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Forgot I had written this. From 2009. – Sean


 

The Seafarer is an Old English poem of 124 lines, of which the only text is preserved in the Exeter Book, a tenth-century codex and the oldest of the four major collections of Anglo-Saxon poetry (Gordon 1). The poem is an elegaic lament of a lonely life spent upon the sea, far from the company of other men and the joys of human society. The life of the seafarer is one of utter isolation and perpetual hardship in inhospitably cold and wretched conditions. Thoughts of another life, of life on land, can be summoned only with great difficulty; the very heart and thoughts of the poet are imagined to travel abroad, escaping the body which is left at sea: “For þon nu min hyge hweorfeð ofer hreþerlocan,/ min modsefa mid mereflode,/ ofer hwæles eþel hweorfeð wide…” (58-60). This creates a bitter yearning, which however is quickly transformed into a sober realization of the ephemeral, trivial nature of earthly life in comparison to the eternal bliss of the afterlife, the hope of which provides a foil to the hardships of the sea, which now retrospectively take on an allegorical character. The poem at this point becomes a kind of memento mori, a warning to the vain and the avaricious that what they value will mean nothing after their deaths. The poem ends with a long meditation of about two dozen lines on the might and glory of God.

Ezra Pound translated this poem in 1911, in his mid-twenties. It was one of his earliest poetic accomplishments, and it would have echoes in the first section of his life’s work, The Cantos. Pound was a prolific translator, and his range is quite astonishing: before his Seafarer, he had produced a number of translations of the French troubadours, and afterwards did versions of Guido Cavalcanti, Japanese Noh plays, a famous volume of some Chinese poems called Cathay, a particularly loose rendition of Sextus Propertius, a range of Confucian translations, and work by Sophocles, among others (Xie 220). At least fifteen different languages appear in his Cantos, which is relentlessly intertextual and multilingual (Xie 217). Pound believed that “The sum of human wisdom is not contained in any one language, and no single language is CAPABLE of expressing all forms and degrees of human comprehension” (Pound 34).

However, as Ira B Nadel writes,  Pound was “hardly a scholar of foreign languages,” and “translation for Pound is to approximate the sound and alliterative stress of the original language. His aim was always fidelity to the original in both meaning and atmosphere.” His work does not aspire to academic fidelity to the original text. As he wrote in 1935: “[There is] no need of keeping verbal literality for phrases which sing and run naturally in the original.” Hugh Kenner wrote similarly in his introduction to a book of Pound’s translations, “if he doesn’t translate the words, [he] remains faithful to the original poet’s sequence of images, to his rhythms or the effect produced by his rhythms, and to his tone” (Kenner 12).

Pound is interested in the poetic possibilities that exist between languages, and which arise from their articulation. This seems to verge on the kabbalistic, and indeed Ming Xie characterizes Pound’s methods as “apocalyptic,” writing: “Pound believes that after apprehending and seizing in the mind the Platonic essence of a given work the translator can, and indeed should, seek to embody his understanding of the ‘equivalent’.” (Xie 219).

In these respects Pound is a quintessentially Benjaminian translator. Walter Benjamin, in his “The Task of the Translator,” a work written in 1923 but almost certainly unknown to Pound, characterized translation as a literary mode, whose object is “not statement or the imparting of information” (69) but a revelation of “the central reciprocal relationship between languages” (72), a gateway to the realm of “pure language,” where the “totality of…intentions [supplement] each other” (74).  Benjamin, like Pound, is clearly interested in a project much more profound and transformative than a merely utilitarian rendering of sense. A striking analogy illustrates his ideas more fully:

Fragments of a vessel which are to be glued together must match one another in the smallest details, although they need not be like one another. In the same way a translation, instead of resembling the meaning of the original, must lovingly and in detail incorporate the original’s mode of signification, thus making both the original and the translation recognizable as fragments of a greater language, just as fragments are part of a vessel. For this very reason translation must in large measure refrain from wanting to communicate something, from rendering the sense, and in this the original is important to it only insofar as it has already relieved the translator and his translation of the effort of assembling and expressing what is to be conveyed. (Benjamin 78)

To understand Pound’s project of translation more clearly, we must turn to the text of the Seafarer itself. It is unclear why Pound favored this particular poem above other Anglo-Saxon works; he wrote cryptically in The ABC of Reading that “Apart from the Seafarer I know no other European poems of the period that you can hang up with ‘Exile’s Letter’ of Li Po, displaying the West on a part with the Orient,” adding that “there are passages of Anglo-Saxon as good as paragraphs of the Seafarer, but I have not found any whole poem of the same value” (Pound 51ff.) The latter comment seems unintentionally ironic, as Pound chose not to translate the “whole poem” as it exists in manuscript, leaving out roughly twenty percent of the text, as I will discuss later on.

Pound’s poetic agenda becomes clear even in the first four lines.

In Old English, they are:

Mæg ic be me sylfum soðgied wrecan

siþas secgan, hu ic geswincdagum

earfoðhwile, oft þrowade,

bitre breostceare gebiden hæbbe,

I have rendered a fairly literal translation into Modern English for comparison:

 

May I by my self sing a true tale,

speak of my travels, how I oft suffered

days of hardship and difficult times,

and how I have endured bitter heartache

 

And finally, the Pound translation:

 

May I for my own self song’s truth reckon,
Journey’s jargon, how I in harsh days
Hardship endured oft

Bitter breast-cares have I abided,

 

 

In the first line, Pound renders the compound noun soðgied as a possessive phrase, and wrecan, “to relate or express,” as “reckon.” The latter is clearly an unorthodox choice, but one that brilliantly preserves the sound of the original while also adequately transferring its sense. In line two, Pound’s use of “jargon” is striking, as the term’s associations, e.g. with the shibboleths of specialized academic disciplines, are very modern. However, the term goes back at least as far as Chaucer, though its contemporary meanings do not arise until the 17th century (OED s.v. “jargon,” n.1). But the usage has no basis in the Old English text, where its equivalent must be “secgan,” the verb “to speak” in the infinitive form, which is paired with a genitive object, “siþas;” this half-line literally translates to something like “to speak of journeys.” Pound treats siþas as if it were a possessive genitive with “secgan” functioning as a noun. The object of this exercise in poetic license, if it is not simply a mistake – the end result is the same either way – is to creative an alliterative half-line: “Journey’s jargon.”

