with smugness and avidity, an unseemly grasping after status, the contamination of real culture. The O. E. D. says the word’s first appearance in print occurred in the December 23, 1925 issue of Punch, where it was used to describe “people who are hoping that someday they will get used to the stuff they ought to like.” I’d not come across that reference yet, but already I knew that my parents were trying too hard and that as hard as they tried, they weren’t quite up to snuff. After all, I’d gone away to college and was reading real highbrow stuff – Milton and Donne, T. S. Eliot and James Joyce, Shakespeare for Christ’s sake. Now, home for the summer, everything seemed thrown into high relief. My mom’s Michener novels and Utrillo prints had become downright embarrassing.

I hadn’t even read the New York Intellectuals yet, but already they were warning me against my parents and their pathetic attempts to acquire cultural capital. The Revised Standard Version on Sunday morning and Omnibus on Sunday afternoons would no longer cut it. For twenty years, without me knowing it, Dwight Macdonald and his cohort had waged and won the Battle of the Brows. Clement Greenberg blamed middlebrow for “corrupting the honest” and “stultifying the wise.” Robert Warshow labeled it the “mass culture of the educated classes” and warned that it was bringing about a “disastrous vulgarization of intellectual life.” Macdonald called it “a tepid ooze” that was “spreading everywhere.” He dismissed the Encyclopedia Britannica’s 54-volume Great Books of the Western World as nothing more than “The Book-of-the-Millennium Club.” I didn’t need to have read the New York Critics on middlebrow, my college roommate’s mother had done it for me and passed on their wisdom through him to me: “Life magazine is for people who can’t read, and Time magazine is for people who can’t think.” My mother read Time cover-to-cover every week.

But here’s the rub, essayists: isn’t the essay—that translator of specialized knowledge, that kissing cousin of the journalistic article, that product of memory and research rather than imagination and art, that service genre used to explain the more literary genres such as fiction and poetry, that fourth genre that, as E. B. White reminded us, “stands a short distance down the line”—isn’t it finally…I mean if we face facts…well, isn’t it middlebrow?

But contradictions abound and here is another rub. When I went away to college in 1968, at the same time I was getting a heavy dose of high culture, my classmates and I were marching in the streets and occupying buildings, fighting not just to end the war but also to democratize culture. We were arguing for women’s studies and African-American studies programs, for a canon that included women and minority writers as well as dead Englishmen.  Soon, we’d begin to read theorists of the French generation of 1968: Barthes, for instance, who in Mythologies took seriously such products of mass culture as professional wrestling, soap ads, plastic, strip joints, and Garbo’s face.

It would be a while but in time these French critics would even take middlebrow seriously. Would take my parents seriously! For Pierre Bourdieu, the point was not that middlebrow taste is good or bad as taste, but rather that it is indicative of one’s position within class society. Middlebrow culture is caught in the middle. Its contradictions are of a particular kind. For Bourdieu, the middlebrow is a figure that is at once pathetic and noble, an earnest autodidact who never quite finds the “good” taste she is after. They are, he says, “divided between the tastes they incline to and the tastes they aspire to.” The G. I. Bill intellectuals and their families were part of an expanding middle class, one that included my mom and dad as well as Ward and June Cleaver. They had acquired some new capital but did not have a lot of cultural capital. To fill that gap, they subscribed to what they though were the right magazines, joined book clubs, and learned to play bridge. For Bourdieu, their rush to display their culture seems more tragic (or comic) than threatening. I still wasn’t sure.

And then there’s the question of the essay as middlebrow. According to Bourdieu, “the producers…of middle-brow culture” who make up “the new cultural intermediaries (the most typical of whom are the producers of cultural programmes on TV and radio or the critics of ‘quality’ newspapers and magazines and all the writer-journalists and journalist-writers) have invented a whole series of genres, half-way between legitimate culture and mass production (‘letters,’ ‘ essays,’ ‘eye-witness accounts’).”

Carl Van Doren with Bust of Benjamin Franklin by Luis Quintanilla

Bourdieu’s analysis would, in time, help explain Omnibus, Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts, Eric Severeid, the rise of PBS, New Yorker profiles, and even Terry Gross, but back then I still had a World Book entry to write. And little did I know that didn’t have to go to high falutin’ French theorists to get a good take on encyclopedias. In fact, one of the best middlebrow critics, Carl Van Doren, had already written about “the idea of the Encyclopedia.” Reviewing a new French encyclopedia in 1962, Van Doren wrote,

The idea of the French work is also radical. It appears to be statable in five propositions, each of which may sound strange to the reader of an ordinary encyclopedia. The five propositions are these:
1. The primary aim of an encyclopedia should be to teach. It should only secondarily be to inform.

2. An encyclopedia should be primarily a work of art. It should only secondarily be a work of reference.

3. The point of view of an encyclopedia should be primarily human. It should be only secondarily historical and/or scientific and/or literary.

4. The ideal reader of an encyclopedia should be primarily the curious average man. He should only secondarily be the specialist and/or the high school student.

5. An encyclopedia should be primarily a document that hopes to change the world for the better. It should only secondarily be a document that accurately reflects the knowledge, opinions and prejudices of its time.

That sounds pretty good, but as I said, I knew nothing about Van Doren’s piece. As I began to work on my World Book entry, I did however begin to experience something Van Doren had observed: “Most encyclopedias, particularly the American ones, have little or no idea of themselves. They just grow; they are not created.” That is, the whole mystique of an encyclopedia, indeed of writing itself, began to fall apart for me. It was, as Barthes would say, de-mythologized. The World Book, which I knew stood on our shelves both literally and culturally between The Book of Knowledge and the Encyclopedia Americana, might be middlebrow, but it was also tricky and asking something new of me. Where once I had used it for my school reports, now I was writing it, or more properly, ghostwriting it. And that was both weird and a little unnerving.  My dad had been contracted to do the job. They’d bought his byline, not mine. But if I didn’t get the byline, I did get some money. I don’t remember how much now. It wasn’t a lot, but it felt like a lot. It was the first time I’d got paid for a piece of writing, which was a big deal to me. Still is. My dad had trusted me to write the piece and then when I did, he took my draft seriously. He gave me criticism and asked for some changes – it was going out over his name after all. We revised, we collaborated, and when it came out, he sent me a copy. I’ve still got it.

Which is not to say everything was hunky dory. I told my friend Brent Beebe about this job my father had given me, and he in turn told me how his stepsister, Lou-Ann Smith, had set herself the chore the previous summer of reading the entire World Book. This revelation did little to lift the World Book in my eyes—quite the opposite in fact. Lou-Ann Smith seemed nice enough, if a little dorky (she was overweight and played the pipe organ at the Episcopal church), but I didn’t really know her. She was just Brent’s stepsister. She, her mom, and her younger brother and sister had joined Brent, his father, and Brent’s two younger brothers in a kind of odd and uncomfortable precursor to The Brady Bunch. The Beebe men had been on their own since Brent’s mom ran off with a graduate student when Brent was in about fifth grade. Brent’s father, a Joyce scholar, a real intellectual, drank too much. The basement was a man cave with a bar, a TV mounted above the bar, a pool table, and the boys’ bedrooms. Lou-Ann’s brother Clay fit in okay. He seemed thrilled in fact to have all of a sudden acquired some brothers, but even then I could tell that the girls found their new house to be less congenial. Lurlene, Lou-Ann’s mother, had been married to an Army man. She was a strong woman who corrected my grammar once and often stood up to Brent’s dad. Once, I saw her try a few puffs of cigar. It was something I couldn’t imagine any mom doing, certainly not my own.  In any case, it pissed Brent’s dad off. “Who do you think you are? Amy Lowell?”

To which she shot back, “Relax. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” All of which went over my head.