We see this organization of the translation around alliteration in line four, as well, where Pound translates the Old English “bitre breostceare gebiden hæbbe” as “Bitter breast-cares have I abided” – retaining the original language and alliterative syllables quite closely. Pound’s tactics here are precisely opposed to those of the previous example. Whereas his use of “jargon” seems like a far-fetched invention, his translation here is doggedly literal. While many translators adapt the Old English “breostceare” to idiomatic Modern English –  Richard Hamer, for instance, simply uses “anxiety” – Pound retains the word in more or less its original form. The resonance of “breastcare” is, again, strongly at odds with that of “jargon,” though they both seem not quite to fit at a first listen. The former seems so, however, because it has a certain uncanny, archaic quality to it. It makes perfect sense as a word, but as an angular, Germanic, compound construction, is resolutely alien. It reminds one of the kind of complex compound terms Gerard Manley Hopkins would concoct to avoid the Latinate language that was anathema to him.

The alliterative structure of Old English poetry is one of its principal charms, and the cornerstone of Anglo-Saxon poetics. There are five alliterative patterns, all of which depend upon a division of each single line into two half-lines, separated by a long space in modern editions.  The original manuscripts, however, respect no such line or half-line divisions. They would only become apparent when the texts were read aloud by a well-practiced scop, the (rough) Anglo-Saxon equivalent of the later English “bard.” The alliteration was tied to the stress patterns of the lines, which were much more varied than later English poetry, in which the iambic foot came to dominate.

Pound, even more than most poets, had a keen ear for the sonic dimension of poetry. He was an accomplished musician, having written, to cite the major examples, two operas – Le Testament de Francois Villon (1921) and Cavalcanti (1932) and a series of compositions for violin (Ingham 238ff.).  Pound’s poetic ideal was inextricable from his obsessions with music and rhythm: “music begins to atrophy when it gets too far from the dance, [and] poetry begins to atrophy when it gets too far from music” (Pound 14). As Mihcael Ingham writes, Pound’s conception of musicality was based on a notion of “absolute rhythm,” and for him it was rhythm which was the foundation of all musical and poetic expression, “the most primal of all things known to us” (Singh 123). His poetic project was largely to abolish the stilted, classic English line and replace it with a more variegated tradition of vers libre. He wanted to “compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of the metronome” (Nadel 6).

Though more famous for his theories of the poetic image, he believed that poetry was constituted just as much by melopoeia, his term for “charg[ing] [language] by sound,” as it was by phanapoeia, “throw[ing] a visual image onto the reader’s imagination” (Pound 37). The former occurs beyond the intellect and to an extent beyond language proper, and cannot be reproduced by purely literal translation: “The perception of the intellect is given in the word, that of the emotions in the cadence. It is only, then, in perfect rhythm joined to the perfect word that the two-fold vision can be recorded” (Pound in Singh 122). In melopoeia, words are raised “over and above their plain meaning, with some musical property, which directs the bearing or tends of that meaning.”

If Pound found the greatest practice of phanopoeia in the ideogrammatic poetry of the Chinese, where the word “means the thing” immediately and without a gap between the signifier and the signified, it is in Old English and the troubadour poets that he found the most evocative use of melopoeia. Though Pound’s fondness for the Provençal troubadours is more well known, there is reason to believe he had more than a passing interest in Old English, as has often been assumed. He excelled in the subject academically and was a very careful student of the language, the poetry, and the discipline’s scholarship. He was the favorite student of his Anglo-Saxon professor at Hamilton College, and even at age 51 located the origin of the Cantos in discussions he had with this teacher, nicknamed “Bib” (Jones 18). The poet Thom Gunn once expressed a similar opinion, saying that Pound’s “loosening” of the Old English line was “one of the most useful and flexible technical innovations of the century,” with profound repercussions on the development of modernist poetry (Jones 19). Pound was able to, in his word, “revivify” Old English in his translation of The Seafarer, appropriating for modern readers its particular poetic cadences, or in Benajmin’s phrase, “lovingly and in detail incorporat[ing] the original’s mode of signification.”

In fact, some scholars have suggested that what appear to be careless or radical alterations in Pound’s translation may in fact be signs of his very close engagement with the poetry and the secondary scholarship. Ming Xie, following Old English scholar Fred C. Robinson, writes:

 

In both his characterization of the poem as a ‘lyric’ and his omission of its final section as the Christianizing addition of clerkly monks, Pound was following through on the standard scholarly interpretation of the day. His intention was simply to recover what he perceived to be the real, original Anglo-Saxon poem and he believed that his version was as close as any translation can be. (Xie 206)

 

This omission is the most notorious of Pound’s alterations, but his secularizing tendency was more than just textual criticism. The theological aspect of the poem clearly struck him as a superfluous appendage, a muddying bit of rhetoric that could only weaken its visceral rhythmic force. But the apotheosis of the signifier, of cadence over rhetoric, may have led Pound to misread the poem, whose basic meaning could be described in terms of its dialectical opposition of earthly melancholy and divine bliss. But for Pound, the poem is only the former, a “pure” and “unified” expression of a particular affective mode. Clarity, boldness, and unity are central values for Pound, and these values unite the otherwise seemingly disparate literary traditions that appealed to him: haiku, ideogrammatic verse, and the pithy parataxis of Ancient Greek, to name a few examples.

This is partly why Pound excises the comparison of heaven and earth that is at the heart of the original poem, even with the final section removed. For instance, in lines 41b-43, most translators see a deliberate parallel between the two usages of “drythen,” with the divine usage mirroring the profane (Gordon 38). Pound, however, opts for the secular connotation in each instance. This occurs even more strikingly in lines 64b – 66, where Pound’s translation is more than a little “creative.” The original lines are:

 

                        for þon me hatran sind

Dryhtnes dreamas       þonne þis deade lif

læne on londe.

 

A standard translation would read something like:

 

                        but for me, warmer are

the joys of the Lord    than this dead, fleeting

life on land.  [my translation]

 

Pound’s version is:

 

                        seeing that anyhow
My lord deems to me this dead life
On loan and on land

 

The bleakness here has no heavenly foil; it is total and irredeemable. To arrive at this took a great deal of license. The first half-line is totally different in sense, but when we recite it, we notice that it contains the same number of syllables arranged in more or less the same rhythmic pattern. “Dryhtnes dreamas,” a genitive construction meaning “joys of the Lord,” is, according to Ira Gordon, “a conventional expression of the heavenly life,” but Pound boldly translates “joys” as “deems,” retaining only the sound of the original. His “on loan” for læne, “transitory,” like his “reckon” above, is a more than suitable choice that works as both sound and sense.