Brent and I laughed at Lou-Ann behind her back and made fun of her (apparently successful) attempt to read her way through the World Book. To our thinking, reading an encyclopedia from A to Z did not save you from being a dork; it confirmed that you were one. But we were adolescent boys who stupidly thought we knew everything, or at least we thought we knew everything about Lou-Ann who was stupid enough to think she could read an encyclopedia and then know everything. If indeed that’s what she thought. Maybe she was bored. Maybe she was trying to escape the weird house of boys in which she found herself. Maybe she missed her father.

Of stupidity and the cultural codes, Barthes has this to say: “In fact, the cultural code occupies the same position as stupidity: how can stupidity be pinned down without declaring oneself intelligent? How can one code be superior to another without abusively closing off the plurality of codes? Only writing, by assuming the largest possible plural in its own task, can oppose without appeal to force the imperialism of each language.”

Major General Homer D. Smith

Brent and I were right to think that not everything is in the encyclopedia, but we had no idea about what actually lay outside in the real world. Years later, I found out that at the same time Barthes was writing S/Z and I was writing my World Book entry, Lou-Ann’s dad, Major General Homer D. Smith, was serving as Chief of Staff of the 1st Logistics Command in Vietnam, the largest in the United States Army at that time. His operation, with an assigned strength of over 100,000 troops, provided logistical support to all the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines engaged in combat in the Da Nang area. On February 20, 1969, about 200 kilometers north of Da Nang, in Quang Tri province, Denny Cripe who played football with me and Brent, was killed by “an explosive device,” one of 58,220 Americans and perhaps a million Vietnamese who died in the war. Six years after that, General Smith was still in Vietnam serving now as the Defense Attaché at the U. S Embassy. As such, he was the senior military officer in the country and oversaw the evacuation of 1,373 U.S. citizens and 4,595 “Third Country Nationals and Vietnamese citizens” from Saigon. General Smith was in one of the last helicopters to lift off the roof of the U. S. Embassy. The evacuees he helped escape included hundreds of Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American orphans in what was called Operation Babylift. Unfortunately, on April 4, 1975, during this operation 138 people were killed in the crash of a C-5A Galaxy transport plane, including 78 children and 35 Defense Attaché personnel.

To Barthes, the idea that there is something called life that we might know (or that, according to two know-it-all boys, Lou-Ann Smith might not know) is a mistaken one. For Barthes, even the word “Life” must be capitalized and put inside quotation marks. It is a creation of the “anterior book” that is at once a book of science, wisdom, and all “the didactic material mobilized in the text.” All of these references, says Barthes, these cultural codes, by “a swivel characteristic of bourgeois ideology” turn “culture into nature” and appear to establish reality, [or] ‘Life.’” Such setting in stone is what I was trying to do when I wrote the definitive article about U. S. agriculture for the World Book Encyclopedia. It wasn’t an essay.


[1] And here, as a footnote, without its footnotes, is that chapter:

LXXXVII. THE VOICE OF SCIENCE

The cultural codes, from which the Sarrasinean text has drawn so many references, will also be extinguished (or at least will emigrate to other texts; there is no lack of hosts): one might say that it is the major voice of minor science that is departing in this fashion. In fact, these citations are extracted from a body of knowledge, from an anonymous Book whose best model is doubtless the School Manual. For, on the one hand, this anterior Book is both a book of science (of empirical observation) and a book of wisdom, and on the other hand, the didactic material mobilized in the text (often, as we have noted, as a basis for reasoning or to lend its written authority to emotions) generally corresponds to the set of seven or eight handbooks accessible to a diligent student in the classical bourgeois educational system: a History of Literature (Byron, The Thousand and One Nights, Ann Radcliffe, Homer), a History of Art (Michelangelo, Raphael, the Greek miracle), a History of Europe (the age of Louis XV), an Outline of Practical Medicine (disease, convalescence, old age, etc.), a Treatise on Psychology (erotic, ethnic, etc.), an Ethics (Christian or Stoic: themes from Latin translations), a Logic (for syllogisms), a Rhetoric, and an anthology of maxims and proverbs about life, death, suffering. love, women, ages of man, etc. Although entirely derived from these books, these codes, by a swivel characteristic of bourgeois ideology, which turns culture into nature, appear to establish reality, “Life.” “Life” then, in the classic text, becomes a nauseating mixture of common opinions, a smothering layer of received ideas: in fact, it is in these cultural codes that what is outmoded in Balzac, the essence of what, in Balzac, cannot be (re) written, is concentrated. What is out-moded, of course, is not a defect in performance, a personal inability of the author to afford opportunities in his work for what will be modern, but rather a fatal condition of Replete Literature, mortally stalked by the army of stereotypes it contains. Thus, a critique of the references (the cultural codes) has never been tenable except through trickery, on the very limits of Replete Literature, where it is possible (but at the cost of what acrobatics and with what uncertainty) to criticize the stereotype (to vomit it up) without recourse to a stereotype: that of irony. Perhaps this is what Flaubert did (we shall say it once again), particularly in Bouvard et Pécuchet, where the two copyists of scholastic codes are themselves “represented” in an uncertain status, the author using no metalanguage (or a suspended metalanguage) in their regard. In fact, the cultural code occupies the same position as stupidity: how can stupidity be pinned down without declaring oneself intelligent? How can one code be superior to another without abusively closing off the plurality of codes? Only writing, by assuming the largest possible plural in its own task, can oppose without appeal to force the imperialism of each language.

Captivating Fractals Found in Nature–Kate Rosenberg

A LETTER WRITING CAMPAIGN. Four days after my brother was struck by lightning and I was still wearing my pajamas. Four days and I had to teach my writing classes so I added a necklace, cardigan and boots to my pajamas. I sat on the desk in the front row, my pajama-ed legs indelicately dangling, and told my class that I did not give a shit about writing today (or maybe never again, who knows?) and then I told them the story that’s, by now, been told hundreds of times, spreading like a fractal from family to friends to friends-of-friends to postal clerks and priests, florists and my gynecologist who asked me, “what’s new?” at the wrong time.

I made my students sit at their desks and write a letter of gratitude to someone they love and three girls cried while they did it and I didn’t feel bad at all for them. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw the tarp slung over a rope strung between trees; my brother’s makeshift tent, unmarked by the lightning; the image captured by his friend who rode a horse up the side of the mountain to retrieve the gear my brother left behind. I kept my eyes open, eagle eyes on each student, to make sure their heads were down and their pencils were moving.

AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION. There has never been a single soul who has searched the internet for ways to prevent a tension headache (too little, too late) and yet, with a bag of frozen lima beans jammed up against the base of my skull, I furiously scroll through the lengthy paragraphs about stress reduction and proper spinal alignment, both of which would have spared me my current situation. I’m enraged and crying now because, well, I haven’t properly prevented. I am only satisfied when I read that sometimes doctors will prescribe narcotics for debilitating headaches. That seems reasonable.

Severe headaches are a common, lingering effect of lightning striking the body. So is memory loss (short and long term), depression, phantom pain, cataracts, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But the headaches? If that’s what my brother gets, I can deal with that. I can deal with that because I have awful headaches more days than I don’t and I do things with frozen vegetables, heating pads, caffeine, and pain killers that make them better and I am not fundamentally changed by my headaches. I cannot abide my brother living a life in which he is suddenly held captive by bouts of depression or shadow memories of trauma that squeeze him so tightly he becomes nothing but cells of pain, stitched together by his body’s relentless desire to stay alive. I cannot deal with that; I have lived most of my life slipping in and out of depressive states and, unlike the headaches, I will not give my approval for that pain. I will take it from him; I will steal it and I will make it mine; I will close my eyes and we will be 9 and 6 years old again and I will have slid the Butterfingers from beneath a pile of crinkly Halloween candy and he will be none the wiser. We are thirty-nine and thirty-six now. He is 1833.92 miles away. If my friend Leigh were here, she might say, “Let go and let G-d.” It seems right. Except I will not let go. Except I do not believe in god.