 

But these moments only happen by accident, as it were; when loyalty to the abstract significance of a line would require sacrificing the rhythm and the emotional significance it embodies, in favor of an ill-flowing, overly literal gloss, Pound’s choice is made obvious. He only serves to allow the original – as basic rhythm, as pure language – to “sing and run naturally.” Even a slight acquaintance with 20th century poetry, from Imagism to the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school and beyond, will suggest how exemplary Pound’s approach to The Seafarer is of modernist poetics.

 

Bibliography

 

Benjamin, Walter. “The Task of the Translator.” Illuminations. Ed Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken, 1969.

Ingham, Michael. “Pound and music.” The Cambridge Companion to Ezra Pound. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. 236-249.

“jargon.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. Print.

Kenner, Hugh. Introduction. Ezra Pound: Translations. New York: New Directions, 1963.

Nadel, Ira. “Understanding Ezra Pound.” The Cambridge Companion to Ezra Pound. Cambridge:           Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Pound, Ezra. The ABC of Reading. New York: New Directions, 1960.

Pound, Ezra. “The Seafarer.” Ezra Pound: Translations. New York: New Directions, 1963. 207-213.

Singh, G. Ezra Pound as Critic. Palgrave Macmillan, 1994.

Xie, Ming. “Pound as translator.” The Cambridge Companion to Ezra Pound. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. 204-223.

 

 

 

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From a remarkable sequence, shortly after the intermission, in Abel Gance’s Napoléon (1927):

NapoleonGIF

Apocryphal? Yes and no. There seems to have been such a character, but he only admitted to soaking the papers and throwing them into the Seine after-hours. But a 1908 biography of Josephine has this to say:

If there was the slightest evidence against an ex-noble, he or she was doomed, and among the Beauharnais papers, if not in Josephine’s personal correspondence, there can hardly fail to have been something which might be twisted so as to compromise her. According to a common story, Josephine was one of the people saved by the erratic humanitarian La Bussiere, who preserved a number of prisoners’ lives, destroying their dossiers by the simple method of chewing them up. Josephine herself appears to have believed this story, for she made a point of attending a benefit to La Bussiere at the Porte Saint-Martin Theatre in 1803 and of contributing to a fund on his behalf.

Philip W. Sergeant, The Empress Josephine; Napoleon’s Enchantress. London: Hutchinson & Co., 1908.

For obvious reasons, our archives are conspicuously bereft of direct evidence touching upon the history of bibliophagy. The practice is nonetheless an ancient one, with a diversity of motivations: for an obscure Christian sect of uncertain provenance, it was a means of bodily union with the divine Word. See Eigil Zu Tage-Ravn on “the ecstasy of the scroll eaters.”

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Note: I’m sorry I haven’t posted in a while, but I’ve been bogged down and unable to pursue extracurricular projects to their conclusion. I do have a very exciting project on high-tension lines, marginal spaces and suburban hauntology in the works – stay tuned. As for this, it’s an old academic paper, which I am posting because I’m citing it elsewhere and would like to make it available. I’m afraid it is less lively than most of the things I post here, and it would be better if I had time to rewrite it with a few years’ extra knowledge, but hopefully it isn’t totally devoid of interest.

Sean

***

Rudyard Kipling’s Kim comes at the end of a century in which opium had a privileged position within the British consciousness. Its role was complex and often contradictory, and the detailed story of how it transformed from a ubiquitous analgesic comparable to modern-day aspirin to a tightly controlled and restricted drug is beyond the scope of this paper[1]. However, there are certain general continuities in this discourse. One is the close alignment of opium and Empire, and the preponderance of Orientalist tropes in writing on opium. While this took the form of a fantastic exoticism earlier in the century, as in Thomas De Quincey’s seminal Confessions of an English Opium Eater, which one critic writes “invented the concept of recreational drug use” (Boon 37), the tone becomes much more urgent later in the century, as imperial anxieties become more acute. In numerous works of late Victorian fiction, among the more famous being Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868), Charles Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), and Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Man with the Twisted Lip” (1891), opium acts as an agent through which the Orient contaminates and disrupts the stability of English society, subjectively transforming or inverting the English figures it encounters. Kipling engages tangentially with this history, utilizing opium to inscribe the Oriental within his central character and build his text out of this opiated origin.

Quantitatively the role of opium in the text is marginal; it is explicitly mentioned only ten times, usually in passing. Its most prominent appearance is in the important opening paragraphs, which establish Kim as a character and set his quest narrative into motion; these will be focused on here. The novel begins:

He sat, in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zamzammah on her brick platform opposite the old Ajaib-Gher -the Wonder House, as the natives call the Lahore Museum. Who hold Zam-Zammah, that ‘fire-breathing dragon’, hold the Punjab, for the great green-bronze piece is always first of the conqueror’s loot.

There was some justification for Kim – he had kicked Lala Dinanath’s boy off the trunnions – since the English held the Punjab and Kim was English. Though he was burned black as any native; though he spoke the vernacular by preference, and his mother-tongue in a clipped uncertain sing-song; though he consorted on terms of perfect equality with the small boys of the bazar; Kim was white – a poor white of the very poorest. The half-caste woman who looked after him (she smoked opium, and pretended to keep a second-hand furniture shop by the square where the cheap cabs wait) told the missionaries that she was Kim’s mother’s sister; but his mother had been nursemaid in a Colonel’s family and had married Kimball O’Hara, a young colour- sergeant of the Mavericks, an Irish regiment. He afterwards took a post on the Sind, Punjab, and Delhi Railway, and his Regiment went home without him. The wife died of cholera in Ferozepore, and O’Hara fell to drink and loafing up and down the line with the keen-eyed three-year-old baby. Societies and chaplains, anxious for the child, tried to catch him, but O’Hara drifted away, till he came across the woman who took opium and learned the taste from her, and died as poor whites die in India. (49-50).

Kim is introduced in a position of play dominance, striding a now unused gun outside the Lahore Museum, a symbol of imperial power/knowledge and a site incidentally curated by Kipling’s father from 1875 to 1894 (340 note 4). His position of mock authority is explained by the fact the he “was English,” a remark which we soon find to be a red herring, since he is not “English” but Irish, peripheral rather than central to the imperial center. Within the Indian setting this fact is blurred, as the distinction between colonizer and colonial subject becomes a gradient rather than a sharp dichotomy. Kim’s relative closeness, ancestrally, to the physical and ideological center of Empire as signified by his “white blood” (94, etc), allows him to gradually come to occupy the position of “Sahib.”