SHELTER. My brother longs to move back east from his home in the long shadow of the Colorado Rockies; his heart is in the Appalachians, the world’s oldest mountains, and his carpenter’s eye and hands are drawn to the fine woodwork of homes built to outlast the builder. Six weeks ago, I visited a friend who lives in an historic building in Philadelphia, a city that is less Brotherly Love and more a museum of American history as told through its cobbled streets and architecture. I wouldn’t sleep well, my friend said, because the goddamn garage door is right below us and it shrieks up and down all night long. I take a lot of drugs to sleep. I was fine.

That night my brother slept on a peak on Squaretop Mountain, part of the Rocky Mountain Range in southwest Colorado—baby mountains; mountains that my friend would say were probably younger than the goddamn garage door’s mechanical system. At some point in the middle of a night that I imagine was as soundless for him as it was for me, he was struck in the head by lightning. The lightning entered his body behind his right ear and exited through the top of his left foot. There was no storm. There was just my brother, alone and asleep beneath a tarp, the air around him in turmoil, silent. The trees, silent. Unmarked.

Hours after I learned that my brother survived to make the two-hour hike down off the mountain, my mother called with the first hospital update. Center City shoppers parted around me as I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and asked her again and again about my brother’s heart. My mother told me things about his kidneys and I said, okay, but his heart? She told me about a social worker, a neurologist, x-rays, and burns and I said, his heart? His heart? His heart? His heart? On an angiogram, the heart’s arteries, veins, and capillaries look like lightning erupting from a clenched fist. Lit up, the heart is electric; lit up, the heart wants to hold a thousand metaphors. Jolted, it hurts; my chest ached beneath my rib cage and I called it my heart because who really knows where the organ stops and the metaphor begins? My mother hadn’t heard anything about his heart. It must be fine, she said. Silence is fine. No news is good news.

Most survivors of a direct lightning strike require resuscitation, but my brother didn’t. Good news. Good news in the vast, cold night; the garage door below me shrieking up and down, oblivious. Though his heart didn’t seize and stop, my brother was paralyzed for an hour? Two? Paralyzed but for one arm, which he used to hold his head up so he could breathe until the paralysis passed. Reduced to mind, his body a thing, an unwieldy object that no longer belonged to him. I wonder, but don’t want to ask: could he feel his heart beating?

Approximately 50% of sibling DNA is shared and my body feels it; my inconsequential heart is with him on a mountaintop, too late; scared shitless that this is it, that this is the end of things. My brother figured out what happened through the smell of ozone in the air. He didn’t know if he would ever move again. This is loneliest image I can imagine. I want to take every minute back and make them mine, weave his fear and pain into the threads of the DNA that belong just to me.

Our hearts are young, are Rocky Mountains, prone to the drama and vistas of the young. We are meant to weather the inclines and descents, the anomalies of air, of molecules bursting around us. This will toughen our hearts, make them old forests, make them wiser, seamless shelters. The path to the Appalachians is easy. Go east. Feel the respite in the long, sleepy plains. I am writing in the violet light of dawn. I can see the trees beginning to take shape, the tendrils of their newly naked branches cracking the dome of the sky. In other words, come home.

In Conversation with the Vacanti Earmouse–Steven Church

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In 1995, Dr. Charles Vacanti, an anesthesiologist from the University of Massachusetts and Professor Linda Griffith-Cima of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology implanted a pink hairless mouse with bovine cartilage cells and generated an ear-shaped structure that grew like an appendage from the animal’s back. The mouse became an overnight sensation. Pictures of the “Vacanti Earmouse” circulated widely on the internet and in newspapers, creating a brief but worldwide sensation.

The project was intended as an experiment in prosthetic ear transplantation for humans—with the potential for other applications–but the photographs caused an uproar amongst liberal animal rights activists who claimed the ear was cruel to the mouse, that the mouse was being used as a mere vessel for dubious human needs. Equally outraged conservative critics claimed that Vacanti and Griffith-Cima were “playing God” by manufacturing something—a human ear–that only the Allmighty can create.