The phrase “white blood” is interesting, because as this introduction makes clear, his whiteness is not visibly signified: he “was burned black as any native.” Nor does his speech bely his heredity; he chooses to speak “the vernacular” rather than English, which is interestingly called “his mother tongue” despite its foreignness and Kim’s alienation from it. Despite all of these contradictions, the narrative attempts to achieve some kind of stability with the confident assurances offered by 19th century racialism: “Kim was white…”

Even if our fleeting omniscient narrator assures us Kim “was white,” whatever that may mean, he was raised by an opium-smoking woman who claims to be Kim’s aunt. For those who believed her, Kim was a hybrid figure in racial terms; we who are told his mother was “a nursemaid in a Colonel’s family” are given something more ambiguous until an apparently accurate clarification is put in the mouth of Bennett in a later chapter. But culturally, Kim is steeped in the depths of Indian “bazar” culture.

Before proceeding with Kim, a word is required about the Indian setting. India was where opium for the vast trade with China was produced (opium for use in the United Kingdom was grown in Turkey). This trade was a source of a tremendous amount of wealth, but at the same time, it was an uncomfortable fact that the Empire had amassed such riches at the expense of submitting millions of Chinese to a degree of opiate dependence that was uncommon or at least invisible in Britain (see Zheng, and Berridge, ch. 7). A debate over the morality in the trade which began around the time of the Opium Wars had blown up into a vigorous political movement by the 1870s, spearheaded by the Society for the Suppression of the Opium Trade. The issue was in and out of Parliament up until the time Kipling wrote, and the wide circulation of the Society’s Friend of China among middle and upper-class audiences had a significant effect on thought about the relationship of opium, Empire, and the Orient (Milligan 21). Berridge writes that the “myth of the opium den” was “the most obvious public legacy of the anti-opium movement” (195).

It is this mythology which will come to bear on the figure of Kim, through his father. Kim’s father is a poor, washed-up Irish soldier who has fallen into alcoholism. The figure of a no-good Irish drunk is a common enough one, and in a novel abounding with racialized aphorisms and characterizations its appearance is not surprising. It is interesting however that his drinking is narrated as a segue into his opium use. The discourses of alcohol and opium frequently overlapped in the 19th century, particularly with regard to the working classes and the poor, of whom the Irish would have comprised a disproportionate percentage. Public health officials routinely expressed alarm that working class alcohol culture could be combined with or be superseded by opium abuse (Berridge 105). De Quincey himself remarked on this: “But…some years ago, on passing through Manchester, I was informed by several cotton-manufacturers, that their work-people were rapidly getting into the practice of opium-eating…The immediate occasion of this practice was the lowness of wages, which, at that time, would not allow them to indulge in ale or spirits” (De Quincey 6).

The extent of working class opium use which could be clearly identified as “recreational,” or “stimulant” in the parlance of the times, was certainly quite low, in part because of the difficulty of impossibility of making the distinction between medical and non-medical use. The repetition of the anxiety in both the medical literature and in literary texts like Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1848) nonetheless reveals that the specter of this descent into abuse was always present, at least in the bourgeois mind.

It is the the fate that befell Kimball O’Hara, Sr., after he “came across” this woman, Kim’s surrogate mother to be. The language displaces any choice he might have had, construing the genesis of his opium habit as a seduction: “he came across the woman who took opium and learned the taste from her.” He dies with her in a haze of opium smoke.

The method of ingestion is remarkable, since opium smoking was a distinctly Chinese practice. Historian John Richards writes: “Indians usually ate opium by swallowing small pills or drank it in opium infused water. They had never adopted the practice of smoking it in pipes” (Richards 375). The effect is to draw into the text a history of late Victorian English writing on opium smoking. Smoking, localized by “the myth of the opium den,” was a prime target for moralistic and sensationalist writers because it was clearly non-medical and decisively foreign in origin. The image of the opium smoker lacked the complex system of connotations attached to laudanum use and could be employed as an unproblematic symbol of vice, corruption, and Oriental danger. As such, the dens – conceived as “foreign particles lodged in the body of British society” (Parssinen 67) – were the subject of a plenitude of journalistic treatments, which are “so conventionalized…that it is difficult to tell whether the authors actually made the visit, or simply plagiarized from one another’s accounts” (Parssinen 52). The formula remained more or less the same because these articles continued to do the same cultural work. Five titles from five different decades suggest the continuity: “East London Opium Smokers” (1868); “A Night in an Opium Den” (1874); “London Opium Dens: Notes of a visit to the Chinamen’s East End Haunts” (1885); “Chinese London and its Opium Dens” (1895); “Opium Dens in London” (1904).

Modern accounts suggest that if such “dens” existed at all, and were not just social spaces where Chinese happened to casually smoke opium, they did not extend beyond the small East End neighborhood of Limehouse and were so limited in number as to be hardly worth comment (Berridge 195ff); however, the presence of this seductive danger within the range of a hansom cab proved too alluring, and became the standard site of literary opium use after the 1860s. The “literary” as opposed to journalistic tradition began with Charles Dickens’s final, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and persisted into fin de siècle treatments roughly contemporaneous with Kim, such as Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Man With the Twisted Lip,” both published in 1891. The echoes of this tradition are present in Kipling’s strange, factually inaccurate choice to make the woman smoke her opium.

The mythology of the den was also a sexual one. No sexual interaction between these two characters is narrated, but the fact that she remains Kim’s “mother” and the erotic potential suggested by drug-fueled cohabitation suggest the possibility; this would be a disruption of racial and imperial boundaries of a most transgressive sort, particularly since the “native” woman appears to be the dominant agent. The presumed racial mixing and closed quarters of the “opium dens” that were so central to the Victorian imagination of opiate use always suggested the possibility of miscegenation to a paranoid and sensationalist press, for whom there was “an almost uniform association between the Orient and sex” (Said 188).

Beyond this potential sexual relationship we have the a teacher-student relationship of initiation. This common enough trope suggests the cult-like, esoteric trappings given to opium culture, and in this case puts the Indian woman in a position of dominance by giving her the power to impart arcane knowledge (cf. “the true secret of mixing” in The Mystery of Edwin Drood). Incidentally this is the knowledge that leads to O’Hara’s death as narrated in the very same sentence, as if it were the necessary corollary to his contamination.