Not too long after the initial crush of media attention had subsided, this writer caught up with the infamous Vacanti Earmouse in a laboratory facility at the University of Massachusetts. I was left alone in a cold room with the Earmouse, who had just awakened from a nap. After some initial pleasantries, we began our conversation, which I have transcribed here in an effort to record the reality of this amazing creature.

Writer: So, tell me what it’s like to have an ear on your back?

Earmouse: I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that. Can you speak into my ear, please?

Writer: Um, OK.

I leaned forward over the lab table, dipping my face over the edge of the cage, and inhaled the sharp cedar smell of traditional cage floor-covering. The lab was empty and quiet, save for the hum of an electrical pump somewhere and the ticking of an old analog wall-clock, the kind you find in school classrooms and government buildings. I wondered what someone might think to see me with my head in the mouse’s cage—which was less a traditional cage than it was a Plexiglas habitat. I stared down and the hairless mouse, his nose twitching frantically. My face was just inches away and I could smell the cedar chips stinging my sinuses. I started to ask my question again, aiming for the ear on his back.

Earmouse: I’m only kidding. It’s a little joke I like to play because of, you know, the ear on my back. Because it can’t actually hear anything . . . It’s a joke.

I pulled back from the cage opening, looked around to make sure nobody had seen me get punked by the earmouse, and readied myself to take notes. I could do this. It was just like any other interview.

W: Yes, right. Can you tell me a little about that ear?

E: Of course, of course. I know that’s why you’re here. That’s the only reason anyone ever wants to talk to me. I understand.

W: It IS rather extraordinary, even if not so newsworthy any longer

E: Yes, I suppose so. It’s not really an ear at all, you know. I mean it LOOKS like an ear, but it’s made from cow cartilage, grown from cartilage seeds. And it is part of me, I suppose. But it’s mostly cow. Most mice would reject such things. Their immune systems would kill it or kill them. But they engineered me so that I wouldn’t reject the ear, and so I’d be the hairless beauty I am today. There’s nothing human about that ear except for the way it looks. And there’s nothing truly extraordinary about the ear. What’s extraordinary is context.

W: It’s small. Like a child’s ear.

E: It’s bigger than the ear on your back.

W: OK, how about if we talk about something else? What can you tell me about Dr. Vacanti?

E: The gas passer?

W: Excuse me?

E: He’s an anesthesiologist. It was a joke. Gas passer? Like in MASH? The movie? Do you even know who Robert Altman is? Or Jim Jarmusch. And that new kid, Wes Andersen. I like what he’s doing with film. LOVED Magnolia.

W: MASH was a movie? Did it have Klinger in it? I like Klinger.

E: Oh, never mind. I don’t know why I bother to try and have these intellectual discussions with people. Most of you are pretty dense, you know.

I stopped taking notes for a moment and reminded myself that I was talking to a mouse. A mouse with an ear on his back.

W: So you’re . . . uh . . . pretty bitter about having that ear on your back, huh?

E: Do I sound bitter?

W: Yeah, actually you do. Kind of jaded. Like one of those pop stars who nobody really cares about until she goes on some kind of celebrity rehab or dancing show, or gains a bunch of weight, shaves her head and runs off with a paparazzi photographer.

E: You’re probably right. I’m sorry. Really, I am. It’s just that I don’t get to talk to people much these days. Reporters and photographers don’t come around so much. Not that I really ever wanted them around. Not me. I mean, some of them were nice. Some of them actually wanted to know about things besides the ear. A lot of them wanted to feel it. Only a couple asked things like whether it bothered me when I slept. One of them, this real pretty young reporter from the AP, she actually asked Vacanti if he’d tried putting me in with other mice. She wondered how they would treat me. Now, that’s a good question?

W: What did he say?

E: He said, “No. Never tried it. Not in the parameters of the project,” or something like that, and just ignored her. I was scurrying around in the cage, rising up on my back feet, nose twitching at the glass, looking all cute and hairless, just to try and get him to listen to her. But he was too busy talking about the project and himself.