He leaves behind him three texts which derive from Anglo-Imperial institutions, which are to be Kim’s legacy from him:

His estate at death consisted of three papers – one he called his ‘ne varietur’ because those words were written below his signature thereon, and another his ‘clearance-certificate’. The third was Kim’s birth-certificate. Those things, he was used to say, in his glorious opium-hours, would yet make little Kimball a man. On no account was Kim to part with them, for they belonged to a great piece of magic – such magic as men practised over yonder behind the Museum, in the big blue-and-white Jadoo-Gher – the Magic House, as we name the Masonic Lodge. It would, he said, all come right some day, and Kim’s horn would be exalted between pillars – monstrous pillars – of beauty and strength. The Colonel himself, riding on a horse, at the head of the finest Regiment in the world, would attend to Kim – little Kim that should have been better off than his father. Nine hundred first-class devils, whose God was a Red Bull on a green field, would attend to Kim, if they had not forgotten O’Hara – poor O’Hara that was gang- foreman on the Ferozepore line. Then he would weep bitterly in the broken rush chair on the veranda. So it came about after his death that the woman sewed parchment, paper, and birth- certificate into a leather amulet-case which she strung round Kim’s neck.
‘And some day,’ she said, confusedly remembering O’Hara’s prophecies, ‘there will come for you a great Red Bull on a green field, and the Colonel riding on his tall horse, yes, and’ dropping into English – ‘nine hundred devils.’

‘Ah,’ said Kim, ‘I shall remember. A Red Bull and a Colonel on a horse will come, but first, my father said, will come the two men making ready the ground for these matters. That is how my father said they always did; and it is always so when men work magic.’ (50).

These documents would have had the effect of assigning Kim to his father’s Masonic lodge and, by extension, implicating him within the greater military-imperial establishment of the Raj. But the documents’ signification is blurred, filtered through O’Hara’s “glorious opium hours” into a kind of wild fantasy. This fantasy, though containing a kernel of truth, is embellished with grandiose language and turned into a “prophecy” rather than a set of instructions. It contains some of the classic hallmarks of literary treatments of opium use, for instance: the tendency towards mythological language (“magic,” “whose God was a Red Bull on a green field,” “devils”; cf. De Quincey’s encounter with Vishnu, Siva, Isis, and Osiris, [82], etc.), an exaggeration of physical description (“monstrous pillars”; cf. Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, The Mystery of Edwin Drood‘s oneiric opening paragraphs, etc), and a hazy, dreamlike tone (phrases like “magic,” “some day,” and the sudden, associative appearance of the variously narrated elements). This way of framing the “Red Bull” narrative is, in the logic of the story, distinctly “Oriental”; Creighton says, revealingly: “The transformation of a regimental badge like your Red Bull into a sort of fetish that the boy follows is very interesting” (161). It is moreover doubly filtered through opium, first by O’Hara, then by the woman who distorts his telling, literalizing his metaphors and decontextualizing his claims.

The documents have become a fetishized “amulet” and Kim’s fate as a “Sahib” has been derailed by opium-fueled misreadings and misunderstandings. Kim’s understanding of himself, deeply vexing for the European characters, must be demythologized by the appropriate colonial authorities in order for Kim to discard his “Asiatic” character. In this sense, the entire narrative is a struggle by the forces of Empire to efface Kim’s hybridity, which had been at least partially constituted by opium.

Works Cited

 

Berridge, Virginia. Opium and the People (Rev. ed.). New York: Free Association Books, 1999.

Boon, Marcus. The Road of Excess: A History of Writers on Drugs. Cambridge, MA: Harvard           University Press, 2002.

Collins, Wilkie. The Moonstone. New York: Penguin, 1998.

De Quincey, Thomas. Confessions of an English Opium-Eater and Other Writings. New York: Penguin,            2003.

Dickens, Charles. The Mystery of Edwin Drood. New York: Penguin, 2002.

Kipling, Rudyard. Kim. London: Penguin, 2000.

Milligan, Barry. Pleasures and Pains: Opium and Orient in Nineteenth Century British Culture.           Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 1995.

Richards, John F. “Opium and the British Indian empire: The Royal Commission of 1895.” Modern           Asian Studies. Volume 36, part 2, May 2002. p. 375-420.

Said, Edward. Orientalism (25th Anniversary edition). New York: Vintage Books, 2003.

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York: Penguin, 2003.

Zheng, Yangwen. The Social Life of Opium in China. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press,        2005.


[1]             Two of the best treatments are Berridge, Opium and the People (1981, revised 1999), and Parssinen, Secret Passions, Secret Remedies: Narcotic Drugs in British Society 1820-1930 (1983).

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I.

Science fiction is, and has always been, obsessed with fictive States: techno-dystopias, post-apocalyptic juntas, chemically policed narco-utopias. Real-life totalitarian regimes, however, are usually approached with dread and ellipsis, and have been aligned with the most grimly realist of genres (e.g., concentration camp fiction). But what if our perspective of totalitarian regimes themselves were refocused through the kaleidoscopic lens of hyper-speculative science fiction? What if, for instance, we went could transition from speaking about “North Korean science fiction,” an anomalous subject in its own right, to “North Korea as science fiction”?

This was the proposal made by Seo Young-Chu in a fascinating talk, introducing the film Pulgasari at NYU in late February. In her book Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sleep? A Science-Fictional Theory of Representation (Harvard, 2010), she attempts to reimagine science fiction as “high intensity realism” rather than an escapist unrealism, “a mimetic discourse whose objects are nonimaginary yet cognitively estranging.” Sci-fi is not antithetical to mimesis but works through “a combination of lyric and narrative forces” to “generate mimetic accounts of cognitively estranging referents” (3, 73). The “cognitively estranging referent” is the native subject of science fiction, in her analysis. Such a referent is one that eludes “simple,” naturalistic representation: the wondrous, the repressed, the uncanny, the ineffably other (5ff).

In this way, sci-fi does something like the Freudian dreamwork: it rearranges our neuroses in ways that are distorted enough for them to become palatable. The work of science fiction is often the work of trauma, operating by necessarily insufficient approximations. But in the view of Seo Young-Chu, these are not exactly fantastical, since “trauma is always already science-fictionalized;” she quotes trauma expert Judith Lewis Herman as saying that the experience of trauma “gives rise to complicated, sometimes uncanny alterations of consciousness” (156). If political trauma is the cognitively estranging referent, it makes sense that its representation would resemble science fiction.

The talk began with a second person “tour,” revealed after the fact to be an almost verbatim pastiche cobbled from various accounts of North Korea, from travel guides to history books. “Uncanny alterations of consciousness” seem to be the norm here: Pyongyang is a “surreal theme park,” a “stage set,” symmetrical and sparklingly clean, sometimes as garish and pointlessly monumental as Las Vegas but also a “ghost city” that is so quiet at night that you can hear the purring of coal-powered automobiles for miles down the mostly desolate highways. The denizens, each of whom has an individual “reliability rating,” seem like mass-produced robots, outfitted with the same mass-produced costumes. The exact same image of a smiling Kim Il-Sung hangs everywhere above them. You can see his body, housed in a glass sarcophagus, though only at the appointed time, and not without passing security checks, disinfection, and powerful air blowers.

This might all be true, but there’s a way in which the prose ineluctably drifts into the territory of science-fiction. And indeed, North Korea has been richly mined by sci-fi proper, from David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas to the Bond film Die Another Day to the Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries digital lit piece “Miss DMZ” –  all discussed by Seo Young-Chu, who ably demonstrated that science fictional representation of North Korea has become the default mode.

She speculated upon a variety of reasons why this might be the case: it may be an overcompensation for the virtual “poverty” of representations of the “hermit kingdom,” a response to the uncanniness of North Korea’s anachronistic, otherworldly existence in a universe where the Cold War never ended, or it could be a mutated species of Orientalism (or even “self-Orientalism,” a curious but provocative phrase she seemed to regret as soon as she uttered it).

What she didn’t explicitly suggest was that, perhaps, the science fictionality of North Korea begins with the Kim regime and with the “Juche idea” itself (that “opaque core of North Korean national solipsism,” Bruce Cumings calls it). The way this works akin to, but in the end very distinct from, the way all countries utilize and repackage exogenous representations to sell themselves as fictions to tourists and other onlookers. Quaint villagers in Southeast Asia are paid to dress as old-fashioned peasants for Westerners; Western Europe sells a storybook fabrication of itself through heritage tourism; the United States has entire cultural industries that serve the purpose. What is distinct about the autofictions of the “hermit kingdom” and other “closed states,” to use an expedient term, is that they are directed primarily inward. An allegory: Pyongyang’s tallest building, a luxury hotel, is not designed to dazzle foreign tourists like the grand establishments of Dubai, because foreign tourists are not encouraged to visit Pyongyang. In fact, it’s not even habitable, and never was. It exists only as a scar on the skyline, a masterpiece of unconsciously deconstructivist architecture, a monument to monumentality. It is a fictional edifice.

All nationalisms are essentially fictions. But what happens to the fiction of the nation state in a totalitarian regime, promoted and maintained through a cult of personality, with a highly centralized system of communication and information exchange? In a place like North Korea, the “imagined community” as it exists in official representations of the State derives principally from the myopic, bizarre millenarian fantasies of a dictator. If there is a dialectic process of circulation at all it tends to be confined to the channels of the bureaucracy, forming a closed loop, like the networks of communication in Franz Kafka’s The Castle.

So when we see such States as sci-fi or as speculative fictions, we are only following their lead. Moreover, the relevant realms of fictional representation are not confined to statecraft: dictators seem to have an uncanny fondness for pulp, fantasy, and sci-fi. Adolf Hitler, for instance, was famously fond of the movie King Kong, released the year he was appointed Chancellor. And Kim-Jong Il, as it turns out, is both North Korea’s supreme leader and its supreme cineaste. With a science-fictional theory of millenarian/”revolutionary” dictatorships, it is more than a happy coincidence or a curiosity that he is the author of a portentous volume entitled On the Art of the Cinema.

In fact, Kim’s obsession with the art form went to such lengths that he kidnapped his favorite director, the South Korean Shin Sang-ok, and forced him to make a “socialist Godzilla movie” that would enhance the reputation of North Korean cinema. The result was Pulgasari, which can be viably read as an anti-capitalist film, but which seems more poignant as a coded critique of the Kim regime itself.

The monster in this film is almost too good a metaphor for the authoritarian post-Leninist Revolutionary project: it leads a “backward” population at mercurial speed to overthrow the ancien régime, and continues growing by furiously consuming iron at the ultimate expense of the people. This seems to me an allegory of the famines caused by the fetishization of industry and steel manufacture that gripped post-Stalinist modernizers like a Marinettian fever dream. Once he consumes all of the iron, Pulgasari is at once “savior” and “enemy”: their liberator, their god, but also a nihilistic, Molochian machine fueled by the obsessive weaponization of raw materials. In short, he is the Kim regime personified. But the great leader, who is not a cognitively estranging referent to himself, was pleased with the film he had sired at gunpoint: “When the movie was delivered to Kim, he saw it as a great victory. Trucks pulled up to Shin Films to unload pheasants, deer and wild geese for the movie crew to feast on.” Most North Koreans are severely malnourished.

II.

“…because fact and fiction sometimes blur in Libyan politics, I might be accused of exaggeration… The domestic policies of the Libyan regime have often bordered on fiction.” – Mansour O. EL-Kikhia, Libya’s Qaddafi: The Politics of Contradiction

“I will now tell you the story of my experiences when I made that journey, that escape to hell. I will describe the road that leads there, describe hell itself for you, and tell you how I came back by the same way. It was truly an adventure, and one of the strangest true stories ever, and I swear to you that it is not fiction.” – Muammar Gaddafi, “Escape to Hell”

So much for North Korea, but half a world away, another megalomaniac is busy constructing hyperreality out of midnight-movie pastiche. When Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi was faced with the first serious challenge to his thirty-year reign, he was simply unable to absorb events into the fictive narrative within which he understood his place in history. Because such events could not happen in the hyperreal Libya of Gaddafi’s imagination, actual state policy was to proceed as if they were not happening. Soon after the unrest began, Gaddafi took to state television, “charging that Osama bin Laden had drugged the town’s youth into a rebellious frenzy.” A classic exploitation plot: replace Osama bin Laden with “the Russians” and you have a half a dozen science fiction films from the 1950s.