W: Well, I guess I was actually wondering what sort of relationship you have with Vacanti. I’ve seen pictures with you crawling around on his arm. It seems the two of you were pretty close.

E: Yes, it would seem that way wouldn’t it? I mean, after all I’ve done for him, you’d think we would be closer, that I’d be like a pet or something, that maybe he’d take me home, away from this lab, back to his house, away from all the prying eyes and maybe he’d let ride around in his pocket or sit on his shoulder while he reads the paper. Those are all things you might think would happen. But they haven’t. What can I say except that we don’t have much of a relationship at all? I haven’t heard from him in weeks, to be honest. Linda doesn’t speak to him much, either. He’s withdrawn a bit, I think. What now? So you can grow and ear on a mouse? So what? The last time he came into the lab, he was dragging all these reporters and cameras and strangers behind him like a dust cloud . . . Hey! What are you doing? Stop that! Don’t touch me!

W: I just want to see what it feels like.

E: Oh, for God’s sake . . . All right. Go ahead. Run your finger around the hard anti-helical ridges. Feel the cartilage. That’s the best part. Very real, don’t you think? Pretty impressive work, really. And my skin is always supple and soft as the underbelly on your arm. Go ahead. Wiggle your finger in there. Softly, please. Be gentle. Tug on the lobule a bit.

W: Thanks. I was curious. It feels soft. Not that different, really, from a human ear.

E: Yeah. I know. Everyone is curious. An artist used me in her work recently, or at least a model of me. Patricia Piccinini. That was her name. She posed naked women with me and my ear. Or really a model of me. Or some kind of digitized version of me. It’s not like Vacanti would actually let me out so I could go run around on naked women. But Piccinini made me all fat and grotesque, almost like a street rat. And the ear is flat as a pancake, not like my ear at all. And there’s like hundreds of me. It’s creepy.

W: Naked women? Seriously.

E: Is that a question? Are you even a reporter? I mean, why would I lie about something like that? Don’t you think she’s trying to make a statement about humanity or something? She’s making some commentary about body image and objectification of women, I think. Or something about science and freakishness. I’m not really sure, to be honest. But it’s undeniably compelling. I mean, you just can’t look away.Image

W: Interesting the way people seem to objectify you, to see you as some kind of human-animal amalgam. They even seem to fetishize you, the rat, the other, the marginalized creature burdened with this human appendage, as if you’re a side-show.

E: Oh, you don’t even know the half of it. One woman who visited the lab, she wanted to nibble on my ear.

W: That’s disgusting.

E: Is it? Don’t you nibble on your girlfriend’s ear?

W: Well, sure. But that’s different.

E: Is it, really? I mean, I know it’s just an ear. Or something that looks like an ear. And I don’t know if it would be better or worse for everyone if it wasn’t attached to a mouse, like if it was growing in a Petrie dish or something, maybe sprouting from a lily pad or clinging to the side of a glass jar like a shellfish. Maybe that would be better. But there’s something frightening in what’s been done to me—something funny and tragic. Perhaps it’s the slippery slope of this image, this picture of a mouse with an ear growing out of it’s back, and the fear is only partially related to the odd wonder of humans making their own parts and attaching them to a mouse, and instead more connected to how the singular instance of manufactured appendages suggests an image of the many and, before you know it, your imagination conjures up cages filled with ear-mice, thousands of hairless skittering surrogates growing new ears or noses or penises, or even aquariums of salty uterine brine tiled with ear-mussels, their lobes waggling in the artificial currents, fake rocks crusted with nose-coral, and the glass floor studded with the cartilage seeds of sprouting dicks.

W: I’m sorry. Can you repeat that? I wasn’t listening.

E: Very funny.

W: No, seriously. I think my recorder ran out of batteries. I missed that whole thing. Can you say it, again? I’ll take notes. Whatever it was, it sounded incredible. I’m listening.