The official ideology of Libya is jamahiriya, which translates to “state of the masses.” The system outlined in The Green Book, the founding text of Gaddafi’s Libya, describes a politics not unlike syndicalism or council communism (from what I can gather; it’s not the most cogent thing ever written and I am not motivated to reread it). In theory, Gaddafi has no power. This is why he told Christiane Amanpour that he cannot “step down,” because in the Gaddafian ideology he is not a ruler, but the liberator and savior of a free Libya. These are not “lies,” they are fictions. The realist approach to studying North Korea and Libya has only produced bafflement and confusion. Perhaps hyperreal regimes, which conjoin fact and fantasy, require theories of resistance based on a kind of hyperrealpolitik.

Gaddafi’s is what Libyan scholar Mansour O. EL-Kikhia calls an “idiosyncratic ideology,” a syncretic bricolage attempting to overcome a heavy anxiety of political influence with the use of improvised, localized mythologies. Gaddafi fused “Nasserism and classical Marxism, along with Islamic socialism” into the “Third International Theory,” as outlined in his Green Book. Such ideologies are “experimental” in nature, which is to say, they are speculative fictions: works in progress. In Libya’s case, it is “cemented together by the colonel’s complex personality.” The idiosyncratic dictator is an authoritarian and an author, and the nation is his text. Gaddafi’s words are not (or not only) ridiculous, because like the plot of a science fiction novel they are only meant to cohere to their own fantastic premises. Emendations and retractions can be made as required.

One of these men has written a short story about space travel.

But Muammar Gaddafi doesn’t just play a sci-fi writer on television. He’s the author of Escape to Hell and Other Stories (1998), a curious volume which veers uncomfortably between hyperbolic political allegory and madcap fiction. The description on the jacket of the English printing is a vindication of Seo Young-Chu’s argument about science fictional representation: “Muammar Quaddafi’s short stories and essays in this book are more revealing about his vision of the world than all of his addresses and the articles and reports that have been written about him during the last 25 years.”

I think this is quite true, but alas, it has received almost no serious attention. Why does the work linger in such obscurity? Why do the few reviews that exist of it seem almost embarrassed of themselves? Why does the New York Public Library require it to be read under “supervised use”? “Dictator lit,” as a review in The Guardian styles it, is indeed an uncomfortable genre, and just the proposition of Gaddafi’s “fiction” is dually repulsive: revolting, like Mein Kampf, but also frivolous, like Stalin’s insipid poetry. In fact, it’s too preposterous to truly affront, and too bizarre to be boring. But while it is one of those books that one likes to amuse guests with, it is not merely an oddity.

Of course, it is odd. Suicidal astronauts? “Jewish satellites” taken down by the power of mass prayer? Pathetic entreaties to respect “the earth’s bounty” by a the leader of an oil kingdom? Hand-wringing ruminations on the gender of death? The discovery of “Amelica” by an Arab prince? The line between sarcasm and solipsism is difficult to discern. Certain broad tendencies, however, are impossible to ignore.

Escape to Hell opens with a harangue against urban life, the Fritz Langian bleakness of which is paralleled only by the anxious, mephitic metropolises of dystopian, futurist science fiction. The “Hell” of the title both is and is not the city; even if the latter is vile, “how beautiful is hell compared to your city!” City inhabitants are like rats and mice, scurrying emotionlessly, like the robot inhabitants of sci-fi Pyongyang: “City people do not address one another as fellow social beings or even human entities, but as ‘You, who live in apartment number x on floor number x…telephone number x, license plate on car number is x’ and so on.” The city is “a filthy tomb,” with “no moon or sun,” perpetually dark like the sci-fi cities of Blade Runner or A.I..

Gaddafi’s hyperbolic, delusional contempt for urban life and his identification with a non-existant “people” located somewhere in an amorphous Arcadian hinterland makes his aerial bombings of his own cities consistent with his fictional prognoses, in which agitated urban throngs are literally mentally disturbed, unearthly creatures. The city dweller is not a “true human being” (48), but some kind of uncanny specter. To Gaddafi, a place like Benghazi must seem like a pestilent sore, a tumor requiring irradiation – especially after the supposed recent invasion of the “Qaeda” body snatchers.

There is, of course, a long and diverse tradition of reactionary pseudo-populism which identifies the city with bodily infection, as in the pithy remark of Thomas Jefferson (who, in the interest of civic health, moved his nation’s capital from Manhattan to a pestilent, malarial swamp): “The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body.” Gaddafi says much the same thing, but in the mode of frenzied science fiction rather than political aphorism: “[The city] stretches out in every direction, limitlessly. It becomes a parasite to everything around it, spreading its poisonous tentacles, killing fresh air by turning oxygen into carbon dioxide, which is then turned into carbon monoxide.” Here we have what Seo Young-Chu describes as a staple of science-fictional writing: the literalization of metaphor. The city is not merely a metaphorical “sore” on the “body politic,” but a veritable engine of miasma and molecular disintegration.

This recourse to technobabble is not an aberration. Consider the following passage from The Green Book, which is not trying to resemble science fiction, but nevertheless does:

If a community of people wears white on a mournful occasion and another dresses in black, then one community would like white and dislike black and the other would like black and dislike white. Moreover, this attitude leaves a physical effect on the cells as well as on the genes in the body. This adaptation, will be transmitted by inheritance. The inheritors automatically reject the colour rejected by the legator as a result of inheriting the sentiment of their legator.

A common formula for him: a practically nonsensical political claim is asserted as a self-evident axiom, and then reinforced with a nonsensical appeal to the authority of scientific knowledge. In this case, the “knowledge” is a bizarre admixture of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and the things you hear from drunken street prophets, but no matter. The esoteric specificity of sci-fi writing is part of what gives it its “high intensity” aura. The worlds summoned up can seem realer than our own; the futures projected can propel themselves backward to us in affective waves of uncanny retrocausality. This is how prophecy works, as well, and Gaddafi is duly dubbed “a revolutionary and a prophet” in the translator’s introduction.

Unfortunately, prophets have a marked obsession with the end times. Understanding how they will navigate their apocalypses will require a hyperrealpolitik amenable to fantastic speculation.

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Announcing…

Black Bile Blog, a collaborative interrogation (dissection?) of Robert Burton’s Gargantuan 1621 treatise, The Anatomy of Melancholy. The Guardian remarks that “no one on earth is going to expect you to read it cover to cover,” but we intend to do that and then some. Update your RSS readers!

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Graphic as a Star is Coloradoan singer-songwriter Josephine Foster’s musical interpretation of twenty-seven poems by Emily Dickinson. Dickinson, with her dashes and her sight rhymes, is a difficult poet even to read aloud; to make proper “songs” out of her music is more difficult still. But Foster, who had managed in 2005’s A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing to put Goethe and Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff to music, is up to the task, if anyone is.

Dickinson’s verse always approaches but veers slightly away from a neat musicality. Her hymn meters dig grooves for the poetry to speed through, but it always skips out. Her words fit awkwardly into her stanzas, like bones that haven’t healed properly. This is evident in the first stanza of the first song on this album:

Trust in the unexpected –
By this – was William Kidd
Persuaded of the Buried Gold –
As One had testified –

Foster twists the words to create an abcb rhyme scheme. It’s not clear that this poem even has a rhyme scheme, but Foster, with her wavering, abundantly rich voice, manages to create subtle rhymes in the following stanzas – between “Stone” and “undivine,” and between “withdrew” and “America” – in the undertones of her delivery. This first rhyme, however, juts out from the song. It’s unexpected, and forces the attentive listener to either listen again or consult the lyrics sheet (which retains Dickinson’s texts, punctuation intact).

This technique of alienation is constant throughout the ninety-minute album, and it makes for difficult listening. Has the miner’s lamp “nullif[ied] the mine”? Foster succeeds so spectacularly in capturing the “off” quality of Dickinson’s verse that she has created something else entirely, something singular. She takes the disarticulation of the poetry to extremes. Every line, sometimes every word, seems to be from a different song. This microscopic level of detail makes the poems, as wholes, almost impossible to see in the fog of language Foster immerses us in. It also makes the songs difficult to hear as discrete units. The music, and the voice, gestures toward the song form without really reaching it. We get a series of fractal almost-songs, the intonations not those of speech but too inchoate and shattered to resemble the lyrical.

I’m not sure if, by steadfastly resisting the impulse to read Dickinson’s poetry in a “sing-song” manner, Foster has gone too far in the other direction. After four or five listens, it still sounds distant and cold, though at moments it is undeniably tender and familiar. For the most part, it remains uncanny, and as such is difficult to really love – and, like a ghost, difficult to shake off.

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Matt Kish’s most recent drawing. One suspects autobiographical undertones.

***

Something about the gargantuan, almost destructive nature of committing one’s vision and ability so completely to one endeavor really appeals to me.

Matt Kish

As will become apparent as I shake off the winter blues and start putting more energy into this blog, one of the guiding themes will be something I previously dubbed “benign obsession.” I am interested in hopelessly laborious projects, impossible archives, secret histories, and enthusiasms that border on the psychotic; obsessions which mutate into monstrous forms and stalk us in our sleep.

Dreaming.

Matt Kish, no doubt, dreams of whales and stretches of sea. Beginning in August 2009, Kish — struck with a case of the hypos, disappointed that his creative output had lulled — decided to drive off the spleen with a project prosaically titled “One Drawing for Every Page of Moby Dick.” (As he has acknowledged, Zak Smith’s similar project on Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow is a precedent and an inspiration.)

His previous drawings were taking up far too much time, so in order to produce more work, he conceived of the project as a way to create something new each day: “With the Moby-Dick project, I am making a conscious effort to let the art flow very quickly from my mind to the paper, working rapidly, intuitively and almost crudely,” he said. He chooses a single sentence, passage, or image from a page and completes a drawing to accompany it; they are not quite “illustrations” and are not intended to convey narrative. These are done with cheap acrylic paint, ballpoint pens, and other similarly modest materials on found paper repurposed from discarded books (and, occasionally, on pages from Moby Dick).

There are often some nice aleatory resonances with the found material: Queequeg over a map of the Pacific, for instance, or more strictly formal rhymes between some of the diagrams and Kish’s use of line. The frenetic pace also produces some happy accidents. In one piece, spots of red ink were made to represent blood only after he had knocked the bottle over.

The Whiteness of the Whale. Notice the water damage that has been incorporated into the piece.

I saw Matt speak and present some of his drawings on Tuesday at Pete’s Candy Store in Williamsburg. Being, as he is, a married (sub-sub?) librarian from Ohio, he frames his work in the most modest of terms; for those of us in places like New York, accustomed to grandiose and deliberately obfuscatory manifestos accompanying exhibitions of empty bottles or lengths of pipe, the warmth and humility of Kish’s presentation was, perhaps paradoxically, rather exhilarating. So many artists and writers treat public talks as something only slightly more appealing than jury duty, but Matt was genuinely ecstatic to have the opportunity to share his artwork with us.

I was as surprised as he at the size of the crowd; we had to pack together in the dimly lit room, crouched on the floor, as if it were the Spouter Inn. I have never seen Pete’s Candy Store so crowded, even for up-and-coming rock bands. (One of the charms of the place is that you can usually sit at a table, drink cheaply and comfortably, and see 2 or 3 sets for free). Since I attended as a jaded graduate student on an invitation from a friend who has recently finished a rather dense thesis on “Melville and Religion,” I expected only people of like sort would choose this as their entertainment for the evening. To my delight, this did not seem to be the case.

The Fin-Back is not gregarious.

Each piece is more or less self-contained, and the project as a whole is not guided by some grand reading of the text; Kish is very far removed from the loveless interpretation-as-autopsy culture of contemporary literature departments. His approach is something like, to borrow Sontag’s phrase, an erotics of art. The relation to the text is affective, playful and improvisatory. He recognizes the novel as something uncontainable, something as slippery and elusive as the white whale itself. (This is where Kish’s obsessive drive, as keen as it is, differs from Ahab’s, with its murderous insistence on a decisive conquest).

Despite what he claims to be his artistic limitations — a weakness at rendering human figures seems to be his principal complaint — the range of the work is fairly astounding. The styles range from collage, to pieces reminiscent of comics and graphic novels, to geometric abstraction, and even vistas that look like they could be in a Super Nintendo game. The tone ranges from the quaint and ludic to the macabre and somber. Each new slide was strikingly unique, which is amazing considering the pace at which he works; how great must the temptation be to draw the same whale over and over again? But that, of course, would be joyless, and while Matt is by this point yearning for the project’s close he is clearly unwilling to cut corners. The laboriousness of some of the work is palpable, almost painfully so.

Kish’s quest is a continual process of discovery, a bizarre voyage at sea. I am still absorbing the material myself. It could be the subject of a much more sustained critical effort, though we are only halfway through.

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